The view that Christianity is all about following a set of rules—the only thing that matters is that you do x and don’t do y—has always appealed to a great many people. After all, if all God wants us to do is meet a particular standard of behavior, then it’s easy to tell who’s a Christian and who isn’t. More than that, it’s easy to look at yourself and tell how you’re doing. One nice thing about a fence is that you always know which side of it you’re on. The other is that you know exactly how far you can go before you’ve crossed it. The fence tells you what you can get away with as much as what you can’t.
As I’ve said before, my time in pastoral ministry has convinced me that on the whole, people really don’t want grace, and we don’t want to live by grace. We may say we do, and we may sing about it, but when you get down to brass tacks, we’d rather live by some form of law. If you ask the law, “How many times do I have to forgive somebody before I can give them the punishment they have coming,” the law may tell you, “Three times,” or it may say “seven times,” but it will give you a standard you have a chance to meet. Ask Jesus the same question and he says, “Seventy times seven”—once you lose count, you’re just getting started. Law gives you a limit to what you have to do. Grace calls us to keep going, and going, and going, long after we want to quit.
Whatever version of law we come up with, if it’s our idea and our standard, we will find ways to make it something we can live up to in our own strength. In comparison to the holiness of God, we will inevitably make it far too small a thing. For instance, many people say, “Christianity isn’t about believing certain things, it’s about living a life of love.” That sounds very pious, unless we stop to ask a basic question: how do we know what love is? How do we know what it means to live a life of love? To answer that question, we have to believe certain things, and what things we believe will determine the answer we give.
The classical Christian answer is that we know what love is because God is love, and God has revealed himself to us in his word. He has shown us himself in his living Word who is his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and in the words of Scripture, which he inspired by his Holy Spirit. Scripture shows us the truth of who God is, and thus what love is. We take our definition of love from these pages. If we set Scripture aside, we’re left to define love for ourselves, according to our own preferences, prejudices, and preconceived ideas. We’re free to tell ourselves that all God wants from us is whatever we’ve already decided we want from ourselves. It’s a lot easier to call ourselves followers of Jesus if we claim the right to plan the itinerary for ourselves.
(Excerpted, edited, from “The Heart of the Matter”)
Photo of the Reichsgerichtsgebäude Zwölftafelgesetze, Leipzig © 2010 Andreas Praefcke. License: Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported.