Law & grace
Paul has been writing and exhorting the believers with many instructions to do & not do (see Colossians 1:1-13). But all get brought together by one exhortation – to love!
“And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.” (Colossians 3:14 in NIV)
This makes me think of a piece of power cord transmitting power from some power generation plant thousands of kilometres away to my laptop via a wall plug and this power cord – allowing me to write to you.
That short power cord is made of multiple thin strands of copper wire that on their own would be of no use to me. Because on their own, none of them would be sufficient to transmit the electrical power current needed to run this laptop. More than that, if they were on their own trying to transmit electrical power, they would be more unsafe than helpful putting my household at risk of electrocution and or fire.
But when bound tightly together and ensheathed in a protective outer layer of insulating plastic, they are not only able to transmit the power needed but also are enabled to do so safely!
Similarly, Paul seems to be saying that in all these diverse exhortations he is making for godly living (Colossians 3:1-14), there is one exhortation (to be loving towards one another) that binds them all together.
And that one exhortation (to be loving towards one another) makes all the other exhortations work together, enabling them to transmit something greater and to do so safely!
‘Single issue Christians’ are like exposed copper wires in a power cord without the necessary insulating covering. Have you ever met one of these people? They are fixated on one issue or command or instruction in Scripture and seem almost always to be lacking the protective binding of love for other people!
Take, for example, the very clear command in this passage for believers in Jesus to ‘put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality’ (Colossians 3:5). This is like one copper strand of the power cord of this whole passage.
Now a single issue Christian would be 100% right that God’s will is abundantly clear all through Scripture that sexual sin is serious and that it is ungodly and unbefitting for God’s children to engage in ANY sexually immoral behaviour. That strand on its own can transmit the full force and power of that command.
What the Bible teaches in terms of sexuality is not hard to understand – i.e. no sex before or beyond sex with the man or woman you are married to as a believer. Despite the fact that modern sensibilities have changed, God’s commands have not changed one iota and God’s commands need no updating and never will!
Therefore someone who makes much of this one strand of teaching is 100% right, but as Dallas Willard famously said; “It is possible to be right and to be unlike Christ” This single strand of teaching on its own can hurt and damage people if not encased in God’s love!
In this fallen world, living amongst people who are messed up and have messed up and are still messing up, this Scriptural exhortation ought not to be watered down even 0.5%. It is still relevant and still needs to be applied to peoples lives, however, it ought to be done so with the insulating protective cover of God’s love.
So the command of God to remain sexually pure, exclusively faithful to and having sex only with your spouse, and waiting until they are your spouse before you do so – is still to be taught and obeyed.
But it is done best when this teaching is intertwined with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness and then encased in God’s incredible love. When that command is in that biblical power cord, the full power of the command can be at work without fear of fire or electrocution – harm being caused to anyone.
Don’t for a minute think I’m advocating some lax sexual ethic! After all, it is not loving to affirm someone in their lifestyle or behaviour when you know that their actions are in direct defiance of our Holy God and Father.
Many times in life, the most loving action is to stand up to someone, to risk offence and to tell them the truth but to so with all the imperatives in Colossians 3:12-17 tightly bound together and all of them encased, bound together in the insulating protective cover of love.
Brothers and sisters let us love one another not with the weak soppy ungodly modern idea that love = affirmation but with the transforming power of God’s word & God’s love.
- Who do you know you might need to challenge about one of the lifestyle sins described in this passage (or elsewhere in Scripture)?
- Pray now and ask God to tightly wrap all the head/heart/attitude directing imperatives around the strand of rebuke you know is needed from Scripture
- Then pray that God would encase everything in God’s love before you speak or act.
In his book Future Grace, John Piper shows how God’s grace to us in the past is the foundation for faith in both the present and future.
When when we consider what God has already done for us in the Gospel when we are secure in what has happened to us purely by God’s grace – that rock-solid assurance motivates and mobilises us to live a certain way in the present.
God’s grace motivates us! It doesn’t leave us unchanged and unmotivated to change; rather, it puts a fire inside of us that spurs us on to even greater life change.
However, what is critical is that the motive for that action & intentionality in us is not anymore to try to earn God’s favour or forgiveness but rather because those are ours already because of Jesus.
So we don’t have to get all knotted over whether we should take the imperatives of Scripture seriously or not, wondering whether they apply to us or not. Of course, they do! The issues worth considering are;
- Motive: Why do you do what you’re doing?
- Purpose: What you think what you’re doing is achieving?
All through a passage like Colossians 3:1-17, I see the Apostle Paul interweaving assurance & action like a tightly-knit garment that only makes sense when all the weaves remain together.
Read the passage, and look for all the assurances woven into its fabric. I count at least nine assurances in the past-tense, two assurances in the present & future tense.
These nine assurances inform us of the correct motive for our action, which this passage commands us to take in its thirteen odd imperatives.
Do you see what Scripture is teaching us? Present-day action and obedience are founded on past grace. We obey God’s word in the present because of what we know; God has already graciously done for us in the Gospel. Because we are so secure in grace and God’s love for us, we respond actively working to see our lives transformed more and more into the image of God’s Son, Jesus(vs10).
Because we are saved by grace we;
- Seek things that are eternal (vs1)
- Set our minds on things that are eternal(vs2)
- Put to death old earthly ungodly sinful practices(vs5-7)
- Put away ungodly attitudes and speech(vs8)
- Do not do certain things anymore (vs9)
- We put off the old sin-soaked life (vs9)
- We put on the new in-Christ-life (vs10)
- We put on God-like character traits since we are God’s chosen children (vs12)
- We forgive just as God forgave us (vs13)
- We put on love which sums up our new life (vs14)
- We let the peace of Jesus rule our hearts (vs15)
- We let the WORD of God saturate our daily lives (vs16)
- We give thanks in whatever we do! (vs17)
The Scriptures are jam-packed with imperatives, commands for us to obey, instruction that ought to be observed and followed. This passage alone is an example of that.
But notice that it’s the assurance of what is already ours, and what will be ours who’ve believed in Jesus that is the thing that motivates our action in response to God’s grace.
God’s grace teaches us (Titus 2:11), motivates us to work harder than anyone else at our growth in godliness (1 Corinthians 15:10), motivates us to really consider our lives carefully and the thirteen imperatives in this little passage that challenge us!
May your life and mine be an endless tapestry of threads of assurance that look back and stretch forward woven daily into action that’s inspired by the myriad of imperatives in Scripture and the voice of the Holy Spirit in the present.
At this point in his letter to all the believers in Rome, Paul brings out Abraham as a test case for this righteousness of God that comes through faith and not works/human effort.
To the believers in Rome of Jewish origin, Abraham would have been a very significant figure. They considered themselves to be children of Abraham, the chosen people. Paul is about to cause them to consider Abraham from a new perspective – the father of faith!
The question is, how did Abraham come to a place of being in right relationship with God, being righteous before God (Romans 4:10)?
Was it by something he did?
Or was it because he believed God?
Quoting Genesis 15:6 Paul exclaims the latter. It was because Abraham believed God that he was “counted” as righteous (Romans 4:3).
Paul argues that Abraham believed God before he was circumcised, circumcision (which is a ‘work’) didn’t make him righteous it came after he had been made righteous because he had believed God (Romans 4:11).
More than this Paul then shows how the promise of being a father to many nations that was given to Abraham did not come through obedience to the Law (since the Law had not even been given yet) but came through the ‘righteousness of faith’ (Romans 4:13).
Paul is unhitching for the Jewish believers any sense that they can be made right before God through either their Jewish heritage, anything they can do or any keeping of the Law. The promise of blessing to Abraham came by grace through faith to all who share in the same faith as Abraham (Romans 4:16-17).
And what was Abraham’s faith like?
- Abraham believed that God could create something out of nothing, could perform miracles (Romans 4:17)
- Abraham believed God what God had said to him even when there was no circumstantial evidence for his hope, Abraham believed what God had told him (Romans 4:18)
- Abraham’s faith remained robust when it was challenged by what he knew that contradicted what God had said (Romans 4:19)
- Abraham’s faith was strengthened as he continued to worship God in the midst of delay (Romans 4:20)
- Abraham’s faith was anchored in the character of God – he believed that God was able to do what He had promised. He believed that God did not lack in power and God did not lack in character either (Romans 4:21)
And because of Abraham’s faith, God counted him, reckoned him to be righteous before Him. Abraham’s faith in God, his believing God was the key that caused God to “count” him as righteous.
And God will do the same for us if we like Abraham believe God, put our faith in Jesus Christ our Lord who was handed over to die in our place for our sin and was raised again so that we could be declared righteous by God because of our faith in Him (Romans 4:24).
May you and I have faith in God like Abraham did and may we rest assured that God counts us as righteous because we have put our faith in Jesus our Lord.
A young man, an achiever in life wants to know how to ensure that he obtains eternal life. He seemingly has everything he wants in this life, but maybe he is intrigued by things Jesus has been saying about eternal life and he wants to know how to obtain it.
So he asks Jesus what he needs to DO to get what he wants (vs16). This young man is steeped in religion. Religion always gives one something to DO in order to be accepted.
Following Jesus is nothing like religion and so Jesus is going to reveal the difference between following Him and religion. The man wants to DO something to gain God’s acceptance (that’s religion) and so Jesus plays along with him;
“Keep the commandments” – Jesus says to the man. “Done” the man says, I have kept them all (vs20). ‘You want to be perfect?’ Jesus effectively says to the man? ‘You want to know you DID enough, then just do one more thing’, Jesus says.
Jesus said to him, “If you would be perfect, go, sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.” 22 When the young man heard this he went away sorrowful, for he had great possessions. (Matthew 19:21-22)
This man, in fact no person can DO enough to satisfy God’s requirements. No one is righteous (Romans 3:11-12), all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23), the only way to be right before God is to accept the righteousness of God that’s apart from what you DO (Romans 3:21), a righteousness that’s from God through faith in Jesus (Romans 3:23).
That’s grace, that’s the gospel, that’s the good news Jesus brings for each one of us – the way to eternal life is to believe in Him, to trust in what He has DONE for us. And that is the only way to obtain eternal life.
It’s a funny thing, but grace is not appealing to all people. Although God’s grace offers us forgiveness and acceptance soley on the basis of believing in what Jesus has DONE for us, that very offer is offensive to a religious person! How so?
It’s offensive, because in order to receive grace you have to accept that you have not been able to DO enough yourself! In order to receive grace you have to accept that you need grace and that is a humbling hit to the pride that religion breeds.
Scripture says that the young man went away sorrowful, he did not believe Jesus who answered the question he had asked at first. He did not believe that letting go of everything that he had been trusting in, to trust in Jesus was worth it, was the right choice. He didn’t want to humble himself so as to receive grace, and so he went away sorrowful…
Receive Jesus’ grace daily. Trust in what Jesus has DONE for you and don’t ever put your trust in what you can DO in order to please God.
Believe Jesus, believe Scripture. Believe that nothing in this life is worth living for, saving up or hoarding when compared to what Jesus offers those who will lay everything down to believe in Him and to follow Him. Surrender your whole life, all you have to Jesus – you will never reget it. Not in this life and not in eternity either.
Religion is both hard work and useless! False teachers had come into the community of believers in Colossae and were spreading false teachings that seemingly urged the believers to live an ascetic life, to give up all sorts of God-given pleasures or joyful things. Their teachings came with rules about special days and ceremonies and rules and regulations that were essential for spiritual growth according to them.
But the Gospel is good news not good advice! Advice requires you to DO something to achieve something, news is hearing about something that has been DONE already. The Christian life is not about list of things we must DO (observing special rules and rites and filling our calendars with special days and traditions…) so as to please God. No the gospel is the good news that God is pleased with us already not because of anything we did but because of what Jesus has DONE for us!
So hold on to Jesus (vs19)! Don’t let anyone who has been taken in by false religious teachings rob you of your joy in Jesus or your freedom in Jesus.
After all, false religion is both hard work and just plain useless! It can appear so intensely spiritual (such people are always so intense) but in fact it’s nothing of the sort. False religion’s foundation is not Jesus but rather self-righteous, prideful, worldly thinking (20-22). Religion and legalistic rule-keeping don’t have any ability to produce true godliness in us or to restrain our sinful desires, such thinking doesn’t bring any freedom or produce any spiritual growth (vs23).
Only trusting in Jesus, responding to the glorious good news of what He has DONE for us at a heart level, only loving Him back and letting His love for us melt our hearts so that our desires change from the inside out, only that will produce true spirituality and godliness.
For sure, the Christ follower’s life does get totally transformed, everything changes as we shall see in the rest of Colossians, but it’s so important to not slip into religious thinking, to not get taken in by false teachings that have the appearance of spirituality but in fact in the end do not help us at all to worship Jesus more fully and live the rest of our lives as a worshipful response.
So don’t let anyone tell you, now that you’re a Christ follower you HAVE to do this or that!
If you’re truly a Christ follower and you’ve seen what He has done you’ll WANT to make changes in your life, you’ll WANT to press in to Jesus and so you’ll do all sorts of things, but you’ll do them from a place of worshipful joy and not duty, you’ll do them because you’ve been accepted and loved by God not hoping that your activity will earn God’s acceptance and love.
Although I am a devoted Christ Follower, I am not a good person in and of myself! There are plenty of people who are more loving, more generous, more patient , more kind — than I am sadly. There are far too many times when I don’t like who I have become in this scenario or that one, when I’m provoked or prodded.
But then a passage like this one reminds me, that I was hopeless without Christ. I was more than hopeless, I was DEAD, living breathing but spiritually DEAD before I came to the point of trusting in Jesus and asking Him to be my LORD and Saviour (vs13).
Sometimes we look at people and think they’re ok, they’re not that bad really. But Scripture never allows for that false perspective – outside of Jesus we are all DEAD in our transgressions and sins (Ephesians 2:1 & Colossians 2:13), without hope and without God in the world (Ephesians 2:12), not one of us is righteous enough (Romans 3:9-12), everyone of us is morally corrupt and bankrupt (Romans 3:23). I was, we were or still are in a bad situation…
But God. “God made us alive together with Him” (vs13)! God forgave us all of our many sins, God cancelled the long list of all my, all our wrongs against Him and against others (vs13). What good news this is for a person like me, like you. God set aside our sin, by nailing it to the cross when God nailed Jesus to the cross, so that Jesus could pay the punishment for our sin (Romans 6:23) so that we could be ransomed, set free from the consequences of our sin.
And so now, I am free from sin’s consequences and I am free to love and obey and follow God, I am not under the control of sin or the devil anymore (like I once was – see Romans 6:15-23) but am under the loving command and control of Jesus Christ my LORD.
I still mess up, but praise God I am forgiven and I am able to continually keep becoming more and more like my LORD and Saviour Jesus, keep becoming more loving, more kind, more generous and patient…
But only because I have been ‘made alive together in Him’ (vs13) and because of that I have the life and the light of Jesus in my life which keeps having the effect of transforming me daily. Thank you Jesus!
Consider for a moment the interaction between the young ruler and Jesus and what God is saying to you from it.
Who is Jesus?
The young man addressed Jesus as “Good Teacher” as he asked his question. Jesus, however, resisted. Wouldn’t let the man limit to his own ‘little box’ he’d made for Jesus. Jesus is the majestic Lord of all, almighty God, ruler & creator of the universe, Lion of the Tribe of Judah… You can’t just choose yourself who He is in your life.
You see, Either Jesus really is God or He is not. If He is God then it follows that we MUST SURELY obey Him explicitly in ALL of life. However, if He isn’t God then really don’t bother with anything about him ever again.
Good news not good advice
The young man’s question exposed that he didn’t understand the gospel, he was legalistic and religious. He wanted to know what more he could DO to inherit eternal life. He was focussed on his moral performance thinking that was what God required from Him. He was looking for GOOD ADVICE from Jesus, ‘what more can I DO to please God enough to earn eternal life?’.
Jesus’ response was designed to expose the futility in that thinking. Go and keep all the commandments, and then give away everything you have to the poor! With man this is impossible, Jesus said later on. It is impossible to obey all the commandments fully and to have the right heart that God requires – no one can do it (Romans 3:10-12), no one. That’s why Jesus came to earth, to do what we can’t do!
That’s why the gospel is GOOD NEWS not GOOD ADVICE. It is not information about something we should DO, or something more we should DO (which is what the young man was asking). The gospel is the GOOD NEWS of what Jesus has already DONE for us in our place because with us this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.
Thank you Jesus for the good news of the gospel!
Letting go to lay hold
Lastly from this passage we see that the young man sadly could not loosen his grasp on his possessions and money, couldn’t let go of what his security and pleasure was founded on and so went away – ‘disheartened’ (Mark 10:22).
You, can’t hold onto Jesus truly unless you let go of what you’re holding onto first! We can’t simply add Jesus to the rest of our lives, following Jesus means laying down of everything in our lives at a heart level – giving it all up to lay hold of Jesus, trusting that Jesus is worthy of that level of devotion and trusting that Jesus is good and will reward those who do lay it all down for Him.
Why trumps what! Why you do what you do, matters more to Jesus than just what you do.
The Pharisees and scribes are indignant! Jesus and his disciples are not adhering to the strict codes and traditions that had built up around God’s law that regulated every aspect of life in the attempt to keep ‘pure’.
These regulations legislated behaviour in everything, here Mark mentions the scenario of coming home from the market where one could have been defiled by contact with Gentiles and the need to wash hands, pots, plates & even couches!
Jesus’ disciples were being accused of not walking ‘according to the tradition of the elders’ (Mark 7:6). Jesus rebuffs their accusations, accusing them of caring more about their human traditions than about the original commands of God that the traditions were meant to encourage obedience to (Mark 7:8-13).
So what really matters? Jesus quotes the Old Testament to them (vs6-7) which reveals what God wants from every one of us. God wants our hearts not some external compliance that’s not rooted in love for God.
You see, why trumps what! Worship/godliness that’s only skin deep or behaviour that’s not emanating from a heart of worship is not worship at all.
God is after our hearts. What we do does matter, how we live does matter but its the motivation behind the external actions that God really cares about. It’s why we do what we do that matters to God.
This is the difference between religious legalism and the gospel! Tim Keller sums it up when he says;
‘“I obey therefore I am accepted by God” = Religion
“I am accepted by God because of Jesus, therefore I obey” = The Gospel
God freely accepts those who believe in Jesus and accept Jesus’ offer of forgiveness for their sins. God then delights as those saved sons and daughters begin to obey His will for their lives, not because they must, not because they’re trying to be accepted but because they already are accepted by Him, because their hearts have been melted by His love and His mercy and His grace and transformed so that they beat now with a new desire – to please their Father who is in heaven! What results, is the motivation for all true godly behaviour. Why trumps what!
So, gaze again at Jesus! Consider who He is and what He has done for you. Be freshly impacted, amazed at Him and live your whole life as a response to His incredible love for you. What will result is observable godliness rooted in worship, and that pleases God.
Do you know that Jesus loved the law?
He grew up a Jewish boy and was schooled in all aspects of the law. He loved the law, because it was given by the perfect lawgiver – His Father.
Why did God give the law? His motivation was love – He wanted to show His children the best way to live.
All of the law, so specifically detailed in the Old Testament, is summed up in two parts: love God with all you are, and love your neighbour.
The thing that made Jesus angry was the way the Pharisees added to the law:
He answered them, “And why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matt 15:3)
The only negative thing about the law, is man’s interference: adding man-made rules and traditions to God’s perfect law, and enforcing these as a means of salvation.
The Pharisees did not love God or His law (verse 7-9). They only wanted to control people by means of the law. We have no place trying to control another person. Each person will give an account of his/her own life before God.
Let our focus be to please God, not people. Let us love God with all our hearts, our minds and our strength, and love our neighbour as ourselves.
by Lise Oosthuizen
Growing up and finding my footing with God, I often struggled with how to not live under law. I struggled merging the Old Testament rules with the New Testament and frequently found myself in debates around this.
Paul says in Galatians 5:3-4 “again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace” (my emphasis).
Two things stand out here for me; Grace is one. Law is the other.
I feel the message in this verse is “it’s all or nothing”.
However, choosing sides has been made easy for us; we were never actually meant to live according to law! Romans 3:20 “therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin”.
My thoughts and debates around law often took the following shape:
“Tattoos are wrong because it says in Leviticus 19:28 ‘do not cut your bodies for the dead, or put tattoo marks on yourself””. Now, this isn’t an argument about tattoos, rather, it’s an argument that I have found us picking and choosing what parts of the Bible we want to live by. If we are going to go with the law about tattoos being wrong, then we need to go with all the others too (just like Paul says); and some of them are:
- you can’t plant your fields with two different seeds
- you can’t wear clothing woven of two different materials
- you can’t cut your hair or shave your beard
- you can’t sit near a woman who is menstruating
but worst of all, no bacon for you.
Unfortunately, we cannot pick which parts of the Bible we want to live by and which we don’t. But praise God that He sent Jesus to die, and in so doing, did away with law which means we can now freely eat bacon!!
We no longer need to strive to ensure we’re living up to a list of rules to satisfy God. He is satisfied with us because he is satisfied with Christ (Timothy Lane). If anything, the law was set up to show us just how sinful and flawed we are and how we would never actually succeed in obeying all the rules. Obedience to the law in its entirety was destined to fail.
However, with the law being done away with, this still does not mean we can live however we want. There is still a standard expected from us which Paul goes on to describe; “…live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature…if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law”.
What we are expected to put aside are things like sexual immorality, idolarty, hatred, jealousy and selfish ambition.
Again, we must remember that this is not a new law-list to abide by. There is grace to make mistakes but our love for God drives us to not make the same mistakes over and over again. It is a daily renewing of the heart and mind where the Holy Spirit shapes and forms us, making us more and more like Him every day.
One of my favourite verses is 1 Corinthians 10:23; “Everything is permissible – but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible – but not everything is constructive”.
I love that I serve a God who allows me the freedom to make my own choices on a day to day basis, along with His Spirit as I figure out how I should or shouldn’t be living. There is no longer a list of rules to obey – I have the freedom to do what I want. But the precious thing is that I hold in my heart the Spirit – my helper, guiding me as I learn to understand what God wants for me; which choices are beneficial and constructive to me living a pure and righteous life.
Forget about law and rules. Shake it off you. Leave it behind you. Live in the Spirit and learn His voice. Walk closely with Him and you will not wander where He doesn’t want you.
By Samantha Schreiner