THE GRACE OF GOD’S COMMANDS
Written by Doug Ponder on March 22, 2015
A Commanding Confusion
One of the defining marks of the contemporary church is the widespread confusion over the nature and purpose of God’s commands (called “the law” for short).
The commands of God, or “the law,” were given to reflect God’s character and reveal what it looks like for humanity to live a righteous life before him. For example, the law shows us that God is both loving and just; therefore, he prohibits murder. God is the author of life and truth; therefore, he prohibits lying. You get the idea.
In the midst of our confusion, many have stumbled into minefields of error that threaten the wellbeing of their very souls. Thankfully, God’s word contains not only commands but also explanations for how we ought to understand them, too. Armed with the full teaching of God’s word, we are able to see through the fog of our contemporary confusion and avoid four common minefields:
1. Legalism, or How to Die Trying to Obey Your Way to Salvation
The first minefield is the deathtrap of legalism. Legalism is believing that you are forgiven and accepted by God based on your record of obedience. Legalism is not just wrong; it’s antithetical to the gospel, which says that we are forgiven and accepted by God’s grace, not our obedience (Eph. 2:8-9). Thankfully, there has been a resurgence of teaching in the church today that does a wonderful job of exposing legalism for the self-righteous suicide that it is. We could never obey our way into God’s good graces, and it’s sinful even to try.
2. Ignoring the Context, or How to Miss Out on Bacon Forever
The second minefield to avoid when it comes to the law is the error of ignoring the context for God’s commands. Some of God’s commands were clearly given for all people in all times and places, while others were given to specific people for a specific time and place. Once the purpose of the latter sort of laws has been fulfilled, such laws are no longer binding in the same way they once were. For example, consider God’s laws forbidding the people of Israel from wearing clothing of blended fabrics or getting tattoos. Obviously, God does not hate cotton-polyester blends. (And it turns out he doesn’t necessarily hate tattoos either.) Rather, God’s purpose for those laws (and others like them) was to set his people apart from the pagan peoples around them, so that they might stand out as a “light to the nations.” (You can read more about understanding our relationship to the Old Testament here.)
3. Arbitrary Laws, or How to See God as a Cosmic Killjoy
A frustratingly common error when it comes to the law of God is seeing them as “random rules” that God gave us “just because he felt like it,” or more commonly, “because he wanted to test us.” It’s as if people think God made up completely arbitrary laws simply to see if we would submit to them, in spite of their randomness. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we have already seen, the laws of God are a reflection of his character and a picture of what it looks like to live a righteous life before him. They are anything but random!
Here’s why this matters. When we think that God’s laws are “random rules,” then his call to obedience seems calloused or cruel. It seems like he says “No” to all the things we want to do, and we can’t understand why he would do that. In reality, God’s laws were given to us in love. They do not take something just for the sake of taking. Rather, God says “No” to one thing in order to give us something even greater. This is like the father who tells his young child that he may not play in the street. In one sense, of course, he is taking away the “privilege” of playing in the street, but in a deeper sense, the father is actually giving the son a longer life on wiser and safer grounds.
In this way, God’s laws are a gift. Without them, we would not properly know right from wrong, and our world would be even more evil than it already us. Indeed, these are two “uses of the law” that Christians since the Reformation have thanked God for. The final “use of the law” is a gift too, for by the law we see that we are sinners—for we have all fallen short of what the law requires—and therefore the law points us to Christ, who alone can save us from our many sins (Gal. 3:24).
4. Optional Obedience, or How to Become Your Own God
The last minefield to be avoided is an unfortunate one, but it is not unexpected. Because the effects of sin extend to our minds as well as our hearts, we are always swinging from one misunderstanding to another, like a car that overcorrects from the ditch on the left to the ditch on the right. In particular, because of the resurgence of preaching against the deadly poison of legalism—a blessing to be thankful for in every way—there are some who have fallen into a ditch on the other side of the road. Thinking that obedience = legalism, these people insist that the only point of the commands of God is to show us our inability to keep them. Any attempts to obey God’s commands are met with suspicions. You’re not a legalist, are you?
All of this is very silly. For the same verses which sing the wonders of God’s grace—like Ephesians 2:8-9 and Titus 2:10-13—are immediately followed by verses that insist we were created for obedience (Eph. 2:10 and Titus 2:14). Is this a contradiction? Not at all. We are not saved by works, but we are saved for works, as the old theologians put it. In other words, we are not saved by obedience but we are saved for obedience. After all, Jesus himself said, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey all that I have commanded” (Matt. 28:19). In this way, those who seek to avoid the ditch of legalism sometimes fall into the equally terrible ditch of licentiousness. They act as if obedience is optional—Don’t you believe in grace?!, they say—but obedience is anything but a take-it-or-leave-it choice. Jesus, our Lord, has commanded our allegiance. He does not forgive us on the basis of our obedience, but he does not excuse us from obeying him either. That is why the old hymn is still quite true: “trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” The only way to avoid both ditches is to trust in the grace of Jesus and afterward seek to obey him with all the strength and desires that the Holy Spirit supplies (Phil. 2:13).
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.