Galatians 3:15-22 – Law and Grace

Brothers and sisters, let me take an example from everyday life. Just as no one can set aside or add to a human covenant that has been duly established, so it is in this case. The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed. Scripture does not say “and to seeds,” meaning many people, but “and to your seed,” meaning one person, who is Christ. What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on the promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise.

Why, then, was the law given at all? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was given through angels and entrusted to a mediator. A mediator, however, implies more than one party; but God is one.

Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law. But Scripture has locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe. (New International Version)

If the Apostle Paul were living in our day, I’m pretty sure he could have his own reality show, if he wanted. Paul is a terribly interesting man. Within church circles, his adventures are legendary. 

One of the most interesting things about Paul is his piercing intellect and flawless rhetoric. Today’s New Testament lesson has Paul taking on a Galatian heresy. Maybe we could call it “Law and Grace: SFU (Special Faith Unit).”  

The folks who were holding to the law were reminded by Paul that the promise to Abraham was a contract or covenant made by God that was binding, permanent, and divinely ratified. The law, on the other hand, was not – it was designed to be in effect for a specific amount of time, temporary, and only bound the people of God until the promise was fulfilled in Christ.

So, why in the world was there a law to begin with if it is no longer in effect? 

Paul said the law was added because of transgressions. It was as if God’s people were precocious and disobedient little children who needed some firm boundaries and rules in order to keep them safe and lead them to the time when they would grow to maturity. 

My friends, stop thinking like children. Think like mature people and be as innocent as tiny babies.

1 Corinthians 14:20, CEV

With the arrival of adulthood, there is no longer any need for the law.

The law was never designed to be permanent. So, when Christians cling to a rules-based faith, they are showing their immaturity. They need to grow up and embrace the permanent reality of living in the Spirit. 

Although you should have been teachers by now, you need someone to teach you an introduction to the basics about God’s message. You have come to the place where you need milk instead of solid food. Everyone who lives on milk is not used to the word of righteousness, because they are babies. But solid food is for the mature, whose senses are trained by practice to distinguish between good and evil. (Hebrews 5:12-14, CEB)

We must press on toward spiritual maturity, not being simpletons who embrace the law as if it were the actual faith itself. Instead, we need to pursue an adult faith – one which is thoroughly permeated and bathed in grace.

Grace is the permanent and pervasive reality that governs everything Christians are to do and say. Grace cannot be earned, only accepted, not achieved, but only given by God. 

Until we can grasp this fundamental truth of Christianity, the Christian life will never make sense. Only until we release our expectations of rules and let go of our orienting around law will we discover the liberation of a grace-filled existence.

Jesus said, “In a word, what I’m saying is, Grow up. You’re kingdom subjects. Now live like it. Live out your God-created identity. Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God lives toward you.” (Matthew 5:48, MSG)

We spread the message about Christ as we instruct and teach everyone with all the wisdom there is. We want to present everyone as mature Christian people.

Colossians 1:28, GW

The believer’s task is to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus. That happens not through the law but by grace – utilizing the God given gifts of faith, hope, and love.

Gracious God, you saved me through Christ alone by faith alone. Now help me to live by grace alone as the highest and greatest truth operative in the universe and in the kingdom of God. Amen.

Psalm 19 – The God We Can Know

The heavens keep telling
    the wonders of God,
    and the skies declare
    what he has done.
Each day informs
    the following day;
    each night announces
    to the next.
They don’t speak a word,
    and there is never
    the sound of a voice.
Yet their message reaches
    all the earth,
    and it travels
    around the world.

In the heavens a tent
    is set up for the sun.
It rises like a bridegroom
    and gets ready like a hero
    eager to run a race.
It travels all the way
across the sky.
    Nothing hides from its heat.

The Law of the Lord is perfect;
    it gives us new life.
His teachings last forever,
    and they give wisdom
    to ordinary people.
The Lord’s instruction is right;
    it makes our hearts glad.
His commands shine brightly,
    and they give us light.

Worshiping the Lord is sacred;
    he will always be worshiped.
All his decisions
    are correct and fair.
They are worth more
    than the finest gold
    and are sweeter than honey
    from a honeycomb.

By your teachings, Lord,
    I am warned;
    by obeying them,
    I am greatly rewarded.
None of us know our faults.
    Forgive me when I sin
    without knowing it.
Don’t let me do wrong
    on purpose, Lord,
    or let sin have control
    over my life.
Then I will be innocent,
    and not guilty
    of some terrible fault.

Let my words and my thoughts
    be pleasing to you, Lord,
    because you are my mighty rock
    and my protector. (CEV)

Today’s psalm is a celebration of God’s self-revelation. Through both nature and law, the Lord has graciously made the divine life known to humanity. What’s more, God’s moral and ethical teachings provide insight for living a good life. This is for the common good of all persons.

The vision of the psalm is of a personal God, not an abstract deity who is aloof from creation. Through both land and law, there is the Lord of life, desiring humanity to know the divinity which infuses it all and has people’s best interests continually at the forefront of providence and goodwill.

The created world witnesses to God. Creation manifests the glory of its Creator. Each creature and every created thing have the capacity to acknowledge and declare their Originator. That which has no mouth can speak. Those with no vocal cords have a voice. We can hear them, that is, if our ears are open to listen. The creation is not God. Yet the created world and order knows the Lord so intimately that it sometimes seems as if the sun, the trees, the mountains, and the meadows are divine. The divine stamp is there, testifying with mysterious words to a glorious God who desires to be known.

So, the Lord graciously gave us law. God’s righteous and good law flows seamlessly from God’s good character. Law is the divine medium for humanity, a guide for human life toward thriving and flourishing on God’s good earth. We were put on this planet with instructions on how to get along on it. It is when we throw out the rulebook and improvise that we tend to get into all kinds of trouble.

“Knowing God is more important than knowing about God.”

karl rahner

Even when we as people dig our own graves and fall into them, God is there. Grace is available for the asking, redeeming the wayward life. Deliverance is a real possibility, to set us aright again, and restore us to our full luster as people created in the image of God. Law and land converge to guide into grateful living, into the wisdom of dealing rightly in all things.

Wisdom in the Old Testament is the combination of knowledge and practice. It is the application of God’s self-revelation to concrete situations in life. We live wisely when we get to know the sovereign God of creation and use the Lord’s revealed mores and ethos as our guide in daily experiences.

We need God’s gracious revealed law. It’s not just for theology nerds or spiritual eggheads; God’s law is for everyone – the learned and the unlearned. Every one of us needs the guidance and direction of God’s Holy Word, and the careful application of it to all our circumstances. That’s wisdom.

You and I are shaped and formed as godly people as we allow God’s Word to awash us and seep into our souls.  Reading this psalm out loud slowly and contemplatively more than once is an opportunity to let our common ordinary experiences transform into divine appointments.

Clean the slate, God, so we can start the day fresh! Keep me from stupid and idiotic sins, from thinking I can take over your work. Then I can start each day sun-washed, scrubbed clean of sin’s awful grime. Let me not be found in the dominion of darkness but bask in the glorious light of your glory. Accept both my words and my life when I place them on the morning altar, O God, my Rock, my Deliverer, my Redeemer, my All. Amen.

Romans 3:21-31 – 8 Words That Can Change Your Life

Statue of Martin Luther in Dresden, Germany

But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith. He did this to show his righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over the sins previously committed; it was to prove at the present time that he himself is righteous and that he justifies the one who has faith in Jesus.

Then what becomes of boasting? It is excluded. By what law? By that of works? No, but by the law of faith. For we hold that a person is justified by faith apart from works prescribed by the law. Or is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles also? Yes, of Gentiles also since God is one; and he will justify the circumcised on the ground of faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith. Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law. (NRSV)

Five-hundred years is a long time. It was that long ago when Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church door in Germany. It sparked the flame of Reformation, a legacy we still live with today.  Protestant Christians have a rich spiritual heritage in acknowledging and affirming the veracity of Holy Scripture and its central message of Christ’s good news of salvation.

Eight words changed Martin Luther’s life, changed the course of history and Christianity, and can change our lives, too.

Law

The role of the law is neither to save nor sanctify but to reveal the true state of our hearts. The law can only condemn; it cannot save. Obedience is important yet cannot be done by sheer willpower. Deliverance does not come by turning over a new leaf; that approach only gets one caught in cycle of regret, promising not to do it again, and then returning to it. Law makes us feel the great weight of our darkness. We need to feel and know what that darkness really is….

Sin

Sin means missing the mark, falling short. We must face what sin really is, without sugar-coating it.  We tend to think of sin as some terrible action like assault or murder, yet sin is primarily thought of in Scripture as attempting to de-throne God with a replacement. You and I need to be realistic about the bad news of sin before we can ever receive the good news of forgiveness. Forgiveness will be elusive until we admit what we have done, or not done, something that warrants needing to be forgiven. Moving forward in hope can only happen when we possess…

Righteousness

Righteousness means right relationships; unrighteousness means broken relationships. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for right relationships. Like illegal aliens who cannot make themselves citizens, God grants us spiritual amnesty because we cannot make ourselves legal or righteous. Through righteousness God has made it possible for us to live in harmony. Holding onto bad relationships is like a dog returning to its vomit; there is no need for it because God has given us…

Justification

This term is a picture of the court of law. It is a metaphor communicating that righteousness comes because God justified us, that is, did for us what the law could not do – God sent his Son to be a substitute for us. We cannot justify ourselves by obeying the law or simply by being sorry. Without the next word, we will wallow in our guilt because we need this for our justification to really live…

Faith

Faith is a gift given by God. We are unable to generate faith within ourselves because sin estranges us from God. We need divine action. God’s righteousness can only become operative through faith. We must hold out our hands and receive a gift to possess it. We must come to the end of ourselves to exercise faith. We need to see that sin is bad enough to have made life unmanageable and that we have dug a hole too deep to get out of by ourselves. If one thinks they can handle it, then they are going back to the law, living in denial and not by faith.  We also need…

Grace

Faith must have an object, and that object is the cross of Christ. It is grace which gives faith and saves us. Our denial is so great about our sin that we cannot reach out to God unless God acts. Even while we were sinners, Christ died for us. Opening the gift given to us, we find that we are given…

Redemption

Redemption is a word referring to a slave market. We are slaves to sin. We need someone to purchase our freedom. The blood of Christ paid for my sin. Jesus bought me through his death. Jesus has taken care of the sin issue through…

Propitiation

“Sacrifice of atonement” is the meaning of propitiation. It is the satisfaction of God’s wrath against sin.  Because God loves, God has wrath – God is not okay with sin running amok in this world. We are forgiven through the blood of Christ. We are free to live into the gracious joyous life of God in Christ. Yet not all of us do so. For example:

If the institution that gave me my car loan came along and forgave or satisfied the debt I have on my car, it would be weird if I kept making loan payments. But that is what many people keep doing with their lives because they do not really believe they are forgiven and loved by God. We think God is constantly upset or, at least, agitated with us since we screw-up so often. So, we live by law hoping that God will applaud our sincerity and our effort, wishing that everything will be okay. But everything will not be okay with that approach because God wants our faith, not our promises to be better. The Lord asks us:

Do you trust me?  Do you trust me to deliver you from your sin?  Do you trust me to work out the situation that you have made a mess of on your own?  Do you trust me to provide for you everything you need? 

Live into your spiritual heritage. Do not return to the law. Bask in the gracious gift of your freedom in Christ.  Live and enjoy Jesus because you have been made righteous, justified, and redeemed through the precious blood of Jesus Christ.

Almighty God, to whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid: Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit so that we may perfectly love you, and magnify your holy Name in a worthy manner, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Joshua 20:1-9 – Asylum

A painting of Hebron, one of the cities of refuge, 1839.

The Lord said to Joshua, “Now tell the Israelites to designate the cities of refuge, as I instructed Moses. Anyone who kills another person accidentally and unintentionally can run to one of these cities; they will be places of refuge from relatives seeking revenge for the person who was killed.

“Upon reaching one of these cities, the one who caused the death will appear before the elders at the city gate and present his case. They must allow him to enter the city and give him a place to live among them. If the relatives of the victim come to avenge the killing, the leaders must not release the slayer to them, for he killed the other person unintentionally and without previous hostility. But the slayer must stay in that city and be tried by the local assembly, which will render a judgment. And he must continue to live in that city until the death of the high priest who was in office at the time of the accident. After that, he is free to return to his own home in the town from which he fled.”

The following cities were designated as cities of refuge: Kedesh of Galilee, in the hill country of Naphtali; Shechem, in the hill country of Ephraim; and Kiriath-arba (that is, Hebron), in the hill country of Judah. On the east side of the Jordan River, across from Jericho, the following cities were designated: Bezer, in the wilderness plain of the tribe of Reuben; Ramoth in Gilead, in the territory of the tribe of Gad; and Golan in Bashan, in the land of the tribe of Manasseh. These cities were set apart for all the Israelites as well as the foreigners living among them. Anyone who accidentally killed another person could take refuge in one of these cities. In this way, they could escape being killed in revenge prior to standing trial before the local assembly. (NLT)

God is concerned for justice. The Lord made sure that as soon as the Israelites got into the Promised Land that the divine rule of law would be established concerning cities of refuge. God did not take the stance of saying, “Well, these guys need to get settled in after all this military campaigning. I don’t want to overwhelm them with having to deal with this issue.” No, the Lord considered it imperative to have the cities set up. It was important enough to not put off or wait for Joshua to get around to it, even though it was on his to-do list.

The six cities of refuge in Israel.

God made it clear to Moses what was to happen in the case of involuntary manslaughter:

When the Lord your God has destroyed the nations whose land he is giving you, and when you have driven them out and settled in their towns and houses, then set aside for yourselves three cities in the land the Lord your God is giving you to possess. Determine the distances involved and divide into three parts the land the Lord your God is giving you as an inheritance, so that a person who kills someone may flee for refuge to one of these cities.

This is the rule concerning anyone who kills a person and flees there for safety—anyone who kills a neighbor unintentionally, without malice aforethought. For instance, a man may go into the forest with his neighbor to cut wood, and as he swings his ax to fell a tree, the head may fly off and hit his neighbor and kill him. That man may flee to one of these cities and save his life. Otherwise, the avenger of blood might pursue him in a rage, overtake him if the distance is too great, and kill him even though he is not deserving of death, since he did it to his neighbor without malice aforethought. Therefore, I command you to set aside for yourselves three cities. (Deuteronomy 19:1-7, NIV)

A city of refuge is a place of safety where someone who murdered another unintentionally could seek asylum. Safeguarding life is a premium value for God. If one person is accidentally killed, the last thing the Lord wanted was even more innocent blood to be shed out of vengeance.

Law and grace are meant to exist together for the benefit of the entire nation.

Six cities are named, three on the west side of the Jordan River and three on the east side. No place in the land of Israel was more than one day’s journey from at least one of these cities, so God graciously provided ample opportunity for preserving the life of the one who killed without malicious forethought or intent.

Although sanctuary was given, there was a full investigation of the killing to ensure the innocence of the killer. If the killer was found to be guilty, then appropriate legal action was taken. If not, the person was only protected while within the bounds of the refuge city.

Therefore, it is important to approach God’s law and God’s grace not as an either/or but as a both/and. We are to show grace while obeying the law, and we are to maintain just laws when extending grace.

The crime should fit the punishment, and actions, even unintended ones, have consequences.

We need to continually work to uphold both law and grace together without forfeiting one for the other. Simplistic answers along with cut-and-dried approaches will not do when holding them together. Instead, issues of human life and death are to be given due diligence with examining the situation in all its complexity.

There is to be public respect for the sanctity of human life.

Showing such respect will come through both law and grace. By establishing cities of refuge, God was squelching generational feuds that go on and on and on. Justice will be done, yet it will be done with grace and not by family vendettas and blood feuds, like the Hatfield’s and McCoy’s.

God’s people are to live differently, with gracious respect for all life at the forefront of civil law.

Lord God, thank you for creating human life in your image and likeness, for the inherent worth you place on human existence. Help us to uphold the sanctity of life in our communities. Give us the strength to stand up to those forces that seek to destroy the lives of those most vulnerable. Today I commit myself never to be silent, never to be passive, never to be forgetful of respecting life. I commit myself to protecting and defending the sacredness of life according to your will, through Christ our Lord. Amen.