“The beautiful law tells you how you should live for your whole life.”
Nice quote, huh? Ok, ok, I made it up. But I think it is true, whether you are a believer in Jesus Christ or just want life on earth to go well. The law comports well with societal function and relational peace.
The idea that you shouldn’t try to keep the law on earth (speaking of Biblical law, but in general including law as a whole) is just an invitation for consequences. Consequences of the law. For example, if you commit adultery, your marriage may well break. If you steal, reparations and imprisonment await. If you covet, you’ll break relationships and ruin reputations. Life will make you care about the law.
Christians see Jesus raising the law to its beautiful heights. Lawkeeping isn’t just avoiding murder, it is not even getting angry; not just avoiding adultery, but never lusting. The law paints a picture of truly skillful living at a level that God approves. When the scribe says that loving God with all his heart and soul and mind and strength and loving his neighbor as himself is keeping the law, Jesus responds with ‘you aren’t far from the kingdom of God.’
No, the radical change that the gospel brings isn’t on the beauty or desirability of following the law on earth. We desire to keep it. It is rather in how we see our accomplishment of it.
To know that the law is this radical love of God and neighbor, is to be near the kingdom of God. And that’s the thing, right? Near; not far. That means… not there. Close, but no cigar. And we hear those words and think, ‘well, maybe with a bit more elbow grease.’ With more effort, more prayer, more enablement, the law’s demands can be fulfilled. I reason that with an extra push from the Holy Spirit, I can attain the law.
So the direction we often take isn’t to stop trying but to redouble effort on our not-quite-good-enough lawkeeping. “Fake it ‘til you make it,” a friend used to say. And we esteem keeping the law so important that we try and try… thinking we are taking steps, even baby steps, towards fulfillment. I don’t love God with all my heart, but I am trying to love him more and more. That counts for something, right?
This is the dead end that so many Christians are caught on. The focus is on using the cross, using the enablement of the Spirit, using the means of the gospel, to attain the law. The focus is on our effort. We’re trying! These efforts are often labeled ‘sanctification,’ as if incremental improvement in lawkeeping over time would mean we are more holy, more set apart.
But what if that focus is all wrong? What if the purpose of the law isn’t accomplishment, but rather on highlighting failure? The beauty and rightness of the law means that we try, of course we do. But if the reality simply is that we do not accomplish it, then the law leaves us failures. No matter how much we do, we are still failures at the law. Just one jot or tittle missed, James says, and we are guilty of it all. He’s talking to Christians. And he’s keeping us… failures.
That opens the door for truth to leak in. The truth of our humble state. Our inability. Our lack. Instead of us looking at some enablement for self-improvement, we are forced to look outside of ourselves, for a savior.
This is the message that brings freedom. This is the good news of the cross. Of a Christ who died once for all, his blood cleansing all our grime, his forgiveness deep enough for all our sin. Forever.
This doesn’t mean you stop trying to keep the law. It is still out there, in all its (terrifying?) beauty. But issue of your life, the work of the Spirit, is in opening your eyes to how you are doing. Before and after “praying the prayer.” And how you are doing is failing still.
If you think you use the cross to improve yourself, whether you call that holiness or righteousness or God-glorifying activity, you will stay focused on you. The law doesn’t pat you on the back. Your tongue doesn’t stop being a pit of poison. Your sin doesn’t become less and less. You don’t climb a ladder of progressive lawkeeping. You are knocking on the wrong door, no matter what high-sounding words you use. You’re trying to leverage the cross to attain a better you. That’s the wrong goal. You don’t need to be better. You need to die.
But if you keep seeing the beauty of the law, its true height, and thus your failure… welcome to true freedom. A freedom that stops at the cross, that receives the forgiveness of Jesus, and a righteousness that is freely given, not earned through trying. Your hope is totally outside your lawkeeping. Forever.
The beautiful law shows you how should live for your whole life. And your whole life you will fail, thus keeping you at the foot of the cross. This is where we die with Christ to our dreams of self-earned righteousness. To our grandiose ideas of attaining the law. To ourselves, period… and instead trust in the freedom of his sure promise.
“The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Corinthians 15:56-57)
The law brings death your whole life long. Trust Jesus, who will resurrect the dead and give us the victory.