One of the biggest head-scratching moments in the Old Testament takes place in Exodus 16. The Hebrew people have been rescued from captivity. They’ve crossed the Red Sea. They’ve wandered around the Desert of Sin about a month and a half, and they start complaining:
“If only we had died by the Lord’s hand in Egypt! There we sat around pots of meat and ate all the food we wanted, but you have brought us out into this desert to starve this entire assembly to death.”
The complaint is, on the whole, very strange. After all, the first part of the book of Exodus is dedicated to the intense struggle of Israelite people to escape from their slavery and oppression to the Egyptians, and less than 2 months later, they long for the days when they were slaves.
I know the grass is always greener on the other side, but you would think slavery would have been a pasture you wouldn’t want to return to.
But then, Freedom can be a scary thing.
When the Israelites are set free from Egypt, they are also set free from certainty and peace of mind. Slavery may be miserable, but it’s predictable. You know where your next meal, however meager, is coming from. When the Israelites are faced with the prospect of real and true freedom, they grumble. They’d rather have the relatively safety of slavery.
But that’s not unique to the Israelites.
Paul tells us over and over again in the New Testament that Christ has set us free. From sin. From death. From Law.
The first two, I think we’re happy to hear. We don’t handle that third one well, do we? We get scared at the prospect of freedom from the Law. If we aren’t tied to the Law, how will we know if we are pleasing to God? If we are set free from the Law, how will we know if other people are right before God? If we have been released from slavery to Law, by what standard are we judged?
This fear leads many of us to turn back to the Law. Like the Israelites, we long for the day when we had a Law to hold us accountable. So we distort the words of the New Testament so that it becomes an addendum to the Law, rather than an emancipation from it.
But Christ never intended to add to the Law. To the contrary, he came to fulfill it. He embodied the Law, becoming the Law so that when he died, the Law died with him. And when he rose, he left the Law behind. In place of the Law, there is only Christ and the freedom that comes with him.
Under the leadership of Christ, there are no rules. “All things are permissible,” Paul tells the Corinthians (though they aren’t all beneficial, which we’ll discuss below).
Fortunately (and I’m putting as much sarcasm in to that word as I can), we have figured out ways to explain Paul’s teachings in a way that allows us to maintain our slavery to the Law. We have figured out how to pay lip service to Grace and to Freedom, without actually letting go of the demands of Law.
The modern Church has made a habit of masquerading merit around as grace, to the point that we can’t even speak of real grace without someone jumping in to spell out the terms and conditions. But terms and conditions are the poison that kills grace. Grace is only grace if it carries no terms.
Does that make you as uncomfortable as it makes me? I don’t know if I want that kind of freedom.
The French philosopher and theologian, Jacques Ellul, said it this way,
“The uncertainty of fluctuating things like Grace and Love horrifies us. Saying that God loves us grants us no reassurance. We would prefer it if he gave us fifty things to do, so that when we had done them, we could be at peace. We do not want an ongoing relationship with God. We prefer a rule. It does not satisfy us to say that God shows us grace or frees us. We prefer to bind him by our virtues and to be sure that he has no freedom to do with us as he chooses.” (The Subversion of Christianity, 152.)
Our insistence for the Law is our way of trying to hold God hostage. We think that if we can keep the Law even a little bit, God will have no choice but to rescue us because of our righteousness. If we abandon the Law, we must rely completely on a Sovereign God to do as God will. If we throw ourselves onto the mercy of Christ, we have no standard by which to compel God to act on our behalf. Faith is relying on God’s faithfulness to us, even though we have nothing to offer in exchange.
But this idea that we are not in any way responsible for our own redemption is abhorrent to us. We are happy to accept some small assistance to make God’s standard attainable to us, but the fact that there is no minimum standard of holiness that God requires of us is terrifying, because it means we all rely on a sovereign God to choose us as undeserving recipients (even though we are already assured that God will).
The pastor and the career criminal are equally dependent on the grace of God for salvation. The pastor does not have an advantage over the career criminal, even though the pastor may have been much better at keeping the Law. To the contrary, it is often much harder for the righteous to surrender the Law than it is for the unrighteous. But when Christ who embodied the Law was nailed to a cross, he eliminated the Law as the standard by which we are judged.
This offends our sensibilities. It will continue to offend us as long as we cling to Law instead of to Christ.
We want to soften this. To say that even though there’s nothing we can do to attain grace, if we don’t respond correctly, we might lose that grace. Or we might say that if we don’t respond correctly, we never had grace to being with. But to do so would be, like the Israelites, to return to our slavery in Egypt. That’s just another way to say that freedom comes only to the worthy. Grace comes for us all. There is no Law or rule that makes any of us more or less deserving of it. To adopt any moral standard is to reject Grace and cling to Law that cannot save us.
Some might argue that such a total abandonment of Law also means abandoning any incentive to be loving, or honest, or holy. But I’m not sure that’s true either. In fact, I think the pure undeserved nature of Grace is an even better reason to live well than because some ancient Law told us to.
And Paul reminds us that just because all things are permissible, that does not mean all things are beneficial. While the formerly righteous has no advantage over the formerly depraved, in the new freedom we find ourselves in, it is still desirable to draw nearer to God.
There may be no boundaries on the grace of God, but that doesn’t mean it is not good for us to draw nearer to the center of that grace. Life becomes not about how good we are, but how close we can draw to the One who is Good who saves and redeems us. But we don’t do this by following a list of rules, guidelines, and regulations. One does not draw nearer to the center of grace by obeying the Law. One draws nearer to the center of grace by imitating that grace, living out of grace, and extending that grace to others. Not because of what we get out of it (we get nothing extra out of living graciously, other than a closeness with the Source of our grace), but because that is who we were designed to be.
Holiness, then, becomes a natural reaction to a life lived out of Grace, rather than a demand of it. When we share in God’s grace, we share in God’s holiness. As we draw closer to the Center of Grace, we become Christ. Or perhaps more accurately, Christ becomes us. And this is what Christians ought to encourage each other to be. Not well-behaved. Not moral. Not Law-followers. Not a people who are good at not sinning. Instead, we encourage each other to be Christ in the world around us.
And when who Christ is becomes who we are, we become truly free.