We Need Both Rules and Relationship with God

Jen Wilkin:

Perhaps you have heard the statement “Christianity isn’t about rules, it’s about relationship.” It is an idea that has enjoyed popularity in recent decades, as evangelistic messages increasingly emphasized a personal relationship with God, one made possible through the grace that forgives our sins against God’s law. In many ways, this evangelistic approach seeks to solve the PR problem I have noted. It trades the grumpy Old Testament God of the law for the compassionate New Testament God of grace.

Thus, law and grace have come to be pitted against one another as enemies, when in fact, they are friends. The God of the Old Testament and the God of the New have been placed in opposition, when in fact, they are one and the same. God does not change. His justice and compassion have always coexisted, and so have his law and his grace. Herein lies our forgetfulness. Rather than seeing the sin of lawlessness as the barrier to relationship with God, we have steadily grown to regard the law itself as the barrier. We have come to believe that rules prevent relationship.

So, is Christianity about rules, or is it about relationship? The Christian faith is absolutely about relationship. But while that faith is personal, it is also communal. We are saved into special relationship with God, and thereby into special relationship with other believers. Christianity is about relationship with God and others, and because this statement is true, Christianity is also unapologetically about rules, for rules show us how to live in those relationships. Rather than threaten relationship, rules enable it. We know this is true from everyday life.

Imagine you are a substitute teacher at an elementary school. Which kindergarten class would you rather substitute for: the one with established and respected rules posted on the bulletin board, or the one without? Rules ensure that the one in charge is honored, and that those in her charge look to the interests of others as well as their own. Without rules, our hopes of healthy relationship vanish in short order. Jesus did not pit rules against relationship. It was he who said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.”1

Christians have been taught, with good reason, to fear legalism—attempting to earn favor through obedience to the law. Legalism is a terrible blight, as evidenced in the example of the Pharisees. But in our zeal to avoid legalism, we have at times forgotten the many places the beauty of the law is extolled for us, both in the Old Testament and the New. Blessed, says the psalmist, is the one whose delight is in the law of the Lord.2 While legalism is a blight, lawfulness is a blessed virtue, as evidenced in the example of Christ.

We should love the law because we love Jesus, and because Jesus loved the law. Contrary to common belief, the Pharisees were not lovers of the law; they were lovers of self. This is why Jesus says that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will never enter the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:20). Legalism is external righteousness only, practiced to curry favor. Legalism is not love of the law, but is its own form of lawlessness, twisting the law for its own ends.

When the Scriptures condemn lawlessness, as they repeatedly and vehemently do, they condemn both the one who ignores the law and the one who embraces it for self-righteous ends. Note the words of the apostle John: “Everyone who makes a practice of sinning also practices lawlessness; sin is lawlessness” (1 John 3:4).

The very definition of sin is rejection of law. What, then, is lawfulness?

Lawfulness is Christlikeness. To obey the law is to look like Jesus Christ. While legalism builds self-righteousness, lawfulness builds righteousness. Obedience to the law is the means of sanctification for the believer. We serve the risen Christ, “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14).

It is my fervent hope your zeal increases. There are good works to be done by the people of God, not out of dread to earn his favor, but out of delight because we already have it. That favor is our freedom, a freedom from slavery better understood when we remember its foreshadowing many years ago in the time of the Ten Words.

A Feast in the Wilderness

Before God speaks the law to Israel from the top of Sinai, he speaks deliverance to Moses from the burning bush. Israel was in the throes of bitter toil. Four hundred years in Egypt had rendered them slaves with no hope of freedom. But the bush speaks. Yahweh makes known his plan of great rescue. Moses is to go to Pharaoh with a request: “Please let us go a three days’ journey into the wilderness, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God” (Ex. 3:18).

Let us go. It will become the refrain of the next sixteen chapters of Exodus. Seven times, Moses will bring the words of God to Pharaoh: “Let my people go that they may serve me, that they may make a feast to me in the wilderness” (Ex. 5:1; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3).

A feast in the wilderness. An act of worship. Something heretofore out of the question. Bitter servitude to Pharaoh had made blessed service to God an impossibility for Israel. How could they serve both God and Pharaoh? Obedient worship to the King of heaven cannot be offered by those enslaved in the kingdom of Pharaoh. Let us go.

But Pharaoh is a stubborn master. Why would he release them to serve another master when they are serving him? With ten plagues, Yahweh breaks the rod of Pharaoh and delivers his children through passageways of blood and of water. Ten great labor pains, and a birth: the servants of Pharaoh find themselves reborn into their true identity as the servants of God. Let the feasting begin.

But hunger and thirst are their first companions, and they grumble against God. He meets their needs with living water and food from heaven, a foretaste of the provision awaiting them in Canaan. And at last they draw near to the foot of the mountain, the place God has called them to for the purpose of worship, sacrifice, and feasting.

God descends in thunder and lightning, and gives them not the feast they expect, but the feast they need. He gives them the law. The law of Pharaoh they know by heart, but the law of Yahweh is at best a distant memory to them after four hundred years in Egypt. He does not give it when they are in Egypt, for how could they serve two masters? No, instead, he waits, graciously giving it at the point they are finally able to obey. Come to the feast. Come famished by the law of Pharaoh to feast on the law of the Lord. Come taste the law that gives freedom (James 1:25).

Many years later, Jesus would speak to his followers of their own relationship to the law. No one can serve two masters. Be born again by water and blood. Hunger and thirst for righteousness. If the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.3 Jesus shows himself to be the true and better Moses, leading us to the foot of Mount Zion to trade the law of sin and death for the law of love and life.

It is for freedom that Christ, the true and better Moses, has set you free.4We are moved from the kingdom of darkness to the kingdom of light, from the dehumanizing law of the oppressor to the humanizing law of freedom. We find ourselves in the wilderness of testing, nourished on the bread that came down from heaven, longing for a better home. How then shall we live? Hear the words of Paul:

For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification. (Rom. 6:19)

For those in the wilderness, the law is graciously given to set us apart from those around us, and to point the way to love of God and love of neighbor. The Ten Words show us how to live holy lives as citizens of heaven while we yet dwell on earth. For the believer, the law becomes a means of grace.

Notes:

  1. John 14:15
  2. See Ps. 1.
  3. Matt. 5:6; 6:24John 3:5; 8:36
  4. Gal. 5:1

This article is adapted from Ten Words to Live By: Delighting in and Doing What God Commands by Jen Wilkin.

Peter serves as a pastor-teacher, at home and abroad, resourcing gospel-centred communities.