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F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
The Law & the Grace of God
book - theological undergirding for law and atonement
Septuagesima - 1/31/10 Josh. 1:1-9; Ps. 121; I Cor. 9:24-27; Mt. 20:1-16
We begin a new season of
repentance, or at least the run up to it. Septuagesima begins a three week
preparation for Lent. We pray in the collect for today, "that
we, who are justly punished for our offenses, may be mercifully delivered by thy
goodness, for the glory of Thy Name...."
There are two stages in our understanding of holiness, and how we attain to holiness, through which Biblical revelation progressed as God led His people into deeper levels of understanding what He was about, corresponding roughtly to the Old and New Testaments.
God begins with the fallen world, paganism, in which holiness, acceptability in the eyes of the gods and goddesses, was attained largely through physical, material actions, such as making sacrifices on altars, offering up goods on alters to the divinities, the use of material things in a somewhat mechanistic manner to please the divinities.
God responds with the first Biblical level as He first chooses His people out of paganism, and prepares them for the coming of the Messiah, step one, namely the giving and imposing of the Law -- the rules and regulations by which the people were to conduct their lives. You might call this the Legal Mode because the essence of it was obedience to a specific set of laws.
The second Biblical level is the refining of the law to focus on grace and love in the New Testament. You might call this the Personal Relationship Mode -- the focus on grace and love as the quality of our relationships as the meaning of the law.
So we have the pre-Biblical pagan way in which holiness is attained by physical, material actions in an often mechanistic manner; and then the two responses of God: (1) the Old Testament Legal Mode in which obedience to the law is the way to approval by God; and (2) the New Testament Personal Relationship Mode in which the goal of life is seen to be the quality of our relationships with God and one another, measured by love and grace, the deeper meaning of the law.
It is the last two with which
we are concerned - Old Testament law and New Testament grace.
In the order of creation, as in the Garden of Eden, grace comes before law. We are given our being in an already open and loving relationship with God. Life is all grace. So the law comes afterwards to give shape and purpose to the newly given life, to give the purpose for existence. And that is the order also in our conception and birth (which is, of course, our individual creation) -- we are given in the beginning the gift of being, of personal security, mostly through our mothers. And then later, the fathering gift of meaning, purpose, discipline, and law.
The law does not need to be given directly to new creatures first before grace because it is already there in the mind and intent of God, and in the mind and intent of parents. There is already an order established and in place. The newly created, the new born, will learn that order as he or she grows and matures.
But after the Fall, that is, in the order of redemption, we receive these two things, law and grace, in the opposite order. As we read in John 1:17 "For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ..."
Law comes first because, with the Fall, the very existence of order had been warped, twisted, and maybe even destroyed. So there must first be established a moral order, a purpose for existence, so that grace can operate meaningfully. Love and grace cannot operate in chaos. There must be a law-giving order to life, as the context within which grace has meaning. So the first step in the salvation and redemption process is the giving of the law, as at Mount Sinai. An executive decision is handed down, "This is the way it will be." It sounds arbitrary, but with fallen human beings, that is how things must begin.
The pagan world did not know, not with any clarity, of an eternal moral order which they could apply to daily life and living, to family, society, politics, and government. And they would never have thought of love as the topmost law of the cosmos. It was nice, and often admired, but not practical. Practical affairs required, they believed, something with more coercive bite to it, such as military might. Love was an admired ideal, but impractical. So you were just lucky if you got some love.
The Personal Relationship Mode centering on love and grace which blossoms into fullness in the New Testament, had begun already in the Old Testament, and is reflected, for example, by the prophets who railed against the abuses of the Temple and of the leaders who talked about the law but disobeyed it by their abuses of the people. And, both of the love commandments, to love God and neighbor, are first given in the Old Testament, not the New.
But the people of God tend to
backslide, so that even Christian theology, especially atonement theology (of
all things), has tended to be heavy on the legal side, and to see grace as only
kind of grace, the washing away of our debt of sin -- and to see law and grace
as in a tug of war -- opposed to each other.
In the Old Testament, something was still missing -- which was fulfilled by two things which happened in the New Testament.
First, Jesus selected the two commandments, to love God and neighbor (Mt. 22), as the two highest in all the laws of God, the two highest laws in all the cosmos, overarching everything else. By doing so, Jesus wedded law with grace, law with love. Law and love are not opposites, law now commands love. Love and grace are not just good ideas, things that you are lucky to get -- if you can in an essentially chaotic world. They are now obligations for everyone toward everyone else. The world is fundamentally morally ordered, not chaotic. We are commanded to love one another, to relate gracefully each toward one another.
And, secondly, there is our dependency, our inherently dependent natures -- another focus which we generally talk little about. Quite apart from (and prior to) the law of God, we are dependent upon the grace of God for our very existence. We are ontologically dependent upon God, we have no choice but to rely upon God for our very being. That is the unavoidable consequence of being a creature of God.
Furthermore, God did not create
us long ago, wind us up, and then (like the rabbit with the batteries) set us
off in our own -- we are
constantly and always held in
existence by God. There is not a split second of our existence in which we are
not totally and wholly dependent upon God for the security of our being. We
as creatures of God, always and forever. That has consequences.
One would think that being oneself would be as easy a falling off a log. But that is not the case because we are not (as is God) self-sufficient. We will be relying upon some source outside ourselves for our dependency needs. That is the problem -- sometimes those suppliers of our needs do not (or cannot) come through. We begin with mother who nurtures and comforts us, and ushers us into our childhood and then adulthood. In a reasonably healthy home, we understand mother herself to be our home base, someone we can run to in time of stress or need. But our mothers are fallen with the rest of the world.
The word 'salvation' comes from the Latin 'salvus', meaning 'whole, healthy, in good shape'. Salvation sometimes takes on a super-spiritual which is foreign to the Bible, and usually has a solely moral or legal meaning. But salvation includes wholeness in the sense anybody can understand - security of one's being, one's personhood. And this ontological wholeness must work in tandem with the need for moral or legal wholeness.
Because we are not self-sufficient as God is, and therefore we need persons and things outside of ourselves just to survive, let alone flourish, if we are not consciously and deliberately dependent upon God, then we will seek for persons in the world upon whom to rest our dependency. But they will never be able to do what God alone can do -- support our deep sense of being, the bottom foundations of our personhood.
That is why we should graduate
from mother and father to God Himself. That is our spiritual journey into the
family of God. From our human families to the family of God -- which is
the only eternal family.
So we have two aspects of our salvation, (1) our ontological dependency and (2) our moral obedience, corresponding to the Image of God as Creator and Sovereign, in which we are made. We receive our sense of ontological security first from mother. Mother's unconditional love tells me that I am important, that I mean something to someone else, that my being is a good thing, and that it is always a good idea for me to be myself.
And then we receive our sense of moral direction chiefly from father.
God separates these two into mothering and fathering for a very specific reason. If I come into life without my dependency securely undergirded, then I will spend the rest of my life searching for that security. When I am asked to do things, to obey my parents, my teacher, my boss, it will feel as though I have to earn being loved by doing those things. Salvation by works -- finding my safety and sense of being by what I do rather than by what God is doing. Law will feel ungraceful.
So God gives us mothers to convey that first, deep, initial sense of graceful well being -- the first foundation of salvation, a precursor of the unconditional love of God Himself -- before we are given orders and tasks -- "Pick up your toys..."
Knowing who we are, children of God, then we are secure in our being, and the moral law does not strike us as demanding submission in order to be loved. We know already that we are loved, and that the requirements of the law are meant to support and strengthen that love, not erode it. Law and grace work together.
We read in Joshua 1:1-9, God
speaking to Joshua as the Israelites are about to enter Canaan:
"...as I was with Moses, so I will be with you; I will not fail or forsake you. Be strong and of good courage; for you shall cause this people to inherit the land which I swore to their fathers to give them. Only be strong and very courageous, being careful to do according to all the law which Moses my servant commanded you; turn not from it to the right hand or to the left, that you may have good success wherever you go."
The relation between that supportive power of being and commanding law was spelled out. The law was made for their success, not to hinder them with arbitrary impositions. God was, in effect, commanding their success. The law was a lamp unto their feet, and a light upon their path (as we read in Psalm 119), not hindrance so that God could beat up on them when they failed. It was not God that would beat up on them, but the very negative circumstance in their path created by their disobedience.
When you put water in your gas
tank, it is the car
that beats up on you, not God.
When you abuse your body, it is your
body that beats up on you,
The law of God, like the owner's manual for the car, is meant for your good, not
to harass you with stumbling blocks. The laws of God are the sign posts pointing
to the Kingdom of grace and abundance, not to life in a legal straight jacket.
In Psalm 121, "The Lord Himself is thy keeper, the Lord is thy defense upon thy right hand; so that the sun shall not burn thee by day, neither the moon by night. The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil; yea it is even He what shall keep thy soul. The Lord shall preserve they going out, and they coming in, from this time forth for evermore."
Sounds like grace to me...
As hymn 564 tells us:
"What more can He say than to
you He hath said,
to you that for refuge to Jesus have fled?"
What more indeed? Over and over, both said -- and demonstrated.
And what is the running of the race to which Paul refers in our Epistle -- if not striving to cooperate with God by obeying His commandments -- those very commandments given for our benefit and safety -- "So run that ye may obtain...," Paul says. We are commanded to get ourselves into heaven, that place of abundant life and blessing. God is not demanding impossible payments to get in. He wants us there. Why do we linger and stall? Why are we complaining and rebelling? God is our Best Friend, and, in our disobedience, we are our own worst enemies.
There is nothing of earning something from God by our obedience. The gift has already been given. How can it be earned? Our striving is only to cooperate with that gift of His love, to cooperate with His efforts to save us. We either build heaven with God, or we build hell -- all by ourselves.
And if the laborers in the Gospel-lesson vineyard are laboring for the common good, for the welfare of all, as God Himself is, then we, too, will want to help catch for the Kingdom those lingering at the last hour, whether or not they have born with us the heat of the day. How many of us might ourselves be 11th hour converts? How many have labored in the heat of the day for us? It is all the law and grace of God, wedded eternally.
So, back to
our collect, we are indeed "justly punished for our sins", but God chooses mercy
and chooses that we, rather than die, would repent so as to accept His mercy --
by laboring with Him, obeying His commandments which themselves are mercifully
given for our benefit, not our hurt. The very commandments which frighten,
irritate, or even enrage us, are for our good, and ought instead to delight us.
Lead us, Father, like Joshua, like Jesus, Yeshua ha Mashiach, into the promised land of abundant life. Give us that same grace to obey with a good and willing heart. Show us how to apply our obedience in the daily relationships of our lives as we walk out the door of this church into the world which needs to hear Your offer of salvation, the fullness of life, freely given.
The Law & the Grace of God
book - theological undergirding for law and atonement
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