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Law & Grace

F. Earle Fox
St Luke's REC, Santa Ana, CA
Audio Version See also Law Sermon & The Law & the Grace of God (book)

Septuagessima - Third Sunday before Lent- 12/2/05
Josh. 1:1-9;     Ps.20;     I Cor. 9:24-27;     Mt. 20:1-16

Last week’s sermon was about law. This week is about law and grace, and how the two work together. There are again copies on the table at the back.

Law and grace are not opposites, as we often seem to assume. In the economy of God, they work hand in hand. They seem opposites only because of our fallen perspective on life, and hence our suspicion that God is imposing His law on us to control us, not to bless us. We are then “rescued” from the law by grace, it might seem.

But the giving of the law is itself an act of grace. God was not obligated to give us a law, He did it because He indeed wanted to bless us. The law, rightly understood, is a blessing, not a burden, it is a lamp unto our feet.

God observed that the human race had fallen into chaos, a spiritual, moral, political, and intellectual chaos. We humans did not have much of a grip on life, we were bashing around trying to control things ourselves, mostly making a terrible mess of it. So the intervention of God was like a parent intervening in the noisy and chaotic squabbles of children who have not learned how to get along. The parent has to establish and impose rules of behavior so that they can get along. Some of the children will rejoice. But the instigators will probably think it mean and over-bearing.

If we grow up in a world which is already self-centered and competing against each other for the goods of life rather than working together and cooperating, then we will likely learn competition rather than mutual cooperation as our own lifestyle.

Infants come into the world pretty much inherently self-centered, and have to learn cooperation. It seems rarely to come naturally. If we do not get proper and helpful discipline from our parents, and from the model of their own relationship, we will have a hard time ourselves adopting cooperation and love as our own lifestyle. Although some children show amazing insight even in hard surroundings.

Real freedom requires discipline, and discipline means law, rules, order imposed. The alternative is mutually destructive chaos. Where there is no law of God, the human race descends into power-struggle and endless strife and war.

But, as I said last week, God is the only possible source of moral order, and all political law must rest on that prior moral order given by God. Parents should be helping their children understand that that divine order on which all things depend. It will save them considerable trouble later to get it right early on.

In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells the story of the 11th hour workers who received the same pay for their one hour of work as the earlier ones who had labored in the hot sun all day. They all received one penny.

A penny, of course, is not a Hebrew coin, it was a coin of the English realm in the early 1600’s when the King James Version of the Bible was written, and still is today. It was apparently considered an adequate wage for a day’s work in that society – rigidly structured between the have’s and the have-not’s – with no workers’ unions. And, something like that may have been true of first century Judea as well.

But the point is that the all-day workers did not get any less than they bargained for – one penny. It was rather that the others got more than one would assume for their lesser hours of work. But the employer was being generous, not dishonest or unfair.

But we all know what “fair” means, especially to children. “That’s not fair!” is a common complaint given by children to a perceived slight. And that was what the all-day workers were saying to Jesus. “That’s not fair! We worked all day long, and some of them only one hour!”

But the extra money for the lesser-hour workers was an act of grace, not a slight to the all-day workers. They had families also to take care of, and no one had hired them though they had been in the marketplace looking for work. So the landowner took pity on them and hired them as well as the earlier ones.

The parable is meant to be an example of the generosity of God, and of the nature of the Kingdom into which all persons are invited, no matter whether they had an 11th hour conversion, or had been devout Christians all their lives. From God’s point of view, an honest repentance is worth the whole of the Kingdom. You do not get part of the Kingdom if you enter late in life. Or, as Jesus had put it on another occasion, “There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over 99 who need no repentance.”

Jesus looks at the matter more as like the rescue of a shipwrecked sailor, pulled out of the water to safety. On Jesus’ ship, the sailor will get all the hospitality of those who paid their full fare to cruise on the ship. The Kingdom is wonderful and beautiful, and is meant for anyone who desires to become a part of it – so long as he agrees to the rules of the Kingdom.

O drat! There’s those “rules” again. Why not just let people go about their business as they want? Because is it when we make up our own rules that we shipwreck ourselves and need rescuing. “Don’t eat of that tree....” It is called the “Fall”.

We cast ourselves into that closed circle world, which excludes God, and where Satan, the prince of this world, and his minions have the power to delude and manipulate us to their own ends. It is the world of Romans 1 – where truth gets subverted, we begin to worship the creation rather than the Creator, and we fall into compulsive and self-destructive behavior – the very world into which Western Civilization is descending more and more deeply today – as we worship here.

The Epistle lesson, a seeming paradox, is all about works. Running races, getting a prize, striving, temperance, not beating the air, keeping his body disciplined – so as not to be a castaway. But Paul was not against works as such. He was against works only to earn your way into heaven. None of the works to which he refers in the Epistle was to earn his ticket into heaven. They were not to persuade God that he, Paul, was a righteous man who deserved heaven. They were rather to train and discipline himself, as an athlete or a soldier would, for his task at hand, to spread the Gospel around the Mediterranean world.

Those are precisely the kinds of works with which any faithful Christian will be engaged. We will work to train ourselves to be faithful servants of God. We do not just fall into such service. Almost always, we need special training, at the very least, a faithful reading of the Bible, study of Christian doctrine, and immersion in Christian fellowship.

The grace of God in our lives does not mean that we do nothing, it means that our doing is not for earning our way. Our doing is for enlarging and fine-tuning our knowledge and skills, for serving one another, for obeying the commandments. But all of those doings are our own gift to God, not to buy something from Him. The grace of God sets us free ourselves to be graceful, freely giving. When you know that you are loved, you do not have to earn your sense of worth. It is all grace, a gift. Then you can give your works away just like God does, for free, gracefully. That is the Kingdom of Heaven, a community of persons who are always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful, and full of grace and truth.

In the Old Testament lesson from Joshua, God is giving Joshua the command to enter the promised land. Moses has just died, and Joshua is taking over. ‘Joshua’ is the same name as ‘Jesus’, Yeshua. God tells him:

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. This book of the law shall not depart out of your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night..., for then you shall make your way prosperous, and then you shall have good success. Have I not commanded you? Be strong and of good courage; be not frightened, neither be dismayed; for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

Joshua had grown and matured during the wilderness years, and showed himself a faithful servant of the Lord. The task before them was daunting, but the Lord gives His encouraging message again – if they obey Him, they will do well and succeed. If they do not obey, they will fail.

The law is important (1) because it signifies obedience to God; and (2) because it is a prescription for a good and successful life, the way to success. God commands that which is good for us, not arbitrarily, but because it leads to the best of all possible worlds. God commits Himself to the same law which He requires of us, He is loving His neighbors just as He would want to be loved, providing the very best life possible for us. And we creatures are His neighbors. God will not give us any less than the best He has to offer.

The two Great Commandments to love are the command to do good for others, to do that which enhances life and relationship. That points us to Kingdom building, the place where persons are, like Jesus, full of truth and grace. The quality of relationship is what makes the place heavenly.

So, we have two things before us, first the law, the right, the obligatory, the command. And, secondly, that which is commanded – the good, the loving thing, that which enhances life. God is making the good (love and grace) mandatory. That is the marriage of the right to the good, of command to love.

Islam has at least one good purpose to it, it illustrates the opposite situation, where the commands of God are arbitrary, not loving and reasonable. “There is one God, Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet.” That is the simple Muslim creed. It means that Mohammed is infallible, and his every utterance to be taken seriously. The word of Mohammed is the word of God. It also means that there is no way to give evidence for the truth of Mohammed’s words or that they really do represent the words of God. You take it on blind faith. You leap and hope for the best.

It also means that, as the Pope pointed out about a decade ago, that the deity of Islam does not hold himself to either truth or morality. He is absolutely and totally arbitrary, and any questioning of that is blasphemy. No one can obligate God.

No one can obligate Yahweh either, but Yahweh obligates Himself. That is the meaning of God being a loving God. It is all grace, all freely chosen. No one can command Him, as He commands us, to be loving. But He can choose to do so, and does. That is the heart and core of the grace of God. He has omnisciently and omnipotently chosen to be loving toward His creatures, to an extent unheard of anywhere else in all human history. God Himself, incarnate as Joshua, Yeshua, which means “Yahweh saves”, “I AM saves”, comes to die for us so that He can lead us through our own deaths to self and resurrection in the Kingdom.

God Himself is willing to do whatever is necessary to draw us to Himself, into the Kingdom of those who are always faithful, always loving, and always hopeful. It does not get any better than that.

That is what the Exodus from Egypt, Mount Sinai, and the entry into Canaan were all about.

So, the law and the grace of God work hand-in-hand, leading to a faith which is powerful, consistent, convicting, and can be the foundation of a renewed Christendom. I would give my eye teeth and a years wages to work with a group, large or small, of Christians who wanted to pursue that vision.

We are being told on every side that our Christian faith is out-dated, that it does not work, that it does not produce any significant results. They are wrong. It does work – to produce the most vibrant lives available, and the best of all possible societies – the Kingdom of Heaven.

But our first task is to teach Christians themselves what God has given us. Or, maybe, to learn ourselves, what God has given us – how the Biblical worldview and Gospel of Jesus Christ hold the intellectual, moral, and spiritual high ground, all three. No close competitors. And that is largely because the Gospel of Jesus Christ unites law with grace, the right with the good. No religion other than Judaism and Christianity can do that.

So I challenge all of us to get familiar with the law and the grace of God, learn how to talk about it, learn especially to share with others how law and grace have changed your life. That is your testimony, your own story. It is not an argument that you have to defend, it is your story. Learn how to share it with your friends and neighbors.

Last week’s and this week’s sermons might help you get some ideas on how to get a discussion going.


Lord Jesus, give us a boldness, a gracefulness, and an obedience to Your law that the world cannot shut down, show us how to talk about You, Your law, and Your grace in public for the spread of Your Kingdom, so that You will not deny us before the Father in heaven. In Your name and in the power of the Holy Spirit.... Amen.

Audio Version

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Date Posted - 02/05/2012   -   Date Last Edited - 07/07/2012