Today Pat Badstibner of World Prayr published a post on the World Prayr Devotional blog picturesquely titled The Law Is Not Soggy Cornflakes. In it, Pat finds a number of purposes for the law, even, and perhaps especially, for those living under grace.
If we look to the law as the means of making ourselves perfect (or even better), or perhaps as a guide to what we must be in order to win God’s favor, it’s going to be bad news. The rules don’t make one good. Making rules doesn’t cause people to live by them.
The law doesn’t change when it is seen as a mirror. It is our perspective that changes. For one living under grace, the law can be very good news indeed.
I used this in a sermon two weeks ago at my home church (Chumuckla Community Church), when I preached from Hebrews 12:1-3. I have frequently heard this passage presenting in sermons or Sunday School lessons as a sort of big stick to persuade us to work harder. In my sermon I called this the “Santa Claus gospel.” By this I don’t mean a Jesus who comes down chimneys and leaves gifts, but rather the picture of Santa who is “gonna find out who’s naughty or nice,” who “sees you when you’re sleeping, and knows when you’re awake,” “knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness’ sake!” (Pardon me for ripping the song up a bit!
This view suggests that all the saints of the past are watching, and Jesus did a good job, so we should get with the program and do a good job as well. They’ll see us if we don’t! (My wife summarized some of the message in a blog post if you want more. I titled the message “How Chumuckla Community Church Can Be Perfect.”)
The very same day my Sunday School lesson was from Luke 17. When I read Pat’s post, I was struck by the viewpoint issue. I think a number of these parables are commonly read and taught in a “law as bad news” mode.
Luke 17 starts (vv. 1-3a) with talking about anyone tripping up any of these little ones. Bad news in action. But it’s followed (3b-4) with the injunction to forgive.
Next we have the request for more faith (5-6). How many times have I heard from this verse that because I cannot tell a Mulberry tree to be planted in the sea, I must have a truly minute amount of faith? You’ve heard it. Don’t worry. The preacher can’t do it either.
Then we have the “we’re worthless slaves” passage (7-9). After a whole day of working, we should call ourselves worthless. We’ve only done what we were asked to do.
Now in the Sunday School curriculum, that was the last passage for the week, but I think it’s important to note that the very next passage is the healing of the ten lepers. Luke claims to present things in some sort of order, and I think this positioning is important.
So we could summarize one set of messages as:
- Watch out! If you trip somebody up, God’s going to get you.
- You better forgive your brother or sister.
- Your faith is miserably small.
- No matter what you do, you’re just a worthless slave.
But let’s try changing our viewpoint here. Go to the cleansing of the 10 lepers and work backwards, then forwards again.
What precisely did the lepers do to receive healing/cleansing? All they did was ask. Let’s put aside what happened to the one leper for a few moments. All the lepers are cleansed.
So no matter what you do, you can’t earn God’s favor, because doing good things is just that. You’re doing what you were supposed to do. I’m surprised that we often think we should somehow earn God’s favor. If God doesn’t want to do something God doesn’t have to. In what way would it be unjust, for example, for God to create creatures whose life is limited to the frame of their mortal existence? We don’t like it, but what is inherently wrong with it?
Yet, without doing anything, the lepers were cleansed.
We have so little faith. Yet without demonstrated any more faith than was needed simply to ask, the lepers were cleansed. Perhaps Jesus was telling the disciples that the quantity of their faith wasn’t the key. (And yes, I’m aware of the cases where Jesus commends faith and of the one leper.)
We should forgive, yes, but is it not possible that our heavenly Father is capable of forgiving much more than we are able to forgive one another? God’s grace is greater than ours.
And perhaps the biggest scandal, as we’re back at the beginning of the chapter, is to push someone away from God by telling them they need more faith, greater ability to forgive, or more diligent effort in order to come to God.
All ten lepers were cleansed, even the ungrateful ones. Yet one came back to Jesus and he gained something more. Seen from within God’s grace, faith, action, gratitude, and yes, the law, can be good news. But the grace came first.
The call was to bathe in it.