I’m a radical believer in God’s radical grace. It gives me freedom. A critic could claim I advocate sloppy living. But then I could call the critic legalistic. How do we balance the two? Let’s do a Bible study to get some insight.
In Rom. 1:18-32 Paul shined the light on human degradation. He had begun with the wrath of God (Rom. 1:18). Then in Rom. 2:1-4, he offers the degraded sinner a path towards repentance, as well as the judgmental moralist in all of Rom. 2:1-16.
Thus, who needs to repent in Rom. 2:1-4 are judgmental moralists. That’s my easily entangling sin (Heb. 12:1). Is there a way for me – and the degraded sinner?
One would not be surprised if a fiery preacher like Paul believed and preached that the sinner who sees his sin and the sinner who does not see it should be frightened into repentance, shouldn’t he? “It’s the fear about the just judgment and wrath of God that stampedes you into repentance!” The path towards repentance should be, by normal expectation, God’s wrath and judgment and fear.
Not in Paul’s estimation.
Preaching law can get you some glory. It will have its desired effects. “Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone, came with glory, so that the Israelites could not look steadily at the face of Moses because of its glory, fading though it was … If the ministry that condemns men is glorious … (2 Cor. 3:7 and 2 Cor. 3:9).
But the law also kills: “He has made us competent as ministers of a new covenant—not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6).
That letter is the Law of Moses. Do you doubt it?
Here’s what Paul says in 2 Cor. 3:7: “Now if the ministry that brought death, which was engraved in letters on stone” …. Note that this ministry was engraved on stone.
Ex. 31:18 says: “When the LORD finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two tablets of the Testimony, the tablets of stone inscribed by the finger of God.” And Ex. 34:28 says: “And he wrote on the tablets the words of the covenant—the Ten Commandments.”
Preachers camp out there and love to preach the law. Remember those old revivals of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries? They highlighted the sinful state of humanity. “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God!” is the title of that great theologian, Jonathan Edwards, whom I respect, gave to one of his sermons. This too led to repentance. People felt the floor disappearing below them, as if they were hanging by a spider’s thread just above the flames of hell – and this was preached to God’s people. The preaching of the law and wrath was accompanied by a certain level of glory. People repented. For all I know, they may have cried and repented each day they attended the revival; they got saved all over again and then all over again – and all over again – in an endless cycle. I’m confident they achieved a certain level of righteousness in their daily interactions with society. Taverns and brothels may have closed up.
The law does have a degree of glory built into it. But overemphasis on it smacks of hypernomianism or legalism (the -nom- root means law; hyper- here means above, over, or beyond).
However, there is another way that leads to repentance: “Or do you show contempt for the riches of his kindness, tolerance and patience, not realizing that God’s kindness leads you toward repentance?” (Rom. 2:4). Do you, a judgmental moralist, show contempt for the kindness of God?
Let’s fill out the picture by looking more closely at 2 Cor. 3:8-11 and other verses in that chapter: “Will not the ministry of the Spirit be even more glorious? If the ministry that condemns men is glorious, how much more glorious is the ministry that brings righteousness! For what was glorious has no glory now in comparison with the surpassing glory. And if what was fading away came with glory, how much greater is the glory of that which lasts!” (vv. 8-11). The ministry that condemns is glorious, but the ministry that brings righteousness is even more glorious.
It’s a paradox. Pastors want to instill righteousness into their flocks (and themselves), and they believe that preaching the law will accomplish it. Maybe, up to a point. The law does have a certain degree of glory. But Paul says the New Covenant brings righteousness because the people will realize that it does not depend on their Christian self-effort, but on Christ’s righteousness as a free gift that is imputed or credited or reckoned or calculated into their bankrupt bank account (Rom. 3:21-26).
The Spirit’s life and power flowing through them is the more glorious subject matter to preach to people: “But whenever anyone turns to the Lord, the veil is taken away. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:16-17). People can be free in the Spirit.
But won’t this new-found freedom produce licentiousness and a do-what-you-please attitude?
This is an understandable fear – somewhat understandable, if you don’t know about grace and the Spirit. There is something unexpected in the law v. Spirit dynamic. At first glance it would seem that the law alone restrains sin, and it does, up to a point, while life in the Spirit might become too loosey-goosey, free-flying without a flight path to guide the plane. That’s what the critics call antinomianism, which means you underemphasize and maybe even oppose the law (as noted, the -nom- root means law; the -anti- prefix means here against).
However, when people live under grace and in the Spirit, sin does not dominate them.
First, grace: “For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom. 6:14). Did you read that too quickly? It says sin is not your master because the Ten Commandments restrain you, and grace is too insecure and flighty and no good at restraining sin. It says instead that sin does not have dominion over you because you are under grace, not under law. That’s surprising. How can that be?
The law shines the spotlight on sin and provokes or jump-starts it, which increases sin all the more because sin likes the spotlight, like a teen idol. When he sees the cameras rolling, he does all kinds of stupid stuff. He likes to show off. But he’s deceived.
For sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, deceived me, and through the commandment put me to death. So then, the law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous and good. … But in order that sin might be recognized as sin, it produced death in me through what was good, so that through the commandment sin might become utterly sinful. (Rom. 7:11-13)
Preaching the law may at first glance produce righteousness in people. But take a deeper look. Does it last, when the law demands more and more self-effort? “Do this! Do that! And do this and that better and quicker!”
Now, second, the Spirit: When the people have the Spirit living in them, they rise above unrighteousness. He is called the Holy Spirit. “And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor. 3:18). Living in the Spirit, people will be transformed into his (Christ’s) likeness, moving forward and upward with ever-increasing glory.
The law demands, but does not supply the Spirit. “Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?” (Gal. 3:2). The Spirit supplies life and power to live righteously.
Christians who walk in the Spirit rise above the old Law of Moses. When they do, their passions and lusts and sinful nature are crucified:
So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. … But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. (Gal. 5:16-18, 22-26)
And Paul says as much in Rom. 7:6: “But now, by dying to what once bound us [the law], we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
Life under grace and in the Spirit produces righteousness, crucifies the sinful nature, and liberates the believer.
The glory of the law fades and is fading. The glory of the Spirit in the New Covenant goes from glory to glory. And we reflect it in our faces.
Preach the glory that lasts, not fades. And watch what happens to people’s lives and faces. They will grow to be like Christ and then their faces will glow.
Glowing and growing – that’s what God wants. Life in the Spirit. That’s the balance.