To discover that the Christian stands before God completely free from the demands of the law in order to please God, as we discussed in our last post, is exhilarating news. Jill and I have been learning this gradually, reluctantly, and painfully over the years, as doing so is a lifetime endeavor. As she often would say in the early years, “This gospel seems too good to be true!”
But it is true. The bondage that comes from our inability to please God by keeping His law, fully and completely in our hearts, is now broken. God completely removed us from the law’s purview in our relationship with Him by our death and resurrection in Jesus Christ and replaced it with His Holy Spirit within us. The law’s reign in our lives is over. It is now the Holy Spirit’s job alone, not mine in any way, to change me and conform me to the image of Christ.
But to us who have all grown up addicted to a steady diet of fruit from the infamous Tree in the Garden, the previous paragraphs are scary and raise questions, such as, “If I am truly free from keeping the law as the Bible teaches, I don’t believe I can trust myself, much less everyone around me. This freedom will certainly bring dangerous, licentious chaos everywhere!”
This observation is unquestionably true. Without the law to hold fallen, sinful man in check until the Holy Spirit invades his life, he is capable of incredible depravity. How does this fit with the Bible’s declaration that Jesus’ followers are completely free from having to obey the law? Martin Luther taught a tremendous truth that is the key to understanding this seemingly unsolvable conflict between the law of God and the grace of God.
Luther taught that there is a permanent, indissoluble distinction between what he called “what is above me” and “what is beneath me;” my vertical relationship with God (“above me”) and my horizontal relationships and responsibilities here on earth (“beneath me”). That distinction cannot be ignored, set aside or abrogated and explains beautifully our apparent conundrum. What is that explanation?
What is “above me,” my relationship with God, is totally by grace alone. Whether I try to keep God’s law diligently or break it, either deliberately or reluctantly, does not affect how God sees or feels about me in any way whatsoever (Job 35:6, 7).
He is not angry, displeased, disappointed or ever impatient with me. All God’s righteous wrath, which I so justly deserve, He has poured out on Jesus at the cross, leaving only love and grace left for me! Therefore, since the cross, He is no longer a God of judgment. Can there be any other conclusion? Did not Jesus die for “the sins of the world” there? Does that not include all of the failures, shortcomings and even deliberate, on-purpose sins I have ever committed or ever will commit? Anything less would be counting the cross as somehow not sufficient to completely satisfy God’s demands.
However, I still must live in a world that is “beneath me” here on the earth. God has given me responsibilities that I must do, has He not? Am I free to not do them? Yes I am! As far as God is concerned, He who is “above me,” I am always free to do as I please and His attitude toward me does not change. That is what “grace alone” means; He loves me with a love that never changes, no matter what I do or don’t do. I am totally free!
On the other hand, there will be consequences of this freedom if I ignore His law in “what is beneath me.” For example, if I neglect to self-consciously train my children diligently based on the law of God in the Bible, thinking “I love them too much to discipline them. God will take care of them,” I will be right, but my children will suffer the lifetime struggles that children whose rebellion was never broken at home must face. If I am late to work every day, thinking, “God will forgive me and still love me in spite of my habitual tardiness because that love never changes,” I will be right, but I will also probably ultimately be fired. If I buy whatever I want with no financial planning or restraint, telling myself “God will provide for my family because He loves us,” I will be right, but we may go bankrupt in the process and live in a tent.
Reaping what we sow in the world “beneath us,” as in these examples, is an inviolate law of God.“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap” (Galatians 6:7). Yes, the laws of God are inviolate and the world “beneath us” functions successfully only when that law is followed. Notice the results all around us in the United States as we have gradually left God’s law completely out of our society over the last century.
So, Luther taught that our relationship with God is by grace alone, and our relationship with the world around us is based entirely on obeying God’s law, but law and grace are God’s polar opposites as a way to live; we are either living by grace in the Spirit or by the law in the flesh, at any given moment. As we gradually discover over our lifetimes that, yes, we indeed can trust Daddy with every decision and circumstance just as a little four year old child, we grow and mature in our consistency of living God’s way, by grace through faith.
However, this way of living God’s way is mysteriously “living in opposites,” or as one theologian says, living “left handed.” For example, the Bible says, if I want to save my life, I must first lose it (Matthew 16:25); in order to be first, I must be last (Mark 9:35), to experience the righteousness of law-keeping, I must first give up trying and embrace the fact that I am and always will be a law-breaker (Romans 9:30-32).
This demands that I embrace and actually love the law of God, as did David (Psalm 119:97), not as a way to try to live but as a mirror to show me I can’t live by it, because I can never keep it, as it did for Paul in Romans 7:14-24, and then drive me to Jesus, as it did for Paul in Romans 7:25.
So, law and grace are self-consciously present in my daily life at all times. The law is constantly acting as a mirror, and is exposing me as a sinner on a daily basis so I can eagerly repent and relax again in my Daddy “above me,” who has me safely in His loving arms. Then the resultant love and grace released in my life toward others “beneath me” is the only way I can ever exercise the law properly, as I must do in fulfilling my God-given responsibilities in the world.