One of the tragic consequences of a religion of law instead of love is the constant fearfulness and uncertainty it spawns in the hearts of the adherents of such a system. There is always the gnawing, fearful feeling that one has missed something, that we haven’t done enough or that we do not know enough. I don’t know how many times while I was preaching a legalistic (another) gospel that I heard such anguished cries.
For those caught in such a system, counseling with the teachers, leaders and authorities only leads to further frustration and fear. “Try harder.” “Study more.” “Keep praying.” And no matter how much harder the person trapped on this tiring treadmill of demanded human accomplishment tries, he or she will never be able to get off – at least as long as they keep trying to win God’s favor.
There simply is no way for man to win God’s favor. We are sinners. All of us. We always have been and we always will be. It is on this account that we will never be able to please God to the point that he will, in gratitude for our goodness, smile upon us or pat us on the back with approval.
But the wonderful thing about this issue is that we don’t have to win God over to our side! He has always been on our side. From the time man sinned in the beginning of our history, God has had a plan in place by which he could bring the whole human race back to himself, restore us to the place and position he always intended for us to occupy and call us his sons and daughters. Peter said that …
“…you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God. (1 Peter 1:18-21).
On what basis would God do such a thing? Shouldn’t man have to contribute something to earn God’s favor? We offended God – shouldn’t we have to “make it up” to him in some way? This is, of course how human beings think. This is also one fertile but fetid source of the legalistic approach to religion. Actually this approach belittles God and trivializes sin. God is not like an idol who can be appeased. To think of him in that way lessens him and his perfect sense of justice. Sin is not us doing some slight thing that we can then offer some cheap, faulty gift to God to assuage his hurt feelings. Sin is a grievous offense against God and a mortal wound we afflict upon ourselves. It takes something more than a little “patching up” to set things right.
But, as Peter says in the afore mentioned scripture, God took the initiative long before we could ever do anything about our sin. He did it on the basis of his own perfect character as a being of love and grace. The plan for man’s salvation – the plan to send the Son into the world to be the sacrifice man could not offer – was from “before the foundation of the world.” So, we who “have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” … “are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith” (Romans 3:23-24).
The response we must make to God’s offer of salvation is faith. He does not expect us to work so as to earn our salvation. How could we earn the precious Son? There is, as we have already seen, nothing we can do that could bring God into indebtedness to us – to owe us salvation. But that does not mean that the person who has faith in Jesus as the offering for sin does nothing. Just as faith itself is a response to grace, so the obedient life of the child of God from the point of the initial act of obedience in baptism to the last prayer we breathe and everything between is by faith. None of this saves us. Every act we do evidences our faith and is done in response to the grace of God through our love for him.
“Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.” (Rom 5:1-5).
By God’s love being “poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” is how we know the love God has for us in providing for our salvation and consequent relationship with himself. It is an experiential knowledge that enables us to know love by means of the Holy Spirit working in our lives, regenerating and transforming us, making us more and more like Christ (Titus 3:5; 2 Corinthians 3:18). The apostle goes on in the eighth chapter to elaborate on the unconquerable love God has for us, which, as we respond to his love allows us to be “more that conquerors” ourselves.
“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written,
“For your sake we are being killed all the day long;
we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:35-38).
This wonderful love of our Lord has, in fact, brought us into debt to him. Since he paid a debt he did not owe to set us free from a debt we could not pay we have become indebted to him – another debt we cannot repay! It is the debt of love! It is the debt that sets us free! This is one of those remarkable paradoxes of the gospel. So what response is appropriate?
“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” (Romans 8:11-13).
This is something of the Jubilee of freedom of which we wrote earlier.
Rather than making us feel burdened down and depressed, we joyfully and freely express our love for him. This becomes the motivation for all the life, worship and actions of service the Christians offers from the time he is set free through the forgiveness that is in Christ Jesus. It is this realization of the debt of love that motivates and identifies the mature individual.
God does not load us with laws, but loosens our bonds through his love for us by which we then are bound more securely to him and to other human beings through our love for him. This becomes the “bond of perfection” – our love reflecting his likeness and glory into the world as we direct that love toward our brothers and sisters and toward our fellow man.
The Christian life – the fulfilling of the whole purpose of our being – is love responding to love. Our love responding to God’s love and then radiating that love outward to others, loving them as God has loved us. This truth is brought home powerfully by the aged apostle John in his first letter …
“See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him” (1 John 3:1).
“For this is the message that you have heard from the beginning, that we should love one another.” (1 John 3:11).
“By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers. But if anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love abide in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 John 3:17-18).