“I am not ashamed of the gospel because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes; first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” (Romans 1:16)
Getting our Hearts in the Right Place
Yes, I know. I am using the same theme verse for the Book of Romans again. I will do the same thing tomorrow. I’m not ready to move on just yet. I need to get my head on straight before I venture into the deep waters of the gospel as Paul explains it in the next few chapters. And the best way to get my head on straight is to get my heart in the right place. Once we accomplish those two things – head and heart – we will be ready to hear what God has to say to us through Paul.
When I first read Martin Luther’s Commentary on the Book of Romans, I was most impressed by his Introduction (as are most people). Not only does he have a wonderful perspective as the father of the Reformation but he was in a unique position personally to understand the problem of this relationship between Law and Grace.
Luther would remain in confession for hours, trying to think of everything he could think of to admit and ask for forgiveness. He had a deep understanding of sin (as well he should) and, no doubt, the Holy Spirit was convicting him of the depths of his sin and misery. So far, so good. The problem was in the solution. If penance was the answer, which is what he was taught as a Monk in the Augustinian tradition, then he would punish himself by self-flagellation almost to the point of death (even sleeping outside in the snow) in an effort to please God. If there ever was a monk who could have earned his way into heaven, he was surely it.
Not until many years later, did he recognize that this inordinate desire to please God together with an acute awareness of his sin and misery was, in fact, the Holy Spirit at work in him to prepare him for the great work to come in the Reformation. In fact, it is quite common for new believers to be overcome by their sin in the early years but how they resolve the problem will either set them up for failure or success in the coming years of ministry. Most people do not understand the depths of their sin and therefore have no real concept of the great mercy of God and, as a result, live defeated lives without the transforming power of God. It is an issue just as real today as it was in Martin Luther’s time (or Paul’s).
Which is why Luther’s Introduction to the Book of Romans is so instructive. He, himself, thought of Romans as “the very purest Gospel” and the “daily bread of the soul.” He goes on to say that “it can never be read or pondered too much, and the more it is dealt with the more precious it becomes and the better it tastes” (Commentary p.xi).
But he also says that “we must have knowledge of its language and know what St. Paul means by the words, law, sin, grace, faith, righteousness, flesh, spirit, etc, otherwise no reading of it has any value” (Commentary p. xi).
And he is right. This is the problem with jumping straight into reading Romans as if all of our thinking about these BIG words was already correct. We need to get our heads on straight (which means that we also have to get our hearts in the right place). I won’t be able to deal with all of these BIG words as completely or as well as Martin Luther but I can point out the heart of the issue. So there will be significant overlap between this post and the next (between head and heart) which is precisely the point.
Most people come at this issue of law vs grace from a misconception of what the Old Testament law was all about in the first place. Most of us come to the Book of Romans with a conception of the law that is Pharisaical. That isn’t so bad in and of itself because it gives some context for what Paul is trying to say. But that is precisely the point. That Pharisaical view of the law is the fundamental problem from Paul’s point of view – that the Judaizers, who claimed to be Christians, were in fact mixing their Pharisaical understanding of the Law into their “Christian” lives and making a mess for everyone. Jesus went to great lengths to rebuke the Pharisees for their attitudes toward the law without a heartfelt relationship with God as its foundation.
On the one hand, Jesus made it clear that the law was not just about doing right things (obedience) but also about right motivation (love). Which is why we describe our sanctification as “loving obedience.”
The Pharisees had reduced the law of God to a finite number of rules (apparently 613 in total) that could be accomplished by a diligent person. How many times did Jesus condemn them for sacrificing relationships and people on the altar of their rules and regulations?
We still do the same thing today. I know a Pastor who was always willing to sacrifice relationships to make sure that everything was perfect for Sunday morning service. She drove everyone crazy. She didn’t even realize what she was doing. Another Pastor I know, was willing to sacrifice relationships for the sake of programs and events. Getting the job done is what mattered.
Jesus was full of “grace and truth” (John 1:14 NIV) but most of us are either hard as nails when it comes to “truth” or so wishy-washy in our “grace” towards others that we are of no use to anyone. It’s a hard lesson to learn and we are mostly blind to it.
On the other hand, Jesus also made it clear that if God expects more than obedience and is going to also evaluate our motivation (love), then none of us can stand before God on the basis of the law.
The whole point of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5 and 6) is to point out that God sees the heart and is concerned about the heart. It is not enough to fulfill the ten commandments. Thou shalt not kill. Of course not. But Jesus says that if you are angry in your heart with your brother and wish him dead, it is the same thing. Thou shalt not commit adultery. Of course not. But Jesus says that if you lust after a woman in your heart, it is the same thing.
Sure the real-world consequences may be different but the sin is the same. It comes from the same place whether motivation or deed. It comes from a broken relationship with God and a desire to please one’s-self rather than God. Jesus made it abundantly clear that God is interested in the heart not just in our actions. But the Pharisees “cheapened” the law of God by making it a series of rules and regulations that, if you were careful, you could live by and thereby, please God without a previous relationship of faith with God that undergirds our efforts to please Him.
And this is the heart of the issue, so to speak. The heart. The Pharisees may have had good intentions (at least some of them like Gamaliel, Saul, Nicodemus) but they had missed the point of the Law even in the Old Testament.
Martin Luther put it this way. “But God judges according to what is at the bottom of the heart, and for this reason, His law makes its demands on the inmost heart and cannot be satisfied with works…” (Commentary p. xi). The problem is that “everyone finds in himself displeasure in what is good and pleasure in what is bad. If, then, there is no willing pleasure in the good, then the inmost heart is not set on the law of God, then there is surely sin, and God’s wrath is deserved, even though outwardly there seem to be many good works and an honorable life” (Commentary p. xi).
That is the problem in a nutshell. Of course, as Christians there is a solution but it is a very specific and unique solution that many in the church simply do not understand and therefore lead powerless lives without fruit in their ministry or joy in their walk with God. Hopefully we can identify that solution and begin to live in its power and grace.
So this is what Paul has to deal with in the Book of Romans.
On the one hand, he has to clarify that the law was always about the heart, not the rules and, on the other hand, even then, there is something previous to the law, a relationship of faith, that makes it possible to live by the law from the heart (and when we fail there is provision in the sacrificial system for the expiation of our sins). That is how the heros of faith lived – Abraham, Moses, David – their hearts were in it and the law was simply an expression of the will of God for their lives and they desired to live by it the best they could and then avail themselves of the sacrificial system whenever necessary.
Of course Paul needed to filter all of this proper understanding of the Old Testament Law through the new reality of Jesus Christ who is the Lamb that takes away the sins of the world, thereby abolishing the sacrificial system. He talks about the role of the law to make our sin known to us so that we would run to the sacrificial system (now Jesus) because our hearts are heavy with the awareness of our weakness and sin (because we have a relationship with God through faith). Therefore the law becomes a tutor to bring us to Christ (Gal. 3:24-25 NIV).
Do you start to see the picture? On the one hand, Paul has to correct the common misconceptions about the law (even without Christ in the picture) in terms of the priority of the heart first and the impossibility of completion second (and therefore a need for the sacrificial system). Then he has to point out that there is a relationship of faith that comes first and the law comes second even in the Old Testament (Abraham comes before Moses). Then he has to take all of that and reinterpret even that now correct understanding of the law in the Old Testament in the light of the fulfillment by Christ and the new realities of the Christian faith and life.
But once you understand the law correctly in the first place, even in the Old Testament, you see clearly that Jesus was not changing the law but rather fulfilling it through his death and resurrection (Matt. 5:18). He is the sacrificial system now made perfect. He is the one that makes the relationship with God whole again so that we wholeheartedly fulfill the will of God for our lives without condemnation and without fear. Without the heart relationship of faith, the law is powerless. But if the heart is renewed by grace alone, by faith alone and by Scripture alone (the Reformation motto of Martin Luther), then the law (as the will of God) has its place and becomes a powerful aid to the Christian life.
When you get your heart in the right place, everything changes. That is what Martin Luther discovered and it is what every Christian must discover for themselves. Without it, there is no power, no joy, no fruit in the Christian life.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s talk to God….
Lord, it seems to me that I am still very confused about law and grace in my own life. When I am doing something for you, I often feel a bit proud and then I realize right away that that is sin. Then I get depressed thinking about how much sin and pride is in my life and I realize that that despair is also sin. I seem to be tossed back and forth between pride and despair. Who can save me from this wretched life? I know the answer is Jesus. Help me to understand that I am your child whether I sin or not. The relationship comes first and that is secured by Christ my Saviour. And because I can rest assured in that relationship, I am now free to learn how to obey in love and gratitude not in fear. Teach me your will, O Lord, for I belong to you and I am yours no matter what. In your name I pray. Amen.