A few years ago, I met and ministered with Stephan Tchividjian, the eldest grandson of Billy Graham at a banquet for a ministry in Hill Country, Texas. Stephan often says, “Rules without relationship leads to rebellion.” His words really resonated with me.
When God gave His law to the people of Israel, He clearly explained the consequences, both good (blessing) and bad (cursing), that would come based their obedience or disobedience.
The scattered, oppressed condition of God’s people in Nehemiah’s time was a direct result of their failure to remain faithful to His covenant and live in obedience to His law (Deuteronomy 28:58-68). Their unwillingness to pursue the relationship with God that He intended made it impossible for them to live according to His law.
Even secular educators understand that knowing about an author’s life and character has great value in properly understanding their writing.
The same thing holds true with respect to God and His Word. Without knowledge of the heart and personality of God, His law became increasingly subject to skewed and legalistic interpretations. Instead of receiving the law as God’s provision to establish them in their chosen position as representatives of His glory and holiness to the nations of the earth, the Israelites either ignored the law or attempted to gain righteousness by following to hollow formulas and ritualistic obedience.
Mount Sinai will forever be remembered as the place where God gave His law to the people of Israel. Although the law was perfect, no one could live in perfect obedience to its demands so Someone greater than Moses had to come and provide what the law was unable to supply, a heart of love for God. When we cultivate a heart of love for Jesus through intimate seasons of prayer and worship, it causes us to walk according to all that He has for us so that we fulfill our destinies and callings.
But there was a missing ingredient.
Before Jesus came, the people of God attempted to please Him by only living according to the law—half of what they needed. As a result, the law produced curses and condemnation instead of blessings. God had given the law through Moses, but it was necessary that Jesus come to supply the missing ingredient: grace.
Through the grace of God, Jesus brought forgiveness of sins and made peace between sinful man and a holy God. In God’s everlasting mercy, relationship was established between Himself and His chosen people. The Apostle John emphasizes the superiority of what God accomplished through Jesus in John 1:17:
The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ
Jesus not only gives us the truth but also the grace to chew up and digest or accept the truth.
To understand the important distinction between the Mosaic Law and the grace and truth that came through Jesus, consider ordinary table salt. Salt has two basic ingredients, sodium, and chloride. Sodium by itself is deadly when ingested; chloride by itself is also lethal. But if the two are put together, they provide a variety of benefits ranging from seasoning and preservation of food to medicinal uses.
The Lord knows that unrestrained grace, the license to go out and do whatever you want, will lead a person to be morally loose. The law checks sinful desires and provides moral structure for a life of godliness. But the truth of God’s law without God’s grace and mercy results in spiritual death because even redeemed human beings are unable to keep the law perfectly. Even the most zealous Pharisee was unable to accomplish perfection according to the law of God. For that reason, God offered Jesus to humanity as the perfect combination of grace and truth, mercy and law.
Another illustration of this truth is written about in Ezekiel, who had a vision of a valley of dry bones. In this vision, God commands Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones so they might live, and as he speaks, the bones begin to arrange themselves into human form. Ezekiel 37:8 says, “…the sinews and the flesh came upon them, and the skin covered them over; but there was no breath [spirit] in them.”
As the prophet continued to speak, the breath of life came upon the assembled bodies and “…they lived, and stood upon their feet, an exceedingly great army” (Ezekiel 37:10).
Note that before God gave life to His army, He gave them structure. Likewise, when God gave the law, it was His way of providing a skeletal structure that He could energize and raise up into a living, breathing army of priests. The Pharisees rightfully understood the importance of pursuing obedience to the commandments, but they did not realize that the commandments were not able to bring life. They made the mistake of focusing their energies on a proper construction of the skeleton without understanding that no matter how well they achieved their goal, it was still a vain pursuit without the presence of the Spirit of God — Who alone brings life. When the apostle Paul wrote to Timothy in his second letter chapter 3 verse, he called it “…having a form of godliness but denying its power.”
The law provided the form or structure of godliness, but it did not supply the power to live up to its standards. Many Christians today are entrenched in religious systems that acknowledge the need for the ongoing ministry of the Holy Spirit in theory, but in reality, those religious systems are modern forms of legalism. Joy and vitality, necessities in a healthy relationship with Christ, are robbed through legalism. Basing relationships with God on performance rather than grace brings bondage that results in walking under clouds of condemnation because of attempts to perform the law without the passion and grace that comes through relationship with Christ.
Below is a quote by the late Dr. Edwin Louis Cole in a book I wrote called, Living Life Well…the Spirit of the Commandments:
“Morality by majority is a plurality by partiality. People who rule by personal prejudice rather than principle are a danger to themselves. The more a man lives his life on principle rather than personality the straighter will be his course. Basic principles for true morality are found in the Ten Commandments. It is built on the first commandment of love for God. He is always right.” Dr. Edwin Louis Cole (1922-2002)
Grace Without Law
The U.S. Constitution is the written word of the country, and God’s Constitution is the written Word, the Bible.
Whenever an agreement or contract containing legalese needs interpretation, it’s left to attorneys to read the words without understanding the spirit of the document. The same happens with the US Constitution, as well as the Constitution of God.
Trying to live by the letter of the law—whether the law of the land or the law of the Lord—without acknowledging or understanding the spirit of the law will lead to one of two extremes. The first is legalism, which we see in Scripture in the lives of the Pharisees. The second is license. License occurs when we only see the law as “prohibitive” instead of “protective,” when we see it as “lording” instead of “loving.” Although they are opposite extremes, legalism, and license both destroy.
In the U.S., we have lost the spirit of the law and often disregarded the spirit and intent of our founding fathers. Their desire was to establish a nation honoring God, founded on the principles of His written Word. We take the established law and make amendments to it so it will fit our license to do as we wish. We believe what’s wrong or what’s harmful can be made right by changing the law that prohibits it in order to make it permissible.
We do the same thing with God’s Constitution by denying His sovereign authority. We make our interpretations based on what we want to believe, ignoring God’s purposes and intentions for establishing His authority. We make license for what we desire to do, all in the name of grace. Jesus Himself said He came not to destroy but to fulfill the law. The intention of grace is to empower us to walk in purity, not to give us a license to fulfill the desires of the flesh. We must look beyond the words on paper—the words of the US Constitution and the words of the Bible—and into the hearts of the writers, the founding fathers of the United States and our heavenly Father. Legalism and license bring death—but the Spirit of the law brings life!
Church history is filled with stories of men creating religious systems to supersede the grace and freedom that Christ brought at Calvary. When Martin Luther spearheaded the Reformation, he was seeking to bring the Church back to a position of grace. The Church established in grace through faith was freed from the religious bondage placed upon it by the traditions of men.
The pendulum now swings in the opposite direction. Some Christians emphasize the doctrine of grace at the expense of the law and this leads to a different, though equally dangerous, error. As previously noted, the law of God provides the skeletal structure for His life and grace to operate in the life of the Christian. Just as the structure without the grace of God results in dead Christianity, so the grace of God without the backbone of God’s law results in a spineless, jellyfish Christianity.
The grace and liberty that came to God’s people through Jesus was not meant to replace the law, it was meant to restore the law to its proper function in the predetermined plan of God. This lack of respect for the law has led to a tolerance of sin within God’s people that God never intended. Instead of the Church being a shining example of Christ in the earth, it has taken on all sorts of sexual sin, deceitfulness, and greed. It remains largely unrepentant because the law has been de-emphasized to such a point that sufficient skeletal strength to support God’s grace has vanished.
The power of God is not present because we have disregarded the holy commandments and have become comfortable in our sin. Any understanding of grace that does not include the Christian’s responsibility in our relationship with the Lord, will only serve to exchange the bondage of self-righteous legalism for the bondage of sin and misery.
Another Prophet, Another Mountain, and a New Attitude
On Mt. Sinai, God revealed His desire to have an intimate relationship with His people. Their failure to press through to know God caused them to substitute a religious legal system for intimacy with Him. That is why Jesus came with a message of correction saying, “You missed it the first time at Mt. Sinai, but on a new mountain called Calvary, I will show you sacrificial love that proves how much the Father desires a loving relationship with you. No longer will you relate to God as slaves under the cold, hard requirements of a lifeless legal system, but you will understand through My example that a heart of love for the Father will enable you to walk in obedience to His commands.”
On a nameless mountain somewhere outside the town of Capernaum, Jesus spoke to a crowd of followers with such authority and power that the people were astonished. And why not? For years they heard sterile interpretations of God’s law taught by religious teachers who did not properly understand the letter of the law because they did not know the God who had given it to them.
As word after word poured from Jesus’ lips, His listeners began to realize they could have a relationship with God that they had never before considered. Jesus declared that God cared for them, knew everything about them, and was calling them to live a different way – a higher way. They were experiencing the miracle of hope! Their hearts were awakening to the awesome realization that God knew them and desired a loving relationship with them. Perhaps the words of the prophet Jeremiah rushed to the minds of some: “I know the thoughts that I think toward you, says the Lord, thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope” (Jeremiah 29:11).
Many began to wonder if Jesus was the One to help them rebuild the walls of security and holy places within their hearts so they could meet with God. Could they escape the shadow of past failures and have hope for a prosperous and blessed future? To hope was only the beginning, however; they also needed new attitudes.
The message Jesus shared is known as the Sermon on the Mount. The setting of this sermon parallels the conditions that existed when Moses communicated the law to God’s people. In both cases, the people assembled at an appointed mountain to receive instruction from God’s messenger. Some theologians have even viewed this teaching as “New Testament Law,” rather than understanding it as an exposition of the heart and intent of the law. Jesus began His sermon with a series of statements that later became known as the “Beatitudes.” The beatitudes laid a foundation for Jesus’ teaching by stressing the heart attitude necessary to receive God’s blessing. It is necessary for us to “be having a proper attitude” in our relationship with God if we are to please Him and be obedient to His commandments.
Many Christians suffer unnecessarily because they never fully commit themselves to cultivating a relationship with God and obeying His commands. They sense God’s calling to deeper levels of intimacy, and yet they continue to circle the mountain. They never say, “Jesus, You’re it and I am pursuing no destiny other than You. I have no priority greater than my responsibility to be pleasing in Your sight.”
Many are consumed with unhealthy attitudes toward God or their Christian brothers and sisters. They insist on embracing unforgiveness and bitterness that lead them into a downward spiral of misery, frustration, internal conflict and turmoil. Ultimately, they become discouraged with their Christian life and angry with God. Disillusioned, they walk away from God, forfeiting the contentment and blessing available if they simply had changed their attitudes. A new attitude toward God and His law is needed, an attitude of love.
Lovers of God Keep His Commandments
Matthew 22 tells of an encounter Jesus had with a scribe. The scribe tested Jesus’ by asking Him to name the greatest commandment. Jesus answered:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40).
Jesus summarized the entire focus of the commandments in a single word: love. According to Jesus, genuine love for God was the framework upon which the law and prophets hinged. How the people must have marveled at the simplicity of Jesus’ interpretation of the law! While the Pharisees had burdened them with a complex moral code consisting of hundreds of minute rules and stipulations, Jesus was urging them to be lovers of God and man. The gospel of John calls it “a new commandment” and says that true love for Him will exhibit itself in love for the brethren.
The grace that came to us through Jesus Christ loosed us from the bondage of regulations and formulas, and it liberated us to pursue a passionate love relationship with Jesus. James refers to this as “the perfect law of liberty.” How is it possible to have law and liberty? The perfect law of liberty is the desire to obey God’s commandments out of love rather than pursuing self-gratification. An obedient response to God’s law of love opens the door to blessing. Knowing what the law says is not enough; doing what the law says brings God’s blessings.
Many things prevent us from seeing the manifestation of God’s glory, power, and victory in our lives. Pride, lack of trust in God’s goodness, unforgiveness, failure to love, are all contrary to the commandments and hinder the work of God in the life of the believer. Our conduct in the moment of a trial either postpones or expedites the blessing that God desires for our lives. Thank God that Jesus not only brought the law of truth but the power of God’s grace to the hearts of believers to grant both desire and ability to walk in the light of His holy commandments.
Remember, Jesus summed up the entire law in terms of love toward God and love toward man. And the only we can possibly do that is by having a living, loving relationship with the author of the commands – the Author of Life! When we have a living, loving relationship with Him – we are assured of walking in His blessings.
Please understand the blessings of the Lord are not necessarily physical riches and power; God’s blessings take different forms in different people’s lives depending on His highest purpose and calling on each one. But His blessings always include peace, joy, spiritual prosperity and other things the world cannot give us or take away.
We have FREE 10-day devotion available to help you Reset your relationship with the Lord. You can download it from www.SomebodyCares.org/Reset .
You can also get a copy of my book, Living Life Well: The Spirit of the Ten Commandments from our e-store at www.SomebodyCares.org if you want a more in-depth study on this topic.