I am competitive by nature. I love to win. In fact, I don’t even like to compete if the odds are not in my favor. It’s a terrible thing to admit, but it’s also the reason I love to know the rules. When I know the rules, my confidence soars as I find new ways to leverage them in my favor – bend the odds, locate the loopholes, increase my chance of winning.
This is why I like to workout in group fitness classes. I can choose my competition – competing against anyone whether they know it or not. Which means: I always know if I win, they never know if I lose. I can feel the joy of victory without the threat of public defeat. It’s also why I like to race people…at stop lights. Rest assured: if you are beside me, we are racing.
How We Misuse the Law
This is not an admirable trait: knowing the rules and playing the game merely to boost my ego and inflate my pride. No, it’s not admirable, but it is common. When we live life in this way we miss out on greater joy. In fact, Jesus said when we keep the rules, but fail to honor the spirit of the law we are “hypocrites, whitewashed tombs, snakes” (Matthew 23).
If, as Christians, we have received grace and if, even as Christians, we know we have the capacity to read the law incorrectly, what purpose does it serve?
If one reads the law correctly, it can serve only to condemn, but that is rarely how we read it. Instead, we read the law like I read a rule book – looking for ways to easily win. In an effort to promote ourselves and come out ahead, the law can be twisted and molded to make us feel superior. Instead of bringing conviction of shortcoming, we can focus solely on the areas in which we succeed, leaving us with a false sense of pride and arrogance, and a reason to look down on those who don’t succeed in the same way we do.
By elevating parts of the law (the ones we are good at keeping) and glossing over other parts (the ones we struggle to obey), we can masterfully present ourselves as better than we are. In fact Jesus tells us there is a way we can keep the law that makes us appear righteous, even as we neglect “the more important matters of the law – justice, mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:23).
So, we have to ask ourselves: If, as Christians, we have received grace and if, even as Christians, we know we have the capacity to read the law incorrectly, what purpose does it serve?
The True Purpose of the Law
If the law is a rule book, we all lose. This is the point of the law – it was never intended to show us our strengths, but rather to reveal God’s character and our own shortcomings. The law was not given to God’s people so they could be certain they were winning; it was given so they would always remember they needed something more.
The law then is not a rule book, but a manual for healing. When Jesus comes, He fulfills the law. He keeps it, perfectly. He embodies the spirit of the law and keeps it without failure. And because of His superior righteousness, those who thought they were righteous and who were good at interpreting the law to make sure they came out ahead, organized His death. Those who claimed to be the best became the worst. The law, apart from grace, does this; it brings death and destruction, shame and guilt, the need for self-preservation at any cost.
But grace disarms the law. As Jesus hangs on the cross, all of our sin is placed upon Him. When He cries: “It is finished!” He means it. Our sin is no more, our punishment has been absorbed and our need to win is gone along with the shame that comes from losing. In that moment, grace levels the playing field, and allows us to see ourselves and the law correctly. The law apart from grace is terrifying, but the law through the eyes of grace is life and peace. It is the grace of God, the kindness of God, the mercy of God that allows us to repent when we fail and to return to Him time and time again.
In Christ, my sins are forgiven and my righteousness is secure. I no longer have to keep the score and ensure my righteousness outweighs my sin – because both belong to Jesus. He has taken my sin upon Himself, He has extended His righteousness to me and I am loved regardless of my performance.
Because of grace, I am free from the need to prove myself, to outperform others, and to win God’s approval. Instead I can view the law as a wise friend who continually warns me of danger and points me toward a path of healing. I read the law as a guide to living a more beautiful story, as a help to finding the life I truly desire. I live according to the law not to gain my standing before God, but to live more peaceably among my friends and neighbors.