The Christian Distinctive—A Reprise


When I read Kay Marshall Strom‘s Blessings of India books (The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula—see review here), what struck me so forcefully was the legalism of Hinduism. India of the 1940s was a society centered on the caste system and karma. Every social strata bowed to or benefited from the laws and traditions. They commanded attitudes toward children, gender, work, neighbors, food, and these all played out in prescribed actions.

Legalism, of course, was (and for those who are Orthodox, still is) endemic in the Jewish religion. Jesus constantly chastised the Pharisees for “straining at gnats but swallowing camels”–that is, they paid such close attention to the minutia of Jewish law and tradition that they missed the main things God asked of them–their commitment to Him and compassion for one another.

Consequently, when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the Pharisees criticized Him for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus answered the charge by turning it back on them: To keep the Law, you all bypass compassion. He went to the Law itself to illustrate what He was saying, then pointed out how they treated their animals with more regard than they did hapless people who suffered from severe maladies for years and years.

Hindus and Jews aren’t the only ones who place a premium on obeying religious laws. Systemic to Buddhism is its path to liberation which includes following ethical precepts–not just by doing good deeds, but by doing them with pure intention.

Confucianism is another religious teaching that puts its followers on a path of doing:

Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act within a community. (from “Confucianism”emphasis mine)

Islam is another religion based on law.

Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, providing guidance on multifarious topics from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment. (from “Islam”)

All this law! No wonder a good number of people opt out of religion. They see the lists of do, do, do and decide that it’s too much to ask or that the rewards are too far off or that the requirements are too unattainable.

And then there is Christianity.

In a sense, Christianity agrees with all those other religions. Yes, there is a right way to behave. There are ethical ways of treating other people, and there are corrupt, nefarious, selfish ways of doing so. So Christianity’s distinction is not in doing away with a required standard of how to live.

Christianity also agrees with the secularist who says the standard is too unbearably high for anyone to reach. Rather than prodding Man to be better, to reach higher, to do more, Christianity says, no matter how much he might try to achieve the required ethical standard, he can’t make it.

It’s at this point that Christianity separates itself from all other systems of thought. Because of God’s great mercy, He mitigated the penalty for failure to live ethically and morally by taking it upon Himself.

Christian doctrine refers to this as grace.

What a huge difference to live under grace rather than under law. Rather than hoisting the burden of righteous living, a believer in Jesus Christ experiences God’s forgiveness, cleansing, redemption, and pardon.

The distinction, then, is grace—God’s free gift which He provided “while we were yet sinners.”

This post first appeared here in June 2012.

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Law And Grace – Reprise


As I’ve read in Exodus these past few days, I’ve reached the “dry” chapters. The excitement is over—plagues all done, Passover held, exodus accomplished, chase ensued, water parting miracle performed, enemies vanquished, grumbling faced, water and food provided.

And now Moses records the details of his meeting with God—the Ten Commandments, an overview of various other laws, an introduction to the offerings, and then specifics about the tabernacle. I mean specifics!

We have the ark, the table, the lampstand, the tent curtains, the outer tent curtains, the boards, the veil, the screen, the altar, the court, the priestly garments and … you get the idea.

Lots of things, lots of details.

The thing that impresses me is that in the midst of all God’s prescriptive communication handed down in the Law, grace shines like a diamond. Here are a few examples.

In chapter 22 Israel is commanded not to “wrong a stranger or oppress him.” Why? because they had been strangers in Egypt at one time. They had received help in time of need, only to have that help turn into oppression. Don’t do like those who did to you, the command seems to be saying.

There are other similar gems in this chapter. One of the many times Scripture admonishes how to treat orphans and widows is recorded in verse 22 (You shall not afflict any widow or orphan). Verse 25 spells out lending money to the poor without charging interest and returning the man’s cloak he’d given as a pledge so he won’t be cold at night.

Why all these? Verse 27 explains: “for I [the Lord] am gracious.”

Chapter 23 records the plan of planting and harvesting for six years, then letting the land rest the seventh year, also allowing the needy to glean from the fallow field.

After the people agree to abide by all these laws in chapter 24, Moses meets with God on the mountain. In chapter 25 God instructs him to start taking contributions for the tabernacle. They were going to need a lot of materials. But here’s how it was to work: “from every man whose heart moves him, you shall raise My contribution” (emphasis mine).

The key here is God’s desire for a willing heart, not just the stuff the people could give. None of it was to be given under compulsion or grudgingly.

And then the specifics of the tabernacle—precise measurements, exact numbers of items, details of arrangements. In fact, God told Moses, “You shall erect the tabernacle according to its plan which you have been shown in the mountain.”

No telling if the existence of this perfect model or heavenly tabernacle which the earthly one copied was a singular object or not. Could it be that other “Perfects” or archetypes exist, as Plato’s theory of forms suggested?

Be that as it may, God cared deeply that the tabernacle constructed under Moses’s oversight would be like the heavenly one. This does not sound like a God of mystery to me.

Why would He go to such lengths to reveal a structure built for His worship but hold Himself apart and unknowable? In fact, He did the opposite. It was only when the people trembled at His voice and begged Moses to act as the intermediary for them that God restricted His communication. And still He gave the people His Shekinah glory—His holy presence in cloud and in fire.

Yes, this was a period of law giving and prescriptive instruction, and still God’s grace shines bright.

This post originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview Of Fiction in August, 2011.

Published in: on August 16, 2017 at 5:42 pm  Comments Off on Law And Grace – Reprise  
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Food For Thought – Cloth And Wineskins


Have you every been bugged by a portion of Scripture that’s hard to understand? It just doesn’t seem to fit or make sense in light of what you know or in light of the context. I’ve struggled in this way with a passage in the book of Matthew.

Context, of course, is a key to Biblical interpretation. Someone studying the Bible today ought not make up something from his own mind or experience. Rather, it’s critical to look at an entire passage, an entire book, to find out what the circumstances were and what the audience likely understood.

Having said that, let me give you the context of the passage that’s given me difficulty over the years: After Jesus began his public ministry, He quickly incurred the ire of the Jewish religious leaders because more than once He healed people on the Sabbath—something these Pharisees viewed as breaking the law.

In the face of their displeasure, Jesus proceeded to call Matthew, a prominent tax-collector, to be His disciple, then went to the man’s home for dinner with a group of his friends—a group made up of other tax-collectors and people who didn’t keep the Jewish law. The Pharisees complained about Jesus eating and drinking with these corrupt government officials and sinners.

Jesus responded to His critics by saying, “Go and learn what this means: ‘I DESIRE COMPASSION, AND NOT SACRIFICE’…”

Soon after, John’s disciples and those of the Pharisees observed a religious fast. John’s disciples asked Jesus why His disciples didn’t fast, too. He answered with an analogy.

And Jesus said to them, “The attendants of the bridegroom cannot mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them, can they? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast.

I get that—Jesus is the bridegroom and His followers are the attendants. So far so good. But He continued, and here is the troublesome passage:

“But no one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment; for the patch pulls away from the garment, and a worse tear results. Nor do people put new wine into old wineskins; otherwise the wineskins burst, and the wine pours out and the wineskins are ruined; but they put new wine into fresh wineskins, and both are preserved.”

Huh?

How did we get from eating with sinners and not keeping a fast to garments and wineskins?

Well, obviously, as with the previous part of His answer about the bridegroom, Jesus is making an analogy, but what equals what?

I’ve heard sermons on this passage before—the old is the Law, the new, the New Covenant. Set aside for the moment that those to whom Jesus was talking would not have understood that analogy at all. The idea of the New Covenant was still just that—an idea. Most people had no clue why the Messiah had actually come.

But the real problem I have with that interpretation is that the new-on-old in Jesus’s analogies destroys the old. Yet Jesus clearly said in the Sermon on the Mount that He did not come to destroy the Law but to fulfill it.

“Do not think that I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill. For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not the smallest letter or stroke shall pass from the Law until all is accomplished.

WineskinsIs Jesus advocating for new wine to be put into new skins? I mean, isn’t it understood that old wine is better? Approaching the verse with the idea that Jesus is saying, new is better, doesn’t really fit the physical realities of the objects He was using to illustrate His point.

And what about the patch and the old garment? Clearly a new patch is incomplete, so it’s pretty hard to conclude that this analogy is saying new is better.

Interestingly Mark in his gospel elaborates on the problem Jesus had with the Pharisees. Take a look:

(For the Pharisees and all the Jews do not eat unless they carefully wash their hands, thus observing the traditions of the elders; and when they come from the market place, they do not eat unless they cleanse themselves; and there are many other things which they have received in order to observe, such as the washing of cups and pitchers and copper pots.) The Pharisees and the scribes asked Him, “Why do Your disciples not walk according to the tradition of the elders, but eat their bread with impure hands?” And He said to them, “Rightly did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written:

‘This people honors Me with their lips,
But their heart is far away from Me.
‘But in vain do they worship Me,
Teaching as doctrines the precepts of men.’

Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” (Mark 7:3-9 – emphasis mine)

So here’s what I’m thinking. What if the old cloth and the old wineskins stand for God’s true Law? In the verses just prior to these analogies, remember, Jesus told the Pharisees to figure out what Scripture meant when it said God desired compassion rather than sacrifice.

The new patch of cloth, the new wine, then, represent the traditions the Pharisees heaped on top of what God had said. Their add-ons were tearing apart the fabric, bursting the skins, of God’s perfect Law.

I know this way of looking at these verses flies in the face of the traditional interpretation. Traditional … heh-hem. Maybe departing from tradition is not a bad thing if it fits the context of the passage. This way of looking at the passage is also consistent with what Jesus says about fulfilling God’s law and about the Pharisees’ perversion of it through their tradition.

In the end, I come away more mindful of the need to hold loosely things like worship styles and other extra-Biblical practices—the traditions of our day which we might be heaping on top of Scripture, particularly on top of what the Bible lays out as the nuts and bolts of what it means to be a Christian—loving God and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Compassion must not be sacrificed on the altar of tradition.

This article is a revised version of a post first published here in May 2012.

Published in: on May 15, 2015 at 7:14 pm  Comments (10)  
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Law And Grace


Some time ago my church did a really cool thing. As a local body of believers we read a chapter of Scripture together. Well, not physically together, but the same chapter on the same day of the week.

We read in Exodus for the better part of a month, and reached the “dry” chapters. The excitement was over — plagues all done, Passover held, exodus accomplished, chase ensued, water parting miracle performed, enemies vanquished, grumbling faced, water and food provided.

And now Moses records the details of his meeting with God — the Ten Commandments, an overview of various other laws, an introduction to the offerings, and then specifics about the tabernacle. I mean specifics!

We have the ark, the table, the lampstand, the tent curtains, the outer tent curtains, the floor boards, the veil, the screen, the altar, the court, the priestly garments and … you get the idea.

Lots of things, lots of details.

The thing that impresses me is that in the midst of all God’s prescriptive communication handed down in the Law, grace shines like a diamond. Here are a few examples.

In chapter 22 Israel is commanded not to “wrong a stranger or oppress him.” Why? because they had been strangers in Egypt at one time. They had received help in time of need, only to have that help turn into oppression. Don’t do like those who did to you, the command seems to be saying.

There are other similar gems in this chapter. One of the many times Scripture admonishes how to treat orphans and widows is recorded in verse 22 (You shall not afflict any widow or orphan). Verse 25 spells out lending money to the poor without charging interest and returning the man’s cloak he’d given as a pledge so he won’t be cold at night.

Why all these? Verse 27 explains: “for I [the Lord] am gracious.”

Chapter 23 records the plan of planting and harvesting for six years, then letting the land rest the seventh year, also allowing the needy to glean from the fallow field.

After the people agree to abide by all these laws in chapter 24, Moses meets with God on the mountain. In chapter 25 God instructs him to start taking contributions for the tabernacle. They were going to need a lot of materials. But here’s how it was to work: “from every man whose heart moves him, you shall raise My contribution” (emphasis mine).

The key here is God’s desire for a willing heart, not just the stuff the people could give. None of it was to be given under compulsion or grudgingly.

And then the specifics of the tabernacle—precise measurements, exact numbers of items, details of arrangements. In fact, God told Moses, “You shall erect the tabernacle according to its plan which you have been shown in the mountain.”

No telling if the existence of this perfect model or heavenly tabernacle which the earthly one copied was a singular object or not. Could it be that other “Perfects” or archetypes exist, as Plato’s theory of forms suggested?

Be that as it may, God cared deeply that the tabernacle constructed under Moses’s oversight would be like the heavenly one. This does not sound like a God of mystery to me.

Why would He go to such lengths to reveal a structure built for His worship but hold Himself apart and unknowable? In fact, He did the opposite. It was only when the people trembled at His voice and begged Moses to act as the intermediary for them that God restricted His communication. And still He gave the people His Shekinah glory — His holy presence in cloud and in fire.

Yes, this was a period of law giving and prescriptive instruction, and still God’s grace shines bright.

This post originally appeared here at A Christian Worldview Of Fiction in August, 2011.

Published in: on May 21, 2014 at 6:04 pm  Comments Off on Law And Grace  
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The Christian Distinctive


Not long ago I read Kay Marshall Strom‘s Blessings of India books (The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula–see review here) and, what struck me so forcefully was the legalism of Hinduism. India of the 1940s was a society centered on the caste system and karma. Every social strata bowed to or benefited from the laws and traditions. They commanded attitudes toward children, gender, work, neighbors, food, and these all played out in prescribed actions.

Legalism, of course, was (and for those who are Orthodox, still is) endemic in the Jewish religion. Jesus constantly chastised the Pharisees for “straining at gnats but swallowing camels”–that is, they paid such close attention to the minutia of Jewish law and tradition that they missed the main things God asked of them–their commitment to Him and compassion for one another.

Consequently, when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the Pharisees criticized Him for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus answered the charge by turning it back on them: To keep the Law, you all bypass compassion. He went to the Law itself to illustrate what He was saying, then pointed out how they treated their animals with more regard than they did hapless people who suffered from severe maladies for years and years.

Hindus and Jews aren’t the only ones who place a premium on obeying religious laws. Systemic to Buddhism is its path to liberation which includes following ethical precepts–not just by doing good deeds, but by doing them with pure intention.

Confucianism is another religious teaching that puts its followers on a path of doing:

Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act within a community. (from “Confucianism”emphasis mine)

Islam is another religion based on law.

Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, providing guidance on multifarious topics from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment. (from “Islam”)

All this law! No wonder a good number of people opt out of religion. They see the lists of do, do, do and decide that it’s too much to ask or that the rewards are too far off or that the requirements are too unattainable.

And then there is Christianity.

In a sense, Christianity agrees with all those other religions. Yes, there is a right way to behave. There are ethical ways of treating other people, and there are corrupt, nefarious, selfish ways of doing so. So Christianity’s distinction is not in doing away with a required standard of how to live.

Christianity also agrees with the secularist who says the standard is too unbearably high for anyone to reach. Rather than prodding Man to be better, to reach higher, to do more, Christianity says, no matter how much he might try to achieve the required ethical standard, he can’t make it.

It’s at this point that Christianity separates itself from all other systems of thought. Because of God’s great mercy, He mitigated the penalty for failure to live ethically and morally by taking it upon Himself.

Christian doctrine refers to this as grace.

What a huge difference to live under grace rather than under law. Rather than hoisting the burden of righteous living, a believer in Jesus Christ experiences God’s forgiveness, cleansing, redemption, and pardon.

The distinction, then, is grace–God’s free gift which He provided “while we were yet sinners.”

Published in: on June 12, 2012 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Law And Grace


My church has been doing a really cool thing for some time now. As a local body of believers we have been reading a chapter of Scripture together.

We’ve been reading in Exodus for the better part of a month, and have now reached the “dry” chapters. The excitement is over — plagues all done, Passover held, exodus accomplished, chase ensued, water parting miracle performed, enemies vanquished, grumbling faced, water and food provided.

And now Moses records the details of his meeting with God — the Ten Commandments, an overview of various other laws, an introduction to the offerings, and then specifics about the tabernacle. I mean specifics!

We have the ark, the table, the lampstand, the tent curtains, the outer tent curtains, the floor boards, the veil, the screen, the altar, the court, the priestly garments and … you get the idea.

Lots of things, lots of details.

The thing that impresses me is that in the midst of all this prescriptive communication, grace shines like a diamond amid all the law. Here are a few examples.

In chapter 22 Israel is commanded not to “wrong a stranger or oppress him.” Why? because they had been strangers in Egypt at one time. They had received help in time of need, only to have that help turn into oppression. Don’t do like those who did to you, the command seems to be saying.

There are other similar gems in this chapter. One of the many times Scripture admonishes how to treat orphans and widows is recorded in verse 22 (You shall not afflict any widow or orphan). Verse 25 spells out lending money to the poor without charging interest and returning the man’s cloak he’d given as a pledge so he won’t be cold at night.

Why all these? Verse 27 explains: “for I am gracious.”

Chapter 23 records the plan of planting and harvesting for six years, then letting the land rest the seventh year, also allowing the needy to glean from the fallow field.

After the people agree to abide by all these laws in chapter 24, Moses meets with God on the mountain. In chapter 25 God instructs him to start taking contributions for the tabernacle. They were going to need a lot of materials. But here’s how it was to work: “from every man whose heart moves him, you shall raise My contribution” (emphasis mine).

The key here is God’s desire for a willing heart, not just the stuff the people could give. None of it was to be given under compulsion or grudgingly.

And then the specifics of the tabernacle — precise measurements, exact numbers of items, details of arrangements. In fact, God told Moses, “You shall erect the tabernacle according to its plan which you have been shown in the mountain.”

No telling if the existence of this perfect model or heavenly tabernacle which the earthly one copied was a singular object or not. Could it be that other “Perfects” or archetypes exist, as Plato’s theory of forms suggested?

Be that as it may, God cared deeply that the tabernacle constructed under Moses’s oversight would be like the heavenly one. This does not sound like a God of mystery to me.

Why would He go to such lengths to reveal a structure built for His worship but hold Himself apart and unknowable? In fact, He did the opposite. It was only when the people trembled at His voice and begged Moses to act as the intermediary for them that God restricted His communication. And still He gave the people His Shekinah glory — His holy presence in cloud and in fire.

Yes, this was a period of law giving and prescriptive instruction, and still God’s grace shines bright.

Published in: on August 15, 2011 at 6:44 pm  Comments (3)  
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Grace Works Versus Law Works


The guy was rich, filthy rich. The filthy part was a result of his underhanded schemes and his willingness to step on or over anyone he needed to in his pursuit of wealth. Then one day, He found Christ — or more accurately, Christ found him. Because of his relationship with the living God, he promised to give away half his possessions to the poor and to repay the people he’d cheated, adding four times the amount to the total.

He was a changed man.

The guy, by the way, was Zaccheus (see Luke 19:1-10), and no one compelled him to dispose of his wealth or make retribution to those he’d cheated. Even if he’d gone by Jewish law, he would only have had to repay what he stole plus twenty percent.

Zaccheus’s extravagant promises directly connected to the grace he received. In other words, grace in his life resulted in going above and beyond the law.

That was true of the good slave in the parable Jesus told right after his encounter with Zaccheus. The guy in the story went above and beyond, investing the money entrusted to him and bringing a tenfold yield. He’s the one Jesus praised.

The slave who wrapped the money entrusted to him in a handkerchief received Christ’s censure. Why? Because he had no profit to turn over to his king, not even the interest he could have accrued had he put the money in the bank.

The point of Jesus’s story seems clear — God expects “fruit.” And yet, Scripture says repeatedly, “fruit” doesn’t purchase heaven.

The Jews who rejected Jesus had him over for dinner, listened to Him teach, knew what Scripture said, including the command to love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. They had “fruit.” Lots of it, actually. Their actions were exemplary, but those actions didn’t count.

Their works were a result of their effort to keep the law, which they believed would make them pleasing to God.

Zaccheus and the good slave also produced “fruit,” but theirs was a result of their relationship with God. They acted, not so that they could become pleasing to God but so that they could please God.

The thing is, good works all look a lot alike. Recently groups of believers from my church spent time on two different Saturdays participating in a number of service projects in the community. During that same time, my local paper reported about a religious group that holds to the idea that good works earn a spot in the highest heaven doing virtually the same thing my church did.

Good works can look the same on the outside. For one person, living a clean life is a legalistic “have to,” and his life is driven by law, whereas another person, grateful to God because of His love and forgiveness, can live a grace-filled life of purity and good works that looks quite similar.

Who’s to say when good works are driven by grace or by law? Obviously God, who is the Judge, because He sees into each person’s heart. But I think there are also ways we can know for ourselves if we are living by law or by grace.

1. Responding to grace makes me want to obey; responding to law makes me feel as if I have to obey.

2. Responding to grace makes me want to do more than what the law requires; responding to law makes me want to get by with as little as possible and still be considered law abiding (the old money-in-a-handkerchief trick).

3. Responding to grace makes me look at God and ask what He wants me to do; responding to law makes me look around at others and figure out what I have to do to look better than the rest.

I’m sure there are others, but this list gets me started.

Published in: on June 9, 2011 at 5:04 pm  Comments (7)  
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