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Law or Liberty?

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Discover the freedom of life in the Spirit.

On her way home from work, Sarah stops to visit her pastor. The conversation quickly moves from small talk to Sarah’s real concern. "I work so hard to be a good person," she explains. "I never lie or steal, I tell my neighbors about Christ, and I teach my children to obey God. Yet I can't get rid of this feeling that nothing I do is good enough. What more do I need to do to please God?"

It is a.d. 55. The Apostle Paul hears a disturbing report from the church he founded in Galatia. Rival teachers are demanding that Christian men be circumcised and that all new Christians observe the Jewish law to the letter. Greatly agitated, Paul writes: "You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?... After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?" (Gal. 3:1, 3).

In spite of the nearly 2,000 years between Sarah and the Galatians, they are asking the same question: What does a Christian life that pleases God look like? Is it like the game a child plays on the pavement leading home from school, careful never to "step on a crack" for fear of dire consequences? Or can it be a life of spontaneity and joy?

According to Scripture, a life that pleases God is a life of holiness—a life that reflects God’s character. Yet just as Sarah described, our attempts to please God can be characterized by feelings of unworthiness, by fear, or even by pride. In his letters to the Galatians and the Romans, Paul reminds us that in Jesus Christ a new kind of holiness is possible: one that does not operate under the law but through the gracious power and presence of the Holy Spirit within us.

Life under the Law

Paul was raised in the same religious world as his rivals in Galatia. Before he met Jesus enroute to Damascus, he, too, was "zealous for the traditions of [his] fathers" (Gal. 1:14). No tradition was more important to the Jews than the law, the commandments and guidelines God gave Israel through Moses. The Jews believed that the only way to please God was to observe the law faithfully. In that way they would enjoy righteousness—right relationship—with God.

After Paul met Jesus, he realized that the law—itself a gracious gift and God’s eternal standard of right and wrong—could not reconcile us to God. His letters highlight three problems with life under the law that we encounter whenever we try to please God apart from the Spirit.

Because of sin, life under the law is futile. Paul repeatedly tells the Galatians that no one will be justified by the law (Gal. 2:15-16, 3:11). Why is this true? Imagine that you are trying to mop an extremely dirty floor. You work with great diligence, mopping until sweat beads on your brow. Yet no matter how hard you mop, dirty brown tracks keep appearing on the floor. Finally you realize that the source of the dirt is you. Behind every stroke of the mop your dirty shoes slide along and undo whatever good you have just done.

This is a picture of the futility of life under the law. As good as the law is, it is no match for the destructive power of sin, which turns even the good law to serve its purpose (Ro. 7:7-13). Our only hope for living up to the "righteous requirements of the law" (Ro. 8:4) is to be transformed from within.

Second, life under the law becomes self-dependent. We know from his letter to the Philippians that Paul saw a great distinction between his efforts to please God before he knew Jesus Christ and the lifestyle of discipleship he adopted afterward. In Phil. 3:9, he speaks of formerly seeking "a righteousness of my own that comes from the law" (emphasis mine). His words suggest that life under the law easily becomes a human project, fueled by our own efforts and therefore vulnerable in the same ways that we are.

In the Amish communities of rural Ohio and Pennsylvania, women gather to make some of the most beautiful quilts in the world. Into each design they stitch a tiny flaw. The flaw is intended to remind the beholder that no human creation is perfect, because no human being is perfect.

For Paul, that tiny flaw was a huge crater that forever prevented him from pleasing God through the law. He tells the Galatians his solution: "Through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God.... I no longer live, but Christ lives in me" (Gal. 2:19-20). True righteousness is not the result of human effort, however well-intentioned, but of dying with Christ and embracing a new life of dependence on Him.

Finally, the law cannot bring the Spirit. Imagine a church in which every member lives under the law, exhibiting a squeaky-clean righteousness of his or her own. Everyone tithes consistently; everyone serves the poor; no one ever commits adultery. You might say (and I might agree) that such a church could be a wonderful place.

But Paul reminds us in Galatians 3 that the Holy Spirit does not come because people are doing the works of the law. For all its seeming moral excellence, such a church still could be devoid of the Holy Spirit! Without the Spirit, there would be no vibrant worship. There could be no genuine love between the members. Worst of all, visitors to the church would believe that the way to God was through tithing, service, or marital fidelity.

"Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard?" (Gal. 3:2). For Paul, the Spirit comes not through the law but by faith in Jesus Christ. No amount of human obedience can secure the gift of the Holy Spirit. And without the Spirit, a truly Christian life is impossible, no matter how good things look from the outside.

Life in the Spirit

Imagine the Apostle Paul hard at work on his letter to the Christians at Rome. He has just proclaimed to them the joyful news that Christ’s death on the cross has freed them from the struggle of trying to live under the law (Ro. 8:1-3). He longs to acquaint his readers with a new way of life through the indwelling Spirit, a life in which living up to the ideals of the law is possible and in which holiness is characterized by freedom and joy. What words will he choose?

The resulting passage, Ro. 8:3-17, is one of the most important in the New Testament for understanding life in the Spirit. I used to feel, however, that these verses were not nearly clear enough. Why doesn't Paul just give us a list of specific instructions for how to live by the Spirit? I wondered. Spirit-life can seem so vague and mysterious.

Then I learned why there is not a single command anywhere in this passage: because a list of commands would be a return to life under the law.

Rather than give us more law to live by, Paul paints a picture of who we have become through God’s saving work. "But you are... in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you" (Ro. 8:9, NKJV). Yet if we search this passage carefully, we do find a series of practical emphases that help us understand how to grow in holiness through the power of the indwelling Spirit.

Spirit-life is all about focus. In verse 5, Paul warns us that "those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit" (NKJV). For Paul, fleshly thinking is self-centered; to set our minds on the flesh, therefore, is to focus on ourselves and our own appetites, plans, and achievements.

By contrast, the "things of the Spirit" are God-centered and other-centered. The indwelling Spirit continually points us to Jesus Christ, calling us to focus on His character, His suffering, His love for all people.

In my own desire to please God, I have discovered that the greatest danger is an unhealthy self-focus. It is easy to become trapped in perfectionism, which is a form of idolatry—the attempt to manufacture "the ultimate me." Yet the Spirit’s goal is never to make me look good but rather to help me live up to Jesus' summation of the law: to love the Lord my God and to love my neighbor as myself (Mt. 22:37-40). When I allow the Spirit to train my focus on Christ and to help me love as He did, I am much closer to "life and peace" (8:6).

The Spirit gives us confidence to live as children of God. Paul writes:

For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. So you should not be like cowering, fearful slaves. You should behave instead like God’s very own children, adopted into his family.

Ro. 8:14-15, NLT

Adoption is one of Paul’s favorite images for describing the new relationship that believers have with God through Jesus Christ. Before the cross, we were strangers to God, uncertain of our identity, slaves to both our fears and our wants. Now we are part of God’s family and enjoy all the rights and privileges of that household, namely, confidence and freedom. The greatest obstacle to experiencing this confidence daily is the lingering presence of fear.

A church friend of mine who teaches in the public school system once remarked to me that out of all the parents she has encountered in her years of teaching, Christian parents are the most fearful. Sadly, it did not seem to her that Christian parents really believed in the love of God and God’s power to forgive past and future mistakes, both their own and their children’s.

Recently I discovered a new way to face my fear before it strangles my confidence. I remind myself that fear distracts me from the fact that God is present with me. When I give in to my fears, I forget that my life is now the arena in which God will display His power and forgiveness.

The presence of God with me through the Spirit is the proof that I belong to Him and that He can redeem even my mistakes to make them work for good. This confidence is the ground of any progress in holiness, and it is the gift of the Holy Spirit.

The Spirit enables us to find new power for holiness in prayer. After reassuring the Romans that they are children of God in the Spirit, Paul describes the characteristic act of such people: prayer. "And by him we cry ‘Abba, Father.' The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children" (Ro. 8:15-16). Prayer helps us to sustain the new relationship with God that we have through the Spirit. It is also our best tool for discerning what would please God in any given situation. Prayer in and through the Spirit can help us find the power to do what is right.

Have you heard the ancient tale of Hercules wrestling with the giant Antaeus? Again and again Hercules would master the giant and throw him to the earth, only to find that his enemy drew strength from the earth and rose up even mightier than before. Finally, Hercules lifted up Antaeus to dangle helplessly in the air, weakening gradually until the hero could easily subdue him.

I find this fable to be a powerful metaphor for holiness through the Spirit, fueled by prayer. When I try to tackle temptation through my own insight and effort, the temptation seems to draw strength from my focus on it, growing larger and more powerful still. When I pray, I lift up my struggles and temptations into the presence of God through the Spirit and ask for His power to work through my weakness. Suddenly I remember the one who lives in me by grace, and I find new energy to "keep in step" with Him (Gal. 5:25).

These practical guidelines from Romans are Paul’s way of ushering us into a new life of Spirit-holiness without prescribing a list of commands that we might be tempted to turn into law. They are based on the work God has already done to break the power of sin through Jesus Christ, and they put the power to please God within us in the person of the Holy Spirit. In this way God’s promise is fulfilled: "I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws... You will be my people, and I will be your God" (Ezk. 36:27-28).

What about Sarah? After her pastor helped her understand what it means to live in the Spirit, there was a noticeable change in her life. To her children, Sarah talked less about the duty of serving God and more about the amazing love God showed on the cross. She joyfully loved God in return. Sarah’s husband noticed that she was less judgmental of the failings of others and eager to show them compassion in her words and in small acts of welcome. Above all, the women in Sarah’s small group noticed that she prayed with greater honesty than before. They sensed that the Spirit of God was at work in Sarah’s life.

I think Paul would have been pleased.

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