Many of my sermons and Bible studies are simply records of my own thought processes as I struggle through to an understanding of a particular topic. This article is an example showing some of the thoughts and discoveries I went through over a period of years as I came to a better understanding of what our relationship with God ought to be. I hope this helps others to see some things they may have missed in their own journey.
I read an article not too long ago that started off with a story to illustrate the author’s point. The article was about the love of God, and how this author viewed our need to understand God’s love. I’d like to use the same tale to begin telling you this story. When I read the article, my mind went off in a different direction, and I’d like to share with you some of the thoughts and memories I experienced as I was reading.
The author wrote about a wife who had a demanding husband. He had given her a list with a number of things she had to do if she was going to make him happy. Being a good wife, she set about to fulfill all the items on the list every day. But over time, she grew to resent the list, and the duties she had to perform, and the husband who had given her the list. She came to hate the list and the husband. Of course, that marriage ended.
Later, the woman met a man, fell in love with him, and they got married. This fellow was not like her first husband. He didn’t give her a list of demands. Instead, he respected her, honored her, loved her, cared for her, and made a good and lasting marriage with her. She came to love him even more deeply as time went on.
One day she came across the list from her previous husband. She started to read it, and she began to chuckle. She was doing everything that was on that list for her new husband, and a good deal more besides! Not only that, but she enjoyed doing those things for her new husband.
What was the difference? Her first husband was a strong, authoritarian dictator. Her second husband genuinely loved her and cared for her. She did these things naturally for her second husband, because of the love they shared. It wasn’t just a checklist of duties that had to be accomplished.
The author continued, “Scripture indicates that God intends our relationship with Him to be like this woman’s second marriage. He wants obedience that comes from the heart, that is based on love and respect for Him, and that results in peace and joy for us. Yet it seems that so many Christians don’t have the joy that should accompany obedience. …
“Could it be that so many of us fall short … because our relationship with God is like the woman’s first marriage? Could it be that we think of our Lord as a demanding husband instead of the lover of our souls? Are we too preoccupied with lists of requirements instead of being captivated by God’s love? Are we too focused on what we think we must do for Him and not on what He has already done for us?” (“The Root of Obedience,” by Richard A. Wiedenheft, in Bible Advocate, Vol. 140, No. 4, June 2006, pp. 12-13.)
When I read this, of course many of the things that are going through your minds right now also occurred to me. But this passage caused me to remember a long time ago—it seems like another lifetime—when many of us began a journey through doctrinal shifts and broken relationships and cafeteria Christianity, and a complete re-evaluation of what we had always believed. We either re-evaluated what we believed—that is, proved to ourselves once again that what we believed was the right thing to believe—or else we simply found the path of least resistance and followed that, followed people, followed ministers, followed the familiar structure and ways of doing things.
Some of us went through a number of churches, daughter churches, granddaughter churches, great-niece churches, splits, spin-offs, take-overs, take-unders, and a whole lot more. Some of us remember watching friends give up the faith and go back into the world; their faith wasn’t in the right thing, and when the thing they had faith in failed, so did their faith, and so did their interest in coming to church.
That reminds me of when Yeshua said: “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash” (Matthew 7:24-27, NIV throughout).
If someone’s house is built on shifting sand, it can’t stand up to the storm. Some people ended their religious life with a great crash. And yet, it says “everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice...” Didn’t we all do that? Didn’t we all try our best to do what was expected of us? Still, some people’s houses came crashing down. Is there a missing factor here? Why would some people lose their faith, and their hope, even though they tried to build their religious house on the Rock?
As I pondered this question, I remembered something I had heard in a sermon given years ago by a man who had recently taken the reigns of the church organization I used to attend. It was just one line in passing, but it caught me short. He didn’t say too many things that impressed me, but this was one thing that did catch my attention. As he spoke about obeying God, he said something along the lines of, “Brethren, we don’t obey God because we have to.” That got my attention. Then he completed the thought: “We obey God because we want to!”
I had to stop and let that rattle around in my head for awhile. I had never heard anything like that before. And I realized that it was true. I also realized that I had been obeying God all those years because I had to. Of course I wanted to obey Him, but the obedience was truly rooted in the need to obey Him, because He had something I wanted. I realized on the spot that this was the wrong motivation!
As I remember, this came shortly after an announcement was read in the local churches on the subject of qualifying for the kingdom. This same man said in the written announcement that people were talking about qualifying for the kingdom, or qualifying to be in the kingdom. It was true. I knew it was true. The men who did opening and closing prayers often spoke in their prayers about their hope that we would qualify to be in the kingdom. This announcement said we were not to say that any more. We will never qualify to be in the kingdom. Salvation is a gift, a free gift from God. We can never earn our salvation, so we can never qualify through anything we do. If we could qualify for the kingdom, we would be earning our salvation.
So it was that, not too long after this church leader sent out the announcement that we were not to think in terms of qualifying for the kingdom, I heard him say in a holy day sermon that we don’t obey God because we have to, but because we want to.
I understood. But I also knew, deep down in my heart, that this was not the way my relationship with God had been up to that point. What the man said made sense to me in that moment. Let me tell you why.
My Search for Understanding
I was, back in the 1970’s and early 1980’s, a great defender of the faith. I had learned the doctrines of my church, and I could defend them well. As a mental exercise, I even read books by those who sought to discredit my church’s leader, and I was able to totally demolish (in my own mind, at least) the reasoning various authors used in their books to criticize, complain about, and condemn what we believed. I knew those doctrines inside and out, and I could defend them.
But there was one area in particular where I had trouble making the logical connection. That was in the area of why it is we obey God. We know we can’t earn our salvation. Law-keeping doesn’t forgive our sins. All the law-keeping in the world won’t earn us our spot in the resurrection. Yet, without being obedient to God, we shouldn’t expect to be in “the Wonderful World Tomorrow.” Something wasn’t matching up.
When I would speak to people in the Protestant world about the need to obey God’s law, they would immediately, like a knee-jerk reaction, exclaim, “Ah, you’re a legalist! You’re earning your salvation!” I would immediately reply that, no, we can’t earn our salvation. And I would try to explain, and show that disobedience to God’s law is sin, and God won’t have sinners in His kingdom. But I could only get so far. “No, that’s legalism,” they would say.
A few years ago I allowed myself to start listening to Christian radio. I would listen to sermons on the radio by different preachers, and of course I could spot mistakes in what they were teaching. But one day I decided to listen with this idea of legalism in mind. How do they talk about obedience? I wondered if there was some difference between how we say it and how they say it. If we say it, it’s legalism. But if a radio preacher or a Sunday sermon preacher says it, it’s okay. Why is that? What’s the difference in how they say it?
So I listened. And I heard. The radio preachers say that after you repent and are baptized, you live a life of obedience to God. That’s what they say. But, isn’t that what we say, too? Why were we being called legalists?
After I heard this a few times by different radio preachers, I realized what the difference is: We talk about obedience to God’s law, and they talk about obedience to God. That’s it! That’s the only difference!
A couple years ago my wife Marty and I were with someone who had discussed the legalism issue with us before. Marty said something about how we have to obey God’s law. Immediately, in knee-jerk fashion, the fellow once again said, “Oh, that’s legalism!” Here was an opportunity to test my theory. I said something like, “Oh, no. That isn’t legalism. You know, once you’ve repented and are baptized, you need to go on from there to live a life of obedience to God.” And he said, “Yeah, that’s right.”
That was absolutely amazing! There’s something about whether we use the word “law” or not. Now, the next step would be to define how one can be obedient to God without obeying His laws, but I think I know the answer to that. So I just leave it at that level, and I don’t dig any deeper. I like finding common ground, and if I just watch how I phrase things, I can find a lot of common ground with people. They drop their shields, and we can continue to walk together.
Part of communicating is how we define our terms, and how the other person understands the same term. I’ll bet you have carried on conversations with people about salvation, and didn’t even realize that you and the other person were not thinking the same thing about what salvation is. How about “born again” as another example of terminology that needs to be defined?
On the other hand, how many times have we found ourselves arguing with someone, and all we would have to do is stop and define our terms, and the argument would cease because we would find we are on the same side of the issue. Defining our terms makes a lot of difference in communicating.
What would happen if the folks who accuse us of legalism and earning our salvation would stop long enough to sit down with us so we can define the terms we are using? We might not find ourselves agreeing, but at least the conversation would be more intelligent and less emotionally charged.
Because We Want To
Let’s get back to what we were talking about earlier. We don’t obey God because we have to; we obey God because we want to. Actually, I left off one part of the thought. The church leader said something like, “We obey God because we want to, because we love Him, and our obedience to God springs from that love, not from a fear of punishment. We love God so much that we want to obey Him, just as we would want to obey a father we love.” This is approximately what he said in that sermon.
I had often wondered about the relationship between obeying God and earning our salvation. I was not able to come up with a satisfying explanation. If we don’t obey God in order to earn our salvation, then why do we obey God? But then, if we are disobedient and rebellious, why would we think God would resurrect us? Perhaps there is something more to obeying God than its direct relationship to our salvation. When I heard that sermon, some parts of the puzzle started to fall into place.
Over the years I began to see more and more how God’s laws are better identified as God’s torah, the Hebrew word which means “instruction.” Rather than giving us a set of laws to strictly obey, God has given us a set of rules to live by, teachings to learn from, examples of misbehavior throughout scripture that should teach us how not to live, and examples of good behavior that should help us to see a better way to live. I began to see God’s torah as more like rules of a game, and if you play by the rules, life goes better. If you choose not to live by the rules, you’re free to do that, but it will hurt you, and you’ll end up losing the game.
Don’t think that I’m minimizing the importance of the death penalty for sin. We have all sinned, yes, but what was the result? We have fallen short of the glory of God. That’s what sin does to us. That’s what our sinful human nature does to us. It causes us to fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). We go through our lives, and we die. What comes next might depend largely on how we have treated God and the torah He gave us to live by.
When I began to see God’s rules for us as instructions from a loving Father rather than harsh laws from a fearsome deity, my relationship with God began to change, and I found myself loving God more than I had before. Nowadays I might use the analogy of comparing our concept of God as a loving father versus other people’s concept of Allah as a harsh, merciless, angry deity who makes difficult demands on people and punishes those who defy him. A top government official in
was credited with this interesting quote: “In Islam, you send your son to die for Allah. In Christianity, God sent His son to die for you.” Washington D.C.
As my understanding of God began to grow, I began to have a different outlook on how to live. I found that I had been fearing God, hoping to earn His favor, trying to get all my ducks in a row so God would be pleased and make things go my way in life, and there would be a special place card for me at the table for the heavenly banquet. I was going about it all wrong! I was building my house on something other than the Rock!
Over the years, I came to see myself in a different light.
Yeshua said, in Matthew 23:23: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cummin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former.” Justice. Mercy. Faithfulness. Each of these deserves a major study on how to understand it and how to apply it in our lives.
He continued in Matthew 23:24: “You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel.” There have been people who have criticized our former church for “majoring in the minors.” This is another way of saying that we often concentrated on little picayune things and missed a lot of really big things.
In Matthew 23:25-26, Yeshua said: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean.” I began to see, over time, that we all dressed up in pretty clothes and pretty faces when we went to church, but a lot of human nature was bubbling just under the surface. I didn’t appreciate it or recognize it at the time, but in looking back, I see it was there.
In Matthew 23:27-28, Yeshua continued: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men’s bones and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.” I began to understand why people left the faith, or left one church for another church. Something had been missing, and we had, to a large extent, been whitewashed tombs, trying to look righteous to people.
I began to see how entering into the rest of the Sabbath day was by God’s invitation, and if you accepted the invitation, you would gather to yourself great blessings. But what did we do with the Sabbath? We often forced our children to rest on the Sabbath, against their will. We often forced ourselves to rest on the Sabbath, against our will. We were obeying God because we had to.
How often have we had a lust to eat something we knew was on the list of “forbidden foods”? Did we obey God because we had to? Or did we come to realize that those things are, in fact, not food? There are some fish that truly are “our friends, not food” (as they say in the movie, Finding Nemo).
So, if we were whitewashed tombs, trying to look righteous but full of decay on the inside, what was missing? What do we need in order to overcome the sin of being a white-washed tomb?
What Was Missing
There is a critical bit of instruction, or torah, found in Romans chapter 3. Let’s read it:
19 Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God.
20 Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
21 But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.
22 This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference,
23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,
24 and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.
25 God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—
26 he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.
27 Where, then, is boasting? It is excluded. On what principle? On that of observing the law? No, but on that of faith.
28 For we maintain that a man is justified by faith apart from observing the law.
29 Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too,
30 since there is only one God, who will justify the circumcised by faith and the uncircumcised through that same faith.
31 Do we, then, nullify the law by this faith? Not at all! Rather, we uphold the law.
Let’s make a bulleted list of points from this passage, so we don’t miss anything:
From this we can learn that the law, or God’s instruction to us, remains. It hasn’t been done away. However, the law is not the thing that determines our salvation. The law determines how we live, and it defines what sin is. But the law is not the thing that brings about salvation. Faith in the shed blood of Yeshua as a substitute for our own death is what brings about justification.
- No one is declared righteous because they observe the law.
- The purpose of the law is to make us conscious, or aware, of sin.
- Righteousness comes from God, not from law-keeping.
- This righteousness from God does not come as a part of, or a result of, law-keeping.
- Even though it was attested to by the scriptures (the law and the prophets), this righteousness from God was only then, in Paul’s day, being made known.
- It comes through faith in Yeshua, the Messiah.
- Everyone has sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
- We are justified (our sins forgiven) by grace, as a result of Yeshua’s sacrifice, not as a result of our law-keeping.
- This justification leads to our redemption, or being bought back.
- We are justified freely, and not after following a prescribed series of activities, or doing penance, or reciting prayers, or walking on hot coals, or walking on your knees to
, etc. Jerusalem
- God sacrificed Yeshua to demonstrate His (God’s) justice.
- God let people’s sins go unpunished.
- He did this to demonstrate His justice.
- He did this to demonstrate how He justifies those who have faith in Yeshua.
- As a result of all this, boasting about law-keeping is excluded—it’s useless!
- People are justified by faith apart from observing the law; it’s the faith that leads to justification, not the law-keeping.
- But as a final point, Paul emphasizes that the law is not done away; in fact, he upholds the law.
But wait—justification is not the same thing as salvation! Justification simply means that the slate has been wiped clean and we are free to walk in newness of life, with God's Spirit in us, living God’s way, living according to His torah, living in obedience to God. To do that, we need to avoid sin. To do that, we need to know what sin is. To know that, we need to know what God’s instructions are for our lives, because the law identifies what sin is. To know that, we need to know what the scriptures teach us. To do that, we need to read the Book.
So we can see that we must have faith in Yeshua’s shed blood; and we must also have the law, the torah, God’s instructions for us. But that isn’t enough. We also need to have the righteousness that comes from God. On top of that, we also need to have the gift of salvation. How do these things all come together?
Righteousness (being right, living right) is just as much a gift from God as salvation is. It comes “apart from law,” that is, not as a result of our obedience. We can’t earn it by law-keeping. That’s what people mean by “legalism”—trying to earn our salvation through the "righteousness" of law-keeping. That won’t work. Then how do we find this righteousness?
Romans 1:17: “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.’”
Paul says we find God’s righteousness in the gospel. Scripture tells us that we don't live in obedience first and then become righteous as a result of law-keeping. They really begin at the same time! God gives us His righteousness through His Spirit, and because we have God's righteousness in us, from the moment of baptism, we are free to go about our lives in obedience to God, empowered by the righteousness that comes through the Spirit.
The Jews in first century
were hooked on the concept of law-keeping as a means to salvation, and that’s why there’s so much written about it in the scriptures. Paul spends a lot of time outlining a more accurate outlook on this subject in the book of Romans. For instance, in Romans chapter 6: Palestine
“Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone to obey him as slaves, you are slaves to the one whom you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you wholeheartedly obeyed the form of teaching to which you were entrusted. You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:16-18).
It doesn’t say we have become slaves to a fierce and selfish God, and that we have to follow every little whim and command as He micro-manages our lives and treats us like slaves. It says we have been freed from sin (through faith in Yeshua’s sacrifice) so that we can become righteous and obedient! We have become slaves to obedience, which leads to righteousness, and we have become slaves to righteousness so we can begin obeying the teaching—the instructions, the torah of God. We have become slaves to God, not because we have to, but because we want to, because He loves us, and because we love Him.
Paul continues, “But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves to God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:22-23).
This is a key point. Because we are now slaves to God, and obey the teaching, He gives us a great benefit: His righteousness. God’s righteousness in us, in turn, leads to holiness. We become holy people, with God’s Spirit in us, helping us live our lives in a holy and righteous way. But it doesn’t stop there; “the result is eternal life”!
Here is where we obtain the salvation we have long desired. Here is the answer to my search! God’s holiness in us results in eternal life. God’s righteousness guiding our lives is what brings us to salvation. This all comes about as a result of our faith in Yeshua’s sacrifice, and in the grace, or favor, that God shows us in wanting to give us, first, His own righteousness, and second, the gift of eternal life as His resurrected children.
This is what Paul is writing about in the book of Romans. The Jews of the day tried to earn their salvation by scrupulous law-keeping. The Gentiles who came into the faith didn’t have that background; all they had was faith in Yeshua and their lives devoted to God. Paul said that the Gentiles had achieved something the Jews had not accomplished:
“What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but
, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works” (Romans 9:30-32). Israel
The Jews of the day believed in salvation by works, which we today call legalism. Paul taught that people simply can’t pursue a law of righteousness and try to gain eternal life by doing works, or deeds showing how righteous they are as law-keepers. Paul said the Gentiles who came into the faith understood the righteousness that comes by faith.
Once I understood all this, over a period of several years, I came to see that there was something that I had missed in earlier years. I learned that we don’t qualify; we gratefully accept the free gift. I learned that we don’t obey God in order to get something; rather, we understand that we already have it, and we love God so much for His kindness and generosity that we do, truly, want to obey Him. I learned that we don’t know ourselves half as well as God knows us, and when we think we are approaching God with pure motives, we really aren’t—unless we first have the righteousness that comes from God, through faith, by His grace.
God’s righteousness will change people’s lives. When we truly repent, when we really mean it, when we aren’t pretending to God (because He will know we’re faking, even if we don’t know it), when we are truly ready to give up and give ourselves over to God—only then will we be ready to become a slave to righteousness, and reap the benefit of holiness, which results in eternal life.
Do we earn our salvation through law-keeping? I hope by now you can see that the question itself is silly. If we even ask the question, we have missed the concept entirely. The subject is much deeper than that, and once you have grasped the concept you should never be tricked by that question again. Legalism? Not even close!
Which husband in the story would you rather have: The demanding husband who had come up with a list of daily tasks the wife was supposed to perform in order to satisfy him; or the second husband, the one who treated her with great respect, who honored her, and whom she came to love deeply? The wife obeyed the first husband’s demands, but hated the demands, and hated the husband. The same wife loved and cherished her relationship with the second husband, and ended up doing the same things, and more, out of love—not because she had to, but because she wanted to, because she loved the husband who loved her.
The Law and Sin
The Law and Grace
The Book of Romans, Part 1
The Law, the Spirit, and the Faith