Sometimes I’m Sad

… that I can’t be the kind of Christian everyone expects. You know?

The kind with a contemporary Christian hymn in their hearts all the time. The kind who is always eager to tell someone about Jesus at the first excuse. The kind who goes to church faithfully, every time the door is open. The kind who gives generously every week he attends. The kind that can vote a certain way with no qualms in their conscience. The kind who believe God is in control of every minute detail all the time because He chooses to be. The kind whose kids turn out the way everyone expected them to. The kind who doesn’t question the traditions. The kind who gets along.

But that’s just not me. Some of those things were never me; I just didn’t make a big deal about them.

The fact is, I can’t be that kind of Christian. And I won’t pretend.

I’d rather be genuinely me than someone who says and does what must be done to fit in.

The contemporary Christian hymns — frankly, all the songs sung at church — are not the comfort they once were. They remind me of my departed Angi, who loved them and had them in her heart all the time and listened to them in the car and on her iPhone in the office. And that just raises difficult questions for me about God’s goodness that nobody actually has answers for, so it makes the faith and the trust in Him that I still have even more difficult.

My eagerness to share a gospel message is not what it was. For one thing, people find it off-putting and self-righteous and often not credible from people who can’t live up to it, and I am one of those far-from-perfect people. I’ll be glad to tell anyone who asks about the reason for the hope that lies within me (to put it in scriptural language), but most of the time it’s all I can do to try to be like Jesus of Nazareth. I used to preach. Now it’s just a matter of practice. In this case, practice won’t make perfect. He has to do that. I get that. I grasp the concept of grace, even if I can’t fathom the depths of it.

And I haven’t been to church but a couple of times in the past two years and more. I have questions and concerns about what church is and should be and how it’s done and what its purpose and expectations are that far exceed the word count of a readable post.

Giving to support some of those things I’m not sure I can believe in … well, that’s just not an option right now. I can give to support people I know who are in genuine need; I can give in other ways in total anonymity; I can give to the kinds of things that Jesus of Nazareth talks about giving to support. Did you ever notice He never once talked about giving to His church in scripture?

Frankly, I am horrified at the political tack that churches have taken to support a particular party and even economic/social ideology that I often find antithetical to the life that He lived and the way He loved and the extent to which He gave … even to His own life. For people who never earned it, never worked for it, never could, never will.

Because I can’t believe God shows favoritism, to rich or poor, one skin color over another, one ethnicity over another, one set of life choices over another, one religion over another, one soul over another. If He loves the whole world, then the Son He gave is for everyone. But God as micro-manager? Undoing everything in some karmic cosmic way that intentionally harms some people to the benefit of others; that’s one thing. But to undo the real-world consequences of it as if that doesn’t matter in this world at all? No. I can’t vote that way or believe that way because He doesn’t operate that way. Whether you take the story of Eden literally or not, the gist of it is that He gave us choice in the very beginning and He doesn’t interfere with the consequences and rewards of what we have chosen. Others might, but not Him. Evil still exists in this world because we still choose it; we choose self instead of others and Him. And that’s why there’s still death in the world, why there’s still suffering in the world, why there’s still inequity and hatred and greed and poverty and illness and crime and murder and bigotry and ….

Well, you get the idea. I don’t have all the answers. But that much seems obvious.

I choose. You choose. Our kids choose. Their kids choose. And we’re responsible for our own choices; no one else’s. I’m glad and proud that my kids are into adulthood, still forming their own spirituality just like their dad is. I’m proud that Angi and I helped instill and nurture a yearning for a deep spirituality in them. I can hope it leads them into good lives that care deeply about others. So far, it’s looking that way to me. What they do for a living, as far as I’m concerned, is relatively inconsequential compared to how they live their lives.

If they turn out anything like me, they’ll never accept tradition for the sake of tradition; never choose to go along just to get along; never be solely what someone else expects of them.

But sometimes I’m sad I can’t.

Rarely. But sometimes.

Because that would be easy.

Is This How We Want to be Known?

Many of us folks in churches of Christ are peculiar people.

RefuteYouThe problem is that, somewhere along our journey as a nondenominational nondenomination, too many of us have embraced the misapprehension that we are not only called to be a peculiar people — called out from among those “other” folks in the world — but that we are the One True Church That Has Everything Right and therefore The Only Ones Going to Heaven which means that Everyone Else is Going to Hell.

I guess that makes it incumbent upon so many of us to straighten out everyone who doesn’t see everything — and I mean everything — the way we do.

Considering the vigor with which we pursue that mission, you would think it was Christ’s Great Commission itself. Not so much to save the unsaved souls in this world, but to correct the souls in other churches who think they are already saved but are in fact mistaken on at least a point or two and therefore apostate and blasphemous and even more certainly bound for hell.

So the mission of many of us (whose church signs quote Romans 16:16 as if God had intended it to be the proprietary copyright-protected brand name of our group of believers) is not to salute, but to refute. We must refute everything that does not conform to the doctrines of our tradition.

All of which makes us about as attractive as Sheldon Cooper of television’s Big Bang Theory but without any of the personal charm.

May I just say this to the folks who have been so impressed with our peculiarly-misplaced mission: We’re an autonomous collective, like the peons of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. We don’t have an overarching nationwide or multinational church structure. We don’t have imposed discipline for poor behavior. Each congregation does as it pleases, or hopefully, does as the good Lord pleases.

Therefore, I can’t apologize for the folks from churches of Christ who may have ambushed you in this way.

However, I can encourage you to forgive us and pray for us and hope that we will eventually perceive and wish to imitate the winsomeness of our Savior.

We’re not all that way. Some of us are not afraid to question the doctrines jackhammered into our heads and hearts from an early age and welded there by the terror of hellfire if we doubted. Some of us are willing to use logic that adheres to generally-accepted norms, and to imagine God and love and grace as more than Judge and correction and condemnation. Some of us are eager to see salvation as a gracious way of living Christ in this world as well as living with Him in the next. Some of us desire to be self-disciplined; to seek; to learn; to grasp; to embrace; to truly converse rather than just correct. Some of us believe that perfect love really does cast out fear.

Not all of us. The old ways die hard. And they feed our egoes. Some of us still want to get that better-than-thou rush. Some of us are convinced that the word “distinctive” is the most important word in scripture, even though it doesn’t appear there at all. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of browbeating and disciplining of others to maintain that level of certainty and arrogance, but it has persisted for many generations now in some pockets of our sometimes-fellowship, sometimes-similar-brand-name-only. Yet it can’t last forever.

Nothing that comes solely from the heart of man can.

I don’t think anyone can refute that.

I have lived in both camps. There are times — even now, while writing this — that the temptation is strong to leave the camp of the loving correctible and pitch a tent among the angry correctors. But I don’t dare.

There’s really no future in it.

And I still stand in need of correcting myself — frequently, privately, lovingly, and graciously. That’s how I’d prefer it.

But if it must also be firm and well-reasoned and communal and public, then so be it.

I know there will be those who will find this post ultimately offensive, hideously arrogant, and unforgivably divisive. Some of them will have written correctives more personally, more pointedly, naming those whom they judge and condemn without even once having made an effort to go to those folks singly or in twos or threes or even before the church before taking the matter before the whole world — first in printed publications and now digital ones. I refuse to do that. I believe Jesus shared the instructions of Matthew 18:15ff for good reasons. I do not believe that Paul failed to follow them, even if the details of that compliance are not recorded but assumed by scripture. So I do not believe those instructions are optional. Ever.

Let me make it clear: this post isn’t written to the people who will find it offensive, but to those whom they may have offended or condemned or turned completely away from Christ by an inaccurate and incomplete imitation of His just nature uncomplicated by His merciful nature.

I do hope they know this: that I love them anyway; that I want their efforts for God to be of a nature that He can bless them and make them fruitful; that I dearly desire for them to know Christ and the power of His resurrection: a sacrificial new life free of self and the shackles of man-made law and characterized instead by the freedom found in His Spirit to serve creatively and jofully. I wish that for everyone, including me.

Because I need to read and re-read; consider and re-consider my faith, and the way I practice it, and the Lord I seek to serve … more than anyone else.

I don’t think anyone can refute that, either.

Three Ways We Shortchange Law and Grace

First of all, I think we do injustice to God’s instructions in scripture — both testaments — by seeing them as merely law; arbitrary things we must do to gain His favor or to avoid obliteration. Psalm 119 saw the law as an insight into God’s deep love for us, and so did Jesus (Matthew 22:34ff). God gives us instructions for us to become more like Him, not only for our own good, but for the good of all.

Secondly, I think we understand poorly the concept that law has been supplanted by grace in the example and Person and sacrifice of Jesus Christ (John 1:17). Law is not bad, but it is insufficient to save (Galatians 3:21; Hebrews 7:11). Its time and function to lead us has past (Romans 6:14). It is now written on our hearts, which should be much softer than tablets of stone.

Third, God still has instructions for us through Christ. He repealed specific instructions through what He taught, did and suffered – rendering them obsolete: animal sacrifice, priestly tribes, sabbath observance, as examples. They were replaced by much broader, wider, more demanding, more perfect expectations: self-sacrifice, priesthood of all believers, constant spiritual act of worship, etc. But not all were specifically repealed.

Some were specifically reaffirmed. We still are not to commit murder … but neither are we to hate. We are still not to commit adultery … nor are we to look after someone not our spouse with lust, and thereby commit adultery in our hearts.

Some were left as matters of conscience and tradition, not binding on Gentiles.

And some of the 613 precepts of the law just don’t get mentioned at all.

This calls for discernment, which is the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we can ask for it.

Does God still detest divorce (Malachi 2:16) and find remarriage to the original partner detestable (Deuteronomy 24:4)? When did it stop being an abomination to Him, so that some teach it as a requirement to please Him? Does Numbers 23:19 lie about Him changing His mind?

He commands (2 Chronicles 29:25) and is pleased with worship that includes singing accompanied by instruments of music, right through the the Old Testament– see Psalm 150 for a sample. When did He change His mind about this? Why would He not express this change explicitly as Jesus does about the Sabbath? Has He ever failed to tell — no, to SHOW — us what is expected of us?

“He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” – Micah 6:8


This article is expanded from a comment I made at Tim Archer’s blog.

Grace, Good Things, and Lazarus

We know the story and it teases, taunts and mystifies us:

19 “There was a rich man who was dressed in purple and fine linen and lived in luxury every day. 20 At his gate was laid a beggar named Lazarus, covered with sores 21and longing to eat what fell from the rich man’s table. Even the dogs came and licked his sores.

22 “The time came when the beggar died and the angels carried him to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried. 23 In Hades, where he was in torment, he looked up and saw Abraham far away, with Lazarus by his side. 24 So he called to him, ‘Father Abraham, have pity on me and send Lazarus to dip the tip of his finger in water and cool my tongue, because I am in agony in this fire.’

25 “But Abraham replied, ‘Son, remember that in your lifetime you received your good things, while Lazarus received bad things, but now he is comforted here and you are in agony. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been set in place, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, nor can anyone cross over from there to us.’

27 “He answered, ‘Then I beg you, father, send Lazarus to my family, 28 for I have five brothers. Let him warn them, so that they will not also come to this place of torment.’

29 “Abraham replied, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them listen to them.’

30 “‘No, father Abraham,’ he said, ‘but if someone from the dead goes to them, they will repent.’

31 “He said to him, ‘If they do not listen to Moses and the Prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone rises from the dead.’” ~ Luke 16:19-31

I’ve been criticized in the last few months for proposing that perhaps not all mankind is totally depraved, and that those who hear and believe are recipients of a promise of salvation, but that salvation is not necessarily denied to those who haven’t heard.

So I just wanted to bring up this little story that Jesus told and point out that (whatever His point in relating it was at the moment), the poor man Lazarus in this story dies and receives eternal comfort. He is not commended for exceptional behavior nor for his faith in God nor for any attribute of his life over which he seemed to have control.

The difference between Lazarus and the rich man in torment was that in life Lazarus received bad things and the rich man received good things.

And if this story has any value at all in describing the afterlife (and I believe it does; a second value in addition to describing the unwillingness of some in Jesus’ lifetime who would not believe in resurrection), then its secondary value may well be in pointing out that God saves whom He wishes to save. He is sovereign. He is free to do that.

That does not mean that He will necessarily save everyone; it’s not even implied. The Lord gives life to whomever He wills:

For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. ~ John 5:21

Is Lazarus an example of this unqualified grace and mercy? A way Jesus meant to communicate it? What are your reasons for thinking so — or not?

Feel free to discuss among yourselves.

‘Except Through Me’

I am not a universalist. I do not believe that God will save everyone. He would have liked that (2 Peter 3:9), but that same verse makes it obvious that “not perish” is conditional upon “repentance.”

However, I am not fully convinced that when Jesus says ….

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” ~ John 14:6

… that He means “If you have not heard of me and therefore have not believed and done all the other things that a church tells you to do to express your belief in Me, you are forever lost and condemned to eternal punishment.”

What if He means by “no one comes to the Father except through Me” is that He is the one who decides who’s in and who’s out?

Romans 2:16 and 2 Timothy 4:1 strongly imply that both God the Father and Christ the Son are involved in judgment at a day yet to come. Acts 17:31 agrees. While “the Lord” could refer to either of them a few verses down in 2 Timothy 4:8, Paul specifies which Lord, the Lord who will be appearing: Christ Jesus. And in 2 Corinthians 5:10, Paul speaks of the “judgment throne of Christ.” Without doubt, Matthew 25 puts Jesus on that throne – in His own words.

In fact, the whole of Romans 2 deals with the subject of people judging each other and how unwise that is in view of the fact that God’s judgment through Christ awaits us all. He will judge based on truth (v. 2) – and we know that Jesus is the Word, the Truth (John 1:14; 17:17; and 14:6 above).

He is also life itself, and like God, gives it and renews it to whom He wishes (John 5:21). (In fact, read the whole of John 6 for a fuller picture. Add to that reading list John 10:28 and John 17:2 and Romans 8 for more about by Whom and how that life is given. And throw in 1 John 5 for good measure.)

Is it possible that when Jesus says “no one comes to the Father except through Me,” He is talking about Who He is, what authority and influence and power He has … rather than something that is required of people in response to a truth they perhaps have not even heard, or maybe just haven’t fully understood?

The Law of Expedients

Worship is one of those “both-and” areas of our lives together as Christians. It cannot be an “either-or” because God has filled His family with extraordinary diversity so that we can keep each other in balance. Worship together is a matter of what God wants FOR us as well as what He wants FROM us. (See A Comprehensive Hermeneutic and Part 2 for some thoughts on this.)

If it were only a matter of praising Him, there would be no need for us to do it together. It would be clearly laid out in rules to follow, and it would not matter whether it came from our hearts or not; it would simply be a matter of rote obedience.

If it were only a matter of worshiping together, we could do whatever we wanted to that was edifying to ourselves/each other as long as it didn’t directly violate scripture, but it would not necessarily have God as its intentional focus and in the end, it would not be worship. Fellowship, maybe, or at worst self-indulgence. But not worship.

The problem comes when one point of view sees itself as the only one that matters and the other as unnecessary, dangerous, and/or unscriptural.

If scripture were a radio station, there would be folks who would insist that its format is all-law, all-the-time. And that’s all they can hear in it. They are plenty vocal about what is “wrong” with the other point of view, so for the sake of balance, I’d just like to chat about the problems that arise when a “law-only” point of view is observed.

This hermeneutic, or way of looking at scripture, can sometimes be very useful in determining what God says to do or not do, and what He wants FROM us. It is not as useful when determining what God wants FOR us. There are still problems when you use it only with logic and not without love and a discernment for God’s entire nature of justice and mercy. That leads to logical absurdities like The Law of Silence.

Because there are problems with it, a set of amendments has to be legislated onto it in order to interpret it and help it seem less absurd and more logical.

Since the Law of Silence* dictates that anything God has not commanded is forbidden, and any proposed action or practice must be commanded by God, exceptions have to be made for the things we are already doing which are not directly commanded, exemplified, or even inferred of necessity from scripture.

That’s where the “Law of Expedients” comes in.

Its adherents often explain it is drawn from the KJV scriptures I Corinthians 6:12, where it summarizes what Corinth was considering the “permissibility” or “lawfulness” of fornication, idolatry, adultery, cross-dressing/male prostitution, homosexuality, theft, greed, drunkenness, slander, and extortion and in 10:23, where it focuses more on just idolatry, sexual sin, and eating/participating in food sacrificed to idols – and still eating the bread and drinking the cup at the Lord’s table. In both cases, it says:

All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not. / All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.

Now, I ask you, can you demonstrate that any of those things are truly items about which God is silent – or was silent about at that time – either in scripture or through His servants?

Nevertheless, its adherents can confidently state that “Expedients help fulfill the instruction, but additions change the instruction.” And in case you can’t logic it out for yourself, they will sometimes supply a handy-dandy chart so that you’ll know which things are expedients and which things are additions to scripture. (Although the chart itself is not listed among the additions to scripture, so it logically must be an expedient.) Here’s a reproduction of one of them; I’d credit it, but I have modified it slightly for clarity and I’m not certain the specific author would want to be associated with my revised – but standard – version:

Bible Examples Expedients Additions
Lawful and Authorized Unlawful and Unauthorized
Noah’s Ark – Gen. 6:13-22 Tools to cut, join, and to spread pitch; gopher wood Larger size, additional windows, additional woods
Tabernacle – Ex. 25:9,40; 26:30; Ex. 39:32,42,43 Tools to work silver, gold, and wood in making the tabernacle and its furniture Making ark of covenant out of both acacia and pine wood
Lord’s Supper Bread and Fruit of the Vine; Trays and Cups Roast Lamb
Baptize, Be Baptized Baptistery, pool, river, lake, sea, or bathtub Sprinkling and pouring are different actions
Singing- Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; Heb. 13:15 Songbook, pitch pipe, tuning fork Piano,
Organ – Different kind of music, Different means of praise

If there is any way that a chart or set of definitions of “Expedients” like this can be qualified as a teaching of God through scripture rather than an interpretation or tradition of man, please let know how.

Otherwise, it would seem to me to be extra-scriptural, unscriptural, and something which God did not command to be done in order to worship or serve Him acceptably.

We speak of God as a Father, as He wants us to speak and think of Him. Would He consider us good parents if we punished our children cruelly for doing something harmless, something “extra” to express their love for us – because we had not specifically commanded them to do so? Or because they did not fully understand our instructions and asked for clarification, but we refused to reveal that truth to them even though we had promised to do so?

He has promised. He will provide. All we have to do is ask (Luke 11:33; John 16:5-15).

Why do we fail to ask?

Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. – Proverbs 3:5

*I have a problem with the “Law of Silence” creed, if you haven’t already guessed. Since it is minimalist by definition, then taking it to its logical conclusion provides a reason – or an excuse – for doing as little as possible to worship or serve God and being satisfied that it is scripturally “enough” because that’s all God commands and more would be wrong. To me, that flies in the face of The Parable of the Talents, where Jesus speaks of reward for creativity and risk-taking in serving God.

Doing Good v. Knowing All The Right Answers

It’s important to know the right answers to the right questions, granted: Who is Jesus? What did He teach? What must I do to be saved?

But knowing all the right answers on all the issues and to all the questions about what must be right and wrong in any given situation is far from enough. Doing what’s good – without judging others; just judging for one’s self – is at least as important (and maybe far more important) to the person who wants to live a life pleasing to God.

How can I say that?

“To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life.” – Romans 2:7

“Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” – 1 Corinthians 8:1b

“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.” – Galatians 6:9

Because Paul said so.

“Our people must learn to devote themselves to doing what is good, in order that they may provide for daily necessities and not live unproductive lives.” – Titus 3:14

Because Paul’s letter to Titus said so. (Four times in a very short letter.)

“You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached— how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him.” – Acts 10:37-38

“Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us. … For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish men.” – 1 Peter 2:12, 15

Because Peter said so.

“Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” – James 4:17

Because James said so.

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” – Luke 6:31

Jesus replied, “And you experts in the law, woe to you, because you load people down with burdens they can hardly carry, and you yourselves will not lift one finger to help them.” – Luke 11:46

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ ” – Matthew 25:34-36

Because Jesus said so.

“And the LORD God commanded the man, “You are free to eat from any tree in the garden; but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” – Genesis 2:16-17

Because God said so.

Scripture approves of study and knowledge of God’s will and His heart. Scripture disapproves of false teaching and heresy.

Yet nothing in scripture says or implies that our acumen in logic nor our ability to research Biblical languages nor our propensity to create issues nor our so-called wisdom in knowing all the right answers to all the wrong questions has anything to do with a life that is transformed by the love (and into the image) of Christ.

It should go without saying you can’t know without doing.

Law and Sin and Sight

As a marvelous epilogue to the account of Jesus giving sight to a blind man, He tells some Pharisees (who have overheard Him speaking to the man who, after being called before them twice, would not tell them what they wanted to hear):

Jesus said, “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” Some Pharisees who were with him heard him say this and asked, “What? Are we blind too?” Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains. ~ John 9:39-41

Then He tells them – and has to explain to them – a parable about the sheep and their shepherd and their gate.

But what does He mean, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains”?

I realize a lot of commentary has been written to the effect that Jesus is refuting their erroneous belief that sin led to the man’s blindness, a belief that His disciples were asking Him to clarify (John 9:1-6). I have no dispute with that. I just want to know if there’s more to it.

Was He also talking about the Pharisees’ attitude – that they felt they knew it all? His phrase is “you claim you can see.” Is there anything more absurd than someone who can’t see claiming that he can? Jesus even makes a dark joke about it on two occasions – in the sermon on the plain (Luke 6:39) and after upbraiding the Pharisees on their finicky insistence on conformance to the tiniest detail of the law (handwashing here, in Matthew 15:14). He uses that term “blind guides” against them two more times, according to Matthew’s gospel: once at the beginning of a good lambasting for their following the letter of the law with regard to swearing by the temple (and ignoring the spirit of it, Matthew 23:16) … then again a few verses later at the end of a lambasting about tithing tiny herbs mint, dill and cummin – while neglecting the payment of justice, mercy and faithfulness to God (Matthew 23:24). That’s followed by an even more preposterous joke, “You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel!”

They thought they knew it all, but they could not weigh out what really matters to God; instead, spending their energies and passions on legislating what God didn’t mean.

Now, to the first part of the original sentence quoted: “”If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin.”

What does that mean?

Does it also mean that if you were blind to the law (which you think you see and comprehend and can perfectly interpret by your legislation, commentary and clarifications) you would not be guilty of sin?

I ask, because that seems to be in harmony with what is said about law and sin by Paul’s powerful treatise on sin and the law to the Christians at Rome:

All who sin apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law will be judged by the law. ~ Romans 2:12

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. ~ Romans 3:20

… before the law was given, sin was in the world. But sin is not taken into account when there is no law. ~ Romans 5:13

For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under law, but under grace. ~ Romans 6:14

For when we were controlled by the sinful nature, the sinful passions aroused by the law were at work in our bodies, so that we bore fruit for death. But sin, seizing the opportunity afforded by the commandment, produced in me every kind of covetous desire. For apart from law, sin is dead. Once I was alive apart from law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. ~ Romans 7:5

What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in the sinful nature a slave to the law of sin. !~ Romans 7:24-25

Do you not get the picture from these verses that we are much better off without a mindset based on law; that God intended to replace law (not augment it!) for all time with grace through the gospel of His Son; that all the good we would do and all the evil we would shun would be motivated out of gratitude for what He did on the cross; that the good work we surrender to doing and the resistance to evil work are empowered by one and the same Spirit living within us and working through us?

Law has nothing to offer in comparison with grace. Why do we want to go back to that mindset of obeying a law rather than obeying a gospel? There’s all the difference in the world between them – the law was bad news for us and everyone before us; the gospel is by definition good news for all! We obey not because we are fear condemnation for our inescapable failure, but because we feel obligated by His act of ultimate, self-sacrificial love!

“If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin.”

“But sin is not taken into account where there is no law.”

Yes, it is true that where there is no law, there is lawlessness and injustice and God’s displeasure. Is that all these verses are saying? Is it only saying that people were aware of sin before the law; that awareness of it was in their genetic structure from the time the first couple ate from the wrong tree? Is it also saying that law has fulfilled its purpose when making people aware of sin, and it’s time for the next step – grace?

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit. ~ Romans 8:1-4

So this new “law” – with very few commandments, and very many teachings and personal examples and requests and with blessings built into all of them – this gospel supersedes the “do this; don’t do that” mindset about every conceivable choice or situation or circumstance. It’s replaced with, “Be like Christ.” It’s succeeded by “Do unto others.” It’s matured by “Sacrifice self.” It’s perfected by “Do all to the glory of God.”

Why would anyone want to go back to being blind and yet claiming to see after being exposed to the glorious light of truth in that gospel?

I know that a Damascus-bound Paul didn’t see things that way.

I don’t believe Jesus expects us to, either.

Father, May I?

There’s a way of looking at scripture that insists its purpose is to authorize or condemn every possible course of action under the sun; that all the rules and instructions are there, and are all perfectly understandable to everyone who sincerely seeks them.

It sounds really attractive – like the Bible can be subtitled Your Complete and Foolproof Instruction Book for Every Aspect of Life … The ‘For Dummies’ Edition! – if that’s the way you want to view it.

I have trouble limiting the Bible to that role or subtitle.

That view makes life really just a child’s game of “Father, May I?” whenever we encounter a question about something we might want to do or not do; to say or not say. You just open the book, search around a little, and WOW! Sure, enough! There’s the answer on page 728b!

So you spend your life trying to get permission; trying never to do the wrong thing; trying to be perfect – then hitting the wall when you realize deep down that you’re failing miserably, because there was only One of those perfect guys – and finally either spending the remainder of your days depressed and purposeless, or lying to yourself that you have achieved perfection and followed all the rules. Or perhaps alternating schizophrenically between them.

Your whole life is a monotonous chain of questions.

Father, may I smoke? Father, may I drink? Father, may I drink if I don’t get drunk? Father, may I clap in church? Father, may I give to a church-related cooperative organization that feeds starving orphans and widows? Father, may I worship in public with instrumental music? In private? In private without actually worshiping? Can I just listen to it?

There would be a problem for some people if they started perceiving answers from Him in what they were taught scripture said, like “No! I don’t like clapping anymore. I’m not sure I ever liked it in the Old Testament worship plan. Or musical instruments, either. Maybe we’ll have some harps and trumpets in heaven later. But not right now. I don’t feel like it.”

I would be one of those people.

And the real problem isn’t in any of the answers that you might find – some of which may sometimes seem contradictory even to the sincerest of Biblical pupils – but with the questions:

“Father, may I?”

Why should anyone feel obligated to search scripture up and down, backwards and forwards; to fast and pray and beg of God for permission to do something good? Shouldn’t our questions be more directed to the welfare and benefit of others? Don’t we already, deep-down, have a pretty good idea what pleases God and what really, really ticks Him off just from reading the stories about the people in scripture who sought His heart – or did everything in their power to oppose Him and glorify themselves?

Is the primary purpose of the Bible to keep God in a job of constantly-pestered Father, constantly dispensing permission and authority through His word to men so they can do (or not do) whatever thing they’re asking about? Or to empower people to do the good they create in His likeness, by relieving them from the constraint of guilt and sin and doubt and self-centeredness by revealing the selfless sacrifice of Jesus, the Christ?

Now don’t misquote me. Of course there are things that are word-for-word prohibited in scripture, and things that are word-for-word authorized. There are things that are commanded. There are also things that are suggested. There are things that are recommended, and some recommended against. There are some good examples. There are some really bad examples. There are some inferences you can make; some of them necessary and some of them downright absurd. And there are a whole passel of things that are left up to each and every one of us to figure out for ourselves, to help us mature our own consciences, to assist in building our own relationship with God through His Son and His Spirit.

No one else can authoritatively decide them for us. Their pronouncements wouldn’t help us grow individually or communally, or help us struggle for ourselves, or for own our own answers.

Because all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to Jesus. Not to men. Not to a book. Not even the Bible. Nothing in it says that He redistributed it in any measure, except to his apostles to do good things for others – cast out demons; heal the sick. The authority is His. He judges. He decides. And if all the books in the world could not contain what could be written of Him, then they certainly couldn’t contain precisely detailed legislation for every conceivable situation or desire or question that confronts us.

That’s not what the Bible was primarily designed to be, just: The Book of Rules.

It was written to be The Book of God and Man, Reunited Through Jesus.

We can trust Him. We can trust Him to be both righteous and loving; merciful and just. We don’t have to waste our entire lives asking questions. We do good. We can become better. He will help us.

He didn’t let us down on the cross. And He won’t let us down now.

The Bible is not so much about permission so we will all live spotless lives as it is about forgiveness, because we can’t.

It’s been that way since the beginning. It’ll always be that way. It’s the way we were made: perfect, but gifted with choice – and imperfect by choice.

Of course we need rules. We also need guidelines. We need boundaries. And we need freedom. We were never meant to be creatures of only one-or-the-other.

If we are created in God’s image, don’t you think He hopes we will imitate His own creativity? Innovating new ways to touch the lives around us with His love? Pioneering new expressions of our love for Him? Trying things we’ve never dared to try before, and growing in courage because we try; perhaps even succeeding in persuading souls that we’ve never been able to touch or reach before?

Or do you think He’d prefer that we all huddle together in rubber-stamped unity and agree on a set of minimum daily adult requirements for moral and acceptable Christian living; making it as difficult as possible to prove one’s devotion through the strictest, narrowest interpretations imposed upon each new Christian; condemning to hell all those who would dare to disagree with the interpretation we have legislated for all time and all mankind in our perfect and divine wisdom and Bible-given authority?

“… But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. …. (to teachers of the law and the Pharisees) You shut the kingdom of heaven in men’s faces. You yourselves do not enter, nor will you let those enter who are trying to. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You travel over land and sea to win a single convert, and when he becomes one, you make him twice as much a son of hell as you are.” (~ from Matthew 23)