Paul here accentuates the fact of the loathsome theology that he had previously redressed, the theology that states that we are made righteous through works of the Law. He explains to the this concept: to believe that our works of the flesh hold any bearing on our standing with the Lord, that we could earn our righteousness in anyway, would in fact place us in a position of having the Lord and Creator of all things as our debtor. To explain, when I work at my job, I create a debtor/debtee relationship. I work, thus my employer owes me payment for services rendered. My employer, at that moment, is indebted to me. When I receive my paycheck, it is his repaying the debt which I am owed. This is the exact mindset that Paul is approaching here theologically. If we perform works for the purpose of obtaining the grace of the Lord, then our works create a debt situation, and His grace becomes the payment that is given to repay that debt. Thus, in considering this, we create the exact situation of the Lord, the Creator, being indebted to us, rather than the truth, which is the inverse. So often, we like to consider that the Lord needs us; as though we are doing Him a favor when we go to Church. How often do we enter the mindset of “I’ll go to Church/tithe/spend time in prayer, so long as…” We create this sort of spiritual quid pro quo with the Lord in our minds, but what we fail to understand is that God doesn’t need us; we need Him. 100 years ago, I wasn’t here; and 100 years from now, I shall not be here; but His work will still be done. He doesn’t need me, but I desperately need Him. And, when we are able to remember that, then suddenly the things like spiritual disciplines cease to be a chore, but rather become what they truly are, a gift. Abiding in the commandments of the Lord cease to be work and become a privilege; when we consider that it is only through His power that we are able to abide in those commandments. We no longer practice wickedness, not because we feel as though we will earn entrance to the kingdom because we stop, but rather because we are given the freedom and the power through the Lord to break free of those chains.
Our salvation is no sort of paycheck received in exchange for our “working towards the kingdom,” and neither are our works some sort of divine spiritual blackmail. Our faith is not in the works that we perform, but rather in the One who enables us to perform them. And that for His glory, not for ours. Consider how greatly the Lord is glorified when an adulterer is not merely forgiven for his sins, but is actually freed from their power over him. Or the drunkard who is not merely forgiven for his intoxication, but is actually convicted and empowered to be freed from it. Chrysostom, in his homily on the Gospel of Matthew, states, in explaining the term “good tidings” (translated “Gospel” in contemporary times), “…for it was for the removal of punishment, and remission of sins, and righteousness and sanctification, and redemption, and adoption, and an inheritance of Heaven, and a relationship unto the Son of God, which he came declaring unto all…” Acknowledging that the Lord is able to free us from this bondage is the first step of doing so, and the actions and suffering which accompany these actions, this freedom, are an extension thereof. Paul is stating that it is because of faith that we are saved, and that our salvation necessarily entails this adherence to the commands of the Lord; but that obedience to the commands of the Lord in absentia of faith are nothing more than legalistic moralism. And acknowledgement of His ability to free us in absentia of the work that is required is nothing more than lip service; it is the man who constantly tells his wife that he loves her, but never buys her flowers, or takes her out, or gives her flowers for their anniversary. It is the man who says I love you but is unwilling to change anything that offends her; that claims to love one woman but still craves the intimacy of others. When we become joined to someone in wedlock, we acknowledge that there must be change because of that commitment, likewise, when we turn to the Lord in faith, there must also be changes that accompany that. A man could never get married just because he quits going to the bar; however, a man who is married to a woman who doesn’t like him going to the bar will eventually stop going or cease being married.
This is where we find the disconnect that Paul is addressing here. Take, as an example, a man given to short-temperedness. He knows from the Scripture that the Lord considers unjust anger a sin. Thus, he goes out of his way to control his temper. That man, by the sheer will of his mind, able to obtain some degree of control over his anger, is not saved by his ability to keep that temper in check. However, if he were to turn to the Lord in true faith, as part of his salvation, his healing, that lack of control would be solved. However, because the healing comes from the Lord, it wouldn’t be a conscious decision to control his temper, rather, his heart would change to where situations which previously invoked his anger no longer do so. Similarly, a drunkard cannot obtain the kingdom of heaven through sobriety, however, through faith and spiritual maturity, he would necessarily become sober, if he is truly walking in the faith. It becomes a part of his healing. Drinking alcohol is not a sin in and of itself, however, drunkenness is; thus for the average person, partaking of the vine is perfectly acceptable in moderation, however, for the alcoholic, it is not. Thus, the healing that each of us is empowered to by the Lord varies depending on each person. This is a very fine, but necessary, line, for each of us to remember, and a large part of the reason that it is so dangerous to judge the actions of another. The remedy for the illness of sin which afflicts me will be different from the remedy which the Lord gives to you; thus to judge you based on what the Lord has given to me becomes a very dangerous slope, and one which Jesus Himself warns us against.
Paul continues, evoking David as his witness, that this theology of faith versus the Law, not only predated the Law (v. 3-4) but was also visible during the time of the Law. See, it’s easy to look to Abraham and Noah and state that they were made righteous through faith before the Law; and just as easy to state that once the Law was given, that it took precedence over the faith that those patriarchs were given. Thus, Paul shows that this theology of faith over the Law was evident during the time of the Law as well. As we discover in Psalm 31, David discovered what had already been given to Abraham to know; our forgiveness comes through the grace of the Lord, through repentance, through humility, and through faith. The purpose, nay the very power of the Law, was never to provide us with a means to righteousness, but rather to reveal to us sin that we could repent, in faith, and understand our need for healing and for guidance. My conscious willfulness could never obtain to perfection, to the “righteousness of God,” but through my knowledge of the Law, I can recognize my sinfulness, which I can then turn in the stillness of prayer and faithfully ask the Lord to guide me into His righteousness.
We must always be mindful of the fact that the Law, nay all of Scripture, was given to us for a purpose. And that purpose was so that we could better understand the need for our faith and for the grace of the Lord to guide us into righteousness, to free us from the bondage of iniquity. In much the same way as the Law was for the Jews whom Paul is addressing, is imperative for our faith. But, similarly, Scripture, like the Law, is not our faith. Our faith is our relationship with our beloved Christ, and Scripture is the means by which we can come to know what is and isn’t pleasing to Him. It is the means by which we can learn what is pleasing to Him and what is displeasing. But, knowledge of Scripture is by no means a sufficient substitute for our relationship with our Lord Jesus. I believe that, especially in our time, far too little time is spent in reading the Holy Scriptures. But, I believe that even more forsaken is our time spent in communion with our beloved Lord; time spent in prayer. I’ve met many people who have committed themselves to reading 10 chapters of Scripture per day, and yet spend only five to ten minutes in prayer.
To relate this concept in more concrete, more contemporary terms; I am married. Imagine, if you can, a world in which I have one hour to spend with her in a day. Now, imagine if during that hour I spend 55 minutes of it reading her diary and only five minutes actually speaking to her. Jesus has promised us that He is always with us, yet how much time do we spend actually communing with Him? Take any great figure, any celebrity; historical or contemporary. Now, imagine that you read their biography. Imagine that you have read Babe Ruth’s biography. Or JFK’s biography. Would you proclaim, in the face of critics, that you had a relationship with him? Would you say that he is your friend? Of course not, because reading about him and actually knowing him are two totally different things? And yet, we do the exact opposite with the Lord. We read Scripture and proclaim that it is our relationship with Him. And the more we know, the closer we feel that we are. And this is the mindset that Paul is warning against with the Jews. They knew the Law forwards and backwards, in multiple languages. They could take one letter of the Aramiac text and explain everything about it, from it’s origins to speculating whatever meaning they thought could be derived from it. But, when He actually walked the earth, when they were given the opportunity to know Him, they were so lost in their textbook theology approach, that they refused to actually know Him.
We need to be extremely careful of doing the same thing. In our generation, it so often happens that we replace intimacy with connection; that we mistake maturity for wisdom. We constantly consider our acquaintances to be our close personal friends. And, we apply this to everyone, to extended family, to friends that we’ve never met, to anyone and everyone. And ultimately we’ve done this with the Lord Himself. We read, we do Bible studies, we learn everything that we can about Him; His likes, His dislikes, His rules, His commands. But, so often, we do that and mistake that for growing in our relationship with Him. We mistake our knowledge about Him for our spiritual maturity. But, we must remember that we can never “exegete” our way to a relationship with anyone, much less with God. Knowing and obeying His Law won’t save us, but if we are growing in our relationship with Him then we will obey His Law. It’s ever so important to understand His words, but it’s equally important to remember that our relationship with Him is so much more than hermeneutics and memorization. Memorizing Scripture is not maturity, and theological science is not salvation. Salvation is the love of God reconciling us to Himself, and making us to walk in His steps, being remade in His image. There’s much more to our faith than our studies, rather, it’s the love of God made manifest through us, displayed to the world, and all to the glory of God.
I pray that none of us lose sight of this. By no means would I ever say neglect reading the Scriptures, they truly are imperative to our faith. At the same time, however, may we never mistake our knowledge of Scripture for true spiritual maturity. And, even moreso, we must never neglect our communion with our Lord, or with His Body, which is the Church.
May the peace of the Lord be with you all, my beloved family. Christ is in our midst.