The Rules Are Killing You
The opening paragraphs of the Bible depict God's words as being extremely powerful. He speaks the world and everything in it into existence. God utters a command, and things simply begin to exist. God said it, and it was so.
So, doesn’t that obviously mean that God’s moral commands also contain the power to cause us to obey them? Aren’t God’s commandments inherently accompanied by the strength to obey them, since they are God’s words? Some Christians have made this claim - that God saying “do not covet” has the same powerful effect as him saying “Let there be light.” If God's word is powerful enough to cause galaxies to spring into existence, or to create light out of nothing, then shouldn't his moral commandments also be accompanied by the power to help us obey them? Wouldn’t this make sense since both of these things are words from God?
While there might be a compelling logic to that line of thinking, this is not quite what the Bible says. In Romans 5, Paul tells us that “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase.” (Romans 5:20a NIV) This seems strange. Shouldn’t rules like “don’t steal, don’t murder” make sins decrease? Isn’t that the point of laws - that they tell us not to do bad things?
From the early days - from Adam, the beginning of humanity - people have been shaped by sinfulness and imperfection. From Adam to today, humanity is characterized by temptation, sin, and death. Adam sinned, and it set the course of human history down a path of moral confusion. We began feeling inclined to do selfish, evil things, and for a long time people sinned and died and repeated the cycle even while there was no law present (Romans 5:12-14).
When the law came in, it only increased the sinfulness of sin. When humanity gained the law, we were able to clearly know that our sins were wrong. But our human nature, the state of being we inherited from our first parents, had not been changed. We were still "in" Adam's fallen state of being. Especially for Israel - the people who had God's law - sin was devastating because it came with more explicit consequences. Israel knew that there were blessings for those who kept the law, and curses for those who broke it (Deuteronomy 28) - and yet they still often chose sin.
Paul has this to say about the role of the law: "The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 5:20-21 NIV)
Jesus dealt with sin while the world was as sinful as it could be. He came not to ignorant people making mistakes, but people who knew the law and its consequences but still sinned. Jesus died for us when we were utterly helpless to save ourselves, when the law was confirming our condemnation, when humanity had demonstrated that it didn't even want to be saved, but would rather pursue it's own way. We demonstrated the true human nature of Adam.
But Jesus lived in a different way. He succeeded where Adam and Israel failed, resisting temptation and fulfilling the terms of Israel's covenant with God. Jesus created a new way to be human, apart from the broken sinfulness of Adam's sinfulness. While Adam's sin plunged the world into darkness, Jesus' obedience and self-sacrifice opened a way back to the light.
"And the result of God’s gracious gift is very different from the result of that one man’s sin. For Adam’s sin led to condemnation, but God’s free gift leads to our being made right with God, even though we are guilty of many sins." (Romans 5:16 NLT) “But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.” “So now we can rejoice in our wonderful new relationship with God because our Lord Jesus Christ has made us friends of God.” (Romans 5:8, 11 NLT)
The laws that God gave are good, but they cannot change your heart. They can only tell you what not to do, and then make you self-conscious when you see yourself fail to live up to their exact standard. God does not command or instruct away our sinfulness. Instead, he wants to change our very hearts to have a new nature, with new desires.
If your heart isn’t changed, the rules are just killing you, increasing your guilt every time your heart leads you to do something wrong. The words of God that change us are not words like “do not steal, do not covet,” but rather “You are a new person, with a new life that was won by Jesus. You belong to God and have a new heart, a new nature that is shaped by love and selflessness.” It is the gospel, not the law, that transforms us and let's us be at peace with God. The words of God that come with the power to help you obey him are not his commandments, but the news that Jesus has taken the penalty of your sins and the power of death away.
Because of Jesus, God has a new word to say about who you are to him: You are his friend. If God calls you his friend, how will you live your life?
Read Romans 5:1-2. What does it mean to have peace with God? Have you ever felt like you were either at peace or in conflict with God?
Read Romans 5:3-5. Look at the list of experiences and qualities - suffering, perseverance, character, hope - and reflect on whether you have experienced this kind of growth before. What was that like?
Read Romans 5:6-11 in the New Living Translation. Is it possible to know with confidence that God has forgiven and accepted you? Did Jesus die for people who get their acts together and become righteous, or for sinners?
Paul says that because of Jesus we can be friends with God. What does it mean to have a friendship with God? Compare this passage with what we learned about Abraham in last week's post. How did Abraham have a friendship with God?
What causes people to overcome sin: God's moral commandments, or the free grace of God found in the gospel of Jesus? Read Romans 5:17 for the answer.