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Law vs. Spirit

What motivates us to do right?

My daughter aspires to a career writing children’s literature. I think she’ll succeed. She has a good imagination, she’s developed a unique voice in her writing and has the necessary discipline to park fundament in chair in front of computer for the requisite time to capture her plots. Where she may have some trouble is on the business side of things. You see, these days there are too many choices to make. It isn’t like the old days when there was basically only one route to publication.

A Matter of Choice

She and I were talking about the revolution which is going on in the publishing industry due to digitization. I was reveling in the choices writers have compared to the past. I’m excited by the fact that I can bypass the old “gatekeepers” when publishing my books. I like having control over the formats and formatting, choosing cover art and where to upload the finished product. It amazes me that I can make my work available to the whole world without having to give away a (large) percentage of my rights and royalties. The down side, of course, is that if something goes wrong I have no one to blame but myself.

My daughter is not so enamored of the new publishing landscape. She doesn’t like the fact that the old wisdom no longer applies. Though she would like having a say in formats and cover art, she doesn’t think the ability to bypass the gatekeepers is a good thing. She feels that no one should be published unless they’ve “paid their dues.” She would be more comfortable if there was only one route to publication like there used to be. She said something to the effect of, “I like it when there are rules. Just tell me what to do, give me the procedure, and I’m good with that.”

There are a lot of people who like order and an established way of doing things. Too many choices and the responsibility for making those choices are frightening. Too many variables can lead to computational overload, indecision or even paralysis.

Fortunately, this does not extend to all areas of life and not all people are affected the same way. In other areas, my daughter deals with complexity and choices just fine. While I revel in the choices I have in publication, a trip to the grocery store can give me sensory overload. I like choice, but how can you choose between fifteen varieties, styles and brands of string beans? From my perspective, it would be better to only have two or three to choose from.

Rules and Disputable Matters

Having to choose vs. following established guidelines and parameters has profound implications in spiritual things, also. Let me explain. I was teaching a class on Christian living, that is, how being in Christ should impact the way we live. The question came up how we should determine what we ought to do in what Paul calls “disputable matters” – those areas where there are no clear directives in Scripture.

I explained that the proper way to approach such problems is to look in Scripture for principles which might apply. Then, make your decision based on those principles. Act on what you know, retain an open mind and modify your decisions and your behavior as you gain further insight. I also took the class through several examples of this methodology.

Inevitably, the question of alcohol came up. Someone in the class asked whether it is alright for Christians to drink and, by the way, “What is the church’s position on this?” It surprised and disconcerted me that some in the class wanted me to issue a ruling. Was drinking permissible and, if so, how much?

On another occasion I taught a seminar for church leaders. To demonstrate the absolute necessity for humility in leaders, my co-teacher and I washed the participant’s feet. They were fascinated by this and asked a lot of questions. I was disappointed that the most pressing issue on their minds was how often foot-washing should be done. They wanted to take something intended as an object lesson and turn it into a ritual.

In both these cases the attitude was, “Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.” The motives were good. They wanted to do what is right. But they missed the whole point.

I refuse to legislate where Scripture does not. In many cases it would make life easier – at least in the short term, but in the long-term it would be self-defeating. People might be willing to follow rules, but following external rules does not develop conviction. Right behavior which reflects inner character is far more valuable than right behavior produced by external coercion. When the chips are down, people will always act according to what they really believe – not according to something imposed from the outside.

No Rules = Soft on Sin?

Refusing to impose rules can also lead to misunderstandings and awkward situations. People sometimes assume that by not making a rule against something you condone the behavior, or that you are soft on sin. For example, I was taken to task for not forbidding someone from smoking. My reply was that it is a matter of spiritual growth and conviction. The person in question did not yet understand the sinfulness of his behavior. If I were to forbid his smoking and he complied, it would not be from conviction. (If I forbade and he did not comply, then it raises the stakes and becomes a matter of church discipline.) Far better to extend grace until the Spirit convicts him in this particular area. Then we can work together, rather than at odds, in overcoming the habit. And, by the way, would you like me to make some rules about your behavior in areas that the Spirit has not yet convicted you about? If not, then allow the same grace to others.

It’s not up to me to do the Spirit’s job. My responsibility is to teach biblical truths and principles and let the Spirit do any convicting which may be necessary. Please don’t misunderstand. I’m not at all saying that we should be “soft” on sin or that we should not confront people when they are doing what is wrong. Far from it. I’m not talking about unambiguous sins, but about things that are not necessarily crystal clear – the “disputable matters.” Where there are clear directives we need to point them out and expect people to comply. For example, Scripture is very clear that Christians are to avoid getting drunk (Ephesians 5:18). The stated reason in that verse is that it leads to debauchery. There are other Scriptures which also lend support to this directive. Therefore, if a fellow Christian does get drunk we not only have the right but the responsibility to confront him or her with his or her sin. However, even then, we must do it gently and with the intent to restore rather than condemn (Galatians 6:1-2).

Paul’s Example

It’s instructive to think about how Paul dealt with this business of legislation vs. the operation of the Spirit while confronting the situation in the churches of Galatia. False teachers had infiltrated the churches and told the Christians that they had to observe the Mosaic Law if they wanted to please God. Bear in mind that this was not a “disputable matter.” The very character of the Gospel was at stake. Yet, Paul did not deal with the situation by issuing rules and directives. Instead, he appealed to the people’s experience of the working of the Spirit. “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing – if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:3-5 NIV) Later in the letter he tells them to live by the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).

Assuming, as I do, that Paul wrote the letter to the Galatians after the Jerusalem Council which is recorded in Acts 15, why didn’t he settle the matter by simply referring to the letter that the Jerusalem church wrote to the Gentiles? Didn’t that ruling solve the problem for all time? We know that Paul agreed with the letter for he delivered it to several churches (Acts 16:4).

Why, then, didn’t Paul cite the ruling of the Apostles as final when addressing the churches in Galatia? Had Paul merely pointed to the letter the Council had written, it would have been easy for people to regard it as a replacement for the Law. The result would be to substitute one law for another. Paul was after something much more profound. He wanted people to experience life in the Spirit. He didn’t want them to think in terms of rules and boundaries but of becoming like Christ.

Led by the Spirit

The Law kept people in line through external rules and regulations. In Christ we do what is right because He has given us a new nature. That new nature inherently does not want to do anything which is contrary to God’s will. This is the fundamental difference between the Old Covenant and the New. The Old is based on compliance to an external standard. In the New, God’s laws are written “on their hearts” (Hebrews 8:7-13). We are being transformed into the image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18) and the more we become like Christ the less we need rules to govern our behavior. We will automatically do God’s will.

I’m fully aware that in some respects it’s a whole lot more comfortable to have a bunch of rules. It makes life simpler. In X situation, you’re supposed to do Y. But the day inevitably comes when none of the rules seem to fit. Then what are you supposed to do?

On the other hand, it can be very disconcerting if there aren’t rules. “You mean I have to understand principles and figure out what to do based on them? It’s so confusing!” It may be difficult; it may be confusing; it means we have to actually think instead of leaning on somebody’s list of guidelines. But, if we can learn to recognize the direction of Christ’s Spirit who lives in us, we’ll find that we will know how to act all the time, in every situation. We won’t go far wrong if in everything we ask, “Will this make me more like Christ?” “Will it bring glory to Christ?” Is this how Jesus would act?”

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