Commandments of Grace

One of the most striking features of the theologies that emerged from the Reformation was their sharp division between faith and works, grace and law, New Covenant and Old Covenant. This is certainly not without justification. The New Testament writings burst with joy and expectation that all things are being made new with the coming of Jesus. And certainly, the Apostle Paul’s arguments about the inclusion of Gentiles into this emerging Jewish sect forcefully marginalized the Law as a focus of this community’s identity. And Paul also understands that God’s love or our salvation can never be earned and are always gifts of God. Yet, we can easily go too far with these distinctions: Those same New Testament writings also understand that whatever newness Jesus brings fulfills and does not reject or undo everything that had come before. And, while Paul rightfully marginalized the Law, Jesus himself said he came to fulfill the Law, not to tear it up. And again, while we can never earn our salvation, the New Testament is also clear that a genuine faith is one that is not just professed but lived and that we are judged based on the good fruit our lives bear in the world. So we must be careful before turning these distinctions into divisions or dichotomies. There is far more unity in the story of our faith than we often recognize. And I say this, not because I feel we need more “Law” in our Gospel (as people who make this point often seem to want!), but because the Law is the Gospel, albeit in a very introductory way.

I was thinking about this during Sunday worship this week, as the Old Testament reading was the story of Moses receiving the Ten Commandments. To remind ourselves, they are: Have no gods but God, do not make idols, do not misuse God’s name, keep the Sabbath as a day of rest, honor your parents, do not murder, steal, or commit adultery, do not provide false testimony, and do not envy what others have. These ten simple precepts are understood to under-gird all of the complicated Jewish Law that would come later. To the ears of our culture, which values individual freedoms, the chain of events leading to the giving of the Law seems weird. One might wonder what God is doing here. God has just freed Israel from slavery; isn’t this Law just putting them under another kind of bondage?

Of course the answer is that the Law is not bondage. The Law is grace. It is Good News. The world and its powers bind people; God breaks the chains. Always. The Ten Commandments are not about subjecting Israel to more servitude; they are a demonstration of what true freedom looks like. True freedom is about being free from superstition. True freedom is about allowing your yes to be yes and your no no. True freedom understands that amidst all the legitimate toil of human life, rest is important. True freedom means having humility in our relationships, and not being so driven by our own desires that we do things to others that cannot be undone.

Ultimately, being subject to every neurotic whim and fancy of our own minds is just as much bondage as being in physical chains. It’s just harder for us to see that. While physical and political bondage is an evil that must be stopped — for God breaks chains. Always. — but the truth is that those who are in physical chains can be free in their hearts. I recognize that I’m speaking from a place of privilege here, so allow me to defer to Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor and moral philosopher: 

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way” (Man’s Search for Meaning).

All ten commandments in their own ways are a call to freedom, a call to check our unhealthy attachments, whether to ideas, things, people, or our own egos. Again, they do not bind us, but show us what freedom looks like.

Yet the Ten Commandments barely scrape the surface. They point to freedom, but do not exhaust it. This was the point of much of Jesus’s teaching. The petty and graceless legalism of Pharisees (ancient, modern, and postmodern) misses the point because the Law itself was not and is not the point. In response to “Do not murder,” Jesus counters, “If you hate someone, you’ve as good as murdered them in your heart.” To “Do not commit adultery,” he says, “If you’ve lusted after your neighbour’s wife, you’ve already committed adultery in your heart.” God’s freedom is about the freedom of our hearts from undue, unhealthy, excessive, and harmful attachments.

And so, we Christians have as the basis of our ethics the Sermon on the Mount, which fulfills the Law, lifting the veil and revealing the full scope of the freedom to which we are called: poverty of spirit, grief for what needs to be grieved, humility, hunger and thirst for true justice. Mercy, purity of heart — of intention and motivation — and peacemaking. Loving your neighbour and forgiving your enemy. Turning the other cheek, and walking the extra mile. And, our freedom is about being so free as to be willing to forsake our own comfort, safety, and even life for the sake of all these things. It’s no surprise that the second part of this sermon is known as the “Hard Sayings:” The freedom to which we are called is hard, for it is ultimately the freedom from the very self.

And yet this is what true freedom looks like. This is what a life given over to God’s grace looks like: a never-ending process of self-transcendence, shattering the undue attachments that bind our hearts and keep us from loving as Jesus loved. And the promise remains that it is in this hard freedom that we truly find our true, free self. I know I say this often, but it bears repeating: because sin binds us and grace frees us, it is in grace and holiness where our true creativity and uniqueness can be found. For if we lose our life, there will we find it.

And so, as we continue on this Lenten journey, I hope we can remember our freedom, not from the Law, which was our teacher in freedom, but from the things that bind us from love. It is, after all, for freedom that Christ has set us free.

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