“Religion” is an attempt to create a ladder to reach God. By observing a list of “dos” and “don’ts”, we attempt to gain favour with Divinity. (I use the word “religion” through this article as a “system” of works rather than a true inner devotion to God through His Son).
The church that I attended during my youth taught that what I needed to do in order to inherit eternal life was to “keep the commandments”. I therefore believed, at least on some level, that if I could prove to God that I could be true to a certain moral code, I would find grace in his sight, and perhaps be granted entrance to heaven.
This is an example of the ladder of religion. All “religions systems” have this in common, in contrast to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
I was climbing a ladder with ten rungs (the Ten Commandments). I have friends who are part of the Messianic Jewish movement. Their ladder is much taller – it has 613 rungs (the 613 mitzvot of the Torah).
One of the closest friends of the Saviour penned these words:
“The law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (John 1:17, NKJV, emphasis mine)
Moses was a great man; an intermediate between God and man, and received a moral code which he delivered to a people who did not wish to hear God’s voice. It teaches morality (a good thing), however, it leaves a man in a war with himself to fulfil regulations which he is naturally disinclined. It reveals the weakness of humanity, but can never bring us closer to the divine.
Jesus Christ was a great man, an intermediate between God and man, very God of very God, through whom all things came into existence, and who was life. Grace was not “given” by Christ; it came (literally, came into existence) through Christ. By the Divine Word, grace was introduced to the world, a wonder that had never been fully revealed: not through Moses, not through the Ten Commandments, not through the 613 mitzvot of the Torah.
That is why we call the new covenant a “covenant of grace” and the old covenant a “covenant of works”. The new is really new; it’s not the old repackaged.
The old painfully drills into the honest hearted person the fact that they can never attain holiness before God. One slip, and you’re done, finished. Mercy in this system plays the part of making it tolerable, but it ultimately undermines the whole system: it is a contract based on our obedience, which must be rewritten every time we transgress. Only the self-sufficient and deceived are content under this system. Like the rich young ruler in Mark 10, they sense no lack. They trust in their adherence to the moral code and ritual practices to gain them favour with God, not realizing the spiritual destitution of their soul.
The new covenant is not a contract, based on human strength to fulfill a moral code. It is a covenant whose conditions and terms were fulfilled, accomplished, and finished by God, through his Son. It is something we grow in, by grace. It is not something we do for God to gain his favour, but something God did to restore us to His favour, to make us acceptable to Himself, and restore us to a right relationship with Himself through the righteous life and sacrificial death of His Son.
True religion is not a ladder of human accomplishment, but a divine gift, free to all who will place their faith in the Son, when we trust Him alone (who He is and what He has done) for our salvation. Our faith is not based on data from a book, but actual historical events, of God creating a perfect world, man’s fall from perfection, God entering history to redeem fallen man, and the promise of Christ’s return in final redemption and re-creation.
When the curtain of the temple was torn, God signified an end to old covenant signs, ceremonies and regulations as a basis of human relationship with Him. Those commandments of ritual which were intended to point toward Chist, are now rendered useless, because the end, the purpose, of those things has come. All of our spiritual needs are now found in the Person and work of the Son of God’s love, in whom we have redemption by his blood, the forgiveness of sins. We are complete in Him, who is the Head of all principality and power.
Thank you for your article Leif! It is true that mankind has always tried to earn their way to heaven. It has always been so going at least as far back as the tower of Babel… Human beings hate to be indebted to anyone. We all want to earn our keep so to speak. We all way to feel like we deserve to belong in heaven… To accept a gift simply on the basis of God’s kindness, grace, is very distasteful to the natural human being. It is a position too low, too degraded…
I’m sure you know however, that there were people under the old covenant who didn’t do the rituals with that mindset. Who didn’t think that by sacrificing and observing the commandments that they were entering into a contract with God where he had to save them…
David understood this after his realization of his guilt of murder and adultery (and some would argue rape) in Psalms 51:16-17, “For you will not delight in sacrifice, or I would give it; you will not be pleased with a burnt offering. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”
Isaiah understood this in Isaiah 58:5-7 when God speaks through him to Israel, “Is such the fast that I choose, a day for a person to humble himself? Is it to bow down his head like a reed, and to spread sackcloth and ashes under him? Will you call this a fast, and a day acceptable to the Lord? “Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry and bring the homeless poor into your house;
when you see the naked, to cover him, and not to hide yourself from your own flesh?”
Jesus himself quoted Hosea 6:6 which reads, “For I desire steadfast love (mercy in Septuagint) and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.”
Micah understood it when he wrote in Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”
Habakkuk understood it when he wrote in 2:4, “Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.”
The message of grace has always been taught by those who truly desired to follow God with all of their heart. Those saved before Christ will be saved only by the sacrifice of Jesus, not because of their obedience to the law… They will have been saved because of their faith, their trust in God and His promise and his word and not because they were faithful to 613 commandments…
Paul also explains in both Romans 4 and in Galatians 3 that Abraham was saved by faith and not by works. Did Abraham himself understand this? I believe so. He had an intimacy with God that we should all strive for… His faith was built on his walking closely with his God in obedience. Even so, there is no evidence to suggest that Abraham thought he was saved because of his obedience.
“Now the promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ. This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.” – Galatians 3:16-18
Notice what Paul says here in verse 17… The law did not annul a covenant previously ratified by God… Where? In Eden! Genesis 3! God made the promise then to Adam and Eve that the serpent was going to be crushed and that their seed was going to overcome him…
As Paul argues in Galatians 3:19, the law was an intermediary, “Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.” It was added because of the disobedience of the people. Because coming out of Egypt, they were so clearly influenced by the grandeur of the Egyptian culture as to be almost completely ignorant of God’s ways. The law added needed structure to the Israelites to help them form a new more biblical and godly culture that would distinguish them from the nations around them…
It is true that most Israelites even to this day have stumbled over the law and have made of it an ends to itself. It isn’t though. As Paul argues only a few verses later in verse 24, “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.” The law’s purpose is to break us. To lead us to the point where we finally recognize the impossibility of perfect obedience to God’s laws. Then and only then are we ready for God’s solution, Jesus Christ. That is why in verse 25 Paul states, “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian”
In the New Covenant, as promised of old in Ezekiel 36:26-28, ” And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God.”
This promise is fulfilled in Jesus Christ. Obedience isn’t something we do to earn salvation. It is something we surrender to through the leading of the Holy Spirit who now, thanks to Jesus Christ, dwells in us. Where in the old covenant God dwells in a building, in the new covenant he dwells in human beings…
I apologize for the long comment. It is difficult to state a thought without giving some context for the thought…
It is helpful for me to understand this issue by reframing Paul’s argument between law and grace to one between flesh and Spirit. If you read Paul’s writings against the law and instead substitute it for ‘sinful flesh’ I believe that it much better explains what he was driving at. Paul wasn’t an antinomian. He was against anyone trying to earn favor with God through their own efforts, through sinful fleshly efforts.
Unfortunately, it is possible to apply New Covenant principles in the flesh instead of the Spirit and totally miss the point… So many Christians and so much of what passes for Christianity today is merely fleshly deeds. It is not acceptable to God because it isn’t of faith.
The Pharisees in Jesus day were experts in the law, they had the entire Old Testament memorized and yet they didn’t get it. They many times completely misinterpreted what God was saying. Why? Because they weren’t seeking after God with all their heart. They weren’t surrendered to the leading of God. They instead used their knowledge to make themselves feel better. To gain control over others. To appease their conscience. Every one of us must guard against doing the same.
The point isn’t in being religious. It is in seeking God with all our heart and surrendering to Him when we find him.
Thanks for your comment. Certainly, the people of God in the old covenant were not saved by their actions. All the keeping of the Mosaic law could not cover a single sin, and therefore, was ineffectual for redemption. When they placed the guilt of their sin on the sacrificial victim, and took its life, only then was their sin forgiven. It was removed and they were restored to a right relationship with God – this of course signifying the death Jesus would die for them. Their faith in that typical act was faith in the person and completed work of Christ, apart from works.
You will note that I said “When the curtain of the temple was torn, God signified an end to old covenant signs, ceremonies and regulations as a basis of human relationship with him. Those commandments of ritual which were intended to point toward Chist, are now rendered useless, because the end, the purpose, of those things has come.”
No person who claims to be a follower of Christ is going to defend his right to steal, kill, commit adultery, etc. It is ritual law that catches us and subtly erodes the gospel, and little by little, we replace our allegiance to Jesus Christ with a commitment to performing certain religious ceremonies.
The crosses in my logo (top of page) represent this: I came to realize that I had many “crosses” in my life in addition to the cross of Christ, many things in my heart that were crowding him out. The Lord brought me to a place where I was faced with the hopelessness of my situation apart from the redemption found only in the cross of Christ (hence the one red cross, and the others that are fading away).
So, while Paul is teaching that we can not be saved by moralism (our good deeds, or bad deeds not committed), he is also referring to the tendency to revert to placing redemptive value in rituals from the Mosaic law (especially in Galatians and Colossians, also Ephesians and Romans).
No part of church history has been completely free from this error, which is why we need to continually go back to the basics of the gospel, without addition or subtraction.
Soli Deo Gloria!