All Seized Up
If you’re my friend on Facebook or follow me on Instagram, chances are you’ve been entertained by my pictures and descriptions of the antics of our dogs, Merle and Henry. They’re quite the pair. This is Henry. He’s a St. Bernard. A big St. Bernard. His motto is, “It’s never the wrong time to take a nap.” Takes a lot of work to move that big body around. If we ask him to get up and move, he usually lifts his head and looks at us like, “Are you serious?” And this is Merle. Merle is a 3-legged Catahoula-German Shepherd mix. Most people have never heard of a Catahoula. It’s a southern wild hog hunting dog and is the state dog of Louisiana. That’s all I know about them. That and they’re incredibly athletic and have a motor that just won’t quit. Henry is never in motion, and Merle is almost always in motion. Merle has given himself the role of policeman of the family. Well, of Henry anyway.
Merle more or less knows the rules of the house, and he does his best to make sure Henry follows them. He knows that the dogs have to go to the dog room when food is out. So when he hears pots and pans in the kitchen, he goes to the dog room and doesn’t come out. He doesn’t have to hear the command, “kennel.” He just goes. Henry, on the other hand, pretends he hasn’t heard anything, even the word “kennel.” So you have to nudge him with your foot. At this point he looks at you. If you add a second nudge with your foot, and a finger snap, pointing toward the dog room, and say “kennel” again, he’ll get up and take a few steps in that direction and then stop and look back to see if you’ve changed your mind about this obviously inconsiderate request. Another point and a tap on the butt are usually required to get him moving again. Go through this whole process once more and he’s usually crossed the threshold of the dog room so that you can close the child gate, at which point he’ll begrudgingly lay down as close to the gate as possible, because why walk farther than you have to?
Henry and Merle, each in their own way, kind of model the different attitudes toward the law of God that we tend to have as followers of Christ. Merle is the legalist. The rules are there to be followed. Well, the rules are there for Henry to follow, and Merle is going to make sure Henry follows them. His food is his and Henry’s food is Henry’s, and if Henry sniffs at Merle’s dog bowl at any point ever, even when there’s no food in it, which is most of the time, he’ll lay into Henry. Of course it’s perfectly fine for Merle to check out Henry’s bowl any time he wants. Henry, like most St. Bernards, likes to carry things in his mouth. He doesn’t chew them up, he just carries them around. So folded laundry sitting on the dining room table waiting for the owner of those clothes to put them away can be a problem. It isn’t at all uncommon to walk into the dining room and see a pile of clothes on the floor with Henry in the living room holding a pair of your underwear in his mouth. But Merle knows he shouldn’t do that. So he lays into Henry and then tattles to Becky. If he thinks Henry is sitting or laying in the wrong spot, he’ll whine until Henry moves. Henry is always in trouble with Merle, and believe me, there’s no grace. Ever. Merle is the legalist. The rules are there to be followed, and they must be followed without exception or excuse. By Henry. He’s perfectly happy receiving his own grace. He just doesn’t offer any to Henry.
Henry, on the other hand, views rules as an annoyance. It isn’t that he thinks there shouldn’t be any rules ever, just that there should be leniency. A LOT of leniency. It’s a whole lot easier to ask for forgiveness than it is permission, and Henry has no problem asking for forgiveness. Eat the cheeseburger wrapper and all and then say you’re sorry. Dump the laundry on the floor and then say you’re sorry. Climb into the mailman’s car and sit on his lap and then say you’re sorry. Eat all of the food in the horse stalls and then say you’re sorry. And then go take a nap. Henry says, “I’m going to do what I want to do in the moment, and I’ll ask for forgiveness later.”
These are the two kinds of people St. Paul deals with in Romans 7. The legalist, who says, “Be good, or God won’t like you” and the cheap grace proponent who says “I’m going to do what I want now and then feel bad about it and ask for forgiveness later.” Those are the two human responses to the grace and forgiveness we have in Christ. Either follow every rule all the time perfectly or God will reject you, or do what you want because God will forgive you.
You see, the church in Rome was made up of lots of different kinds of people. Some were Jewish converts to Christianity who saw Christianity as a Jewish reform movement. And they thought that anyone who began to follow Christ needed to convert to Judaism and follow all of the Jewish laws regarding food and the sabbath and things like that too. And others came from a Greek and Roman background. They weren’t Jewish in any way and didn’t think they needed to become Jewish and follow all of the Jewish laws to follow Christ. And Paul himself was uniquely prepared by God from his birth to deal with these kinds of conflicts, because he was a highly educated Jew and a Jewish Pharisee, a sect of Judaism that believed in helping the Jewish people to be as pure as is possible according to the law in order to obtain the blessing of God. But he was also a Roman citizen who was born and raised in Tarsus, not in Jerusalem. And after his conversion and call to be a missionary, Paul reached out to both Jews and non-Jewish Greeks with the love of Christ. He knew both sides well. And so here comes this former Jewish Pharisee who was now preaching a gospel of grace and forgiveness, and everyone was asking the question, “How are we supposed to live then?” Like practically, every day, how should we live. In light of the forgiveness and grace made available in Christ, does it really matter how I live my life day-to-day? I mean, if God’s going to forgive me anyway? What’s the point of God’s moral law anymore? Turn with me to Romans 7:7-13.
Very few people actually think that there should be no boundaries, no guardrails on this journey of life. No one really believes that we are absolutely free to do whatever we want. We all know that our actions have consequences. We just don’t want them to have eternal consequences. And we all know that OTHER PEOPLE’S behavior should be regulated, especially as it impacts us. It’s interesting that even criminals have a sense of right and wrong. Like you can lie, steal, murder, manufacture and sell drugs, whatever. But don’t abuse or molest children. Those criminals get beat up by murderers in prison for being such bad people. Our sense of right and wrong might be tainted, but all but the most antisocial criminal minds have a self-centered sense of right and wrong. Even if we doing wrong by others, we think others should do right by us.
And you don’t have to “know” a rule to know that you should be following it. Take, for example, the rule of ablaut reduplication. Chances are, you have never heard of it, but you follow it all the same. Writer Mark Forsyth explains in his book Elements of Eloquence:
“There are rules that everybody obeys without noticing … Have you ever heard that patter-pitter of tiny feet? Or the dong-ding of a bell? Or hop-hip music? That’s because, when you repeat a word with a different vowel, the order is always I A O. So politicians may flip-flop, but they can never flop-flip. It’s tit-for-tat, never tat-for-tit … If you do things any other way, they sound very, very odd indeed.” Teachers do not have to teach this rule in grammar school. But it is known all the same. Even when we don’t officially know the rules, we instinctively know we should follow them and can immediately identify when something is wrong.[i]
But in light of forgiveness and grace, what role does the law of God play in our lives? Well, it does two things for us. First, it EXPOSES SIN. Look at v. 7. God’s moral law grows out of who God is. It reveals the character and nature of God. And so, by nature, it also reveals that which runs contrary to the character and nature of God. It reveals sin. In decades past, doctors often wouldn’t discover that a patient had cancer until it was too late to do anything about the cancer, because the visible symptoms tend not to show up until later. But then the MRI and other technologies that allow doctors and technicians to see soft tissues in the body really clearly were developed, and suddenly, many types of cancer, like breast cancer, could be detected and diagnosed much earlier, in many cases in plenty of time to save the patient with chemical and radiation and surgical procedures.
Imaging technologies don’t cause cancer. The cancer was already there. But they do help doctors to detect it. And that is what the law of God does for us. It helps us to see the true sinfulness of sin, because it helps us to see and understand what God is like. It helps us to see and understand is that the standard of moral purity is the absolute moral purity of God, and anything that falls short of that is sin.
Now, look at Vv. 8-11. Sin actually EXPLOITS God’s law in us. It uses God’s “do this and don’t do that” to make things worse in us. God’s law tells me what it is to covet someone or something and defines it as contrary to God and thus sin. And then sin, my rebellion against God, brings all kinds of covetousness out in me. And so I want my neighbor’s car and my neighbor’s house and my neighbor’s job and my neighbor’s spouse and instead of being marked by the love and peace and contentment of God, my life is now marked by lust and jealousy and greed. My sinfulness makes me WANT to do things that I shouldn’t and NOT WANT to do things that I should. But it isn’t the law doing that. It is my sinful nature. God’s law simply reveals to me what God is like, and therefore what I should be like.
Robert Cialdini, a researcher and an expert on the theory of persuasion, conducted an experiment at the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. The park had a problem, as it made clear on a warning sign: YOUR HERITAGE IS BEING VANDALIZED EVERY DAY BY THEFT LOSSES OF PETRIFIED WOOD OF 14 TONS A YEAR, MOSTLY A SMALL PIECE AT A TIME.
The sign plainly appealed to the visitors’ sense of moral outrage. Cialdini wanted to know if this appeal was effective. So he and some colleagues ran an experiment. They seeded various trails throughout the forest with loose pieces of petrified wood, ready for the stealing. On some trails, they posted a sign warning not to steal; other trails got no sign. The result? The trails with the warning sign had nearly three times more theft than the trails with no signs.
How could this be? Cialdini concluded that the park’s warning sign, designed to send a moral message, perhaps sent a different message as well. Something like: Wow, the petrified wood is going fast – I’d better get mine now! Or: Fourteen tons a year!? Surely it won’t matter if I take a few pieces.[ii]
So what is the attitude of the authentic follower of Christ to the law of God? One of obedience in love. Look at V.13. How can something that both exposes sin and is exploited by sin in my life be good? Because it awakens in me an awareness of my need for a Savior and my inability to obey God’s law on my own. To become a follower of Christ is to believe AND to obey. To believe is to consider what God says about me apart from Christ, as full of sin, as true, and to consider what God has done for me in Christ, in providing forgiveness and grace by exchanging my old sinful life for his new eternal life, as real and true. And then it is, because of that belief, to actually begin to FOLLOW, or OBEY, Christ. But no matter how hard I try, I CANNOT obey God’s law. And because of that, his forgiveness and grace are daily realities for me, and his empowering presence and transforming work in my life are a daily necessity for me.
In his best-selling book The Reason for God, Tim Keller, pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian in Manhattan, shares the story of a woman in his congregation who was learning how the grace extended to us through Christ’s work on the cross can actually be more challenging than religion. He writes:
Some years ago I met with a woman who began coming to church at Redeemer and had never before heard a distinction drawn between the gospel and religion [i.e. the distinction between grace and what is often a works-based righteousness]. She had always heard that God accepts us only if we are good enough. She said that the new message was scary. I asked why it was scary and she replied: “If I was saved by my good works then there would be a limit to what God could ask of me or put me through. I would be like a taxpayer with “rights” – I would have done my duty and now I would deserve a certain quality of life. But if I am a sinner saved by grace – then there’s nothing he cannot ask of me.”
She understood the dynamic of grace and gratitude. If when you have lost all fear of punishment you also lose all incentive to live a good, unselfish life, then the only incentive you ever had to live a decent life was fear. This woman could see immediately that the wonderful-beyond-belief teaching of salvation by sheer grace had an edge to it. She knew that if she was a sinner saved by grace, she was (if anything) more subject to the sovereign Lordship of God. She knew that if Jesus really had done all this for her, she would not be her own. She would joyfully, gratefully belong to Jesus, who provided all this for her at infinite cost to himself.[iii]
Grace is free to me in the sense that it is not and cannot be earned. It actually cost God a great deal. It isn’t cheap. So whether I tend to err on the side of legalism, being as good as I can and expecting others to do the same, in order to receive God’s approval; or on the side of cheap grace, deciding it’s much easier to ask for forgiveness than it is permission to do what I want when it runs contrary to the nature and character of God; I’ve missed the point. You and I are saved by grace. We cannot earn it and don’t deserve it. And because of that, we belong to Christ and, filled with his Holy Spirit, obey and live for his glory. Let us pray.
[i] Mark Forsyth, “The Elements of Eloquence,” (Berkley, 2014), Page 46
[ii] Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, Think Like a Freak (William Morrow, 2014), pp 115-116
[iii] Timothy Keller, The Reason for God (Riverhead Books, 2008), pp. 189-190