Law and Grace

Law and Grace

by Robert Hamerton-Kelly

October 2, 2005

Scripture: Philippians 3:4b-16; Matthew 21: 33-46

“Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own.” –Philippians 4:12

The texts for today demand that we take up the celebrated theme of Law and Gospel, once so central to the Reformation and still a guide to the essence of our faith. The OT reading is the Ten Commandments as recorded in Exodus (20:1-20) and our Epistle is an excerpt from the passage in which Paul reveals how he understood what he was doing when he turned from his life as an especially observant Jew to go “off course,” as it were, after Christ.

Theologians debate the extent to which Paul either left his ancestral faith, Judaism, and found new faith, Christianity, or merely modified his Jewish faith to accommodate the Messiah. These abstract names for faith stances – Judaism and Christianity – are anachronistic of course, nevertheless one must ask how seriously to take statements like, “…one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. ‘ What is he forgetting, if not his former life as a Jew, with all its law-dependent expectations?’

Before we go deeper into the theology of Law and Gospel let us fix the practical significance of the issue at stake. This reverses my usual order of sermonizing, putting the “so what?” cart before the “this is the truth” horse. The “so what” concerns the way religion based on law generates anxiety in the form of guilt and the fear of condemnation.
Legal religion in this form is, I believe, the default position for human beings; it is natural religion. Religion originates in a great fear generated by a great disorder and takes the initial form of a unanimous killing, which unites the group and thus brings order, and subsequently becomes the primal ritual, called sacrifice. Religious law governs the way the ritual must be done and the way the participants in it and its benefits must act. Idolatry and envy are the two pillars of this natural religion and that is one reason why the first command of the Decalogue is the prohibition on idolatry (Exodus 20:1) and the last command the interdict against envy (covetousness) (20:20).

We all know, as Paul himself says, that you cannot interdict envy and idolatry simply by saying, “Don’t do it.” Paul knows what every mother knows, that to say that is to cause the very act we wish to prevent (Romans 7:7- “I should not have known what it is to covet had the Law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.’”). We humans are perverse in that way. The more we prohibit things the more irresistible they become. We want most the things we can have least.

This situation generates great anxiety and great guilt, which in turn has great negative effects on the individual and society. The individual becomes insatiably ambitious and projects the imagined unworthiness of his/her own guilt onto others. Society becomes a texture of mutual blame and individual resentment.

Some, perhaps many, say that this is an erroneous reading of the human situation, arising out of the peculiarly doleful spirit of religion in general and the Christian religion in particular. I agree that we Christians are significantly afflicted with this gloomy expression of the primal anxiety, and I find churches to be frequently unhealthy spiritual environments because of guilt and its projections flying hither and thither among those who claim to love each other.
Last Sunday I spoke of how we Christians have done immense damage in the field of sexuality. That is but one, one very important sphere where our faith instead of freeing us from fear imprisons us in it and pollutes a great spring of joy that God intended for the refreshment of his human creatures. This Sunday I believe that the NT, in this wonderful confession by the Apostle Paul, shows us a way to go from anxiety and guilt to liberty.

Recently I picked up a book by Roger Rosenblatt an essayist for the Lehrer Newshour on PBS, titled, “Rules for Aging: resist normal impulses, live longer, attain perfection (New York: Harcourt 2000).” The opening lines of the book are: “Whatever you think matters- doesn’t. Follow this rule, and it will add decades to your life.” All analogies are imperfect, but let’s say for our present purposes the law-based life is one in which everything matters, and so I have always to be in control, especially of myself. The grace-based life says that everything matters but I can do very little about things because, thank God, I am not in control and can never be. Everything that matters is in the hands of God, so RELAX! Once we internalize this movement of faith we know the deepest grace of all, relief from anxiety. As we grow older, paradoxically we naturally worry less about control of things in this world and more about control in the next. This is especially absurd, but nevertheless real, because death is the final instance of not being in control and the fear of death haunts everyone, especially those who say that they do not fear it. I remember recently being moved to tears by Brahms’ “Ein deutches Requiem” because it so powerfully brought home to me what I keep saying I do not fear. The reality of death is unavoidably sad and desolating in the base section of the second movement, “Und alles Fleisch es ist wie Gras.” The music drags one down, one feels one is sinking, and then the flutes and reeds interrupt with a heavenly theme that lifts one up- and it all happens beyond ones control – law kills grace gives life.

Let us turn at last to the horse that pulls this cart of freedom and assurance in faith. Paul looks back on his life as a strictly observant Jew and compares it to the life he found by faith in Jesus Christ. By comparison a life of observance, within the context of an exalted lineage and a distinguished intellectual career is like a garbage heap. Current theologians do not want us to interpret this psychologically because that interpretation inevitably includes a strong criticism of Judaism and we are not to criticize Jewish religion.

Be that as it may, I think that Paul means his life as a Jew when he refers to “…forgetting what lies behind.” He does not claim already to have identified with Christ so much that he will undoubtedly rise with him; the uncertainty of faith has not been removed. Nevertheless he presses on, and mature Christians should do the same. Do what? Do this: Forget the religion of law, the law-based faith that generates anxiety and casts the shadow of death over us; forget it, get it out of your system, don’t let it stir up fear that if I do not keep to this or that rule, conviction, persuasion, you will be damned. Forget it and press on.

Where to? Somewhere vague and undefined, something wonderful: “…the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus (3:14).”
Why should I be so rash and adventurous? Why should I risk letting go of all the religious certainties that have guided and comforted me for so long? Why let go? BECAUSE JESUS CHRIST HAS GRABBED HOLD OF ME! (3:12). Now all I have to do is stretch and stretch to grab hold of him! I CAN LET GO BECAUSE HE WILL NEVER LOOSEN HIS GRIP. There have been many times in my life when I seem to have lost touch with him, but he has never relaxed his grip on me. Therefore, nothing matters except that I “press on to make this faith in Christ my own, because Christ has made me his own (3:12).”