Summary: There are ditortions and blessings of both law and grace. It is not one or the other, but a dance of the two.
Elizabeth Elliot, in her book The Liberty of Obedience, tells the story of a young man who said to an older Christian, “I am in earnest about forsaking ‘the world’ and following Christ. But I am puzzled about worldly things. What is it I must forsake?” The response he received was this: “Colored clothes, for one thing. Get rid of everything in your wardrobe that is not white. Stop sleeping on a soft pillow. Sell your musical instruments and don’t eat any more white bread. You cannot, if you are sincere about obeying Christ, take warm baths or shave your beard. To shave is to lie against Him who created us, to attempt to improve on His Work.” Elliot then says, “Does this answer sound absurd? It is the answer given in the most celebrated Christian schools of the second century!” And then she asks, “Is it possible that the rules that have been adopted by many twentieth-century Christians will sound as absurd to earnest followers of Christ a few years hence?”
One of the things that you discover as you read the Bible, or study church history, is that the peripheral things which Christians considered taboo changed drastically through the years. I remember when I was young, one of the churches near us frowned on jewelry of any kind — even wedding rings. The women all wore long dresses with high collars and long sleeves, and wearing makeup was out of the question. They would not think of going to a movie or watching TV. Now, hardly any of even the most conservative churches follow those kinds of rules.
In the New Testament the rules Christians struggled with centered around eating meat, strict dietary regulations and observing Jewish holy days. Associating with non-Jews was forbidden — just going into their house made you “unclean”. Whether or not a woman should speak in church, whether her head should be covered when she prayed, or how long she wore her hair were all things the early church hotly debated. Those things are completely non-issues in the church today. Conversely, many of the things that are issues in the church today were not issues at all in the early church.
There always have been and always will be “disputable matters” as Paul called them. I want to be careful to say that I am not talking about the moral law of God. It has never changed. The disputable matters are always in the area of customs that are bound by culture and tradition. God does not change his mind about what is right and wrong. Things like murder, injustice, stealing, lying, greed, etc. have always been, and always will be, immoral. It is the peripheral, disputable matters on which sincere Christians disagree that change with time and cultural circumstances.
In deciding these issues, Christians have seemed to bounce between two poles: law and grace. There are those who always emphasize the rules, and there are others who always emphasize grace. My point this morning is that we do not have to choose between the two, indeed we must not. It is not either law or grace; it is a dance of law and grace.
Let’s first consider the dangers and blessings of law. It all began on Mount Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments. These were the laws that were to govern the civil and moral lives of God’s people. These laws made Israel different from any other group of people on the face of the earth. And there were great benefits to these laws. The people of Israel enjoyed a freedom and stability that the nations around them did not have. Because of these laws the Israelites had much less crime, oppression and brutality associated with their culture. Families were stronger and people were safer. People were valued as the creation of God and had personal worth. Just imagine how our culture would be different if any one of the commandments was kept perfectly. How about “You shall not steal”? We have had the locks at the church changed at least three times since I have been here. Because of break-ins we had to install an expensive alarm system.
The problem of theft has affected me personally, because just before Christmas someone bought an expensive computer and other items after stealing my identity and using my credit card number. If everyone obeyed just the commandment against stealing we would not have to carry any keys. The police force could be cut in half. Many prisons would be closed. The prices of the things we buy would be drastically cut because there would be no shop lifting, fraud or stealing from businesses. The price of everything we buy is marked up to cover the cost of all these things. We would not need locks, security cameras or guards. We could live with great freedom and security.