Grace Means No Rules, Right?
Matthew 5:17 Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.
I assume that every high school graduate can recall the behavior that ensued on those days that a substitute teacher showed up.* It was as if the rules suddenly ceased to exist and all restraints had been removed. The celebration of freedom that ensued usually meant chaos and at least one trip to the principal’s office.
Apparently human nature has not changed all that much in two thousand years. Jesus’ proclamation of the gospel of mercy and grace must have prompted those listening to assume that all the old rules were gone. Like gleeful students with all restraints removed, it was apparently time to let loose with the pent up exuberance of the flesh nature.
I often do this. I often errantly see God as one thing or the other, as either black or white. I see him either as a God of rules, justice and punishment or as a God of mercy and complete freedom. When I try to follow the rules, I want recognition for it and I become legalistic, forgetting about God’s grace and forgiveness. When I embrace only grace, I excuse almost any behavior because I am forgiven and free.
It is in my defective nature to try and take advantage of God’s grace to get away with behavior that I know to be destructive. If God is going to forgive me anyway, then I may as well enjoy this life, pursuing my desires right? I only live once and if I am forgiven in the end, what does it matter? This is the kind of thinking that leads to destruction but it is nevertheless the way my flesh nature thinks. It is apparently the way Jesus’ audience thought as well.
It is vital that I accept both Jesus’ grace and his insistence on right living. Embracing one or the other is a half-truth and a half-truth is as misleading as a lie. As I am saved and forgiven for all eternity, I do not have to worry about my performance to earn salvation. I cannot earn it and I do not have to try. Because of Christ’s death, grace covers all my failure and I am forgiven.
However, in this passage, Jesus insists that this grace does not mean the rules have been eliminated. There are still boundaries to behavior that I am to observe. I may be eternally forgiven, but there are still earthly consequences for pursuing the desires of my flesh nature.
My performance will not earn more love in God’s eyes. I am eternally loved and forgiven, no matter what I do. I can and do have the daily choice however, to sow the seeds of life or destruction in this time on earth.
*Incidentally, my own mother was the one substitute teacher with whom the rules were still enforced. She did not tolerate lawlessness. Love you mom.