Approaching Morality from a Position of Grace
By Wendy Alsup
I was raised in fundamentalist Christian churches with long lists of rights, wrongs, dos, and don’ts. Often, the list of wrongs extended well past what the Bible actually said was sin, in an effort to build a big gray area to keep kids from getting into the black. I remember one church youth group activity at our local skating rink. A fundamentalist missionary taught that some schools were good and some schools were bad in our area. He of course did this to a group of kids who had pretty much no say in what schools they went to.
In his mind, the local Christian school was the only righteous choice, and he listed on posterboard my private, secular school (which actually was very good in retrospect) as a sinful choice. I was an ernest, sincere Christian youth who wanted to do what was right. The weight that jerk placed on me for something that 1) clearly was not sin and 2) was something I had no control over still makes me sad for my younger self and for the others he impacted negatively in ways I do not know.
I discovered a reformed understanding of grace by way of my freshman roommate in college, who remains one of my closest friends to this day. As God started tying Scripture together in my head through a reformed hermeneutic, the individual moral lessons of Scripture started pointing to Christ rather than to my inadequacies. Learning of God’s irresistible grace and sovereignty over salvation were balms to my soul that was battered by legalistic teaching that vexed me again and again. God loved me, and I loved Him. For a while, that was enough. Irresistible grace. Unearned mercy. Unconditional love. I bathed in those truths for a decade or so, like a warm epsom salt bath for my weary spiritual body. My muscles relaxed. I could breath again.
I have turned a corner of late. Oh, I still love my verses on the righteousness Christ has earned for me, the robe of His righteousness I wear ever since He took my sin and guilt upon Himself on the cross. But I’ve arisen from the warm soaking tub that eased the aches in my spiritual body. I feel equipped again to note the many other verses in Scripture defining the acts making up the fabric of Jesus’ robe of righteousness versus the ones that make up the essence of my guilt.
God’s fidelity versus my faithlessness. His truth versus my lies. His wisdom versus my foolishness. His peace versus my anger. His love for others versus my love for myself. I see too the verses calling me now, in Christ, to be like Him. Apparently, wearing His robe of righteousness, I am now equipped to move toward being in reality what God has declared me to be in heaven, completely righteous. This is sanctification, which is also by God’s grace.
Ephesians 5:1 Therefore, be imitators of God …
I am thirsting for Scripture that explains the character of God to me in ways I did not before. In particular, I am currently finding parts of the Old Testament law and wisdom from Proverbs intriguing and actually life-giving. I wrote on sexual faithfulness from Deuteronomy 22 two weeks ago. I am still thinking on what that chapter reveals about the character of God that we are called to imitate.
We don’t imitate Him in the penalty of the law, for that is something He alone is equipped to judge and was paid in full by Christ on the the cross. But we can imitate Him in the aspects of His character He shows us through His deep commitment to fidelity in relationships. His faithfulness to us is the essence of Christianity. That He calls us to such faithfulness with others feels exactly right in light of who He is and what He created us to be.
I wrote on listening to rebuke from Proverbs 12 last week. The wisdom of Proverbs also no longer feels like a weight. It was used like a club by various youth pastors during my years in fundamentalism, and I have shied away from it ever since. But God didn’t write it to be a weight. It was written to be a HELP. It’s wisdom—not to bind around your neck so you drown in guilt but to guide you along God’s path so that you can flourish as an imitator of Him. It’s amazing the difference an understanding of irrestistible grace, unearned mercy, and unconditional love can make as I re-approach the law and the proverbs.
If you, like me, have found Old Testament laws and proverbs weights that only discourage and demoralize you, I hope you can take some time in a book like Ephesians to understand the depth of God’s grace, mercy, and love for you in Christ. Steep yourself in the depth of His unconditional love for you. Christ bore your sins, and now you wear His robe of righteousness. You are free from guilt. It is only from this stance we can re-engage with the law or proverbs without feeling weights binding us once again.
Christ transforms the law from being a weight that crushes us to instruction that helps us. The law helps us by pointing us to our need for Christ as the only one who could perfectly keep the law, and then it shows us the character of our Creator in whose image we were made. In Christ, we can receive the law and the proverbs in that light and find the meaning in them that points us toward flourishing life in Him without being weighed down by our inability to keep it perfectly.