The Bias of Grace in Biblical Interpretation
Three ExamplesConsider the following examples from the gospels where the doctrine of justification is used to expose the meaning of the text.
1. The Sermon on the Mount. Matthew 5-7
There are two men. The first is a wise man. He hears the words of Jesus and puts them into practice. He is like the man who builds his house on rock. In the face of a great storm his house stands. The other man is a fool. He hears the words of Jesus and does not put them into practice. He is like the man who builds his house on sand. In the face of a storm his house falls with a great crash, Matt.7:24-27. Which man am I?
Jesus did not come to abolish the Law, but rather to complete it. He came bearing a Law that exceeds the Mosaic Law of the Scribes and the Pharisees, the most law-righteous people of Jesus' day. In truth, those who fail to do this Law, to achieve this exceeding righteousness, will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.
Consider the demands of this exceeding Law. The Mosaic Law says: do not murder, but Jesus sets an ideal of not hating, not even getting angry with a brother. Who can obey such a Law? We will all break this Law, so we ought to settle matters quickly with the Judge of the universe, otherwise we will be cast into the prison of eternal damnation.
The Torah says: do not commit adultery, but Jesus sets an ideal of not even looking at a woman lustfully. We face hell unless we are willing to tear off our offending part. How can we obey such a Law?
When it comes to divorce, the Mosaic Law allows for the dissolution of a marriage, but Jesus, based on the principle of the one-flesh union, allows for no divorce (except on the ground of unfaithfulness?). No wonder the disciples, when faced with this ideal, said it was therefore better not to get married. Marriages do break down. Can anyone be sure they would never break this Law?
Then there is keeping our word, let our yes be yes and our no be no. Even harder to reach, there is the Law on revenge. It was hard enough just keeping it to an eye for an eye, now Jesus demands we turn the other cheek. Love our enemies even. What next! A piety that is perfect, a godward focus to life, a willingness to face our own failings rather than remove the specks from the eyes of others, these are the ideals of the righteousness that exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees. The sum of it is "do to others what you would have them do to you." Where can we find such a good person?
The truth is, only those who do the Father's will enter the kingdom of heaven. In the face of this Law of exceeding righteousness, who then can be saved? The secret lies in God's grace. "Ask and it will be given you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you."
It is true that the Sermon on the Mount gives the believer a set of ideals that can give direction to the renewing work of the Holy Spirit in their lives. Yet, the prime function of Law is to expose sin and drive us to the cross for mercy. In this sermon Jesus sought to strip away every vestige of self righteousness. It is simply not possible to read the sermon as if anyone can do this Law. The sermon but reminds us that we are unworthy servants in need of a saviour.
So which man am I? I am the fool. I hear the words of Jesus, but do not put them into practice, and therefore I face that terrible and awful day. Woe am I, how shall I survive the great crash? In the face of my sin I turn to God, "poor in spirit", humbled in his presence. I "mourn" my state of loss, desiring to find comfort in God's presence. I yearn from my inheritance. I "hunger and thirst for righteousness." As I seek mercy so I am blessed, I am forgiven, accepted and restored. My house will not stand the great crash, but Jesus' house is on the solid rock of righteous perfection. Not only is my sin forgiven, past, present and future, but I am accepted into his house to stand on his rock, covered and shaped by his righteousness.
Righteousness is a gift of God's grace. The believer rests in the righteousness of Christ, not their own. Christ's perfection gains us God's approval. As a gift of grace God imputes righteousness to us for our justification. Therefore, the righteousness that surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the Law, is not earned by doing, but given by asking.
2. Two men with a big question
Two men, on two different occasions, asked Jesus "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" The first was an expert in the Law, so Jesus got him to recite its substance. "Do this", said Jesus, "and you will live." This seemed reasonable to the expert, but then there was that difficult question as to "who is my neighbour?"
In the parable of the Good Samaritan, Lk.10:25-37, Jesus outlines the nature of neighbourly love. The punch line is "Go and do likewise." The point is simple enough, who can love as the Samaritan loved? The story condemns self-righteousness, it exposes sin.
The second man to ask the question was a rich young ruler, Lk.18:18-30. Jesus listed off some of the ten commandments and the ruler foolishly claimed he had kept them. Jesus then gave him a command that reflected the true meaning of neighbourly love - "sell everything you have and give to the poor." The ruler's response was beautiful to behold. He could have rejected Jesus, laughed at him, but instead he was "very sad". Had he finally faced the reality of his sinfulness in the sight of God? Looking at him Jesus said, "how hard it is for a person with possessions to enter the kingdom of God." Someone standing near commented, "Who then can be saved?" We are all locked into this age, we all possess and therefore none of us can love our neighbour as ourselves. So, we all stand condemned. Yet, salvation is by grace through faith and not works of the Law. "All things are possible with God".
The Law serves to expose sin and drive us into the arms of a merciful God. Jesus doesn't love good people, he loves repentant sinners, for no one is good but God alone, Matt.9:9-13.
3. The righteous man and the sinner. Luke.18:9-14
Two men went down to the temple to pray, a man confident in his own righteousness, and the other man a sinner. The self-righteous man thanked God for his goodness, the sinner cried out "God have mercy on me." Jesus said that out of the two it was the sinner who "went home justified before God." The fact is that "there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who don't (think they) need to repent", Lk.15:7.
Right standing in the sight of God is a gift of grace appropriated through faith and is not of works of the Law.
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