The New Testament raises expectations for obedience to the level of perfection, while at the same time offering mercy and grace when we don’t meet those expectations. What is going on with this seemingly contradictory language? How do the two work together so that we grow as disciples?
Dan Kent kicks off a new series, The Law of Love by talking about discipleship. He points out the dilemma that we face when we are trying to follow Jesus. On the one hand, the Bible seems to elevate the level of expectations to the point of perfection. On the other hand, the Bible offers grace, mercy and forgiveness. God’s expectations are high while at the same time there is unlimited mercy. These two messages appear antithetical. Should we devote ourselves to complete obedience, or should we embrace a lifestyle of tolerance and mercy?
To find a solution to this dilemma, Dan examines Matthew 5:20, “unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” To know what it means to “surpass” the righteousness of the Pharisees, we must understand what Jesus meant in verse seventeen about fulfilling the law and the prophets. This is not merely about being a perfect rule follower. It is about how Jesus fulfills or completes all of the hopes and promises of Israel that are found in the Old Testament. Jesus is the fulfillment of all the hopes of justice and reconciliation, along with the completion of all the promises made to Abraham, with the ultimate realization that creation will be restored and we will live in union with God.
Now the confusing thing about this teaching is that Paul writes in Romans 10:4 that “Christ is the end of the law” and he tells us in Galatians 3 that the Law is only a temporary guardian. While it seems that Paul is contradicting Jesus, actually each are addressing differing issues. Paul is confronting those who have made too much of the Law, while Jesus is speaking to those who have made too little of it.
Paul writes to those who are caught in the trap of legalism, to obeying the rules as an end in and of itself. When people embrace this teaching, they often run to the opposite extreme and embrace grace to the point that they don’t even see the need for expectations. If salvation is a free gift, then no effort is required of us at all. Jesus challenges the passivity that eschews expectations and amplifies the Old Testament laws to the extent that the teachings appear virtually impossible to follow.
It might seem as though Jesus is forcing us to ask how we keep his new set of rules so that we can live up to his expectations. Instead, we should be asking: what type of person naturally lives in this way? And then we can ask: How do I become that kind of person? Jesus is not advocating perfect rule following, but instead he is calling us to develop the kind of character that aligns with this way of life. God is inviting us to become people whose character surpasses that of the Pharisees.
This calls for both grace and guidance. We need grace to be where we are, wherever that is, on the road toward this character. And we need guidance to point us toward the goal to which we are moving. Grace and guidance operate together so that we can grow along the discipleship path.
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