choose freedom

“Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down.” Gal. 2.18

It is difficult to speak or write much about this without leaning toward the twin dangers of legalism and lawlessness. Theological debates can go on without end and frankly I have no interest in them as they never seem to help anyone.

I present this little verse to you because in your ongoing relationship with Jesus, he has/is/will be setting you free from things in your life, remnants of old systems of religion or self-help, various ways of trying to please God and/or improve yourself. Jesus is teaching you that he is always and already pleased with you – totally passionately in love with you. The Holy Spirit is growing and maturing you, accomplishing what you could never do tugging on your own bootstraps.

And yet there is something within us that has a tendency to try and refurbish those old ways. Often it comes in the form of bad teaching from those who (perhaps unwittingly) would saddle us with the same bondage they themselves are under (as Peter was doing in the story Paul relates in Galatians). It might come from impatience with the Spirit’s pace or order in growing us, or with dissatisfaction with where we are in life. Self-help is an attractive way to put ourselves together and gain success as the world defines it. But success as the world defines it is often what God calls failure.

When you came to Jesus, he began to tear down the old system of law that had you in bondage. He is in the process of setting you free. Reflect and pray on the verse above. Are you living into that freedom as fully as you can? Or are you are rebuilding what was knocked down?

One warning: living in freedom sometimes means making hard choices, ones that go against the grain of what our sinful culture would deem wise or prudent. I have seen people lose their freedom entirely because they would not give up the security and comfort of where they were, even when God was very plainly telling them to leave it and follow him. There are many reasons our sin nature craves a system of law. Like all lusts of the flesh, that must be resisted. Freedom is a harder choice, one you have to continually make, but it is also the choice the Spirit of Jesus is always calling you to make. Choose freedom.

Holiness is impossible and required

In Matthew 5.48, Jesus said, “You are to be perfect, even as your Father in heaven is perfect.”
Perfection. That’s a tall order. Thanks, Jesus, for setting the bar so impossibly high.

Typical responses to this command are either to:

1. re-explain what Jesus “really meant,” where we make Jesus say whatever we choose, instead of what he said. (This may involve elaborate use of Greek.)

2. come up with some crazy theology where “perfect” means another stage after salvation, some blessing we receive, where we no longer sin, and even the things we do that look like sin are not really.

3. strive really hard to actually be perfect. While 1 and 2 are only playing mental gymnastics, this approach requires real work. And perhaps a good dash of legalism and often a pinch (or more) of condescension.

The first step in moving beyond these tired approaches is to realize the paradox contained in Jesus’ command. He really is demanding perfection, sinlessness, holiness, however you want to call it. Jesus was both smart enough and articulate enough to have said what he meant and meant what he said. At the same time, we cannot possibly keep this command. All our striving cannot attain perfection. This is not something Jesus was unaware of; being himself fully human (as well as fully God) he knew very well how imperfect we are.

And yet he issues this command. He orders us to do what he knows we cannot do. Is he just being mean or taunting us?

I don’t think so. I think Jesus is emphasizing that we must rely on the Spirit, the only One with the power to perfect us. 

All of our personal striving for perfection (and the mental games we play) are us fighting against the Spirit. Instead, we can submit, obey, and cooperate. If we can hear that command for what it is – an impossible order – and trust that when he calls us to do the impossible, Jesus must be planning to provide the means. The good news is, he already has, ever since the Day of Pentecost.

Holiness is both impossible and required and those together are a large part of the point.