For the next two Sundays, we are going to examine two alternative gospels to the gospel. They are two sides of the coin that can be labeled the gospel of man. They are quite popular, so popular that their adherents exceed those of the gospel of Christ. And so we would do well to understand their popularity if only to better understand our neighbors who are adherents. And we would do well to examine ourselves to discern how much of the gospel of man might be mixed into the gospel of Christ.
The third week, we will devote to the gospel of Christ which puts any alternative in right perspective. To put it succinctly, we will look at the man-made gospel of the law, the man-made gospel of the heart, and the God-made gospel of the cross. First, the gospel of the law.
But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.”… But some believers who belonged to the party of the Pharisees rose up and said, “It is necessary to circumcise them and to order them to keep the law of Moses.”
Weren’t these the same guys who hounded Jesus? How did they get into the church? Evidently they were converted. The Spirit can change any heart. Paul had been a Pharisee. But these men don’t seem to have changed. They argue the same things that they did with Jesus. Well, not exactly. Before, they did not regard Jesus to be the Messiah. Now they do. Presumably they have repented of their failure to recognize him and even to persecute him. They have taken the risky step of publicly acknowledging him as Lord. And they are taking discipleship with the same zeal as they did before confessing him as the Messiah – they are ardently keeping the law as they know the Messiah would expect of his followers.
Peter and the other apostles may not have been Pharisees, but they had a similar position. After Jesus’ resurrection, while he is still meeting with them in his post-resurrection appearances, they think that he came only for the Jewish people. That is why they ask him in Acts 1:6, “Lord, will you at this time restore the kingdom to Israel?” Even at Pentecost, and they have been baptized with the Holy Spirit, Peter and the others preach to the “men of Israel” (Acts 2:22). As Peter concludes his sermon, “Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” It would take a vision and the experience of seeing Gentiles be baptized with the Holy Spirit before Peter and the early church leaders would awaken to the idea that even to “the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18).
So Gentiles are included in the Messiah’s work? That took church leaders into unknown territory. The only logical way for many of them to grasp such a premise is that Gentiles need to come under the covenant that had been given to Israel. Then, in that context, they could be included in the Messiah’s redemption. That is what circumcision is about. It is the sign of inclusion in the covenant, which involves keeping the laws of that covenant.
It is logical thinking. This matter of insisting that Gentiles be like Jews was not a mere prejudice viewpoint. It was a theological issue and a reasonable one. Jesus himself told the Samaritan woman that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22). It was with the Jews that God had made a covenant and with no one else. Why then suppose that Gentiles whom Paul describes in Ephesians 2:12 as “separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise,” why suppose that they could slip into God’s kingdom by the back door?
With this mindset, the Pharisees and likely other church leaders, approached the gospel, the good news of Jesus Christ. Yes, the Messiah has come; yes, he has won our salvation, i.e., the salvation of his covenant people who turn to him. To include Gentiles is a stretch, but if they first identify with the same covenant, even they may participate in this salvation. It would take another Pharisee (Saul of Tarsus) struck down by a vision of the risen Messiah, raised up and given a direct calling to evangelize Gentiles to break free of this logical man-made gospel. For as much as the Pharisees might protest, their version of the gospel was man-made, the gospel of law-keeping.
The Gospel of Man: Law-Keeping
Law-keeping, the basis of most religions outside the gospel of Christ, holds to the premise that acceptance from God comes with conditions. We must in some way earn that acceptance or prove our worthiness. It is a time-honored position, and one that is based on an admirable premise, namely, that God, or the gods, is due honor. That he is Creator is enough cause to pay him due respect. That he is also all-powerful and can and does exact vengeance is further reason to offer up to him whatever he wants offered – sacrifices, rituals, obedience.
Again, there may be one God, quite often many gods. The divine may be benevolent or malicious. He may require benign gifts and rituals or bloody sacrifices, even terrible ones of self-mutilation or human sacrifices. Molek required the literal sacrifice of the first-born. Other gods simply want an acknowledgement such as libations, where wine to be drunk is first spilled as a simple offering. And so cult rituals were developed. All religions developed a system of rituals by which their gods might be appeased and/or honored.
Those scholars who study such things tend to attribute such law-keeping to felt needs. From an evolutionary standpoint it is the need for self-preservation. Unexplainable bad things happen, so primitive man offers sacrifices and creates rituals to appease gods and ward off evil spirits. Others attribute them to the desire for power. The power structure develops laws and rituals to maintain power over the population. Still others see rituals and law-keeping as an effort to make sense of the world and to connect with something outside oneself.
There may very well be truth in all of these perspectives. But there is yet another perspective. It is that there is a God who is creator and who rules over the world, who is deserving of honor. If so, it makes sense that there is an inner felt-need to acknowledge and honor him. Is that not a reasonable explanation for why all known cultures and people-groups had some kind of religious belief, and that even now in an age in which man supposedly no longer needs religion, the majority still cannot shake off some kind of religious belief?
So, if there is a God, it is reasonable for men and women to pay due honor to their creator and provider – thus the rituals, laws, and various forms of sacrifices. This is what honorable people do. And they reason that if they show God due honor, he will accept them. Or to put it slightly different, if they pay the honor they owe, God will provide them the acceptance that is due them. That is the gospel, or good news, of man. Give to God what is owed him; he will give back what is due us. Let’s now examine such a gospel in light of the gospel Jesus taught.
In much of Jesus’ teaching it seems that he held the same concept of law-keeping. When the rich young ruler asked him how to inherit eternal life, Jesus responded, “You know the commandments,” and then listed them. He regularly taught the importance of keeping the law, especially the laws of how to treat one’s neighbor. Obedience, not profession of faith, was the mark of one’s relationship to him or to God the Father. Jesus observed the feast days, attended synagogue, and prayed in the Temple. He was, to all appearances, an orthodox Jewish rabbi. Whenever he was criticized about not properly following the law, he responded with arguments as to how he was keeping it according to the right interpretation.
Jesus was a law-keeper, but one who had the right perspective on how to keep and why to keep it. Many kept the law for the purpose of self-preservation. They connected bad things happening with failure to give God his proper due by law-keeping. And so the Jesus’ disciples asked him whose sin caused a man to be born blind? Whose failure to keep the law was responsible? Jesus commented on two catastrophes of his day, asking his audience if they thought the victims got what was coming to them because of being worse sinners. To the disciples about the blind man, Jesus attributed the cause to no one’s sin but to the opportunity for God to be glorified. To answer his own question, he explained that everyone was equally in sin and needed to repent.
Jesus attributed the motive of power control to the religious leaders in keeping, or rather in teaching others to keep, the law. He pronounced woe to the teachers of the law who loaded people with burdens too heavy to bear. He condemned the Pharisees who used their supposed religious elitism to win favors and earthly rewards.
And he criticized ritualistic practices intended to connect with the divine, such as the prayers of gentiles who “heap up empty phrases,” thinking that repetitions of words or sounds will make them heard by the gods. Jesus even criticized the law-keeping intended to give due honor.
Consider Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son. The younger prodigal son rejects the law and God, as represented by the father. The elder son keeps the law and honors his father by obediently staying and serving. And yet, it is the elder son whom Jesus presents as the guy at fault in the end. How could that happen? The reply is that it was not because the elder son kept the law but that he did it for the wrong reason. How could honoring his father through obedience be wrong? How could the intent to honor God ever be wrong?
Let’s explore more deeply this reason of law-keeping to show God honor. If we are to honor God it matters that 1) we know the one whom we honor, 2) that we know what honors him, and 3) that we have the right relationship to show that honor.
Consider knowing the one whom we honor. If you don’t know my name, you can see it in the bulletin – D. Marion Clark. Like you, I get a fair amount of mail from companies, whose apparent purpose for existing is to give me what I deserve. They speak respectfully, but what fails to make me feel honored is how they address me. Sometimes it is “Dear D. Clark” or “Dear D.” Oftentimes it is to “Ms. Marion Clark.” Whatever nice things they may say about me and what I deserve to have or even have been specially selected to sign up for, I don’t feel honored by anyone who doesn’t actually know who I am.
So it is with God. If we are to honor him, we must honor him for who he is, not for whatever we may conceive him to be. However many laws we may keep – even his laws; whatever rituals we observe, if we keep even the laws prescribed in Scripture without knowing the God we worship and serve, we dishonor him. God wants what we want – to be known for who we are.
Then there is knowing what actually does honor him, what he considers to be honoring. We know the saying, “It’s the thought that counts.” It is said of gifts that we don’t like or have need for. At least the giver did think of us. But that’s just the point. He didn’t give it much thought. He gave what he would like or what he assumed we would like. He didn’t bother to know what we really like.
In the same way, we might keep all kinds of rituals and laws that have nothing to do with what God really wants from us. We might come up with all kinds of creative ways to worship him or serve him, missing the target as to what actually honors him.
Finally, honoring God must include having a right relationship to him. I like receiving cards at Christmas time and feel honored to receive them from friends. I will receive some cards from organizations or businesses that have no relationship with me than that of a client. They may be attractive, may be expensive, but they do not make me feel honored, however sincere they try to sound in sending me greetings. I am a printed name from a computer list being sent a card so that I will continue my donations or keep buying products.
And it is that final motivation – wanting to keep me on their list, or rather me keep them on my list, that is at the heart of most law-keeping. It was the motivation of the elder brother. That was why he became so angry with his father who had the audacity to love the younger brother. That was the real motive of the Christian Pharisees so concerned with circumcision and keeping the Jewish law. Both regarded God as one who gave conditional love, who provided conditional grace. He does his part; we must do our part. Nothing comes free.
We must honor God if we want…Stop right there. If we want what? To be honored by God? To be rewarded by God? To be accepted? To be saved? What is it we want? What is the bargain we are trying to strike with God?
Do you see what law-keeping does to us? It turns us into wage earners, into bargain makers. It turns God from being our heavenly Father who bestows grace upon us to a deal maker. We work out a deal together, an honorable deal, but a deal nonetheless.
That is not how Jesus presents God and the kingdom. God is the father who runs to the rebellious son and welcomes him home while the obedient son works in the field. He is the master who gives the same wages to the laborer who works for one hour as he does the laborer who works all day. He is the God who rejects the prayer of the Pharisee who devotes his whole life to keeping laws and rituals, but accepts the prayer of the dishonest tax collector only because he asks for mercy.
What gives? It is not what gives but who gives! God is a giving God, not a deal-making God. He doesn’t strike bargains. He doesn’t give out wages. He gives out, pours out gifts of grace. We don’t win his favor; he irresistibly breaks through our rebellion to win us into his favor. We no more earn God’s favor, than the newborn baby we hold in our arms earns ours. He makes us his; he gives us new birth, and makes us his favored ones.
We honor him – we obey him, serve him, follow whatever rituals he may prescribed – because we love him. And we love him because he first loved us. We serve him because he sent his Son to serve us on a cross. It was that work of the Son that won us God’s favor.
What do we think our work can do? This is the other problem with a religion of law-keeping. We fool ourselves into thinking we are what we are not, that we can accomplish what is far beyond us. If I were to drop into the Museum of Art, and like Mr. Bean destroy a priceless work of art, do you think my promise to spend every day drawing the best pictures I can will satisfy the museum? We have destroyed the Garden of Eden, but we expect God to let us back into favor by pulling a few weeds even as we trample on what flowers have survived.
We cannot honor God with obedience because we can’t be obedient. We trample one law while trying to keep another. We spend much effort getting the forms of worship down while failing to do justice. God calls such worship effort the trampling of his courts. We tackle justice while clumsily missing love and holiness. And even as we may be getting some of it right, our pride seeps in taking more pleasure in ourselves honoring God than in actually honoring God.
Law-keeping intended to win God’s acceptance even in the effort to honor him invites pride. It is that pride that makes us upset when we don’t receive from God what we expect. “Why have I worked so hard to be a good Christian?” It is that pride that leads us to judge others. “If they were true Christians they would not…” It is that pride that makes us feel proud, as we demonstrate how humble we are.
It is only when God has placed us in right relationship with him, that our clumsy efforts are received by him as honoring. It is that right relationship that makes all the difference. And so, when it is Grandma who gives the unsuitable gift because she still thinks we are ten years old, we are still honored because she’s Grandma. And when our young children make a mess of the kitchen because they wanted to honor us with a special meal, we do feel honored because they are our children. It is the relationship that makes the law-keeping, however clumsily done – it is the relationship that makes it an honoring act.
And so, Christian Pharisees, keep the law, but keep it because your Father has blessed you by already receiving you. Keep it because you delight in your Father and you delight in pleasing him. Keep the law as your Father has given it to you to express your particular relationship with him, but let others keep the law according to how he has received them.
Remember, the gospel – the good news – is that God so loved you, even as you were sinners, even as you were enemies, he gave his Son out of grace to die for you, to justify you, to reconcile you to himself.
And to you who have never received the gospel of God giving his Son for you; to you who have depended upon another religion to earn your way into acceptance, or who have devised your personal code to follow, would you not instead receive God’s gift? Why bear the burden of keeping up the work to keep God’s favor that you are never sure you have? Why risk the deception that you have done enough? Why not honor God the way you would want to be honored – by trusting his promise, by believing what he says and receiving what he freely and mercifully offers?