Electricity: Why We’re Not Under The Law

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Recently I made the statement, “Our biggest sin as believers is ‘trying to do good” and ‘trying to be like Christ.'”

What do I mean by that? Shouldn’t we try to be like Christ, and try to be good Christians? Romans 6-8 brings some background for my opening statement.

Paul, in Romans 6, states our real identity in Christ. We died to sin (6:2). Our old self was crucified with Christ (6:6). We are no longer slaves of sin; we’re freed now from sin’s tyranny over us (6:6, 7, 18, 22). These are radical statements, but since this is now how God defines Reality we’re to count it as true (6:11).

Well, first of all, what is sin? If we look at what righteousness is, it’s “Loving God and neighbor at the expense of oneself.” So, reverse that, and sin is “Loving oneself at the expense of God and neighbor.” We’re dead to that, Paul says, and so we’re to take that statement literally and count it as a foundational reality. Think for a moment of what that means: “I am dead to sin.”

But – it’s not enough to know we are dead to sin, and Paul foreshadows Romans 7 in 6:14. Sin shall not be our master, because we are not under the Law, but under grace.

What does “the Law” mean? Some say that Paul means the ceremonial Law, but when you get to 7:7 he uses “Do not covet,” straight out of the Ten Commandments, showing he is discussing not merely the ceremonial but the moral Law.

If we look at the essence of the Law-based economy, it was “Do this and you shall be blessed – fail to keep the whole Law and be cursed.” It is an either-or proposition; either we succeed totally by our human effort and achieve blessing, or we make one mistake and we’re done for.

Both Paul and James point to this principle:
Gal. 5:3 For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law.

James 2:10 For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all.

And 2Kings shows that the Law is all or nothing:
2Kings 21:8 I will not again make the feet of the Israelites wander from the land I gave their forefathers, if only they will be careful to do everything I commanded them and will keep the whole Law that my servant Moses gave them.” That’s the “if” of the Law.

And in Deut 27:26 “Cursed be he that confirmeth not all the words of this law to do them. And all the people shall say, Amen.” That’s the all of the Law.

The Law is an “if” proposition. If you do A B and C, then you will be blessed. If you don’t do A, B, and C, then you will be cursed.

The Law is about becoming Something through doing. It is God’s answer to the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil – Satan’s paradigm. With the Law, God said in effect, “OK, human beings. If you think you can know good and evil and be “like God,” here’s the standard. If you keep all these commands, I will bless you. If you break one, you are under a curse.” If we’d had the brains we’d have said at Sinai, “We can’t do all that! There’s no way!” But instead what was said was, “We will be careful to do all you have commanded.” No problem, Lord. We’ll just be like You. Got it.” And the Old Testament record shows how well that worked.

The Law doesn’t work because only God is love; He’s the sole source of totally other-centered love in the universe. Human beings, in their own effort, cannot love in this way. This is why Paul says, “The Law was weak, through the flesh.” Flesh-effort cannot truly love as God loves. We can love those who love us. We can be kind to those who aren’t unkind to us. But only God Himself can say, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing” while being tortured and executed for crimes he didn’t commit; only God can make Corrie Ten Boom reach up years later and shake the hand of the Nazi guard who had caused her so much pain; only God can cause widows of missionaries to go into uncharted territory to find the natives who murdered their husbands and then love them into the Kingdom. That kind of love belongs only to God Himself, and moreover He doesn’t give this love to man as a thing to use; rather, God gives Himself to us as the driving force of love inside these earthen temples.

That’s why our Law-based human effort doesn’t work. By human effort we cannot rise above our flesh tendencies, the desire for self-protection, self-preservation, self-love (which loves my family, my friends, my country), and love simply because we are love. Only God can do that. Oh, we can look pretty good. We can be religious, moral, live good lives, even die for our country. But we can’t die for those who are spitting, whipping, beating, crucifying us, Nazi guards and natives who murdered our husbands. That last bit is the measure of real love.

Most Christians believe that the Law, fleshly effort, cannot save us. They know we need Jesus as our Savior. But how many realize, and I didn’t for many years, that Jesus Christ is also our sanctifier? “As you began in the Spirit (by relying on Jesus Christ) so walk in Him (by reliance on Christ, the Spirit in us).”

And so the point of Romans 7 is to show the hamster-wheel struggle of a believer who tries to use human effort to “be like God” and keep the Law. It is a wheel with no end. The infinite intricacies of the Law knock us down again and again. “I hate what I’m doing! I’m not doing what I want to do!” And so Paul says, “All who rely on the Law are under the curse.” Why?

Human-effort says, “I am not good as God is good, and must strive to become like God.” The lie of the Garden and Satan’s boast in Isaiah 14. Paul says, “When I will to do good (will-power), evil is present.” Will-power exertion to be ‘good’ produces wretched-man syndrome – the defeated Christian. And so Paul calls the Law, “the Law of sin and death” and “the ministration of condemnation” (2Cor 3:9). “Who shall deliver me from this body of death?” It’s a death-stage as we forever die to the illusion that we can be like Christ if we just try harder next time.

But it’s an important stage; it is the stage by which we learn “I am not like God. I cannot be ‘like Christ.’ I’m as different from God as a light bulb is from electricity.” That’s the crucial thing to learn. As Paul put it, we are “vessels” and as Jesus said, “Branches.” There is no way for a cup itself to slake anyone’s thirst without something in it. There’s no way a branch can produce a single bit of fruit by exertion of effort. All the branch does is rest and stay connected to the Vine. That’s the foundational reality for the mature believer: “I am a cup.” “I am a branch.” It is the foundation of real humility, where we finally dispense with self-commendation when we do this or that good thing and self-condemnation when we fail. And so Jesus Himself, who set aside the use of His Deity and came to live here as a Holy Spirit-directed man knew this reality of human cup-ness and said, “I can do nothing of Myself” and “The Father in Me does the works.”

In this humility – through the humiliation of our failure to be ‘like Christ’ – we find our true, inherent, God-created weakness. We were never meant to be good on our own steam, our effort, our striving. “Why do you call Me good? For there is only One who is good – that’s God.” That means there’s only one source of goodness in the entire universe, and it isn’t me, this human cup.

To wrap this up, Romans 6 states we’re dead to sin. But a believer, dead to sin, cannot be a clear channel of God’s love unless he knows he’s also dead to striving, flesh-effort based, hamster-wheel-running ‘trying to be like Christ.’ That’s Romans 7. And I guess we can talk about Romans 8 after we finish discussion on this bit – 8, where the lie is conquered and we begin to see ourselves as weak in our humanity but strong in the Spirit.

Winner of 147 Grammys (or so), Ron Block is the banjo-ninja portion of Alison Kraus and Union Station. When he’s not laying down a bluegrass-style martial-arts whoopin’ on audiences around the world, he’s taking care of his donkey named “Trash” and keeping himself busy by being one of the most well-read and thoughtful people we know.


6 Comments

  1. jennifer

    That is an awesome explanation…Thanks Ron for further clarifying! I think we all come to understand and accept Romans 6 and think since we are dead to sin, then therefore WE can be more like God, WE by our own works can be good Christians, moral, do good things and by our own works strive and push forward. I think so many of us get caught up in what you call the hamster wheel…we TRY to do good, then slip and fall only to get back up and do something good, feel good, feel on top of the world like we are finally there…only to fall again. That is the humbling moment where we have to surrender all to the Lord, that’s when we know WE can’t do it w/o the spirit living in us.
    I was in the hamster wheel for years, until I heard you speak and give your testimony. I by no means am perfect but I now know that I don’t have to be b/c the spirit lives in me.

  2. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Jennifer,

    Although I know the sense in which you mean “I by no means am perfect,” to clarify, we are perfect, according to the Word – “by one sacrifice He has perfected forever (in their being) those who are being made holy.” Sanctification is both a static one-time event (the perfection of Christ being put in us and made one with us – Peter calls us “partakers of the divine nature”) and also a process. “By one sacrifice He has perfected forever (the one-time event) those who are being made holy (the process).”

    Paul talks about “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” The unregenerate person (look up Eph 2:2) cannot please God, even as a churchgoer. As believers “you are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if the Spirit of Christ dwells in you.” If we have the Spirit of Christ, we are in the Spirit – that’s the Fact.

    Now, does this mean that everything we do is spontaneously Christ directing us? Not at all. We can walk according to the Spirit (by resting in who we really are, combating temptation with “That’s no longer who I am – Christ lives in me – I am dead to sin) – or we can walk according to the flesh. Now, most Christians think of “walking according to the flesh” as sin that looks like sin. Getting drunk. Fornication. It’s easy to focus on the more spectacular sins. But “walking according to the flesh” involves thinking we are just independent beings who can do our own thing; whether “our own thing” happens to be obvious sins or the sneakier ones like trying to be like Christ through flesh-effort (leading to commendation or condemnation) really doesn’t matter. That”independent I” is a lie – a false consciousness generated by Satan. There is no such thing for the believer (or unbeliever, which is another story) as the independent “I” that can choose good.

    We walk according to the Spirit simply by resting, trusting, relying, actively seeing Christ living in us. The horse before the cart. I see Christ in the mirror, and so He lives. The righteousness of the law is fulfilled in us when we walk according to the Spirit – by faith.

    This often doesn’t happen immediately. If we have long standing issues with self-effort, fear, bondage, it takes hanging on to God’s stated Facts through the maelstrom of circumstance or besetting sins in our lives. But faith is the thing that pleases God. If I try to vacuum without plugging the thing in, I’m not very pleased with the results, no matter how much and how violently the vacuum is moved around on the carpet. It doesn’t pick up diddly. But plug it in and it becomes a vital tool for cleaning up mess.

    But God doesn’t plug us in. That’s the one area where we have free will. Plug in, or not. Unplug, or stay plugged in. He who abides in Me shall bear much fruit. Once we’re plugged in, the Spirit uses us for Kingdom work. Unplugged, we just move the mess from one spot to another.

    All analogies break down. But that is our one choice, every moment of every day. Trust God, trust His stated Facts, rely on His indwelling power – or do it “my way.” “I can handle this one, Lord. No problem. I will be careful to do all that You have commanded.” Try-sin-repent-try-sin-repent-try-sin-repent.

    These days when I temporarily and unwittingly step back into Romans 7 it isn’t long before I say, “Yuck! I’m going back to 8.”

  3. Lyndon

    Ron – First of all, I’m so grateful for this entire discussion. Both your last post about Sin in Movies (and the comment thread that followed), as well as this one have been so helpful, on so many levels.

    The Christ-centered way of living that is being strongly advocated here is becoming more and more real to me with each passing day. It’s very freeing.

    But there’s another side of this same general subject that I’m wondering about, and trying to sort out. Among other things, this discussion has been about putting our trust solely in Christ Himself, dwelling in us — and how that acts as a powerful transforming force against the power of sin, as opposed to focusing on the sin itself, or trying to defeat it through human will power.

    So what then should be our attitude and practice with regard to “spiritual disciplines”, such as Bible reading, personal devotional time, and personal prayer time? It seems like if these are engaged in as a result of the natural hunger that comes from a deep love of and focus on Jesus, then they won’t be part of any sort of structured program. But is there a place to continue to do such things in a disciplined, deliberate way, knowing that the fruit of such efforts could be a closer sense of Christ’s indwelling work in our lives? If these things are viewed as self-effort, in an attempt to “get closer to God through works”, then I can see where they could be fruitless.

    Perhaps a discussion of what these things look like in your life, and what you see their role being, would be helpful and instructive.

    Thanks for a great discussion!

  4. jennifer

    Ephesians 2:8For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— 9not by works, so that no one can boast.

    Thanks Ron…I agree its definately doesn’t happen all at once, it takes time and I agree also that as you said, “Now, does this mean that everything we do is spontaneously Christ directing us? Not at all. We can walk according to the Spirit (by resting in who we really are, combating temptation with “That’s no longer who I am – Christ lives in me – I am dead to sin) – or we can walk according to the flesh.” That’s where I’ve been struggling.
    I pray each morning to start my day off not by myself, but by having the Lord lead, guide and direct me and to work through me, no matter what the cost. I see things that happen throughout the day that aren’t perfect, our life isn’t perfect, but it’s a continual process and that’s when I remember the Romans 6.7,8 . and to walk by faith and put my trust in the Lord. He’s revealed a lot to me and since I’ve given it over to him, knowing that I no longer could do it on my own, there’s been an overwhelming sense of peace.
    Thanks for the explanation of the process.

  5. Stacy Grubb

    Ron,

    Once again, you’ve got the gears in my head spinning. I’d always had this idea that my humility was exercised by being ever-aware of my sin status. I am a sinner. I am vile. A wretch. Only through God’s grace am I forgiven for being a vile human. While that’s true, I hadn’t ever realized that Salvation and faith supercede who I was. I hadn’t learned/wasn’t taught to view myself in the way that God views me. It’s pretty basic human psychology that folks will live up to the expectations others put on them. If you call your kid a lazy slob and predict that he’ll grow up to be a menace to society, odds are good that he’ll do just that. He’ll start believing what you say about him until he no longer needs you to tell him how filthy he is. He’ll do a fine job of that on his own. If I can view myself as something other than a forgiven sinner, that is a good step in the right direction toward tearing down fences and living a Christ-reliant life. As humans, we are not stronger than sin. As believers, however, we are new creations indwelt by Someone who is. I’ve got to shake off the human skin and see who I am as this new creation.

    Stacy

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