Welcome to Week 10 of our devotional series on those common Christian beliefs that have been overlooked or misunderstood. Christianity is often described as “a religion of grace” instead of “a religion of law.” Jesus saves us; we don’t! And yet, so much of our faith has to do with following certain rules and regulations. We believe obedience to God is important, and yet nothing we do can separate us from the love of God. How do these two things go together? What really is the relationship between grace and law?
Holy and Gracious God — guide us today by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will we might truly discover peace. Amen.
Matthew 5:14-30, 33-37
14 “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. 15 No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. 16 In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished. 19 Therefore, whoever breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches others to do the same, will be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
21 “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. 25 Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. 26 Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny.
27 “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ 28 But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. 29 If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. 30 And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell…
33 “Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ 34 But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, 35 or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. 36 And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. 37 Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.
“Trust and Obey” — Lyrics by John Sammis; performed by the Vagle Brothers (YouTube video: Click here for Video)
When we walk with the Lord
in the light of his word,
what a glory he sheds on our way!
While we do his good will,
he abides with us still,
and with all who will trust and obey.
Trust and obey,
for there’s no other way
to be happy in Jesus,
but to trust and obey.
Not a burden we bear,
not a sorrow we share,
but our toil he doth richly repay;
not a grief or a loss,
not a frown or a cross,
but is blest if we trust and obey. Refrain
But we never can prove
the delights of his love
until all on the altar we lay;
for the favor he shows,
for the joy he bestows,
are for them who will trust and obey. Refrain
Then in fellowship sweet
we will sit at his feet,
or we’ll walk by his side in the way;
what he says we will do,
where he sends we will go;
never fear, only trust and obey. Refrain
As a kid, I remember singing this hymn, Trust and Obey, all the time. It’s catchy in an entirely folksy kind of way. But there’s some shocking lines in there, and the whole theme of the song sounds awfully unchristian. What is it, we might ask, that causes the Lord’s glory to “shed on our way”? What leads Jesus supposedly to “abide with us still”? Is it God’s grace and love? No, apparently not. Jesus, the hymn says, will love us, abide with us, and share his glory with us only ifwe trust and obey. Now, does that sound like salvation by grace alone to you? Hardly. At best, it sounds like salvation by faith and works. And, then there’s verse three, which might be even more explicit. Here it is only by trusting and obeying God that we can receive his joy and favor. There’s no other way!
Back in the 1500s, Christian leaders like Martin Luther and John Calvin worked hard to reform the Church precisely along these lines. Luther, who basically jumpstarted the whole Protestant Reformation, insisted that we are all saved by grace through faith alone — no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Passages like Ephesians 2:8-9 (“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast”) became banner texts held high as the defining core of what it means to be Christian. Luther insisted that our trust in Jesus has nothing to do with obedience or following any sort of law. In fact, it has everything to do with believing we can’t do these things. We can’t obey well enough to earn anything, much less Jesus’ love and salvation. That’s precisely why we need God’s mercy and grace, which he freely gives despite our failure to obey.
So, why do we sing the hymn Trust and Obey? And why do we continue to emphasize the importance of doing what Jesus did and acting like he acted? Doesn’t this in the end become a sort of law? Put another way, if salvation is by grace through faith alone, what are we supposed to do with passages like this famous one from the Book of Proverbs: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight” (3:5-6)?
Jesus gives us more than a hint in Matthew 5, his famous “Sermon on the Mount.” Echoing the Ten Commandments God gave to Moses in Exodus 20, Jesus makes a hefty claim: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill [them].” And yet, two verses later, he removes any doubt that this reassertion of the Old Testament law should ever imply some sort of works salvation: “For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” In other words, it’s not going to happen.
One of the greatest obstacles we face in understanding the relationship between divine law and divine grace is we imagine law to be the price we pay for salvation when, in fact, it is our reward. “Oh, how I love your law!” Psalm 119 says. “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!” God’s law is not something separate from or outside of God’s love. Because God loves us, he gives us his law, not as an arbitrary set of rules but as the way we live a flourishing and loving life. That’s why we “trust in the Lord with all our heart,” as Proverbs says, because we believe God knows how to live a good life.
Jesus loves us so much that he wants us to share his heart, which is the source of all true law. Parents who love their kids instruct and discipline them because they want them to flourish. For the same reason, God loves, disciplines, and instructs us, too. When faith becomes so identified with heaven and hell and what happens to us after we die, we lose sight of this “legal” dimension of Jesus’ love for us. We miss the point that he doesn’t just want us to live forever. He wants us to live well, which is something we should absolutely want for ourselves, too!
To talk about trusting and obeying God, then, is to say that we believe God knows what a truly flourishing life looks like, and we’re going to do what it takes to live just that sort of life. This is why there’s “no other way to be happy in Jesus,” as the song says, because happiness isn’t something we simply receive. It’s the product of a life lived like Christ who, to be sure, fulfilled the law perfectly.
Lord Jesus, our Loving Lawgiver, help us to love your law. May your words here in Matthew 5-7 be sweeter than honey in our mouths and always straight paths for our lives. Amen.