I’m frequently asked how a Christ-follower can grow toward maturity without the law (rules)? It happened again this week. I love the question – most of the time. Some of the time I don’t love it – times when the question is a set-up or even an attack instead of a genuine effort to understand how to be more like Jesus.
I do appreciate people who really want to grow in likeness to Christ. I also understand people who get pretty passionate over their position. I can be one of those passionate persons:)
I read again this week, Acts 15, which records a debate between some pretty passionate people over the same topic. In the early days of Christianity almost all Christians had been Jews. In Antioch, though, a lot of Gentiles (non Jews) had come to faith in Christ. These new converts knew nothing about the laws of Judaism which really bothered the leadership. “Don’t non-Jews have to become Jews to follow the Jewish Messiah?” “Sure. Let’s give ‘em a list.”
One thing on the list was especially troublesome – especially to the men – surgery. Yep, circumcision. “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved” (Acts 15:1). The list didn’t stop there. The new converts were required to submit to the entire law!! This ticked off Paul and Barnabas, whom the Bible says were in “sharp dispute and debate” (Acts 15:2). They couldn’t come to an agreement so they took it up with the big boys in Jerusalem – James and Peter.
The “passionate” debate continued. Paul and Barnabas presented their view (grace) and their opponents countered with “No! The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to keep the law of Moses” (Acts 15:5). I love Peter’s reply: “Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear?” In other words, “Come on guys! Get real. How many of you keep all the law? No hands? I didn’t think so. So why are we making Gentiles keep it?” Peter concludes with a clear statement of his position: “We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (Acts 15:11).
Game over, right? Not yet. It’s James’ turn. “Peter’s right, guys. It is my judgment that we should not make it difficult for the Gentiles who are turning to God” (Acts 15:14-19). I wish James would have stopped there, but he doesn’t. “Let’s just make them do 4 things – 1. Eat no food sacrificed to idols, 2. stay away from sexual sin, 3. no eating animals that were strangled, 4. no eating bloody meat. Really, James? What are you saying?
Some commentators say that James was offering a compromise between the two groups. His decision wasn’t so much theological as it was relational. I like that view. Others say that James was a legalist and really messed this one up. Maybe so. Or, there is the view that the stipulations still apply today! I hope not. I like my steak rare.
So, how does all this apply to maturing in our spiritual life. How can we grow in Christ and help others grow? Paul, one of the passionate debaters in the Acts 15 event makes the following contrasts in 2 Corinthians 3:1-18:
Old covenant – New covenant
Of the letter – of the Spirit
Etched in stone – written in our hearts
Kills – gives life
Brings condemnation – brings righteousness
Can we agree that the goal of spiritual growth is likeness to Christ? Then what method is going to get us there? Following rules or depending on the Spirit?
Paul concludes his thoughts in 2 Corinthians 3 with this affirmation: “And the Lord, who is the Spirit, makes us more like him as we are changed into his glorious image (2 Corinthians 3:18). I think I’ve got the answer for me.