I tend to be the kind of person who leans toward legalism. I like control of my world, and if you tell me I can do x, y, and z, and then a, b, and c will happen, I’m happy. I don’t have to rely on anyone else. If I mess up, it’s my fault, but at least I know exactly how to fix what’s broken. I’m at peace when I know exactly how my world works.
It’s also easier to relate to God through works because my spiritual life can work the same way. Tell me what I’m supposed to do and not do; let me know – in advance, mind you – what happens in either case. If I mess up, I know I’m on God’s “beating list,” and I’ll take my whippin’ like a man until I’m back on the “He loves me” list. If I do lots of good things, I know the Lord loves me and will bless me with good things in return. Living according to works is the easiest way to know where I stand with God.
Unfortunately for legalists like myself, the world doesn’t work like that. Most of the time, reality doesn’t fit into a pretty and orderly little box. Good people sometimes die young; wicked people not only sometimes live until they’re 95, they get rich while they’re doing it. My stuff breaks at the worst possible time. I can work really, really hard and follow all the rules, and someone who knows somebody can cut the line and take what’s rightfully mine. Sometimes I do x, y, and z, and q, r, s, and t happen.
Moreover, the spiritual world doesn’t work like that either. Sometimes I do everything right and I’m defeated anyway. Sometimes I do good things and God doesn’t even seem to notice. Even weirder, sometimes I’m not a very good Christian and the Lord still seems to love me and do good things for me.
“For the grace of God has appeared,” Paul says in Titus 2:11. Grace is a strange concept for me to grasp. Legalists struggle with it because it doesn’t fit in with how we think the world works – or should work.
Part of what is mysterious to me is that grace is an outside force that works good in my life, rather than good pouring forth from what I do. After all, growing up I was taught that self-reliance and self-effort were good things that powered the good life.
More than 25 years ago, I heard an evangelist define grace in a way that changed my life. He said grace was the power and ability of God working in me and through me what I cannot do on my own.
That means that if you can do it on your own, you don’t need the grace of God to do it. You don’t need God’s grace to mow the yard or cook supper; you need it to grow in Christ, pray, teach Sunday school, and lead someone to Christ.
This passage in Titus 2:11-14 shows grace in this way: (1) it is something out there that comes here – it appears. (2) It is something that brings salvation when it comes. (3) It accomplishes things in us – it comes “instructing us” in ways that change us.
This appearing of grace is clearly a reference to the coming of Jesus Christ. His coming with grace (a) redeems us, (b) purifies us, and (c) makes us “zealous for good deeds.”
John 1:14-17b says,
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. … For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ (emphasis added).
This last verse states that there is a distinction between “Law” on the one hand and “grace and truth” on the other. It’s not that Law does not embody truth; it does. It’s not that “truth” cannot be expressed by laws and commandments; it can. The New Testament is filled with commandments. In fact, the passage in Titus says Jesus Christ came with grace to "redeem us from every lawless deed.” God does not want His people to be “lawless.”
But Law standing by itself is limited. Law has no power to change a person, only point out the truth. We could say – as Paul does in Romans – law can only instruct and condemn. People can conform their behavior to law and even change their minds about what is good and what is bad, but the law cannot make someone into a new person.
C.S. Lewis said in his classic, Mere Christianity:
“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature. Of course, once it has got its wings, it will soar over fences which could never have been jumped and thus beat the natural horse at its own game.”
It’s odd but quite revealing that, as an American Christian, I have deluded myself into thinking that I can control my life. If I lived in the daily chaos and terror of Somalia or Sudan, would I still feel in control? Would I still live my life under the belief that if I did x, y, and z, and then a, b, and c would happen?
I’m not America bashing – I can’t stand self-loathing American Christians – but merely pointing out the trap of living in an otherwise orderly country. Here’s the trap: You begin to believe you don’t need grace. Everything tends to become like mowing the grass or cooking supper. Figuratively, I put the coin in the slot, out comes what I need.
But this is a delusion. In fact, it was precisely this deception that had placed the Christians in Laodicea in such bondage (Revelation 3:14-22). While we remember the rebuke that they were lukewarm, we often forget what caused it. Jesus told them it was “because you say, ‘I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,’ and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (vs. 17). They thought they had it all under control, but they were so deceived they could not see their spiritually desperate situation.
Then we see grace enter the picture – through the Lord of the church, Jesus Christ Himself. He reveals their pitiful condition, that they were “wretched and miserable,” and then offers to cure them, free of charge! Were they poor? Christ came – grace appeared! – and offered them “gold refined by fire.” Were they blind? Jesus made available “eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see.” Were they naked? Christ extended “white garments so that you may clothe yourself.”
In terms of how the world really works, yes, we should follow the rules. Knowing how the world works and what typically leads to a better life, and then acting accordingly, is wise, according to Proverbs. However, the world is still a wild, sometimes chaotic place; it is filled with selfish and blind people – some of whom are wicked to boot – and they can stumble into your perfect little life and smash it to bits. Do you really want to be in control? Really?
In terms of relating to God, how can our puny little efforts to run our spiritual lives lead to anything other than wretched blindness and ruin? Do you really want to try to run your life?
I’d much rather ask a loving Savior to take control and make me into a new creature. Like a horse that suddenly finds he has wings, I want to soar!