A couple of weeks ago a dear friend shared with me about an incident that occurred in his church that pained him, and I’m sure others, deeply. A woman who was coming to know Jesus in the midst of the Sunday gathering was publicly berated by a man because he didn’t approve of the way she was dressed. The man was certain that God did not approve of her because of the way she looked. The man then turned his vitriol on the church as a whole and let it be known that his family would not be back and that God did not approve of the attitude of the congregation and leadership regarding the way people dress.
That same week I met a young man who shared with me an experience he and his wife had at a wedding; the bride, the bride’s father, and church leadership got into an argument regarding what music the JD could play at the reception. It is a fair enough subject, and one that should have been thought out before the wedding – but the thing that shocked the young man and his wife was the attitude and harshness displayed by all involved.
There is irony in the first scenario in the assertion that God had a problem with the way the woman looked; the irony being that Jesus teaches us that we ought not to be focused on the outward but the inward – it is out of the heart that poison flows. What is more important? Our outward appearance or our inward appearance?
In the second scenario, we could contrast the attitude of all involved with that of Jesus at the wedding in Cana – maybe they all would have done a little better with some good wine. Don’t get me wrong, music and lyrics are important; shouldn’t a Christian wedding and all surrounding it be an experience of worship and centered on Jesus Christ? It is not as if we have a Christian ceremony and then walk out a Christian door and enter a reception which imbibes the spirit of this age – or at least it shouldn’t be.
As I’ve pondered the above, I have come back again and again to the realization that knowing we are accepted and loved by Jesus Christ is critical for our relationships with others. Insecurities drive us to legalism and judgmentalism and self-righteousness. A failure to appreciate the mercy and forgiveness of God in Christ in our own lives leads to a failure to be merciful to others; as Jesus says, “He who is forgiven much loves much.” The Apostle John makes the case in his first letter that the one who loves God will love others and that we can see whether a person loves God by whether he loves others.
Paul writes in Romans Chapter 10, “Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is that they may be saved. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.”
While “the law for righteousness” of Romans 10 is the Law of Moses and not man-made traditions, I think there is something we can learn from this passage as it relates to the above two scenarios. I’ll first point out that in Mark Chapter 7 Jesus talks about “making the word of God of no effect through your tradition…” The Jews of Mark’s Gospel and the Israel of Romans 10 are not the only people who have a propensity to overlay the Law of God, or the Word of God, with man-made tradition. It is one thing for tradition to be a servant of the Word, it is another thing for tradition to usurp the authority of the Word. Tradition should not form the Word, the Word should mold tradition. The Word should not reflect and transmit tradition, tradition should reflect and transmit the Word. Tradition ought to submit to the Word, the Word ought not to submit to tradition.
Tradition transformed by the Word is beautiful as our daily rhythms move in harmony with our Father, His Creation, and our fellow pilgrims. I write this so that we will not make the mistake of thinking that tradition, in and of itself, is wrong or harmful – harmful and wrong tradition is wrong and harmful…and that is tradition that has usurped the Word of God.
Having said all of this, there is an irony in Romans 10 that we see in the two above scenarios. Paul says that Israel has a zeal for God, and no doubt the person passing judgement on Sunday morning at my friend’s church has a zeal for God, and no doubt the people arguing about music at the wedding have a zeal for God – but neither appears to have a zeal for God according to [godly] knowledge.
When we are ignorant of God’s righteousness we set about to establish our own righteousness. While the two examples (the church service and the wedding) may appear mundane and even superficial, let us not deceive ourselves, for most of us are capable of doing the very same things – the difference is that most of us know enough to try to mask our attitudes to appear a bit more thoughtful and reluctant in our judgements – in other words, we have learned to play a better game.
An irony of Israel in Romans 10 is that the purpose of the Law of Moses was not that it might validate our righteousness, but to the contrary, its purpose was that it might expose us as transgressors. The Law was not given to buttress our righteousness, but to reveal our unrighteousness. The Old Testament saints well knew that they were sinners in need of God’s mercy, and in this knowledge they sought and received God’s justification by faith (see Romans Chapter 4). When we take traditions and put them in place of the Word of God those traditions are not only shielding us from the Gospel, they are also shielding us from the Law, and in shielding us from the Law they are shielding us from the convicting power of the Law to convict us of sin and unrighteousness and we are not driven to the Cross for mercy and grace.
The person that enthrones the standards of man – wherever that standard may fall on the theological or philosophical spectrum – sets himself apart from the convicting power of the Law and the justifying power of Gospel grace.
The man or woman who has been found guilty by the Law recognizes that he or she is indeed guilty – a transgressor, a lawbreaker, a rebel against God – dead in trespasses and sins. A convict is a convict – there is no need to compare one convict’s offenses with another’s. This same person who has been driven to Jesus Christ and His Cross also knows that the same God who was merciful to him desires him to be merciful to others.
God’s righteousness is found in Jesus Christ alone (1 Corinthians 1:26 – 31), we have nothing of which to boast, of which to be proud, on which to claim our own self-righteousness – nothing…nothing…nothing. And if we say, “Yes but surely…” we have not yet learned our lesson, we have not yet seen ourselves outside of Christ as we truly are…nor have we seen who Christ is in us and who we are in Christ.
If Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for those who believe in Him (Romans 10), how much more is He the end of looking to religious and cultural traditions for righteousness? This can be more difficult to accept and live than recognizing that we are not justified by the Law because it touches on the tribal group to which we belong – whether ethnically, denominationally, politically, nationally, theologically, philosophically – the list goes on and on.
Paul writes (Colossians 2:6-10): “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in Him and established in the faith, as you have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving. Beware lest anyone cheat you through philosophy and empty deceit, according to the tradition of men, according to the basic principles of the world, and not according to Christ. For in Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily; and you are complete in Him, who is the head of all principality and power.”
Am I applying my own standards when I relate to others, or am I extending the grace and mercy of God in Christ? Am I allowing the Law to do its work in me, driving me to the Cross, or am I seeking my own righteousness and attempting to impose my self-righteousness on others? Is my zeal for God according to Gospel knowledge, or is it a tribal expression?
What about you?