We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners; yet we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. But if, in our effort to be justified in Christ, we ourselves have been found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! But if I build up again the very things that I once tore down, then I demonstrate that I am a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God; for if justification comes through the law, then Christ died for nothing.
My word, dear Paul gives a lot of jargon whilst robustly criticising the Law. I empathise with his reasons and with his pain in the struggle. Yet, our glorious Jewish family, deeply connected with us by faith DNA, affirms that we live the Law to demonstrate that we love and honour God and the Other. It’s not about making us right with God because God does that. So if Law is love, what of this Jesus Christ? If, because of Jesus, we are now so intimately connected with God, that faith in Jesus excites the Holy Spirit within us, what does that say about Law? Is my physical God connection all I need?
To me, Paul was in an utter twizzle trying to understand his old faith and his new one. To realise that we humans are the Spirit’s temple, that the connection is physical alongside emotional and intellectual, must have made the Law seem completely redundant – especially if following it might exclude new Christians. Frustratingly, it is so easy to misunderstand and to misuse law; to use it for negative judgement and human control rather than for human care and justice. Law is for those times when humans forget how to live with and love one another. Let’s be careful of dying to it. We believe Jesus came to fulfil the Law, not obliterate it. Jesus takes us further than Law, argues each interpretation, pushes us to see beyond, urges from inside our bodies to take on more gracious sight as we look to each other and to our world. We die not to the Law, but to the notion of it being the only guide of our lives. Wise Jeremiah prophesied that the Law would live in our hearts. We live with Law and Gospel, alive with resurrected Jesus, interpreting for each moment what is the most Gospel move we can make.
Prayer Our dear and glorious God, We’re in wonder with your patience. You see what we do and how we interpret, and instead of anger, you give what we can rely on. You gave your Law as a way of honouring each other and loving you, yet you saw how piecemeal our ancestors and we have lived out your hope and promise of justice. Jesus gave us sharper focus, incisive generosity, and shocking promises, taking our interpretations of your Law out from under our feet and easing Law into our hearts. Forgive us when we choose to interpret laws and rules and guidelines and requirements in ways which are anything but loving. Forgive, as ever, wise and exuberant God. Give us grace to accept your wisdom deep in our souls. Let us live Law and Gospel, alive to bring practical hope and meaningful care. In the name of Jesus, and in the power and presence of Holy Spirit, Amen.
The Rev’d Elizabeth Gray-King is the URC Education & Learning Programme Officer and a member of St Columba’s URC, Oxford.