Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Understanding Grace

Christians know that they are saved by grace alone. We don’t always act like it, strutting around all proud of our reserved spot in heaven, but we know that the Bible says that there’s nothing that we can do or say to earn God’s approval. It’s not that we weren’t given rules to live by. In fact, there are 613 laws in the Old Testament that, if followed from birth to death without a single mistake, would grant us a place in eternity with God. Problem is we simply can’t fulfill them without messing up. If you don’t believe me, try.

For the most part, I imagine a lot of us Christians don’t really understand the grace that we’ve been granted. We probably realize that Christianity is the only religion where God offers grace when His followers make a mistake. But I don’t personally know many people who have actually attempted to follow those 613 laws. Before last week, I had never even taken the time to know them all, much less try to obey them. I assumed that what the Bible says about those who have tried and failed would be true of me too, and I didn’t see the point in learning them all. Granted, some of them don’t apply to your average believer. Some of the laws are meant only for the priests to observe. Many have to do with sacrifices that we’re no longer able to make because there is no Temple in which to make them. And a lot of us are probably confused by which exactly are God’s laws and which ones were created by His followers years ago in order to not accidentally commit a sin. For example, if we observed one of the laws that was created by man, we couldn’t eat cheeseburgers. God’s law says that you shouldn’t eat a young lamb boiled in his mother’s milk, so to make sure they weren’t doing that by mistake, someone decided to add a law which restricted eating meat and dairy together. Do you see where one could get confused?

There is an article in the latest Christianity Today magazine that talked about a group of people from a congregation who wanted to try to observe some of the laws that God commanded found in the book of Leviticus. Some may think it’s silly of them to have done this. Some may see it as a half-hearted and impossible attempt to earn their way into eternity. But really what they were trying to do was realize just how much their grace was worth, and in the process, they gained a new appreciation for what Christ did on the cross.

A few of the members participating in the Living Leviticus challenge changed their eating habits. There are several dietary restrictions in the Old Testament. Most believers don’t see them as necessary to follow anymore because back then, eating of those items would have made one sick. God made those particular laws to keep His followers alive and healthy. But then our egotistical, wicked hearts had to go around judging others who did partake of those items. The people who ate the forbidden food were then shunned by believers, ignored and downright hated. But God didn’t create those laws so that we could feel better than everyone else, so when He saw how we treated others who didn’t follow those laws, He told Peter that it wasn’t what went into the body that made us unclean, but rather what came out of it. (Acts 10:15) You could keep all the dietary restrictions that there were and still be seen as unclean by God. God basically told Peter to stop considering those items unclean and start questioning whether his actions towards others were drawing them closer to God or farther and farther away. This is another reason we don’t observe these dietary restrictions anymore. God Himself said it was alright. Those who changed their eating habits during the time they spent intentionally trying to follow the laws in Leviticus became much more appreciative of the freedom they now have and how we are not supposed to judge others who don’t allow themselves that same freedom.

There are many, many laws pertaining to sacrifices in the Old Testament. Sacrifices were meant to show us that when we sin, death is the result. The people in those times had to take their very best grains and oils and animals and offer them to God to eradicate the consequences of their sins – their own death. When it comes to sin, God wanted to make it crystal clear that we can’t sin without something dying. I know that if I saw death every time I sinned, I would probably sin less. Even though we don’t always see it, there is actually a death connected with every single one of our sins: the death of Jesus. God saw how the sacrifices weren’t stopping the people from sinning, so He sacrificed His own Son. Jesus’ death of the cross would become the only sacrifice that would ever be needed to atone for sin. It was God’s plan all along, of course. He knew the way we would end up treating the death of our precious valuables. It’s scarily similar to the way that I can sin and not see Jesus, hanging on a cross, dying so that I can live. I know me. I don’t always acknowledge the gift that Jesus is to me. I don’t make decisions based on whether or not someone has to die because of it. It doesn’t feel relevant to me anymore. I don’t feel personally responsible for Jesus’ death. Now I realize that I’m not solely responsible for it, but I think that if I fail to recognize my part, I won’t be able to understand what exactly it was that God did for me. And that’s why I decided that something needs to be done.

I’m not saying that I’m going to create some new law and expect everyone else to follow it. But I think that I should do something more when I sin. I’m not going to start raising farm animals and reinstate the sacrificial system. Jesus is enough. But instead of taking my grace for granted, I think maybe I need to acknowledge my sins more. Not like going to confession and having someone else hear them for me, although having an accountability partner isn’t a bad idea. No, I think that I should probably take some time every once in a while and take inventory of my thoughts and actions. If there is sin there, I should tell God that I recognize it, seek to completely stop it and ask God to help me stay faithful. It seems simple, but to me, I know that it would be difficult. For one, that list would probably be quite long. Secondly, it’s hard for me to be that humble in front of anyone. I realize that God already knows these things about me. I’m not doing it necessarily to inform Him of my wickedness. It’s more for me to agree with God that these are areas of my life that don’t belong there and need to be blotted out right away. It’s also a way for me to acknowledge that I need God’s help with it. My hope is that my relationship with God would grow, that my gratitude would increase, and that my understanding of grace would improve. Ultimately, the goal is to become more like Jesus, less like me.

In reading through the list of 613 laws last week, I realized that I’d have no chance to get into heaven outside of God’s grace. I knew that already since I’d been told it, but now I feel like I have a firmer grasp of what was commanded of us and by just how far I miss the mark. I pray that my awareness of God’s goodness continues to grow as He and I seek to recognize and work on my own humanness.

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