Many Christians believe that what God wants most from us is obedience. And they view the Bible as a handbook of sorts, a compilation of behavioral rules and principles that God gave us so that we might do the right thing in every possible situation. If we follow the Bible’s instructions, not only will we find favor with God, but God will also bless our human experience. If we do not follow the Bible’s instructions, however, we will not experience the joy, happiness, and blessings that God designed for us. This perspective that we can “get it right” is beset with problems, not the least of which is its incompatibility with biblical Christianity.
Jesus often encountered this perspective in His interactions with the Pharisees. Their oral tradition, the detailed set of rules they derived from interpreting the Mosaic Law, prescribed their behavior. For example, their interpretation of the commandment “to remember the sabbath day and keep it holy” specified for the person who wanted to “get it right” which activities violated the commandment and which did not. Because they interpreted the Law as rules to follow, the Pharisees believed they could “get it right”—if they worked hard and were self-disciplined.
While the Pharisees’ perspective on achievement through self-discipline appears noble, it fails to comprehend the biblical perspective on the insidious problem and consequences of sin. The belief that a person can “do the right thing” by rolling up his moral sleeves and exercising self-discipline is legalism, and in Romans, Paul confronts its influence on the gospel and in the church. In chapter one, he argues that mankind is under the wrath of God. This wrath is the consequence of mankind’s rebellion against God, and Paul describes it as God having given mankind over to the custody of his own degrading passions and depraved mind; God has made us prisoners at the level of our perverted desires and distorted minds. In practical terms, we are people who do not want the right things and who do not think rightly about reality. If, therefore, God has made us prisoners of our own evil, as Paul argues, then the belief that we can simply roll up our moral sleeves and do the right thing whenever we decide to is an illusion—no matter what we may want to believe to be true about ourselves.
This legalistic perspective fails to comprehend the nature of sin, but a second problem besets it as well; namely, that being people who merely obey a set of rules falls immeasurably short of the kind of people God ultimately wants us to be. Jesus demonstrates this truth in the Sermon on the Mount when he says, “You have heard that it was said, `You shall not commit adultery’; but I say to you that every one who looks on a woman to lust for her has committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27, 28). Jesus is confronting the Pharisees’ common doctrinal perspective on the Mosaic Law: a man is not guilty of adultery—he is blameless—if he does not commit an act of sexual impropriety with a woman. Jesus, however, illuminates the true intent of the Law: if a man merely looks upon a woman and lusts in his heart, he is guilty of committing adultery. According to Jesus, God’s standard of righteousness applies to the motivations of the heart and transcends the Pharisees’ self-justifying standard of behavior. Rather than being a strict set of external rules, the Law provides a clear perspective on the kind of people God wants His people to be. Indeed, God intends the Scriptures to communicate His perspective and to demonstrate to us our need for mercy as we fall short of His transcendent standard of righteousness.
So then, the perspective that would have us roll up our moral sleeves and “get it right” fails both to comprehend the nature of sin and to understand God’s standard of righteousness. But it fails in a third way, too. It fails to appreciate the important role failure plays in the experience of the believer. Every day confronts us with a variety of situations in which we must decide how we will interact with other people. God may have worked in our hearts so that we desire to do the right thing, but “wanting” and “doing” are not the same. Even though we may be determined to do right, we will often fail and hurt those we love most. Suffering from an insidious disease of our will, we experience the existential death that comes from sin. This “death” usually involves pain, and this pain is a tool God uses to teach us. When God gives us eyes to see the reality of a situation in which we have failed, we learn both the value of goodness and our profound need for mercy. Experiencing the consequences that come from failing, then, is crucial to maturing our faith and to growing our desire for goodness. And this process of coming to value goodness and recognizing our need for mercy is ultimately more important to God than obeying a code of conduct.
The legalistic perspective that denies the nature of sin, the demands of righteousness, and the role of failure not only impacts the lives of individual believers, but also sets in motion a dynamic that destroys the church community. In the gospel accounts, Jesus interacts with two kinds of people: those enmeshed in the established religious order (primarily Pharisees and scribes) and the common people (sinners, tax-gatherers, prostitutes, and so on). The Pharisees and scribes believed they were righteous men because they adhered to the behavioral standards of the oral traditions; these men were invested in “doing it right” and, more importantly, committed to seeing themselves as “doing it right.” Jesus makes it clear to them, however, that following a set of external rules does not make a person righteous; rather, righteousness is internal. He confronted them repeatedly with this reality, but these religious men did not want to hear His message; indeed, they became increasingly hostile toward Jesus and eventually plotted to have Him killed. Unlike the Pharisees and scribes, the common people knew they didn’t “do it right”; they believed something was profoundly wrong with them, and they knew that God’s mercy was their only hope. Believing that Jesus was from God, they followed Him everywhere, day and night. He fed them, healed them, taught them, gave them hope; His words were life to them.
These two groups of people with whom Jesus interacted lived different—and separate—lives from one another. The Pharisees and scribes believed that associating with sinners was fundamentally wrong, and they criticized Jesus for His involvement with them. The common people, on the other hand, knew that they were sinners, and they also knew that they were not welcome among the religious elite.
This same situation is commonly found in the church today: two kinds of people who live separate lives. One group appears to be “getting it right”: for the most part, they successfully adhere to the rules and behavioral standards that they believe the Bible has laid out for them, and they believe that God has blessed them because of their effort. The other group appears always to struggle: for the most part, they know the Bible’s standards, but, all too aware that they fail miserably, they believe their suffering in life largely results from their inability to “get it right.” People in the first group are often impatient with those who struggle, viewing them with contempt and citing their lack of effort and self-discipline. People in the second group believe something is wrong with them that is not wrong with those who seem to be living the victorious Christian life; while these strugglers hope for God’s mercy, they are afraid they are not good enough to qualify for it.
This dynamic is not what God intended for the community of believers. Church should be a place where acknowledged sinners in need of God’s mercy can come together, be reminded of the truth through the teaching of the Scriptures, and encourage one another in the difficult and often discouraging struggle to pursue goodness and truth. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream…. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. By sheer grace, God will not permit us to live even for a brief period in a dream world. He does not abandon us to those rapturous experiences and lofty moods that come over us like a dream. God is not a God of the emotions but the God of truth. Only that fellowship which faces such disillusionment, with all its unhappy and ugly aspects, begins to be what it should be in God’s sight, begins to grasp in faith the promise that is given to it. The sooner this shock of disillusionment comes to an individual and to a community the better for both. A community which cannot bear and cannot survive such a crisis, which insists upon keeping its illusion when it should be shattered, permanently loses in that moment the promise of Christian community. Sooner or later it will collapse. Every human wish dream that is injected into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be banished if genuine community is to survive. He who loves his dream of a community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter, even though his personal intentions may be ever so honest and earnest and sacrificial.
Bonhoeffer also writes about what a believer’s attitude should be toward a fellow believer’s sin:
And is not what has been given to us enough: brothers who will go on living with us through sin and need under the blessings of His grace? Is the divine gift of Christian fellowship anything less than this, any day, even the most difficult and distressing day? Even when sin and misunderstanding burden the communal life, is not the sinning brother still a brother, with whom I, too, stand under the Word of Christ? Will not his sin be a constant occasion for me to give thanks that both of us may live in the forgiving love of God in Jesus Christ? Thus the very hour of disillusionment with my brother becomes incomparably salutary, because it so thoroughly teaches me that neither of us can ever live by our own words and deeds, but only by that one Word and Deed which really binds us together—the forgiveness of sins in Jesus Christ. When the morning mists of dreams vanish, then dawns the bright day of Christian fellowship.
The perspective that we can “get it right” goes against the basic tenants of biblical Christianity. The Bible tells the story of God’s redemptive work throughout history, and that story centers on the truth that God Himself became a man, Jesus, in order to sacrifice Himself for the forgiveness of our sins. Our inability to do the right thing, therefore, does not surprise God, for He is the One who gave us over to the custody of our own evil. He did this, in part, so that we might clearly understand our tremendous need for His mercy. Our failure—not an illusion of success—is an essential ingredient God uses to mature our faith. This truth is what we need to “get right.”