I don’t know about you, but there is a constant tension in my life of faith between my efforts to grow, and the call to rest in God’s love, forgiveness, and grace (“unmerited favor”). Most of us would readily say that Jesus came to set us free from “rules” and works-based faith, but the reality is much more subtle than that simple platitude.
In the first place, most Jews of Jesus’ day had no illusions that they (just like the Christians) were children of grace. They knew that their very existence—as a people—was as a result of God’s preemptive action in the Exodus. The law came after God set them free; their obedience came out gratitude for God’s liberating action. They knew that YHWH was a God of lavish mercy and forgiveness, and they rejoiced and celebrated that forgiveness. So when Paul (or Peter, or the Gospel writers) proclaims that God freely forgives, and that forgiveness is based not based on our works, he is not actually proclaiming anything radically new to a Jew.
But there’s more.
Paul has a troubling habit of talking a lot about “works”—these works from which Paul is (supposedly) telling us we have been freed. Paul never really says, “Don’t do works.” However, he does constantly say, “Don’t trust your works to save you; work, but still trust in Jesus’ saving work on the cross, and God’s faithfulness.”
A great example of this tension is in Paul’s letter to the church at Colossae, particularly in the section between 2:6 and 3:18.
In this section, Paul constantly emphasizes our freedom in Christ. It culminates with verses 20-23:
You have died with Christ, and he has set you free from the spiritual powers of this world. So why do you keep on following the rules of the world, such as, ‘Don’t handle! Don’t taste! Don’t touch!’? Such rules are mere human teachings about things that deteriorate as we use them. These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.
Paul certainly wants us to avoid relying only on rules and “discipline” to transform us. But it’s not quite that simple, because shortly after telling us to not rely on “rules”, Paul reminds his readers (and us) that we do need to do a few things, and one thing in particular.
For Paul, it all revolves around 3:10: “Put on your new nature, and be renewed as you learn to know your Creator and become like him.”
In other words, though we should not rely on rules for our salvation, it is our responsibility to:
- Put on our new nature
- Learn to know our Creator
- Become like him
Paul goes further in the verses before and after this one (all from chapter 3):
- set our sights on—and think about—the realities of heaven (vv2-3)
- put sinful things to death (v5)
- get rid of anger, rage, etc. (v8)
- don’t lie (v9)
- clothe yourself with tender-hearted mercy, etc. (v12)
- make allowance for each other’s faults (v13)
- teach and counsel each other (v16)
- sing psalms and hymns (v16)
Actually seems like an awful lot to do!
But as I read this passage this morning, it seems it all flows from the three things in 3:10 (put on our new nature, learn to know our Creator, and become like him). That verse struck me as the culmination of the passage; everything—the lists that Paul writes before and after—flows from that.
Still, that’s no small thing.
In summary, I’d say that, even though entry into God’s Kingdom and His people is utterly free, with the only requirement being humility and a belief in Jesus’ work and faithfulness, God (through Paul) actually does expect His people to have a character and presence in the world.
He expects us to be different, specifically by putting on our new nature (identity in Christ), learning to know Him, and becoming like Him.
- are you willing to embrace the notion that God wants to partner with you in your change?
- are you willing to orient your life around the three things in 3:10 in order to allow Him to change you?