The Epitaph I Want

One of my seminary textbooks written by F.F. Bruce was titled, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free. What a great epitaph for someone’s ministry. What a great epitaph for someone’s life — a heart set free.

This coming Sunday, I am starting a new teaching series for my home church, True North: Life Guided by the Gospel — a devotional study through Galatians, an ancient letter breathed out by God through that Apostle who gloried in the freedom he possessed in Christ. The heart of the message is that Jesus, upon a cross, took on the prison chains Paul had formerly worn because of the law’s charges of treason. Now, because of Jesus, Paul no longer had to strive to work his way out of the shackles.

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When the Savior proclaimed at the end of his crucifixion, “It is finished,” those chains were broken, and all who look upon him with faith are set free. Paul would use legal terminology in Romans 8, saying, “There is, therefore, now, no more condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Don’t miss the weight of the small word, now, because applying the redemptive truth in the present is what not only sets the heart free but keeps the heart free.

I use the phrase “devotional study” on purpose. Not that my study in Galatians will not be theological. No, it must be. But a theology of the gospel is not meant merely to inform the mind. It is designed to move the heart.

One reason why I’m looking forward to diving into this particular letter is that there is a good deal of theological misinformation concerning how to view the law. Should I keep the law? If so, why? And maybe the most significant question and the epicenter of the confusion, how? I want to help untangle the confusion.


Should I Keep the Law?

This is the what question — what does God call me to do? First, we need to understand what the law is. In Scripture, commands are not arbitrary rules to follow, like traffic signs. They are much more about the relationship than the rule.

From this theological posture, every specific command in Scripture is an application of love. For example, refraining from stealing is a way to love your neighbor. Theft is hatred. Seeing the law this way helps us recognize the multitude of ways to love as described by “the law.”

Jesus himself summarizes the commands of God as loving God above all and our neighbor as ourselves. He even commands us to love our enemies.

By the way, the essence of love is not emotional. It is volitional. It isn’t primarily a feeling as much as an action. Biblical, agape love is defined as “a personal sacrifice designed to bless someone who probably doesn’t deserve it.” When we love like this, the often unexpected result is that genuine affection begins to grow where resentment and bitterness once existed.

Psalm 15:1–5 provides a survey of the standard God requires for our love to meet, which is perfection.

1 LORD, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? 2 The one whose walk is blameless, who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from their heart; 3 whose tongue utters no slander, who does no wrong to a neighbor, and casts no slur on others; 4 who despises a vile person but honors those who fear the LORD; who keeps an oath even when it hurts, and does not change their mind; 5 who lends money to the poor without interest; who does not accept a bribe against the innocent. Whoever does these things will never be shaken.

The problem is obvious. According to Psalm 15, the only person allowed to stand in God’s presence without facing the storm of judgment is the one who lives (i.e., loves) blamelessly, or perfectly. But no one has ever done this — except Jesus.

Thus, Paul tells us in Galatians 3:23 that the law’s primary purpose is to lead us in our chains of sin to Jesus, who takes those chains upon himself and serves the prison sentence we deserve. This is what frees the heart in justification. In Romans 3, the same Apostle says that the law was given to show us the depth of our sinful condition and reveal our need for a substitute Savior who did love perfectly and was given as a propitiation for the sins of those who will believe upon him as the one who endured the storm of judgment in the place of the guilty.

This leads to the next question.


Why Keep the Law?

Purely legalistic religion answers this question with a duh, “You keep the law (do the right thing) to earn your salvation.” Since the first question we’ve addressed teaches us that no one can do that, we may move on to a similar misunderstanding of “why keep the law.” This is the view of the moralist who claims to be a follower of Jesus but hasn’t yet grasped the present value of the blood of Jesus. For them, grace is in the past. They may not have looked at the law as what earned them salvation, but they may look at the law as what sustains their salvation — or at least keeps them in good standing with God.

In this scenario, obedience is driven by fear and duty. But the true, gospel motive for love is not fear or duty; it is grace and love. The Apostle John wrote, “We love because God first loved us.”

When I consider the law as an application of love, obedience is no longer a rule to keep but a hero to emulate. Someone has said that sanctification is merely learning to love like Jesus. Simple, huh?

In case you like things a bit more exhaustive, we can turn to the Westminster Shorter Catechism question number 35, which defines sanctification as “the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.”

Without breaking this definition apart to explain every word (which would be a valuable exercise), I want to focus on several distinctions between the act of God in justification and the work of God in sanctification. Consider this a theological bonus. 🙂

  • In the act of justification, we are wholly passive recipients of a one-time declaration. In the work of sanctification, we are active participants in an ongoing process.
  • The act of justification is dependent upon God’s work for me in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. The work of sanctification is dependent upon God’s works in me through the indwelling influence of the Spirit.
  • The act of justification is a static, legal declaration where I’m giving a new positional status. The work of sanctification is a dynamic, personal transformation where God gives me a new spiritual ability.
  • The act gives me a living hope in the finished work of Jesus for me. Sanctification cultivates in me living hope in the progressive work of the Spirit within me.
  • Both justification and sanctification are by grace through faith unto the glory of God.

It is theologically crucial to understand these distinctions, lest we (even if unintentionally) make sanctification a shifting foundation of our justification instead of our justification the absolute and unshakable ground for our sanctification.

This is the exhortation of Thomas Wilcox (1621–1687), in his well-known sermon Honey from the Rock, where he writes, “Poor, ragged nature, with all its highest improvements, can never spin a garment fine enough (without spot) to cover the soul’s nakedness. Nothing can fit the soul for that use but Christ’s perfect righteousness.”

To summarize, should we obey the law? Well, should we love? Of course. But we have failed miserably. Thankfully, Jesus has born the consequences through crucifixion. Now, the obedience of love is not to earn God’s favor or sustain our position in the Kingdom; it is a response to having been loved by God. We know that just as our lives are transformed by love as grace, our expressions of love as grace have the power to make a significant impact in the lives of those in our sphere of influence.

This leads to the third and most crucial question.


How Can I Keep the Law?

The only way to love someone else is for the Holy Spirit to produce that fruit from within the believer. You may recall that the Apostle Paul listed some of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5 as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, etc. Did you notice the first fruit listed?

Yep, love.

Love is not the result of greater resolve to bless someone with personal sacrifice. It is what happens when we abide in Jesus as our sin-bearer and righteousness provider. In John 15:4–5, Jesus said,

4 Abide in me, as I also will abide in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you abide in me. 5 I am the vine; you are the branches. If you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me, you can do nothing.”

As I abide by faith in Jesus as the source of my life, the Holy Spirit flows from the vine, like sap into the believing branch, changing my desires and motives. I begin to want to love well and serve others in humility. It is happening in me. But the source of this change is the presence and power of the Spirit, who is producing his fruit in and through a formerly lifeless branch that is now alive because of the vine.

This is the how of keeping the law (or learning to love like Jesus) — abiding. It is believing the gospel and resting in his grace. The dynamic of spiritual change is not rocket science. It is more akin to the principles of spiritual horticulture.

If you were to ask, “Does the law have a role in the Christian life,” the answer would be a resounding, “Yes!” But it is not to save us or to sustain us. The law leads us to Jesus over and over and over again to rest in his finished work as we savor the present value of his blood to cover my failures yesterday, today, and tomorrow. This way, when love begins to grow in my live through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, I do not boast in myself but in the grace of God that not only justifies by grace for his glory but also sanctifies by grace for his glory.

The result of this immeasurable kindness is that my epitaph can read the same as Paul’s. Here lies a man whose heart was set free, even more now in death than he knew in life. Because for those in Christ, even though we die, we live — to the praise of God’s glorious grace.


You may also be interested in this article, How to Remain in Good Standing with God.

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