Growing up evangelical, I had drilled into me the dichotomy between “the law” and “grace.” We become broken record players, reminding ourselves and other people that we are saved by faith and not by following the rules. But then we often substitute ideological correctness (which is how we define “faith”) for following God’s rules as the “work” that saves us. I’m convinced that without a change in how we understand salvation, we cannot escape some form of works-righteousness. If salvation is what God does in response to an evaluation of something we do, say, or believe, then whatever we do, say, or believe is the “work” that justifies us. For salvation to be justification by faith, it must be our transformation into really believing that we have a generous God whose law is not supposed to be an onerous test of our fidelity but a gift for our benefit. That is the subject of my second sermon in the series Journey to Eternity:
If you read through the psalms on a regular basis, you can’t miss the way that the Hebrew poets were in love with God’s law. That may seem like a bizarre phenomenon to modern Westerners. I don’t know about you, but when I hear the word “law,” I immediately think about crime, courtrooms, and jail. To modern Westerners, law is being told what you’re not supposed to do and what will happen to you if you do it anyway. If that’s what law is, then Psalm 19:7-10 is either really strange or the sucking up of a holy sycophant:
The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul;
The decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple;
The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
The commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes;
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever;
The ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold;
Sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.
Let’s operate from the assumption that the Hebrew psalmist is not just kissing up to God to try to earn salvation, but that there’s a genuine delight motivating the poetry here. We need to see that law had a much broader meaning to the ancient Hebrews than it does to modern Westerners. It isn’t just a list of “Thou shalt nots” and the penalties for breaking them. What kind of law would someone compare to gold or honey?
Scientists and mathematicians get that excited about new laws that they discover. I remember that it was pretty cool to learn that every triangle with a right angle could have its sides added up a^2 + b^2 = c^2. Then in my second year of high school physics, it blew my mind to find out that gravity wasn’t only mass times acceleration, but that in fact every object in the universe had a gravitational pull proportionate to its mass. Even though I’m tremendously smaller than the Earth, I am pulling it towards me at an infinitesimal rate.
To me, what’s even cooler than “left-brain” laws are the “right-brain” laws within the arts. For the last several years, I have been learning the laws that govern what makes a good trance song. It’s so much more than just having a good rhythm. You have to build tension in a very controlled and delicate way by using a combination of repetition and surprise. If you max out your tension too early, then the rest of the song is anti-climactic.
Poetry similarly follows a set of rules, some of which are overt and others of which are intuitive. I had a college professor who said that poetry is all about the fulfillment and violation of expectations. I find this to be true. It’s not poetry if it’s absolutely predictable. Paradoxically, a fundamental rule of poetry is that you have to violate whatever rules seem to be established in order to draw your reader in.
Much modern poetry is done in free verse whose rules are intuitive and subtle rather than obvious, but there’s a lot of beauty in following a strict formal pattern. Here’s an example in a form called villanelle that I wrote while on a silent retreat my first year of seminary:
Silence is a song that you sing to me –
Removing conversation’s structured cage –
An empty stage – it’s frightening to be free.
Your voice no more than a transparency,
you speak more truth in that than any sage—
Silence is a song that you sing. To me,
The space that you create for me can be
The opportunity for blissful rage;
An empty stage – it’s frightening. To be free,
I have to face responsibility,
I too have a son, who knows at his age
Silence is a song. That you sing to me,
When I listen – your magnanimity
Compels me sing to you; on every page,
An empty stage. It’s frightening to be free,
But I know that you carry me gently;
I need no proof, nor sign, nor any gauge –
Silence is a song that you sing to me,
An empty stage; it’s frightening to be free.
To me, poetry seems to be the best way for understanding God’s law the way that the Hebrew psalmists understood it. God wanted His people to delight in His law, not in order to kiss up to Him, but because He wanted them to enjoy its benefits and genuinely celebrate it as a gift. The problem is that people naturally have a tendency to make laws into burdens, because only as burdens do they carry currency for which I can demand to be paid a reward. When you see God’s law as a burden to be rewarded rather than a gift that is its own reward, then your life becomes the prayer of this Pharisee in the temple:
He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee, standing by himself, was praying thus, ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.’ But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even look up to heaven, but was beating his breast and saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’I tell you, this man went down to his home justified rather than the other; for all who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” [Luke 18:9-12]
The reason we need Jesus’ cross to justify us is so that we can avoid a life of sucking up to God and saying arrogantly, “I thank you God that I’m not like those other people.” So many Christians today are living out this prayer, and I’m convinced that it’s because they remain pharisaic sycophants who have simply replaced ancient Jewish law with doctrine as their means of self-justification. You can only be saved from self-righteous sycophany by coming to see God’s law as a gift rather than a form of currency. Ephesians 2:8-10 offers a great summary.
For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are His poetry [αὐτοῦ γάρ ἐσμεν ποίημα], created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.
The Greek poiema usually gets translated as “what he has made us” or “handiwork.” I prefer to let the word just cognate into English because it captures the function that God’s law is supposed to have. God has put parameters and boundaries on how we live not to create loyalty tests for us so that He can put some people in the “yes” pile and others in the “no” pile, but because He’s a poet who likes making beauty.
The reason for us to seek out and follow God’s will is not to toady up to God for the sake of a heavenly hand-stamp, but to delight in His delight. Many Christians like the word obedience because it sounds arduous (and arduous self-sacrifice deserves to be rewarded). I prefer to talk about obedience as inspiration in the literal sense of the word. Obedience is living in such a way that God “breathes into” us and makes us poetry. Many people who think they’re poetic are actually very shallow and self-indulgent. True poetry is found in the mystery of God’s law, and living in that poetry is eternal life.