I was mildly jolted one day by a comment from a believer whom I viewed as a strong Christian. The person said, “I get tired of trying to be a good Christian and trying to live a good life.” This surprising comment once again confirmed to me that we all struggle with things that we don’t easily let out to others. To this person, it was overwhelming to be under pressure to be good and to be constantly under the weight of having to obey all the rules and commands of the Bible. I am sure lots of people feel badly because they are not living up to what they believe God is requiring of them. Some may avoid church for this reason. Some hesitate to become Christians because of what they believe God will require of them, or because they do not think they can live up to the standards. Outsiders, and maybe some Christians, often see Christianity as a religion of do’s and don’ts, and God is “out to get you” if you fail to obey Him. These are misunderstandings of what Christianity is all about; but, following are two reasons why people are justified in feeling and thinking these kinds of thoughts.
(1) The Bible does give lots of rules God expects us to live by. (Exodus 20:1-17) God does say in the Bible that if we obey him we shall live and if we don’t we shall suffer loss or die. (Numbers 15:32-36; Deuteronomy 5:31-33; 1 Kings 9:4-7; Ezekiel 18:18) God told Adam and Eve that if they disobeyed His command they would die. (Genesis 2:16-17) There are many stories in the Bible where God put to death persons who disobeyed His commands. (Leviticus 10:1-2; Joshua 7:20-26; Acts 5:1-11) Jesus said we are to be perfect as God is perfect. (Matthew 5:48) Clearly, both the old and new testaments tell us to be holy because God is holy. (Leviticus 19:2; 1 Peter 1:15-16) The Bible also teaches that we will be judged on the basis of our deeds and that our future destiny will be determined on judgement day. (Matthew 25:41-46;
2 Corinthians 5:9-10; Revelation 20:11-15) The Bible is clear: obey and live; disobey and die. (Proverbs 19:16)
(2) The church preaches that we are to obey the teachings of the Bible. The way it is done can often make people feel guilted and shamed for not living up to the God’s standards. A good friend of mine told how the elders of his church used to stand by the town’s movie theatre to see if church members attended, being reprimanded if they did. Twice in my ministry as a preacher I was told that I should make people feel guilty so as to motivate them to live better. People can be put under pressure and made to feel like second class Christians for failing to live right. It is easy to be confused about the Bible’s teaching on this subject and to fall into something called legalism. There are problems that result from legalistic approaches to Christian faith. One problem is that some may become discouraged and drop away from Christianity because they are tired of trying to live up to standards they can’t meet. Another problem is that people tend to judge one another on performance, and those who judge think that they are right or better than others. Self-righteousness becomes a problem. (Luke 18:9) As a consequence, people become dishonest about their lives, and fake it so that others will think they are better than they really are. This discourages honest and open sharing of our struggles, which we need to do with one another, in order to grow in our walk with God, and get healthier and more mature as followers of Christ Jesus. (James 5:16) Christians may also, self righteously, have nothing to do with outsiders who are seen as sinful. But this was clearly forbidden by the apostle Paul. (1 Corinthians 5:9-10) Thus, for the two reasons stated above, it is easy for people to conclude that Christianity is a religion of do’s and don’ts.
The Bible is divided into two parts: the Old Testament and the New. The Old primarily contains what is called the Law of Moses, or simply, the Law. (2 Chronicles 34:14) The New primarily contains the Gospel of Jesus Christ. (Mark 1:1) These are two covenants; agreements between two parties that God made with His people. In each covenant, God sets the terms. Concerning the Law, the agreement is that God will provide laws for good and right living. In return, His people agree to obey these laws because God has rescued them from slavery and is worthy of their obedience. (Exodus 19:4-8) In the New Covenant God provides a Savior, Jesus Christ, and on the basis of what Christ does through His life, death, and resurrection, God offers to forgive people for their disobedience, and put a new dimension of life within them. (Luke 24:46-47; Hebrews 10:16-17) His people agree to these terms, living by faith. (Galatians 2:19-20) Both testaments involve God’s laws and moral teachings, and the encouragement to practice them with love. (Deuteronomy 6:5-6; John 14:21) Both contain the gospel message about Christ, which is brought to light in the New Testament. (Galatians 3:8) But, by understanding what the Bible says about the difference between these two covenants, it can be seen how Christianity is not a religion of do’s and don’ts; and yet, how it is a religion of do’s and don’ts.
What is the difference between the Law and the Gospel? The Law demands perfect obedience, and if it is violated, the punishment is death. The only mercy provided is a built in sacrificial system, but even that does not remove sin and make us perfect. (Hebrews 10:4-5) The Law involves a pre-arranged punishment for violations and justice must be done whenever a law is violated. The Law can never give us a right standing with God because we cannot keep it, and so God’s just and fair punishment is always upon us. We can never escape condemnation. God can only declare us to be right with Him based on our perfect performance of obeying His commands. Even failing in one law, while keeping the others, is enough to condemn us. (James 2:10-11) The Gospel does not demand law keeping in order to be right with God. Recognizing that we are not capable of obeying the law, the Gospel is an offer of mercy and forgiveness granted to us through faith. (Galatians 2:16) The Gospel can give us a right standing with God because Jesus Christ, by dying on the cross, has received God’s punishment in our place. (Isaiah 53:4-6; 1 Peter 2:24) God can be merciful and declare us right with Him based on our repentance and faith in what Christ Jesus does for us. There is therefore now no condemnation to those who trust Christ Jesus to be their Savior. (Romans 8:1) In summary, the Law is do or die; the Gospel is live by faith. (Habakkuk 2:4; Galatians 3:11-12) The Law destroys right standing with God because we can’t keep it; the Gospel provides right standing with God because God’s justice is satisfied by Christ and forgiveness is possible. (1 John 1:9)
If the Law could never make us right with God, then why was the Law given? Other than being God’s way for His people to live, and so distinguish them from other people, (1 Peter 2:9) two primary reasons for the law are: (1) to show people their sinfulness by giving them a standard by which to measure themselves. (Romans 3:19-20) Also, (2) to demonstrate that the Law does not work as a way for becoming right with God and escaping God’s judgement, because we cannot keep it; therefore, we need another way of becoming right with God. That way is through the Gospel of Christ. The Law was never meant to be a way by which we could be saved, or made right with God. It was meant to reveal our sinfulness and show us our need for a Savior. In that way, the Law is always our teacher to lead us to Christ. (Galatians 3:24)
There is a huge difference between obeying the Law and obeying the Gospel. We have to obey the law; it is motivated by fear of judgement. We want to obey the gospel; it is motivated by love for God. But Christians are not all motivated the same because some have experienced more of God’s love than others. Jesus made this point in the story of a sinful woman whom He had forgiven. Those forgiven the most, love the most. (Luke 7:47) Therefore, we do not all love God the same. Varying degrees of experiencing love is why some Christians may be better at obeying God, and feel more like obeying God, than others. But love is the ultimate mover and the task of Christians is to seek to experience God’s love more deeply. Thankfully, God promised to give His people a heart to be able to love Him, a heart that is inclined to respond rightly to His teachings and commands. (Jeremiah 31:31-34; Ezekiel 36:25-27 Romans 5:5; 1 John 2:5)
Jesus, and John the apostle, said that if we love God we will keep His commandments. (John 14:21-24; 1 John 2:5) When we love God, keeping His commandments is something we more readily want to do. But sometimes we obey with an unwilling spirit, and even though doing the right thing without liking it is an act of love, we can conclude that we are not allowing His love to be fully experienced. The problem is not God, or the command, but the problem is in our own hearts. We lack, or are resisting God’s love. Let me share a personal story. As a follower of Christ, I do not always want to do things God has asked me to do. I battle in myself to not have to do them. But, with gentle reminders, God never lets me off the hook. I know that what He wants me to do is the right thing. For example, He has asked me to go to people and confess how I wronged them, and ask forgiveness. I eventually did it, but with fear of rejection, or holding back by not wanting to humble myself. He also has asked me to help needy persons who were seeking a handout. I did it, but with feelings of resentment for being interrupted in my schedule, or anger at them for not having their life together. After each of these experiences, I realized that I did not love God as He would want, or I would have felt freer to obey Him. These were tests of my own heart to show me where I was. These experiences have given me a desire to want to have a heart more like His that loves others as He loves me. (1 John 4:19) When I have His love, following His commands will not be a duty or burden, but a loving response from the heart. Undoubtedly, future things God asks me to do will reveal how I am doing.
How does disobeying the Law differ from disobeying the Gospel? When I disobey the Law, I am guilty and I feel fearful of God’s punishment and consequences. With fear and trembling I keep trying to do better at pleasing God, but it’s never good enough. I can easily give up and think God is a mean ogre for requiring from me things I can only fail to do. Martin Luther, before his conversion, felt this way about God and he could never have peace because of God’s judgement constantly hanging over him. He always felt condemned. But when Luther came to the truth, his life changed and he had peace. When I disobey the Gospel I have an entirely different experience. I feel sorrow over disappointing God. I tell Him that I want to overcome the wrong in my life, whatever it is. I ask for His help. I try and figure out why I messed up and what I can do to overcome. I thank Him that I am forgiven through what Christ Jesus has done for me. I carry no ongoing guilt and I feel free from any judgement or condemnation. (Romans 8:1) As I experience more deeply God’s faithful forgiveness and love, I am increasingly motivated to love, serve, and obey Him. His do’s and don’ts are welcome as ways of life designed for promoting His reputation, and for my well-being and blessing.
How could we answer my friend who thought being a Christian was too hard with too many rules to obey? It could be asked, “Are you looking at the commands of God as a duty you must perform, or as welcome ways of living to make your life more secure, healthy and mature; and to help you avoid things that would impact your life destructively?” It could be asked, “What is your personal relationship with God like? Is it one of genuine love and friendship, or is it an authoritative relationship in which you see God as demanding and angry?” It could be asked, “Do you have a deep, heartfelt appreciation for what God has done for you on the cross, or do you take Him for granted with little feeling toward what He has done for you?” It could be asked, “Do you welcome God’s teaching in your life or do you resent it? Like the Psalmist, do you really love God’s laws, seeing them as great guidelines and benefits for your life”? (Psalm 119:97-100) It could be asked, “Are you obeying as one who thinks he must keep the “letter” of the law, or as one who understands what it means to be freed from the law, having within him God’s Spirit of new life?” (2 Corinthians 3:16; Romans 7:6) It could be asked, “Do you have an understanding of the difference between the old and new covenant, and are you alive to the new?” It could be asked, “Are you trying to do it on your own, or do you ask God’s help daily?” Are you relying on our own power to obey, or are you relying on the help of God’s Spirit? (Galatians 3:2-3) It could be asked, “Do you feel God loves you, even when you disobey Him?” A new commandment, which is not new, is the new way, due to our changed hearts, of being able to live by God’s rules, without fear if we fail, and without external pressure to have to perform them in order to be loved. (1 John 2:7-8)
The Law, for many, although it was never meant to be, has come to mean a way of achieving heaven and eternal life.
In one of the Gospel narratives, a man came to Jesus with the question of what good he could do to have eternal life. He had the impression that keeping the Law was something He could do to get to heaven. (Matthew 19:16-22) Jesus wants to point out to people who try to save themselves by keeping God’s commandments that this cannot be done. By giving him a direction that he could not, or would not do, Jesus showed this man that there is always something of God’s commands we are unable, or unwilling, to do. Many people have the impression that going to heaven is based on how moral and nice they are compared to others, or that their good deeds outweigh their bad. There is not a person on earth who is capable of submitting to God and doing His will in all that He requires. (Ecclesiastes 7:20) If we think we can get to heaven by keeping God’s rules, Jesus can always challenge us with something that we obviously do not do, or are unwilling to do. The issue is not whether a person is nice most of the time, or whether our good deeds outweigh our bad. The real issue is whether a person’s heart is with God, or not. Do we love God because Christ has rescued us from sin and death? Do we adore and follow Him because He is an excellent model of how to love? Have we received Christ’s Spirit of love and are we moved by it to do God’s will? If persons think they are right with God, they have only to read the Bible to see if they are in compliance with what He tells us all to do. Certainly there are many of His commands that would require us to say, “I am not doing that in my life, nor have I wanted to?” Jesus wants us to see that the Law is never a way we can get to heaven. (Titus 3:4-7) We resist God’s will at too many points to qualify for heaven.
But, having come to eternal life by way of the Gospel does not mean there is no rule keeping to be done. It simply means that now, through God’s special enablement, by mysteriously putting a new heart within us, we can be internally motivated to do God’s will; compelled by love, not by external pressure. (Ephesians 6:6; Hebrews 8:10)
A related matter needs to be addressed. Under the Gospel, does it matter if I do wrong, since God will forgive me? There are people who believe that since God is forgiving, they can do what they want, then simply confess and be forgiven. They know they are doing wrong and they keep doing it. I have been there. But the apostle Paul would say that it definitely does matter and he addresses the issue. (Romans 6:1-2) The persons who have truly received God’s loving-kindness and grace and forgiveness will not want to keep doing wrong things. They will feel God’s displeasure when they do. They will want to avoid wrongdoing because they have found it be destructive to their lives, and to their relationships; and it is dishonoring to God. Why would anyone want to go back to doing things they know are not good for them? Sometimes we slip and fall. We are not perfect. But those times are to be forsaken and attempts made to overcome so that our falls become less and less. Helping each other is one reason for fellowship with other believers. God knows our heart and forgives, but He will discipline the Christians who continue in wrongdoing and He will attempt to correct them. He does this, in part, because He loves us and His reputation is at stake and He wants us to represent Him well to the world around us. We are ambassadors and witnesses for Him, so that others might also desire to seek His salvation and healing for their own hurting lives. (Romans 6:15-18; 13:13-14; Hebrews 12:4-12; 1 Peter 2:9)
So, what would your answer be to the beginning question: Is Christianity a religion of do’s and don’ts? The answer to the question is both “yes” and “no”. It is easy to get the impression that obeying God is what Christianity is all about. But Jesus lets us know that a loving relationship is what it is all about, and that relationship needs to come before obedience. We need to rely on God’s Spirit of love to help us past our weaknesses and give us the courage and heart to do what is right. The ones who have come to love Him are the ones who do His will, whether with difficulty, or with ease. When love is more deeply established, obedience takes on a whole different dimension. (Matthew 22:34-40; 11:28-30)