Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Not Abolish but Fulfill

I grew up with parents who taught me that God loved me and that his son Jesus Christ was the means by which I could be forgiven and go to heaven. That's basic Christian soteriology. But we were Methodist, and that means that, even without realizing it, the way we spoke about that salvation was choice-dependent. Our end of the soteriological spectrum sounded a little like this: God loves everyone and has given his son so that people can go to heaven, but it's up to them to decide whether to accept Jesus or reject him. Our choice is the difference between salvation and damnation.

So I spent years making and remaking and re-remaking that choice, trying earnestly every night to choose Jesus. But I always woke up and wondered whether it had worked.

Then, when I was in college I discovered the opposite end of the spectrum--the choice-has-nothing-to-do-with-it end. I had some good friends who were Presbyterians, and they looked at me like I was crazy when I told them how I had tried again and again to choose Jesus. "What do you mean, 'Choose Jesus?'" they asked. "You don't choose Jesus. Jesus chooses you." A brilliant light went off. All my effort--all my trying to make a heartfelt choice--was getting in the way. By relying on my choice, I was actually trying to save myself--to choose my own way into heaven, when, in fact, God had already made that choice for me. My job wasn't to get myself saved but to surrender and let God do the saving.

To choose or not to choose--how does salvation work? The good thing about the Presbyterian end of the spectrum is that it puts all the work onto God. It's total grace. But the bad thing about that way of thinking is that it's easy to pretend that, once God has done that saving work, we can coast our way into heaven. But I don't think it works that way. There are lots of choice-is-an-illusion preachers like me who worry so much about making sure their congregations hear that God's love is guaranteed whether they accept it or not that we forget to remind people that discipleship is a call to holiness. Although not a prescription for salvation, holiness is a description of the saved life. And, even though God's love for you is in no way dependent upon whether you're a good person or not--whether you try to keep the Ten Commandments or throw them out the window altogether--being a disciple of Christ means following him and patterning our lives after his perfect example.

I am still trying to figure out the balance between grace and law, and today's reading from Matthew 5:17-19 brings me right back to that struggle. "Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets," Jesus said. "I have come not to abolish but to fulfill." The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ may have satisfied any claim that sin and death have on us, but it seems that they haven't done away with what God is asking us to do. "For truly I tell you," Jesus said, "until heaven and earth pass away, not one letter, not one stroke of a letter, will pass from the law until all is accomplished." Well, heaven and earth are still here, so I guess we'd better pay attention to what the law says and to what influence it is supposed to have on us.

What does it mean that Jesus has come to fulfill the law without abolishing it? Normally, when something is fulfilled--like an obligation or debt--it goes away. But this is different. This is more like a prerequisite for an upper-level course.

When I was in college at Birmingham-Southern, the art history professor was not only widely regarded as a brilliant teacher but also as the most attractive professor on campus. I had never taken any art history classes before, and I didn't need any humanities or fine arts credits, but, in my senior year, it just so happened that I wanted to take a 400-level seminar on 20th-century art. At the encouragement of a friend who was already taking that class, I went to Dr. Spies and asked her if she would wave the requirement for the prerequisite--a basic introduction to art history. Wise to my shenanigans, she asked my why I wanted to take the class, and I explained that I love modern art (true) and wanted the chance to study it before I graduated (mostly true). She told me that she would wave the requirement but also told me that I would need to read through a primer on the basics. In other words, she took care of the prerequisite for me, but she still expected me to bring the benefit of that prerequisite with me into the 400-level class.

Maybe Jesus and the law are a little like that (only without the pretense and falsehood). Jesus removes for us any obligation that the law would impose--thus justifying us before God--but still invites and empowers us to live into that fulfillment--not purely through our own efforts but through our complete submission to his efforts. In other words, Jesus' fulfillment of the law changes us into the disciples God has always been calling us to be. Only, with Jesus, that finally becomes possible. No, you still can't work your way into heaven, but Jesus can and does make your participation in the fulfillment of the law possible and fruitful.

Notice how Jesus compares those who break the commandments and teach others to do the same with those who keep them all. The former shall be least in the kingdom of heaven, and the latter shall be the greatest. Both, however, are in the kingdom of heaven.

If you don't know what it means for God to love you regardless of the choices you have made, are making, or will make, I encourage you to hear the good news of Jesus as evidence of that perfect, complete, and unconditional love. If you already know that love and know what it means to believe that God has already saved you from the consequences of your inevitably bad choices, I invite you to join me again in hearing Jesus call us into a life of perfect holiness--not as a condition for salvation but as a mark of the saved life.


  1. This is very helpful to me, as I engage in this conversation regularly with women at a domestic violence shelter. This and your most recent post will also help me prepare to preach this Sunday. I am grateful for the time and insight you put into this blog. It is a real treat when I get to visit St. John's and hear how it all came together for you!
    Dcn. Leeann Culbreath
    Tifton, Georgia

    1. Thanks, Leeann. It's great to hear from you. I appreciate the encouragement.