Acts 15 tells of the burgeoning Church’s Jerusalem Council, where the believers gathered to settle some matters of the conversion of the gentiles. Some converts who were of “the party of the Pharisees” insisted that gentiles be circumcised and follow the Law of Moses. Peter disagreed and finished a short treatise with this:
“Now, therefore, why are you putting God to the test by placing a yoke on the neck of the disciples [that is, the civil and ceremonial—outward—requirements of the Law of Moses] that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear? But we believe that we will be saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus, just as they will.” (v. 10-11)
Since the time of Christ, believers have struggled to balance that grace—the free gift—with the requirements of the law. Our natural bent is to want to earn salvation by our performance. It is humiliating for our human pride to accept that we are unable—in any measure— to save ourselves. (Helplessness is no friend of self-esteem.) That is why the Bible is clear on our state before coming to belief. We are dead, not injured, not sick, not asleep, or comatose—we are “dead in our sins.” (See Ephesians 2:1-10)
Paul and James seem to be at odds on grace versus works, but in truth, they are not. In context, Paul insists, as does Peter above, that salvation is of grace. That said, and as is born out in the total of his New Testament writing, Paul would agree with James’s claim that faith without works is dead. (James 2:14-26)
In this, evidence of salvation (good works) still is not a requirement for salvation, but the natural outcome. (Ephesians 2:10)
Still, in our humanity, Christians (self-included) often stray toward the ditches—of either legalism or licentiousness—or the strange admixture of both. Rather than using the moral law established by the whole of Scripture as a guide to our behavior, we end up with an arbitrary set of rules that we already happen to satisfy, and make those the boundaries. In that, we give license to our peccadillos and foibles, and draw a hard line there so that we may judge those who do not meet that standard. We are licentious toward our own behavior and Pharisaical toward that of others.
Some churches and denominations (cults as well, of course) have institutionalized a self-created legalism that denudes grace of its power and overlooks their own licentiousness in condemning those in- and outside their numbers who fail to meet their standards.
This pharisaical phenomenon is true in the nominally religious and the secular worlds as well. Ask most anyone on the street if he or she (yes, just these two) believes in heaven and if so, if he or she is going. You will get an overwhelming majority who say yes. The reason? “I’m basically a good person.” Like the religious, they have parameters—probably with some slight overlap with biblical morality—that lets them in. (Perhaps with everyone else, too, save your Adolfs and Sadams.) This measure-I-happen-to-fit is the biblical equivalent of the chalk outline around a dead body.
There is perhaps no better example of the modern-day Pharisee than today’s political progressive. Even if one’s progressive bona fides are impressive, a single misstep on any one of the moment’s shifting imperatives will have him or her drawn and quartered in the twitterverse, shunned, shamed, and shellacked. Whether it is climate change, transgenderism, guns, or the very worst, agreeing with a conservative, you will find a hair-triggered mob willing to show their moral superiority over you by “cancelling” you even to the extent of destroying your livelihood. This strict code lives in the milieu of one of the most perverse “anything goes” sexual societies since Caligula.
All said, I am still the worst sinner I know. I may know of the outward sins of those who commit crime or heresy, but I know my own sin, outward and inward, intimately. It is this constant battle that boosts my understanding of the value of God’s grace. Does this mean I overlook others’ sins? No, but it does qualify my response.
While grace cannot be overstated, it can be cheapened in my own or others’ licentiousness, or discounted by a bent toward legalism—or both.
Steve Post is a Tallahassee resident, armchair theologian, and past local ministry lay leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.