Saturday, May 3, 2008

Short grass

by John D Ramsey

I am resolved to let my grass grow taller this spring. I started this year’s mowing season by de-thatching my lawn. It was still technically winter when I de-thatched, but the neighbors had green lawns by Easter while mine looked like dirt and stubble. When my father-in-law arrived for Easter dinner, he shook his head and said, “You really scalped it this time.” It was not the first time he has told me that, but this time his words were irrefutable. I thought that it would grow back without the nasty brown patches that it held until late June last year, but it did not grow back before Easter. The outcome of my de-thatching is mixed. Last year’s brown patches are green, but dandelions have found a home. In retrospect, I have to admit that this winter is not the first time that I have scalped my lawn. Moreover, I have discovered that my problem with short grass is simply this: short grass can still look un-mowed.

Human legalism is like short grass. No matter how restrictive legalism becomes, a close look reveals something in need of attention, something out of order. Legalism responds to disorder with vigorous enforcement of the rules. Legalism scalps the short grass until it looks like death. Galatians 3:21 tells us, “If a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.” (NASB) 1Corinthians 15:56 says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In Christ, we are not looking at a set of rules to follow. Rules do not bring life because we break rules, and earn guilt as a result. Rules cannot make us righteous; they can only make us aware of our sin. Nevertheless, in Christ we do not live in lawlessness either, rather we live in a relationship of faith. Faith does not discount sin by dismissing all laws. Rather, Paul says in Romans 14:23, “whatever is not from faith is sin.” It does not matter how short our grass is, if our actions do not flow from our faith, then they are sin. That is a higher standard than a set of rules because it addresses our heart instead of our actions. Righteous actions will flow from a righteous heart, but no set of actions can make a heart righteous. Paul summarizes this to the Galatians saying:

You were called to freedom, brethren;
only do not turn your freedom
into an opportunity for the flesh,
but through love serve one another.
For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word,
in the statement,
“YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF”
Galatians 5:13 (NASB)

The last three chapters of 1 Peter give us what appear to be rules for Christian living, but actually, they illustrate the behaviors that will flow from our relationship to Christ. Before Peter describes Christian behavior, he tells us:

As you come to him, the living Stone –
rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him –
you also, like living stones,
are being built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood,
offering spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2:4-5 (NIV)

If our actions toward others do not flow from our relationship to Jesus Christ, then it does not matter what they appear to be (“whatever is not from faith is sin”). If our service to others does flow from our relationship with Jesus Christ then our actions are “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.”

If we do things because we have to follow the rules, then eventually the rules will leave us bare and lifeless like a scalped lawn. Our lives will be open to criticism from all sides. Moreover, our lives will become vulnerable to sin just as a bare lawn becomes susceptible to dandelions. If, on the other hand, our actions flow from our relationship to the Life-Giver, then our lives will be vibrant and we will be blessed by serving others. As we grow in him, our lives will resemble a healthy lawn that leaves no room for the weeds to take root.

The key to avoiding legalism is not in refining what we allow and disallow. That is merely changing one rule set for another. Avoiding legalism is simply nurturing our relationship of faith in Christ, and letting his life flow through us. Peter and Paul tell us what this will look like: we will serve others in love.

I resolve to let my lawn grow taller this year. I will prioritize its health over orderliness. At the same time, I anticipate that I will grow in grace. I will grow in grace, not because of my redoubled efforts, but because Christ is in me; he is working through me; and he will accomplish his will for me as he teaches me to draw my life from his.

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