Ask any evenagelical “what’s the difference between the Old Testament and the New Testament?” and they’ll quickly say “Law and Grace”. As a seminary student, I took on the project of delving more deeply into that phrase, grappling with the question of the essence of “law” and how it relates to grace through faith. At the root of the issue lies questions most average born-again Christians struggle with. If I’m saved by grace through faith, what’s the role of the Ten Commandments? Aren’t I supposed to follow them? How many times can I commit the same sin before I can’t be forgiven? If God always forgives me, can I do anything I want?
Christians, of course, start with grace. Salvation through Jesus Christ, whether one comes to that point having been raised in the faith or as a radical conversion event, marks the entry point into the Christian’s mindset and understanding of God. The Old Testament, while important, stands more as a backdrop – the somewhat interesting origin prequel to the main feature. Unfortunately, this leads to a critical lack of understanding of what, exactly, Paul was talking about in his letter to the Romans.
The most important thing to understand about “The Law” is that it is, in fact, a legal system. It exists in the context of a political entity in space and time – the Nation of Israel. Here’s where it becomes very dicey for a white former Christian to speak without being misunderstood. An entire article could be written on the different entities, ideals, and meanings included in the words Judaism, Israel, Jews, etc. Here, let me be very clear that I’m speaking of the specific ethno-centric, theocratic nation that existed in the time and space described by the books of the Old Testament.
Most modern Christians have an extremely difficult time understanding the true nature of a real Theocracy. In pre-Christian Israel, the concepts of ethnicity, nationality, religion, and politics all linked together into the identity of the People of God. God’s people was Israel and Israel was God’s people. One’s very relationship to God was determined by one’s relationship to the nation, including her or his legal status. The Law wasn’t some list of rights and wrongs, an ethical checklist or moral guideline. It was, well, the LAW. Breaking it meant punishment by the government and therefore a break in one’s relationship to God.
This itself is somewhat an overstatement of the individual. In reality, the Deuteronomic Law isn’t so much a regulation of the individual as it is a regulation of the Theocracy itself. God, through the Prophets, often stood in judgment not of the people but of the nation when leaders became lax on prosecuting breakers of the Law. It’s interesting to note that prior to the Gospels, there’s little concept of Heaven or Hell. Punishment and reward for the individual consisted in one’s relationship to God via legal status within the nation, ultimate punishment being expulsion either through execution or banishment. Punishment and reward for the People of God as a whole consisted of God’s presence in and support of the nation as proven out through property and peace. How closely the Law was upheld and applied defined the relationship of God with the People. How closely one observed the Law defined one’s relationship to God.
Against this backdrop, Jesus arrives on the scene. He preaches and teaches, of course, but any good evangelical will tell you that he came with a very specific purpose – to die “for our sins” and be resurrected. The Gospel of Matthew makes most clear the purposefulness of the Christ Event, when, in chapter 20, Jesus tells his disciples, “hey, we’re going to head to Jerusalem so the religious leaders can get me crucified”.
Shortly after this very alarming proclamation, Jesus tells one of his most enigmatic and interesting parables. In the story, a man owns a vineyard that he lets out to tenant farmers. He sends servants to collect the rent, but they’re ignored. He then sends his son, and the tenants figure they can kill him and take the vineyard for their own. Of course, the actual result is the owner of the vineyard wrecking vengeance on those tenants, casting them out and destroying them, and letting it out to new tenants. He makes the meaning of this particular parable (directed at the religiopolitical leaders of Israel):
“Therefore I tell you that the kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce its fruit. Anyone who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; anyone on whom it falls will be crushed.”i
Take this parable and it’s symbolism to it’s logical conclusion, put it context with his purposeful journey to be crucified, and you get what I believe to be the core message of the Christian faith:
Jesus came purposefully to be killed by the Theocratic leaders so that God, once and for all, could pass judgement on the concept that the People of God consists of the political entity of a particular ethnocentric nation. “Israel” as the nation state is “cast out” of the garden of “Israel” (the People of God) which is given to people who are defined not by their adherence to a legal system or citizenship in a state, but by their relationship with God’s son.
This idea of re-constituting the People of God (Israel) is further borne out by the very organization he adopts. Twelve close friends and followers take the place of twelve blood-related tribes. Throughout the Gospels, these very human individuals persist in showing flaws and a lack of understanding, but their inclusion and standing in the Kingdom is defined by how they personally relate to Jesus.
This is the difference between Law and Grace. Law isn’t simply “do this or you go to Hell”. It’s “be a citizen of this particular nation in order to be one of God’s People”. Jesus’ intentional rejection by the religiopolitical leaders and crucifixion by the dominant world super power ultimately rejects the ideal of relating to God through any political entity. His resurrection re-creates the “Nation of God” as a non-political non-entity consisting of individuals who’s only qualification for membership is their relationship to the person of Jesus.
What constantly surprises me is how Christian leaders constantly think they know better than Jesus. God, once and for all, disposed of theocracy, but we keep trying to re-create it. Christians talk about America being a Christian Nation, throwing the very crucifixion of Jesus back in God’s face. The Christian Right is like Aaron, impatient with what God is doing up in the mountain with Moses and imposing on the people a system of rites and practices God has already judged and rejected. It is simply far, far easier to create a golden calf than to worship a non-temporal, invisible God over which one has no control.
Christianity has wrapped itself so tightly to politics and the state that the church has lost her own identity. Consider the question of same-sex marriage. We’re so busy fighting each other over whether it should be legal for gay people to get married that we’ve completely missed the point that the church has abdicated and sold the very concept of the rite of marriage. The question isn’t what kind of marriage the state should allow but why the state has any governance over marriage in the first place. The “sanctity” of marriage was violated and destroyed the second the state became responsible for licensing it.
It’s not that same-sex couples should only be allowed to have “domestic partnerships”, but that the state should only deal in domestic partnerships.
Whether it’s with marriage, “blue laws”, or God in our pledge or on our money, what starts as an attempt by the church to force itself on the state always ends up with the state seducing the church. Always.
God, through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ, put an end to the church-state. When are Christians going to stop trying to undo what God has done?