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QUESTION: Obedience Without Legalism?


I recently received the following by private email:

I can’t tell you how little understanding I have of how people can be dedicated, be “not hearers only” w/o becoming legalistic.  It is the way I know.  Only in the last 8 or so years have I realized how little I live the pattern Jesus set for us.  Do you hear me?  It is like trying to learn a foreign language, to learn how Jesus translates into my life.  I have little grasp of what you are telling about the Ukraine Christians.  Maybe that sounds exaggerated, but I’m afraid it’s closer to the truth than I want it to be.

In a private email to this Christian lady, I had said (about the Ukrainian Christians) in response to a question she had about how EEM is working with the orphans there.

The orphanages we work with are run by the government, which provides minimal funding. We assist them, mainly, by providing Biblical literature for the children. We publish a monthly “weekly-reader” type publication with Biblical themes, plus provide Bibles for children. The homes we work in (close to 200 nationwide) are where local members of the church are doing a ministry. They begin by getting permission to sit on the playground on a Saturday and share a bag of hard candy with the children – and tell them stories about Jesus. After a time, as they gain the confidence of the home administration, they ask to take some of the children home for a weekend “so they can see what a real family looks like.” They often are able to take the children to a summer youth camp where the Bible is also taught. These efforts have resulted in quite a number of Christian families fostering orphans and well over 100 families have adopted 1 or more children.

This demonstration of the love of Christ in action opens hearts, not only among people who work in the orphanages, but also among others who see this happening. In this, it is much like in the 2nd & 3rd centuries when only two groups of people in the Roman Empire were interested in unwanted children (mostly baby girls) left out to die by exposure (instead of abortion). Before Christians began to take these babies to bring up in the nurture and the admonition of the Lord, no one would care for them but the pimps who wanted to raise them for their own ungodly purposes. In Ukraine, when children have to leave the orphanages at about age 16, government statistics tell us that 20% commit suicide in the first year; of those who survive 5 years, about 80% of the boys are in organized crime and half the girls are prostitutes. There are two reasons for this: survival and no one has ever taught them better.

On the other hand, Christians are taking some of these children into their homes or are providing “half-way homes” where some live while continuing their education or are in training programs to learn how to make a living. The population as a whole wants nothing to do with the orphans, because they see the orphanages as breeding grounds of immorality and crime. When they see what the Christians are doing with them, hearts begin to soften to the Word of God. The new Christians are taught to do this as a means of making a difference in their communities. In addition to teaching them to worship and to talk to others about what they are doing and why, they are taught to make a difference – and this is what they are told to do so they do not become inwardly focused.

Acts of love on this scale are so different from what we normally see in new Christians (or older ones either, for that matter) that we stand in awe.

That is why this woman commented about not understanding how people can become dedicated to obeying God without becoming legalistic. Yes, it is a different language – and one that I had a hard time learning as well. In fact, when Richard Rogers first introduced me to the sufficiency of the grace of God, I resisted him with every fiber of my being. To take away “law” as the means of regulating my life seemed, to me, to open the flood-gate to unrestrained and uncontrolled living.

Living in grace demands a different mind-set over living by law. It is the difference between living in a marriage according to a contract you have made with each other and living in a marriage according to the love you have for each other.

The people in Ukraine that I described to my correspondent are people who have grown up (many of them) under Communism where they were constantly taught there is no God and that the Bible is a pack of lies. Look here for a description of how one man reacted to that. The explosion of church growth in Ukraine is largely due to the vision of this man and those closely associated with him.

He is a man who caught a vision of the love of God for him – and for all mankind – and who now pours his life into communicating that vision to others. This is a vision inspired by God’s grace.

This is grace that demands a response:

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. Titus 2:11-14 ESV

Note what grace teaches and trains us to do: renounce ungodly, worldly living and instead live self-controlled, upright, godly lives while we are focused on the giver of that grace to us. When we have our hearts focused on God’s goodness and grace, we learn to live good, gracious lives.

When I was chaplain at a church related nursing home, many of our most demanding residents were Christians who had never learned the lessons of grace. Law does not change a person’s attitude and heart – but God’s grace can and does.

That is what I wrote about in the Ukrainian Christians. They have found a joy in serving others in ways that no law could give them. It is that joy that the dear woman who wrote me was missing in her life. She is, however, beginning to find it as a later email to me revealed. She had spoken of how homeless people congregate at a library near her home. I had suggested to her that she might find some way to minister to them. Here is what she wrote back a couple of days later:

Boiled eggs have been the theme of the last two days.  Tues. I spent hours getting the food together (poor planning not to have done that already) and couldn’t find a large thermos coffee carafe until I went to the 3rd place. I kept asking God why I couldn’t find a carafe for the coffee?  Usually He makes a way for anything He wants to be done.

Came home and decided to try out my egg boiling  technique.  Got 6 done and ran an errand taking the unshelled eggs along.  On the way, I met a homeless-looking man named Joseph who said he’d like to have a boiled egg, but how many did I have and could he have all of them?  Of course.  Then he asked for $1.07 too.  At first I told him I couldn’t help on that score (only had a $5) but remembered the change holder in my dash.  What he asked for is about what a cup of coffee costs.  Well, that was the beginning of the boiled egg theme.

This morning, the turkey ham (for those who don’t eat pork) and cheese biscuits, hot boiled eggs (which helped to keep the biscuits warm), hot coffee, and good water. were too late for the crowd waiting to get into the library, but just right for the “captive audience” in front of the probation office.:+)

The folks who weren’t hungry said, “That’s OK, I’m straight.”  Guess that means I’m not hungry.  The ones who were interested in food really lit up at the sight of freshly boiled eggs, some of them asking for more than one.

Boiled eggs, coffee, and an orange are right up my alley for next time.  The really hungry people are the ones I want to serve, not the folks who, like me, eat for recreation.  So, the biscuits can be shelved except for special occasions.

I believe that the boiled eggs being hot and keeping the biscuits warmer were His idea.  Certainly not mine.  And, the people on the street really appreciated that they were freshly boiled.  How much easier can He make it?

All of this took place during the recent blast of arctic air into the deep South.This is taking one’s Christianity out of the church building and into the street, not because of law but because of the lavish love of God. Her’s was not the action of a legalist, who was “just obeying the commands of God” – though she was doing what God said to do. This was the action of a person who genuinely loves God and who, because of that love, demonstrates love to others in a way that law-keeping never does.

[Addendum: The morning after posting this, I had an email from this woman that I posted here. I think you will enjoy it if you have read this far.]

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