Christian Extremes versus a Better Way

Just when you think you have it all figured out, the Bible comes along and wrecks your theories.  Thank God.

The Problem with Pendulum Swings

Welcome into my ongoing love-hate relationship with food.  I start at the far end of the spectrum, eating whatever I want, whenever I want—the big no-no’s like fried chicken and pecan pie, staples of my southern heritage.

I’m happy with this greasy, tasty freedom until I get tired of my clothes not fitting.  I also don’t like having a closet crammed with a wardrobe comprehensive enough to fit every possible size of me.

That’s when I begin exercising and regulating caloric intake.  It works.  The weight comes off.  But in the process, I become food conscious, worrying about calorie counts at every meal, asking myself if I could have a sweet roll if I divided it into thirds.  I also notice everyone else’s weight gain (or loss), lamenting how they should pay better attention to the principles of responsible weight maintenance.

This goes on for six months or so, during which time I get tired of looking svelte, and being mistaken for Brad Pitt.  Then one day in the grocery store while I’m headed to the grapefruit section, I notice Reese’s peanut butter eggs on sale, six for three dollars.

I buy them and take them home, assuring myself I’ll only eat one a day.  But I end up eating one every half hour.  At that point I’m officially headed back to the beginning of the roller coaster ride, where fat rules.

I’ve noticed such pendulum swings in the Christian life as well.  Many of us find ourselves polarized to this or that extreme.  At one end we do whatever we want, whenever we want—the dietary equivalent of gorging on honey buns and butterfingers and late night pizza.

We listen to a lot of sermons about grace that tell us God will love us no matter what we do, and we misunderstand that comfort, supposing it encourages us to live irresponsibly.  Somewhere along the way we build up a resistance against challenge or conviction, avoiding people, churches, or even certain parts of the Bible that might call us to repentance.   In an effort to avoid “being put under law,” our attitude develops into a position called antinomianism, meaning “against law.”

Such dubious freedom gets old.  At some point we begin to feel the Christian life so lived is much ado about nothing.  The non-Christian on the street manages the same life with the same standard as ours.  Did Jesus need to die for that?

And so the shift to the other extreme begins with our decision to get serious and follow the rules.  This time it is the dietary equivalent of drinking smoothies, eating kelp, and tracking by the ounce how much skinless grilled chicken we consume.  For a time, things  go well.

It becomes a great point of pride to us that we’re done playing games.  But in the process, we become occupied with the behavioral dynamics of right and wrong to the point of distraction.  Not only does this lead to brutal self-condemnation when we fail, but an exaggerated sense of self-perfection when we succeed.

Our personal metric aligns on performance and appearance with the result that we frequently train the guns of our judgment outward upon those who seem to be less together.  We feel angry a lot, dried up, and at times, downright petty.  This attitude is called “Legalism.”

Although Christians heavily occupy each extreme (or the transitional sweep between the two), neither antinomianism nor legalism approximates the biblical Christian life.

Romans 6 describes the believer as having been freed from sin by the cross.  There are no provisions made for a loose, antinomian life.  But in Romans 7 we find believers released from the Law by the same cross. This disallows the sterile regimens of legalism.

Death Changes Everything

The Christian life is neither this nor that, but a third thing, a new thing.

Paul begins to make this point in Romans 7 by pointing out that death changes everything.

1Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage.Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.

This common sense observation tells us that the Law of God loses its authority over the dead.  After all, the dead don’t eat, therefore pork or shellfish are no longer important.  The dead don’t work, so there are no issues with Sabbath breaking.  And of course, circumcision means nothing to a skeleton.  The dead can no longer break commandments by stealing, murdering, or lying, either.  The law is only binding as long as someone lives.  But if death occurs, everything changes.

The apostle supplies marriage as a further illustration in order to show how death dissolves even relational bonds.  Concerning a wife, he writes, “If her husband dies, she is released from the law of marriage.”  If she tries to escape this arrangement prematurely by living with another man, it constitutes adultery.  Release from the law never comes through ignoring the law or breaking it or changing it.  Only death can offer a legitimate, clean break from it.

Not only does death release the woman from a prior marriage, but it affects so sweeping a change, that she can now be married to another man without controversy.  Death allows for an entirely new arrangement.

When I was eight years old, my grandfather died.  My grandmother continued as a widow for a few years until she met and married another man named Edward.    This introduced an entirely new paradigm.  They lived in another place, and we even had to figure out how we would address this newcomer.

We had called my previous grandfather “Grandaddy,” and my grandfather on my mother’s side had been “Papaw.”  What would we name this step-Grandfather?  With her usual humor, my grandmother suggested “Steps.”  We didn’t bite on that one.

The Time You Died

No doubt you’re familiar enough with the principle of new things emerging on the heels of death.  What you might not have realized is that we ourselves have died and been ushered into something new.

Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

Try to follow the logic in these verses so you can see how Paul’s marriage-death-remarriage example works as it is applied to you.  You were in a marital situation where “you…died.”

The fact that you died “to the law” indicates that the Law of God was your spouse, even if you were not Jewish and had no formal understanding of the Mosaic code.  Remember that even gentiles have the Law written on their hearts (Rom 2:15).  God has legitimate requirements of righteousness upon every human being.

Whether it was the written code or a primitive, intuitive one, this law is legally joined to human beings and is as close as a spouse.  But it was not a marriage made in heaven.  The Law describes the God who gave it, therefore it is perfect and glorious, spiritual and righteous.  We are not.  Simply being close to it exposed our sin and brought us condemnation.

Yet we died to it.  That marriage is finished.  The Law was not the party that died, because it is the eternal word of God that will never pass away.  No, we died “through the body of Christ.”  His death was not only individual; it was inclusive.  Every believer has died in Christ, not only to sin, but to law as well.

Remember though, that like the woman in the illustration, the freedom gained for us did not turn us into lawless free agents.  Death set the stage for something new.  You died “so that you may belong to another.”

It is unusual to hear of the deceased spouse as the one who does the remarrying.  Such a thing seems strange and impossible.  But our new husband is “him who has been raised from the dead.”  Not only did Christ’s death include us, but His resurrection did as well.  He and we are now joined in matrimony, two resurrected persons in an entirely new creation.

The effect of this joining was “that we may bear fruit for God.”  The fruit, the virtues of Christ formed in us, the works we accomplish, the ministry we carry out, even the feelings we have toward so many things come directly out of our new union with Him.  They could never have been produced from religious mandates.

Paul reminds us of the way it was back in the days before we had died in Christ, when we were still married to law and living in our flesh: “our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death.”  We got the exact opposite of what we were hoping for.  The more that Law rained down commands and grievous threats against evil behavior, the more our sinful passions seemed stimulated to act out.

But now things are different.  We’re dead in Christ and released from the Law that stirred our sin, “so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of written code.”  The old way consisted of learning what we should and shouldn’t do and then trying to conform.  It was a failure, as the rest of Romans chapter 7 will demonstrate in excruciating personal detail.

The new way involves you as a crucified, resurrected person joined to a crucified, resurrected Lord.  It is impossible to overestimate how new this is, or mysterious.  For twenty centuries, Christians have attempted to wrap their minds around it.  Yearly, some ten thousand new Christian book titles are released, all attempting to comment on some aspect of Christian living, and trying to make sense of it.  The Bible itself, written by prophets and apostles, does a superb job of prescribing and describing this new life, but stops short of canning it.

It is so new there is hardly anything with which to compare it.   Still, we try to squeeze the new way into our old frame of reference, thinking of it as religion.  And yet we are not Christians in the same sense as Buddhists are into Buddhism, or Muslims into Islam.  They are not the same.

It seems the only real sense we can make of our co-death and resurrection with Christ, the newness of the Spirit, and fruit unto God, is to reduce it to written code.  That will never suffice.

The New Way Won’t Cooperate

It reminds me of the old snake-in-the-can gag.  You pull the lid off, thinking that some Pringles or peanuts are inside the can, but unbeknownst to you, a spring-loaded “snake” is compressed inside.  It shoots out as soon as you open it.

This is precisely what the real Christian faith does when it is crammed into a religious container.  It rockets out as soon as possible.  Jesus referred to this phenomenon as attempting to pour new wine into an old wineskin or putting a new patch on an old garment.  New and old don’t mix.

This new life is neither antinomian nor legal, nor a gray zone in the middle composed of a little bit of grace and a little bit of law.  It defies such easy categories.

But we can say it is a marriage.  And while a marriage needs self-sacrifice, commitment, respect, and a number of other things, it cannot do without affection for very long.  Our union with Christ thrives on such sentiments.

In light of this, Christian disciplines like Bible reading and prayer make more sense.  We utilize these practices and tools as a way to kindle our affection for Christ.  Why do we read the Bible?  Not because a Christian law dictates that we must, but because it is difficult to feel affection for someone we have no information about.  Why do we pray?  Not because we should, but because affection won’t grow in a relationship where there is no communication.

We use tools and disciplines and practices to stimulate our affection for Christ, but we refuse to let them be Christ.

We are married to a person.



Photo credit:  Anant Nath Sharma

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