Often, we miss the counterintuitive nature of the Gospel of grace because
of historical, cultural, theological and social distance from first-century
Judaism. For example, when Saul of Tarsus became Paul the Apostle the
shock waves of that conversion experience resonated throughout the
In Galatians 2:15-16 Paul says, “we ourselves are Jews by birth and not ‘gentile sinners’, yet we know that a person is not justified by the works of the Law, but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Jesus Christ, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the Law because by the works of the Law no one will be justified”. If we are to enter into Paul’s argument we must step back and understand the background of this passionate concern for justification by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ Jesus alone. At the heart of it is a faith in a God who is both righteous and sovereign. Let’s look at the worldview of first-century Judaism. This faith constantly wrestled with the reality that righteous people suffer, righteous causes fail, the ungodly often appear to triumph and the world mocks with seeming impunity. There has been no race that has suffered injustice more than the Jews. From the time of David until the time of Jesus, the storyline is one of almost continuous suffering and defeat. However, hope was kept alive through the word of the prophets that they could have faith that in the end God would put all things right. He would justify the righteous and condemn the wicked. Through centuries of agony and desolation, godly men and women in Israel were sustained by this faith and enabled to go on believing in spite of all evidence to the contrary, in a righteous God who would ultimately vindicate them.
It is against this background that we can begin to understand the violence of the shock and scandal that the coming of Jesus created. Here was One who claimed that in Him the promised and much anticipated “Day of the Lord” had dawned. The expectation was that the righteous would be vindicated and restored and the wicked would be judged. But Jesus did exactly the opposite of what they believed had been promised; He justified the ‘wicked’ and condemned the ‘righteous’. He said that He did not come for the righteous but for sinners. He welcomed warmly and interacted freely with those whom godly people rejected, the moral outcasts of society. But for the religious leaders and official teachers of the Law, He had the most severe censures. Given this, it is not at all surprising that in the end, He was condemned, excommunicated and executed. The cross, the most degrading form of death, was reserved by the Romans for criminals and traitors and considered by the Jews to be the special curse of God. From a first-century Judaism point of view this seemed the most appropriate end for Him. And for the most devoted and successful Pharisee, Saul of Tarsus, the preaching of a crucified messiah was the most monstrous possible perversion of the faith of Israel.
But all of this was turned upside down in the blinding light of Christ’s presence on the Damascus road. There, he learned that the crucified One was the living Son of God and that the ‘righteous ones’ who crucified Him were the murderers of God Himself among them. If followed that God’s justification of anyone is not a reward handed out to the righteous but and absolutely free gift of grace to those who do not deserve it. It was because this seemed to undermine all traditional religion and morality that Saul and others like him attacked this new teaching with such violence and passion. They still do today. But now he saw that there has to be an absolute abandonment of all reliance upon our own righteousness through works of the Law. This action of God completely excludes any reliance upon my actions. I cannot rely both on God’s grace and my own righteousness or
grace is deconstructed of all meaning. The scandal of the Gospel of grace is that it can’t be earned, it can only be needed.
Jesus consistently applied to the teachers of the Law the term hypocrite. The word means precisely “one who wears a mask” or “playactors”. Remember that the scribes and Pharisees were by any standard among the finest of religious leaders. They were the heirs of the teaching of Moses and the prophets and were eager to remain faithful to the teaching and to apply it to their lives. And yet Jesus repeatedly calls them playactors. Why? If we question our own experience a little, we shall begin to understand that all of us, whether Christians or Jews, religious or irreligious, have some conception of what Paul calls the Law. We are aware of a demand upon us, a standard we ought to maintain or an ideal we ought to strive for as something outside of or beyond ourselves. I try to conform, i.e. to live up to it. I force myself to do what this ideal demands. And if through my weakness or forgetfulness I forget and do something contrary to the ideal, I am disappointed and angry with myself. I may try to redouble my efforts so that this does not happen again, but in all of this am I not “playacting”? If I stopped for a moment and asked myself, “Where did that unkind word or inappropriate action come from?” I would have to answer, “It came from me.” For that moment I forgot the part I was playing, I forgot the standard, I was just myself. That word or action came from me, from my heart as the Bible says.
The reason why the coming of Jesus was so shattering to all traditional religion and morality was that He was not remotely interested in the performance put on by the best actors of His day. He was interested in the people themselves. He said, “I came not to call the righteous but sinners to repentance”. He is not interested in the impressive performance that I put on, even on my best days. He is interested in the unclean, selfish, lustful person who, in spite of it all, is God’s beloved child. So it was the most successful actors of His day who were so deeply offended by Him, but it was the people who had given up the attempt to act the part—the prostitutes, tax collectors, corrupt politicians—who were taken straight into a personal, living relationship with Him. The coming of Jesus, focused in His cross, means the end of the whole business of playacting and the beginning of a living, authentic relationship of my soul with God. The whole business of playacting is swept away. Jesus has walked right past it into the place where the real person that I am without makeup, mask, or part learned by rote resides. He welcomes and accepts the real me.
This is the true life. It is the kind of life the Law envisages but cannot create. It is a life of freedom from the bondage of egoism. There is no longer any question of me being a good man, I shall never, never be able to think of myself that way. To the end I shall just be the sinner who lives because Christ loves, who lives in and for and by that love. The Law commands love but cannot supply it. Love can only be a free gift. Love which is the expression of my attempt to keep the Law is still centered in the old ego. It is not true love.
What then is this life that Paul still lives? “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave Himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20) It is not a continuation of the old life which is ended. It is the gift of a new life. Paul’s old life is forfeited: it is condemned and in principle ended. There is simply no more place for that ego which joined in the murder of God’s Son. But Christ died for me. Out of love for me—an act that is not fruitless—the life I live is not the extension of the old ego relying on the achievements of the old ego; it is a life lived simply by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me. It is simply a clinging to Him, or rather a confident reliance on His grasp of me.