In the book of Amos, the prophet pronounces God’s judgment on the people of Israel, and it’s a harsh word through most of the passage, culminating in a relentless threat of destruction:
I saw my Master standing beside the altar at the shrine. He said: “Hit the tops of the shrine’s pillars,
make the floor shake.
The roof’s about to fall on the heads of the people,
and whoever’s still alive, I’ll kill.
No one will get away,
no runaways will make it.
If they dig their way down into the underworld,
I’ll find them and bring them up.
If they climb to the stars,
I’ll find them and bring them down.
If they hide out at the top of Mount Carmel,
I’ll find them and bring them back.
If they dive to the bottom of the ocean,
I’ll send Dragon to swallow them up.
If they’re captured alive by their enemies,
I’ll send Sword to kill them.
I’ve made up my mind
to hurt them, not help them.”
(Amos 9:1-4 MSG)
The prophecy goes on to state that Israel shouldn’t consider herself exempt from the same kind of judgment God had shown to her neighbors in the past — His target was to wipe out, as the Message translation puts it, the Kingdom of Sin.
But still, God decreed, He would not totally destroy the family of Jacob. Instead, He would sift them:
“I’m still giving the orders around here. I’m throwing Israel into a sieve among all the nations and shaking them good, shaking out all the sin, all the sinners. No real grain will be lost, but all the sinners will be sifted out and thrown away, the people who say, ‘Nothing bad will ever happen in our lifetime. It won’t even come close.’
(Amos 9:9-10 MSG)
And after the sifting, which promised to be a painful process, followed a promise: to restore, to strengthen and to bless those that remained.
The Word of God makes it clear that under the Old Testament law, mankind was doomed. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, Romans tells us. It is only because of His great love for us that we are not consumed (Lamentations 3:22).
So God made a way, in His mercy, for us to be made right with Him: justified, reconciled, blameless. Jesus’ sacrifice for us met the requirements of the law that we could never in ourselves meet… once and for all.
In Galatians 2, Paul recounts a confrontation with Peter over perceived hypocrisy. Peter had been fellowshipping with non-Jewish believers and living the message of freedom in Christ… until some more conservative Jewish believers arrived from Jerusalem, and Peter pulled away from his Gentile friends and allowed the conservative group to push their agenda of adherence to Jewish customs.
Paul stood his ground against what must have been immense pressure. After all, Peter had walked with Jesus personally as one of the original Twelve. Paul was the new guy, and represented change that flew in the face of what the mainstream Jewish believers saw as righteous and holy living.
We Jews know that we have no advantage of birth over “non-Jewish sinners.” We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it—and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
(Galatians 2:15-16 MSG)
But Paul, they must have objected. Sure, most people can’t perfectly live up to all of the rules and regulations of the Old Testament law… but still, you have to try to live a holy life! You can’t just throw out all the rules! That right there is just an excuse to sin!
Have some of you noticed that we are not yet perfect? (No great surprise, right?) And are you ready to make the accusation that since people like me, who go through Christ in order to get things right with God, aren’t perfectly virtuous, Christ must therefore be an accessory to sin? The accusation is frivolous. If I was “trying to be good,” I would be rebuilding the same old barn that I tore down. I would be acting as a charlatan.
(Galatians 17-18 MSG)
The old school Jewish believers in that group still hadn’t grasped the purpose — and the power — of Christ’s sacrifice.
What actually took place is this: I tried keeping rules and working my head off to please God, and it didn’t work. So I quit being a “law man” so that I could be God’s man. Christ’s life showed me how, and enabled me to do it. I identified myself completely with him. Indeed, I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central. It is no longer important that I appear righteous before you or have your good opinion, and I am no longer driven to impress God. Christ lives in me. The life you see me living is not “mine,” but it is lived by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I am not going to go back on that.
Is it not clear to you that to go back to that old rule-keeping, peer-pleasing religion would be an abandonment of everything personal and free in my relationship with God? I refuse to do that, to repudiate God’s grace. If a living relationship with God could come by rule-keeping, then Christ died unnecessarily.
(Galatians 2:19-21 MSG)
What Paul was advocating was indeed not an excuse to sin… it was in fact a much more difficult proposition than living by a rigid set of rules.
“I have been crucified with Christ. My ego is no longer central.”
It is a painful, daily death to self, identifying wholly with Christ. It is something we do imperfectly, and fail often.
It requires a choice, every day, with every decision, not to insist on having our own way. Our own way, after all, leads to destruction. It has led mankind down that path for thousands of years, as the Bible so clearly shows us. We fully deserve to reap the consequences of our own actions.
But then… God shows mercy.