Finding Life Between Law & Grace —

By Carolyn Moore —

Not long ago, I got a text from someone who was a part of our local congregation until she moved to another state. She’d seen something in her devotional guide that sparked memories of things we talked about when she was part of our fellowship. 

“Today’s devo reminded me of our time together in healing prayer when you said to me, ‘You’ve prayed … now WALK IN IT.’ Those three words (‘walk in it’) have resonated with me, over and over, when my mind and emotions overtake my faith. Healing prayer. Imagine! Actual healing. Daily healing. Sanctification. Remember when I thought sanctification was ‘Heyull’?” 

That’s how she spelled it: h-e-y-u-l-l. Heyull.

She was a new Christian (we will call her Janet), or at least, a renewed one. She’d come home to Jesus after years away. It had been a great joy to see Janet find her place in the body of Christ and watching Jesus do some significant healing in her life. I had prayed with her and listened to her complicated story and we’d shed tears together.

Janet was right, of course: sanctification is hard work. By the time someone gets serious about the process of changing spiritually, they’ve usually tried all the other options and have discovered there is no short cut. If change is going to happen, something has to die, and deaths are not easy! Ask anybody who has had to quit smoking or drinking or drugging or who has had to quit any unhealthy habit. The quitting itself is hard work.

Somewhere in the death of that thing, we get a glimpse – if not of where we are, then – of where we’ve been. So sanctification happens while we are doing it, and we feel it when we walk from death to life or from darkness to light. We know from the contrast that hell has been in the equation, and it is only for the promise of what is on the other side that we bother. Or because our hell got bad enough to move us on. All of this is to say, holiness is not for wimps.

Passed on from Wesley. Methodism’s founder John Wesley and his brother Charles lived in the 1700s. They were pastor’s kids, but their mom is the one who really discipled them. John especially seemed to have a strong hunger for a deeper life of faith. His understanding of salvation was broader and deeper than “getting saved.” When he talked about it, he used terms like “Christian perfection” and distinguished between personal and social holiness – think journey inward and journey outward – and over time he developed his understanding of what we call “entire sanctification.”

A few months before he died, Wesley wrote this in a letter to Robert Carr Blackberry: “This doctrine [entire sanctification] is the grand depositum which God has lodged with the people called Methodists; and for the sake of propagating this chiefly He appeared to have raised us up” (September 15, 1790).

In his book Perfect Love, Dr. Kevin Watson defines it theologically this way: “Entire sanctification is the doctrine that defines Methodism’s audacious optimism that the grace of God saves us entirely, to the uttermost.”

I love that phrase: audacious optimism. I love thinking of us as the people who carry that kind of spirit, truly the spirit of Jesus. It is the glorious trust in God’s ability to make us better than what we are and then, better and better still. It is the belief that God actually has the capacity to heal me and make me whole and holy.

It goes against the typical narrative surrounding the idea of holiness. The Puritans ruined it for all of us. They made it sound like a list of dry and joyless rules we had to follow in order to keep God happy. As a consequence, we still tend to hear that word and get very serious and wonder what we’ve done wrong. We forget that freedom and lightness and joy are the hallmarks of a holy life.

Holiness is meant to release us into the joys of the Kingdom of God. To operate in holy love – loving God with all my heart and loving my neighbor as myself. That’s how we advance the Kingdom of God. It is not meant to be an unbearable burden. Instead, it is the ultimate form of freedom.

I’ve discovered that you don’t have to understand it to pursue it. You just have to want it – to desire your motives to be more pure, your desires to be more Christ-honoring, your heart to be more open to loving like Jesus.

Far from being restrictive and fun-sapping, holiness calls out the best in us and causes us to glorify God. It is art, not engineering. It is the good life.

“This is Methodism’s big idea: salvation brings not only forgiveness and pardon but also empowerment and freedom to live a faithful and holy life entirely and right now,” writes Watson. “This is our grand deposit – the treasure that God has entrusted to the particular people called Methodists.”

Big questions. Before they were ordained, Wesley would ask Methodist pastors if they intended to be saved entirely – to the uttermost. He had a list of nineteen questions that he asked every pastor. Methodists to this day still use those questions. Three of the first four deal with entire sanctification.

• Have you faith in Christ? In other words, what would it take for you to engage your faith?

• Are you going on to perfection? This question is not about whether we have reached it or even if we can. The question is: are our lives pointed in that direction? Are you heading in the direction of spiritual perfection?

• Do you expect to be made perfect in love in this life? Seriously, are you going someplace spiritually? Do you actually expect to get there? Is your intention to be perfect in love? To be so ruthlessly opposed to stagnation in our life with Christ that we continually press on toward the prize of perfect love? Because holiness or Christian Perfection or entire sanctification is ultimately about love.

• Are you earnestly striving after it? Sounds a little intimidating and pushy, doesn’t it? And not very fun. “Earnestly striving” sounds a lot like legalism or self-effort – everything we are trying to get away from – right?

When discussing holiness, it is easy to get off track. It can be tempting to become more interested in the laws than in the Law-giver. So from our earliest history, our people have mishandled this gift of holiness. We made it more interesting for engineers than artists, carefully carving it into hundreds (or countless) rules to memorize and master. We turned an abstract work of immeasurable beauty into a blueprint.

Hard work. Entire sanctification is hard work. The writer of Hebrews says, “For the joy set before him (Christ) endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2).

So not even Jesus got a pass on that walk through pain to get to the other side where the joy is. The hard work of sanctification is the part of solid, orthodox Christianity we don’t often talk about. It is really about understanding what God wants to do to our lives.

The woman who texted me, Janet, got her first taste of sanctification. “Now I accept the power and pain of it only because I’ve learned I cannot handle the burn of sanctification without Jesus’ constant presence,” she wrote. “Not my actions or feelings but his presence and power.”

I can feel how much she has learned as she has walked out this journey. Sometimes our talk about sanctification can seem a bit abstract. But nothing is more real than this spiritual work of “growing in every way more and more like Christ” (Ephesians 4:15, NLT). That’s how the Apostle Paul put it. Nothing is more real than the power and pain that comes with seeking and developing a tolerance for Jesus’ constant presence. But don’t you want it?

At the same time that I was interacting with Janet about sanctification, I spent the day in a courtroom. I had two recurring thoughts in my mind. One was, I can’t believe we are here. I can’t believe it has come to this. I can’t believe we had to ask a secular court to decide for Christian people what is right. This is exactly why Paul didn’t recommend it. Court and the law causes us to focus on what is wrong, rather than being free to focus on what is right and good and pure and holy. The law will never get us the distance of grace.

Sometimes circumstances will draw us to that legal option when it seems like the only one we have left. But, can the Law ultimately get you where you want to go?

The other thought in that courtroom was, This Sunday, I’m talking about the difference between law and grace and how law and grace interact with the process of sanctification. Yet, here I sit in a courtroom, leaning on the law and wishing for grace.

That was a moment for me. I recognized that no human system can generate grace, because grace is incubated in relationship with God. This is one of the meta-stories of the Bible. We begin in the Old Testament with God bringing his people out of exile into the desert, then handing them the Law as a first primer – think of it like a first coat of paint – on their way to understanding God’s true colors and the vibrant color of sanctification.

In Exodus, we get the Ten Commandments. In Leviticus, God begins to drill down into each of those major themes to teach us that a thousand times a day we are confronted by pockets of death. However, inside this fallen state there is a choice and an invitation to go looking for life.

Leviticus is a hard book. It is where Bible reading plans go to die. Why? Because it is hard to hear the bigger point, which is that holiness really is all about life.

So, ridding your house of yeast, ridding your clothes of mold, ridding your life of sexual activity you weren’t designed for – all those rituals and laws for the Israelite – were little practice sessions on how to go looking for life. At the center of this whole conversation in Leviticus – all of it about what it means to be holy, about what it means to live the good life – sits what they call the Holiness Code. And like a heading over this section, God tells Moses to tell the people: “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).

The Hebrew word for holy is qodesh. We find that word more than 100 times in the book of Leviticus. Seventeen times in Leviticus chapters 21 and 22, we find either that we are holy or that God is, or that we are to be holy because God is. All the way through the Holiness Code – Leviticus chapters 17 to 26 – God makes it clear that the point is to know God as he is. We do these things so we can identify with God, so we can know him, so we can recognize his voice when we hear it.

We are holy by proximity to God. It is his character and his voice that make us holy.

The writer of Leviticus gives us this whole section of very specific laws about all kinds of things: mold, not putting a curse on someone, not seeking revenge, sexual relationships. It reminds me of those warning labels made by lawyers: “This coffee is hot” or “This plastic bag is not a toy.”

We have to be told because on our own, we are drawn toward death. So the author talks very directly about behavior but he comes back to this refrain over and over again: Be holy because I am. In other words, get close enough to God to hear his voice. 

These laws are highly relational. In fact, it is also in the Holiness Code in Leviticus that we find the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself.

Stop and think about this for a minute. This is the line Jesus plucked from all those laws in the Holiness Code. The one line he pulled into his teaching was this: Love your neighbor as yourself. In other words, take care of each other because this is the filter that every other law has to run through.

Observe the Sabbath … and take care of each other.

Don’t make or worship idols … and take care of each other.

Take care of your body … and take care of each other.

Don’t leave the weak ones behind … take care of each other.

Respect foreigners and elders. Take care of each other.

All of this is to say that we are holy not only by proximity to God, but in proximity to each other. How we live impacts the people around us. This is why Jesus got so frustrated with the Pharisees. Over and over, he watched them become experts in the law while they cared nothing for people.

The law can only take you so far. It can tell you that your actions are right or wrong, but it can’t fix your motives, nor can it repair your heart.

So can we ever be entirely sanctified? Only by the love of God, manifested in the person of Jesus Christ, taking us by the hand and walking us that final stretch from the best we can do into the holiness of God.

Flying in the clouds. Not long ago, I had a prophetic vision in a time of prayer where I saw myself in the cockpit of a plane flying through the clouds. Eventually my plane would break through and I’d be able to see what I was flying toward. My fear while I was in the bank of clouds was that I would fly directly into a building.

That’s a pretty anxious feeling. When the clouds are thick or the weather is particularly bad, they tell me it can be disorienting for your eyes to go back and forth between what you see in the window and the panel in front of you. That’s because the messages aren’t the same. What is out the window tells you that you may be out of control, but the panel tells you the truth. The panel can tell you what true north is and it can show you altitude and terrain. It can communicate directly with air traffic controllers and it even has systems in place to fix itself.

The control panel actually can tell you what is true. And this, maybe, is a little bit like the Law. It can tell us what is true. When things get confusing it is wiser to keep our eyes on the control panel – on the Law – rather than looking out the window on a world that wants to turn it all upside-down.

When an airplane flies into a high-traffic area, there is something better and more accurate than a control panel: the control tower. Those in the control tower see the big picture. They see the buildings, the traffic patterns, the weather – they see it all. The control tower knows where all the other planes are. To find the runway, the pilot has to depend on the voice in the tower.

Perhaps that is what grace is. The Law is rules on a page, but Grace is a voice. If we want to land safely, we need to become intensely interested in that voice – not just to hear it but to trust it, to believe in it. Faith is trusting the Voice, even in the clouds.

“I had to learn my first lesson of the Christian life: how to obey before I understood. My whole life had taught me to master a concept before I could assent to it,” wrote Rachel Gilson in Christianity Today. “How could I possibly agree to something so costly without grasping the reason?”

Gilson was relating how God navigated her through some thick clouds. “In the end, it came down to trust. I knew Jesus was worthy of trust, because he had made a greater sacrifice,” she wrote. “He had left the bliss, the comfort, the joy of loving and being perfectly loved, to live a sorrowful life on earth. He took the pain and shame of a criminal’s death and suffered the Father’s rejection, all so I could be welcomed. Who could be more deserving of trust?”

She passes on a very important truth: “The obedience of faith only works when it’s rooted in a person, not a rule. Imposed on its own, a rule invites us to sit in judgment, weighing its reasonableness. But a rule flowing from relationship smoothes the way for faithful obedience.”

As Rachel makes clear, the difference between law and grace is the difference between rules and relationship. It is the difference between following the panel and following the Voice. It isn’t that one is wrong and the other is right. It is that one can only take you so far.

And that, I believe, is Paul’s point when he talks about law and grace in his letter to the Romans. He teaches that the Law has done its job when it tells us that what we are doing when we sin is wrong. When the Law does that, it is doing its job. It is telling us while we’re in the clouds that we are heading toward a brick wall. Paul even says that we make it worse on ourselves when we trust our own brain by watching out the window instead of looking at the panel.

“I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:22-25).

That’s it! We cannot be perfected outside of an intimate and growing relationship – friendship – with Jesus, until we learn not only his Law but his voice. We cannot be perfected in love until we surrender to him when we can’t see two feet in front of us in the clouds. That’s where the real perfecting happens because that’s where faith clicks in. To be made perfect in love, to be perfected in love toward our neighbor, to land on that runway – we have to learn how to listen for the tiniest, thinnest whisper of God even in the thickest cloud.

Carolyn Moore is the founding pastor of Mosaic Church in Augusta, Georgia. She is the author of several books, including, most recently, When Women Lead (Seedbed). Photo: Shutterstock.


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