“Be ye holy, for I am holy.” “Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, and mind.” You know the commandments and you know you should obey them. But here’s the thing: you can’t. I can’t, either. In fact, nobody can fulfill the Law the way God requires it to be fulfilled. And yet, we see exhortations like this all over the Bible. "What gives, God?" we find ourselves asking. “Why do you call me to obey like this when you know that I can’t?”
Most of us wrestle with that question at some point in our walk with God. Many of us wrestle with it almost every day. Maybe you wrestle with it every day. There’s a war inside of you that can oftentimes render you incapable of Bible reading, prayer, evangelism, or anything spiritual. This happens to me sometimes. There are some days when I am so aware of my guilt and inadequacy that I hide from God any way I can – in books, music, friends, outdoor activities, anything that can numb the feeling of just not being good enough.
Have you been there? If you have – and I’m willing to bet that every Christian has been there at one time or another - I want to tell you that you are desperately misunderstanding core truths about yourself, God and His Law, and the Gospel. I want to help you clear those misunderstandings up.
In honor of the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, I am reading through John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. He has a helpful section on the Christian’s relationship to the Law that I will draw from today to help us understand what we must understand if we are to live our lives in proper relation to God, His Law, and the Gospel.
First, you must understand a simple, albeit bitter truth about yourself: you are hopelessly unable to fulfill what God demands of you. Scripture is abundantly clear on this point. Everyone sins. (Romans 3:10, Psalm 143:2, Ecclesiastes 7:20). There is no one on the planet that is truly righteous. Any attempt to fulfill the command God gives to love the Lord with all of your heart, soul, and mind will fall short. No amount of good deeds can change that. If you are striving today to do just that, you are striving in vain.
Second, a word about God and the Law He has prescribed. Is God in the wrong to have prescribed a level of holiness for his followers that he knows they are unable to keep? The answer is, of course, no. The Law serves a purpose: to humble you before God. Listen to Augustine, who Calvin quotes in his section on the Law: “The Law was given for this purpose: to make you, being great, little; to show that you do not have in yourself the strength to attain righteousness, and for you, thus helpless, unworthy, and destitute, to flee to grace.”* God knows that His Law cannot be perfectly obeyed. He gave it so that men would long after grace!
Now that you have grasped these two truths, that you are unable to fulfill the Law and that God prescribed the Law to humble you, you must grab onto one final truth with all of your heart. If you do not, you will be left only to despair. Listen to what Calvin says: “If we look only upon the law, we can only be despondent, confused, and despairing in mind, since from it all of us are condemned and accursed.”*
Read those words again: despondent, confused, despairing, condemned, accursed…have you felt any of those things lately? I have. What is the remedy, then?
In the Gospel, Christ fulfills the Law. In the Gospel, Christ does everything that God demands of you and lives the life that God requires. And in dying for you, Christ forgives all of your failures to uphold the Law. Therefore, the answer to your despair is to look to Christ. This is the only remedy to a guilty conscience, the only antidote to a broken and longing heart, the only solution to your conundrum.
Today, if you are despairing, look to Christ. Don’t try to fulfill the Law on your own and don’t try to appease God with your good works and righteous deeds. Instead, throw yourself on Christ and rest in His work.
I leave you with this prayer from Augustine. “So act, O Lord; so act, O merciful Lord. Command what cannot be fulfilled. Rather, command what can be fulfilled only through thy grace so that, since men are unable to fulfill it through their own strength, every mouth may be stopped, and no one may seem great to himself. Let all be little ones, and let all the world be guilty before God.”*
Understand your frailty as a sinful human being, let God be God, let the Law serve its purpose, and embrace the Gospel. Lean not on yourself, but on the grace of God!
* All quotations taken from Institutes of the Christian Religion by John Calvin, Westminster Press 2006