Christianity is not an Agreement to Keep a List of Rules

rules-of-crate-training-1This blog post is written as an answer to questions that I am getting about my last post on repentance

I want to reiterate that we misunderstand the teachings of Jesus when we come to the conclusion that being a Christian is about agreeing to keep a list of rules.  It is also a misunderstanding of repentance when we think that repentance is about turning from breaking that list of rules to promising to keep them. This issue is precisely what got Jesus crucified and the very heart of the gospel.  Get this wrong and your Christian faith is never going to make sense.

Jesus went up against the religious people of his day who had a long list of rules that they required everyone follow.  Jesus kept breaking these rules.  For instance, he didn’t keep the Sabbath, he befriended “bad” people by going to dinner with them, he was friends with women he wasn’t related to, he touched sick people, etc.  The list goes on.

In actuality these religious people didn’t know God at all. They thought that they had a contract with God – we keep your rules and you bless us in this life and the life to come. But God had made a covenant with them, not a contract. A covenant is about having a relationship.  God offers humanity a covenant (I will be your God and you will be my people). The covenant was and is about following Christ not a list of rules.

Now those who follow Christ may look like they follow a list of rules because they demonstrate a radical love for others. But in truth, they are following Jesus. Believe me… it is far more difficult to follow Jesus than it is a list of rules, because Jesus will ask you to make sacrifices that rules protect you from making.  For instance, the law said, “love your neighbor,” which protected you from loving those who weren’t like yourself.  But Jesus said his followers would love even their worst enemies – and all the people in between.

There are many rule followers today who call themselves Christians. They keep a set of rules (and want to force others to keep them).  They think that makes them right with God. But they don’t even know God. Just like the Pharisees of Jesus’s day, they have no love for God and others. They are trying to twist God’s arm (still thinking they have a contract with God) into blessing them and giving them a ticket to heaven. But when one follows Jesus they live sacrificially in God’s love giving up their own desires to let Christ live through them – to let Christ through them bless even their enemies.

It is like a good marriage… when one truly loves the other person, there needs to be no rules, because you want what is best for the other and are willing to give sacrificially for them. In a bad marriage… you have a list of rules you follow. Each person wants what is best for themselves and protects themselves and places limits on how much they will give the other. In truth, this is no marriage at all – it is just a contract between two unfortunate people! The religious people of Jesus’s day had this kind of relationship with God.  Which was no relationship at all.  It was a misunderstanding of the covenant they had made with God.

This is where we come back to repentance.  Repentance is different from agreeing to a set of rules… repentance is giving God permission to transform us into someone who follows Jesus into the difficult hard places. To give God permission to make us a sacrificial person who lets Christ live through us – a person who puts others first. Repentance is to give God permission to empower us to stop worrying about which rules to follow and to start loving God and others unconditionally.

This is the gospel!!  Far harder, but far more rewarding than keeping a list of rules.

April describes herself as a Red Letter Christian who writes about scripture and spiritual disciplines. See her latest book, James in the Suburbs: The Disorderly Parable of the Epistle of James. It is equally great for group Bible studies or to be read as a novel!

8 thoughts on “Christianity is not an Agreement to Keep a List of Rules

  1. Building your faith on following the “rules” leads to death. I don’t think the bible couldn’t be more clear about that. Many times Jesus but more the apostles taught that we can’t possibly earn our way into God’s good graces. Grace after all is “unmerited favour”.

    However, just because the way to heaven is not via following the rules, commandmants, instruction teaching or will of Jesus and God that doesn’t mean that the “rules” don’t exist or that we shouldn’t follow them.

    It is profound paradox that attempting to follow the “rules” or behave “correctly” or “works” does not please God while those of strong faith with a close relationship with God and truly following God will as a result be more likely to follow the “rules”, behave “correctly” and do good “works”.

    The list you gave above of people wanting to follow the rules because of guilt, self righteousness, casting judgement is in itself a list of rules. Anyone who holds on to guilt rather than accepting the gift of grace through Jesus is “breaking the rules”. Anyone who wallows in feelings of superiority because of what other “rules” they have not broken is indulging their sense of self righteousness and as a result they have sinned they have broken the rules and without repentance they are destined for hell. Anyone that casts judgment on others will be judged as they have judged others and without turning from this behaviour and actually following Jesus commandmant (rule) to not judge others is also going to hell.

    Who can follow these rules? Who doesn’t naturally feel guilty when they sin? Who doesn’t feel pride or a little self righteous when they do the right thing but others dont? A good Christian would stomp on such feelings and feel guilty for having them. Who doesn’t judge others when they see them doing what they perceive as doing wrong? I know I do but I ask for God’s forgiveness, I don’t hold on to my guilt, I try and draw closer to God and do better next time. Of course I know full well that I’ll still fail and that is why it is so important to focus on my relationship with God and to include him as much as I can in my life.

    The rules laid down by Jesus are pretty simple love God, love others. Its the living them that is the challenge because you can’t love by following rules yet love is what we are commanded to do. I do my best, its not good enough but thanks to God’s grace I’m still welcome in his presence and the holy spirit will continue to help me move closure to God and that will mean that my actions will be more in line with God’s for my life.

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  2. Mathew 22:36-40

    “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?”

    37 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’[c] 38 This is the first and greatest commandment. 39 And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’[d] 40 All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

    I agree following Christ is not about rules and that Gods plan is not to have a multitude of obedient servants but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t guide us, gives us commands if you will rather than rules.

    When God has required me to sacrifice it has been relatively easy to know what he wants me to do which is not to say it has been easy to do. It is in the day to day that I need the bible, what it teaches me and how it guides me. By no means is it a rule book but it does contain guidance, teaching, instruction and commands. Following the teachings, instructions and commands is not enough and is never enough to being a true follower of Christ but I believe they are a part of living a life with God.

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  3. I will agree that we will not change our desires, but through our relationship with Christ and guidance of the Holy Spirit, we are called to not act on our sinful desires. When we meet our judge upon our death, we will give account for our life. At that time He will judge whether our failures were due to our human weakness or due to our choice to continue following our sinful desire after we have “accepted” Jesus.

    Jesus has called us to be His bride. Are we preparing for his return or will we be like the 5 bridesmaids that didn’t have oil for their lamps until it was too late?

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    1. Forget whatever list of rules you are following. Instead try waking up every morning spending 15 min listening to God – ask God how God is going to love others through you that day. God will never ask you to do something that isn’t holy so sinful desires will have less and less meaning to you as you mature as a follower of Christ. Do this knowing that God has promised the wisdom and power you need to know and do God’s will.

      Jesus didn’t sit around thinking about how to keep a list of rules while he was on earth. He got away in the mornings and talked/listened to God. It was in these prayer times that God gave him wisdom and power for his days.

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      1. The “list of rules” I follow are those from Jesus’ sermon on the mount and Paul’s letters to the churches of Galatia, Philippi, Ephesus, and Collosus. For it is this list that defines sin and is used to discern whether the desire is God’s will or my own.

        Since you pointed out how Jesus countered Jewish laws and culture, perhaps we are in agreement, as we are taught that Jesus was free of sin but that he took on our sin as an eternal sacrifice for us.

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  4. Two questions:

    1. What do you mean by “living sacrificially in God’s love giving up their own desires to let God live through them” if it isn’t sacrificially turning away from our own sinful desires?

    2. What is your interpretation of what Jesus said in Mathew 5:17-20?

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    1. We can’t really turn away from wrong desires – though we do a lot of pretending that we are in control of our selves. If you notice, those who claim the most control (numerous televangelists, for instance) are often the ones that stumble in the biggest ways. All we can do is say yes to letting the Holy Spirit transform us. However, this is a huge step. Few people ever do this. Most of us hold back from letting God change us and use us in the way God wants.

      In Mathew 5:17-20 Jesus is making this very point. God gave the law to the Israelites not because keeping it could ever save them. God gave it to them to show them how they could not meet God’s standards. They continuously broke the law and continuously had to make sacrifices so that their sins were temporarily covered. They were waiting for a messiah who would be the ultimate sacrifice and not just cover their sins, but completely take them away. Jesus ushered in the new covenant where the law has been fulfilled. We are no longer slaves to it. Instead, the Holy Spirit lives within followers of Christ empowering them to do the work of God – to love God and others.

      Jimmy, You can call me if you want to talk more. Blessings.

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    2. I can’t reply directly to your last comment about following the “rules” of the Sermon on the Mt and/or the “rules” that Paul gave. Jesus was not giving a list of rules to follow in the Sermon on the Mt, he was describing the Kingdom of Heaven, which is what his followers become when they let the Spirit transform them. And by the way, I assure you that sadly only a very few are living in the way Jesus described on the Sermon on the Mount. No one can possibly achieve that kind of lifestyle by “following rules.” There must be the constant supernatural wisdom and guidance of the Spirit.

      And as far as Paul’s “rules” go… Paul wrote that it is for freedom that we have been set free from the rules to love others. He had been a Pharisee and was accused of being “lawless” by the Pharisees. This debate over pleasing God by following a list of rules was also what got Paul jailed and eventually executed. He preached the same message that Jesus did – that following the rules would lead to death, but following Jesus (letting the Spirit make them like Christ) would lead to abundant life.

      I always wonder why people want to follow a list of rules so badly? Is it so they can beat up themselves? Or does it make them feel good about themselves because they think they don’t break them? Or is it because the rules let them judge right and wrong in others? Cause, you know, we never have a right to judge others. It is a curious thing. But a rule based religion is exactly what Jesus came to free us from so that we could love God and others unconditionally.

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