How many decisions do you make in a day? Graeme Loftus looks at the multitude of choices facing us daily and presents a role model for successful living.
It was St Augustine (354-430 AD) who uttered the enigmatic statement, “Love God and do what you like!” It is one of those inscrutable quotes that has at different times puzzled and irritated people down through the centuries.
Understood in its deepest intent, however, it contains a timeless truth that can save Christians a lot of angst in their desire to live a life pleasing to God.
Lying at the heart of Augustine’s pronouncement is a biblical meaning of “the grace of God.” This teaching has always been a stumbling block for the natural human heart. History is replete with examples of people who have spent their life’s energies trying to get right with God, only to end up disillusioned, angry, morally exhausted and spiritually bankrupt. It is only at that point when a revelation of the meaning of the death of Jesus on the cross opens up their hearts and minds that they truly come to understand the grace of God.
The human heart is naturally proud, and struggles to accept that there is absolutely nothing it can do to commend itself to God through its own effort.
There is a constant striving to impress Him by trying to be good in some way, and thus earn merit.
This was the great tragedy of religious people in the time of Jesus who looked for ways of becoming right in God’s sight and earning His acceptance by observing the laws of God perfectly. The apostle Paul spent the first half of his life trying to do this, only to discover that all it did was uncover his hypocrisy (Romans 3:20). On a journey from Jerusalem to Damascus one day, he encountered the resurrected Jesus and realised the futility of trying to imitate the holiness of God, which overwhelmed him.
Following that experience he regarded all those efforts to live life outwardly by a set of rules as “rubbish.” All he wanted from that moment was to “gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but … the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:9).
In Jesus, Paul saw an embodiment of the moral requirements of God that far outshone those written on tablets of stone in a cloud of glory on Mount Sinai. These were initially delivered to Israel by God to reveal the pure heart of a loving God who had delivered them by grace from the slavery of Egypt. God had not saved them because of their exemplary way of life or because they had kept the principles of the law. They were saved before the law was delivered. The descendants of Abraham were a degenerate and demoralised people, and He was showing them a way to express their gratitude for their redemption, and a way that would, in so doing, bring them happiness.
The great tragedy was that in trying to administer the laws of God, the Jewish leaders negated the meaning of grace.
In so doing they became a ministry of death instead of life, as God originally intended. It was as if a veil covered the hearts of people in a way that prevented them from seeing the meaning of grace (see 2 Corinthians 3:1-18). It is not that God’s grace was absent in that age, or invisible to them. It was clearly evident in their salvation history and the system of sacrifices God instituted, which were given to help them appreciate how He was dealing with their sin in a substitutional way.
When Jesus came as the Lamb of God who took away the sin of the world through His substitutional death (see John 1:29), grace was infinitely magnified, as the sun outshines the moon. And with belief in the grace of Jesus, God also came to live in our human spirit through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 1:13, 14; John 14:17). In so doing He writes the same laws that were once written on tablets of stone onto the fleshy tablets of our own hearts (Hebrews 10:15, 16; 2 Corinthians 3:3). From that moment onwards the Holy Spirit administers our way of living rather than any list of “do’s and don’ts.” He becomes our “lord” instead of a list of rules acting as such. And along with that comes a sense of freedom rather than an obligation to constantly look over our shoulder to see whether we are measuring our behaviour by some standard.
The Christian’s freedom is not a libertinism.
When Augustine said, “Love God and do what you like,” he was not advocating a Christian lifestyle that threw all ethics to the wind. He was not advocating a cheap grace that covered all lawlessness.
There are three ways to approach Christian living: legalism, which leads us to bondage and gloom; licence, which leads us to sin and darkness; or love, which leads us to liberty and joy.
Ethics flow out of a joyful love relationship rather than a legal code. This is not a negation of the content of law, but a superseding of it in a qualitative and quantitative response.
Freedom is a dangerous thing. It is not only freedom to do whatever we want; it is freedom to not do some things because they are harmful to our intimacy with God. Freedom can only be handled wisely by spiritually mature people because it can be so easily abused. Liberty can never become a licence to sin wantonly (see Galatians 5:13). Although all things are now permissible to the Christian, not all things are beneficial (see 1 Corinthians 6:12). It is the love of God that “compels” us, motivates us and empowers us to live according to God’s will. The dynamic is an internal one rather than one centred outwardly on human effort.
This applies to all aspects of Christian living; to our forms of entertainment, the food we eat, our sexuality, our dealings with money, our relationships with people and the way we conduct ourselves socially. Our dress, for example, is to be simple, modest and neat, made truly beautiful by a gentle and quiet spirit.
Because our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit, we are to care for them intelligently. Along with adequate exercise and rest, we are to adopt the most healthful diet possible. Since alcoholic beverages, tobacco and the irresponsible use of drugs and narcotics are harmful to our bodies, we are wise to abstain from them.
Instead, we are to engage in whatever brings our thoughts and bodies into intimacy with Christ, who desires our wholesomeness, joy and goodness. The Holy Spirit connects with our human spirit through our brain, and anything that impairs its functioning will hinder the Spirit’s ability to connect with us.
Many Christians, especially the Puritans, endeavoured to impose a code of ethics on their lives that was every bit as rules-oriented as Rabbinical Judaism.
The New Testament gives only one guideline for all ethical responses; that all activity express a joyful response to Jesus and the gospel.
In searching for ways to deepen our relationship with Christ, we can do no better than study the way He lived in the midst of an ungodly world. Holiness, to Christ, was not a monastic withdrawal from the world. Although there is a place for quietness and contemplation, Jesus encouraged Christians to permeate society as the salt of the earth (see Matthew 5:13). Their one guideline was to only do that which nurtured and fed their spiritual natures.