Why does a life of repentance and obedience prevent someone from experiencing the love of God? First of all, it’s important to realize that living a life based on repentance and obedience is exactly what it means to live under the law. The God given religious law is called the Mosaic law and is found in the Torah. The 10 commandments are probably the most well know laws within the Mosaic law. The Mosaic law revolved around discovering sin, atoning for the sin, repenting of the sin, and living in obedience. Does this sound familiar? It should, because I just described a very large portion of modern Christianity. Today, many Christians are obsessed with sin. They use teachings and books to discover all kinds of hidden sins in their life. Once those sins are discovered it’s time to atone for them by confessing them to God, asking forgiveness and vowing in their heart to improve their behavior. Finally, there is a renewed determination of repentance and obedience. Although many Christians are not attempting to keep the true law, which is the Mosaic law, they are still living under their own version of the law. Whether you can identify with this or not, it’s important to understand that the law is alive and well today. It is just as common as it was in ancient Israel (for more on this see Modern Laws of Christianity).
If a person decides to live under the law, that is, live a life of repentance and obedience there are really only two destinations that they can arrive at. The first is condemnation and the second is religious pride. No matter where a person ends up, they will be a spiritual orphan and will be distant from the love of God. In the following paragraphs, I will discuss both of these destinations and how the law leads people to them.
First let’s consider the path of condemnation. This path was actually designed by God and is the only path that He approves of. The law was never designed to make a person feel adequate it was designed to make a person guilty.
Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. Romans 3:19-20 ESV
To understand this more clearly, let’s consider traffic laws. The purpose of traffic laws are not to commend you for being a good driver, but rather to condemn you for being a bad driver. When’s the last time a policeman pulled you over to thank you for your obedience to the traffic laws. The law is not designed to give righteousness, rather, it’s designed to reveal unrighteousness. Traffic laws are relatively simple and extremely easy compared to God’s law. God’s law is very extensive and covers all matters of the heart, soul, and body. The pattern that typically takes place in people’s lives is that they acquire knowledge of a few laws and attempt obedience to them, only to realize later on that there are more laws which they didn’t know about. For example, a new Christian may attempt to get free of worldly sins such as drugs, alcohol, and sex only to realize later on that pride, fear, anxiety, unthankfulness, lust, and covetousness are also sins. This pattern of always discovering new sin continually brings a person back into condemnation. This is precisely what took place in the life of Paul. We read a small portion of Paul’s testimony in Romans 7.
What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. Romans 7:7-10 ESV
In this passage we see that there was a time in Paul’s life when he believed he could be perfectly obedient, and indeed his obedience surpassed all of modern Christians (Phil 3:3-7). However, the law completed its work by revealing yet another sin. The law revealed covetousness in Paul’s life. Before the law revealed covetousness, that particular sin was dead, meaning it had no effect on Paul’s heart. However, when the law brought Paul under condemnation he realized the sin that was alive in him and this caused him to experience the spiritual death of condemnation. Although the law had promised life to Paul (Lev 18:5), he found the law to be death because he could not keep it. Let’s be clear that there is absolutely nothing wrong with the law of God. The law is holy, but no human being can live by it (Rom 7:10-20). The law only reveals sin it cannot make you clean and justified before God. It always puts a person in a place of unworthiness and because of this, they will always feel like a spiritual orphan, whether they know it or not. If a person is in a position of unworthiness because of the law then it’s impossible for them to connect with God at the heart level. Have you ever worked a job where you often made mistakes which caused your boss to be angry with you? Although you could continue to diligently serve your boss it would be impossible for you to connect with him or her at the heart level or experience love from them. Many Christians diligently serve God, but they don’t ever experience His heart. This is the situation you will always find yourself in when living a life of repentance and obedience.
The most common way that people attempt to fix the condemnation problem is to try and add Christ into their life of law. Phrases like, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace.” perfectly explain this way of thinking. People believe that they need the law to deal with their sin and grace to deal with their failure to keep the law. This creates a cyclic pattern of a person feeling like a failure then feeling like the failure is ok because of grace. Indeed, many Christians are living a very cyclic life of feeling in and out of favor with God depending on whether or not they are currently focusing on their failures. This is a self-destructive cycle and Paul used the analogy of leaven to explain just how destructive it really is. In Galatians 5 Paul explains to the Galatians that if they add the law of circumcision into their relationship with Christ they will be severed from Christ. He concludes by saying a little leaven leavens the whole lump (Gal 5:9). This means that a little law ruins the entire gospel. The human heart really doesn’t have the ability to live by both the law and grace; it will always default to the law because the law defines a person's identity as guilty. Using grace as a covering for failure does nothing to help a person experience the love and acceptance of God. As an analogy, imagine there is a certain homeless man living on the streets of Washington, DC. One day the president gives an open invitation for anyone to come to the White House and eat dinner. The homeless man hears of the invitation, but feels too unworthy to have dinner with the president. The day before the dinner, someone miraculously gives the homeless man twenty thousand dollars. He uses the money to purchase a premier handmade suit. During the dinner the president notices the suit and calls the man up to sit next to him. The president comments on the suit and greatly approves of it. Afterwards the homeless man feels honored to have had time with the president, however, the time he did have felt rather shallow. Why? Because the president approved of the man’s suit not the man himself. The man himself was an unworthy beggar. It was only the suit, his outer covering, that the president really cared about and was favorable to. In the same way, many people believe that Christ is simply a covering for their unworthiness. The problem with this is that in their heart they really believe that God loves their covering, but doesn’t actually love them. This mindset isolates a person from the love of God. Christ isn’t a covering. He washes people completely, recreates them, and gives them a new identity so that they can also be called sons of God. If the homeless man had been adopted by the president as a son he would finally be able to feel the love and approval of the president.
For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, Hebrews 2:11 ESV
It is clear that the law will never allow a person to receive the love of God because it moves them into a position of condemnation and unworthiness. This condemnation is very uncomfortable for someone who is seeking to have complete obedience. One way to deal with this condemnation is to enter into religious pride. Religious pride occurs when a person deceives themselves into believing that their obedience is sufficient to bring them out of condemnation. Although they may no longer feel like a failure they will still be a spiritual orphan and isolated from the love and grace of God.
The Pharisees serve as the best example of religious pride because they made the strongest attempt at getting free from the condemnation of the law. The Mosaic law was extremely hard to follow, and God designed it this way because He wanted people to fail if they attempted to obey it. Since the law was so difficult the Pharisees had to invent ways in which they could soften its demands. The vast majority of Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees were intended to reveal their failure to obey the true law of God, and Jesus was often very irritated by their religious pride. A perfect example of Jesus revealing the Pharisees' disobedience is found in the Sermon on the Mount. In Matthew 5:19 Jesus warns that the law cannot be relaxed in any way. In Matthew 5:20 Jesus tells the people that unless they are more obedient than the Pharisees they cannot enter into the kingdom of God. He proceeds to talk about sins in the areas of anger, lust, divorce, oaths, and loving your enemies. He then summarizes His point by saying, “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect (Matt 5:48).” The law demands perfect obedience and holiness, and Jesus made that point extremely clear in Matthew 5. The Pharisees couldn't be perfectly obedient so they tried to excuse their disobedience through their traditions.
In Mark 7:13 Jesus accused the Pharisees of weakening the law through their traditions. This weakening of the law and disregard for the true law of God led them to believe that they were obedient enough to please God. In Luke 18:9-14 Jesus tells the parable of the Pharisee and the publican. In this parable, Jesus exposed the religious pride of the Pharisee and commended the publican for recognizing his own disobedience. The publican ended up having an encounter with God and the prideful Pharisee did not. The reason religious pride isolates a person from the heart of God is because they put themselves in a position of not needing grace or mercy. In the parable of the prodigal son (Luk 15:11-32) Jesus explains that the elder son could not enter into the father’s house or enjoy what his father had to offer him because he was so focused on his service and obedience. This focus caused him to completely miss the love and goodness of his father. The elder son was a spiritual orphan, but the prodigal son was not. It was the son who received grace and mercy that entered into a relationship with his father.
In the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matt 20:1-16) Jesus explains that only those who did not work like the others experienced the goodness of the master. The servants who worked the most were the ones who grumbled against the master. What a person works for they can be proud of.
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace. Romans 11:6 ESV
The way of works and religious pride is completely opposite of the way of grace. Whatever an employee works for they earn for themselves. Their payment reveals nothing about the heart of their employer because he or she simply gave them what they earned. However, if the employer went out and found a homeless beggar and gave that man an inheritance, then surely the homeless man would be forever in awe of the kindness and goodness of the employer. In the same way God desires to reveal His goodness to those who will approach Him with no goodness of their own.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. Ephesians 2:4-9 ESV
Consider how the apostle Paul expressed his desire to live completely on the basis of God’s goodness and righteousness towards him.
though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— Philippians 3:4-9 ESV
In Romans 8:12-17 and Galatians 4:1-7 Paul speaks of receiving adoption and becoming a son or daughter of God. This is only possible after being set free from the law. Freedom from condemnation and religious pride is the only way to enter fully into the deep love that God has for His sons and daughters.
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