There is a maddening debate within Christianity that centers around the law and grace. Terms like “legalistic” and “grace freeloaders” are used to describe the opposite sides. Being a pragmatist, I try to stay away from the argument, because I always lose. Recently though, I was struck by something Jordan Peterson said in a lecture series called “The Psychological Significance of the Biblical Stories.” He was talking about the exodus from Egypt and he said,
“That is why ‘exodus’ is structured the way it is. It’s like, ‘Hooray! We are no longer slaves!’ Well, now you’re nihilistic and lost. It’s not necessarily an improvement.”
Dr. Peterson goes on to talk about escaping your own pathological thinking, “Well, I got rid of a lot of excess baggage that I did not need in my life and now it’s okay. It’s like, ‘No, it’s not. You have got rid of a whole set of scaffolds that were keeping you in place, even though they were pathological. And now you have nothing. And as it turns out, nothing actually turns out to be better than something pathological.”
I have spent a lot of time in my life trying to put my finger on what has been up with the church? Why is it that we have such a terrible success rate with our members, our children, and the world as a whole? What I mean by success rate is having children walk with God through their teenage years and into adulthood. I, being an economist, was trying to figure it out using economic principles, which I still think apply. But what I had neglected was the psychology of the whole thing. We have a road map and it’s called the Bible. We just need to start seeing it as such. The more I read and studied, the more I started to think that both sides, law and grace, were wrong.
The Tyranny of law.
Any evangelical can quote in his sleep the Roman Road (I hope this is still the case) and all the verses that cast a bad light on the law. Even if they cannot quote them, surly they have a deep understanding of what is so good about grace. Sure, the law of God has some really bad parts to it. It is vicious and unfeeling and treats us all the same, disregarding our different circumstances. As Anatole France points out, ”The law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich, as well as the poor, to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets and to steal bread.” The law certainly has tyrannical aspects to it, but like all good tyrannies, there are good aspects of it which need to be thought of. Think of the dreaded patriarchy, which has gained such a bad name in our modern time. Many of those against it do not realize that the safest place a woman can be is married and the safest place for children to be is in a family. The reasons for this are economic of course, which I will examine in the future. So maybe we abandoned the law a little too fast because there has to be some good points as well.
The Nihilism of Grace
Just as any one of us can cite the Roman Road, we all know tons of verses about grace that make up our modern lexicon. The problem with grace is actually the same problem that we are seeing in our current hotbed political debate about rights. Rights and Grace essentially tell us what we can do…not what we should do. This is why a whole generation of millennials, as well as Christians, simply end up without a true sense of purpose. All that scaffolding was torn down. And living with only grace has really left us teetering on the brink of extinction. (Speaking of the American evangelical Christian Church)
The reason for this is based in economics of course. The idea of demand is that when the price of something is low, then demand for it is high. And when the price is high, then demand is low. How then would law and grace affect the demand for sin? Law puts the price of sin high, in fact very high in some cases. Some forms of Christianity believe that it is possible to lose oneself back into the world even after converting to Christianity. To those types of belief systems, the price of sin is very high. This would usually lead to lowering the demand for it but could also easily lead to a couple more nefarious results. The first is called a black market and the second is giving up entirely.
An illegal traffic or trade in officially controlled or scarce commodities.
Black markets for sin.
There are many historic ways that the church has enacted ways to cheapen sin. One of the primary ways is in the changing of the interpretation of the scriptures. For example, Jesus’ teaching on divorce and remarriage is plain. There is a very high cost to it… thus enters the black market. Those scriptures can easily be reinterpreted in a way that makes divorce seem no worse than a little white lie. The catholic church has even changed the 10 Commandments entirely so as to change the apparent price of making idols.
The second result with the price being so high is that one would just give up and say that it is not even worth it and leave Christianity all together. This is a common price phenomenon within Christianity where someone feels all the weight of the way they are supposed to act. Then, when they leave the faith, they are relieved that very second because they do not have to try anymore.
Grace on the other hand sets the price of sin too low, which leads to higher demand. If God has already forgiven someone for their sins – past present and future – and you cannot lose your salvation, then… we all know what comes next. This is when you see people walking away from God seemingly without penalty.
Can we strike a balance?
Of course! Just as I do not throw out all law, I also want to point out that I am not throwing out grace. Grace is something that no religion, other than Christianity, offers. It is a good starting point for real radical change. For the nation of Israel, the Promised Land must have seemed so far off, especially in those first days and months. In the same way, when we first experience grace we are very far off from the person that God has intended each of us to be.
God wants to get us to a point higher than where we are. And from there we will have to keep returning to seek God’s grace when we fall. But the goal is somewhere in seeking the highest good that God has gifted us to be able to accomplish. Remember it took Israel 40 years stumbling around in the wilderness until they were at the point God needed them to be before entering the Promised Land. I doubt it will take 40 years for any of us but we have to aim for the goal of our highest good and go out and, with God’s help and some grace, accomplish it.
What is the real Goal?
The real Goal is the Promised Land. The Old Testament version of this was a real place, but the New Testament version is quite a bit more abstract. Hebrews 4:10-11 addresses this question when it says:
10 for anyone who enters God’s rest also rests from their works, just as God did from his. 11 Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience.
So, what does it mean to ‘make every effort to enter into his rest’? “Work hard in order to rest in his finished work” as one theologian put it. Why not work hard in order to bootstrap yourself up though? The reason for this is simple. If we were able to clean ourselves up on our own, then we would also be entitled to the glory. God wants to get ALL of the glory. He does the work, He gets the glory. Would we want it another way?