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Obedience to the unenforceable is a statement of grace as old as the bible

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 9 June 2003

A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will take out of your flesh the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. (Ezekiel 36:26).

I think it is interesting that the editors of On Line Opinion have set as a topic something that has been on the mind of theologians since St Paul put pen to paper: what is the relationship between law and grace? This was a central issue for Paul because he had been a Pharisee, one who believed that justification, a juridical term that assumed God as judge, came through doing the law. It is in his letter to the Roman church that Paul examines this issue. He had already dealt with the Corinthian church which took the gospel as an excuse for loose morality, so his argument as to the place of law in human life is nuanced.

While he understands that the law is necessary for the protection of the community and is itself God-given, it leaves the inner person untouched. One can be a righteous follower of the law but still be filled with disordered desires and feelings that make a mockery of the outward show of behaviour. Paul himself found that the will is impotent when it comes to the turbulent inner life:


For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. (Rom 7:18,19)

While the law may govern our behaviour towards others and is necessary to order society and protect the weak from the strong it has no access to the desires of the heart. Law will not change anxiety, bitterness, resentfulness, lust, grandiosity and avarice. These are the things that we fear will disorder our lives and undo us, these are the things we wish we could control but cannot, they are out of reach of law and our conscious will. The disorder in our affections is what leads us into confrontations with the law, it is not that we are bad people it is that our affections lead us into bad places.

How, then, are the affections ordered? This is the crux of the matter because we know that their disorder is not a matter of knowledge. We all know what is right and wrong, we were taught that pretty much in kindergarten. Courses in ethics will not help us here, neither will "values clarification". This is why the church insists on the sinfulness of human beings as an ontological category, something that goes to the depths of what it means to be human. We all find our affections disordered, we all are tempted by wealth and position and adulation. Our agony is that we find no easy way of resolving the promptings of the heart:

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God, in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my members. (Rom.7:22,23)

Paul's solution to this is the cross of Christ. His theology of the atonement (literally "at one ment") is perhaps the most misunderstood of all Christian theology because it seems to be framed in terms of a non-voluntary exchange. Without our asking, God gave his only son over to death on the cross so that we would be redeemed. The logic of this comes from the temple cult of giving sacrifice and is nonsense to the modern mind.

Let us tell a different story. The man Jesus pushes against the powers of his day (and ours) that bring bondage to human beings. These are the "principalities and powers" of the world, not least of which are the religious powers. These powers respond in fear and dread and rig his trial, convict him of blasphemy and deliver him over to a criminal's death. He does not resist but allows them to do their worst. Afterward it is found that the one who was judged becomes the judge. Through the nailing of the body of Jesus to the cross we find that human sin, that we have encountered so graphically in Romans chapter 8, has been judged. The tables have been turned, Christ is vindicated, and the religious authorities, or, to universalise, the unruly passions of the human heart, are crucified. This realisation and its eternal (rather than secular) nature is the meaning of the resurrection. The crucified one becomes the source of human freedom from the death-dealing powers of the world.


Christians henceforth talk about being crucified with Christ and rising with him to a new life in which sin is put to flight. It is thus not knowledge that saves us from the turmoil of the inner person but an event in history, the affect of which rolls down the ages to us. This opens the way to an effective religious practice that looks with hope for change in the inner person; the transformation of our desire. It is only then that we find that the law has become irrelevant.

This is the only way that I know in which the unenforceable becomes the force that transforms ourselves and our society. It does so by tutoring the heart in desire. Its nature in the world is such that it cannot be controlled or imposed because it is grace and not law. Neither can it be foisted upon another party by those who do not themselves take it as a serious challenge to their lives. In other words is belongs to the provenance of God.

Why is this proposition not taken seriously in our present time and society? It does not invoke discredited notions of the miraculous or the supernatural and therefore cannot be refuted by today's scientists. Neither does it recommend uncritical belief. Rather, it is an argument based on a particular interpretation of an historical event. We are used to those. We look at the holocaust and wonder about the nature of Western civilisation in which a nation immersed in Christianity and high culture can carry out such an abomination. No one calls such exploration "religious" and therefore to be left to the privacy of the believer. Indeed such arguments are taken very seriously in our academe. The crucifixion of Jesus and the holocaust both speak about the contents of the human heart and how those contents cannot be trusted to guide our actions even when, perhaps especially, they are dressed up in the clothes of religious authority or of blood and soil. However, such is the tenor of the times, one is deemed to be religious and the other secular. One is given no credence in the public sphere and the other much.

This bias is based on the popular notion that religion has to do with the supernatural, however the basis of theological thought is not the otherworldly, the ghostly and the ghastly, but the world of the past as it impinges on the present. The theological science is an historical science that illuminates the present. The genius of the nation Israel lies in the way it refused religious fancy and instead plumbed the depths of meaning of events in history and in the way it created legends that interpreted the world aright. That is why both the Old and New Testament are occupied with events in time even when the literary genre is that of legend.

It seems old-fashioned and a little bit naïve to say that our affections are changed when we read the stories from the bible. But that is just what the church professes. But how else are our lives formed but by narrative, we live in an "enstoried" universe. The biblical stories are stories that were selected because they accurately interpret our lives and our place in the world in relation to the person next to us. This is why these writings are the centre for preaching. They are a rich source because they are not simple morality tales but stories that evoke and puzzle and lead us on into an unknown reality that would be hidden from us if we did not have them. In that way they enable us to transcend our narcissism and turn to the person next to us and see them for the first time. This is the basis of a civilised society in which secular law is enforced rarely because responsibility and peaceableness has been written on the hearts of the citizens.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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