A few weeks ago I was preaching at our mid-week meeting and I quoted a section from the introduction to the Jesus Storybook Bible (a great Bible for young ‘uns!) which read as follows:
“Now some people think the Bible is a book of rules, telling you what you should and shouldn’t do. The Bible certainly does have some rules in it. They show you how life works best. But the Bible isn’t mainly about you and what you should be doing. It’s about God and what he has done.
Other people think the Bible is a book of heroes, showing you people you should copy. The Bible does have some heroes in it, but (as you’ll soon find out) most of the people in the Bible aren’t heroes at all. They make some big mistakes (sometimes on purpose). They get afraid and run away. At times they are downright mean.
No, the Bible isn’t a book of rules, or a book of heroes. The Bible is most of all a story. It’s an adventure story about a young hero who comes from a far country to win back his lost treasure. It’s a love story about a brave Prince who leaves his palace, his throne – everything – to rescue the one he loves. It’s like the most wonderful of fairy tales that has come true in real life!
…There are lots of stories in the Bible, but all the stories are telling one big story. The story of how God loves his children and comes to rescue them.”
Sally Lloyd-Jones, The Jesus Storybook Bible, pages 16-17
The reason I write this is that the following week someone queried the statement that ‘the Bible is not a book of rules’, so I want to take the opportunity to explain. I’m very glad the person asked – I don’t make myself as clear as I would like at times and I’m very happy to discuss anything that I’ve said. So if you have questions – please ask. I’m always happy to discuss things!
So the question is – is the Bible not a list of rules? The first point to make is that this can seem a confusing thing to say when the Bible is packed full of rules! The 10 commandments, the OT levitical law (now fulfilled in Christ), the Sermon on the Mount, the command to take communion (do this in remembrance of me) and many others. So the first point is that the Bible is full of rules – the Jesus Storybook Bible admits as much in the first paragraph quoted above.
But the question then becomes how do we relate to these rules? Is the Christian life a simple question of a list of things we are to do, and a list of things to avoid? This is the popular perception of Christianity in many places, but is it correct? It becomes a matter of how we approach reading the Bible.
We could approach it as a book about us and rules to keep. But simply put, the problem with this approach is that we DON’T do the things we are told to do. We don’t forgive, we don’t love, we aren’t generous, we don’t worship as we should. While we may have our moments everything we do is tainted by sin and God demands perfection so we just DON’T come anywhere near keeping even one command. The other side of this coin is that we continue to do the things we are warned to stay away from – we lie, we are proud, we churn out different idols in our lives. The apostle Paul puts it this way:
For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
(Romans 7:18-20 ESV)
Our problem is the same. We don’t do the good we want to, or know we should do, while at the same time we do the things we shouldn’t. So if our faith is a matter of rule keeping then we are in trouble!
But there is another way to approach the Bible. Yes, the Bible does have rules in it (of course it does) but that’s not really what it’s about. It’s a book about Jesus. It’s about what God has done for us through his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. From Genesis 3 where we read of the first promise of a Saviour (Genesis 3:15) to Revelation where we read of the ultimate victory of the Lamb (Jesus) it is all about Jesus. The OT and all it’s rules and sacrifices were pointing us to what? Or rather to whom? Jesus answers that question in Luke 24 with the 2 on the road to Emmaus – it is all about him.
And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he (Jesus) interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.
(Luke 24:27 ESV)
Then he (Jesus) said to them, “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures, and said to them, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning from Jerusalem. You are witnesses of these things. And behold, I am sending the promise of my Father upon you. But stay in the city until you are clothed with power from on high.”
(Luke 24:44-49 ESV) Emphases mine.
The Bible is about Jesus! So first and foremost the Bible is the story about what God has DONE FOR US. Jesus, being God, was born a human being, lived the perfect life we couldn’t (he kept the rules we don’t), he died the death we deserve for our rule breaking and he rose again ensuring our justification (being made right with God).
This is why we can say that primarily (important word) the Bible is not a book of rules! It’s not about what we are to do (because we can’t do it!) but what God has done. Everything is founded on this – Jesus has done it all. Everything. We need not do anything – it has been done for us. Everything needed to make us right with God, for our guilt and sin to be dealt with, to bring us into God’s family has already been done. We can’t add to it, nor dare we try.
So what about the rules? Are we to ignore them? Live however we want and sin all we want because we are forgiven? God forbid! The law shows us what is good – what is pleasing to God. It also shows us that we are bad because we can’t keep them, and it points us to Jesus. Our failure to keep the law should drive us to the feet of the Cross and of Jesus.
Please notice something very important about all the commands in the New Testament – they begin with what God has done in the Gospel. Here is an example:
bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.
(Colossians 3:13 ESV)
What we are to do – forgive one another – is founded on what God has done for us (we have been forgiven). So what Jesus has done for us (the Gospel) motivates us, changes us and empowers us to do what is commanded. Not perfectly, but we can strive to please God knowing that even when we fail, as we will, we are still forgiven, loved, accepted and free. Why? Because our standing with God is based on what Jesus has done, not what we have done. This is what I meant, and what the Jesus StoryBook Bible is getting at. We need to read the Bible as fundamentally about Jesus and what He has done.
Grasping the Gospel, the life-changing truth that Jesus has done it all and, through faith in him, we are adopted, loved, forgiven, free enables us to seek to obey God not because we have to, but because we want to. Because we love God and want to do what pleases him.
Viewing Christianity as about a list of rules has dangers in that it focuses on us rather than what Jesus has done and lends itself to the danger of trusting in our own ‘goodness’ rather in the goodness of Jesus.
Has that clarified it? Or muddied the waters? The Bible is first and foremost about what God has done for us in Christ. The rules there continue to show us what is good and pleasing to God and because the Gospel brings love in our hearts to God we want to please him (remember Romans 6 – the good that I want to do). We don’t ignore them, but neither do we base our confidence in our keeping of them. We first of all grasp what God has done, then we seek to do what pleases our Father in Heaven not because we need to try and earn our way to Heaven, but because we already have acceptance and love God as a result.
Are there rules in the Bible? Yes. Should we ignore them? No. But we read the Bible first and foremost as the story of the Saviour who left the comforts of Heaven to become a man and obey in our place. Our faith is in HIS rule keeping not ours. And we need to realise that Jesus has done it all, that it is fully and solely on the basis of the work of Jesus (his life, death and resurrection) that our standing with God is based on, that Jesus has done it all. And what do we have to do? Nothing. That sounds dangerous doesn’t it? Some of you reading this may be shocked at me just saying that! But that is the radical nature of grace. Jesus said ‘it is finished’ and it is. It is complete. But it’s when we realise we need not do anything, how loved we are that we will be changed and we will begin to want to please God and do what he says. If we love him we will do what he commands. And it’s understanding the Gospel that sparks that love. Jesus has done it all. We are loved, we are free, we now WANT to obey. Out of love for our God.
Here is a blog article on a similar theme! It’s well worth a read.
Happy to talk about this with you anytime!