Murder and Adultery
During Jesus’ earthly ministry, those holding the religious power frequently challenged Jesus’ spiritual authority. In Matthew 22:34-40, we read:
One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”
When Jesus instructs us to “love our neighbor,” we intuitively understand what that might entail. It may not be easy to do! But we all have a sense of what needs to be done in order to make someone feel loved. In my relationship with my wife, for instance, playing with our children, washing the dishes, fixing the house, taking care of the finances, changing some diapers, and spending quality time together are some of the things that I do to express my love for her. Watching football on the TV with a beer in my hand while she struggles with three screaming kids and a messy house would be considered unloving. The point is that, as people who interact constantly with other people, we all have a general sense of the underlying expectations involved with “loving our neighbor.”
Where we fail, however, is understanding God’s requirements and expectations to establish and maintain a loving relationship with a holy Being. These expectations are completely foreign to us because we have no daily, practical frame of reference. We do not converse and interact daily with perfectly holy people. And instead of trying to understand God’s expectations for a loving relationship on His terms, we transpose human expectations onto God—as though washing the dishes and keeping a tidy home is enough to make Him happy. Although we are created in His image, we still are infinitely different from Him in regards to His purity, love, mercy, grace, justice, and righteousness. Our understanding of holiness is desperately marred by sin, and conceptualizing this aspect of God is frankly like a toddler trying to grasp quantum physics. Our fallen brains strain at understanding and rebel against the biblical concept of holiness. And we warp its definition into something that looks more like us and nothing like Jesus. Our flawed reasoning, for example, says something like this: “If most people think that I am a generally good and moral person—despite my occasional shortcomings such as eating too much sweets—then God should also accept me for who I am. I’ve never cheated on my wife! I’ve never murdered anyone!”
In fact, there is an odd and unsaid assumption in Western society that defines “being a good person” as these two basic requirements: 1) not cheating on our spouse, and 2) not murdering anybody. And when death happens and those people who hold this limited view of holiness stand before God in judgement, they believe that informing God that they never committed adultery or killed another human being will somehow be the magic ticket into heaven—”Well at least I didn’t sleep with anyone else or kill her!” The problem, however, with that reasoning is that being good is not good enough.
The requirement for heaven is perfect holiness as God defines it. In Matthew 5:21-22, Jesus says this about murder:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
Even though we may not have murdered someone with our hands, we all have, nevertheless, frequently “murdered” with our lips. Since God includes unrighteous anger and slander as part of His definition of murder, the sober reality is that most of us “kill” with our words on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Jesus later reminds us in Matthew 15:11. “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean.’”
Now let’s look at God’s definition of adultery. In Matthew 5:27-28, Jesus teaches the following:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”
By God’s definition, adultery can now occur while flipping through a clothing catalog! Walking in the mall now becomes a life threatening activity! Obviously, God’s meaning of holiness is radically different from ours. When we say that we are good—at least compared to other people—we may have some validity in that assessment. However, when we compare our goodness with what God demands, our goodness starts to look quite bad—especially when slandering others can be murder, lusting can be adultery, watching too much TV can be idolatry, downloading music from the internet can be stealing, and failing to defend someone’s honor can be bearing false witness. If we apply Jesus’ standards to interpreting The Law, we are all murderers, adulterers, idolators, thieves, and worse. There needs to be a better solution than our trivial attempts at being good. Presenting our “good works” to a holy God now seems like a rather pitiful activity.
Only By Faith
As Christians, we are “justified by faith.” In other words, there is nothing that we can do to avail ourselves to a holy God. There are no great acts of compassion, deeds of love, or amazing displays of sacrifice that can assuage God’s wrath against the sinner. We cannot, despite our proud list of achievements, “justify” ourselves—like a lawyer in front of a high court—to a purely holy and righteous God.
This is the one aspect of Christianity that is radically different from other major religions. In Islam, there is, most definitely, an accounting of good deeds, bad deeds, devotion, and piety. In Hinduism, the entire system of reincarnation is a system of “paying back” for past wrongs or moving towards “nirvana” for a life lived in devotion. Christianity, on the other hand, teaches that our piety is worthless. We cannot earn our salvation anymore than a snail can fly an airplane. The best that we can do is to smear mucus on everything that we touch. And, without the atoning work of Christ, that is probably God’s opinion of our “good deeds”—a slimy mess.
In fact, because of God’s infinite holiness, we are in a desperate situation. The only solution was for God to provide the “justification” for us. When Christ took on himself the punishment and torment for our sins, he willingly became the divine lightning rod for God’s wrath. The “work” of justification was done solely by him. Our only obligation is to place our faith in Christ and his completed and atoning work and enter into God’s love and peace.
Do you see where this doctrine in leading us? In light of God’s holiness and Christ’s work of justification, any attempt we make to “earn” our salvation makes a mockery of God’s holiness or Christ’s work on the cross. If we assert that salvation is obtain through our efforts, we imply that God is either not completely holy in that He can accept our imperfect and flawed works, or that Christ’s work is not sufficient in that we need to add our own “works” to complete the redemptive process. Did you catch that? Salvation by works demeans God! Although we may falsely believe that God wants us to “earn our keep,” the truth is that our “keep” has already been paid, and any attempts we make to “earn” it only disgraces Him.
Salvation can only be accepted as a gift. Honestly, this doctrine make the most sense to those who understand their own fallenness or have seen their sins unmasked. That is why, I believe, that Jesus says on the Sermon on the Mount that blessed are those who are meek and downtrodden. The criminals, prostitutes, and tax collectors of Jesus’ time understood this doctrine easily. They were the outcasts of society who were despised by people and beaten up by life. They witnessed firsthand the sins that infected their hearts, and they saw how their sins also destroyed others around them. Earning God’s love seemed like an impossibility, and jumping to the moon seemed like an easier task. When they accepted the free gift from Jesus of forgiveness and mercy, they often responded with amazed tears of gratitude at the feet of their Savior. God doesn’t want a self-righteous life of “earned salvation”—He wants a tender life of thankfulness for His loving grace as demonstrated on the cross.
Good doctrine has been replaced with existentialism in many churches today—a good “experience” of God is more important than a good understanding of God. That is truly sad. The reason is simply because trying to experience God without first understanding Him seems to me phony. And that thing that we end up worshipping turns out to be not God at all. On the other hand, if we first plumb the depths of divine personality with a sound biblical understanding of doctrine, then our worship becomes true, living, and life-transforming.
For example, the main consequence of “justification by faith” is that it completely and utterly redefines the purpose of life. We no longer live to earn something, instead we live out of the abundant overflow our our hearts. My motivation for living is not to gain salvation, God’s approval, or God’s love. My motivation for living is now to simply express my love and joy back to Someone who has given me a hope that I never expected or deserved! My life now becomes the tender expression of love back to the One who loved me first.
Consider this: when Jesus commands me to love God with all my being, how can I honor this request if I have to earn God’s love? Earning love seems radically different than expressing love. But, if my heart is filled with the wonder and thanksgiving about the miracle of Jesus’ completed work on the cross, then living this commandment becomes a natural outpouring of the joy within. And as G.K. Chesterton expresses so simply but profoundly: “For the Christian, joy is central!”