Face-to-Face with Grace
We know very well that we are not set right with God by rule-keeping, but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ. How do we know? We tried it — and we had the best system of rules the world has ever seen! Convinced that no human being can please God by self-improvement, we believed in Jesus as the Messiah so that we might be set right before God by trusting in the Messiah, not by trying to be good.
— Galatians 2:16
As an earnest young monk of the Augustinian order, Martin Luther did everything possible to keep the rules, fully believing that he would please God this way. So when in 1510, at the age of 27, he was sent on a mission to the “holy” city of Rome, he eagerly seized the opportunity to make a pilgrimage to the Lateran Church and climb its Holy Staircase. These stairs were said to have been transported from Pilate’s Judgement Hall in Jerusalem — the same stairs that Jesus climbed before he died — so the pilgrims believed that if they climbed all 28 stairs on their hands and knees, kissing each step and reciting the Lord’s Prayer as they went, then their souls would be instantly saved from hell. Did Luther ever reach the top? There are conflicting stories, but somewhere on that staircase he blurted out the words, “What if it were not so?” and came to the realisation that, however high he climbed, he was never going to be able to please God simply by following a set of prescribed rules.
Luther went back home to Germany and started to read the writings of the Apostle Paul — another man who had spent his younger years trying to keep the rules, in his case the rules of the Jewish law. In fact, nobody had ever kept the rules as zealously as Paul: “Pharisee of the Pharisees,” he described himself, “and faultless, as regards righteousness based on the law,” but he too realised that however well he kept the rules, he still fell far short of God’s standards. The good news was that Paul came face to face with Jesus himself, and discovered something called “grace”, which enabled him to please God without having to slavishly follow the rules.
It was this good news of grace that he preached to the people of Galatia — news that they received gladly at first, but sadly they later fell prey to other people who came along and tried to impose a new set of rules on them. And sadly we too so easily fall into the same trap. In my younger days, it was commonly preached, “Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t dance, don’t go to the movies — and you will please God. Most of it we did successfully, but there were still many other things we did that didn’t please God. And so, in turn, each new generation tries a new set of rules in an attempt to please God, but they forget — or maybe they didn’t know in the first place — that “we are not set right with God by rule-keeping, but only through personal faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16)
— Walter Raymond, Christchurch