One of the best rebukes I ever received came from a beloved friend and former Marine. He and I were shopping at K-Mart and, amongst the other assorted goodies that I had come to buy, I purchased an extension cord. As I checked out, I had the feeling that something wasn't quite right. It seemed that I was getting out of there just a bit too cheaply. As I walked towards the car, I examined the contents of my bag versus the receipt I had received. Sure enough, the clerk did not charge me for the extension cord.
I hurried myself back into the store and told the cashier that they had forgotten to charge me for the cord, and I asked to pay for it. The clerk shrugged, and acted like I was being a bother. I should have accepted my good fortune and moved on. I could not do that, I explained, as that would be stealing.
I got back to the vehicle after the exchange, and my friend asked me what had taken so long. Quite proud of myself, I quickly explained how I had to return to pay for the extension cord, despite the protest of the clerk. He looked at me with a bit of disdain and said, "Well, don't get proud of it. You only did what you should have done." I was a bit ruffled. I was seeking praise for a good deed, not a rebuke for pride.
Of course, the problem is that he was exactly right. I only did what I should have done. A person does not deserve praise for doing what is required. This is how people, even Christians, misunderstand the law of God. We know that God says that we should not steal, or covet, or cheat on our spouse, or lie. We congratulate ourselves when we avoid these no-no's, and we think that we have accomplished something. Such self-righteous congratulation is the ultimate proof of our moral stupidity.
God has other laws in the Bible. For example, God tells his people not to have sex with animals, or one's mother, or one's sister. I do not know anyone, thankfully, who comes to the end of the day and writes in their journal, "Dear journal, I was exceptionally righteous today. I did not lay with a goat, my sister, my brother, or any other relative."
I know that these are extreme and somewhat offensive examples for our tastes. So let us return to the easier commands. How about not lying and stealing? Should a man have to be told not to lie or steal? And if he refrains himself from lying and stealing, does he deserve a congratulations? If a man refrains from beating his wife, should we pat him on the back?
The innate desire to turn the law of God into a check list for righteousness is why we have such trouble understanding Jesus' sermon on the mount in Matthew 5. Jesus tells us there that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it. Then he informs us that not only should we not murder, but if you call your brother a fool you are in danger of hell. He goes on to say that committing adultery isn't just bad, it is bad when you lust after a woman with lustful intent. Jesus is saying that the law isn't a checklist, it is a principle. The law is given to show us what we should be like, and the fact that we have contrary desires indicates that something is wrong with us.
All the law of God flows from two principles: Love God; love your neighbor. Any violation of God's law comes because our love of God and neighbor is defective. So if a man refrains from adultery, thievery, and lying...big deal! He's only doing what a man ought to do. If every man agrees that these things are wrong, then refraining from them does not merit reward. And if everyman agrees with these things in principle, what shall become of the man who violates them?
This is why the law kills but cannot heal. This is why salvation from sin, which is what we call law-breaking, must come from somewhere other than the simple resolve to keep laws everyone regularly breaks.
I am a pastor serving in my hometown of Albertville, Alabama. The greatest evidence of God's grace in my life are my wife, son, and daughter. One look at me and then my wife will tell you that her "yes" was a modern day miracle. Otherwise, I am almost completely mundane.