In his excellent book on New Testament ethics, The Moral Vision of the New Testament, possibly the most significant book on New Testament ethics to be published in the past two decades, Richard Hays writes,
Many of his Jewish compatriots, including fellow Jewish Christians, were scandalized by the freedom with which Paul dismissed the particular commandments of the Torah, fearing that his preaching provided carte blanche for the flesh. (It is a peculiar irony that in the modern – and ‘postmodern’ – world, Christianity has come to be regarded as narrow and moralistic. Originally, it was quite the reverse: figures such as Jesus and Paul were widely regarded as rebels, antinomians, disturbers of decency.) (36-37)
Hays points out that Paul tended to resist the emphasis on rules or even on moral striving per say, preferring to emphasize the example of Christ and the good of the Christian community on the one hand, and the work of the Spirit on the other.
[T]he sanctified conduct Paul expects of the Galatians is not so much the product of moral striving as that of allowing the mysterious power of God’s Spirit to work in and through them. Where God’s Spirit is at work, Paul contends, the result will be peace and holiness, not moral anarchy. (37)
Paul was well aware that his gospel was viewed as antinomian by some, but he was not generous to those who misrepresented the freedom of the gospel as leading to moral relativism. As Hays puts it, commenting on Romans 3:7-8, “At this stage of the letter, Paul does not really answer the objection except by rejecting it as a ‘slander’, a reprehensible misconstrual of his gospel.” (37)
Nevertheless, and this is important, Paul does not tone down his rhetoric about the radical message of the gospel. In Romans 5:19, Hays points out, “Paul provocatively restates his message of grace in terms perilously close to the ‘slander’ he had rejected earlier” (38):
But where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, just as sin exercised dominion in death, so grace might also exercise dominion through [Christ’s] righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20b-21)
Paul goes on to demonstrate why it is precisely the freedom of the gospel that brings about genuine righteousness in the next few chapters of Romans. Hays summarizes,
The great difficulty with the Law of Moses, according to Paul, was that it could only point to righteousness, never actually produce it… Consequently, even where the hearer of the Law applauds the vision of the moral life conveyed by the Torah – as indeed we should, since the commandment of the Law is ‘holy and just and good’ (Rom 7:12) – the Law can produce only condemnation and frustration. (44)
The solution, for Paul, is the gospel, and the Christian life is one that is lived according to the Spirit, not according to a written code of rules and regulations.
For God has done what the Law – weak on account of the flesh – could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. (Rom 8:1-4)
One of the very important implications of this fact – that it is the gospel of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit that changes lives – is the sobering and yet often ignored reality that man-made rules and regulations designed to protect righteousness – often with the best and most pious of intentions – entirely fail to create true righteousness. In fact, insofar as they distract us from the power of the gospel itself, these human rules might even be detrimental. As Paul writes echoing Jesus’ warning against those who teach as doctrines of God the commandments of men (Matthew 15),
If with Christ you died to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:20-23)
Protecting the church from being dominated by human rules and regulations is no minor obligation. It is essential not simply to protect the gospel. It is essential if we actually want people’s lives to change, if we want to help them to stop the “indulgence of the flesh.” Even love for the weaker brother, in that sense, demands that we help them get to the heart of the matter, rather than focusing on externals.
Taking a gospel-centered approach to the Christian life may well result in you being called an antinomian and a relativist at times. And that can be as discouraging as it is frustrating. But don’t worry. You are in good company with the likes of Jesus and Paul, and you are standing up for what really saves. That’s worth it.