What does rule-keeping have to do with Christianity? What does this have to do with the gospel?
1. Morality is not enough.
The road to hypocrisy begins with people who think they keep the law but don’t. The problem with hypocrites is not their failure to keep the law, but that they miss the law’s point. Pharisees were all about rules. They were moral people. They were the Jerusalem conservatives, but Jesus said:
“You hypocrites! Well did Isaiah prophesy of you, when he said: “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.’” (Matt. 15:7–9)
Jesus set the standard high when he showed that the law requires love. “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets” (Matt. 22:37–40).
Love God and love people. These rules are good and true but impossible to keep, and that is the point. Jesus showed the hypocrisy present among the Pharisees. Their problem was that they had too low a view of God’s law. Their view was low enough for them to pass, but high enough to inspire pride. We can always imagine loving more, caring more, doing more. If love is the standard, then I fail every time. Every time I think, “I wish I didn’t have to do this,” I fail. Every time I become angry, I fail. Every time I don’t want to do the right thing, I fail.
2. The law leads to Christ.
Jesus’ point was to show how far people fall from obeying the law. If people did love, Jesus wouldn’t have had to die for the sins of the world. Paul explains this point clearly in Galatians when discussing the law. To rely on the law for salvation leads to a curse of death. Why? Because no one has done everything that the law requires. It is into this context that Christ came:
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”—so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:13–14)
Paul explains that the law was not intended to provide a path to salvation but to lead people to Christ: “But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22). The law, instead of providing a way for salvation, leads us to the person in whom we find salvation: Jesus Christ. Through Jesus Christ we receive salvation as a free gift and are justified by faith alone.
3. The Holy Spirit creates love.
When you read the book of Acts, one of the things you will notice is that the Holy Spirit turned fear-stricken people into bold witnesses for Jesus. With their hearts set on loving God, Jesus’ disciples were enabled to do all sorts of things that before they feared doing. The rules had faded into the background. They obeyed God out of love. Because their salvation was secure in Christ, received by faith alone, their actions came much closer to the law. God had changed their hearts.
J. D. Greear makes an important point:
If you are not where you should be spiritually, the answer is not simply to get busier for Jesus. It is not just to get more radical in your devotion to God. It’s not only to seek greater spiritual gifts or even to learn more about the Bible. It is to make your home in God’s love given to you as a gift in Christ. (Gospel: Recovering the Power that Made Christianity Revolutionary, 19)
If you want to obey God, you need to know that God accepts you and loves you as you are though faith in Christ. Jesus died for you while you were still a sinner (Rom. 5:6–8), and he accepts you even if you never seem to change. But God has promised more than acceptance. He loves you enough to change your heart, to give you love. This is what Paul meant by the fruit of the Spirit. He wants you to know that God the Holy Spirit was given to you to produce a loving heart toward both God and people (Gal. 5:24). So relax already. Christianity isn’t a religion of rules; Christianity is a religion of grace, and God has promised to make you into a person who loves.