If you were to ask people what “morality” is, they would probably tell you that it is a list of things you aren’t supposed to do. For many people - inside and outside the church - their idea of a “good person” is defined by what they “don’t” do.
That’s understandable. We live in a society of laws, and most of those laws are rules telling us not to do certain things. Anyone who has read the Old Testament law has likely come away with a similar impression. In many of our churches, the preaching from the pulpit emphasizes the same - “THOU SHALT NOT” echoes through church sanctuaries the world over.
Given that, it may be shocking to hear Paul say, as he does in verse 23, “These rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires.” (ESV) What do you mean the rules don’t help, Paul? A huge chunk of the Bible is rules?! Are you saying that all those “Thou shalt nots” were useless?
This is where you might expect me to soften the blow, with something like “Of course, Paul doesn’t mean that…” but, in fact, I think that’s exactly what Paul is saying - not just here, but throughout his letters. According to Paul, the law teaches us about sin; it shows us where we’ve gone wrong (Romans 7:7). But the Law can’t save us. No amount of following the Law will bring us one step closer to heaven. And Paul even takes it one step further in this passage, saying that trying to obey the Law can’t even make you a better person.
So what can? What can make us better?
Paul gives us the answer in verse 12: “ For you were buried with Christ when you were baptized. And with him you were raised to new life because you trusted the mighty power of God, who raised Christ from the dead.” (ESV) Faith in Christ gives us new life - enables us to be the kinds of humans God always intended us to be.
Paul uses the metaphor of “life and death” and I think it helps a great deal. It is as if the Law told us “Thou shalt not let your heart stop” and “Thou shalt not not breathing.” Those instructions were intended to show us how dead we were - to define our condition - but no amount of effort or devotion to the Law could ever make a corpse simply “be alive.” In Christ, we have been brought to life - resurrected, just as He was, to “heart-beating, breath-taking” life.
So now that we are alive, we just have to follow the rules, right? Again, Paul says, “No.” Those rules weren’t meant to save you - or to help you once you became saved. The path ahead is not dictated by a list of “Thou shalt not” regulations. Instead, we are given a Savior to follow.
What rules are you still clinging to? What “thou shalt not” makes you feel just a little superior to everyone else? Who in your life have you let condemn you because you didn’t live up to their idea of a “good person”?
Pray today for freedom from those poisonous expectations and obsolete rules. And ask your Savior to show you the way forward.