“So I saw in my dream, that just as Christian came up with the cross, his burden loosed from off his shoulders, and fell off his back, and began to tumble, and so continued to do till it came to the mouth of the sepulchre, where it fell in, and I saw it no more.” That is the beautiful image with which John Bunyan pictures a person’s release from sin in Pilgrim’s Progress. He goes on, “Then was Christian glad and lightsome, and said with a merry heart, “He hath given me rest by His sorrow, and life by His death.”
One of the great themes and issues of the New Testament, especially in Paul’s writings, is the call for Christians who have been released from their burdens by the grace of Jesus Christ not to fall once again under that weight. As we reflected on freedom last week, we recalled Galatians 5:1, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”
As the context of Galatians 5:1 shows and our text for this week, Acts 15:1-21, illustrates pragmatically, part of the burden from which we are freed in Christ is the weight of attempting to justify ourselves by the keeping of rules and regulations. As Christian discovers earlier in Pilgrim’s Progress, the way to the releasing of his burden at “Mr. Legality’s” house is impossibly steep and precarious. Freedom by the route of rule-keeping is impossible.
In focus in our text were the peculiarly Jewish rules about circumcision (verses 1 and 5) and the rest of the Mosaic law (verse 5). The issue for some Jewish believers in the first church there in Jerusalem was a fear that allowing Gentiles to experience new life in Christ without submitting to Jewish regulations would lead to a reduced and faulty relationship with God. Circumcision, dietary laws and other rules had been a part of genuine spiritual life for long generations, as James says in verse 21. That spiritual history and experience cannot simply be dispensed with and ignored.
On the other hand, as Peter points out in verse 10, those same regulations by which Jewish people had lived and encountered God had been “a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear.” It seems to be a choice between gravity and grace. Will the fledgling movement that is enjoying new life in Jesus Christ acknowledge past spiritual practice with proper seriousness or will it cast aside all restraint and engage in total license by the freeing gift of grace?
Ultimately, the church discovers through leadership of James and later on through Paul’s own writings that moral gravity and redeeming grace are not exclusive, not an either/or. While Christians are free by the grace of Jesus, they are set free from the bondage of sin so that they may take genuine moral law with proper gravity. The gracious gift of freedom from sin is an actual transformation of our souls so that we may more freely and naturally do what God expects of us.
Simple either/or answers about moral gravity and saving grace have boggled the church and believers down through the ages. Bunyan’s Christian was temporarily deceived on one side of that disjunction, as have many others, seeking salvation in moral gravity. Yet history and contemporary life also shows Christians deceived in the other direction, imagining that grace means no further attention need be paid to right living. The only healthy and sound approaches take on the complexity of blending gravity and grace as does James counsel to the new Gentile believers, setting them free by grace but enjoining some respect for fundamental pieces of the law and regulations which affect fellowship with Jewish believers. Our own answers to the dilemma must also be as thoughtful and complex.