The subject of grace and mercy versus religion, or liberty versus legalism, is so widely misunderstood that it would be impossible to sweep over it with any degree of satisfaction in a 600-page tome, far less a 600-word column, writes Adam Harbinson.
To touch on it is to risk adding confusion to ignorance. The problem is that much of what we believe is ascribed rather than achieved. We tend to inherit our beliefs and our outlook on life from the world in which we grew up. For example, whether we lean to the left or to the right politically, whether we are Baptist or Elim, Methodist or Catholic, Presbyterian, Anglican, Jewish or Muslim is rarely a result of an enquiring mind. We just happen to have been born that way and we never questioned it.
There’s a story about a wee man from North Antrim who made his way from the sticks where he lived to a local general store to buy a new pair of wellies. He spotted the colour and size he liked, tied together by a length of string and hanging over a nail hammered into the wall. He made his purchase and trundled off home, but a week later he was back in the same shop.
Now, spending money two weeks in a row didn’t match Willie John’s reputation, and so the shopkeeper was surprised to see him.
“What can I do for you Willie John?” enquired the shop keeper. “Is there anything wrong with your boots?”
“No,” says he, “they’re great. I just wondered if you had another pair the same, but with a longer piece of string.”
Because it never occurred to Willie John to cut the piece of string, his movement was restricted and his enjoyment curtailed.
I think of my father; strictly religious, demanding and controlling, but he had a good heart. His need to control was closely related to his fear that I would wander from the straight and narrow – which I did in time, and with a vengeance.
His favourite Scripture, and one he frequently beat me over the head with, was from Paul’s letter to the Colossians: “Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!”
Now the context in which he used it was that we should not handle, taste or touch wine women and song, and I believed my father, for I trusted him. But why did it take me another 30 years to read all of the short letter to the church in Colosse for myself and discover that Paul was saying nothing of the sort.
He was saying almost the opposite, although clearly he was not encouraging the young Christians to live lascivious lives.
Here’s what he said: “Why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: ‘Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!’? These rules have to do with ... mere human commands and teachings.”
It was the rules that tell us we have to do this, or we can’t do that he was saying we should not handle, taste or touch.
I often think that perhaps Willie John was in the mind of Cicero, the first-century-BC Roman orator and politician, for it was he who invented the word that we now recognise as “religion” to describe people who are “tied or bound to a monastic code”.
Isn’t that remarkable, when the central thrust of the true gospel message is that Christ came to set us free?