All who have sinned apart from the law will also perish apart from the law, and all who have sinned under the law will be judged by the law. For it is not the hearers of the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but the doers of the law who will be justified. When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves. They show that what the law requires is written on their hearts, to which their own conscience also bears witness; and their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them on the day when, according to my gospel, God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.
It’s an extraordinarily radical statement for the apostle Paul to make: “When Gentiles, who do not possess the law, do instinctively what the law requires, these, though not having the law, are a law to themselves.”
For Paul’s first-century Jewish audience, knowledge and observance of the law determined who was in and out with God. To claim that outsiders could “do instinctively what the law requires” threatened the entire religious order, no less than suggesting that some people of other faiths might embody Jesus better than many Christians.
In United Methodism and all of the Wesleyan tradition, we believe in the religion of the heart. We believe that the purpose of every moral boundary that we set for ourselves is to cultivate love of God and neighbor in our hearts. We don’t think that God makes rules for the purpose of imposing authority and creating exclusive communities.
The implication of this belief in the ultimate importance of shaping the heart to be holy is that we measure our holiness not according to a legalistic adherence to rules but according to the virtues that our spiritual disciplines cultivate. We do not expect the Bible to give us an exhaustive set of rules for every possible life scenario. What we find in scripture is a way of life to emulate through living out the spiritual metaphors of taking up our crosses and putting on the resurrected life of Jesus.
What does it mean to be crucified and resurrected with Jesus in every aspect of my life? What do I need to let go so that I can embrace the love that wants me to be its vessel? I’m not looking to follow rules flawlessly; I’m looking for love to become my instinct and my law.
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