“Brethren, though I had done nothing against our people, or the customs of our fathers, yet I was delivered prisoner from Jerusalem in to the hands of the Romans.” Acts 28:17
Customs – This verse is squeezed into a story about Paul’s imprisonment before being shipped to Rome. It is very bothersome. If you pay close attention to what Paul says, you will find it very difficult to reconcile his statement with the contemporary separation of Law and Grace. Here is Paul, the apostle who has more to say about grace than anyone else in the New Testament, claiming that he has never violated any of the customs of his forefathers. The Greek word is ethesi (plural of ethos); a word that means “established practices.” What Paul is saying is this: he has always been a scrupulously observant Jew. He has always followed the instructions of the torah. He has never violated or set aside any of his religious practices.
If that doesn’t bother you, then you haven’t been paying attention in church.
No one will claim that Paul is lying. No one asserts that he is exaggerating for effect. If Scripture is inspired, and Paul is truthful, then what he says is that he has always practiced the rules and regulations of living that are found in the Hebrew Bible. How can this be? Isn’t Paul that man who set aside circumcision, who said it is all about grace, who left behind the “fulfilled” law? Obviously, we have a problem (and this isn’t the only place where the problem comes to light). If Paul keeps the torah, then the torah must belong in the life of a man saved by grace. Otherwise, there is no reason for this claim.
We have made a terrible mistake. Somewhere along the way, from the cross to the contemporary church, we didn’t pay attention to statements like this. We were so anxious to put the Jewish way of life aside that we pushed our theological framework right out of the synagogue. We were so concerned about not being under the Law that we failed to understand the relationship between law and grace. We threw the baby out with the bathwater, and then we couldn’t understand why we felt so alone and confused.
Paul didn’t make this tragic mistake. Paul knew that grace saves and law fulfills. It has always been that way. Since the first sacrifice in the Garden, when God killed an innocent animal to provide grace to a sinful couple, grace has always been the way of salvation. And law has always been the way of fulfillment. Law puts a hedge around God’s people so that God can bless them and use them for His purposes. Law doesn’t save. Grace doesn’t fulfill. If you want all that God has to offer, you come to Him for His grace and you submit to Him to have purpose.
Oh, you can live as half a person, surviving on grace alone or attempting to live a life of law-keeping. But you’ll spend a lot of time wondering where the baby went.
Paul tells his friends, after all his service to the Kingdom, that he is a torah-observant man. It is who he is: saved by faith, useful through torah. I wonder if we could say the same.
Topical Index: Law