My brothers and I grew up watching Westerns with our dad. It was a Saturday night staple in our household. Good guys and bad guys, gunslingers and cattle ranchers, A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More.
These revered moments gave real-life weight to the words of men like Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall, and John Wayne. Wayne’s call for a code is one I’ve always respected: “A man’s gotta have a code, a creed to live by…” Of course many different moral systems could be nested under the umbrella of Wayne’s famous saying. For some it’s the golden rule, and for others it’s a fiery pursuit of justice. Still, for others it’s the commitment to live the way their folks raised ‘em.
Creeds and codes are good. But they meet their greatest contest when the proclaimer of the code fails to keep it. Whether by deliberate choice or in the face of overwhelming opposition, codes eventually break down. What we do then says more about us than any ethic ever could.
Paul was confronting this gut-wrenching sort of breakdown in his letter to the Romans. For his Jewish readers, the Old Testament law was their way of life. However, Christ had come and had fulfilled the law; the law had indeed pointed to Him. The struggle for them, and even the Gentile believers among them, was to look to Christ who embodied the full wisdom of the law, for justification rather than the works of the law, which could only produce death.
Paul knew from personal experience that even a deeply focused life dedicated to keeping the code would fall short. This murderer-turned-apostle had seen firsthand the mangled and marred disasters that could be found in the wake of law-based living.
His question, “Do you dishonor God by breaking the law?” begs a response; and his original readers would have intuited that. He is asking us to admit our hypocrisy. Why? So we can truly live. Rather than living as creatures of the code, Paul is calling us to be people living under lavish grace.
If we feel compelled to boast, let us boast in our weakness and in God’s unmerited grace and mercy. Codes, laws, rules—these things are fundamentally helpful, but our hearts are flawed. This is why God entered our litigious and punitive world: to reset the whole broken order. Certainly, we are encouraged to live lives of virtue. But what sets us apart as New Testament believers is our ability to hand over our shortcomings and to lay our failures at the feet of a gracious God.
Boast not in your virtue, boast not in your vice, but rather each day offer thanks to God that He covers it all. We fail, each of us, in keeping the code. But we have a Great High Priest who stands over it all. In Him, we can seek virtue, be released from the condemnation of the Law, and find a freedom and grace in Jesus that far surpasses it all.