How does one distinguish between those who belong to the people of God and those who don’t? For the Jews, the answer to this question was quite straightforward: if you were circumcised and subscribed to other marks of Jewish identity enshrined in the Law (such as the kosher food laws), you were ‘in’; if you didn’t, you were ‘out’. And although, in theory, observance of the Law was a response to God’s grace, in practice it became for many Jews the whole basis of their status as God’s people and led to pride in their own achievements. What was for some merely a marker of Jewish identity was for others an essential prerequisite for salvation (Acts15:1).
Embracing Christianity involved a paradigm shift that many Jews found difficult to make. But in the very act of becoming Christians, both Peter and Paul had effectively admitted that being a law-observing Jew was insufficient to ensure a right relationship with God. “A person is not justified by the works of the law, but by faith in Jesus Christ.” (Galatians 2:16) Faith in Christ, on the other hand, is a completely sufficient response to God’s grace; additional ‘works of the law’ (such as circumcision) are not required, and Judaism (as a religious system) becomes irrelevant.
This isn’t an issue only for Jews. Popular religion assumes that you have to be a ‘good’ or ‘religious’ person in order to deserve God’s favour, and many of us carry this idea over into our Christian lives. We may not have relied on our own goodness to become Christians in the first place, but we fall into the trap of trying to maintain our standing before God by our own efforts. Churches create new rituals and other ways of expressing their faith, which later generations come to regard as ‘compulsory’ – and then they despise those who don’t conform to their specific traditions.
These things are signs that we have lost our way. We cannot be righteous in ourselves, because we all sin. And it makes no difference how good we are or which ritual ‘hoops’ we jump through; we can never be good enough. “No-one living is righteous before You.” (Psalm 143:2) The only way to be righteous in God’s sight is to rely on what Jesus Christ has done. For He lived a perfectly obedient life (in order to provide our righteousness) and then died an undeserved death (in order to bear our punishment). When we put our faith in Him – not as mere intellectual conviction but as personal commitment – His righteousness is transferred to us and His death is counted as ours. The demands of the Law are thus satisfied, and we are no longer subject to its tyranny – or indeed to the tyranny of anything else.