by Bradford Greer
By identifying themselves as people who love and follow the Sharia of God, missionaries ministering to Muslims can better communicate the Christian faith and disciple those who seek to follow Jesus.
Is the Sharia (holy law) of God a useful bridge in contextually communicating our faith with our Muslim background friends? Justification for using Sharia as a bridge exists linguistically because the Arabic Bible uses the word sharia for God’s law (Ps. 119:1, 97). In the dominant language of the area I work, sharia is the word one uses to refer to God’s law (e.g., sharia is used for the word law each time the word occurs in Romans 8:2-4, 1 Corinthians 9:20-21, and Galatians 3). Therefore, can followers of Jesus present themselves as those who love and follow the Sharia of God? I have asked co-workers (from both Muslim backgrounds and non-Muslim backgrounds) in my geographical region. Workers from non-Muslim backgrounds objected to using Sharia as a bridge; workers from Muslim backgrounds accepted the idea. Below is an explanation of (1) why non-Muslim background workers object to using this as a bridge, (2) why the approach is theologically viable, and (3) why this approach is advantageous in communicating our faith and in discipling those who seek to follow Jesus.
The objections workers have expressed relate in one way or another to the adverse effects of legalism. Jesus died to bring us freedom from the law and all the ways in which law oppresses people. One worker felt we should protect the Sharia victims and everyone fed up with the implications of Sharia in their lives. Another said that to use Sharia as a bridge would put people again under law and inadvertently result in unanticipated forms of bondage. The Western Church spent centuries breaking free from legalism, so why should we even consider afflicting that upon someone else?
The Western Church has unquestionably had a long-standing tradition of falling into legalistic traps (e.g., it was evil to have sex in marriage [except to procreate], to go to the cinema, to play cards, or to wear make-up). We seem to have had a penchant for making up rules to validate our holiness. Has our historic inability to deliver ourselves from legalism caused us to overcompensate? Let me ask, what do we mean when we say we are free from the law?
FREEDOM FROM WHAT LAW?
Paul states, “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore, the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith” (Gal. 3:23-24). What was Paul talking about here? Was he concerned with legalism? The issue was not our concept of legalism; rather, the issue was whether a person had to “become a Jew in order to belong to the people of God” (Wright 1991, 173; see also Flemming 2005, 135). Acts 15:1-2 tells us that some Jews had come from Jerusalem and insisted that the Gentiles needed to be circumcised in order to be saved (become members of the family of God). Paul responded to this problem by writing to the Galatians (Witherington 1998, 328).
In Paul’s mind, what enabled people to be saved was their reception of the gift of the Spirit, not by becoming Jews (Gal. 3:2). It is the Spirit who changes the heart of the believer and empowers that person to bear the fruit of the Spirit, fruit which manifests itself in changed, relationally-oriented behaviors (Gal. 5:16-26).
Paul affirms this elsewhere; however, he describes it by using the term law: “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” (Rom. 8:2). He asserts that in Christ a different law governs us, the law of the Spirit of life. He adds that the righteous requirement of the law will be fulfilled in us as we obediently live under the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:4; see Witherington and Hyatt 2004, 214-215).
In 1 Corinthians 9 Paul makes a series of seemingly contradictory statements about law as he describes his approach to contextualizing his life and message:
To the Jews, I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. (9:20-21)
How can Paul be “not under the law” and “outside the law,” yet never “free from God’s law” and always “under Christ’s law”? The question remains a conundrum if we insist on using the same meaning for law each time Paul uses the term.
However, Paul’s statement makes sense if we discern the subtle differences among the Mosaic Law, God’s law, and the law of the Spirit of life. It appears that Paul viewed the Mosaic Law as a particular expression of God’s law for the Israelite people. This law did not achieve its desired objectives due to the people’s inclination to disobey (Deut. 31:26-29). This helps to explain Paul’s statement: “What the law [Mosaic Law] could not do, weakened as it was by the flesh” (Rom. 8:3). Later in Israel’s history God responded to the continued failing of the Israelites by promising to write his law upon people’s hearts and to give them his Spirit so that they could obey his law (Ezek. 36:25-27; Jer. 31:31-33). Since God had promised to write the law on his people’s hearts and enable them to obey it, God had no intention of getting rid of his law.1 In addition, while God had intended that the Gentiles would one day obey his law2 (see Wright 2006, 454-500), he never expected them to become Jews (Wright 2006, 516-519). Thus, in some respects God’s law can be seen as distinct from the Mosaic Law.
Jesus’ summary of the Mosaic Law, that is, to love God and one’s neighbor (Matt. 22:34-40), along with Paul’s assertion that the one who loves fulfills the law (Rom. 13:8), sheds further light on this distinction between God’s law and the Mosaic Law. Although the Mosaic Law contained particular injunctions for the Jewish people, there was also a relational dimension embedded within it that was universal in its applicability.3 It is from this relational dimension of the Mosaic Law (i.e., Job’s defense of his innocence in Job 31 and Isaiah’s definition of true fasting in Isaiah 58:3-14) that Paul was never free. This relational dimension of the Mosaic Law is what Paul refers to as God’s law. In addition, it is due to the gift of the Spirit that we are enabled to live according to God’s law. This merging of the relational dimension of the Mosaic Law with the gift of the Spirit is what Paul calls the law of the Spirit of life.
A HEAVY BURDEN?
Is obedience to God’s law a heavy burden? Practically, we do not think so because we expect our children to obey it. We teach our children not to cheat, steal, or lie. If they do, we discipline them. We also expect the people around us to abide by this law because we have formed our civil societies around it. However, when we begin to think theologically about the law, something strange happens to us. We automatically shift gears and think about legalism, heavy burdens, and our need to be free from the law. Yet none of us think we have the freedom to cheat on our spouses, lie to our customers, or kill the people who offend us. Since this is the case, does this not indicate that we are reacting to a peculiar theological preconditioning rather than to the law of God?
GRACE PERMEATES THE LAW
Perhaps our perception of the Mosaic Law as graceless negatively impairs our ability to think wholesomely about the law. Yet this is a jaundiced view of the Mosaic Law because grace was embedded within it (Wright 1991, 145). If an Israelite had broken a command, there was a complete system of atonement and restoration to fellowship with God.
We also tend to think about the law in terms of “works-righteousness.” This is something we want to avoid at all costs. However, the Mosaic Law was never given to be a means of producing salvation by works. Christopher Wright points out that salvation and the presence of God were free gifts to the Israelites. The people had been slaves in Egypt. They had been set free, not because they had obeyed the Mosaic Law, but because God was rich in mercy. It was only after God had delivered them that he brought them to Mt. Sinai and gave them his law (Wright 2006, 370). The law was given so that the Israelites would know how to live as God’s covenant people within the land God was about to give them (Wright 2004, 25).
Likewise, our obedience of the law of God brings us neither salvation nor the presence of God. Salvation comes only through faith. God includes in this salvation acceptance, forgiveness, and cleansing from our sins (Rom. 5:1; Eph. 1:7; 1 John 1:9), and a changed and empowered heart by giving us his promised Holy Spirit4 (John 3:5; Rom. 2:29, 8:9; Titus 2:11-14). The Spirit enables us to live according to the law (i.e., Matt. 5-7; Rom. 12:9-21; Eph. 4:17-5:21).5 Our adherence to the law of God results in good works which demonstrate to those around us that God is with us (Matt. 5:16).
Another objection may stem from Romans 7 and our ongoing struggle with sin. However, in the mercy of God, we no longer walk with a medieval mindset, perceiving our Christian experience as “a glass half empty,” laden with guilt and preoccupied with our shortcomings. The contemporary Christian experience is one of “a glass half full,” where we celebrate Christ in us and our ongoing transformation. We are cognizant of our faults; however, we are also aware that our lives and behaviors are changing for the better. Living by the law of God is not legalism; it is true spirituality, a grateful and Spirit-empowered response to the mercy of God in our lives.
Exporting our theological preoccupation with being free from the law creates unnecessary problems. Many Muslims already view Christians as lawless. We reinforce this perception whenever we talk about our freedom from the law. Emphasizing our freedom also impairs discipleship because we present a faith that appears substance-less to our Muslim background friends. Many do not intuitively know how to take our cognitive-oriented faith and apply it to their daily lives. However, we counter these problems when we introduce our friends to a faith that expresses itself by having a love for and a desire to obey the Sharia of God (does this sound like Psalm 119?), a Sharia that focuses our attention on how to treat God and our neighbor.
Let us introduce our friends to a living faith that is a response to Jesus’ gracious outpouring of his life on our behalf, filled with the presence and power of God through the promised Holy Spirit. We might find that in doing so our faith becomes much more intelligible—even to ourselves.
1. It was no accident that the Spirit descended on Pentecost because Pentecost was “the anniversary of the giving of the law at Mount Sinai” (Longnecker 1995, 65; also Turner 2004, 111).
2. In the poetry of Isaiah 2:2-4 the law (torah) is juxtaposed with the word (logos in the Septuagint). The torah goes out from Zion; the logos goes out from Jerusalem. David Pao has shown how Luke traces the journey of the logos as it travels out from Jerusalem (2000, 147-180). The early Church chose to capitalize on the term logos rather than torah as it contextualized within its context. Due to the parallelism in Isaiah 2:3, it is possible for us to choose to capitalize on torah instead of logos.
3. Christopher Wright concurs that the Mosaic Law has a dimension that is universal in its applicability. He refers to this universality as the ethical dimension of the Law. This explains the title of his book, Old Testament Ethics for the People of God.
4. The Western Church traditionally has not known how to relate to the Holy Spirit. It has tended to reduce the work of the Spirit in our lives to an impersonal power, i.e., grace (see McGrath 1998, 3). Reflecting this tradition, Wright virtually ignores the role of the Spirit in his book, The Mission of God.
5. We should not reduce God’s law to a set of rules. Even the Mosaic Law was more than that (Wright 2004, 26). The Law of God has rules governing behavior; but, it is also filled with the story of God’s actions in history so that we can know God and have complete confidence in him.
Flemming, Dean. 2005. Contextualization in the New Testament: Patterns for Theology and Mission. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Longnecker, Richard N. 1995. Acts in The Expositor’s Bible Commentary with the New International Version series. Eds. F. E. Gaebelein, J. D. Douglas, and R. P. Polcyn, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan Publishing House.
McGrath, Alister E. 1998. Iustitia Dei: A History of the Christian Doctrine of Justification. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Pao, David W. 2000. Acts and the Isaianic New Exodus. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.
Turner, Max. 2004. “The Spirit and Salvation in Luke-Acts.“ In The Holy Spirit and Christian Origins: Essays in Honor of James D. G. Dunn. Eds. G. N. Stanton, B. W. Longnecker, and S. C. Barton, 103-117. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Witherington III, Ben. 1998. The Paul Quest: The Renewed Search for the Jew of Tarsus. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Witherington III, Ben, and Darlene Hyatt. 2004. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Wright, Christopher J. H. 2004. Old Testament Ethics for the People of God. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
_______. 2006. The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press.
Wright, Nicholas Thomas. 1991. The Climax of the Covenant: Christ and the Law in Pauline Theology. Minneapolis, Minn.: Fortress Press.
Bradford Greer (pseudonym) has been working in the Muslim world since the mid-1980s.
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