The Plumb Line: A study in Law and Grace

My job, as I may have mentioned, is as a grade checker for an excavation company.

What this means is that I follow the earth-moving machines around and use a construction GPS unit to check that they have cut down or filled in the right amount of earth. “Grade”, for construction purposes, means the level the ground is supposed to be at at any given point.

In effect, I’m like a high-tech human plumb line.

Source:Shutterstock

A plumb line is another construction tool; one of the simplest and most ancient still in use. Ancestrally a lead weight on a string, it gives a perfect vertical line to check what you are building against. It was certainly in use in ancient Israel, because one of the prophets mentions God “bringing a plumb line against the house of Israel”; in other words, showing for all the world whether or not they measure up to His standard.

This is the function of God’s Law: showing the world what Righteousness looks like. So I suppose in a way, that my job is an embodiment of Law.

It can mould those of us whose work is in this area. I’ve met people in my or a related line of work who will not tolerate the slightest deviation from the absolute, and will fly into a rage at the operator if they get it wrong. Never mind that the bulldozer we’re working with can’t get any closer than plus or minus a couple of inches even with the best operator in history; they want it right!

I recognise, if I’m painfully honest, this tendency in myself. Not so much with my job, but theologically. I don’t have a lot of patience for established Christians who make basic theological errors: witness my ongoing personal war against the muddled theologies of a lot of modern Christian music.

The challenge in being an embodiment of Law is to do so with grace. Not a grace that means you bend the Law or allow it to be broken without consequence, but a grace which helps and makes it possible for someone on the wrong side of Law to be made right.

Construction-wise, this means me being both firm and gentle in bringing needed corrections. I’m not omniscient; I have to assume that the operator isn’t going out of their way to get it wrong. But I have to help them get it right, because (apart from the machines that have their own GPS) they don’t have anything except me to tell them as they do it whether it’s right or wrong.

It reminds me, in fact, of what the Bible says about the Law not being made for the righteous, but sinners. Those who are righteous are those who are in right standing with God, and the way you get there is by trusting in Jesus the Messiah and His finished work of rescue. If you’re in that situation, you’re like a bulldozer or motor grader that has its own GPS. The Holy Spirit dwells within you, not only telling you when you’re doing something contrary to the commands and character of God, but enabling you to do right. Most of my job is more like the function of the Law for one not having the Holy Spirit. All I can do is tell them when it’s right and when it still isn’t there.

There are some lessons for us here. Many of us like to grab hold of this idea that the Law is meant for unbelievers and more or less preach Law at them. “You [fill in your particular sin of choice]ers are breaking God’s Law! You need to straighten up and fly right before God brings a judgement against you!”

We would do well to remember that, like me with my construction crew, we’re not omniscient. We have to assume that they aren’t deliberately setting out to do wrong, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they are on the same page as us when it comes to what real righteousness and goodness looks like. In this situation (which is very common now as the hold of religious Christianity grows weaker on the wider society), we need to patiently and gently explain and demonstrate what righteousness and goodness looks like. When so many people quite simply don’t understand why such-and-such should be so wrong, we need to come alongside and gently explain rather than leaping to condemn.

We could do with remembering that we do have the internal GPS of the Holy Spirit: God Himself dwelling within to enable us to live lives that reflect His character, and most of those around us do not. Most of the operators I work with aren’t even given a plan showing what is expected; I lay out flags and stakes as signposts, and that helps some, but when I get them down out of their machines and show them the plans and talk them through it, then they understand what’s required. They have to see it.

Our words are all very well. Like my flags and stakes, they are signposts for those who already have some idea of the shape of what is required. But most do not, and it’s not until they see it lived out in our lives that they really get it. What are our lives like? Are we living lives that please God, or are we selfish, lazy, greedy, full of rage, gossip, slander and accusation? Until they see it lived out, how can we expect them to understand?

But in this construction metaphor, I’m noticing another thing.

I’ve likened my job to an embodiment of Law, and said that the challenge was to do so with grace. I do have a model, though. Jesus was the embodiment of the Law, in that He perfectly lived out what it means to be in right standing with God and fully in tune with His character. And yet the Bible’s most common description of Him is that He was “full of grace and truth”.

The embodiment of Law, lived out with grace. Just like my Saviour.

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