An old friend of mine asked this question in response to my last post. It's an important question so I figured I'd let you all in on this one (sorry the response is so long I'm not smart enough to say things in one sentence)...
"Shawn, I was wondering...
If you don't believe in the importance of teaching Jesus' morality (only his divinity), then how can you expect a child to revere him? How can someone follow a leader without at least knowing what they believe/profess?
“‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.”
To answer your question, let me begin by saying I do believe in the importance Jesus’ moral teachings. I just believe they need to be put in their proper context. If taken on its own, the Scripture you quoted would and should be the basis of all ministry, but when put in the larger context of Scripture as a whole a different picture begins to emerge. You see, it is true that we are commanded to love God and neighbor and if we would things would be fine and dandy, but Scripture as a whole reveals that we don’t. This is because humanity is on the other side of this commandment. The anthropology of the Bible reveals that we are at enmity with God and completely allergic to his demands (Romans 3:10-18, 7:9-11). Thus, laws or demands from God fail to engender what they demand and in fact they almost always provoke the opposite. Because of this the law from our end is always heard as a condemnation.
This is true from everyday life. Put two objects in front of a three year old and tell her that she cannot touch one of them, which one does she go for? Or think about a teenage girl who starts to date the stereotypical “bad boy.” The parents say don’t date him. Do you think she will listen? No, and the harder they come down on her with the law their more fractious and explosive the situation becomes and unless something different is brought in from outside she will either get pregnant or run away to Portland.
Because of our condition, God speaks to us in two fundamentally different ways: law & gospel. Law being what is demanded of us and gospel being what God has done for us. God’s law functions in a different way than what we initially think of when it comes to law (speed limits, fire hazards, etc…). Because of God’s holiness and justice his law demands perfect and pure fulfillment from the bottom of the heart (example being your Jesus quote). The problem is it fails to engender what it demands. It’s like saying to someone in a rip tide to swim harder. Because of this, the law functions to show us our sins and helplessness in order that we might turn to Christ for salvation. You see, unlike the person stuck in a riptide, we are often unaware of just how desperate our situation is. So the law of God shows us just how precarious our situation is. The Apostle Paul says it this way:
Romans 3:19-20 19 Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. 20 For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin
The Gospel comes in the next verse. Paul writes:
Romans 3:21-25 21 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- 22 the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, 25whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
So through the law I realize how accountable I am towards God and in essence I die. At this point (what addicts call rock bottom) the grace of Christ says because I love you so much I have absorbed the punishment and condemnation of the law so that you might be able to dwell in my presence forever. This grace then ultimately begins to engender what the law demanded in the first place. When I realize that despite all my mess and junk (which the law helps me to see), God himself; the creator of everything I touch, smell, see, and hear; has offered me Grace (one-way love) I am transformed and I begin to love God with all my heart and love my neighbor as myself. The apostle John says it this way, “1 John 4:10 This is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins... 1 John 4:19 19 We love because he first loved us.”
The problem in youth ministry is that in not focusing on this fact it fails to engender what it demands. In telling students not to do or to do this, this, and this; it fails to lead the students to Jesus, but rather to their own efforts which will ultimately lead to despair and/or a forsaking of faith itself. Just think of situations you’ve seen where law has gone out of control. It always leads to a forsaking of faith.
That’s all I got for today. Sorry I wrote so much. Doing so just helps me to clarify the subject for myself. And I’m just not smart enough to answer your question in one or two sentences. I do have one last thought though.
What we’re talking about here is what is truly distinct to Christianity. Every other religion and I would argue every other worldview says you need to do this, this, and this to belong. So ultimately we’re always fighting for acceptance and freedom from condemnation whether that’s in the form of a demanding job, acceptance from peers, success in our chosen life, approval of parents, and ultimately acceptance from God. Christianity is the only voice in the world to say, “Romans 8:1-2 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”