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Sunday 7 March 2021: Lent 3

Grace then works

Exodus 20:1-17; 1 Corinthians 1:18-25; John 2:13-25

By Daniel Frett

Rector of the Benefice of Caldicot, Church in Wales

Context: Parish Communion

Aim: to remind us that God has always started with Grace

We all know the Ten Commandments, or at least think we do. In many churches, they are etched in stone, often above or to the side of the altar and in the old prayer book they were recited before the confession in their entirety!

For many Christians, they are at the heart of the works/grace debate. In the evangelical tradition that I was raised in it was taught that the Jewish faith believed that you had to obey the Law (read Ten Commandments) in order to be ‘saved,’ but Christians preached that you were ‘saved’ by grace and not by works.

However, if we look carefully at our passage what does it say? How does it start? Then God spoke all these words: I am Yahweh your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

God rescues (‘saves’) his people from slavery, then gives them the Law! Grace then works. Elsewhere in the Old Testament, this pattern is repeated:

  • I saved you so you now must behave thus …
  • I have planted you as a vineyard so now you must bear fruit …
  • I freed you from slavery so now you must not have slaves …

This is always the pattern with God: He loves us and asks us to respond.


You shall have no other gods before me. This is the first commandment, to not have any gods before Yahweh. Notice that this passage is not monotheistic, but rather monolatrous. It isn’t saying that there is only one God, but rather Yahweh is the only one you are to worship. It isn’t really until the Babylonian exile that our Jewish forebearers came to realise that there was in fact only one God.

Richard Rohr is famous for saying ‘you become the god that you worship.’ If the god you worship is tribal, judgemental, exclusive, then that is how you will become. If the god you worship is infinitely loving, forgiving, inclusive, then that is how you will become.

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the two gods I’ve just mentioned can both be defended from the Bible and therein lies the rub. We need great wisdom in discerning what the Spirit is saying in the Scriptures. It is too easy to take a passage at face value if it agrees with our preconceived ideas and this is dangerous.


The second commandment continues that we are not to have idols or physical representations of Yahweh. For us in the west today this seems like a needless instruction, but if we dive deeper, we might find something highly relevant for us. An idol doesn’t need to be a carved statue of wood or metal. Rather anything that stands between us and God is an idol. We all have them, often in the form of beliefs or ideologies. One good way of identifying them is that if we don’t allow them to be critiqued, there is a good chance that they are an idol.

Let me give you a few examples:

  • Capitalism. This might be useful or harmful, but it isn’t a Christian concept and in its current incarnation is destroying our planet.
  • White Privilege. This is clearly antithetical to the gospel and harmful to our non-white brothers and sisters.
  • The Prosperity Gospel. What about Christ’s call to take up our cross and follow him?

There are others, but I picked a few to just get us thinking.


Where does this leave us?

Understand that God always starts with mercy and not our worthiness of His love. It is so easy to get caught up with the idea that we need to do certain things and obey certain commands to gain God’s acceptance. In fact, it is the other way around. You are unconditionally loved by God. Obedience to His law is an act of living into that reality.

You will become the god you worship. Is the god you serve infinitely loving, constantly forgiving, and present with you in your suffering? Or is he grumpy, judgemental, aloof?

Do you have any beliefs or ideologies that you won’t allow to be critiqued? If so, perhaps they are an idol and getting in the way of your relationship with God.

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