And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles.
— Matthew 5:41
These are polar opposites: legalism and license, Pharisaism and hedonism, religion and anarchy, self-righteousness and unrighteousness. They are each more alike in essence than they appear, but between these polarities lies the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is the middle and better way.
The gospel is the middle way because it provides the centering of God’s powerful grace, freeing us from the condemnation of works righteousness on the one hand and the condemnation of disobedience on the other.
But the gospel is the better way because it takes the excesses of the hedonistic polarity and applies them in Spiritual power to the aims of the religious polarity. Here’s what I mean:
Jesus posits that disciples may be required to go with someone for a mile. License would have us disobey the command altogether — running in the other direction. Legalism would have us obey what is required — going one mile. The grace in the gospel, however, trains us (Titus 2:11-12) to do the minimum and more. A second mile. They want your coat? Give ‘em your shirt too.
Similarly, think of the marriage relationship. If we simply followed the law, we would treat our spouses fairly, kindly, well. But captured by Christ in his gracious gospel, husbands don’t just avoid being mean to their wives, they cherish them, loving them sacrificially, selflessly. Wives don’t just respect their husbands, they submit to them. The affectionate excess of licentiousness is channeled by grace to super-fulfillment of the law. God in Christ did not simply tolerate us; he lavished the riches of his grace upon us (Eph. 1:7-8).
The gospel is not a bare minimum thing. Apply it to the area of financial giving. Paul urges the middle and better way of the gospel in 2 Corinthians 9:7. The lawful thing to do would be to give. 10% sounds about right. The disobedient thing would be not to give at all. The gospel goes to the heart first, not the hands. How generous was God in Christ? As Tim Keller says, “Jesus didn’t tithe his blood.” He gave what was needed, for the joy set before him even though it killed him. So the gospel provides the grounds for sacrificial, joyful giving. Don’t give under compulsion; don’t give under reluctance. Give according to the measure of the gospel’s dominion over your heart. The excess of the “all out” of stinginess is applied to the requirement to give so that it becomes an “all in” generosity.
In repentance I pursue holiness as zealously as I pursued sin in unrepentance, with much more affection for God than I afforded my idols, even in the panting passions of my lust. Only the gospel can empower this.
Over and over, Jesus shows us this middle and better way. “You have heard not to kill. I say not to hate.” “You have heard not to commit adultery. I say not to lust.” Not killing or committing adultery are certainly ways to obey the law. Not objectifying people made in God’s image in the depths of our hearts is a way to go deeper, to go the second mile in response to the law’s demand for the first. So Jesus says “Love your enemies and bless those who persecute you.” The law would only have us tolerate, avoid, and in some cases prosecute.
The gospel explodes niceness. “Outdo one another showing honor” (Romans 12:10), it says.
The gospel would have us turn the impulse for revenge inside out until it’s a gracious forgiveness. For that’s what Jesus did for us. He has not just met the requirements of the law, he has signaled the end of it. He has not just justified us, but has sanctified us and glorified us. He has not just pardoned us, but he has united us to himself. He has not just given us life, but life abundant (John 10:10).
So now we look through the gospel at the law and see it differently. Not as a burden but a delight. We see others not as projects or impediments but image-bearing opportunities to make Jesus look very big.
For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.
— Romans 5:17