Things Old and New in the Believer

“But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Why urge no provision, if there is no flesh to be provided for?

Soteriology is the doctrine of salvation, while anthropology is the doctrine of man. Where these combine is in the question of “What does the Christian look like? What sort of person is she after becoming a new creation in Christ?”

Some affirm the Christian is a new creation in a way that nothing of the old nature remains. Verses such as 2 Cor. 5:17 seem to support this. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” If this is true, that nothing of the old nature, who we were in Adam, our unregenerate self remains within the believer, it does raise several questions.

  • Do Christians no longer sin?
  • Is there nothing within the Christian that responds to sin?
  • Are we now as holy and as sanctified in our life and deeds as we will ever be?

Scripture answers each one of these questions. It is possible to proof-text one’s way to any doctrine, and thus if we rely only on 2 Cor 5:17, indeed, one can say that nothing of our Adamic self remains. But other Scriptures have something to say about this as well, and the picture is not so simple as citing this single verse implies.

The Romans Road of Christian Anthropology.

In the latter part of Romans 5, Paul has set forth the two heads, Adam and Christ, and shown that all of mankind must be under one of these two. For the one who is not born-again, there is no choice, he is in Adam. We get there by birth. But we only get under the headship of Christ by new birth. Verse 17 describes the representative way in which both Adam and Christ function in biblical anthropology “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.” Death reigned in Adam because all of his children were yet in him when he sinned. But because of Christ’s death, all those who come to him by faith receive the righteousness that he grants as a free gift.

In chapter 6, Paul moves from identification to mortification. That is, he speaks of what occurred when Jesus died on the cross. “We know that our old self was crucified with him in order that the body of sin might be brought to nothing, so that we would no longer be enslaved to sin.” Our identification (by faith) with him means we share in what happened on the cross. Here is another place where those who insist that the believer no longer has any sinful nature will point. We were crucified with him!
But if our co-crucifixion with Christ completely eradicated anything within us that could respond to sin, why does Paul go on to urge the Romans as he does? “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” v 11. If everything that belonged to Adam was done away with, why must the Romans do any reckoning, any considering at all? If it is all gone, then there is nothing within them to respond to sin anyway. What kind of death is it that Paul refers to when we were crucified with Christ?

The best way to describe what happened to the old man is that it is a judicial execution. That is, in God’s estimation we indeed died with Christ, were buried with him, and were raised with him, but we must consider these things, and act in faith upon them. Why? Because it is is a judicial death and not an actual one, there is still within us what belongs to Adam. The old man was rendered powerless, so that we need not be enslaved to sin, but by presenting ourselves to sin we can empower the old man again. Therefore, Paul exhorts them:
“Let not sin therefore reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its passions.” v. 12
“Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness” v. 13
“so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” v. 19.

Such exhortations make no sense if nothing in the believer can respond to sin anyway, if nothing remains of the old Adam.

In chapter 7, Paul goes on to talk about the 3rd step in his anthropology: emancipation.
The believer is freed from the law, and the condemnation it brought. His marriage illustration of a wife who is widowed, but then marries another shows that the believer is like one who has died. The former relationship is severed. The way, says Paul, to bear fruit for God is to recognize that it cannot come by the law. Indeed, in 6:14 he has said that the reason the Romans need not continue under the mastery of sin is because they are not under the law, but under grace. Those who do not reckon upon this, who do not realize the freedom from the law they have, will not enter into the freedom Christ’s death has brought. The law brings wrath, and the law actually aroused sin in Paul.

The rest of the New Testament confirms, through multiple exhortations, that believers should strive after holiness, but the corollary is that indulging the flesh is possible. Later in the epistle, Paul will say “But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Why urge no provision, if there is no flesh to be provided for?
In the Ephesian epistle, he writes

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” 4:17

If there is only a new nature, and nothing of the old, how would it be possible for them to walk as they formerly did?
Later in this same chapter, he writes:

“assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self.” 4:21-23.

If the old self is utterly gone, why does Paul urge them to put it off?

The rest of the chapter is filled with exhortations to the Ephesians for them to walk in a way that accords with the new man—but it assumes the presence of the old man also. If not, then exhortation becomes superfluous.

A Distinction Without a Difference.

I believe that those who hold that the believer has no old nature whatsoever, are in fact saying the same thing as those who do believe Scripture teaches the believer does. That is, there are few people who would say that a Christian is now sinless, that there is nothing in him to respond to sin. They may call it something different, but it is the same thing. Some have referred to old habits or patterns of who we were before salvation, but this is just using different words for “old nature.”  For the rare person who would insist the believer becomes sinless upon being born again, both human experience and the witness of Scripture testify against such an idea. When John writes that if we say we have no sin, we lie and do not the truth, the underlying assumption is that there is a need for forgiveness, for an advocate at God’s right hand—because we do sin, and we are not yet what we one day will be in glory!

I have interacted with those who teach this doctrine, and when I ask whether they believe the Christian is without sin, the answer is no. Of course our walk is not perfect, of course we grow in our faith. Once again, if there is room for the mortification of sin within us, if there is the possibility of grieving the Holy Spirit, as Paul says, then it means we are not yet perfect. Call it what you wish, you may choose to not call it the flesh or the old man, or the old nature, but unless you believe sin is completely eradicated from the Christian, you believe as I do, and as Scripture teaches: the Christian is not yet entirely holy in life.

A belief that the Christian has no old nature, nothing of Adam left is an over-realized eschatology. It is the view that the kingdom of God in its fulness and plenitude has arrived here and now, and there is nothing that remains. The presence of sin in the world, the roaring lion that Satan is, the world, the flesh, and the devil all demonstrate that this is not so.

Embracing such an over-realized eschatology will do nothing to conquer sin in practice, or to produce fruit for God. The way to change my condition, is by continually going back to my position in Christ, to dwell on the accomplishments of the cross, and yes, as Paul says, “reckon yourselves to be dead to sin, but alive to God.”

The Opposite of Lawlessness is not Lawfulness, but Righteousness

The question of the law of Moses and what place it has in the Christian life is a perennial one. There is often as much to unlearn around such questions as there is to learn. When words such as lawlessness are in view, this is especially true. I leave aside the more specific uses of the word, such as “the man of lawlessness” and “the mystery of lawlessness.” These are more eschatological in scope. I want to focus on lawlessness as a synonym for sin, and the practice of sinning. Paul states in Romans 6:19, “For just as you once presented your members as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification.” If we were to replace the word lawlessness with sin, would the meaning of this verse change? I submit it would not. Paul has earlier shown that sin does not need law as a foil. That is, “sin was in the world before the law was given.” (Rom 5:13) There was not a specific command not to kill when Cain murdered Abel, yet he was still guilty of sin. Thus when Paul refers to lawlessness in Romans 6, he isn’t playing it off of lawfulness. Indeed, a truth we see is that lawfulness is never presented as the path of Christian discipleship. Keeping the law is neither possible nor does it get to the heart of holiness we are called to.

I have often seen people quote 1 John in this regard, to demonstrate a continuing obligation to the law, at least to the “moral law.”
“And by this we know that we have come to know him, if we keep his commandments. “Whoever says ‘I know him’ but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” (1 John 2:3-5)
But it’s too facile to say that every time one sees the word “commandment” it means the Mosaic law or the Ten Commandments. Jesus spoke of a new commandment, one that was not part of the Mosaic law. The command to love one another as he has loved us was radically new! The following verses in John 2 indicate this is what John has in view. “By this we may know that we are in him: whoever says he abides in him ought to walk in the same way in which he walked.” (v. 5-6) To imitate Jesus, to walk as he walked, to love as he loved goes far beyond anything in the law. It is not inconsistent with the law, it just goes much further.

Nothing in the law required Jesus to lay down his life, much less for those who were his enemies. His death fulfilled the law by taking the place of the sinner, by absorbing the curse of the law. In him, we also died to the law. “For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” (Gal 2:19-20) Paul confirms that we are free, not to live according the law, but unto God.

There are many assumptions bound up with this—what I earlier referred to as what we sometimes need to unlearn. Among these are the idea that the law represents the highest expression of God’s will for man. It does not. The revelation of God in Christ does. As a Jew, Jesus walked according to the Mosaic law, but he did so much more than this. He loved us in a fashion the law never required. Measuring our conformity to Christ by looking to the law will leave us falling short of what he calls us to.

What, then, is the opposite of lawlessness? It is righteousness. Turning again to Romans 6, Paul has said that believers have “been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness.” (v. 18.) A few verses earlier he has shown that if we are to be free from the dominion of sin, from its mastery, we must be free from the law. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (v. 14)
Many will answer that of course we cannot be justified by law, and it is this that Paul is speaking of. But this is untrue. The remainder of chapter 6 indicates he addresses living the Christian life—sanctification—not our entrance into that life through justification. “What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means!” (v. 15) Nowhere in the New Testament can we find a use for the law that says “You are not under it for justification, but you are obligated to keep it as part of your sanctification.”

Righteousness describes not only who Christians are, but what we do. We are made righteous in Christ. Positionally, it is who we are in him. “And because of [God] you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption.” 1 Cor. 1:30. We pursue righteousness, are trained in righteousness, and Paul never says any of this comes by the law, even the law as a guide or rule of life. We are delivered from the law in order that we might bear fruit for God (Rom 7:4) In 1 Tim 1:8, Paul says that the law is not made for the just, for the righteous. Where is Paul’s embrace of the “third use of the law?” It is absent. That Paul (and we) should glean wisdom from the law, from the Old Covenant, is plain. He is not setting aside God’s revelation. I again stress that the opposite of this is not lawlessness. Paul wrote to Titus that the rule, the guide for Christians, is grace. “For the grace of God has appeared, teaching us to deny ungodliness.” We have all the instruction we need through grace. We have Jesus himself. The truth is in Jesus (Eph 4:21) and what does this truth teach us?

“to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph 4:22-24)

This teaching does not rely on the law to instruct us. It relies on the person of Christ.

We need to go beyond a binary mindset of thinking that if lawlessness means sin, then lawfulness must mean holiness or righteousness. It is more nuanced than this, and indeed, the guide for our righteousness isn’t the law, it’s the Lord Jesus himself.

All Commandments Are Not Equal: Salvation History has Consequences

I have engaged people in discussions about the Mosaic law in the Christian life on many occasions. One direction the discussion can go is that someone quotes back the writings of John, the beloved disciple. Jesus told the disciples “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15). God has given his people commandments, and if we love him, if we follow him, we will keep these commandments. John’s first epistle is also a place many point to. “Whoever says “I know him” but does not keep his commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him, but whoever keeps his word, in him truly the love of God is perfected.” (1 John 2:4-5) But, which commandments? When we encounter the word, does it always mean the commands of the Mosaic Covenant, or always encompass every commandment we find in Scripture? It is rare to meet a Christian who insists we need to keep every commandment God has spoken. They don’t insist we need to appear 3 times a year in Jerusalem to celebrate the set feasts of the Lord. There is now no temple, no tabernacle, but those were ceremonial laws of the Old Covenant. Similarly, nearly everyone sets aside the dietary laws found throughout the law, although these are certainly among the commandments given by God.
Not every commandment applies, then. The reasons for this are sound, too. They were commandments given to the nation of Israel alone, not to Christians, and they belong to the Old Covenant. Where most people draw the line is the Ten Commandments, insisting that these are the ones we’re still on the hook for.
But when Jesus speaks to the disciples, prior to what he says in chapter 14, he has told them this:

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (John 13:34)
Here, then, is what is truly new with Jesus. The commandments of the Old Covenant included loving one’s neighbor, even loving the stranger, but not loving one’s enemies. And we, because of our sin and rebellion against God, are his enemies. Had anyone loved as Jesus loved, even to the giving of one’s life for an enemy? No one.

It is thus inadequate to look at the Johannine language and insist that what Jesus was talking about was that we keep the Ten Commandments. For they, too, belong to the Old Covenant, the covenant with Israel. As good and right and holy as the Ten are, they are not the new commandment, and they don’t go as far as Jesus calls us to go in giving us His commandments. One can indeed proof-text one’s way to a position that keeping God’s commandments is keeping the Ten Commandments, but it isn’t a very cogent position to take. For example, some will cite this:
“Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence before God; and whatever we ask we receive from him, because we keep his commandments and do what pleases him.” 1 John 3:21.

God has given use his commandments, and it’s pretty plain we need to keep them.

But read on:

“And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” 1 John 3:22.

It is not the Decalogue or the Sabbath or other commands of the Old Covenant that John puts before believers, but we are again back to the gospel command that we both believe in the name—the authority—of Jesus, and we love one another.
All commands are not equal.This is nothing other than the progress of salvation history; that what prevailed in the Old Covenant no longer prevails in the New. That is, we as New Covenant believers are not called upon to live by and under the commands of the Old Covenant. The new citizenship we have in Christ, our heavenly citizenship, means that we have a higher calling. A calling not inconsistent with the holiness called for under the Old Covenant, but one in fact that exceeds it.

Fulfilling the Law or Keeping It—What’s the Difference?

No single verse of Scripture gives a complete picture of the Christian’s relationship to the law. One has to read the whole of the New Testament to come up with a coherent picture of how the law of Moses may (or may not) relate to the believer in Christ. But without question, the apostle Paul has more to say about the law than any other writer, and one of the things he’s careful to say is that Christian’s do not keep the law of Moses. Many will raise an objection at this point, and say “Of course he did! Look at what he said to the Romans, to the Ephesians!” The first of these passages is Romans 13:8-10:

“Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.”

Look carefully at what he says here. Is there any injunction to “keep the law”? Is there any order that believers must keep the commandments? Rather, he stresses fulfillment of the law, and that the means of doing so is by love. These few commands that Paul cites from the Decalogue are not incongruous with what believers are called to be and to do, but Paul never measures our maturity in Christ or our conformity to Jesus by the Mosaic law. Earlier in the epistle, Paul wrote: “By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” Rom 8:3-4.  Here, too, it is the law fulfilled not kept that Paul speaks of. As he consistently does, Paul links the law with the flesh (and the weakness of it.) The righteous requirement of the law is holiness, and holiness is fulfilled in the believer when we walk by the Spirit, in conformity to Christ, never by striving to keep the law.

Think for a moment of the carnival game one sometimes sees called “high striker.” You swing a large mallet and hit a plunger. If you whack it hard enough, you ring the bell at the top of the tower. If hitting the bell is 100, then you go past 80 on your way up. This is similar to the law. The commands of Decalogue are not inconsistent or at odds with what believers strive after, but they don’t go far enough.

When saying that Christian holiness is not measured by the Mosaic law, I sometimes hear an objection that Christ kept the whole law, and that if we are to imitate Christ, we, too, will keep the law. This is a single-faceted, and indeed a shallow view of what the Lord accomplished in his earthly life and in his death. Jesus did far more than keep the law, and he called believers to go beyond it as well. Whereas the law said “love your neighbor as yourself,” Jesus said “love one another as I have loved you”—a decidedly higher standard. To insist that since Jesus kept the Mosaic law we should too also discounts the repeated statements in the New Testament that we can’t keep the law.

The other passage, in Ephesians 6, also seems to say we should keep the law. “Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land.’ Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.” Eph 6:1-4

Note that Paul starts not with the 5th commandment, but with his own apostolic instruction: Obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. He then cites the 5th commandment as an example of what I previously noted: The law is not incongruous with Christian holiness, but it’s not the full extent of it, (though most people end the citation there.) Paul goes on to provide instruction (and an imperative) to fathers. Was a prohibition on inciting anger in children part of the Mosaic law? It was not, but Paul has moved on from law to love. Consistent with what he said in Romans 13, too. A hallmark of Paul’s doctrine is that he does not believe Christians need the law to walk as they should. His own apostolic, and Spirit-inspired commands are sufficient. Brian S. Rosner summarizes this well:

“Paul never says, as he does of Jews, that believers in Christ rely on the law, boast about the law, know God’s will through the law, are educated in the law, have light, knowledge and truth because of the law, do, observe, keep the law, on occasion transgress the law, or possess the law as letter or a written code, as a book, as decrees, or as commandments.”[1]

To be free from obligation to the Mosaic law is not to say that Christians have no standard, or do not pursue Christlikeness. On the contrary, they have all they need in the gospel and the teaching of the Lord’s chosen apostles. But these things are not the same as the law of Moses.

Is this an artificial distinction? Is it just word games to say that Paul emphasizes fulfilling the law, but not keeping it? It is not. Think of the carnival game example again. If I hit with enough force to get up to 70, I don’t make it to 100. If I strive but to keep the law, I will not love. If I love, I will fulfill the law. Stated differently, “love is the fulfilling of the law.” But Scripture never says “Keeping the law is the fulfilling of love.”

[1] Brian S. Rosner,  Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2013), 221

Sanctification: What is it?

Error seems to travel in pairs, and when we come to the topic of sanctification, this is also the case. One error says that we must do more in order to be more. The Roman Catholic teaching on justification suffers from this misunderstanding. That is, as I perform more good, I become more justified. Justification is poured into me, little by little throughout my life, provided I keep doing. There are Protestant variations on this theme, but they still reduce to the same erroneous view: I improve my standing before God by what I do. This is not the gospel. Our standing is in Christ and rests completely on what he has done in his death and resurrection. There is no improving on that, but there surely is the possibility of marring it with my own wrong ideas about earning God’s favor. The essence of this error is to confuse justification with sanctification.

The other error is to say that because my position in Christ is secure and it is all based on his work, my living means nothing, counts for nothing, and it does not matter whether or not I am pursuing the things that belong to discipleship. This too is false. Sanctification is the process of being made holy, more like Christ in our whole being. Others may include additional facets in the definition, but it is surely not less than this. There is also an aspect of sanctification that views it as complete and already accomplished. Indeed, both of these things are found in the New Testament. As part of our salvation, Christ has become to us “wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, “Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord.” (1 Cor. 1:30) Paul began this same epistle by addressing it “to the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus.” (1 Cor 1:1) It is what they (and any who trust in Christ) are. We are sanctified, set apart as Christ’s, seen by God as holy in Christ because we are in Him. The word “saint” is not an aspiration for Christians, but a description of what we are. It is simply a synonym for “Christian.”

But there is more to it than this. While the New Testament does indeed speak of the Christian as sanctified, as positionally holy in Christ, it also speaks of us as being transformed, being made holy, being sanctified throughout the period of our discipleship. Heb. 10:14 captures these two aspects in a single verse: For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. We are becoming what we already are.
Paul also wrote to the Thessalonians, saying “For this is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” 1 Thess. 4:3. Why would speak of God’s will for them if it was already done? The fact that Paul has some action in view is clear by what he next says, “that you abstain from sexual immorality.” He’s keen that they avoid something unholy. Likewise, Paul wrote to Timothy to “flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.” He wrote to the Ephesians to “put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self.” (Eph. 4:22-24) All of these are exhortations to sanctification, to become holier, and to be more like Christ. The fact that Paul writes we are both positionally sanctified in Christ, but are to pursue sanctification does not create a conflict.

How can something be complete and finished, and yet still in process? A person can proof-text their way to a skewed view of sanctification—as many have done—to say that “You see, it’s all done by God when we were saved and there’s nothing you can do to influence your sanctification. If you strive after sanctification, you’ve lapsed into works-based salvation, thinking you can improve on the work of God. Doesn’t Paul say as much? “And that is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God. 1 Cor. 6:11. There it is, you were sanctified, past tense.

It’s just here that some get into trouble when they try to pit one against the other. The position I have in Christ, viewed by the Father as having his righteousness, is unalterable, unassailable. It is all of grace and all of his work. But it is likewise true that Christians are told to pursue holiness, to make our condition more closely match our position. This is not undertaken in our strength, nor does it bring any merit to us. It doesn’t make God love us more, nor love us less when we fail. But it is an important part of our discipleship, of our following Jesus. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that they were to be imitators of God, as beloved children. (Eph 5:1) In fact, the 5th chapter of Ephesians is all about the Christian walk, how we conduct ourselves in the world before unbelievers, and his admonition is to not be partakers in what the world does. A shorthand may be “be sanctified.”

If pursuing sanctification doesn’t make God love us more, nor does it improve our position in Christ, what then does it accomplish?
It makes us fruitful for God, it presents a testimony to the world of God’s power to transform sinners, and it adorns the doctrine of God our Savior. Not only so, but it increases our joy in God and loosens the affections we have for this world.

For those who dispute this, who say that we are as sanctified as we will ever be, that no growth in holiness is possible, or that it is, in fact, a misguided pursuit, there is a term for this: “Over-realized eschatology.” As one blogger has defined it, “An ‘over-realized eschatology’ is when someone expects that the eschatological hope of Christianity is already here and now.” I will one day be free of sinful desires—but I am not yet. I will one day have a body that is not subject to decay and the effects of the fall—but I do not yet. I will one day have a spiritual state that is at one with my spiritual standing—but I do not yet.

All of these things speak to the already/not yet duality that is part of the Christian life. If sanctification in practice is not a bit different than sanctification in position, then many New Testament passages make no sense. The plethora of exhortations and admonitions to become more Christlike, the possibility of grieving the Holy Spirit, to name a couple. In addition, if there is no difference, then it would render the idea of church discipline to be unnecessary and inconsistent. One can say that church discipline is the judgment of a local church that a Christian’s condition is grossly inconsistent with their position. They claim to be in Christ, but their behavior is bringing dishonor to His name. If we are as sanctified as we possibly can be, then disciplining such a person is moot.

Like most doctrines, sanctification cannot be demonstrated by a single verse. It requires the entirety of Holy Scripture to show what it is and to make sense of it. When we do consider all of God’s revelation, it’s clear that we are both sanctified, and being sanctified. It is who we are, but also who we are told to become.

What is the “Word of Christ”?

Christians have as their rule and authority the written word of God—the Bible. We value what God has recorded in the Scriptures not only as sufficient for our lives, but also all we need in order to understand who God is, and what he has done. Scripture is, in other words, a revelation of God and from God. The truth of God’s Word is attested to in several places within the Bible itself. Psalm 19 speaks of God’s Word in its various forms as perfect, sure, right, and pure.

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul;
the testimony of the LORD is sure,
making wise the simple;
the precepts of the LORD are right,
rejoicing the heart;
the commandment of the LORD is pure,
enlightening the eyes;

When we come to the New Testament, Jesus himself in the High Priestly prayer of John 17 asks God the Father to sanctify, or set apart, his disciples in the truth. He immediately defines what that is: “Your word is truth.” John 17:17

Christians quite rightly regard references to the Word of God to denote Scripture. But in two places, Paul uses a slightly different phrase, “the word of Christ” which calls for a closer look.

In Romans 10:17, Paul writes “So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.” This is at the end of a series of questions he has asked about the progress of the gospel. No one can believe unless they hear, and they cannot hear unless preachers are sent, and hearing the word of Christ is what brings faith. The word of Christ is the gospel message; the word about Christ. In that sense the presentation of the saving work of Jesus, the description of what he did when he died and rose again—this is the word of Christ. The centrality of the gospel in the salvation of the lost is self-evident. The word of the cross may be foolishness to the world, but as Paul elsewhere says, “to us who are being saved it is the power of God”. As Christians, we hear the word and are saved when we believe, but we do not outgrow the gospel. This does not mean that believers hear an appeal to be saved week in and week out. Rather, it is the implications of the gospel for the rest of our Christian lives that the gospel also contains. The second of these instances of the phrase focuses on these.

Paul writes to the Colossians a series of exhortations and admonitions, among them, is this: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” What does Paul refer to with the phrase “word of Christ”? Is he speaking of Scripture, that they should read God’s Word to one another? I suggest it is not Scripture per se but the entailments of the gospel that he refers to. These no doubt rest upon the foundation of God’s Word, but they are those parts of the Christian life that have particularly to do with discipleship in Jesus. Forgiveness, humility, love, these are what Paul has told them, things which, unsurprisingly would conform to what Paul wrote to the Galatians as the law of Christ: self-sacrificial love for one another.
Paul models the teaching and admonishing that he here calls for in the 12th chapter of Romans. A series of short imperatives such as “Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.” A shorthand for this may be “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh.” Many of the other exhortations in the New Testament epistles could likewise fit in this category.
The word of Christ, about Christ, in harmony with Christ, is also a word in harmony with the written word of God. To paraphrase Emerson, who said “Common sense is genius, dressed in his working clothes,” the word of Christ is theology applied.

A Few Words Before I Go: Scripture’s Farewell Speeches

What do we learn from the farewell speeches recorded in Scripture? If we compare the parting words (or nearly so) of Joshua, Samuel, and Stephen, there are common themes. Noting these, are there lessons for believers in these discourses? There are at least two important things that as Christians, one never outgrows.

Remember Your Redemption

Joshua 24 finds him gathering all the people at Shechem. He rehearses the history of the nation, beginning with the call of Abraham, and then into the Egyptian slavery. The exodus from Egypt and their deliverance feature prominently. If we pause at this point in the story, fast forward to Samuel, and he too presents similar themes. Samuel is not near death, but as the last judge of Israel, his time of leading the nation is coming to an end, because the people had asked for a king. “And Samuel said to the people, “The Lord is witness, who appointed Moses and Aaron and brought your fathers up out of the land of Egypt.” (1 Sam. 12:6) He, too, hearkens back to the exodus and to their deliverance from slavery. Fast forward still more to the New Testament and Stephen’s testimony in Acts 7. Stephen’s speech is much longer than either Joshua’s or Samuel’s, but it includes the same theme: deliverance from bondage by the hand of God. “This man led them out, performing wonders and signs in Egypt and at the Red Sea and in the wilderness for forty years.” (Acts 7:36)

The common theme in these addresses and the important one for us is this: Our relationship with God is tied to our redemption, our deliverance. When Israel left Egypt God said to them, “This month shall be for you the beginning of months.” (Ex. 12:2) The clock restarted, it was a new thing. So it is for the Christian. The one who trusts in the Lord Jesus has a new beginning. Israel was in need of frequent reminders about their deliverance, about the redemption God effected on their behalf (hence the annual Passover.) We do not outgrow our need to dwell on our deliverance from the bondage of sin. Indeed, it is safety to dwell upon that deliverance and the deliverer. We do not move on from the gospel, from what brought our redemption.

Remember Your Tendency to Sin

The other aspect of these speeches is that they all contain reminders of the people’s propensity to sin, of their wayward hearts. Joshua charges the people to choose whom they will serve, but when they say “We will serve the Lord” his immediate reply is “You are not able to serve the Lord, for he is a holy God.” In other words, God is holy, you are not. Part of their history was the wandering in the wilderness, which was due to their lack of trust in God’s word. Samuel, too, rehearses the many deliverances of the people through the years of the judges. These deliverances were necessary because the people had turned from following the Lord.

Finally, Stephen also reminds the people that the Golden Calf was idolatry. The culmination of that speech is Stephen’s bold confrontation: “You stiff-necked people, uncircumcised in heart and ears, you always resist the Holy Spirit.” (Acts 7: 51)
In all these instances we can see that the speaker draws attention to the sin of the people. We are, as Luther said, both justified and sinner at the same time. If we think we have outgrown the need for vigilance against sin, we have lost the battle. If we think we have no need to guard our hearts because we are “mature” we have fallen into the same trap as the Israelites did. Israel was warned as God’s people, to beware of their tendency to idolatry, of looking to the surrounding nations for any pattern to follow. Instead, the surrounding nations were the example to Israel of what not to do, what not to pursue. Similarly, the warning passages of the New Testament are addressed to Christians to be watchful, careful, and to put no confidence in the flesh. Believer, remember your redemption from sin, but remember as well that we are yet striving to become holy, and that our hearts are prone to sin, as sparks fly upward.

Is the Law Our Tutor?

One of the common assumptions about the law of Moses is that it is our tutor or schoolmaster. That is, the law leads us to Christ. For this reason, it remains useful to us. In Galatians 3, Paul explains the temporary nature of the law, and contrasts it with the promise to Abraham. The promise given to Abraham was by faith, and came prior to the law, by 430 years. But the natural question in the minds of the Galatians may be, “Why then the law?” If the law is inferior to promise and is temporary, why did God give it? Paul answers, “the law was our guardian until Christ came.” The word rendered guardian here in the ESV is translated as schoolmaster in the KJV. No doubt this translation led some to believe that the law was a teacher, one who in fact led us to Christ. But that translation is deficient, and masks something of Paul’s meaning. The word is paidagogos, (pedagogue.) In the ancient world, the pedagogue was one who had charge of the underage heir, and the responsibility to keep them out of trouble. But the pedagogue was not a kind teacher.

“These pedagogues had the bad image of being rude, rough, and good for no other business . . . the figure of the pedagogue is looked upon as a hard but necessary instrument in bringing a person to achieve and realize virtue.”[1] “Their name, consequently, had a stigma attached to it.”[2] If the law performs a function of training, or of leading one to Christ, why would Paul speak negatively about it, using the words “imprisoned” and “captive”? Louis Martyn likewise doubts Paul’s intention to present the law as our teacher. The law “is not a pedagogical guide, but an imprisoning warden,” he says, in that “six of the ten times Paul refers to humans being ‘under the power of’ the paidagogos, he identifies that enslaving power as the Law.”[3] Moreover, if the law had such a teaching function, Paul would not have considered it limited to a certain time in history. Das puts it this way: “If the pedagogue were fulfilling a positive educational function in leading people to Christ, it would be unclear why Paul would consider the pedagogy to have ended with Christ’s coming.”[4]

Paul says that the law was added because of transgressions. Does this mean it helps to control sin? Such a view is inconsistent with Paul’s other pronouncement on the purpose of law. In Romans 5:20, he is even more explicit. “the law came in to increase the trespass.” Given what the apostle says in both Romans and Galatians, we cannot say that the law is our tutor to lead us to Christ. While Paul always says the law is good, he also says that we are not. Our flesh never responds positively to it. The images of imprisonment and captivity that Paul uses in Galatians 3 reinforce the fact that the law was temporary in purpose, and only until Christ came. The law was not contrary to God’s purpose, but neither is it necessary now that Christ and faith in him have come. What the law teaches is the knowledge of sin. To walk worthily in Christ, the law is not our teacher. The spirit-enabled believer walks by faith, and as Paul has said at the earlier in the chapter, “The law is not of faith.”For a fuller discussion, see If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.

 

[1] Hans Dieter Betz, Galatians: A Commentary on Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia (Philadelphia, Fortress Press, 1979), 177.

[2] Herman Ridderbos, The Epistle of Paul to the Churches of Galatia (Grand Rapids, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1953), 146.

[3] J. Louis Martyn Galatians (New York, Doubleday, 1997), 363.

[4] A. Andrew Das, Galatians (St. Louis, Concordia Publishing House, 2014), 375.

How Faith Upholds the Law

In the early chapters of Romans, Paul the prosecutor has summarily indicted all of mankind; Jew and Gentile, as guilty before God. Part of his case has been a dismantling of the Mosaic Law as having any part in providing humanity with a right standing before God. The law cannot do this for at least two reasons. First, no one keeps the law. “None is righteous, no, not one” (3:10) Second, the law reveals sin, it does not overcome it. “Through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (3:20) It is not all bad news, however. “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” (3:21)
Given this setting aside of the law of God, some of Paul’s readers, particularly Jewish ones, were apt to ask whether Paul has set aside the patriarchs themselves, and the history of God’s dealing with them. Was all of that for naught?
Paul anticipates the argument with his question at the end of the chapter. “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith?” But he quickly answers, “By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” (3:31)
 
From this verse, some have taken the apostle to mean that Christian living by faith is moral living, that is, that it conforms with and indeed upholds God’s law. Christian living is not in conflict with the law of God, but this is not at all what Paul here claims. Law can be used in more than one sense, and to restrict it to the moral law, or the Ten Commandments, or any statute of the Old Covenant is to overly constrain the meaning. The law can mean the Pentateuch. “…everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” (Luke 24:44)
It can also mean the commandments that comprise the entire body of statutes given to Israel. “…the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law.” (Luke 2:27) Finally, it may be restricted to the Ten Commandments. Paul affirms, “For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, ‘You shall not covet.” Clearly, the apostle is not talking about the entire Pentateuch, but only the last of the Ten Commandments, which he refers to as “the law.”
In what sense, then, does Paul use the word law here at the end of Romans? If he means it as the commandments of God, those statutes given to the nation of Israel, then perhaps it is true that faith “upholds the law.” But Paul does not use the word in this meaning. Rather, it is clear from the following chapter that the apostle means the broadest sense of law possible—the law and the prophets. Paul is making no commentary on holy living by believers here. He is instead showing that the history of God’s dealings with the patriarchs does, in fact, demonstrate justification by faith, the thing he insists on in this epistle. He begins with Abraham.
 
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. (4:1-3)
 
Abraham was justified by faith, entirely apart from works, and his circumcision was “a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised.” (4:11) The law upholds faith because it shows our father Abraham was justified by this very principlePaul goes on to David.
“David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven,
and whose sins are covered” (4:6-7)
 
He, too, attributes righteousness to faith, apart from works. If we look previously in chapter 3:21, we can see a hint of this. In the first half of the verse, law is in lowercase. This denotes the use of the word as synonymous with the commandment and adherence to statutes. Paul has said that God imputes to us his righteousness apart from such law-keeping. But the second half has the word Law in uppercase, and with the additional phrase “and the Prophets.” The editorial decisions of the English Standard Version thus show these different senses of the word law. In short, verses 21 and 31 are in full agreement, showing that the Old Testament contained justification by faith, and is no novelty with Paul. Paul has not undercut the witness of the patriarchs in the law, he has upheld it.
 
Christian living is not lawless living, but Romans 3:31 is not the place to look for such doctrine. Paul will show in many other places how the Christian fulfills the law, even without striving to keep it. For a fuller discussion, see If One Uses It Lawfully: The Law of Moses and the Christian Life.

Thinking Rightly About our Identity in Christ

Most Christians have a view of themselves that acknowledges they have not yet arrived at full Christian maturity. That’s a sensible perspective and accords with what Paul writes to the Ephesians. “This will continue until we all come to such unity in our faith and knowledge of God’s Son that we will be mature in the Lord, measuring up to the full and complete standard of Christ. (Eph. 4:13 TLB)
 
But focusing only what we have not yet attained can obscure the truth about what we have been given, namely our identity in Christ. At the start of Romans, Paul states these truths plainly. He describes his own apostleship, the source of it–the Lord Jesus himself–and that through him “we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ, To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints.” (Rom. 1:5–6)
 
In some translations, the words that are inferred or added by translators are shown in italics. That was a helpful editorial decision and were it in place here, we would see the words to belong to in italics. In other words, Paul is saying the Romans are saints by calling. Called is an adjective, descriptive of their position in Christ. They don’t one day hope to be saints, they are now saints. They are holy in Christ, positionally sanctified, and seated with him in the heavenly places. Believers are saints every bit as much Paul is an apostle, for he uses the same words to describe himself in Rom. 1:1, not called to be an apostle, but a “called apostle.”
 
The New Testament is full of exhortation and encouragement for believers to press on to become more like Christ. But those exhortations are predicated on our already being in Christ, already seated with him in the heavenly places, and already sealed with the Holy Spirit. If we reverse this order, we have misunderstood our identity in Christ, and have given up the blessing of knowing who we are in Him. We do not become saints by our holy living, we are to live in a holy manner because of who we already are. So, believer, whether you are saint John, saint Fred, saint Christine–whatever you name is–insert it after “saint” and you are on biblical ground as a description of your position in Christ.
 
Some have described this as the difference between standing and state, or position and condition. Our state may change from day to day, but our standing can never change, because it is in Christ, and we are sealed with his Spirit. Getting a right view of our standing actually influences our state. Don’t let the world beat you down into thinking that your failure defines who you are in Christ. Believers certainly fall short but measured in God’s estimation, as we are in Christ, we cannot be holier. As one hymn writer put it:
 
So near so very near to God
I cannot nearer be
Yet in the person of his Son
I am as near as he.