A Gospel Contrary: The Danger of Grace Plus Law

If we say we are not saved by keeping the law, but once saved, we must obey it, we have fallen from grace.

Paul’s letter to the Galatians is one of his most polemical, perhaps the most forceful of any. One of the prime things Paul aims to do is dispel the idea that Christians retain any obligation to the law of Moses. In the first chapter, Paul expresses his astonishment at the desertion of the Galatian believers, not just from the message he preached to them, but from God himself. These are the stark terms he uses to summarize the problem. “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ. The gospel of salvation by Christ alone, apart from any deeds of the law, is the gospel Paul received by revelation of God himself, and which he preached.
Paul’s opponents are largely assumed, because reading Galatians is a bit like hearing one side of a phone conversation. We have to infer what the other person said. But the agitators (as they are usually called) come through at various points by the way Paul answers.

By works of the law, no one will be justified. (2:16)
I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. 2:21.
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” 3:10.

These are a few statements he makes, demonstrating that his gospel is one of faith in Jesus, wholly apart from the law.

Most evangelicals agree with this, and affirm justification before God is by grace, through faith. The law plays no part in our justification. But even as they agree, some also want to bring the law back in as a way of demonstrating our justification, or as a response of love and thankfulness to God for saving us. Paul will have none of this. Indeed, it sounds reasonable to say that I want to demonstrate my love to God, and how better than by obeying his will in every way, and surely, the law summarizes his will?

These things rest on a priori assumptions, however. Paul elsewhere in the epistle shows that love, not law, is the mark of our obedience to God, and our right response. If I love, I fulfill the law (note, not keep, but fulfill) but if all I do is keep the law, I do not arrive at the place where the gospel delivers me: The new command to love others as Jesus Himself loved us. That is nowhere in the law.
In chapter 6, he even engages in a bit of word play by the phrase “the law of Christ.”
Ronald Fung notes that Paul “speaks of ‘the law of Christ’ polemically, if not almost playfully, as an antithesis to ‘the law of Moses.’ It is as though he said to his converts: if you must observe the law (as the agitators say), do so, only make sure that
the law you observe is not Moses’ law, but the law of Christ.”[1] Rather than commandments associated with the Old Covenant, the law of Christ is instead a principle of self-sacrifice, of loving others as Jesus loved us. This was most clearly demonstrated at the cross.

Secondly, it isn’t stated in Scripture that the law (specifically the “moral law”—the Ten Commandments) represent God’s will for his people today.( If you think I’m saying Christians are thus free to sin as they wish, I invite you to read my other posts on this topic.) In Galatians 3, Paul will contrast Law and Promise, and show that the promise preceded law, and that the law does not nullify promise. The law was added, says Paul, as a temporary thing, with the specific purpose of imprisoning everything under sin, until Christ came. To say that once justified, we now keep the law as a way of showing love to God, is to make Paul say that once the fulfillment of the promise has arrived, we are still under the pedagogue. Yet Paul says the opposite: “So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” 3:24-26. Is Paul saying that once the promise has arrived, the pedagogue still commands believers? By no means. We are no longer under a guardian.

Later in the epistle Paul again makes clear that two covenants cannot coexist at the same time, that is, be in force, any more than both Isaac and Ishmael could both be considered firstborn sons of Abraham. Paul asks of those who want to insist on an obligation to the law, “Tell me, you who desire to be under the law, do you not listen to the law?” 4:21
Here would have been an opportunity for Paul to ensure his hearers understood him properly. That is, if he meant to say that justification is apart from the law, but the law remains their guide for holy living, their standard, he could have said so. But he does not. He says Abraham had two sons, one born of the slave woman (Hagar) and one born of the free woman (Sarah) He explains the two women as two covenants. Any Jew would likely have expected Paul to liken the glorious giving of the law at Sinai with Sarah, but shockingly, he likens the Mosaic Covenant to Hagar! “One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery” 4:24

Does Paul mean to say that the law (Sinai) can coexist with the the promise? Can the son of the slave woman inherit with the son of the free? “But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now.” 4:29 Here is one of the several places where Paul contrasts flesh and Spirit, and he aligns the law with the flesh. His language here is of contradiction. The flesh persecutes the one born according to the Spirit. They do not happily coexist. Indeed, nowhere in the epistle does he say we, by the Spirit, by faith, are now empowered to keep the law. In 3:12 he has said the law is not of faith. In 3:3, has asks, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” In other words, you believe you are justified by faith, apart from the law, and do you now think to bring the law back into the Christian life? In 5:1 Paul says “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” What is this yoke of slavery if not an obligation to the law?

How does this amount to a “gospel contrary?” It is such a gospel—a distortion as Paul calls it in 1:7—to say that we are justified apart from the law, but that we are obligated to do the things of the law once saved. No equivocation can blunt the force of this. If there is obligation to the law, there is condemnation by the law. It is a backdoor re-introduction of the law in the Christian life, and Paul is adamant: A little leaven leavens the whole lump. We can’t say we are saved by faith, but must live our Christian lives according to the law. That, says Paul, is to fall from grace. It is a gospel contrary to what he preached, to what was revealed to him.
Some believers have had their spiritual lives so formed by law, by an ethos of obligation, that they can’t think of another way. But Paul says “the grace of God training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age.” (Titus 2:12) Grace, not law, is the guide for believers in this age. And it is an entirely sufficient guide. The gospel of grace teaches as all we need to live in manner worthy of the Lord.

 

[1] Ronal Y.K. Fung, The Epistle to the Galatians. NICNT. (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1988), 277-278.

Salvation History and the Christian’s Understanding of the Law

Salvation history is the unfolding of God’s plan. It is an unfolding not because God is somehow making it up as he goes, but because in his divine counsel, he chooses to reveal aspects of it in time. As one example, Paul is explicit about such an unfolding regarding the church, when he says to the Ephesians, “When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel.” (Eph. 3:4-6) Gentile blessing was surely promised in the Old Testament, but that it would come through such a thing as the church, Jew and Gentile in one body, was not.

Similarly, it is a foundational aspect in Paul’s teaching about the Mosaic law that salvation history is progressive. In Romans 6-7, Paul links the seminal events in the believer’s personal salvation history (our death with Christ, our burial with him, our resurrection with him) to our relationship to the law. Having died with Christ, we died to any obligation to the law. Paul writes “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God.” (Rom. 7:4)

A survey of some of the other epistles shows this same progress: The law had to do with the Mosaic covenant, and with Israel. It has not to do with the new Covenant and the body of Christ by way of obligation In 2 Corinthians 3, Paul designates the law (specifically the 10 Commandments) as belonging to the Old Covenant, and calls it a ministry of death and condemnation. He says its glory cannot be compared with that of the New Covenant. As an obligation, it belongs to past salvation history.

In Galatians, Paul says the law was our pedagogue until Christ came, and until faith came. Some have said that this pedagogical function still prevails, that is, that the law still teaches us how we are to live before God. But Paul’s language is clear: “But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith.” Gal 3:25. The arrival of the promised seed of Abraham, Christ, means that our adoption as sons of God frees us from the enslaving and captivating power of the law. For, although the law is holy, righteous, and good, Paul says that “before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed.” Gal 3:23.

But the law is holy, and righteous and good!

Misunderstanding this progress of salvation history has led to inconsistent conclusions, but in fairness, we must consider and explain some of Paul’s other statements about the law that seem to imply something positive and enduring. Paul writes that the law is “holy, righteous, and good.” (Rom 7:12) How can something good be temporary, or done away with, especially if it represents God’s will? Paul answers this question by saying that when combined with our flesh, the law, though good, produces a fatal outcome: sin and death. Sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment caused sin to revive, and, says Paul, “I died.” The law actually aroused sin in him!

As to whether the Mosaic law represents an eternal will of God for his redeemed people in this age, Paul has answered that also in 2 Cor 3. It does not. It is a ministry of death and condemnation. If something better has come, it certainly makes sense that the old has become obsolete.

Are we released from the curse, but not the commandment?

Others claim it is only from the curse of the law we are delivered, not the commandment. To be under the law, says Paul, is to be under a curse. (Gal 3:10) Such a division of commandment from curse is never contemplated in Scripture. If the commandment is stripped of any consequence for the law-breaker, then it ceases to be law. It may be the Ten Suggestions, but it is not law. Moreover, Paul doesn’t say it was fear of the curse that aroused sin him, he says it was that the commandment that awakened sin within him and killed him (Rom. 7:9) Paul never qualifies his pronouncements. He says we have died to the law, been released from it, and “through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God.” (Gal 2:19) Indeed, the way of living a life pleasing to God is to recognize we are dead to the law.

The unequivocal nature of these statements also precludes any understanding that says Paul only wished to clear up a legalistic understanding of the law. That is, that he was keen to insist no one can be justified by the law, but he never intended to dismiss the law as a rule of life, or as a way for believers to walk in a way that pleases God. Where Paul does cite the law, it is in support of his own apostolic instruction. In Romans 13:9-10, Paul cites several of the Ten Commandments “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.” Rom 13:9-10. What’s as notable as including these is also what is missing. That is, he never says, “Keep these commandments.” He cites them as supporting evidence for his own teaching (and that of Jesus) that love is the chief thing, the fulfillment of the law. Love, and you needn’t worry about whether you’re “keeping the law.”

Does the Holy Spirit empower Christians to keep the law?

The final aspect of what salvation history implies is that with the coming of the Spirit, believers have all they need to live in a manner pleasing to God. That is, we serve in the new way of the Spirit, not in the old way of the letter. Being free from the law is in fact the way of bearing fruit for God. Far from providing help in overcoming sin, the law, (because of our sinful flesh) actually exacerbates the problem. Paul says in Romans 6:14 that “sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” The corollary to this is that if we are under law—or obligation to law—we are still under the mastery of sin!

“Oh, but the Holy Spirit in fact empowers believers to keep the law.” I have heard this claim, but it is foreign to the apostolic teaching on the Mosaic law. It is again an attempt to reintroduce the law as a rule for those under the headship of Christ when Paul says it appeals only to those in Adam. When Paul says the law aroused sin in him, does he refer to the new man in Christ, or to the old man in Adam? “If you walk by the Spirit, you are not under law.” (Gal. 5:18) Earlier in Galatians Paul has made a couple of statements that preclude this view. In chapter 3, he has contrasted law with faith—that which characterizes the Christian life. They were justified by faith, apart from the law.

Paul asks, incredulously, “Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Gal 3:2-3) Faith brought them the Holy Spirit, brought them into God’s family. Having coming into God’s family, would they now be perfected by the flesh? What could “by the flesh” refer to here except taking up the law? A few verses later, Paul again sets forth a contrast between faith and the law. “But the law is not of faith.” (!) If we, by faith, are to keep the law, why does Paul never say so? Why does he instead contrast the law with the Spirit? The answer is that in the progress of salvation history, we who are under the headship of Christ do not need the law to walk rightly, to please God.

While the law is holy, righteous, & good, when combined with our flesh (not holy!) the combination is always a fatal one. We are set free from the law to bear fruit for God, to walk by the Spirt. We are free from sin’s mastery because we are not under law (Rom 6:14)

A partial deliverance from the law (for justification) while insisting we are obligated to it for sanctification and holiness does what Paul warned the Galatians of. It is to begin by the Spirit, but strives to be perfected by the flesh. Gal 3:3. I can offer no better advice than the apostle himself: “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” (Gal. 5:1)

 

The Use and Abuse of Church History

Church history is descriptive,  not prescriptive.

One of the main points of fissure between sacramental or hierarchical church traditions and those that are less so is the place of church history. Should history—tradition—play a definitive role in shaping the faith and practice for believers today? Or, should Scripture have the decisive function in our faith? If we decide that tradition and history must be set alongside Scripture as an equal authority, we are faced with the dilemma that history is not uniform, nor tidy. In the hierarchical traditions, history is sometimes treated as a kind of stare decisis, such as one finds in courts of law. What precedent do we find in prior decision, previous case law? Indeed, canon law is exactly this.

But history is the development of the church, how it grew and changed over centuries. It does not represent an authoritative body of decisions that should bind believers in our current age. That position belongs only to Holy Scripture. To be sure, history has great value, and should be studied, but there is a vast difference in observation and stipulation. Church historian Brian Tierney points out some of the difficulties in looking to the past as an authoritative guide. He considers the example of papal infallibility.

“Real issues of ecclesiastical power are involved. If popes have always been infallible in any meaningful sense of the word – if their official pronouncements as heads of the church on matters of faith and morals have always been unerring and so irreformable – then all kinds of dubious consequences ensue. Most obviously, twentieth century popes would be bound by a whole array of past papal decrees reflecting the responses of the Roman church to the religious and moral problems of former ages. As Acton put it, ‘The responsibility for the acts of the buried and repented past would come back at once and for ever.’ To defend religious liberty would be ‘insane’ and to persecute heretics commendable. Judicial torture would be licit and taking of interest on loans a mortal sin. The pope would rule by divine right ‘not only the universal church but the whole world.’ Unbaptized babies would be punished in Hell for all eternity. Maybe the sun would still be going round the earth.”[1]

What Tierney points out is that history is descriptive, but not prescriptive. It tells us what happened, but not what should happen. Tierney’s examples show the error of elevating tradition above or to a position of equal authority with Scripture.  Holy Scripture alone provides this rule, this canon. At once I hear the objection of “but whose interpretation?” Indeed, hermeneutics is not an easy task, but one can at least begin by acknowledging what is admissible evidence. We can look at how past ages interpreted God’s Word, while at the same time acknowledging that no interpreter can claim to be an infallible guide. Indeed, those who claim to listen to the magisterium for authoritative interpretation have made this decision as individuals.

Roman Catholic and Orthodox believers will sometimes chide evangelicals on this point of “individual interpretation” but it is not a strong argument. Recent polling of Catholics shows a large number dismiss what the hierarchy of bishops says on many points, and are making their own decisions. As Thomas Bergler observes, “It seems that most Catholics still believe some important church teachings, but they consider themselves empowered to determine which teachings are central and which can be ignored.”[2]

On the Orthodox side, the plea has been more to the “unanimous consent of the Fathers.” But as Jaroslav Pelikan points out, that consensus is less than unanimous, and subject to revision.

Such an exhortation as “let us reverently hold fast to the confession of the fathers” seemed to assume, by its use of “confession” in the singular and of “fathers” in the plural, that there was readily available a patristic consensus on the doctrines with which the fathers had dealt in previous controversy and on the doctrines over which debate had not yet arisen – but was about to arise. When it did arise, the existence of such a patristic consensus became problematic. When an orthodox church father such as Gregory of Nyssa appeared to be in agreement with a heretic such as Origen on the eventual salvation of all men, it was necessary to explain away this agreement. When it appeared that there was a contradiction between two passages in Gregory of Nazianzus, closer study would show “their true harmony.”[3]

Arriving at the true meaning of Scripture can be a challenge, but no one can hand this responsibility off to another. Indeed, read, study, consult as many sources as you can, but remember that the decision cannot be outsourced. And while history informs us as to how others thought, it must not be elevated to the same level of authority as Scripture itself.  The Protestant Reformers had regard for prior interpreters of Scripture. Luther accepted the first 4 ecumenical counsels, and but not subsequent ones. Calvin found value in the counsels, but would not assign them equal authority to Scripture. In the Orthodox tradition, they accept 7 ecumenical counsels as authoritative, and Rome has north of 20 at this point they put in this category. The question is thus not line-drawing, everyone does so. Rather, it is where the lines are drawn. It is often at the distance of several centuries that we see the value (or error) of conclusions from prior ages, but only by comparing these decisions with Scripture. G.L. Prestige aptly summarizes what has happened when history or tradition is given the same authority as Scripture.

“The Gospels afford a collection of material for theological construction; the creed puts forward inferences and conclusions based on that material. The one represents the evidence, the other the verdict. And be that verdict ever so correct, the fact remains that it was the evidence, and not the formal verdict which was once deposited to the saints.”[4]

Those who appeal to tradition consider the verdict to have equal (or often greater) authority than the evidence, and this is a fatal flaw. God has caused us to be born again by his Word. (1 Peter 1:23) Can this same Word not sustain us, teach us, and guide us? Can we trust the Holy Spirit to guide us, as Jesus himself promised? Recognizing Scripture as uniquely authoritative within the Church does not necessarily make for an easier path of discipleship, but it does make for a clearer and more faithful one.

 

[1] Brian Tierney, Origins of Papal Infallibility, 1150-1350, (Leiden, E.J. Brill, 1972), p. 2.

[2] Thomas Bergler, The Juvenalization of American Christianity, (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 2012), p. 221.

[3] Jaroslav Pelikan, The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine, Vol. 2: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700), (Chicago, University of Chicago Press, 1974), p. 21.

[4] G.L. Prestige, Fathers and Heretics, (London, SPCK, 1968), p. 3.

Headship and the Two Adams

First in a series on covenant theology
 
Headship is an important concept in Scripture, and few would argue that the Bible teaches there are two heads: Adam and Christ. Headship is, to use the vernacular, a package deal. What we get by being under one head or another is passel of things that, in some cases, are mutually exclusive. To be in Adam means to be under the condemnation of sin and death, to be in Christ means to be free from condemnation. It is therefore important to understand the concept of headship, as other things in Scripture (covenant, for example) are often bound up with it. 
 
Headship in Scripture
 
Scripture teaches that all mankind is under one of two heads: Adam or Christ. To be in Adam, we need do nothing, for all mankind descends naturally and physically from Adam. When Adam sinned in the garden, the effect of it was passed on to his descendants—all of us. The latter part of Romans 5 sets this forth. Sin came into the world through one man (v. 12) Many died through one man’s trespass (v. 15) because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man. (v. 17) and finally, one trespass led to condemnation for all men. (v. 18)
 
What is clear from these verses is that Adam was acting representatively, as the head of a race. No one escapes the condemnation and death of being under the headship of Adam, since we get it by simply being human. The other head spoken of in Romans 5 (and elsewhere) is Jesus Christ. Paul contrasts the sin of Adam with the righteousness of Christ. He speaks of the “free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many.” (v. 15) and that “the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” (v.16) Finally, Paul speaks of the “one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men.” and that “by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (v. 18-19)
 
The Headship of Christ
 
Christ, too, acted as head, for the effects of his righteousness flow to all those who are in him and under him. The difference is that while we are naturally (we are born) under the headship of Adam, we are only supernaturally under the headship of Christ. (We must by born-again.)
 
1 Corinthians 15 is the other place where Paul expounds on the truths of headship. He says that “as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (v. 22) and he culminates in the comparison and contrast between Adam and Christ.
The first man Adam became a living being; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit. But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual. The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are of the dust, and as is the man of heaven, so also are those who are of heaven. Just as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the man of heaven. (1 Cor. 15: 45-49)
Some have doubted this, or resisted it, saying that it is unjust to be counted a sinner just because of lineage. We should not have guilt imputed to us only because we are human! But this works both ways. The imputation of righteousness is a matter of headship, too. We get the benefit of that righteousness by being “in Christ” and under his headship. It is imputed to us, given to us, being something that we do not have in ourselves. In other words, if we accept that Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us, Scripture likewise teaches that Adam’s guilt is imputed to us. 
The Implications of Headship

 

They two heads differ in origin (earth/heaven) and they differ in kind (natural/spiritual) but they are also similar, that is, Paul refers to Christ as the second Adam. This is because he, too, acts representatively for believers. And our identity is tied to our head. Being in Christ means new life, new hopes, new power, and ultimately a different destination from those in the first Adam. Those in Christ possess all these things, but it is also clear that we still retain something of the Adamic. We are to reckon, or count ourselves to be dead to sin but alive to God. We are to put to death what is earthly in us. (Col. 3:5) Recall that Paul has said the first man is of the earth.
But it is also clear that being in Christ, our new head, means that we need not live under the power of the Adamic. Paul wrote to the Colossians in a parallel to what he wrote to the Ephesians. To the Ephesians he said “Put off the old man” but the Colossians he (fittingly) views as being with Christ in the heavenly places, seated with him. Thus he says “seeing that you have put off the old man with its practices and have put on the new man.” He views them as having already done it, having reckoned upon their identity as under the headship of Christ. This is where every Christian needs to live: in the knowledge and enjoyment of being in Christ, and recognizing all that it implies.  Confusing what properly belongs to one head, instead of another, leads to invalid conclusions. Next I’ll look at some of the variety in covenant views during the early years of the Reformation 

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.

Standing and State: The Importance of the Difference

When I first became a Christian, the believers I was among hammered home the distinction between our standing and state. I later came to see what a great gift it was to clearly delineate these two important truths.

Our standing is who we are in Christ; our identity as blood-bought, redeemed sons and daughters of God. Our standing is sealed by the indwelling Holy Spirit, whom Paul refers to in Ephesians 1:13 as the seal of our inheritance.
Standing is unalterable and fixed, because its foundation is the person and work of Christ. No amount of trial, no amount of failure on our part, nothing we do can diminish this once-for-all completed work of the Lord Jesus. One of the richest passages for these truths is found in the first few verses of Romans 5:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God.

The apostle begins with a “Therefore”, the assumption that this is a truth to count on. We have been justified. It’s a past tense, a completed thing. And it is through the Lord Jesus Christ. Secondly, we inhabit an atmosphere of grace, it is the ground we stand upon. Nothing here depends on our doing, or our performance. It is all of Christ, and all in Christ. This is our standing as Christians, and it cannot change. Our acceptance can never be questioned because the work of Christ can never be questioned.

Our state is a different thing. It is changing, temporary, fleeting. How I react on a given day to trials may be God-honoring. The next day, it may be otherwise. I will fail, I will sin, and so will you. Our obedience is less than complete. John affirms the reality of this when he says “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” Our old, Adamic nature doesn’t improve, it doesn’t get better. It’s still with us, though believers now have a new nature. Paul encourages us to “consider ourselves dead to sin”—because there is that within us that still responds to sin. This encouragement to reckon ourselves dead to sin is a slaying, but it is a judicial one, rather than an actual one. Paul also tells the Ephesians to put off the old man, and to put on the new. These truths demonstrate that fluctuation in our state is not only possible, but expected.

Believers that look to their state for assurance or peace will in fact find they don’t have assurance or peace. Because state is decidedly not fixed, it can never provide any sure basis for peace. Christian maturity is in one sense a continual adjustment of our state to our standing. That is, Christlikeness is the process of bringing my state into closer conformity with my standing. I do this by dwelling on all that Christ has accomplished in his suffering, death, and resurrection, and all that he continues to do as my Advocate at God’s right hand. When the accuser of the brethren hurls his condemnation at me, I look to the cross, and say “It is true I am unworthy, but he is worthy, he is altogether lovely, and the Father is well-pleased by his Son.” In other words, assurance and peace come from recalling my standing in Christ, an unassailable position made certain by the Father’s acceptance of His Son, and the unalterable facts of Jesus’ death and resurrection.

Too many Christians I have spoken to are unclear on this important difference between standing and state. If you are struggling with acceptance or assurance, I encourage you to consider whether it may be because you haven’t made this important distinction.

Yes, We Are Saved by Right Theology

What is popular in the broadest sense is often not detailed or specific. By popular, I mean “of the people.” A popular audience is less academic, less trained in technical terms or the jargon of specialty. They tend to be generalists. This does not mean that advanced concepts cannot be packaged in a way to appeal to a popular audience. (The “For Dummies” books acknowledge this, i.e. Physics for Dummies.)

Evangelicalism is a popular movement; it is of the people, and so comes with the tendency to dismiss or downgrade specificity in theology. As one interlocutor on social media has said “We’re not saved by right theology.” This pastor has elsewhere explained what he means as “we are saved by ‘allegiance to Jesus.'” In so saying, he makes a distinction between theology and Jesus, but this is an elusive thing.
If one says “We are saved by allegiance to Jesus” someone may ask, “Who is Jesus?” And the answer—no matter what form it takes, is theology.

If I explain who Jesus is, I am theologizing. I am explaining (one hopes) from Scripture the details about the person and work of Jesus. If I feel unconstrained by Scripture, then of course anything is admissible. We cannot speak of who Jesus is without entering the realm of doctrine and theology. In this sense, we are indeed saved by theology. If my definition of who he is misses the mark of who Scripture portrays him to be, then it is foolish to think such “belief” means I am in a relationship with Jesus. It is akin to saying that someone who lost their money in a bank failure really shouldn’t have because they really, sincerely believed in that bank!

But which things about Jesus are the critical ones? We all know that there are details of theology that some like to insist on, details they ride like a hobby horse, but which for others are not primary. This is always a conundrum. Some say that Jesus did not descend into hell upon his death, others say he did. Scripture isn’t specific on this. If one makes that a doctrinal boundary, it’s not legitimate precisely because of the lack of specificity of Scripture on this. However, if one says that Jesus is not divine, he is not God, he is less than God, a created being, this gets to the very heart of his identity and is a fundamental difference in his person. I am now redefining his very essence. It is another Jesus this describes. Scripture, in numerous places, is specific about this aspect of Jesus’ identity.
Discerning this difference can sometimes be thorny, but in fact many of the lines I see people drawing do fall into these obvious categories. That is, some say it is not important whether Jesus physically rose from the dead (despite the NT insistence that without this, there is no salvation.) Or, they prevaricate and say “It’s important that it happened, but it’s less important to believe it. It’s still true even if we get it wrong.” Or, “it’s not critical to believe that Jesus is the uncreated and eternal Son of God. Arianism is still acceptable Christology.”

There are two things to observe about this. First, this mindset says that the revelation in Scripture is given for no particular reason, that the apostles and writers of Scripture have no certain expectation that Christians believe anything they’ve written. These things are offered for belief, but if you don’t believe them, it’s not significant, it’s not a boundary marker. You’re still a Christian.

Reading Scripture to say this is dubious at best, and textual malfeasance at worst. To take the resurrection once again, Paul insists it is part of the gospel message, and indeed if Christ is not raised, we have no forgiveness. To suggest that the fact of the resurrection is important to Paul, but he’s indifferent to whether the Corinthians (and others) believe this is to make Paul say the implausible. In Romans 10, he indeed links belief and confession of the resurrection to our salvation. It’s historicity presupposes our belief of it. Paul insists so vehemently on the resurrection because we must believe Jesus rose from the dead. In other words, we are saved by right theology about the person and work of Christ.

We can say the same for his deity. What John presents in his gospel prologue is a truth of Jesus as the eternal Word, with God in the beginning, and indeed, the agent of creation, not the object of creation. Looking back at this gospel, John says near the end “these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” (John 20:31.) There is a whole lot packed into saying Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, which John expounds in his first epistle, and in the Apocalypse. What one cannot say is that defining Jesus as a created being, or as one of many gods, fits into John’s definition, nor can one say that John is indifferent to whether people believe these things.

The second thing we can say is that the whole fabric of Scripture has to be employed if we’re to come to a biblical picture of who Jesus is, and what we must believe. It is sometimes the case that people camp out in the gospels, looking at the life of Christ as the whole of revelation about him. The importance of the gospel records is beyond question, but it’s also true that Jesus himself told the disciples there would be more. He was sending the Holy Spirit to guide them into the truth. Many of those truths are expounded in the epistles, and rather than presenting a Jesus vs. Paul dichotomy, the NT letters explicate the entailments of Jesus’ identity.

Note, I’m not saying that unless one signs off on all the bullet points in a doctrinal statement, one is not saved. Think instead of the regula fidei, or rule of faith, that operated in the early centuries. It functioned less as a doctrinal statement for believers and more as a winnowing agent to outline the boundaries of orthodoxy. The rule of faith didn’t have anything about church order, only the most rudimentary eschatology, but it did cover the deity of Christ and his death and resurrection, and Trinitarianism. The regula fidei is a precis of Scriptural teaching on these essentials. In short, yes, there are essentials.

Finally, Paul repeatedly urges “sound doctrine” in the pastoral epistles, and one wonders, why insist on this, if doctrine is of small importance? By looking at both testaments, the gospels, the epistles, all genres of Scripture—only then can we speak cogently about what Scripture says about Jesus. I know of no one who regularly does this who says this is a trivial exercise. But the alternative some are putting forth, a Jesus detached from the truth of God’s revelation, that the teaching of who Jesus is is somehow unrelated to a relationship with him, such an alternative is unfaithful both to Scripture and those to whom we present the gospel.

Read Your Bible Slowly

The statistics on Bible engagement among Americans are not encouraging. They have not been for several years. The latest research from Barna shows that the number of Americans who are “Bible Centered” dropped from 9% down to 5%. Bible-Centered is defined as those who “Interact with the Bible frequently. It is transforming their relationships and shaping their choices.”[1] That is a subjective measure, but the category next to that one, “Bible Engaged” has a similar definition. “It is transforming their relationship with God and others.”[2] (It is odd that the more engaged category would not list a transformed relationship with God.) Nevertheless, one of the key points is this. “More than one-third of adults (35%) reports never using the Bible in 2019, a 10 percentage point increase since 2011 (25%).”[3] The use of Scripture by the general public is decreasing, which puts a greater burden on Christians.

As the public knows less of Scripture, and has no shared heritage rooted in Scripture, the task of evangelizing and apologetics becomes more difficult. One cannot count on hearers agreeing with things such as God is holy, or that he is just. One cannot count on agreement with the Bible’s definition of sin, or of salvation. All of this means that a thorough understanding of God’s redemptive plan is not just a nice thing to have, but it is an essential part of the equipment every believer needs. That redemptive plan, the unfolding of salvation history, is what some know as biblical theology. This, as opposed to systematic theology. The latter takes a subject, collects all the verses in Scripture about that, and formulates a doctrine. Biblical theology looks at the whole plot line of Scripture and locates within it what God has done to advance his kingdom, his purposes, and it locates our place within that plan.

Another way to say this is that Christians need to rely less on proof-texting, and more on this overarching plot line.  Proof-texting does have its place. There are verses that speak clearly and definitively on a subject. The exclusivity of salvation in Christ is there in John 14:6. “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” But it’s also notable that this verse is found in John’s gospel. The beloved disciple is the one who spoke of truth far more than any other evangelist. His gospel uses the word 27 times; Matthew and Mark 3 times each, and Luke uses the word 5 times. The word “life” as well, John uses nearly 3 times more than any other gospel writer.

When we note this, we begin to construct a biblical theology. We see that this verse doesn’t appear in isolation, but is part of the Johannine portrayal of the Lord Jesus in a unique way. We start to notice how one writer uses words in a way the others do not. We fit this verse into a biblical context. That allows us to see how that book and its author fit into the sweep of biblical theology, and the unfolding of God’s plan. We move beyond what some view as glib answers to questions they may have about God, Scripture, and importantly, their own relationship to God. This sort of biblical theology comes by slow reading, it comes by turning back a few pages to see what has come before, and it comes by reading more than just a few verses each day.

If Christians are going to meet the challenges of the world we inhabit, if we are going to be able to demonstrate the authority of Scripture and of the God who authored it, we need to be slow, careful readers of the text, and do the hard work of constructing this sort of understanding of God’s Word. Formulating this sort of biblical theology takes time, and can’t be rushed. But it’s vital for Christians to grasp this overarching sweep of God’s revelation that Scripture reveals. It is this centering on Scripture each of us needs.

 

[1] Barna Research “State of the Bible 2019: Trends in Engagement” https://www.barna.com/research/state-of-the-bible-2019/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

You Don’t Need Office to Minister to the Body

Our view of ministry in the local church has been influenced by a lot of things. Scripture is among these, but the corporate world is often too influential. Listening to the “organizational effectiveness” mandarins makes one think that we need to place a premium on leadership. We should develop leaders, mentor them, give them opportunities to succeed and advance. But that mindset can be at odds with what we find in the New Testament. There, the emphasis is quite often on followership rather than leadership. It is on serving, rather than leading, it is on abasing oneself rather than seeking opportunities. The corporate model can make one think that the thing that matters is being in leadership—being a pastor or an elder. But an attitude that restricts ministry in the local church to those who hold official office, those who are designated as pastors or elders, is a skewed view of both the body of Christ, and ministry.
In contrast, Paul describes what this should look like in Ephesians 4:15-16:

“Speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”

There are at least two notable things here. First, it is the headship of Christ that Paul identifies as the center, the goal. It is into him we grow, and indeed the whole body grows. I recall that shortly before I came to understand the gospel clearly, when I was still a cultural Christian, someone asked me what I was looking for in a church. I said something about good preaching and good music, and I will never forget his reply because it seemed so utterly obvious once I heard it. “How about Christ-centered?” We must hold fast to him who is our head. We must remember that we are the body of Christ, but a body most certainly has a head. Some traditions have inverted this order, and it looks very much like the body telling the head what to do.

Second, the plural nature of ministry is clear. It is the whole body, every joint, and each part working together that leads to the body building itself up in love. It is, in a sense, reflexive. The body, in reliance on the head, building itself up in love. Even though the church has as its foundation the apostles and prophets, the building up of the body is not restricted to only those formally recognized as pastors or elders.

The goal of edification, of “upbuilding” in the body of Christ, is to reach “mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.” (Eph 4:13) Children are a singular blessing, but we expect that they will grow up, that they will not stay children forever. That would be tragic. Maturity in the Christian life means growth, understanding, wisdom, and it is not limited to a handful of people. In the first half of this verse Paul has given us an idea of the scope he has in mind. “until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God.” It is not that some, a few, the “clergy” attain to unity of the faith, and to know the Son of God, but all.

The New Testament sets forth qualifications for office such that not everyone in the local church is able to be a pastor or an elder. Not all can meet these qualifications. The contention around this usually appears as “Can women be pastors or elders?” But I suggest it is a limited view of ministry in the local church that is sometimes behind this. To suggest that unless women can be pastors or elders, they are barred from effective ministry, is to misunderstand ministry. In other words, if we insist that all aspects of ministry, all offices in the local church, are open to everyone, is it a de facto admission that we believe the ones who really matter are those who hold these offices? Do we unintentionally demote the rest of the body to a lower status, to a place of lesser importance? There are in fact many men who do not meet the qualifications for office in the local church, and indeed the vast majority of men will never stand in a pulpit to preach. Do we tell these men that they can never really have a role in building up the body because of this? Both women and men can and should have their part in building up the body. Men and women who hold no office can edify, encourage, model Christ and be servants to the local church in many ways. Don’t think that your ministry will only be effective if you’re “official.” The New Testament says otherwise.

The Red Sea Crossing in the Psalms: Returning to Redemption

One of the notable things about the Psalms is the frequency of citations to the crossing of the Red Sea when Israel came out of Egypt. This event was a climax in the life of the people of God in the Old Testament. They were spared God’s judgment in the Passover, when he killed all the firstborn of Egypt. Following this, not only did Pharaoh let them go, he compelled them to leave. They stood at the banks of the Red Sea, seemingly trapped between the water in front of them, and the Egyptians behind them.
But of course God intervened, and parted the waters. Exodus 14 records the denouement:
So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the Lord threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. Ex. 14:27-29.
When we come to the Psalms, the writer returns again and again to this. Beginning in Ps. 66:5-6:
Come and see what God has done:
he is awesome in his deeds toward the children of man.
He turned the sea into dry land;
they passed through the river on foot.
 
Also, Ps. 78:12-13:
 
In the sight of their fathers he performed wonders
in the land of Egypt, in the fields of Zoan.
He divided the sea and let them pass through it,
and made the waters stand like a heap.
 
Other places where this is found are, Ps. 74, 77, 106, 114, 136.
 
The writers of Psalms return to this event so frequently because it is seminal in the life of God’s people. It is a visible deliverance from their enemies. In a way, it is is the public declaration of the separation God effected in the Passover. Going back to what God did in letting Israel pass through the waters, even as he judged the Egyptians, is an encouragement to the people to remember God’s mighty works. Even as he did so long ago, so will he do again. For the Christian, the cross and the resurrection are these events. Paul does indeed link the death of Christ to the Passover, but he doesn’t explicitly link the Red Sea crossing with resurrection, so I hold this picture loosely. He does indeed speak of being baptized into Moses, and elsewhere baptism is a presented as a picture of death and resurrection, but it is a connection to a connection.
 
By returning to God’s mighty works, his accomplishments in the cross and the empty tomb, we encourage our hearts that just as he did so long ago, the same God is there for us. We have an advocate at God’s right hand, we have one who has passed through death, and who makes intercession for us. God’s past actions are indeed a demonstration that he can and will work on behalf of his people in the future.