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.

If Christ is not Raised: Physical Resurrection is Essential to the Gospel

Is the resurrection of Jesus an “essential doctrine” of the Christian faith? Or stated differently, must one believe Jesus rose physically from the dead to have one’s sins pardoned? This question came up, as it does each year, around Easter. Social media was ablaze with opinions on this, and among them was the suggestion that “We are not saved by believing a certain set of propositions, but by allegiance to Jesus.” I may paraphrase slightly there, but I don’t think this is misrepresenting my interlocutor. Such a statement is, ironically, a proposition, and where would one turn to demonstrate it, if not to the Scriptures? When we speak of allegiance to Jesus, one has to ask, “Who is he? Who to the Scriptures proclaim him to be?” On the point of the resurrection, there is no honest reading of the New Testament that can omit the resurrection of Jesus as an integral part of his identity and essential to the gospel message. Every single instance of gospel preaching in the book of Acts is accompanied by an affirmation that Jesus rose from the dead. This is so much a part of apostolic preaching that it is not at a stretch to say that if one is not proclaiming the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, it is no gospel whatsoever. When Paul comes to his summation of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15, he says that “he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.”

It was amazing to read the NY Times interview of Union Seminary President Serene Jones, and find Nicholas Kristof having a better grasp of the truth than she did. Kristof asked, in response to Jones’ apparent doubts about the resurrection,

“Isn’t a Christianity without a physical resurrection less powerful and awesome? When the message is about love, that’s less religion, more philosophy.”

Jones’ answer is not atypical of an exceedingly expansive view of “love:”
“For me, the message of Easter is that love is stronger than life or death. That’s a much more awesome claim than that they put Jesus in the tomb and three days later he wasn’t there. For Christians for whom the physical resurrection becomes a sort of obsession, that seems to me to be a pretty wobbly faith.”

Alas, poor Paul. It seems the apostle had a pretty wobbly faith, for he told the Corinthians that “if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.” (15:14) And, “if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (15:17)

What’s at work in these views of the resurrection of Jesus as something other than a physical raising, is a redefinition of the boundaries of faith to something that is personal and subjective. A “spiritual” resurrection is a category of resurrection that Scripture knows nothing of. To claim as some have that this is the kind of resurrection they believe in, and that they do believe Jesus rose from the dead, is to define Jesus in a completely different way than the New Testament does. What good, then, is allegiance to such a one? Paul says it’s no good at all—futile, vain, and pitiful.

There are areas of doctrine that are secondary, and Scripture signals these by not focusing on them in the way it does on the primary ones. I know of no one who would say a boundary marker for whether one is or is not a member of the body of Christ is correct eschatology, or the polity of the local church. But when it comes to the person and work of Christ, the New Testament gives us no such latitude. The incarnation of God the Son, God taking humanity to himself, is a truth we encounter at the very start of the gospels and all through the remaining New Testament writings. Jesus was not just a moral teacher, an example we should follow. He is God manifest in the flesh. Similarly, at the end of the gospel story, we have the resurrection and the triumph of Jesus over death and Satan. Paul did not write what he did to the Corinthians to suggest some additional things they might consider. He wrote them because these things are essential to knowing who Jesus is, and thus believing in him.

Nicky Cruz, former gang leader, says of his conversion, “When I first became a Christian, I knew nothing about anything. So far as the things of God were concerned, I was a totally ignorant man.”[1] Some want to put the question as “How little does one need to know in order to become a Christian?” But that isn’t really the question Cruz was addressing, and it isn’t a claim that Dr. Jones was making.  Rather, Cruz was speaking of a growth in understanding of God’s truth, and importantly, how he received it. Fred Sanders, who relates the story, goes on to note how Cruz came to understand the doctrine of the Trinity, which at first he had a very faint grasp of.

“He had moved from accepting it on the authority of Scripture and his trusted elders to understanding it from within. ‘I didn’t understand it. I believed it was true, though at first only because I had such great confidence in those who taught it to me. Then later I believed it was true because I saw it to be true in the Bible.’”[2]

Cruz’s experience shows what allegiance to Jesus actually looks like. As we come to understand more of what Scripture says about who he is and what he has done, we accept that as God’s testimony concerning his Son. If we deny the record of Scripture, (and the physical resurrection of Jesus) we are in fact showing a posture toward God that the New Testament does not recognize as faithful discipleship.

Being a faithful follower of Jesus is more than this, more than just assenting to the truths of Scripture. But it is surely not less than this.

 

[1] Cited in Fred Sanders, The Deep Things of God: How the Trinity Changes Everything (Wheaton, Crossway, 2010), 31.

[2] Sanders, 32.

Substitutionary Atonement and the Gospel

One of the many gospel foundations that’s under attack and scorn is the substitutionary atonement of Jesus Christ. Whether it’s seeing the crucifixion as “divine child abuse” or otherwise dismissing the death of Jesus as wholly unnecessary for our forgiveness, these are among the ways in which the atonement is under attack.

To understand why this is, we need to back up a bit, prior to the crucifixion, and ask why the death of Chris was necessary? Our sin and separation from God are the reason. Denying the necessity of the death of Jesus comes back to a denial of either our sinfulness, or that this is the God-ordained way to overcome our sin. To dismiss the sinfulness of mankind is foolish on two counts. First, Scripture repeatedly and clearly presents our natural condition as sinful and at enmity with God because of our sin. Genesis 6:5 has always struck me for the way it describes our sinfulness in a way that leaves no wiggle room. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” The modifiers alone show this: only every intention, only evil and continually evil. It isn’t just Genesis, but Paul quotes extensively from the Psalms in Romans 3 when he is laying out the universal guilt of all mankind.

None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.” Rom 3:11-12.

And that is just the half of it.

Consider your own experience. As you look at the world around, do you see evidence that mankind is essentially good and wants to choose the right? Or, do you see evidence of fractured relationships, violence, oppression and hate? An honest assessment must admit that human beings, left to themselves, choose the wrong path.

But God loves us!

You might admit these things are true, and yet doubt that the way our separation with God is bridged is only by the death of Jesus. After all, God is love, and love covers a multitude of sins, does it not? Indeed, God is love, but the unmistakable message of the New Testament is that out of love, God has given his Son to die in our place. It is not love only that is the basis of our salvation, but that the giving of Jesus comes from God’s love for us. This doesn’t mean that the death of Christ isn’t necessary. When the angel announced to Joseph that Mary was to have a son, he said “You shall call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins.” Jesus means “God is salvation” not “God is our example.” We didn’t need a good example, or someone to show us how to live by the Golden Rule. On the contrary, because sin is so heinous and offensive to God’s justice, the only way to overcome the enmity Scripture says natural man has to God is through the death of His Son. In the Old Testament, animals were sacrificed (by God’s command) and God told Israel, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood, and I have given it for you on the altar to make atonement for your souls, for it is the blood that makes atonement by the life.” Lev 17:11. When we come to the New Testament, the writer to Hebrews picks up this theme and identifies that these animal sacrifices were never sufficient, they only pointed forward to the one true and all-sufficient sacrifice, that of Jesus on the cross.
“Nor was it to offer himself repeatedly, as the high priest enters the holy places every year with blood not his own, for then he would have had to suffer repeatedly since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Hebrews 9: 25-26.

The substitution of Jesus in our place, the place of sinners, satisfied God as a full and complete payment of our guilt. If we dismiss this, we dismiss what God has set forth as the only way of peace, the only way for sinful humanity to have a relationship with the living God. The death of Jesus was not a plan B, nor something that mankind did, subverting God’s will. Paul puts it at the very heart of the gospel: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures,” 1 Cor 15:3. It was for our sins, and in our place—our substitute—that Jesus died. Was God satisfied with what He did? The resurrection is the Father’s loud Amen.

10 Things About the Law of Moses (and 5 Answers to Objections)

1. The Law was given to Jews, and not to Gentiles.

The law was given at Sinai, after the people were redeemed from Egypt. The Ten Commandments form the “treaty document” between God and Israel. (Gentry/Wellum, Kingdom through Covenant, 327-28.) The psalmist wrote “He declares his word to Jacob, his statutes and rules to Israel. He has not dealt thus with any other nation; they do not know his rules.” (Psalm 147:19-20) Following the giving of the Decalogue, God spoke many more laws to the nation, but these were still given to Jacob’s seed—Israel. After condemning all Gentiles for their disobedience to God, Paul wrote in Rom 3:19, “Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God.” In short, God spoke his laws to Israel.

2. The Law is a unit that Scripture doesn’t divide.

While it may be helpful to think of various laws by the area of life in Israel they regulated, dividing the law into various categories with the goal of determining what does and doesn’t apply any longer is not sustainable from Scripture. It’s common to say that the civil and ceremonial parts are gone, and the moral law remains, but there are many commandments that deal with moral issues, but are outside of the Ten Commandments. Paul quoted Deuteronomy 27:26 to the Galatians: “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Throughout the Old Testament, God repeatedly told the people to be careful to do all that he commanded. Choosing to obey some, but not all was not a choice for Israel. When we come to the New Testament. Paul only knows a single category called “the law.” He never speaks of divisions that remain, while others have been annulled.

3. The purpose of the law is to reveal sin, rather than to bring life or righteousness.

In his indictment of both Jew and Gentile in Romans, Paul arrives at this: “through the law comes knowledge of sin.” (Rom. 3:20) Whatever purpose the law had in Israel to govern the people, the law didn’t precede the promise to Abraham. “Scripture imprisoned everything under sin so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.” (Gal 3:22) In Galatians especially, Paul speaks of the law as an imprisoning force, taking advantage of the weakness of our flesh. Indeed, the law not only reveals sin, but in some sense exacerbates it: “while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members.” (Rom. 7:5)

4. Obligation to the law remained until Jesus fulfilled it. He did this at Calvary.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said that he didn’t come to abolish the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill. Though some point to these verses as evidence that an obligation to the law remains, Jesus is in fact setting the end point of the law’s jurisdiction at the cross. There he absorbed the curse of the law fully and completely. Since there remains no more curse, there remains nothing of the law that commands believers. The law belongs to the Mosaic Covenant, and Paul contrasts this with the New Covenant in Christ, in 2 Cor. 3. He speaks of the law as “what once had glory has come to have no glory at all.” This is clear only if we understand that covenant has ended. If we think Matt 5 is teaching we still have to keep the law, ask this: What part of the law do you think Jesus did not fulfill?

5. Christians are not obligated to keep the Law—even the Ten Commandments.

Paul used the illustration of marriage with the Romans, and when a spouse dies, the marriage has ended. “Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ.” (Rom 7:4) Dying with Christ, by faith, means that any obligation to the law is severed. “But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive.” (Rom 7:6) If Paul meant to exempt the Ten Commandments from this, he wasn’t very careful, as he used the Tenth Commandment as the example of a law that aroused sin and killed him. (Rom.7:7-8) Prior to this, Paul strongly implies that to be under the law is to be under the dominion of sin. “For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.” (Rom. 6:14)

6. Although the Law’s covenantal object is Israel, its spiritual object is those in Adam.

Understanding what Scripture has said about the law as given to the Jews, there is an aspect of the law that is directed toward those in Adam. Gentile hearts are no different from Jewish ones, and the law’s commandments will do to all what it did to Paul: arouse sin. But Paul makes clear that those who trust in Jesus are transferred from darkness to light and under the headship of Christ. He acted representatively for us at Calvary, even as Adam acted representatively in Eden. Experiencing death with Christ means we are raised with Him, (Rom 6:7, & Col. 3:1-3) and thus we now live where the law cannot reach nor condemn. Paul also speaks about adoption in Galatians, and as Thomas Schreiner says, “it is more likely that the “we” who receive adoption in Galatians 4:5 refers to both Jews and Gentiles. Otherwise, Paul would be undercutting one of the central themes of Galatians—both Jews and Gentiles are adopted as sons.” (Schreiner, 40 Questions on the Law, 79)

7. Saying Christians are free from the Law is not saying Christians are free to disobey God.

In the several places where Paul pronounces our freedom from the law, he follows these with explanations of how believers serve God. Why have believers died to the law? “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) Being free from law enables us to bear fruit to him. Paul wrote to the Galatians that if they walk by the Spirit, they will not gratify the desires of the flesh, (5:16) and that walking by the Spirit means they are not under law. (5:18) While some teach that the Holy Spirit now enables believers to keep the law, nothing in the New Testament supports this. Indeed, Paul always joins law to flesh, and always pits the flesh against the Spirit. Notably, the apostle Paul never once corrected sin in the various congregations by telling believers they needed to keep the law.

8. Christians fulfill the Law, but they don’t keep the Law.

While it may seem like hair-splitting, or an artificial distinction, a careful reading of the New Testament bears out a difference between keeping the law, and fulfilling the law. Christians are never called upon to keep it, but they are told to fulfill it—through love. After quoting several of the Ten Commandments in Romans 13, Paul doesn’t say, “So make sure you keep these.” Rather, he says, “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law.” (Rom 13:10) He repeats this to the Galatians, saying, “through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (5:13-14) Finally, Paul says that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us” who walk by the Spirit (Rom 8:4) I suggest that the overarching requirement of the law is holiness, and it is that which is fulfilled in believers, but not by the law.

9. The believer’s pattern is not the Law, but the Lord Jesus.

The law commanded love for neighbor (Lev. 19:18) and even love for the stranger (Deut. 10:19) but never love for one’s enemies. We only learn of this when Jesus comes and demonstrates it ultimately at Calvary. Based on this, he gives his disciples a “new commandment” that they love one another as he has loved us. In the various commands that the apostles give toward Christian maturity, these are portrayed Christ-likeness. “Imitate me even as I imitate Christ.” (1 Cor 11:1) Imitate God as beloved children. (Eph. 5:1) Victory over sin and the flesh is by “putting on the Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rom 13:14) As new creatures in Christ, we are to have the mind of Christ, who demonstrated the humility of a servant. None of this comes to believers through the Law.

10. Serving God in the way of the Spirit takes us beyond where the Law ever could.

The law is certainly not contrary to what God now calls believers to, but neither does it go as far as we are called to go. Recall that the love and humility of service that Jesus showed is what Paul gives Christians as the mark and the goal. The law doesn’t articulate this humility the way apostolic instruction does. Paul doesn’t teach believers no longer need the law because the law was bad, but because of the change that the coming of the Holy Spirit brings. It is the fruit of the Spirit, not the works of the law, that we pursue. Recalling that if we walk as having put on the Lord Jesus Christ, we need not worry about whether or not we are doing the law.

5 Objections to Saying Believers are Free from the Law of Moses

1. Doesn’t Paul quote several of the Ten Commandments in the New Testament? Why would he do this if we don’t have to obey them?

Paul does indeed quote several commands of the Ten, but a careful look at how he does so reveals his use. In Romans 13, he never tells them to keep any, but to walk in love. In Ephesians 5, he starts not with the Fifth commandment, but with his own word, “children obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right” and then uses the Fifth to illustrate the principle that the law is not inconsistent with Christian holiness. He also quotes from Deuteronomy, “You shall not muzzle the ox as it treads out the grain” and applies it to the financial support of pastors. What Paul is doing is applying the law, using it as wisdom, even as he does not put believers under it. For a full treatment of this see Brian S. Rosner, Paul and the Law: Keeping the Commandments of God.

2. Isn’t this Antinomianism?

The word antinomianism is, by most accounts, one that was coined by Luther. He battled opponents who were rather free in their interpretation of what God requires of believers. What is usually meant by this charge is that saying we are free from the law is saying we are free to sin. (See #7 above) Paul himself was apparently the target of this charge, or something close to it. “why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying.” (Rom 3:8) One of the great weaknesses in the charge of “antinomianism” is that it in fact weakens God’s law, robs it of the ability of what Paul says it does—killed him. (“I through the law, died to the law.”) Those who say believers must keep the Ten Commandments also say that when they break one, there is no condemnation, no consequence. This is not treating the law as Scripture treats it, but rather remaking it as the Ten Suggestions.

3. By faith (and through the Spirit) believers are enabled to keep the Law—Paul says so.

Romans 3:31 is a verse that many point to as demonstrating that by faith a believer will keep the law. “Do we then overthrow the law by this faith? By no means! On the contrary, we uphold the law.” I suggest, though, that Paul is not talking about commandments here. He earlier said that “the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it” (righteousness by faith) At end of the chapter, he is answering the objection that the justification by faith he has just shown in ch. 3 now means that the Pentateuch—the Law—and God’s history with the patriarchs has now been set aside. Paul will show in Romans 4 how Abraham and David both demonstrate justification by faith. The righteousness Paul argues for in Romans was there in the Old Testament, and in this way, Paul and his doctrine uphold the Law.

4. Paul said he was under the law of Christ. This shows he obeyed the Ten Commandments.

In 1 Cor. 9, Paul’s purpose is evangelistic, to win some to Christ, and he speaks there of three groups. The Jews, Gentiles, and “those under law.” This last group is not the Jews themselves, to whom the law was given, else it would make no sense to speak of them separately. It is instead “God-fearing” Gentiles; those who were attracted to the monotheistic faith of the Israelites, and who themselves began to follow the law. Cornelius in Acts 10 is an example. Paul is here saying that his freedom allowed him to do whatever the situation required in service to the gospel, but that he is not under the Mosaic law, rather he is “under the law of Christ.” The law of Christ is not the Old Covenant law. It is that principle of self-giving that Jesus showed at Calvary, and which every believer is called to emulate.

5. The Law reveals God’s Mind and Character. We can’t go wrong by keeping God’s Law.

It is common in Reformed theology to view the law as the highest revelation of God’s will and as a transcript of the divine character. (This was Calvin’s view, among others) but it rests more on a desire to reconcile apparent contradictions between the Testaments than on the revelation in Scripture. There is no contradiction if we recognize what Paul said about the temporal nature of the law. It belongs to the Mosaic Covenant, which came 430 years after the promise to Abraham, and that with the coming of Christ, the law no longer rules. (Gal. 3:15-29) Hebrews 1 says that “in these last days, God has spoken to us by his Son.” It isn’t the law that is the highest revelation of God’s will and character, it is Jesus. As one born under the law, a Jew, Jesus kept the law, but he did so much beyond that. It wasn’t the law that compelled him to go to the cross, it was love. The continual exhortation in the New Testament is “the truth is in Jesus” and that Christ is the wisdom of God. We are called to look at him, to follow him, to delight in him. As Paul says in Rom 10:4, Christ is the end of the law.

Notes from the Resistance: How the Old Testament Continues to Assert its Value

I have written before about the “unhitching” of the Old Testament from the New, and the furor caused by some suggestions Andy Stanley made in his preaching. My previous post considered some statements he had made in public speaking. Having now read his book, Irresistible, I want to consider some of what’s in it and whether it offers a better explanation of his public preaching. There was a strong reaction against Stanley, and the invocation of “Marcionism” over what he was saying. I don’t believe he has embraced full blown Marcionism. Stanley is not claiming there is a separate God in the Old Testament from the God of the New, but at the same time, I can’t go with him in his suggestions that Christianity does not need the Old Testament.

The Mosaic Covenant and the Christian

Stanley is absolutely correct in highlighting the differences between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. He enumerates the long centuries of Judaizing that have plagued the church, including some discontinuities between Old and New Covenants. “Why do some churches have priests?” (p. 90) Stanley points out the temporality between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant. (“Jesus had come to put in place something designed to fulfill and replace all that had been in place before.” (p. 77) The types and shadows of the law find their fulfillment in Jesus, as Hebrews explains) and the Mosaic Covenant is brought to an an end by Jesus, as 2nd Corinthians 3, among other places, explains. Stanley also is right in saying that the Old Covenant is an all-or-nothing proposition. You can’t cherry pick it. (p. 143) (Though this is indeed what many people do with the laws of the Mosaic Covenant.)
He correctly notes the real continuity is between the Abrahamic Covenant (a covenant that preceded the Mosaic) and the New. “The inauguration of a new covenant signaled the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham.” (p. 85)

The Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian

Earlier in the book, Stanley writes, “I’m not discounting the importance of the Jewish Scriptures. When it comes to Jewish sacred texts, I’m with Jesus, his view is my view.” (p. 69) But the later parts of the book undercut this statement, and indeed, demonstrate a view that is quite different from the one Jesus had. At the core of much of what Stanley worries about is the way in which the Old Covenant can “get in the way” of our evangelizing. (This is my paraphrase of his concern.) In short, if we have to explain why there is so much violence, arcane rules, in short—defend the harmony of both Testaments, it is something that too few Christians can do in a way that convinces non-Christians or new believers. The result is that those who hear the gospel balk at so much of what is in the Bible, while new Christians can end up “de-converted” because the tension has become too great for them to reconcile.

The problem with this approach is that it is not the way Jesus or the apostles dealt with the Jewish Scriptures. Stanley too often conflates Old Covenant with Hebrew Scripture. “Christianity has a compelling, verifiable, historical story to tell. The moment we anchor our story to an old covenant narrative and worldview, we lose our case in the marketplace.” (p. 158) Perhaps Stanley is just being inexact here, not distinguishing enough between Mosaic Covenant and Hebrew Bible, but it does bring the mind what Jesus himself said in Luke 24:27: “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.” While the reference to Moses includes the history of Abraham, the inclusion of “all the Prophets” makes it very likely that Jesus spoke of all 5 books of the Pentateuch and the rest of Israel’s history, too. That is, he leveraged the Jewish Scriptures to demonstrate that he, the Christ, is found throughout. That is even more undeniable by what Luke records later in the chapter. “These are my words that I spoke to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.” Lk. 24:45. The Lord Jesus himself shows how even in the law—obsolete as it is—points us to him.
Paul wrote that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully. Without question, there is a lot of unlawful and unwise use of the law today, but Paul also showed how justification by faith is found in the “law” as well, that is, in Moses. But Stanley dismisses this sort of use of the Hebrew Scriptures with such statements as “The Jewish Scriptures describe God’s activity in connection to one particular people group.” (p. 161) This is at odds with apostolic use of the Jewish Scriptures. When Paul writes that the Law and the Prophets bear witness to justification by faith, and that this justification is for both Jew and Gentile (Rom 3:21-23) it is not a description of God’s activity only with the Jews.

How do you know what you know?

A lot of Stanley’s method is to get beyond a mere reliance on things like “the Bible says” in order to convince unbelievers of the truth of the Christian gospel. “As part of my shift, I stopped leveraging the authority of Scripture, and began leveraging the authority and stories of the people beyond Scripture.” (p. 314) But this is wordplay. How do we know what Jesus said, or what Paul said? We only know it because of what we have written in Scripture. Appealing to eyewitnesses was valid as long as there remained living eyewitnesses. But now we have the record of those eyewitnesses, and to suggest the written record is somehow less valuable, less trustworthy, is dangerous. I can’t help wondering about Stanley’s view of the power of God’s word. That is, in his concern to be relevant to the surrounding culture with the gospel, he seems to dismiss God’s ability to use his word to convict and convert, as if our time and culture are unique. I don’t believe they are, nor do I think the gospel somehow faces longer odds than it ever has. God’s word is still powerful, living and active. We don’t need to accommodate it to the culture, we need to preach it.

Love above all

One of the things Stanley points out in the stark difference between the Mosaic Covenant and the New Covenant is that love is the guiding principle of our ethic now. How do we treat others? With love. Why do we not murder? Not because the 6th Commandment says not to, but because as followers of Jesus it is wholly unloving to do so. Indeed, Paul exhorts us “Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us.” Eph 5:1-2. All of this is true, but if we cast aside the authority of Scripture, what keeps us from applying the love principle not as God defines it, but as we do? In other words, what prevents someone from saying that just as the Hebrew Scriptures have no lasting applicability to believers now, in fact, neither does the New Testament have any such applicability. What matters above all else is love, and if we want to win in the marketplace of ideas, we have to go to what they understand. Much of Western culture is decrying Christianity and the ethic that accompanies it as intolerant and unloving. I see no reason at all for someone who takes Stanley’s logic about the Hebrew Scriptures from doing the same thing with the New Testament. Indeed, there are examples all around of many who have done just that.

Stanley hints at the proper solution to the dilemma he addresses, and that is, to rightly divide the Word; to see what is applicable to Israel, and what is applicable to Christians. But that is not the same as casting aside the Hebrew Bible as no longer relevant. Paul wrote to Timothy that “from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.” (2 Tim 3:15) Paul is talking about the Hebrew Scriptures when he says that are able to make wise unto salvation. In other words, there is gospel in the Old Testament.
No one doubts that reconciling the Hebrew Bible with the New Testament presents challenges, but the solution to this is not capitulation, but further study. The faithfulness of God to his people in the Old Testament is a vivid portrait to us of our promise-keeping God. The sentiments expressed in the Psalms, while not all of them are those we can echo, are yet a rich trove of praise to the God whose lovingkindness endures forever. Christians today need encouragement that there is inestimable value in the Hebrew Scriptures. They are as surely God’s Word as the latter 27 books.

What Does it Mean to Keep the Sabbath?

Among the Ten Commandments, none has been treated with more flexibility than the Fourth.

 

One encounters a whole range of views on the Sabbath command, and what people believe their obligation is toward it.  Since it is one of the Ten Commandments, it makes a good test case whether those who insist Christians must keep the Ten are actually doing so. The first question is, what is the Sabbath Day? Many point to the roots of the Sabbath in creation itself.

Thus the heavens and the earth were finished, and all the host of them. And on the seventh day God finished his work that he had done, and he rested on the seventh day from all his work that he had done. So God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it God rested from all his work that he had done in creation. Gen 2:1-3

But while God did this, he did not issue any command to Adam to rest on the day. The text of Genesis says only that God rested. Many traditions have dealt with Sunday—the Lord’s Day— as a substitute for the Sabbath. We keep the Sabbath or honor it by gathering for corporate worship on Sunday, and by refraining from some activities they do on the other days of the week. The Westminster Confession affirms this:

This Sabbath is to be kept holy unto the Lord when men, after a due preparing of their hearts, and ordering of their common affairs beforehand, do not only observe an holy rest all the day from their own works, words, and thoughts about their worldly employments and recreations, but also are taken up the whole time in the public and private exercises of his worship, and in the duties of necessity and mercy. (WCF 21.8)

But this is based on some assumptions of history and culture, and not on Scripture. The prior section of the Confession reads,

[God] has particularly appointed one day in seven, for a Sabbath, to be kept holy unto him: which, from the beginning of the world to the resurrection of Christ, was the last day of the week: and, from the resurrection of Christ, was changed into the first day of the week, which, in Scripture, is called the Lord’s Day, and is to be continued to the end of the world, as the Christian Sabbath.

The Scriptural proof offered that Sunday is now the Sabbath are the verses that record Christians gathering for worship on the first day of the week. But none of these verses identify this day with the Sabbath. In fact, we learn from Acts 20 that the believers were meeting in the evening, very likely because Sunday was a work day for them. They certainly were not resting on the day. I agree with those who protest that Sunday is not the Sabbath day. The Sabbath is Saturday; always has been, always will be. But it is also not necessary to keep the Sabbath day as God commanded Israel because we in Christ are not Israel.

Returning to the Old Testament, it wasn’t until later than Eden that there is a command that Israel should rest on the day. When this command comes, it comes with specificity for the seed of Jacob alone—Israel.  The Sabbath receives its fullest explanation in Exodus 31.

And the Lord said to Moses, “You are to speak to the people of Israel and say, ‘Above all you shall keep my Sabbaths, for this is a sign between me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I, the Lord, sanctify you. You shall keep the Sabbath, because it is holy for you. Everyone who profanes it shall be put to death. Whoever does any work on it, that soul shall be cut off from among his people. Six days shall work be done, but the seventh day is a Sabbath of solemn rest, holy to the Lord. Whoever does any work on the Sabbath day shall be put to death. Therefore the people of Israel shall keep the Sabbath, observing the Sabbath throughout their generations, as a covenant forever. It is a sign forever between me and the people of Israel that in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, and on the seventh day he rested and was refreshed.’” (Exodus 31:12-17)

The Sabbath day in Israel was a day of rest. No work was to be performed on the day at all.  It was not a day of worship, or of going to the Tabernacle of the synagogue (there were no synagogues until the Babylonian Captivity) but only of rest. Those who say that Saturday is the proper day of gathering for worship face the hurdle that this is absent from the text of Scripture. It is, ironically, a tradition. I say ironically because some accuse those who worship on Sunday of giving in to the tradition of the Roman Catholic Church or of Constantine, but this is incorrect. We gather on Sundays because the Lord Jesus rose on that day, and the early church began to do so. (It’s not my purpose here to argue for Sunday worship, so I won’t expand upon that.) But we can say that Saturday was not a day of worship for Israel.

Note also that the day is called a sign specifically between God and the children of Israel. Gentiles were never commanded to keep the Sabbath because they were not part of the covenant God made with Israel.  Some have also noted that even if one holds to some form of natural law; that things such as murder, theft, and lying are universally and naturally known by all men to be wrong, one cannot say the same thing for the Sabbath command. Who knows in their conscience that resting on Saturday is a morally right thing to do, or that working on Saturday is wrong? For this reason, even those who believe the Ten Commandments are an abiding standard for Christians today often categorize the Sabbath command as ceremonial, and not part of the moral law.  Michael Horton writes, “To suggest that the fourth commandment, then, is part of the ceremonial, rather than the moral, law is to say that it is no longer binding for Christians.”[1] He avers that the fourth commandment is unique among the Ten, including the fact that it cannot be credibly claimed that it is stamped on the human conscience, as the others are, and that it is nowhere repeated: “We search in vain to find one single New Testament commandment concerning the Sabbath.”[2]

How did Israel treat the Sabbath? In Numbers 15, the people find a man gathering sticks on the Sabbath, and he is kept in ward until God tells Moses what to do with him. He is to be stoned by the whole congregation. Sabbath-breaking was thus a capital crime in Israel. For those who insist on keeping the Sabbath today, is it a capital crime not to do so? If not, why? Where was this changed? The point is that those who claim they are keeping the Sabbath aren’t actually doing so. They have modified the commands that accompany it, but with such modification, they aren’t actually keeping the day as God commanded.

Like much of the law, the Sabbath pointed forward to Christ. The Sabbath in the New Testament is no longer a day, but a person. We as believers find our rest in Christ. Recognizing that our rest—our Sabbath—is found in the Lord Jesus is the closest thing the New Testament has to describe how believers now “keep” the Sabbath. This isn’t to suggest that a rhythm of rest is a bad idea, but it is to say that believers have freedom from the law, and are not required to “Keep the Sabbath.” Paul writes that “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord.” Rom 14:5-6, and “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.” Col. 2:16-17.  If you have a conviction to rest on Saturdays, (or Sundays) by all means do so, but don’t do so because God commanded Israel to do it.

[1] Michael Scott Horton, The Law of Perfect Freedom (Chicago, Moody Press, 1993), 124.

[2] Ibid., 126.

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

Ecclesiology and the Start-Up Culture

Christian growth cannot be commoditized to scale up.

 

The doctrine of the church—ecclesiology—has been among the most malleable and flexible for believers today. How a church is organized, what it’s polity may be, many Christians see as of secondary importance. Instead, expediency is what is more important. Is what we’re doing working? And the measure of what works often mirrors the culture of business start-ups. Although this isn’t new, we’re seeing the full flowering (and decay) of the mindset. Going back to Willow Creek and the massive growth they experienced, growing a church is very much akin to growing a brand, to penetrating a market with a product. Indeed, it’s well documented that in the early days of Willow Creek, they did market research to find out what people didn’t like about the previous church “products.” And the vision for the product is cast by a leader who is charismatic and inspiring. If you think of Apple or Amazon, these companies grew largely because of the innovative leaders who founded them. Steve Jobs and Jeff Bezos had a drive and a vision that captured people and made them want to follow and get on board. It worked spectacularly.

Willow Creek had Bill Hybels and Harvest Bible Chapel had James MacDonald. These were the CEO equivalents to Jobs and Bezos. They had the vision, and they had the power. But by tying the success of the venture so firmly to themselves, they entered into unbiblical territory. The New Testament is clear that oversight of a local church belongs to a plurality of elders. It is a shared burden of leadership that must go beyond an on-paper org chart to being shared in fact and in practice. These churches had elder boards and an ostensible plurality, but it was clear that the senior pastor was “more equal” than the others. To have a genuine plurality, the full-time pastors must have the same authority as any other elder. Investing one man with more authority than others is to set up a situation that will produce grief and pain—as both Willow Creek and Harvest (and, one might add, Mars Hill Seattle) show.

It is also to establish what the New Testament does not. Rather than viewing church polity as a choice among several models that “work” why don’t local churches treat the doctrine of ecclesiology as they do things like soteriology: as a non-negotiable? The sole epistle where Paul addresses local church leaders is Philippians, and he begins that letter by saying “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are at Philippi, with the overseers and deacons.” It is the whole congregation he first addresses, and then the leaders, but note it is plural, the overseers (elders) and deacons. There is no senior elder, teaching elder, or any such thing; plurality and equality. The other place Paul addresses local church leaders is on the beach at Ephesus. “Now from Miletus he sent to Ephesus and called the elders of the church to come to him.” Acts 20:17. Here, too, there is no hierarchy or pecking order. Paul goes on to admonish and warn them. “Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which he obtained with his own blood. I know that after my departure fierce wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock; and from among your own selves will arise men speaking twisted things, to draw away the disciples after them.” Acts 20:28-29. Paul counts on the fact that even among the elders themselves, there will arise men who would draw away the disciples!

The heart is deceitfully wicked, as Jeremiah reminds us, and as Lord Acton also reminds us, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Whether one thinks pastors should rise above this is beside the point. Look at the evidence. The New Testament model of a plural oversight is the means of protection against this happening.

Christians have been seduced by the idea that growth is always good. If we’re gaining market share, then what we’re doing is working. This is folly. The growth of Christians in their faith cannot be commoditized. Indeed, if we go in this direction, the results are apparent. Conformity to Christ, a deeper understanding of God’s purposes and person; these things can’t be measured by a pie chart. It requires an investment that is slow and steady, faithful shepherding of the congregation. Smaller churches where the elders know the sheep, are involved in their lives, provides both safety and conforms to the New Testament model. What works to build a corporation is fundamentally different than what works to build the body of Christ. The goals are different, the motivation is different, and since we do not answer to shareholders but to the Lord of glory, we need to rethink assumptions that have prevailed in Evangelicalism. We have (justly) pointed out the flaws in churches that have a strict hierarchy, bishops over bishops, but evangelical churches have erected their own model of church polity that is itself flawed.
The New Testament has the answer to “how should the church be organized and governed?” That doesn’t mean it’s easy or perhaps “expedient” but it is what God has delivered to us.

Teaching the Bible in Public School is a Bad Idea

We don’t need more nominalism

 

There has a lot of chatter in the press recently about efforts to teach the Bible in public schools. This is mainly because the President has opined on the idea, and encouraged states who have introduced bills to promote it. Predictably, there is opposition to this idea.
The groups argue that the bills are backdoor attempts to promote religion. As the Washington Post reports, “The legislation has drawn objections from groups seeking to protect the separation of church and state. The groups argue that the bills are backdoor attempts to promote Christianity in public schools.”

I, too, am against the idea, but for the opposite reason: it would result not in the promotion of Christianity, but in the demotion of it.
Because of our constitution and the first amendment prohibition on the establishment of any religion, any teaching of Scripture in the public schools would be gutted of any theological content, any doctrinal conviction, and most importantly, any insistence that Jesus is the unique Son of God. It would of necessity be teaching the Bible as literature or as an important component in Western culture. The Bible is indeed these things, but it is much more than this. Is it the message of God’s acting in grace and mercy to redeem sinners who were at enmity with Him. It is the story of delivering us from the curse that our first father plunged his progeny into, and of the unparalleled lovingkindess of our God to liberate us from the slavery of sin.

Does anyone expect these to be prominent themes in a public school presentation of the Bible? Would the approved teachers present Scripture as the Word of God, or have any doctrinal stance about the Bible? On the contrary, the bill introduced in the Missouri legislature specifically excises this. “Baker says the classes would focus on how the bible influenced our Founding Fathers and the U.S. Constitution. Classes would not focus on religion or theology and would be taught by a Social Studies teacher.” This is how one arrives at nominalism, at viewing the Bible as “an inspiring book”, a “great message” that forms the foundation of our government and society. But it is also how one avoids the preaching of the cross, of the necessity of being born again. It is Christianity as culture, not as life.

I understand the ACLU and others have a concern that religion not be brought into public (government) schools, but Christians also have a concern to keep the government out of our exegesis of Scripture. These bills fail on this very point: They allow the government to dictate what is and is not an acceptable exegesis of Scripture. God’s Word is powerful and active and does not need public schools for its dissemination. I am afraid that these proposals would do more harm than good, so thanks but no thanks to teaching the Bible in public schools.

A Fool’s Errand: Law-keeping and Christlikeness

Michael F. Bird of Ridley College in Australia recently quipped that Galatians should be printed in all capital letters since he’s fairly sure that Paul screamed the words of the letter to the poor sot who acted as his scribe. Bird’s remark is humorous because, as with most zingers, it contains a fair bit of truth. In no other letter is Paul’s tone quite as strident and severe, as he anathemizes those who preach a different gospel than what he delivered to these believers.

In the 3rd chapter, he calls the Galatians foolish in two spots. The second of these comes at 3:3, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”  One of the prime messages of the epistle is that justification through the keeping of the law is not possible—that this is not the gospel. It is, in fact, antithetical to the gospel. But the other point is equally important. Just as the law is not part of our justification, neither is it part of our sanctification, of our growth in holiness. On this second point, all Christians do not agree. Some insist on a division; that justification is entirely apart from the law, but that the law is part of our walk, our growth in Christian maturity. Paul’s assessment of this is, this is foolish.

It’s important to see what Paul joins together, what he equates, and what he contrasts. In 3:2, he wrote, “Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?” He contrasts law with faith, and Spirit with flesh. To contrast faith with the law, and the Spirit with the flesh is, for some readers of Scripture, confusing, or presents a conflict. They resolve this conflict by the division I noted above; justification apart from the law, sanctification through a Spirit-enabled, or grace-assisted keeping of the law. Robert McQuilken writes, “What was true of Moses is true of every believer today. By the grace of God he is enabled through supernatural power to keep the law of God—but never perfectly. Because he is not under law, he is therefore not under condemnation.”[1]

But where in the New Testament does any apostle teach that we are supernaturally yet imperfectly enabled to keep God’s law? Indeed, Paul teaches that law-keeping, if undertaken, must be pursued with exactness, completeness and without compromise. In Gal. 3:10 Paul has repeated Deuteronomy 27:26, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” In other words, keeping the law imperfectly is not an option. Keeping it imperfectly means you are a law-breaker, and cursed. This puts a person in a position unknown to the New Testament: under a curse and a Christian. Christians are those who are free from any curse. Paul has said this in the following verses: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.” Gal. 3:13-14.

The promised Spirit comes through faith not through law, and the apostle has also said in the prior verse: “But the law is not of faith” (!) A grace-enabled keeping of the law, as McQuilken suggests, is not in Paul’s doctrine.

Someone may object that Paul is specifically focused on justification in these verses, rather than living the Christian life. But this division is artificial and an a priori assumption. Nowhere in Paul’s teaching is the law presented as incompatible for entering into the Christian life, (justification) but completely useful for continuing in the Christian life (sanctification.) Such, says Paul, would be beginning by the Spirit, but seeking to be completed by the flesh; by law-keeping. In the remainder of the letter, Paul reinforces these contrasts of Faith/Law and Spirit/Flesh.

Consider what he writes later in chapter 3, where he presents the law as temporary, that it did not precede the promises, and indeed, now that the promise has come, and we believe the promise of the gospel, the law is not a factor in our walk with the Lord.  “Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.” 3:25. Andrew Wakefield rightly asks, “If Christians can and should keep the law once they are enabled by the Spirit, why is Paul so concerned if the Galatians—who are already believers, who have already received the Spirit (Gal. 3:2-5)—take up the law?”[2]

In chapter 5, Paul writes “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (5:16.) In other words, victory over the flesh does not require law at all. Rather, as we walk by the Spirit, we will not carry out what is contrary to God’s will. He is yet more explicit in verse 18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Is there a qualifier here? Is Paul suggesting that the Galatians know he only speaks of justification, and not of sanctification? Is there a suggestion that the way to conformity to Christ, to a Spirit-led walk in any way relies on the law? None at all.

If there is anywhere he speaks of both justification and sanctification, it may be in 5:25. “If we live by the Spirit, by the Spirit let us also walk.” (ASV) In other words, since you began your Christian life by the Spirit, continue to live your Christian life by the Spirit. This brings us back to the thought Paul expressed in 3:3. To bring in the law after we have come to know Christ is to seek completion, maturity by the flesh. It would be equally foolish to think that freedom from the law means that Christians do not pursue conformity to Christ. Though some may try to present this as “antinomianism,” this is a mischaracterization. I direct readers to several other posts on our growth into Christlikeness.

Does this make Paul sound harsh, that he would call someone a fool? He has said yet harsher things in the epistle, but this is just as important. Seeking Christlikeness by pursuing the law is, apostolically speaking, foolish.

[1] Robert Crawford McQuilkin,  God’s Law and God’s Grace (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1958), 47

[2] Andrew Hollis Wakefield, Where to Live: The Hermeneutical Significance of Paul’s Citations from Scripture in Galatians 3:1–14. (Leiden, Netherlands, Brill, 2003), 201.