Posts Tagged ‘Grace

22
Feb
13

i am crucified with christ (2)… dead to law

If we are dead and our life is hid with Christ in God we will discover that this death is not simply to sin. Our death, in Christ, has even farther-reaching implications.   We have died not only to sin but to every power and authority that would seek to control us in a fallen world.  Death severs all relationships in this world. 

If in Roms 6 we are said to be dead to sin, then in Roms 7 we have died to the law for law, like sin, is an authority in the world.

Dead to the Law

 Questions

  • Is the law the ‘rule of life’ for Christians?
  • Where does the NT regularly direct us for the source and shape of our sanctification?
  • Should Christians have certain ‘holy days’ and observe festivals such as lent?
  • Are candles, impressive buildings, and other aesthetic and sensory stimulation an aid to (an advance in) Christian worship?

In Romans 7, Paul tells us that we are dead to the Law, that is, to God’s Law, the Mosaic Covenant and its commandments (and we may safely say, by implication, to all other rudimentary morality codes as binding authorities  Cf. Gals 4:9).  In Ch 6 he hinted at this when he said,

 Rom 6:14 (ESV)
 For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.

His point is that the Law has no authority in the life of the believer, he is not ‘under it’ rather he lives in another realm, the realm and reign of grace (Roms 3:21-30, 5:2,15-21).  Grace and law are different realms with opposing principles of rule.  In Romans 7:1-6 he makes  essentially the same point through the metaphor of marriage.

Rom 7:1-6 (ESV)
Or do you not know, brothers-for I am speaking to those who know the law-that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress.
 
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. For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

In the patriarchal culture of the C1 a woman submitted to the authority of her husband and did so until he died.  Paul uses this analogy to show how Christian obedience (particularly Christian Jews to whom the law specifically applied 7:1) is no longer to the law but to Christ for death has brought about a change in authorities (or husbands).  Jewish believers were ‘married to the law’ (the Mosaic Covenant had been the authority that controlled their lives) but in death (and the analogy is inverted in that it is the woman who dies not the husband) they have been freed from this marriage to marry another, namely Christ.  Consequently, their former husband has no rights or power over them.  They are not obligated to him any more.  Why?  They have died and no longer live in the realm or world where law has authority and rights.  Indeed, as those married to Christ, to subject themselves to the requirements of the law would make them bigamists.

Now the function of the Law in redemptive history is a big one that generates much controversy.  We cannot hope to deal with it at any length in this post.  Let me sum up briefly the two main functions of the Law as I understand them (as Paul outlines them in Romans).

  • The Law was given to reveal the reality of sin
Rom 3:19-20 (ESV)
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. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.
 

Sin always existed in a fallen world but the law revealed its nature and true power.  Law  (an explicitly articulated command generally accompanied by a sanction) made explicit what was previously implicit and so increased the gravity of the offence; sin became more sinful for it became an infraction or transgression of a legal demand.  Further, because fallen human nature meant none could keep the law, indeed all railed against it, sin is seen in its true colours as an evil malignant destructive enslaving power (Cf. 4:15, 5:13,14, 5:20, 7:7-12; Cf. Gals 3:19).  Law came in to increase the trespass (Roms 5:20) by exposing, exaggerating and exciting it.  

Rom 5:13-14 (ESV)
 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.
  • The Law was given to point to Christ
Rom 3:21-22 (ESV)
 But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it- the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction:

It pointed to Christ a) by showing the moral bankruptcy of humanity and so the need of a Saviour b) by foreshadowing the coming Saviour and salvation in various ways.  Other functions of the Law may be added, such as being a hard taskmaster that would contrast more clearly the liberty in Christ (Gals 3:23-25), but these are subsidiaries of the main two functions, namely to give knowledge of sin and knowledge of Christ.

Most evangelicals will happily agree that the Christian is not ‘under law’ as a means of justification.  The Law (many will agree, though not all) was a covenant of works.  Life was promised for a life of law-keeping righteousness; law’s premise was ‘this do and live’ (Ex 24:7; Lev 18:5; Deut 8:1; Lk 10:28; Roms 10:5; Gals 3:12 Cf. Roms 7:10; Gals 3:21).  Law offered ‘life’ on the basis of obedience, it did not assume life, in fact it assumed the absence of life (thus, this do and live).

However, although the Law promised life upon obedience, life by law-keeping was impossible because law-keeping for sinners under it was impossible.  Addressed as it was to fallen humanity, it was only a counsel of despair (Roms 7:7-10).  Instead of providing life it became a vehicle of death; the curse of a broken law fell on the law-breaker and all under it were law-breakers (Deut 11:26-28, 27:26, 30:15-20; Gals 3:10).  From its inception it was clear that the revelation of law, although promising life, could only purvey death (Ex 19:12, 20:19).  We need only read the many death threats explicit in the law to see its danger to sinful people.  It is probably not without significance that the Law-giver, Moses, dies outside the Promised Land; typically it confirmed the inability of law to bless.  Thus, what offered life, because of the corruption of human nature, became an administration of death (Rom 7:10; 2 Cor 3:6,7).  By the works of the law no flesh would be justified for by the law came only knowledge of sin (Rom 3:20).  The Law only condemns and brings wrath (Rom 4:15).  Humanity under law needed to be rescued from it.  This is, in fact, what happened in Christ.  As Paul says to Jewish Galatian believers (in Galatians ‘us’ and ‘we’ refers to Jews and ‘you’ refers to gentiles)

Gal 3:11-14 (ESV2011)
 Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 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.

Law and faith, like Law and gospel-promise, are opposite in principle (Gals 3:12, 18).

The majority of the above will have unanimous consent among evangelicals.  However, while many will happily affirm that we are not ‘under law’ for justification some (many) will just as vehemently affirm that we are ‘under law’ for our sanctification.  The law, they say, takes us to Christ for our justification but Christ takes us to the law for our sanctification.   The law they will insist is the believer’s ‘rule of life’.  Such assertions are entirely mistaken.  Paul does not imply we are not under law for one aspect of salvation but under it for another; Christ is the source of both justification and sanctification for the Christian.  Christ, not the law, is the believer’s rule of life.  We ought to walk as he walked (1 Jn 2:6).  Christ is sufficient for all things.

For Paul, we are either married to the law or we are not married to the law.  He makes no subtle nuances or qualifications here.  Theologians,and theological systems may do so, but Paul does not.  There is no half-way house regarding Law, we are either under it or not under it, either obligated to it or not obligated to it.  We are not free from the law for justification but married to it for sanctification.  The relationship is absolute and admits of no exceptions.  If we are married to Christ then we are not married to the law and vice versa (Gals 5:4).  We are not bigamists and even less are we encouraged by Christ to be such, the very suggestion is blasphemous.  The second husband never sends us back to the first saying ‘obey him’.

The law is not the means or measure of our sanctification, Christ is.  Indeed the law can no more sanctify than justify.  Paul is clear and emphatic on this.  Romans 7, where Paul discusses the believers relationship to law, is less concerned with the question of justification than it is with that of sanctification.  The law produces only ‘the fruit of death’ (7:5).  It is a wife-beater demanding love but unable to either create or provoke it.  Only by being freed from it (through death) and married in resurrection life to Christ can we produce ‘fruit for God’ (7:4).  All of this is sanctification and it is Christ who is its source not law, decidedly not law.

Yes, we are told, but the law is how Christ sanctifies believers?  He sends us back to the law as our rule of life.  Implied bigamy aside, why do you say this?  Where does the NT teach this?  Paul says something quite different.

Rom 7:6 (ESV)
 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code.

And what does the Spirit do?  Does he send us back to the law and say follow that code?  Does he tell new believers that the Christian life is a whole series of rules and regulations that they must learn and observe – for that is what the law is?  Does he say, ‘go back to the Ten Commandments and keep them’?  Does he say, ‘grow in grace by growing in the knowledge of the law’?   No he doesn’t.  Only rarely in the NT is the Mosaic Code explicitly cited in the context of moral living and never as an absolute authority requiring obedience.  The new way of the Spirit is not to send us back to the old way of the written code. This is palpable contradiction and folly.

We are not directed to the law for holiness but to the gospel.  The measure of a holy life is Christ not the law.  We grow in grace and in the knowledge (not of law) but of Christ Jesus.  The work of the Spirit is to floodlight Christ.  He points us to Christ and the grace and truth in him (Jn 15:26).  In the gospel we have the means, motive and measure of sanctification.  It is grace, not law that saves a wretch like me.  Grace teaches our heart to believe and relieves our fears.  It is grace that brought me safe thus far and grace that will lead me home.  Married to Christ we learn from Christ and are sanctified by him (Eph 4:20, 5:25-27). Living by the Spirit we walk by the Spirit (Gal 5:20).  Under grace, we are taught by grace.

Titus 2:11-14 (ESV2011)
 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

And here is highlighted precisely the difference between the method of the Law and the method of the Spirit.  The law makes us look inside ourselves and examine our lives.  It suggests righteous living comes through keeping a long list of rules and regulations and so inevitably engenders introspection and despair as we self-analyse and constantly find ourselves falling short.  Look at the person under law in Roms 7;  he is constantly looking within, constantly focussing on the ‘I’ and constantly finding only failure and frustration.  The Spirit by contrast takes us outside of self.  He focuses our attention on Christ.  He sets our mind and affections on things above.  He gives us a vision of Christ and as we gaze on a glorified Christ we are changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another.

2Cor 3:18 (ESV)
 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

We never need more than Christ.  In him, God’s fullness dwells (Cols 1:18).  In him are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Cols 2:3).  We are complete/filled in him (Cols 2:10).  What draws our hearts to hate sin is not a set of rules but a growing love for Christ.  What teaches us the ugliness of sin is the beauty of Christ.  It is the clean fresh air of heaven that makes us conscious of the foul air of earth.  We do not focus on mere restraints that when all is said and done outline only the basic rudiments of morality, but on Christ and all he has accomplished, and it is this that gives our soul power to live with God’s sentence of death upon the flesh and so produce fruit for God (7:5).

An imperfect illustration

Suppose you are driving along the road and you keep seeing road signs saying drive at thirty.  Do you obey them?  You see speeding cameras too.  You may break but it will be an external obedience – your heart won’t be in it.  Your heart resists them and wants to find ways of thwarting and outwitting them.  The law and its sanction only creates the desire to breach.

But supposing you have just viewed a beautiful sunset, or just got engaged to the girl you love, or just met and been bowled over by the person who made the road rules – will you still want to break them?  Will your heart filled with glory by the sunset, the love of the woman you adore, the worth of the one who created the rules, not find itself driving in such a way as reflects these experiences.

Let me say, if you have been taken up with Christ you will drive differently behind the wheel than if you’re simply focussing on road signs.

To the Colossian Christians who were in danger of adopting a gospel that added a number of things to Christ, including OT law, Paul says,

Col 2:6-7 (ESV)
Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.

Everything for life and godliness resides in Christ.  Mark this well.  If you need to go beyond Christ you are on dangerous ground.  These Colossian believers were in such danger.  They were in danger not simply of adopting the law as a rule of life for sanctification but as a rule for religious observance.  They were creating a religious calendar of OT rituals and regulations such as were found in the law.  They were being encouraged to observe days, months, seasons as well as abstaining from certain foods that were to do with ritual holiness.  Paul is perplexed and appalled.  They have not grasped the significance of the cross.  Notice what he says

Col 2:8-23 (ESV)
See to it that no one takes you captive by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the world, and not according to Christ. For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily, and you have been filled in him, who is the head of all rule and authority. In him also you were circumcised with a circumcision made without hands, by putting off the body of the flesh, by the circumcision of Christ, having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith in the powerful working of God, who raised him from the dead.
 
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him.
 
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. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God.
 
If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations- “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used)-according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.

Do you see his point?  The cross ended all this form of externally imposed religious observance.  We have died to the world in which this kind of religion had place. Law was a religion designed for man in the flesh not in the Spirit (Gal 3:2, 4:21-31).  Its very basis is sensuous or fleshly.  It focuses on externals and on sensory and aesthetic experience.  It placed great emphasis on impressive buildings (the temple) religious clothing, smells and bells; candles and altars, rituals and regulations.

But all this belongs to the old age before Christ.  In Christ we died to this.  Now we must grasp this today for evangelicalism is rushing headlong down the route of religious paraphernalia.  At one time the observing of liturgical calendars, special religious feasts like lent, the use of candles, incense and icons were denounced by evangelicals now they are embraced.  Evangelicals want a religion of ‘flesh’.  We want the sensory and aesthetic mistakenly thinking a sensory or aesthetic experience is an authentic gospel-driven spiritual experience (Hebs 12:18).

We must understand that magnificent buildings, stirring music, impressive oratory, and ethereal rites do not bring us closer to God.  They will not produce the slightest knowledge of God nor lead us into a holy life.  They are, says Paul, of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh, instead they feed it.  Christ, and Christ alone, the Christ seen by the eye of faith, leads us to God.  We come to the Father through him (Jn 14:6).  That is why Paul says,

Col 3:1-4 (ESV)
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

Instead of a focus on what is earthly (buildings, altars, incense, music, oratory, rituals, ascetic practices etc) we must seek what is in heaven.  We must focus on Christ.  He is the source of our life.  He is our satisfaction.  He is our food and drink.  He is our vision.  He is our altar.  He is our High Priest.  He is our sacrifice.  He stirs and satisfies the heart.  As Robert Murray McCheyne used to say, ‘No man can ever need more than is freely given in Christ’ We live by faith not sight.  We like Moses endure seeing him that is invisible.

No, law, in all its forms, is an authority for men in the flesh, for people ‘alive in this world’ but we are not in the flesh we are in the Spirit if the Spirit of God lives in us.  We do not live by and in the shadow we live by and in the substance; we do not seek the things of spiritual infancy but of spiritual maturity.  Christ not law is the source of our life; Zion not Sinai is the mountain to which we come (Hebs 12:18-24)

None of this is to say we cannot learn from the law nor even less that there are no obligations or responsibilities in the Christian life; we can and there are.  All Scripture is given by inspiration of God and is profitable for instruction, reproof, training in righteousness… (2 Tim 3:16).   However, it is one thing to read OT Scripture (through the prism of redemptive history) and learn from it, it is quite another to say that the law is a ‘rule of life’ for the believer for to say this is to make the law an authority we must obey.  Let me summarise some of the problems such a mistake creates.

  • It obliges us to qualify Paul’s insistence that we are not under law.  This is exegetically indefensible.
  • It emasculates the law.   If we accept its authority then we must also accept its sanctions (Gals 3:10).  To try to ‘draw its teeth’ is to demean it.  Sanctions (blessings and cursings) lie at the heart of the covenant; they give it glory (Ex 19:18-25, 20:18, 24:16,17; Deut 5:24, 28:58-68; Hebs 12:18-21)  We cannot reject the Law as a route of justification and embrace it as a rule of sanctification for the covenant does not give us this permission.   It is a covenant which cannot be altered.  We must accept it totally on its own terms or not at all.
  • It means living culturally as a Jew.  If we are obliged to keep one command of law we must keep them all.  Law is a covenant agreement.  We cannot be obliged to keep some but free to ignore others (Matt 5:19; Gals 3:10, 5:2,3; Jas 2:10).  We cannot enforce the Ten Commandments and jettison or modify the many other commands of the covenant.  The covenant demands obedience to all or it is broken (Ex 19:8, 24:3; Deut 27:26).  Accepting the covenant means accepting a Judaistic lifestyle.
  • It means keeping the Sabbath. The Sabbath was the seventh day and not the first day and to change the day to another day was unacceptable and covenant-breaking.  The Sabbath was the sign of the covenant (Ex 31:13; Ezek 20:12, 20). That Christianity focuses on another day strongly enforces that we are not under law; to abandon the Sabbath was by implication to be free from the covenant.
  • It means embracing what belongs to infancy and is ‘weak and beggarly not intended for sons (Gal 4:1-11) . Law is a rudimentary moral code that Christians ought to have no need to hear anyway.  We should not need to be told not to steal, commit adultery etc.  The works of the flesh are obvious (Gal 5:19).  Christian holiness should be beyond these prohibitions (1 Tim 1:6-11).  

Life under grace, by the Spirit, married to Christ, produces a morality in excess of laws demands.  Law expressed the demands of relationships existing in this life and no more. It did not require that a man lay down his life for his friends, far less that he lay down his life for his enemies.  It did not conceive or demand pure self-sacrificial love motivated by nothing other than pure love.  This is a life modelled only by Christ who reveals the Father’s heart.  Such Christ-modelled, grace-induced, Spirit-enabled love is the heart of Christianity.  Such love fulfils the law (Roms 8:4, 13:8,10; Gals 5:14) and fulfilment in Scripture usually eclipses/excels the original expectation.  Or to put it another way, against such Christ-like, Spirit-produced love there is no law (Gals 5:23).

Gal 5:1-14 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.. For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”

The cross means an end to law-keeping religion.  For Paul and for the early Jewish converts this was precisely its offence (Gal 5:11) and the reason why they were being persecuted by their fellow Jews (Gal 6:11-16).  The world will tolerate religion that makes much of ‘the flesh’ but it will not tolerate Christ. Christ and all who follow him it will crucify.  We must live as those crucified with Christ, as those who having received the law’s own sentence of death, have died to it.  Such is the effect of the cross in Christian living.

Gal 5:1 (ESV)
For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

14
Mar
12

funerals, fasting, feasting, and the first day of the week

Emergents (enchanted by the ‘Big Tradition’), some Old Life Reformed (emphasising the institutional church and sacraments), some Federal Vision folks like Peter Leithart (with a similarly high ecclesiology), the rising influence, in the States at least, of evangelical Lutheranism (which tends to stress liturgy), our ecumenical romance with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, the popular influence of Anglicans like Tom Wright, the childish drive for the novel and sensual that marks a culture bloated on narcissism, and the shallow gospel of many Western believers have converged to create the perfect liturgical storm.   It is a storm threatening to swamp gospel fulness and freedom in Christ.  Evangelicalism, in many quarters, is all too ready to exchange the real for rituals and regulations, the freeing for the enslaving, Christ for the childish and cultic legalistic ceremonies.  Ritualistic faith is on the increase, an inevitable result of  faith that fails to ‘hold fast to the head’ (the risen reigning Christ in heaven) and instead seeks religious experience and assurance in that which is sensuous and ceremonial, that which is merely ‘earthly’ (Cols 2:16-20); when the substance is lost the shadows rush in to fill the void.

My previous post (but one) protested strongly against the present evangelical love-fest with all things liturgical (liturgical calendars and its seasons such as lent).   However, you may well read the post and say, ‘That’s all very well.  I see the force of your argument.  However, does not Christianity have its special day (the first day of the week), and its rituals (baptism, the Lord’s supper), and does it not promote fasting?  Is there contradiction here?’

It is this latter question I wish to address.

a believing hermeneutic

Whenever we find what we perceive to be a tension in Scripture the way forward lies in believing faith that seeks to do justice to both statements without playing off one against the other or adopting one to the exclusion of the other.

With this hermeneutic, we may well conclude that in principle New Covenant faith radically abandons ritualistic religion reducing many religious days to one, many different rites and ceremonies to two simple acts, and  regular ritually obligated fasts to the occasional and voluntary.  We may not understand why any special day or ritual is left but this is a question faith need not have answered to live obediently.  We do not have to fully understand a matter to be taught and guided by what is revealed.

This seems to me terribly important.  Christians ought to have a humble submission to God’s Word that believes and obeys without requiring all questions answered.  We must avoid the critical superiority that robs Scripture of its authority and impact by a thousand clever avoidance questions and arguments.  I am not advocating a faith that does not inquire, study and seek to learn.  Far from it.  Godly scholarship is a gift from God.  However, scholarship is not always godly, not always believing, and certainly not always submissive.    Scholars, like the rest of us, too often read the Bible without that childlike trust and submission.  When this is the case no amount of scholarly nous will compensate, indeed it is likely to blind; spiritual truth is spiritually discerned.

Church tradition can also be a force for good or ill.   Church tradition like scholarship can be good if the tradition encourages making Scripture humbly studied the authority for faith and practice, but where the tradition makes the authority the tradition itself (whether confessional or non-confessional)  spiritual blindness is inevitable.  Both scholarship and tradition are powerful forces to buck, yet a believing hermeneutic must be willing to challenge both.  Neither are final authorities.  Only Scripture is truth.

There is only one guard against deception and that is a heart and mind subject to the Word and depending on the Spirit.  This is ever the way of understanding and blessing.

sabbaths and sunday, law days and love days

We can, however, go a little further in addressing the apparent tension expressed above by noting some basic differences between OT regulations and NT practices.

We should remember that the nature of religion that allows man to save himself (as the Mosaic Law did) is to focus on what is external and ritualistic.  Such religion is typically full of rules and regulation, things to do.  The Mosaic Covenant (this do and live) was certainly like this.  The Sabbath was the key sign of the Mosaic Covenant (Ex 31:13) and exemplifies this principle.  So important was the Sabbath that it was enshrined as part of the Ten Words in the tablets of stone.  Remembering the Sabbath day and keeping it holy was a vital component of covenantal obedience.  It was a regulation carefully drafted with various activities proscribed.  Failure to observe it was punishable by death (Ex 31) and honouring it was the way of life (Isa 58:13,14).  We should not miss the fact that Sabbath observance was a legal obligation with much hanging on it.

However, when we come to the NT and the day Christians observe, the atmosphere is quite different.  Firstly, of course, Christians do not observe the Sabbath.  It simply will not do when Sabbatarians, in an attempt to claim Sunday as  the Christian Sabbath, argue for one day in seven.  The Sabbath is not any one out of seven, it is specifically and intentionally the seventh day.  It is the day when God rested having created for six.   There is simply no suggestion in the NT that the Christian day is a Sabbath, in fact the opposite is the case (Col 2:16).  The very choosing of another day clearly signalled a decisive change in covenantal relationship since the Sabbath was the covenantal sign of the OC (Ex 31).

But what of the Christian day of worship – the first day of the week?  Is this enshrined in a  statute or written on a tablet of stone?  Is there a command that Sunday must be remembered and treated as holy?  Is it defined as a day of rest? Is there a sanction of death on those who fail to observe it?  Clearly not.  Why do Christian’s worship on a Sunday?  We worship on a Sunday because that is the day of Christ’s resurrection.  Indeed, after his death the resurrected Christ appeared only to his disciples on Sundays (the first day of the week).  It would appear that the Holy Spirit so impressed upon the young church the association between the resurrection of Jesus and the first day of the week that  it quickly became the day of Christian gathering and worship.  Soon it was simply known as ‘the Lord’s day’ (Rev 1:10).  Love for the Lord had set it apart.

My point is, it was no mere legal regulation or ordinance that gave the first day of the week its significance but love for the one who was identified as Lord in resurrection on this day.  In this way the Spirit impressed on the heart of the infant church the appropriateness of Sunday for Christian worship.     The Sabbath signalled the end of the old creation: the first day of the week the beginning  of the new creation.   The Sabbath was for man, the first day of the week is for the Lord.  Sunday is not for Christians a day of rest but a day of worship.  Let me repeat, Christians worship on a Sunday not from duty, not from fear of judgement, and not to gain merit.  They gather out of love for their Lord.

Can I observe in passing, this is why the Lord’s Day observance society is so wrong-headed.  The Lord’s Day was never intended to be foisted on society.  It was intended for Christians and not the world.  It was a day when believers were drawn together to worship out of love for their Lord, not for unbelievers to observe by legal enforcing.  The whole premise is wrong.  We so easily lapse from grace into legalism.

These two days, it seems,  illustrate the different principles that guide the different covenants, the difference between the legal precepts of the old and the gracious privileges of the new, in particular, those of baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

baptism and the lord’s Supper

We speak of these as ‘ordinances’.  The word means ‘an authoritative command or order’.  Yet I wonder whether this word is best suited.  For, yet again, juridical language is entirely absent.  Both baptism and the Lord’s Supper may be better termed privileges than ordinances.  In both cases we receive from the Lord.  In both cases, the emphasis is far less on what we ought to do than what grace has accomplished.  Both indicate blessings bestowed.

In our baptism we are carried through waters of judgement and death (safely in Christ our ark) and emerge  to the privilege of a new world and life the other side of the deluge.  Sin is gone in the judgement of the waters and we stand before God in resurrection with no more conscience of sins (2 Pet 3:21).  Baptism is rich with the symbolism of grace; it brings us through judgement into a new creation.  (In terms of command, the preponderance of verses focus on the command to baptise rather than the command to be baptised.)

In the Lord’s Supper, again we receive.  We sit at the table of the Lord and eat what he provides.  He is the spiritual host.  And he is the spiritual food (specifically in his death).  The focus is what is graciously given.  Again there is no legal or juridical context. The context when the disciples are first introduced to the Supper could not be more intimate and familial.  Christ’s love for his own and his desire to fellowship with them is the atmosphere in which it is inaugurated (Luke 22:15).  His love is on full display.  He washes their feet, feeds them, teaches them, comforts and prepares them for the coming hours and days; having loved his own which were in the world he loves them to the end.

The Lord’s Supper is a love feast.  It is no formal ritual with eating a legal duty.  It is not rigidly confined by rules and regulations.  Nor is it elaborate or ceremonial.  The meal is the essence of simplicity.  It is simply bread and wine and we are free in when we eat it and where we eat it (Cf Acts 2).  What matters is the state of heart in which we eat (1 Cor 11).  We should eat realising that it is a meal symbolising the oneness of God’s people in the body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16).   We eat out of love for the Lord and a desire to fellowship with him and his people.  Any thought of mere obligation to a rite or ordinance fails to grasp what it is about; ritualism and relationship are mutually exclusive.

Much more of course could be said regarding these gospel privileges, however, my concern is simply to underline that both, like the Lord’s day, arise in a context of grace and relationship not law and ritual and both reflect the context in which they arise.  Be suspicious of every attempt to squeeze ritualistic drama from these privileges for the less we appreciate their inner spiritual realities the more we will make of their externalities.

We should also note in this context that neither has any intrinsic ‘magical’ saving quality.  They have no sacramental value of themselves.  Being baptised and taking the Lord’s Supper does not confer grace or guarantee spiritual security.   1 Cor 10 makes this very clear; it is possible to be both baptised and regularly take the Lord’s Supper yet be destroyed by God.

fasting

Paul is quite clear that denying ourselves bodily needs and provisions is no virtue in itself.  The Mosaic Covenant (Judaism)  made numerous ascetic ritualistic demands on the people.  Not so the NT.  In fact,  it explicitly condemns ascetic impositions (Col 2:20-23) describing such teachings as the teaching of ‘deceiving spirits’ and ‘doctrines of demons’ (1 Tim 4:1-5).  Real self-denial, we discover, is not a denial of the body but a denial of the flesh (our Adamic human nature opposed to God).  Yet, fasting is something the NT assumes God’s people may do from time to time (Matt 9:15) normally depriving ourselves of some legitimate bodily need (usually food).

What are we to make of this apparent contradiction?  The first thing to be said is that in the New Covenant fasting is always voluntary (whether by an individual or a group).  There is no imposed season for fasting.  There is no rule that tells us we must fast.  Indeed there is no injunction to fast. Yet  Jesus assumes his people will fast and Paul tells us he often fasted.  We are not told when to fast, where to fast, how to fast, or how long to fast (though it should not be of such a time that Satan can take advantage Cf 1 Cor 7: 5).  Again the difference between law and gospel becomes apparent.

If someone fasts it will be because the Holy Spirit prompts him or her to do so.  Such prompting appears to be definite and in lieu of a specific task or purpose.   Thus Jesus fasts before facing the temptation of Satan and the beginning his public ministry (Matt 4:2).   Some of the church at Antioch fasted as they were considering the future strategy of expansion.  When Paul and Barnabas were considering who to appoint as elders in various churches they fasted (Acts 13:2, 14:23).  It seems too that fasting was generally accompanied by prayer (Lk 2:37, 5:33).  The point is this was a time of intense seeking the mind of God and humbling oneself before the Lord.  It is to our shame that most of us know little of this today.  Prayer and fasting seem to be linked with spiritual power.  Perhaps we see here a reason for our spiritual weakness.

For our purposes, the main point to note is that fasting is not an institutionalised ritual that is part of an imposed church calendar but is an activity that arises out of a burden placed on the heart by the Holy Spirit.  How easily our legalistic hearts institutionalise and ossify activities that should flow from freedom in the Spirit.  The value of a fast does not lie in the hunger for food it creates but the hunger for God that created it.

conclusion

The heart of Christianity is a living relationship with Christ by faith.  We live in union with him, rooted and grounded in him, and nourished by him (Cols 2).  Everything that ritualises, institutionalises and mechanises this should be treated with suspicion.  How ready we are to make a ritual or a law out of what is intended to arise from the heart freely as it seeks God’s face.  How easily we turn from life in the Spirit to the deadening letter, from privilege to performance, from relationship to ritual, from the unveiled to the veiled, from the spiritual to the sensual, from grace to works.

Let’s make it our aim to discover the true grace of God and having discovered it, to stand fast in it.

16
Feb
12

the samaritan, the law, and grace

We are all, I guess, familiar with the parable of ‘the good Samaritan’.  If we were asked its point we would probably say it illustrates ‘neighbourliness’.  And we would be right.  Jesus says as much in his punchline question.  Here is Luke’s record of the parable.

Luke 10:25-37 (ESV)
And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” And he answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have answered correctly; do this, and you will live.”  But he, desiring to justify himself, said to Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road, and when he saw him he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion. He went to him and bound up his wounds, pouring on oil and wine. Then he set him on his own animal and brought him to an inn and took care of him. And the next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper, saying, ‘Take care of him, and whatever more you spend, I will repay you when I come back.’ Which of these three, do you think, proved to be a neighbor to the man who fell among the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” And Jesus said to him, “You go, and do likewise.” 

But there is more going on in this parable than a simple definition of neighbourliness.  Jesus’ interrogator was a lawyer, an exponent of Jewish Law.  For him the Law was everything. Eternal life was earned by law-keeping (and so his question… what must I do…).  The Law, he knew, required love for God and neighbour; it said ‘this do and live’.  And Jesus agrees, it does.  The lawyer then does what all do who try to avoid responsibility before hard facts; he asks an evasive question, ‘who is my neighbour’.  Perhaps he already saw the impossibility of law-keeping.  Certainly this is the first conclusion to which the parable narrative leads.

Those who boast in the law do not keep the Law.  Both the priest and the Levite (two of the main products, exponents and models of the Law in Israel) show no mercy or compassion to the injured man.  Law does not make men compassionate and neighbourly.  Laws, institutions, and commands could not produce neighbourliness.  For sure, the priest and Levite knew they ought to help, but didn’t.  Mere law never produces a compassionate heart and so could never lead to eternal life.  Do this and live is a counsel of despair for sinners.  The Law merely exposes sin it does not lead to obedience.

So how does the narrative progress?  Does Jesus instead call for faith in him?  Sometimes he does, but not in this instance.  Instead he indicates the only route through which ‘neighbour-love’ is achieved and it is completely apart from law.  He introduces a character who had nothing to do with the law – a Samaritan.  He is ‘moved with compassion’ and does all that is needed for the half-dead man.  And he is impressing that only grace at work in a human heart will produce neighbour-love.  The Samaritan does not know the Law but he has the heart of God.  For God is compassionate and merciful.  Grace has given him the life of God in his soul and so he loves and acts.  He doesn’t ask if the injured man deserves help.  He doesn’t ask if he has an obligation to help.  Love simply sees the need and reaches out to help.  This is the power of grace in the heart.  Whatever the need grace sees it and reaches out to help.

Law simply makes the heart look for excuses; it asks legalistic questions like ‘who is my neighbour’.   It looks for ways to do the bare minimum.  Law gives no desire, no love, no motivation, no power.  Grace, however, renews the heart and gives motive and strength.  Grace creates a heart that loves as God loves.  Grace bestows what law demands but can never achieve.  Eternal life is a product of grace: it is not the result of neighbour-love but results in neighbour-love.  It is those who are renewed in grace by the Spirit who fulfil ‘the just requirement of the Law’(Roms 8:1-4).

Finally, it would be a mistake to drag into this parable what it is not addressing.  Jesus’ is not saying here that any who show kindness to another are Christians.  This is simply not the issue of the conversation.  His point is simply the redundancy of Law as a means of neighbour-love and the primacy of grace.

Of course, the true revelation of grace, the true ‘good Samaritan’, is Jesus.  He is the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.  He was God revealed in flesh, in compassion and goodness, and what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God has done through Jesus (Roms 8).  Jesus fulfils the Law but he is much more than the Law.  He is the heart of God revealed in grace healing the sick, freeing the prisoners, enabling the blind to see, binding up the broken-hearted, preaching good news to the poor (Isa 61).  He will reach out in love to the needy not because he must, or because they deserve it, but because this is how grace acts.  It is while we were sinners and without strength Christ died for the ungodly (Roms 5).  Grace sees the need and acts.

Grace alone makes ‘good Samaritans’ and makes them of all God’s people.

06
Feb
12

discipline… an initiative of grace (3)

In two previous posts we considered God’s discipline and church discipline in the life of a believer.  It is time to reflect a little on self-discipline.   In reality, God’s discipline and church discipline are only necessary because we fail, as Christians, to discipline ourselves.

Paul comments, in a context where some were sick and had died because of God’s discipline among them,

1Cor 11:31-32 (ESV)
But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world.

Self-discipline is at the heart of godly gospel living.  It is an integral part of the purpose and product of the gospel.  Paul writing to Titus says,

Titus 2:11-14 (ESV)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

The gospel ‘redeems’ from the indiscipline of ‘lawlessness’ and trains us to live a life of self-discipline.  This discipline is firstly a putting to death of all that is self-willed (renouncing ungodliness and worldly passions) and secondly an embracing of all that is God’s will ( and living  self-controlled, upright, and godly lives).  God’s grace teaches us to discipline ourselves.

Thus we discover that a prerequisite for an elder is that he be self-disciplined.

Titus 1:8 (ESV)
‘… a lover of good, self-controlled, upright, holy, and disciplined’

Those who lead in the church must have grown in grace and learned how to discipline their natural impulses and passions.  They must have learned how to live with these in the place of death.  Only when this discipline is obvious may they be leaders among God’s people.  It is this self-discipline that Jesus speaks of in the Sermon on the Mount (and repeats in Matt 18).

Matt 5:29-30 (ESV)
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell.

The language is as dramatic as its advice is drastic.  Of course he does not mean that we ought literally to gouge out our eye or guillotine our hand.  He is calling for us to execute, put to death, all temptations to sin as soon as they arise, however emotionally painful.  It is a call, proleptically, to  participation in his own death and resurrection.  The dominant NT paradigm for Christian living is the death and resurrection of Christ.

We are called to live as those who have died to our old pre-conversion life.  We have, in our death with Christ, renounced ‘all ungodliness and worldly passions’.  We have died to sin and its reign and so we must not ‘present our members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness’ instead, living as we now do to God in Christ, we must ‘present our members to God as instruments of righteousness’ (Roms 6:13).  Such living is but the logic, the inevitable corollary, of grace in our lives; it is the reality of living in the reign and realm of grace (Roms 6:14).  Grace properly grasped will lead us to holy living for grace removes not only sin’s guilt but its grip.  Where holy aspirations are absent and where grace is treated merely as a sedative for a guilty conscience we have neither grasped grace nor been grasped by grace. Grace is not freedom to sin but freedom from sin.  Let me repeat Paul’s words yet again, for they bear repeating,

Titus 2:11-14 (ESV)
For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.

Grace produces godliness: where there is no godliness there is no grace.  Where there is no Christ-likeness there is no Christ.  Where there is no sanctification there is no justification; the grace that declares us righteous also disciples us in righteousness.   Sin is not merely a debt it is also a dominion and grace both pays the debt and breaks the dominion.  Deliverance and discipline go hand in hand; apart from discipline there is only sin’s dominion and death.   Proverbs reminds us,

Prov 5:22-23 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​The iniquities of the wicked ensnare him, ​​​​​​​and he is held fast in the cords of his sin. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​He dies for lack of discipline, ​​​​​​​and because of his great folly he is led astray. ​​​

Paul knows only too well how critical this discipline of grace is.

1Cor 9:24-27 (ESV)
Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. So I do not run aimlessly; I do not box as one beating the air. But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.

Now it is difficult to be certain whether ‘disqualified’ means a loss of reward or a loss of soul.  I suspect the latter.  Certainly that is the consistent reason in Scripture why discipline is presented as critical.  We saw this in the previous two posts.  God disciplines his children that they ‘may not be condemned with the world’ (1 Cor 11:31,32).  Church discipline is so that ‘the spirit may be saved on the day of the Lord’ (1 Cor 5:5).  Proverbs makes clear that a man ‘dies for a want of discipline‘ (Prov 5:22,23).  And most important of all, Jesus makes clear that the person who does not discipline his wayward eyes will be in danger of being ‘thrown into hell‘ (Matt 5:29, 18:9).

And so, Paul refuses to simply play at being a believer.  He isn’t aimlessly shadow-boxing.  He is in deadly earnest as he fights those inward passions that war against the soul.  He will tolerate nothing that may draw his heart away from Christ for he knows it is not those who praise and profess faith who are safe but those who practise it, those who fight, faith’s fight.  He disciplines himself for he knows what happens to those who do not,

1Cor 10:1-5 (ESV)
For I want you to know, brothers, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless, with most of them God was not pleased, for they were overthrown in the wilderness. 

It’s possible to pass through the Red sea (be baptized) and eat the same spiritual food (the bread of communion) and drink the same spiritual drink (the cup of communion) and not enter the promised land.  Thus Paul guards his heart and mind.  He gives no quarter to ‘the flesh’.  He sets his affections on things above and not on things on the earth.  He walks in the Spirit, putting on the Lord Jesus and making no provision for the flesh and its desires.  He says ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions. He rigorously disciplines himself.

The grace of God trains us to discipline ourselves and so we grow in grace.  Grace and discipline are not incongruent.  The expression ‘the discipline of grace’  is not an oxymoron.  God’s grace and godly grit fit hand-in-glove.  Grace is that unmerited, unbounded provision of God for all our needs through Jesus Christ our Lord… including the need to self-discipline.  Discipline is an initiative of grace.

Grace! ‘tis a charming sound,
Harmonious to the ear;
Heaven with the echo shall resound,
And all the earth shall hear.

‘Twas grace that wrote my name
In life’s eternal book;
‘Twas grace that gave me to the Lamb,
Who all my sorrows took.

Grace taught my wandering feet
To tread the heavenly road;
And new supplies each hour I meet,
While pressing on to God.

Grace taught my soul to pray,
And made mine eyes o’erflow;
‘Twas grace which kept me to this day,
And will not let me go.

O let Thy grace inspire
My soul with strength divine:
May all my powers to Thee aspire,
And all my days be Thine.

Philip Doddridge, 1702–1751 (Stanzas 1, 3.)

Augustus M. Toplady, 1740–1778 (Stanzas 2, 4, 5.)

30
Jan
12

discipline… an initiative of grace (2)

the grace of church discipline

One of the ways God graciously disciplines his children is through the local church.  Tragically, church discipline has all but disappeared from many evangelical churches.  For some, the very idea, shocks.  This shows how far we have drifted from NT standards.  There are a number of reasons why church discipline is in the doldrums.  Let me mention two.

insensitivity to sin

Accommodation to our Western liberal culture has hardened our hearts.  We are insensitive to sin (in belief or behaviour) and treat it lightly.  There are many parallels between our culture and that of ancient Corinth.  Corinth was ‘materially prosperous, intellectually alert, and morally corrupt’.  Even in the pagan world Corinth had a reputation for debauchery.  The Corinthian church was a young church (no elders had apparently been appointed) but even given this they were inexcusably influenced by their culture and as a result allowed behaviour to exist among them that every spiritual instinct ought to have abhorred and rejected.  Paul writes,

1Cor 5:1-2 (ESV)
It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

The church considered itself to have attained no mean level of spirituality (in knowledge, gift and experience) yet it had little moral sense or conscience.  It tolerated behaviour that even many in debauched Corinth would find shameful.  The Corinthian church is a mirror for contemporary Western churches.  All too often we tolerate or treat lightly what our renewed hearts ought to tell us is shameful and deeply sinful.  This may be, as it was in Corinth, sexual sin, or it may be other forms of unacceptable behaviour.  Paul cites a few in this chapter:

1Cor 5:11 (ESV)
But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler-not even to eat with such a one.

Elsewhere false teachers (teachers who deny the basics of the gospel) are another group who must be disciplined (1 Tim 1:20; Rev 2:14-16).  Notice that those who are disciplined in these instances are excommunicated from fellowship.  This  means they are not free to come to the gatherings of the church,

1Cor 5:2,7, 13 (ESV)
Let him who has done this be removed from among you… Cleanse out the old leaven… “Purge the evil person from among you.”

but it also means that the Christians in the church should not befriend the disciplined member socially.  Paul is clear,

1Cor 5:9-11 (ESV)
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler-not even to eat with such a one.

‘Eating’ is not (as some bizarrely suggest) the Lord’s Supper, it is clearly social interaction; it is mixing with the disciplined believer in the world not the church that is in view.   In one sense, this exhortation should be obvious.  If someone is forbidden to attend church meetings as a means of discipline then it makes little sense for Christians to meet and fraternize with him elsewhere.  The excommunicated person is be avoided, even shunned (2 Thess 3:6-15).  They are to be deprived of Christian company (I assume the exception of close family and those elders given specific pastoral responsibility for the person disciplined).  Does this seem draconian to us?  It does.  Is it what the Holy Spirit teaches?  It is.  Why will become apparent later in this post.  But reasons apart, we must assume the Holy Spirit is the best judge of how to pastor such difficult situations. Certainly his wisdom is preferable to ours, and that of Western liberal culture (which has no success rate in checking sin).

Insensitivity to sin, therefore, is a principal reason why church discipline is in decline.  However, there is another reason, and an equally disturbing one, namely, an inadequate grasp of  grace.

insensitivity to grace

We have, as we noted in the previous post, dangerously mistaken ideas about grace.  C21 evangelical grace is too often soft and indulgent.  It assumes God is easy-going and accommodating and protests that we must not judge.  Bonhoeffer called it ‘cheap grace’.  He defined ‘cheap grace’ as

“cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline, communion without confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ.”

But cheap grace is not true grace.  True grace desires the best for God’s people.  It is determined that they should deny ungodliness and worldly lusts and live self-controlled, godly, upright lives.  It is resolutely committed to purifying God’s people and making them a people in whom God’s rights are realized (Tit 2:11-14).  If this requires rebuke, correction, discipline, even church discipline, then so be it.  Grace will go to great lengths to train us in godliness for godliness is our best life now and apart from it there is no life in the future.  Grace will be as tough as necessary to bring us to glory.  As God says to his people in the OT, ‘You only have I known [loved and chosen] of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you’ (Amos 3:2).

Church discipline is neither  loveless nor unkind, but an initiative of grace.

grace for the church

God cares deeply about his people.  He is deeply protective of them. He desires their purity and godliness.  Purity and holiness though hard-won are easily lost.  Consequently the church must be protected from all that will corrupt it.  Paul says,

1Cor 5:6-8 (ESV)
Your boasting is not good. Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth. 

The feast of the Passover in Israel was a commemoration of their redemption from Egypt.  Immediately following this feast of passover was the feast of unleavened bread.  For seven days after Passover  the nation ate only unleavened bread.  Leaven was an agent of corruption and so the seven-day feast of unleavened bread symbolised their rejection and expulsion of  all that was corrupting.  Paul reminds them of the cost of their redemption – Christ the passover lamb – and that this redemption was that they should be a holy people – a people who would put away from them all that corrupted and destroyed.  For sin among God’s people is intolerable, and if tolerated, is a corruption that spreads (Cf. Gals 5:9).  What one does (or believes) others soon copy, especially if they see there is no consequence, and soon the whole church is deeply compromised (Cf. 2 Tim 2:16-18; 1 Tim 5:10).  If you doubt that this is true simply look at the sin that is widespread in churches where discipline is all but non-existent. The pattern is clear.  Sin that is not disciplined quickly spreads. What was initially condemned is soon condoned and  finally commended; such is the ready corruption of the human heart if left unchecked and unjudged.

God is jealous for the well-being of his people.  And so he graciously protects them from all that will destroy them.  This is why church discipline is so important.  When the church disciplines it is protecting God’s people from harm and spiritual danger.  Indeed it is simply preserving what they really are – ‘a new lump, as you really are unleavened’, a holy people.  The church is God’s distinctive counter-culture.  It is a people distinct from Egypt and Corinth and all other cultures intended by its very holiness and distinctiveness to praise the excellencies of God.  Peter writes,

1Pet 2:9-12 (ESV)
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light… Beloved, I urge you as sojourners and exiles to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against your soul. Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation. 

Incidentally, the danger of embracing these ‘passions… which war against the soul‘ is why those who belong to the church ought to have as little to do as possible with the person expelled.  Their own spiritual safety is at stake… we must avoid people who are dangerously compromised spiritually.  On more than one occasion Paul urges avoidance. The first two references below clearly refers to those who persist in teaching what is contrary to apostolic teaching, those who preach a false gospel.  The third text includes false teachers but goes much further – it embraces belief and behaviour that is contrary to the gospel.

Rom 16:17 (ESV)
I appeal to you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine that you have been taught; avoid them.

Titus 3:9-11 (ESV)
But avoid foolish controversies, genealogies, dissensions, and quarrels about the law, for they are unprofitable and worthless. As for a person who stirs up division, after warning him once and then twice, have nothing more to do with him, knowing that such a person is warped and sinful; he is self-condemned. 

2Tim 3:1-5 (ESV)
But understand this, that in the last days there will come times of difficulty. For people will be lovers of self, lovers of money, proud, arrogant, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, heartless, unappeasable, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not loving good, treacherous, reckless, swollen with conceit, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people.

Is Paul an extremist?  The question itself is blasphemous.  For if he is then so was Christ for Paul’s teaching is simply an echo of what Jesus taught.

Matt 18:15-20 (ESV)
“If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly, I say to you, whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven. Again I say to you, if two of you agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” 

The context is narrower (it is an offence against an individual) the audience is not quite the same (Jewish followers before local NT churches existed) but the principle is made clear.  There are situations (in this case a hard, self-justifying, self-willed spirit that will listen to none) where someone  must be avoided; ‘And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector’.  Jews shunned and avoided tax collectors and gentiles. Cf. 2 Thess 3:6-15

Moreover, notice that this discipline is imposed not simply by the elders but by the whole church.  It is the church  who ‘bind and loose’.  That is, the church has authority to accept or reject, to bring in or put out.  The church may consist only of a few (two or three) but these people have  the authority of Christ to receive or expel.  This is why, while it may be elders or spiritual leaders who are principally involved with the offender, if discipline must take place then the reason must be clear to all, for it is the whole church that disciplines (and bears responsibility for it) and not merely the elders.  1 Cor 5 corroborates this.  Paul writes to the church,

1Cor 5:3-5 (ESV)
When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

Equally, when someone is received into fellowship the whole church should be informed about their faith and spiritual journey.  The church receives and rejects (Cf 2 Cor 2:6).

Thus the case for not associating with the disciplined person appears to me to be overwhelming.  Paul’s language bears repeating:

1Cor 5:9-13 (ESV)
I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people- not at all meaning the sexually immoral of this world, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler-not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Purge the evil person from among you.” 

However, Paul’s comment ‘a little leaven leavens the whole lump’ probably is even more forceful than stressing the spreading nature of sin.  It is probably saying that the presence of even a little leaven constitutes the whole as leavened.  Even if sin doesn’t spread, its presence taints and compromises the whole – consider Achan’s sin (Josh 7).  Certainly it takes only one tolerated sin to bring shame and dishonour on the whole church and so upon the name of God himself.  We must remember, we are the temple of God and God’s temple is holy.  So holy in fact that if someone destroys this temple God will destroy him, a warning given by Paul to false teachers in the first instance (1 Cor 3: 16,17).

Church discipline, then, is God acting in grace to preserve the purity of his people and the glory of his own name.

grace for the disciplined

When your child behaves abominably what do you do?  Do you simply ignore their behaviour and hope it will improve?  If you do you are stoking up trouble for you and the child.  You are doing him no favour.  Proverbs wisely observes,  ‘Folly is bound up in the heart of a child, ​​​​​​​but the rod of discipline drives it far from him (Prov 22:15). ​​​ It is neither wise nor loving to allow  a child’s self-will to be indulged.  Proverbs reminds us that ‘Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him’ (Prov 13:24).  Discipline, appropriately administered, is a response of love.  In the words of Proverbs, yet again,  ‘in the reproofs of discipline is the way of life’ (Prov 6:23).  The same is of course true of the children of God.

Church discipline, like God’s direct discipline, is not an act of condemnation but of confrontation and correction.  The discipline is intended to break self-will, impress upon the disciplined the seriousness of rebellious sinful behaviour and how unacceptable this is in God’s children.  God will not indulge sons who disgrace his name.  He will not simply ignore children who sin with a high hand.  If they are to have a place in his family they must learn how unacceptable wilfully sinful behaviour is, and if this requires stern discipline then so be it.  This is precisely Paul’s point at the beginning of 1 Cor 5, note again these words,

1Cor 5:2-5 (ESV)
Let him who has done this be removed from among you.  For though absent in body, I am present in spirit; and as if present, I have already pronounced judgment on the one who did such a thing. When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord.

The purpose of discipline is plainly not retributive but remedial: it’s aim is ‘the destruction of the flesh’.  This of course is the purpose of all God’s disciplining of his people.  The discipline teaches the seriousness of our sin.  Delivering ‘to Satan’ it seems is exile from the warmth and joy  of church fellowship  to the world, the theatre of Satan’s power.  This exile is shock therapy for the soul.  The true child of God will feel keenly the loss of blessing.  His mind will contrast his past blessings among God’s people with his present exile and this will bring him to his senses.

This is why it is so wrongheaded for church members to socialize with any removed from fellowship (with such a one not even to eat).  It is undermining the discipline and doing the one disciplined no favours.  The child who is banished to his room for misbehaviour feels no impact if all his friends go to his room to play with him.  The discipline has little effect.  The banishment is intended to give time to reflect.  It is intended to make him aware of love abused and so for a time forfeited.  The weight of the wrongdoing is brought home by privileges withdrawn, especially the acceptance and approval of those loved.  This will bring the child to his sense and produce contrition and confession of wrongdoing.

For a repentance to be deep and life-giving rather than superficial discipline must take place and the whole church must uphold it.  And where it does, the true believer will respond.

Of course such discipline is drastic and severe.  Language like ‘the destruction of the flesh‘ and ‘deliver to Satan’ makes this plain, but sometimes drastic surgery is vital.  In the church it is vital for the well-being of the body of Christ as a whole and it is vital for the person disciplined as well.  For the gracious intention is that discipline now will prevent destruction later (his spirit will be saved in the day of the Lord).  Proverbs gives us its wisdom again, ‘​​​​​​​​There is severe discipline for him who forsakes the way; ​​​​​​​whoever hates reproof will die’. ​​​ (Prov 15:10).  We should be in no doubt that blatant wilful unchecked sin places the perpetrator outside of salvation.  1 Cor 6 (the immediately following chapter) unequivocally warns,

1Cor 6:9-10 (ESV)
Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.

In Galatians the same grave warning is given.

Gal 5:16-21 (ESV)
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh… Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Ungodly behaviour like those catalogued banishes not merely from the local church but from the final City of God, the New Jerusalem (Rev 22:15) and makes our final destiny the Lake of Fire (Rev 21:6-8).

Rev 21:6-8 (ESV)
And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” 

The issues at stake are significant, of eternal significance (Cf.  Jas 5:19,20).  This is why church discipline properly administered is gracious and life-giving.  It teaches through present banishment the danger of eternal banishment, jolting the transgressor to his senses and repentance.

In 2 Cor we read of the success of such discipline.

2Cor 2:5-11 (ESV)
Now if anyone has caused pain, he has caused it not to me, but in some measure-not to put it too severely-to all of you. For such a one, this punishment by the majority is enough, so you should rather turn to forgive and comfort him, or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I beg you to reaffirm your love for him… so that we would not be outwitted by Satan; for we are not ignorant of his designs.

The discipline has had its desired effect.  The one who has sinned has come to feel his sin and has known ‘godly sorrow that leads to repentance’ (2 Cor 7), evident in that  the discipline is in danger of overwhelming him and doubtless too by the presence of changed attitudes and behaviour (Acts 26:20).  The time has come for reaffirmed love and acceptance (note, the implication, that discipline involves love withheld).  Discipline reveals the heart.  ‘​​​​​​​​Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, ​​​​​​​but he who hates reproof is stupid’ ​(Prov 12:1).  Where the transgressor is a true child of God, and all discipline assumes he is (1 Cor 5:11; 2 Thess 3:13-15), discipline will have its desired effect.  The words of the Psalmist in Ps 118 reveal the godly response to discipline: recognition it is from the Lord; no resentment but rather thankfulness; a desire to live in the presence of God; and an awareness that this presence is a place of righteousness (Cf. Ps 15; 24).

Ps 118:18-19 (ESV)
​​​​​​​​The Lord has disciplined me severely, ​​​​​​​but he has not given me over to death. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​Open to me the gates of righteousness, ​​​​​​​that I may enter through them ​​​​​​​and give thanks to the Lord. ​​​

These are simply a few reflections on church discipline.  For some, they will undoubtedly seem mediaeval and monstrous.  Yet only a couple of generations ago these would have been virtually unquestioned evangelical orthodoxy.  But, gut-reactions aside, the question is – are they biblical?

Other aspects of church discipline have not been considered, for example, the duration of exclusion, the spirit of discipline (Gals 6:1,2), post-discipline consequences (1 Tim 3:10), and other less extreme forms of discipline  (1 Tim 5:20, Tit 1:13; Gal 6:1).  These were beyond the aim of the post, namely, to instil confidence in biblical discipline and to establish it for what it is, an initiative of grace.

26
Jan
12

discipline… an initiative of grace (1)

a doxology to grace… a preamble

The gospel is the announcing of extravagant grace.  It proclaims to a disgraced, enslaved and hopeless world  how ‘the grace of God has appeared to all men bringing salvation’ (Tit 2:11).  In Jesus, the embodiment of grace and truth, God’s rescue plan for the nations is unveiled.  In Christ, God’s grace flows out in all its fullness and extravagance to  all who gladly submit to his reign.  In Christ, we receive grace upon grace  (Jn 1).  Christians rightly rejoice in grace.  We exult in grace.  God’s Kingdom, in Christ, is a Kingdom of grace. Its subjects stand in grace (Roms 5:2); live in the reign of grace (Roms  5:21); grow in the realm of grace (2 Pet 3:18)   The good news about the kingdom which we embrace is the ‘word of grace’ (Acts 20:32).  We are: called by grace (Gals 1:15); justified by his grace as a gift (Roms 3:24) ; and made alive by grace (Eph 2).   The fulfilment of all that is promised rests on grace (Roms 4:16)  For those who belong to God’s Kingdom, God is simply, ‘the God of all grace’.

Praise God.  Praise God for his love before time that chose rebels against his goodness, people corrupt and full of sin, forgave all their sins, and made them, in Christ, his sons and daughters and heirs of his glory.  Saving grace is God’s incomprehensible goodness and love to the undeserving, delivering them from a fallen world and all that is part of it.  It is every activity of the triune God in bringing many sons to glory.   It is glorious (Eph 1:6), immeasurable (Eph 2:7); surpassing (2 Cor 9:14); and, in the believer, more than sufficient for all his needs (2 Cor 12:9).  Praise God.

Praise God for grace.  Preach grace and glory in grace.  Live in grace.

distorting grace

But…

… preach grace as it is and not a romanticized, sentimentalized,  parody of grace.   In our effete society all too often grace is love that never hurts; giving that never expects; acceptance that never questions; and favour that never reproves.  Grace, is regularly a synonym for indulgence and spoiling, for pampering and coddling, a spiritual massage.  Grace, it would seem, is never outraged, never judges, never censures, never frowns, and never chastens.   Christ apparently is a King, a Lord, who neither demands not warns and God  is a Father who will not admonish and discipline.   Grace like this is simply a panacea, a fix, to make us feel good.  It is merely a soft toy for the soul.   Such views of grace are profoundly unbiblical and dangerously distorted.    They are caricatures, indeed counterfeits of grace.

disciplining grace

Grace, properly understood, is not only forgiveness of sins, it is the ongoing purifying redeeming activity of God in his people as he rebukes, admonishes, corrects, afflicts, remonstrates, warns, teaches, trains and disciplines.  One way or another grace will train us,’ to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works (Tit 2:11-14).  Grace is not simply a message from God we believe it is an activity by God in our lives we experience… and sometimes in ways that seem strange.

The believers to whom Peter writes were experiencing hard times.  They were suffering for their faith.  How does Peter encourage them.  Listen to his words:

1Pet 4:16-19 (ESV)
Yet if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“If the righteous is scarcely saved, ​​​​​​​what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” ​​​ Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good. 

Peter sees persecutions as God’s  way of judging and destroying all that is sinful and wrong in their lives.  It is part of the discipline that God brings upon his children as he prepares them for glory.   It is a sign indeed that we are God’s children.  Indeed, it is integral to salvation and the reputation of God.  God, after all, can scarcely judge and condemn the unbelieving world if he does not make it his business to judge and destroy sin in his own family.  Such a God would be unrighteous.  A good father disciplines his children.

The same point is made by the writer of Hebrews.  The Hebrew Christians are also suffering for their faith.  Why?  Is it because the world is opposed to the gospel?  Certainly it is.  But that is not the only reason.  The world’s opposition is part of God’s refining, training process in his people.

Heb 12:3-11 (ESV)
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. In your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood. And have you forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as sons? ​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​“My son, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, ​​​​​​​nor be weary when reproved by him. ​​​ ​​​​​​​​For the Lord disciplines the one he loves, ​​​​​​​and chastises every son whom he receives.” ​​​ It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline? If you are left without discipline, in which all have participated, then you are illegitimate children and not sons. Besides this, we have had earthly fathers who disciplined us and we respected them. Shall we not much more be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as it seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. 

Notice, this discipline is a discipline of grace; he disciplines us for our good that we may share in his holiness.  He disciplines us because he is our Father and loves us too much to simply let us do our own thing. God’s disciplines in a believer are not curses of law but corrections of grace.  They are not retributive but remedial and restorative.  Such disciplines are not to be feared but welcomed.  Welcomed, not in any masochistic sense, no-one wishes to suffer, but welcomed for what they produce.  Like the athlete welcomes the gruelling of training so the believer welcomes the training of grace.  Like the Psalmist, we say, ‘it was good for me to be afflicted’ (Ps 119:71). We must not feel threatened by difficulties in life or resent them.  Proverbs reminds us, ‘Whoever loves discipline loves knowledge, ​​​​​​​but he who hates reproof is stupid. ​​(Prov 12:1).  We must not think that they come from a hostile God and are somehow opposed to the gospel and grace.  Far from it, God’s disciplines, his ‘severe mercies’, are not antithetical to grace, they are agents of grace, allies of grace, part of its apparatus.

God’s judgements in our lives come in many shapes and forms. For some they involve persecutions for others they may mean sickness, bereavement or some other form of loss.  God’s disciplines are as varied as the experiences of life.  And they are all part of his training in righteousness.  They all shape character and produce maturity of faith.  They prepare us for heaven.  Even Jesus, who was without sin, grew in wisdom and maturity, through suffering (Hebs 2:10).  Through suffering he became perfectly equipped to Shepherd his people (Hebs 2:17).

In our lives there is the added complication of sin.  Sometimes we do not hear the ‘word of grace’ that comes to us through God’s word.  Sometimes the prompting of the Spirit in our hearts is ignored and defied.  Such foolishness may require a great storm to get us back on course.  We may have to be plunged into God’s waves and billows before we come to our senses (Jonah 2).  Some prodigals have to find themselves destitute, feeding swine, before they think of returning to their Father.  Such are God’s ways with his people.

Perhaps most solemnly of all, God’s disciplines may even mean the loss of life.  In 1 Cor 11 Paul says,

1Cor 11:27-32 (ESV)
Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world. 

The ‘unworthy manner’ Paul refers to was thoughtless even cruel behaviour towards other believers at the Lord’s Supper.  At their love feasts, fellowship context in which they ate the Lord’s Supper, the rich were feasting lavishly while the poor had comparatively little.  Instead of the Supper being an experience of fellowship and oneness it was an exhibition of differences.   The wealthy indulged and were indifferent at best to their fellow brothers and sisters.  The poor were humiliated.  The result was sickness and death among them, judgements by the Lord.  But, yet again, note, these judgements were disciplines of grace – they were disciplined of the Lord so that they may not be condemned along with the world (Cf. 1 Jn 5:16; Jas 5;14,15; Job 33).

We ought to judge ourselves (that is deal with sin in our lives) so that we need not be judged by the Lord for what is sure is he will not simply allow his people to be careless about their sin.  Careless, casual attitudes to sin in his people he will judge, his grace will allow no less. 

26
Nov
11

works of law and works of grace

In a recent blog I argued that Christianity is all grace.  The OT Law, by contrast, was a covenant of works.   It did not function on the premise of grace or faith but human achieving.  Paul makes this crystal clear in Galatians.

Gal 3:10-14 (ESV)
For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” 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.

And this is no isolated verse, though if it were it would be sufficient.  Other texts reveal the same teaching (Deut 27:26; Lev 18:5; Ezek 20:11; Roms 10:5; Lk 10:25-28). I underline this for many attempt to tell us, in the face of ample and clear biblical witness, that Law was a covenant of grace.  Emphatically, not so.

The simple fact is that the Mosaic Law was a covenant of works depending for its success on a righteousness achieved by man rather than a righteousness given by God; obedience brought blessing and life while disobedience brought curse and death.  It proved to be an abysmal failure leading ultimately to the curse of exile.  Thus, OT hope, realising the weakness of the OC, looked to a future when God himself would ‘work righteousness’ (Ps 103:6; Jer 51:10; Isa 33:5, 45:8) and ‘bring salvation’ (Isa 46:1).  This future salvation arrives of course in Messiah (Lk 1:67-80, 2:29-32, 19:9; Acts 13:23-51).  Today, is the day of salvation (2 Cor 6:2; 1 Pet 1:10).  Now is the realisation (at least in part) of the eschatological (end-time) salvation (1 Pet 1:10), righteousness (Roms 1:16-18), faith ( Gals 3:23, 25), and grace (Jn 1;17; 1 Pet 1:10; Tit 2:11) which the OT anticipated.  The Law may well have come through Moses but grace and truth comes through Jesus Christ (Jn 1:17).  Christianity is Christ and Christ is grace.

So stark and clear-cut is this contrast between old covenant law-works and new covenant gospel-grace that Paul can write:

Rom 4:4-5 (ESV)
Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift [or, not counted as of grace] but as his due. And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness

Rom 11:6 (ESV)
But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace.

and again

2Tim 1:9 (ESV)
who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began.

Law and Christ are different in principle.  Now it is just at this point that the question arises: does this mean that there are no ‘works’ that are expected (even demanded) of a Christian?  Has the gospel no obligations?  If God saves me by grace can I live as I like (Roms 6:1)?  Paul’s answer is ‘God forbid’  (Roms 6:2).

And it is as well we hear this apostolic consternation and denunciation and grasp it, for some Christians in their zeal to say that ‘works’ have no place in the Christian gospel go quite wrong at this point.  In their well-intentioned effort to maintain the biblical distinction between ‘law and grace” or ‘works and faith’ they teach ‘doing or works’  is always law and ‘done and faith’ are always gospel; works, they say, have nothing to do with gospel.  This, however well motivated, is a false dichotomy.  It is not the biblical paradigm.  Paul clearly expects the gospel to produce righteous living (Roms 6).  Paul’s opposition is not to ‘works’ per se, but to ‘law-works’.  And by ‘law-works’ he means specifically the ‘works’ of the Mosaic Covenant and more generally ‘works’ that rest on the same premise as this covenant.  And the premise is all important.  The ‘law-works’ Paul opposes are those that are undertaken as a means of gaining a righteousness before God that will merit eternal life.  The Mosaic Law offered life through righteousness achieved (this do and live).  And it did so by demanding obedience but offering no grace to obey.  It laid the responsibility firmly on unaided humanity, humanity ‘in the flesh’.

The Law ever assumes man in the flesh; life is not the starting point of the Law, it is the goal (Lev 18:5; Gals 3:10-14; Roms 7:14; Cf. Gals 3:3).  However, that which ‘promised life’ brought only death, for flesh, to which law was addressed, could not and would not obey (Roms 7:9-11) indeed the Law simply provoked flesh to sin all the more (Roms 7:5, 7-9).  Thus, Paul asserts:

Rom 3:20 (ESV)
For by works of the law no human being (better, ‘flesh’) will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Thus, the ‘works’ that Paul condemns and opposes are works that proceed on the basis of human nature seeking by its own righteousness to inherit (merit) eternal life.  Such are ‘the works of the law’.  When by my own ‘goodness’ I seek to gain a place in heaven, my ‘goodness’ is mere worthless ‘law-works’.  When I think I can ‘earn’ or ‘merit’  or ‘gain’ God’s favour by my own efforts, or believe I can somehow work my passage to heaven, I am attempting to ‘justify myself’ and  ‘trusting in myself’ before God.  I am looking for a way to put God in my debt (Roms 4:4).  And God will have none of it.  Quite apart from the futility of any efforts by me to achieve the righteousness God’s glory requires (Roms 3:23) God will simply not allow any man to have a basis for boasting before him (1 Cor 1:29; Roms 3:27; Phil 3:3).  And so we read:

Eph 2:8-10 (ESV)
For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.

Yet, note carefully, this very text, which excludes all ‘works’ from salvation and insists instead that we are God’s ‘workmanship’ goes on toobserve that those saved by grace through faith are ‘created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them’.   ‘Good works’ are the very substance of the life that God has mapped out for those saved by grace.  And this text in Ephesians is by no means an isolated reference to the ‘good works’ of the believer.  Even if we limit our scan of the NT to the specific phrase ‘good works’ we find it is demanded and designated of Christians no less than twelve times (Acts 9:36; 1 Tim 2:10,5:10,5:25, 6:18; Tit 1:16, 2:7,14, 3:8,14; Hebs 10:24; 1 Pet 2:12).  Now, these are not ‘works’ that are dismissed and denounced but ‘works’ that are decreed and demanded.  In a word, these are not ‘law-works’ but ‘gospel-works’.  They are not ‘dead’ works of the flesh but the living fruit of the Spirit (Cf Acts 13:2).  They are ‘works of faith’ (Cf. Gals 5:6; 1 Thess 1:3; 2 Thess 1:11; Jas 2:18,22).  That is, they are ‘grace-works’ (2 Cor 9:8; Acts 14:28; Eph 3:7).  Once again Paul expresses clearly what ‘grace-works’ are:

1Cor 15:10 (ESV)
But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.

The differences between ‘works of the law’ and ‘works of grace’ now become obvious: law-works find their source in man whereas grace-works find their source in God; law-works base their hope in man whereas grace-works base their hope in God; law-works seek to gain life through works whereas grace-works express a life already possessed by grace; law-works have life as their goal while grace-works have life as their ground; law-works seek to earn salvation while grace-works seek to express salvation; law-works are our workings to impress God whereas grace-works are God working in us to please him.

The differences between the two are as wide as eternity.  One works for salvation and the other works from salvation.  In one the source is man and his arrogance and in the other the source is God and his grace.  One damns and the other saves.

Allow me, in conclusion, to make one final important observation.  We can only produce ‘grace-works’ if we stand entirely confident in our justification by grace through faith.  If our ‘works’ do not arise from the assurance that we are God’s children being simply the faith-response of gratitude to grace, then our ‘works’ will inevitably be law-works; if they not arise from the assurance of standing in grace then they must inevitably arise from an attempt to earn that standing.  To make the same point in another way: if we do not stand strong in our initial justification by grace through faith then our fitting justification by works (Jas 2), that is grace-works, will collapse into a  false justification by law (Gals 5:4) that is, law-works’; we will be ‘severed’ from grace (Gals 5:4)

Christianity is Christ and Christ is the gospel of grace.  Christianity is grace from first to last, including ‘grace-works’.

22
Nov
11

the church and fellowship after the apostolic age (2) the apostasy of the church from grace

My contention is that the apostasy of the Christian Church, already underway before the demise of the apostles, led to the Judaizing of the church – a tendency already present during the lives of the apostles.  The NT church was plagued by both Jewish (Judaistic) and gentile (Greco-Roman) notions from early days.  Many of the NT letters are attacks these very diseases.   In fact, Judaism and Greco-Roman faiths had some principles in common which is why Paul was able to say to gentile believers ready to adopt Judaistic practices that this was simply a return to the ‘weak and beggarly elements’ of religious bondage and death they had left behind.

Gal 4:8-11 (ESV)
Formerly, when you [gentiles without the covenants of promise] did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more [the OT Mosaic Law, Judaism, they were being encouraged to embrace]? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain.

What then are the ‘weak and worthless elementary principles of the world‘ that the church were tempted to adopt, and in time did, in abundance?

I want to sketch over a few posts three areas of Judaistic recidivism now institutionalised in the professing church.

a)    a Judaistic soteriology

b)    a Judaistic ecclesiology

c)    a Judaistic eschatology

Let me say, these posts will but scrape the surface.  You will need to read and reflect much further to grasp the extent to which the Church has capitulated to a Judaizing apostasy.  It is a journey of discovery that is unpalatable for it shakes our complacency. Often, when the choice is between living in our comfortable and cosy theological world and the messy world of hard truth we choose the former.   We don’t like to think just how far removed our church experience is from NT Christianity for it requires adjustment and that is often painful.  So before reading on I would say to you as Morpheus says to Nero in the film ‘The Matrix’ :

‘This is your last chance. After this, there is no turning back. You take the blue pill – the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill – you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.’

To read on is at least to flirt with the red pill.

But first…

the gospel of the grace of god

Christianity is a wonderful story.  It is the story of grace.  It is the story of the grace of God revealed in Jesus Christ.  In fact, the whole biblical story anticipates this grace (1 Pet 1:10).  Yahweh (the Lord) who reveals himself to Israel in the OT is merciful and gracious.

Exod 34:6-7 (ESV)
The Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.”

His grace is evident among his people throughout the OT.  However, in the arrival of Jesus and the Kingdom, God’s  grace flows as never before.   John tells us ‘the Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth came by Jesus Christ’ – an implied contrast surely cannot be avoided.

In the Law, the glory of God was hidden behind a curtain in the Holy of Holies.  No ordinary Israelite could look on this glory and live.  Thus Moses hid his face (which shone with this glory) when he came down from the mountain.  Only the High Priest could enter into God’s Holy presence and see his glory and he could only do so once a year (and only with blood) and even then the Holiest was thick with the smoke of incense and his vision was faint.   God was among his people but essentially hidden from them.  One reason for this was that God’s glory under Law was essentially the glory of his holiness and grace was not to the fore.  Thus Sinai, which lays the basic character of the Law relationship, was a place of thick darkness, thundering, lightning, and terror – the people were afraid to draw near and forbidden to draw near (Ex 19; 20:18; 34:30; Hebs 12:18-21).

It is in Christ that God is revealed in the brilliance of grace and truth.  The Word became flesh and ‘tabernacled’ among us.  We beheld his glory, says John, the glory of the only Son of the Father full of grace and truth (Jn 1:14).  The hidden God is now revealed.  And of his fulness we have all received, grace upon grace (Jn 1:15).  The heart of God that moves out in love, compassion and salvation to sinners is seen in all its glory in Jesus Christ.  The gracious God – the God who is Father – is revealed in him.  We know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that though he was rich he became poor that we through his poverty may be made rich (2 Cor 8:9).

In his flesh, he revealed the glory of God but, ironically, if there was any veil to this glory, it was this flesh.  While he lived in this life on earth the way into the ‘holiest’ (the immediate presence of God) was not open to us.  But through his death all this change.  We now have access into the immediate and majestically holy presence of God.  We enter with confidence, anywhere and at any time, the Throne Room of God.  We stand as creatures before his aw(e)ful purity and, beyond all belief, we do so without fear of expulsion, without fear of death, without fear of condemnation or accusation; we are holy and without blame before him in love (Eph 1:3).

Facing God in the filthy rags of our own self-righteousness, the way of  Judaism and human religion (though Judaism did acknowledge sacrifice and grace albeit as an adjunct to a relationship of works) is an impossible thing,  fearful and futile.  We are crushed and condemned if we seek to face him this way.  Our conscience immediately accuses us and we ‘tremble to die’.   If heaven and earth flee and there is found no place for them before the holiness of God on his throne what hope has a wretched sinner?  I cannot stand before God on the ground of responsibility – if I do, I am lost.  ‘I’ is a weak link that will collapse before intractable righteousness and all-seeing eyes.  No, if I am to be in God’s presence I must be there on another ground altogether.   I need the righteousness of grace (Roms 3:24), the righteousness of God that comes through  the infinite worth of the atoning life-blood sacrifice of Jesus Christ God’s Son which cleanses me from all sin.  I need to be there knowing that God is for me, and if God is for me who can be against me.  It is God who justifies (not, who judges, but who justifies) who then can condemn (Roms 8)?

In God’s presence the only righteousness that is acceptable is his own.  And so Christ was made sin for us, he who knew no sin that we might become the righteousness of God in him (2 Cor 5:21).  We stand as those whose sin no longer exists – without conscience of sins (Hebs 10:2).  We are without stain, a new creation.  We stand pure, justified, forgiven by virtue of his blood… justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith (Roms 3:24) and it is by faith that it may rest on grace (Roms 4:16).  Blood that gives more than a merely superficial, ceremonial, temporary cleansing but cleanses the conscience forever and brings us faultless into the presence of God.

Heb 9:11-26 ;10:19 (ESV)
But when Christ appeared… he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls, and the sprinkling of defiled persons with the ashes of a heifer, sanctify for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God… For Christ has entered, not into holy places made with hands, which are copies of the true things, but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God on our behalf… he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself… Therefore, brothers we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh…’

All rests on grace.  And if it is grace it is no longer by works or grace would not be grace (Roms 11:6).  Being justified by faith we have peace with God and stand in grace (Roms 5:2).  We need no  further redemption, justification, sacrifice, or reconciliation before God.   All has been accomplished, once for all, by Christ’s death, a death that by the grace of God he experienced for every man (Hebs 2:9).  Our sins and iniquities God will remember no more forever.  We have been enriched in him with every salvation blessing out of the riches of God’s grace in Christ Jesus (Eph 1:7) – the God, who is the God of all grace (1 Pet 5:10) .  By grace we have been saved, and that not of ourselves, not of works [of Law] lest any man should boast (Eph 2:8,9).  God’s throne has become for us a throne of grace where we find grace (Hebs 4:16).  Indeed, we have, by immeasurable grace, been raised with Christ and find ourselves not merely standing in God’s presence, but seated there; seated with Christ in heavenly places (Eph 1).  We have been chosen by grace  (Roms 11:6) not merely to be forgiven sinners but to become family members, sons of God and co-heirs with Christ (Roms 8).  And all is of grace.  Our security and salvation rests on the reliability of grace for we are not ‘under law’ but ‘under grace’ (Roms 6:10).  We live in ‘the reign of grace’ (Roms 5:21).  Through the one man, Christ Jesus, ‘we receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness’ and ‘reign in life’ (Roms 5:17).  The invincible and inexhaustible grace of God in Christ is the source and guarantee of everything.

We can be sure, if all rests on grace, not only of forgiveness and filial relationship but also of freedom.  Freedom from all that destroys and enslaves.  We are no longer in bondage to sin because we are no longer under law but under the rule of grace (Roms 6:10; Cf Gals 5:1).   The Law of Moses could not bring this freedom.  In fact it only accentuated our slavery to sin and death (Acts 13:39; Roms 7).  It made demands that none could keep and that fallen human nature rebelled against.  Indeed to be ‘under grace’ is to be ‘free from law’, the only way to produce fruit for God (Roms 7:1-6).  It is God’s all-powerful all-enabling grace (not law) that has appeared in Christ to all men that is ‘ training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in m the present age waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ’ (Tit 2:11,12).

All we are and ever will be rests solely on the grace of God (1 Cor 15:10).  His providing grace is sufficient, indeed more than sufficient, for our every requirement (2 Cor 9:8,14, 12:9; Jas 4:6).   If God did not spare his Son but gave him up for us all will he not along with him graciously give us all things (Roms 8:32).  Every skill and calling we have is a gift of grace (1 Cor 3:10; Eph 4:7; Roms 12:6).  Our salvation is to the praise of God’s grace, and to that grace alone (Eph 1:6).  The gospel is grace from first to last.  All is from God.

And there are immeasurable depths to the riches of this grace that only eternity will reveal (Eph 2:7).  Thus we live, growing in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus (2 Pet 3:18) having our hearts strengthened presently by the grace that is in Christ Jesus (2 Tim 2:1: Hebs 13:9) and our hope set fully on the grace that is to be ours at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Pet 1:13). The gospel, in entirety, is the good news of the triumph of grace.  It is intoxicating, glorious, heady, liberating wine for the soul.

As usual classic hymns capture the heart of the apostolic gospel so well.  John Newton exults in the triumph of grace when he writes

Amazing grace! How sweet the sound
That saved a wretch like me!
I once was lost, but now am found;
Was blind, but now I see.

’Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!

Through many dangers, toils and snares,
I have already come;
’Tis grace hath brought me safe thus far,
And grace will lead me home.

And so too does Philip Doddridge in his eulogy of grace

Grace, ’tis a charming sound,
Harmonious to mine ear;
Heaven with the echo shall resound,
And all the earth shall hear.

Grace first contrived the way
To save rebellious man;
And all the steps that grace display
Which drew the wondrous plan.

Grace first inscribed my name
In God’s eternal book;
’Twas grace that gave me to the Lamb,
Who all my sorrows took.

Grace led my roving feet
To tread the heavenly road;
And new supplies each hour I meet,
While pressing on to God.

Grace taught my soul to pray
And made mine eyes o’erflow;
’Twas grace which kept me to this day,
And will not let me go.

Grace all the work shall crown,
Through everlasting days;
It lays in heaven the topmost stone,
And well deserves the praise.

O let Thy grace inspire
My soul with strength divine
My all my powers to Thee aspire,
And all my days be Thine.

Such is the gospel of the grace of God, the word and grace of God in truth (Col 1:6) by which the Church of God has been called (Gals 1:6), made a partaker (Phil 1:7), and with which it is entrusted as with a precious deposit (Acts 20:24; 1 Cor 9:17; Eph 3:2; 1 Tim 1:4; 2 Tim 1:8-14).  The gospel to which Peter referred when he wrote his first letter and urged:

1 Pet 5:12 (ESV)
I have written briefly to you, exhorting and declaring that this is the true grace of God. Stand firm in it.

When we begin to grasp the dimensions of grace in the gospel we understand the dismay, grief and anger of Paul when this gospel began to be subverted by Judaizing teachers and the faith of God’s people established in grace was being shaken, defected and potentially lost.  Listen to his words to the Galatian believers

Gal 1:6-9 (ESV)
I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel- not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.

Elsewhere he will say of those Judaizers that they are ‘dogs’ (an abuse rich in ironic intent for it was usually reserved by Jews for gentiles Phil 3:2 Cf. Mk 7:27) and wishes that they would ‘emasculate themselves’ (Gals 5:12).  He hates what they teach for it ‘severs’ from Christ those who believe it (Gals 5:4).

What did the Judaizers (often called, the circumcision) teach?  Simply put, yet truly, they taught that the grace of God in Christ was not enough added to it must be the Law of Moses.  They taught salvation in Christ plus Moses or salvation by grace plus works.    The very covenant of death that Christ had come in grace to deliver from and render obselete they wanted to reinstate, to rehabilitate.  Their teaching is a lethal virus that has invaded the church ever since in one form or another.  Tragically, the story of the professing church is all too often one of Christ plus Law for the flesh (self) cannot endure grace.  Grace exalts man, even to divine glory and divine excellency, but it sets aside self wholly.  Thus flesh neither trusts grace nor tolerates it.  Flesh always wants to glory in flesh and cannot bear exclusion.   Flesh demands that something in my salvation must be my accomplishment – the predicate of all human religion.    And, all too often it is the flesh and not the Spirit that has been heeded in the institutional church resulting inevitably in an apostate church – a church that is fallen from grace (Gal 5:4).

We shall explore this in the next post in this series: a Judaistic soteriology.

In the meantime…

The grace of our Lord Jesus be with your spirit (Roms 16:20; 1 Cor 16:23; 2 Cor 13:14; Gals 6:18… the benediction at the end of most Pauline letters).

19
Sep
11

only the gracious, know grace

Have you noticed how those who agitate and protest most loudly for a gospel of grace are often the least gracious of persons?  Preach grace, they say, I must have grace, the gospel is grace.   Yet  they show little of this grace in their treatment of others.  They are quick to mock and quick to criticize.  They suffer fools (or those they perceive to be fools) poorly if at all.  They are only too ready to be contemptuous and dismissive.  They make no allowance for the fallenness of others.  If someone is not quite up to the mark (their mark, that is) in, gifting, godliness, grasp of truth, or even grace, then pity help them.  These folks champion grace but grace is not evident in their own lives.

It is an anomaly: those who preach grace are devoid of grace; those who desire mercy are not merciful; and those who seek to rejoice in the love of God have little of it shed abroad in their hearts.

Of course, the sharp answer is this: ‘we preach grace and rejoice in grace because we know we are graceless.  We say ‘God be merciful to me’ because we are aware we are ‘sinners’ . We need the gospel precisely because we are graceless and merciless and loveless.’  Now this sounds like good wholesome gospel.  And in part it is.  We are, all of us, in constant need of grace, and as believers in constant receipt of this grace.  Let’s rejoice in it always.

But, and it is a very significant but, this is not the whole truth.  Indeed it is far from the truth if we use it to condone gracelessness in our own lives.  The gospel not only justifies, it regenerates and sanctifies.  It not only acquits it transforms.  In terms of our present topic,  an integral part of the gospel revealing God’s heart of grace  includes the receiving of a heart of grace .   The gospel creates the life of God in our souls.   Those who find mercy, show mercy.  Forgiveness received results in forgiveness dispensed.  Love shown to us incites us to show love to others.  Imperfectly yes.  But truly and really.

In one sense this change is simply an obvious implication of the gospel.  How can someone who has grasped that they have been personally and lavishly forgiven fail to forgive?  It is an incongruity, a contradiction.  Someone who has grasped the gospel of forgiveness and been astonished by God’s forgiveness of them must surely forgive those who sin against them, anything other would be travesty.   Jesus makes just this point in the parable of the pitiless servant.

Matt 18:21-35 (ESV)
Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven.  “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt. So also my heavenly Father will do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother from your heart.”

Those who have known forgiveness, forgive.  Anything else is a contradiction of their own experience: ‘ as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive’ (Col 3:13).  Indeed, so strong is Jesus that he forbids the hard unforgiving heart to assume it is forgiven.  He will not give it such comfort.  If we have been repeatedly forgiven then we will repeatedly forgive and if we don’t then we have no right to presume upon divine forgiveness.

The same principle is taught by our Lord in the Sermon on the Mount, the sermon that sketches the lives of sons of the Kingdom.

Matt 5:7 (ESV)
“Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. 

Now Jesus is not saying that we become the people of God by being merciful.    Far from it.  We become God’s people by crying in faith  ‘God be merciful to me a sinner’.  But if our cry has been a cry of true faith then our experience of mercy will provoke us to be merciful.  And if we are devoid of mercy then there will be no mercy for us, only judgement.  James says something similar when he writes:

Jas 2:13 (ESV)
For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. 

The truth is, that the person who is without grace and mercy and kindness to others has never really believed the gospel.  He has never really experienced grace, mercy or forgiveness.  For these ‘graces’ are not merely the moral obligation of one who has received them but are the fruit of the gospel in our souls.  The gospel received not only makes change a moral necessity (how can you who have died to sin live any longer therein) but it makes it a reality.  The gospel supplies a new life with a new nature, the nature of God himself (2 Pet 1:4).  The gospel implants the life of a gracious, merciful, forgiving God in our hearts and we become truly his sons, reflecting his character in life.  Those born of God will be gracious, merciful and forgiving because that is what their Father is.

Luke 6:32-36 (ESV)
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. 

To say the same thing another way: the gospel is not simply Christ outside of us but also Christ inside of us; Christ is not only the Lord we trust, He is the life we live.   And herein lies the rub.  Many Christians have little experience of Christ living in their heart for they do not fight to maintain and enjoy what they have been given in Christ.   They have not made it their business by the Spirit to put to death sin in their lives and to live by faith with their affections set on Jesus Christ and so the grace of God is faint in their hearts.   Only as we put sin to death and set our minds on things above, where Christ the object of our affections is,  do we grow in grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As we put to death the flesh with all its loveless, merciless, heartless hatred and cultivate the life of Christ by putting on in the Spirit love, grace and mercy we begin to experience mercy and grace and love.  I do not mean that God begins to act more mercifully towards us in life, though that will be true for his need to judge will be less, but rather as we show mercy and develop a merciful heart we begin to grasp the sweetness of God’s mercy in our own souls.  As we nurture grace in our ways we enjoy the reality of God’s grace within.  As we walk in love, we taste afresh God’s love towards us and know the breadth, depth, height and length of that love in our own hearts.

Of course, some will dismiss this.  They will caricature it as legalism.  Or some kind of contemptible evangelical pietism.  So be it.  But they are wrong for this is the heart of all it means to abide in Christ.  Sound sense alone should reveal the truth of this.  How can someone know (be assured experientially of) God’s love if their heart is full of bitterness?  How can any apprehend mercy whose heart is hard and unforgiving?  How can we dwell in the experience of grace if our heart is filled with cynicism, contempt and anger?  We cannot?  Not only is it a moral impossibility, it is a psychological (experiential) possibility.  The bitter heart cannot know and feel loved.  Love is beyond its experience.   Remember,  ‘knowing’ is not merely intellectual but also affective.  That is why the loving ‘know’ God’s love and the merciful ‘know’ God’s mercy;these are living graces in their hearts.  The more the life of God pulsates in our breast and the character of God is created in our lives, as by faith we walk in the Spirit, then the greater our personal awareness that we are loved and forgiven, that God is to us a God of mercy and grace.

Of course, we sin and fail (and as we do so communion is for a time broken).  And so we confess our sin, our failure to be gracious, forgiving and merciful as we should, repent of it, and enjoy again the felt presence of God.  I am not at all saying that we live perfectly, far from it.  Yet those who have received grace, reify grace and in so doing they are established in grace.

This is the dynamic of the gospel.  It is the symmetry of life in Christ.  It is the reciprocity of the gospel.

Perhaps if a sense of the grace, mercy and love of God is distant from us what we need is not to hear more preaching but to practise what we hear.  Let Scripture have the last word.

1John 4:12-17 (ESV)
No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us…  God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment…

13
Jul
10

nothing but grace

I am naturally too given to pride and self-confidence (and of course many other sins).   One of the ways the Lord has dealt with these over the years and taught me again and again (for I quickly forget) to trust in him is through a ‘thorn’.  My particular thorn is a depressive illness.  The Lord has seen fit for this to feature in one way or another frequently in my adult life.

Now if you happen to read this and you are experiencing depression I wish to say many if not most  (I am not a doctor) people who get a bout of clinical depression get over it and live a normal life.  Moreover, depression can be greatly helped medically.  I urge you to see your doctor and tell him your symptoms.  My depression bouts are much more tolerable as a result of medication.

Over the past few days I some depressive symptoms have arisen and with them the usual accompanying distorted thoughts.   I thought I would list some of the thoughts and issues I wrestle with when depression hits me.  In a sense they are what we all wrestle with to varying degrees on an ongoing way.  In depression they are exaggerated and their dominance and severity in proportion to the severity of the depressive disorder.

For me, as for many Christians troubled by depression, guilt surfaces and wishes to dominate.

  • I feel guilt because I am unable to really do much to serve the Lord.  I am unable to take on any responsibilities within the local church.  I am still relatively young (mid-fifties) yet can contribute very little to the progress of the gospel.  A lack of energy and uncertainty about my nervous health make it difficult to be involved.  A feeling of uselessness may seep in.
  • I feel guilt over basic Christian disciplines.  It is hard to read Scripture or pray when unwell (I simply don’t have the mental energy).  Also, when I read Scripture, I am likely to feel deeply accused or let a verse or principle get out of proportion in my mind and cause anxiety.
  • Of course, many past sins come back to haunt me often creating surges of anxiety and hot flushes of shame.
  • Also I tend when troubled by depression to get an over-scrupulous conscience.  I begin to see sin where there is no sin. The world and everything in it is seen in its blackest and most sinister hue.
  • It is in depression that I am most likely to wonder if the faith is true.  It seems as if the devil is especially active bringing to my mind arguments and suggestions that create doubt.
  • In depression I wonder if I am saved.  I see my sin, past and present.  I see how little I can do and I wonder if I am really converted.

These are a few of the bleak thoughts that cloud out the sun and create introspection.

In these bouts I have learned (very imperfectly) to do two things.

One, I try to close my mind to as many serious thoughts as possible.  My mind is bruised/weak and needs rest.  It simply can’t cope with the thoughts or trying to answer them again (I have already answered most many times before).  I think about anything, especially faith matters, as lightly as possible.  I have found it best to keep my mind as empty as possible.  Little inconsequential thoughts are best.

Two, I make it my business to rest as fully as possible on God’s grace.  I have learned to accept that my salvation and acceptance does not rest on how active I am in service, it rests on God’s grace.  I have learned too that the only effective answer to guilt accusations is grace.  When my thoughts accuse me I simply fill my mind with the word grace.  The blood of Jesus God’s Son cleanses me from all sin.  I recognise if I am to be accepted it will not be because of my performance but all of grace.

Preachers, preach grace.  God’s people need to hear about it continually.

12
Jul
10

barriers to rejoicing in grace

Grace is THE gospel word par excellence. It is what makes the gospel the gospel.  It is all God is in Christ.

Two distortions keep us from rejoicing in grace.

The first is too low a view of sin.  If we have light views about our sin (or high views of our morality) we will have little interest in grace.  We will feel no need of it.  We will dismiss it, even despise it.

The second is too high a view of sin.  There are those who consider their sin is so awful, so deep, and so murky it is beyond forgiveness.  Sin is of course as terrible as people like this think: their mistake is thinking it is greater than God’s grace. To such people grace is incomprehensible.

Both distortions dominate the hearts of unbelievers.  However, believers can be snared by these too.  Sin, when it succeeds, dulls us to grace rather than driving us to grace.  The gospel teaches us that where sin abounds grace abounds all the more (Roms 5:20).  Our calling is to conquer sin by celebrating grace.

It is good to strengthen your heart in the grace of God (Hebs 13:9; 2 Tim 2:1).

26
Mar
10

glorying in grace

I am a sinner.  A very great sinner.  This is not humbug; it is reality.  Before I became a Christian my heart at its deepest level was opposed to God.  I didn’t really want to become a Christian.  I have now been a Christian for many years and still I sin… and sin… and sin.  I sin in what I say.  I speak thoughtlessly and carelessly and often too flippantly.  I sin too in what I don’t say.  I sin in what I do and regularly in what I don’t do.  Although, I do recognise that God has changed my heart and given me a heart for him, yet even here so many of my motives are mingled.  There is a great deal of selfishness, a despairing level of selfishness in fact, in lots that I do.  I am still a sinner, a very great sinner.

That is why if my salvation is to depend on my level of holiness, or commitment, or depth of faith then I am a lost cause.  Sometimes when I look inside I think I see signs of rudimentary holiness, commitment and faith.  At other times these seem so compromised by unworthy motives and blatant sin that I have my doubts.  Thus I am glad to glory entirely in grace.

Actually, I resist looking too closely inside for when I do I find, ‘in me that is in my flesh dwells no good thing’.  I find that, ‘the evil I would not, that I do’.  When I look inside wretchedness is all too often the outcome; wretchedness about the guilt of sin and apparent grip of sin in my life.  Therefore, I look outside.  I look at the gospel.  I confess, with sometimes stammering faith, ‘thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord’.  I say, by the breath of faith, in the face of failure, ‘there is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus’.   I confess, with joy and relief, ‘by grace I am saved, through faith, and that not of myself, it is the gift of God‘.

And thus I find peace.

I know of course that ‘works’ are the evidence of faith.  I trust that God sees a little of Christ slowly formed in me through his Spirit.  I take consolation from the hope that what God sees of value I actually miss.  This is certainly the case in the classic text about judgement day in Matt 25.

Matt 25:31-40 (ESV)
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’

True godliness will be largely unconscious. Perhaps a little of what we do virtually unthinkingly for God’s people will authenticate faith on the day of judgement.




the cavekeeper

The Cave promotes the Christian Gospel by interacting with Christian faith and practice from a conservative evangelical perspective.

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