Archive for the ‘God’s Law and the Christian’ Category

This is the second of four in this series on forgiveness, shared at the Flinders ES Summer Series over January and February this year. Part one is here

2. The Debt

As we have seen, being forgiven by God and being a forgiving person go hand in hand. Very often we see the proclamation of God’s forgiveness coupled with a call to reflect this forgiveness in our love for our neighbour. Some passages appear to present God’s forgiveness of us as conditional upon our forgiveness of our neighbour:

‘…if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Matthew 6:14-15)

‘And whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone, so that your Father also who is in heaven may forgive you your trespasses.’ (Mark 11:25)

While others present our action of forgiveness as a response to knowing God’s forgiveness as well as a reflection of the nature of His forgiveness:

‘…if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.’ (Colossians 3:13)

‘Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.’ (Ephesians 4:32)

So, is forgiveness conditional (dependant on something we do) or unconditional (given regardless of what we do)? Does God forgive us only if we are willing to forgive? If so, how does that shape the way we forgive others? And does this ‘conditionality’ undermine grace?

This dilemma is fleshed out in Matthew 18:

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-seven times.

“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.” (Matthew 18:21-35)

Notice that Peter’s question is in response to Jesus’ teaching in 15-20. Jesus anticipates the time when His disciples will be living in community, and outlines the appropriate way to deal with conflict between Christians. The process is aimed a personal and communal reconciliation, with the final step not being ostracisation, but assuming that the offender does not really understand the Gospel because of the absence of the fruit of repentance.

Peter’ query is about how many times we should allow this cycle to happen before we say, ‘Enough is enough. You have done this too many times, and I can no longer forgive.’ Possibly he was thinking himself gracious and patient in suggesting 7 times. I suspect that even seven times would be enough to stretch the patience of most people.

Jesus’ response calls us back again to God’s sky-high standard for forgiveness. Seventy seven (or seventy times seven) essentially means ‘an unlimited number of times’ – never say that they have sinned once too often, or even that their repentance cannot be genuine because they have done this so many times before. If love keeps no record of wrongs (1 Corinthians 13:5) then each offence should be treated as if it were the first offense. Jesus then sets this high call into perspective by telling the parable.

The debt owed by the servant is of a ridiculously unimaginable size – equivalent to 200 000 years of wages, or around $14 billion (based on the average Australian wage), yet he inability of the servant to even make a small dent in this figure does not absolve him of his accountability. The King’s cancelling of the debt is remarkable on two counts: firstly that he had compassion upon a servant who must have been incredibly unscrupulous or irresponsible in order to incur such a debt; and secondly that this king would have suffered great loss himself – this is an amount that was even significant for a king (possibly equivalent to around 10 years of income for King Herod).

By contrast, the debt owed to the servant was equivalent to 100 days wages, or $20 000. Not minuscule, yet still payable. Contrasted with the king’s compassion, is this servant’s unwillingness to even consider a repayment plan. Obviously the enormity of the cancellation of his own debt had not struck home, otherwise he would have reflected the king’s mercy in his own dealings.

Jesus’ conclusion to this story shows us that in this parable the king represents God. Full of compassion, the Father has forgiven us of our huge, unpayable debt of sin. While we may wonder how our petty sins could rack up such a massive debt, and require a punishment of the magnitude of Hell itself, we must remember that sin is not essentially a list of ‘naughty’ things, but divine treason against God Himself. The seriousness of the offence is measured by the value of the one  whom we have offended, and this makes our debt against God one that is unpayable by us except by eternal exclusion from God’s favour.

By cancelling our debt, God has necessarily taken onto himself the loss that the debt demands; this He did in the sending and sacrifice of His beloved Son who, as the Son, paid out of his infinite resources (‘emptied himself’) to make payment for our sin.

Full knowledge of the extent of Christ’s sacrifice, and the fact that our debt was so immense that it required such an immense payment, should transform our heart and mind and set us free to reflect the extreme generosity of our Father to all others that we encounter. This was clearly the expectation of the king as he sent the servant out still a servant in his employ, and therefore still to be entrusted with the king’s resources. God’s forgiveness not only cancels our debt, but reinstates us to our privileged position as stewards in the Kingdom.

An unwillingness to forgive demonstrates a lack of appreciation for the Father’s generosity. More than this, it is tantamount to saying, ‘The debt you owe me is more significant than the debt I owed to God; I could be forgiven, but you cannot be forgiven.’ Essentially, it is setting ourselves up above God, and implying a moral superiority in ourselves that makes debts against us too big to be forgiven. In short, it indicates an unrepentant attitude; evidence that we are actually rejecting the  grace of God, or at the very least, flippantly seeing it as ‘cheap grace’.

So Jesus’ warning to his disciples is a solemn one. Do not ‘receive the grace of God in vain.’ (2 Corinthians 6:1), ie. in a way that sees it as empty (the literal meaning of kenos, translated here as ‘vain’). True receiving of God’s forgiveness will be evidenced in a transformed life; and on the day of judgement our works will be called upon as witnesses to the genuineness of our confession of faith (see Matthew 25:31-46).

Unconditional forgiveness?

There still remains though the sense of conditionality in God’s forgiveness, which this reasoning does not entirely remove:

“…forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors…” For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” (Matthew 6:12-15)

There are a number of ways this petition could be phrased differently if it were simply communicating the idea that we desire to forgive because we know He first forgave us. It seems that Jesus deliberately phrases it this way, and then gives a very clear application that the Father will withhold forgiveness from those who do not forgive – ie. our forgiveness must come first! What are we to make of this?

The solution is to understand both the context of this teaching and other teachings like it. When teaching this prayer, at a later date, to his disciples (Luke 11:2-4ff) his application is that they should have confidence in their Father answering their prayer. Here in Matthew, the context is not a private discipleship session with his disciples, but a public exposition of the Law to the crowds. As we have seen, Jesus is restoring the bar of the law back to its proper place – where the standard is complete perfection comparable to that of the Father Himself. To anyone who was thinking that they could attain righteousness by observing the law, it is as if he is saying, ‘Sure, go ahead if you think you can, but make sure you realise what the law actually requires, and the implications for those who fail to keep every single word.”:

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:17-20)

Jesus’ demands in this sermon are that we must not only be faultless in our keeping of the law, but completely free of hypocrisy in doing so, such that our prayers must be open and transparent and our pledge to God from a clear conscience that we have not sinned. In this sense Jesus’ teaching is what theologians call the ‘first use of the Law’:

First use: Judicial. The Law reveals the holiness of God, and by so doing exposes our sin, condemns us to judgement, and drives us to cry out for mercy.

Second use: Civil. The Law provides a restraint on evil – as the legal framework for OT Israel, and as a standard that all other governments are to be held to if they are to rule justly.

Third use: Instructive. For those reconciled to God, the Law reveals the will of God, and is something that they find joy and pleasure in seeking to obey as an expression of their love for God.

The Law’s condition for being forgiven by God is to have a righteousness exceeding the Pharisees, comparable to the Father, as demonstrated in freely forgiving those who sin against us. This is bad news for one who presumes to have a level of righteousness that is acceptable to God, as it is a standard we are unable to rach. To compound it, we are trapped, because under this legal framework we cannot even ask for forgiveness for our failure to forgive! And so the Law has backed us into a corner by exposing the hypocrisy of our own hearts and confirming us as children of wrath. Our only response to this can ever be,

‘What a wretched man/woman I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?’ (Romans 7:24).

This use of the Law paves the way for the Gospel – the good news that Jesus Christ, in himself, has met and fulfilled all of the conditions of the law which we have failed to meet – including coming under the righteous sentence of death that the Law demands for anyone who breaks it. The Gospels shows us Jesus ministry being launched by his exposition of the Law which includes the  demands of faultlessness in the area of forgiveness, and reaching the climax of the crucifixion, during which Jesus prays, ‘Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.’ (Luke 23:34) and then following the resurrection – which shows that the Father accepted the life and death of Jesus as perfectly fulfilling the righteous demands of the Law – the commission to go and proclaim the forgiveness of sins:

“Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.’ (John 20:21-23)

The King – our Father – has cancelled our debt, not by sweeping our sin under the carpet, or making it out to be less serious than it actually is, but by ensuring that the condition of our right standing before Him – spotless righteousness – has been met in Jesus, and He now gives this righteousness freely as a gift. Knowing this should lead us to seek to follow the Law in the third sense – as forgiven, freed children who love the Father and delight to do his will.

 

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Article stolen from here: THE THREEFOLD USE OF THE LAW by R.C. Sproul.

Every Christian wrestles with the question, “How does the Old Testament law relate to my life?” Is the Old Testament law irrelevant to Christians or is there some sense in which we are still bound by portions of it? As the heresy of antinomianism becomes ever more pervasive in our culture, the need to answer these questions grows increasingly urgent.

The Reformation was founded on grace and not upon law. Yet the law of God was not repudiated by the Reformers. John Calvin, for example, wrote what has become known as the “Threefold Use of the Law” in order to show the importance of the law for the Christian life.1

The first purpose of the law is to be a mirror. On the one hand, the law of God reflects and mirrors the perfect righteousness of God. The law tells us much about who God is. Perhaps more important, the law illumines human sinfulness. Augustine wrote, “The law orders, that we, after attempting to do what is ordered, and so feeling our weakness under the law, may learn to implore the help of grace.”2 The law highlights our weakness so that we might seek the strength found in Christ. Here the law acts as a severe schoolmaster who drives us to Christ.

A second purpose for the law is the restraint of evil. The law, in and of itself, cannot change human hearts. It can, however, serve to protect the righteous from the unjust. Calvin says this purpose is “by means of its fearful denunciations and the consequent dread of punishment, to curb those who, unless forced, have no regard for rectitude and justice.”3 The law allows for a limited measure of justice on this earth, until the last judgment is realized.

The third purpose of the law is to reveal what is pleasing to God. As born-again children of God, the law enlightens us as to what is pleasing to our Father, whom we seek to serve. The Christian delights in the law as God Himself delights in it. Jesus said, “If you love Me, keep My commandments” (John 14:15). This is the highest function of the law, to serve as an instrument for the people of God to give Him honor and glory.

By studying or meditating on the law of God, we attend the school of righteousness. We learn what pleases God and what offends Him. The moral law that God reveals in Scripture is always binding upon us. Our redemption is from the curse of God’s law, not from our duty to obey it. We are justified, not because of our obedience to the law, but in order that we may become obedient to God’s law. To love Christ is to keep His commandments. To love God is to obey His law.

Summary 

1. The church today has been invaded by antinomianism, which weakens, rejects, or distorts the law of God.
2. The law of God is a mirror of God’s holiness and our unrighteousness. It serves to reveal to us our need of a savior.
3. The law of God is a restraint against sin.
4. The law of God reveals what is pleasing and what is offensive to God.
5. The Christian is to love the law of God and to obey the moral law of God.

Biblical passages for reflection: 
Psalm 19:7-11
Psalm 119:9-16
Romans 7:7-25
Romans 8:3-4
1 Corinthians 7:19
Galatians 3:24

1. Calvin, Institutes, bk. II, 1:304-310.
2. Calvin, Institutes, bk. II, 1:306.
3. Calvin, Institutes, bk. II, 1:307.

Excerpt from Essential Truths Of The Christian Faith by R. C. Sproul © (Tyndale 1992)

‘Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious…’ (Matthew 6:25, also in 6:31&34)

There are three ways we need to hear this statement:

1. We need to hear it as a Command.

The context of Jesus’ words is the Sermon on the Mount. Contrary to popular view, the purpose of the sermon is not to give a list of instructions for Christians to follow, as if Christianity is summed up by living in line with Jesus’ teachings. Jesus here (and this is most likely only one of many times that he delivered a sermon like this) is expounding the Law. As a Rabbi, this was one of his roles. He says in 5:17 onwards, that he has come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it, and goes on to affirm every ‘iota’ and ‘dot’ of the law, stating that the law’s standard of righteousness is required for entry into the kingdom of heaven – and that it is actually higher than the scribes and Pharisees make it out to be! (5:20). He tells us what that standard is in 5:48: ‘You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ and in 7:14, ‘The gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.’

At the conclusion of this sermon in Matthew 7:28-29 we are told, ‘…the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes.’ Often this is explained by pointing out that the other teachers would only quote from other teachers and scholars, whereas Jesus would declare, ‘But I say to you.’ However, while this may have been the case, I don’t think this is what the people meant. Jesus’ teaching had hit them with the full force of God’s authority; they saw in this sermon the holiness and righteousness of God and His law in a way that their leaders had failed to convey – it was truly a righteousness that exceeded that of the Pharisees.

We think of the Pharisees as legalistic, and they were. They thought that they could achieve righteousness by the Law, and so they set out to meticulously follow it, treating it like an exam in which they could tick the boxes and say ‘I’ve done that one.’ However by doing this, they actually demeaned and diminished the law by making it seem achievable by human effort. They placed heavy burdens on those who, unlike them, did not have the means and opportunities to do all that they said was required to fulfill the law, but in their eyes they themselves were doing fine, an example to all of one who truly loves God and with whom God must be pleased. Thus Jesus charged them with ‘…making void the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down.’ (Mark 7:13)

Jesus pulls the rug out from under their feet in this sermon. If the standard of legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees was above most people’s heads, Jesus comes and shows that the standards of the law are much higher even than that – they are beyond the ceiling! When he mentions the command not to commit adultery (5:27-28) many would have said to themselves, ‘I have kept that one.’ But then he says that even lustful thoughts are adultery, essentially incriminating anyone there who was not a eunuch! He uses the same standard when he calls anger murder, remarriage after divorce adultery, swearing oaths evil; when he calls us love our enemies, to hide our spiritual disciplines, like giving fasting and praying, from others; and when he calls love of money hatred of God, judging other hypocrisy, and fathers who know how to give gifts to their children as evil in comparison to God the Father.

Romans 3:20 tells us, ‘For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.’ Jesus is not teaching us the full extent of the law so that we, by following it, might become good Christians. He is doing it so that we will see how far short of the perfection of our heavenly Father we fall. Later in Romans Paul says,

‘…if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.

Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. (Romans 7:7-13 ESV)

Paul realised, when hearing the command, ‘Do not covet,’ that he was a covetous person, full of greed, envy and hypocrisy. The Law showed him up for the sham that he was. He goes on in Romans 7 to talk about the battle in his conscience, as he does what he knows he should not do, and doesn’t do what he knows he should do, and wrestles with the fact that he knows the law is good, yet he lives as a slave to sin. His conclusion to all this – ie. the work of the law in him – is to say, ‘Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? (7:24)

In the same way, Jesus’ teaching on the Law shows me up. He tells me that lustful thoughts are adultery, so that I will see that I am an adulterer, filled with lust and ungodly desires; he tells me that anger is murder, so that I will see that I am a murderous, selfish person who lives for myself instead of others; He tells me my ‘spiritual life’ must be simple and private, so that I will see that I am craving the attention and approval of others in order to affirm my own sense of self righteousness.

And he tells me not to be anxious; not to worry about what I eat or wear, or about what will happen tomorrow. Why? So that I may see that I am a person full of anxieties and fears and doubts and uncertainties; a person who does not love the Lord my God with all my heart, and who rarely trusts in Him, but depend rather on my arrogant self sufficiency.

Back in Romans 7, Paul’s statement in 7:25, ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.’ is not the answer or solution to his battle. The answer does come a couple of verses later in 8:1, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ – but in 7:25 he is not giving thanks for Jesus Christ. He is giving thanks for the realisation of who he – Paul – is! ‘Thanks be to God that I am a wretched man who needs to be delivered from this deadly battle that is waging within me because of the action of this holy, righteous and good law!’ Until we see our desperate need for deliverance, we will not see Jesus as the good deliverer. It is a good and right place to be, when we come to the end of ourselves – all our self righteousness and all our self-help schemes – and say that the only hope I have is that someone will step into my mess and rescue me because I am helpless and hopeless, a slave to sin and dead to God.

John Newton is reported to have said at the end of his life, “My memory is nearly gone; but I remember two things: That I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour.” The two go hand in hand. So we first of all need to hear, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as a command, so that then we will be able to appreciate it in the second way:

2. We need to hear it as a statement of one who has Compassion.

By compassion, I do not mean that Jesus ‘feels for us’. Rather, the world literally means, ‘suffer together with’. Remember that Jesus said, ‘I come not to abolish the Law but to fulfil it’? That means that he has not simply stood at a distance and shouted the demand of the Law at us, and then stood by and watched us wallow in our failure and shame. He came not just to state the full force of the Law, but to live a life in which He himself fulfilled the law. We see him do this in two ways:

  1. He perfectly loved, trusted and obeyed his Father, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Or, in short, he kept every command ever given that fits under the banner of, ‘Love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, strength and mind.’ – the greatest commandment (Luke 10:27). And he perfectly loved his neighbour (including his enemies) as himself, even to the point of going to the cross to die for the sins of those who denied, betrayed and mocked him – fulfilling the second greatest command and all other commands that come under that. All that he demanded in the Sermon on the Mount he did, and so the Father could say with confidence, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!’ (Matthew 17:5).
  2. He submitted himself to the actions of sinful men who disregarded God’s Law, allowing himself to be beaten and crucified and abandoned by God, and in doing so came under the condemnation that the demands of the Law bring on us who are disobedient. The Law is ‘fulfilled’ either in perfect obedience or in the just penalty that the Law requires being carried out in full on the lawbreaker. Jesus did both on our behalf. 

Yet this second sense of fulfilling the Law did not just happen at one moment on the cross when he cried out the cry of abandonment. His physical suffering and death was the culmination of a series of events which all contributed to the portrait of one who was ‘stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted (Isaiah 53:4). These events began as he arrived in Jerusalem for the Passover:

Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? But for this purpose I have come to this hour. Father, glorify your name.” Then a voice came from heaven:“I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” The crowd that stood there and heard it said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not mine. Now is the judgment of this world; now will the ruler of this world be cast out. And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” He said this to show by what kind of death he was going to die.’ (John 12:27-33, emphasis mine)

Verse 27 is for John the parallel to Jesus’ time of prayer in the garden (which is not recored in John’s Gospel) when Jesus prays, ‘“Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will,’ just after telling his disciples, ‘My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.’ (Mark 14:34,36).

Again in John 13:21 we’re told, ‘After saying these things Jesus was troubled in his spirit.’ This gives us a different perspective on Jesus’ final hours; all of his teaching with his disciples in John 13-16 and his high priestly prayer of John 17 was given while he was troubled in his spirit; even when he said the words, ‘Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me.’ (John 14:1)!

So Jesus says, ‘Do not be anxious,’ as one who was to go forward in His Father’s plan: the suffering of the cross and the troubling of his spirit which was part of that. Our anxiety may be based on hypothetical ‘worst case scenarios’ which may or may not happen; it may even be inexplicable, with no seeming reason or rationale. Jesus looked forward with a certainty that the cross and all its grief and shame and pain and loneliness was before Him, because his heart was set on the Father’s will, not His own. His soul was troubled for a good and valid reason. He is our High Priest who is able to sympathise with our weaknesses because ‘he too suffered when tempted’ (Hebrews 3:15).

3. We need to hear it as a Conclusion based on reality

God’s commands are never arbitrary – in the sense that they are random, or given for no reason, or because He is selfish and wants to get His own way and we need to just shut up and mindlessly obey. He graciously shows us that behind His commands is His own gracious, faithful, wise character, and His desire to do good to His children. We see this reflected in Jesus’ teaching on the Law, including the ‘do not be anxious’ passage. Jesus tells us several realities about life and about his Father:

  1. Life is more than food and the body is more than clothing(25).
  2. Your Father feeds the birds, which are less valuable than you (26).
  3. No time can be added to our lives by worrying (27).
  4. Your Father clothes the flowers on the field which last only a day (30).
  5. The godless are obsessed with meeting their needs (32).
  6. Your Father knows everything you need (32).
  7. Seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness should be central to your life (33).
  8. You cannot know the future (34).

So Jesus does not toss us as trite platitude: ‘Just get over it’. Rather, he gives us at least eight good reasons why there is no reason to be anxious, based on the character and goodness of our heavenly Father; eight reasons to trust in God and in him.

Similarly, Paul’s statement in Philippians 4:6 ‘…do not be anxious about anything…’ does not stand on it’s own; it is sandwiched between ‘The Lord is at hand’ and ‘the Peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.’ Again, the character and faithfulness of God gives us reason to obey His call to trust and not be anxious.

We need to practice healthy self-talk, reminding ourselves of the Father’s goodness, and calling ourselves to trust Him. In Psalm 42 David says to himself,

Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God (Psalms 42:5-6 ESV)

And in Psalm 62:

For God alone, O my soul, wait in silence, for my hope is from him. He only is my rock and my salvation, my fortress; I shall not be shaken (Psalms 62:5-6 ESV)

And Psalm 116:

Return, O my soul, to your rest; for the Lord has dealt bountifully with you (Psalms 116:7 ESV)

(Not to mention also Psalms 43:5, 103:1-5, 104:1,35, 146:1)

The problem is not that we don’t talk to ourselves, but that we tell ourselves the wrong things – untruths, condemnation, self righteousness; and we tell ourselves to believe the voices around us that constantly whisper, ‘Has God said…?’

Instead of listing the nature of our circumstances and concluding that all will be disastrous, we need to list the nature of our Father and His faithful and righteous acts so that we will conclude that He is good and can be trusted to world for good in whatever may be around the corner, be it gladness or grief.

This is not a guaranteed method to remove forever the possibility of ever feeling anxious again. I trust rather that it will give encouragement in the battles when they do come; the ability to ‘rejoice in our sufferings’ – which is not a promise that sufferings, be they physical or psychological, will cease, but that in the midst of suffering we may have the bedrock knowledge that He is faithful.

charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandments

We can never separate God from His word. 

God’s word is not like a file sitting on a server somewhere that we can download and listen to at whim without direct interaction with God Himself.  We are used to interacting with words in a way that dissociates them from the speaker or writer; we read books written by dead people, and we listen to mp3 talks and songs spoken or sung by people on the other side of the world whom we will never meet, and who don’t even know we exist. When God speaks, ‘… he alone turns his personal privacy into a deliberate disclosure of his reality.’

When we hear Him speak we encounter not just words, but God Himself; His words are always accompanied by His personal presence. When we read the Bible we can not only be sure that God is speaking as we read, but that we are in a sense coming face to face with the Living God.

The theologian S. Lewis Jones said, ‘In the 19th century, first Scripture died, then God died, than man died.’ What he meant was that the authority of the Bible was undermined by liberal European ‘Bible’ scholars who saw human reason and science as the ultimate authority. This led to a cultural revolution in which the church was no longer the main influence in society, which led to Frederich Nietsche’s observation:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?

 It was thought that this social revolution would bring great freedom and progress for the human race, but instead, as Dan Phillips says:

‘It left man with no authoritative word about his origins, with no authoritative word about his meaning, with no authoritative word about his purpose, or even about the guidelines for life; and so what he hoped for was great joy and freedom, instead what he found was great despair, because he found that he had sawn of the very branch that he was sitting on…’

 We cannot reject what God says and think that we can somehow retain God apart from His word. If God were to stop speaking both this universe would cease to exist, and God would cease to be God.

God speaks in order to bring about relationship. Exodus 20:1-17 is an outline of the Ten Commandments, a summary of God’s moral code given to ancient Israel. Before we read it as a list of rules to follow, we need to read the introduction in vss 1&2:  ‘And God spoke all these words, saying, “I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.’ When people say ‘I keep the 10 commandments – by which they mean the last 6 of the 10 – it is meaningless unless they do so in the context of a relationship with God – ie. The first 4, and that they understand the God to whom they relate as the One who has redeemed them from slavery (ie. to sin and death).

In the course of receiving the Law, Moses was on Mt Sinai, and was talking with God about the need for His presence to go with them. He had just taken the Ten Commandments to the people, discovered them worshiping a golden calf, and had smashed the stone tablets on which the commandments were written. He had come back up the mountain to plead with God not to abandon them. After hearing God’s promise of faithfulness and grace, he asked, ‘Please show me your glory.’ (Exodus 33:18). God instructed him to re-carve another set of stone tablets, and then did as Moses has asked: he revealed Himself and gave him a glimpse of His glory. What is remarkable about Moses’ experience is that it wasn’t what he saw, but what he heard. God ‘proclaimed his name’ (Exodus 34:5) – He made Himself known by words:

The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, 7 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. (Exodus 34:6-7)

If you want to know God, you need to be prepared to listen as He speaks, because He is The God Who Speaks.

How do you approach the Bible? Is it just another document, with interesting information and rules to follow? Do you actually expect to have an encounter with the Living God when you open it and read? Do you think that God is somehow absent when you don’t have a warm fuzzy when reading?

What follows is not a detailed Bible Study; it contains no Bible references as prooftexts. Rather, it is an attempt at a broad overview of the issue, trying to capture the trajectory of the Biblical story and the unfolding revelation of God’s purpose. It started as a facebook comment, but then got too big for its boots, and so it ended up here instead.

In the Old Testament, God gives Israel specific sexuality laws, including the prohibition of homosexual intercourse/relations. For this, the penalty is death by stoning. This is an outworking of the 7th commandment ‘Do not commit adultery’ (Which Jesus shows us in the sermon on the mount is not kept by a simplistic not having sex with someone else’s spouse, but even includes lustful thoughts and possibly the M word), and this 7th commandment is itself founded on the creation of human beings in God’s image as male & female. We also see now that this commandment is much bigger than ‘That’s the way God designed us’ – in that marriage reflects Christ and the Church and God’s big goal for all of history, something that is also hinted at throughout the Old Testament narrative.

So sexual purity is first and foremost about truly reflecting the glory of God, something about which God is extremely jealous, and will defend above everything else. The personal morality and societal benefit is not an end in itself, but a means to a higher, much more glorious and liberating goal. That’s why those things that defaced true marriage received such a harsh penalty. Break the 7th commandment and you essentially slap God in the face. Slap God in the face, and you will get what you deserve: the penalty of death, and the community will clearly understand that God not only defends HIs honour, but He also so loves His people that He will purge evil and injustice from among them.

Then we come to the New Testament. Jesus repeatedly affirms the principle of the 7th commandment, going to Genesis and the creation of man and woman and in some quite strong teaching about divorce. While he does not specifically refer to homosexuality (neither does he mention incest, bestiality, rape etc.), his affirmation of this command shows he affirms all the other applications of it, including the prohibition of homosexuality. ‘Sexual Immorality’ then is a term that covers all the prohibitions of the Torah, not just our modern way of thinking of it as ‘promiscuity’. He makes it clear that God’s standard has not dropped, by even applying extreme measures like cutting off your hand and gouging out your eye – which are given in the context of sexual sin – not as penalties for breaking it, but as examples of how far we must go if we think that we will be able to overcome temptation and sin ourselves. (If you think that the sermon on the mount is the rulebook for Christians to follow, think again. Apply it literally, and you’ll be one eyed and left-handed).

In doing this, Jesus is demonstrating that this commandment is not fulfilled by him in the sense of being made ‘obsolete’ (such as, for example, food laws), but in the sense of him, as the second Adam, perfectly keeping it on our behalf. It’s like he said, ‘Here’s the standard of the law: I’ll raise it to where it truly sits, at a height that you must realise you will never be able to reach because you are sinful, and then I will both keep it on your behalf, and come under the penalty you deserve for not keeping it yourself.’

The Apostles reflect this in their teaching (the Epistles). Paul in Romans uses homosexuality as what seems like the ‘ultimate’ sin in his discussion of humanity’s sinfulness, implying that same sex relations are virtually the lowest we can sink in defacing God’s good design. This is connected to his presentation in Ephesians of human marriage as a picture of Christ and the Church – deface marriage, and you slap God in the face and trash His purpose in Christ. We are called to sexual purity, and the honouring of marriage and family, and to distance ourselves from the world’s expressions of sexuality that are more about personal pleasure and ritual idol worship than they are about loving God and our neighbour.

A Christian is one who seeks to do all things to the Glory of God; as one who loves God they seek to obey His commands, not simply for pragmatic purposes, but in order to proclaim the excellencies of Him who has redeemed them. Homosexuality is abhorrent for a child of God, not because they fear stoning, or even because it may damage the wellbeing of society, but because it trashes the Gospel of the Son who laid down His life for his beloved bride, and who invites those who live by faith in him to attend the ‘wedding supper of the lamb,’ which will be in the new Heavens and new Earth.

So the 7th commandment has been transformed from a prohibition mandating stoning, to a glorious expression of the goodness and faithfulness of a Husband who will never commit adultery against his Bride, and a Bride who so loves the Husband who laid down his life for her that she desires to honour and respect Him by remaining pure in every way.

charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandmentsLaw – delight or…?

The law of the Lord is perfect,refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:7-11(ESV)

I suspect that many Christians would be happy to echo and affirm these words, while at the same time feeling an uncomfortable tension. We know that we are saved by grace, not by works of the Law. But what does that actually mean? Does it mean that grace has replaced law as a way of salvation? Does it mean Christians can disregard the law, and not bother about reading those tedious bits in the Old Testament about sacrifices, cutting the sides of your beard and boiling a goat in its mother’s milk? And what about the Sermon on the Mount – are these a new set of laws for Christians to follow, or something else? Are there things a Christian has to do in order to be – and stay – Christian, or does ‘Once saved always saved,’ mean we can live as we please and still have our ticket to heaven secure?

So many questions. I think, to be honest, many Christians are actually confused about the place of the Law in their lives. To be honest, sometimes I get confused – until I pull myself back to the Word of God and the Gospel.

I think there are two main errors we slip into, which show our confusion:

1. We think that somehow our salvation is based on our performance – legalism. This leads to all kinds of hangups; from judgmentalism, to guilty burdens, to spiritual pride.

2. We get fed up with all those stuck up legalists, and slip slowly but surely into libertarianism. This leads to pushing the boundaries in all kinds of areas, all the way from morality, to doctrine, to methodology.

We make a mistake in thinking that we somehow need to find a ‘balance’ between these two extremes. But why should we try to balance between two bad things? We actually need a completely other way to look at the issue.

I’m going to be making a series of posts here and there that will explore these questions, and seek to unpack this ‘other way’ – the Biblical truths about the Law of God and its place in the Christian life.

Stay tuned (all 3 of you).