I learnt many years ago that the heart is deceitful. A line from a "B" Grade movie said it all; "most noble motivations will not tolerate close inspection." Like all people, I have many noble motivations, and as a Christian, many super-noble ones. Yet, few of them tolerate close inspection. My "righteousness is but filthy rags".
From my days in school scripture I can remember only one Bible story. It is the story where two men went up to the Temple to pray. One was a churchman and the other an evil-liver. The Pharisee thanked God for all the blessings he received. The Publican said, "have mercy on me a sinner", and only he went home right with God. I could never understand this story, but it always lived with me, disturbed me. Which man was I, the Pharisee, or the sinner?
My most noble motivation was to answer the call to Christian ministry. If I was not already a pharisee, I soon became one as a professional clergyman. I understood the Christian faith in these terms: living an obedient life was an essential element of my Christian walk. What greater obedience, commitment, dedication, faithfulness..... could there be in giving up the future ownership of my father's multi-million dollar business and entering the ministry? Yet, this very thinking led me into pietism, into pharisaism. I soon became that righteous man who thanked God he was not like the evil sinner. Thankfully, I found myself crawling back to the cross to find mercy.
I would describe my Christian walk as a circle. I began with God's mercy and acceptance. I then pressed forward in faithful obedience. Yet, the more I strove the more I failed; indwelling sin became my daily master. I then denied my state of loss, hid and buried my guilt. Finally, I came back to the cross again, defeated. At least I came back to the cross, many of my friends didn't. I was taught that my Christian life would be a gradient upward to heaven, but that wasn't my experience.
What was going wrong? Why was it that when I embarked on the pious struggle of Christian faithfulness, I continually ended up a slave to sin? Most of my brothers and sisters were on the same circular trail. Some had given it up as too hard. Many were defeated, pretending, twisted, deluded. What was the delusion? Where had I gone wrong?
Some years ago I attended a Bible study on Galatians. A colleague of mine led the study; he was serving in Wollongong, South of Sydney, at the time. The point that got me going was his claim that when the apostle spoke of us being no longer under the law, he was talking about the Torah, the Old Testament moral law, not just the cultic law. In fact, Paul may well have had in mind the whole of divine law; "the will of God as a rule of duty, no matter how revealed", Hodge.
Most of my life as a believer was spent under God's law, striving to do it and of course always failing. So, it was quite a shock to hear someone tell me that I was actually not under the constraint of God's law, either for salvation or my living the Christian life. I was not the only person that day who ended up quite agitated.
As the months slipped by I began to realize that God's acceptance of me was unconditional. My life would always be compromised, filled with failure, but His love for me in Christ was uncompromising. There was nothing that I could do to ether increase His love for me, or decrease it.
Since those days I have imagined myself coming into the throne-room of the Almighty. I know that if I step out into his gaze I will be consumed in His glare. Yet, at the entrance there is this good man, this righteous and perfect man, and he has invited me to stand behind him. As we walk together before the throne, the Almighty sees me coming, but He sees me through Jesus. "Welcome Bryan Findlayson", He says, "good and perfect child that you are." As long as I stay behind Jesus that's the way the Ancient of Days will always see me.
Such amazing grace, such kindness, love and mercy. I now stand eternally approved in the sight of God, rewarded as if I were a perfect child of God. None of this is my own doing, all is a gracious gift of God through faith in Christ. So, in Jesus I have found freedom, freedom from guilt, self and fear. Of course, I don't want you to think that my Get Out of Jail Free card encourages me to "go on sinning so that grace may abound. By not means! How can we who have died to sin go on living in it?", Rom.6:1. When it comes to God's Law, grace encourages graciousness.
The knowledge of God's eternal gift of salvation through faith, even in the face of all my failings, past, present and future, has changed the way I read the Bible. God's amazing grace in Christ is the doctrinal key for unlocking the mysteries of God's Word. Yet, just as I failed to understand the significance of "full justification" (a phrase used by the followers of Wesley), so many believers today similarly find their faith undermined by a move from grace to law. This is no new problem.
This study seeks to expose the problem of a reliance on Law-obedience for the maintaining and/or progressing of a person's standing in the sight of God, ie., the heresy of nomism.
The problem with Law-obedience
Although we Protestants are children of the Reformation and therefore inheritors of the grand doctrine of justification by faith, we seem to possess a tendency to slip into law-obedience, pietism, nomism. For some reason we constantly move from the free acceptance of God's grace to the burdensome business of law-obedience. Sadly, we tend to be modern day Pharisees.
Our flirtation with nomism usually begins at Sunday School where we are taught that Jesus loves good little boys and girls and we learn to sing, "Trust and obey for there's no other way to be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey".
The business of keeping the Law
The imposition of law-obedience in discipleship.
From the first moment we come into contact with the Christian faith, we are taught that "trusting Jesus as Savior" is not enough by itself. We must also "obey him as Lord." It is not enough to "receive", we must also "do." We must "strive" as well as "rest". We are taught that "a Christian is a person who has met God in Christ, and who is trusting Him as Savior and obeying Him as Lord", (Robinson & Winward).
Our "labour", "work", as a Christian, is to obey God's law. In simple terms, that law consists of the commandments detailed in both the Old and New Testament. It is laid on us that we keep this law.
We learn to handle the law something like this: Old Testament law is carefully assembled into a complex range of expectations which are made binding on the believer. The degree of conservatism seems to equate with the weight of expectations. The Fundamentalist has virtually all the law, except the sacrificial laws which Jesus has "fulfilled". From this extreme, degrees of "piety" move ever downward toward liberalism.
To Old Testament law we add a whole range of selected New Testament laws. These include such matters as not consuming alcohol because the body is "God's temple and that God's Spirit lives" in it, 1Cor.3:16 (a questionable interpretation, since "yourselves" = the fellowship of believers rather than the human body).
Sadly, just doing the law is not the end of it. Obedience requires doing perfection. With little or no understanding of Jesus' teaching methods, we take his principles and ideals and make them laws to keep. We are not allowed to get angry, we must have no sensual thoughts, Matt.5:27-30. We end up suppressing our natural desires in an attempt to conform our lives to the teachings of Christ. Impossible ideals are made laws to obey.
So, the Christian life is often viewed as a partnership between faith and obedience, and to this end we are taught to strive to obey God's perfect law.
Why are believers so driven toward obedience?
The perceived role of obedience
Obedience to the law is supposed to achieve the following:
Confirm our standing in the sight of God;
Gain God's approval and love;
Advance our holiness.
We are all infused with the notion that nothing is free. What we want, we have to work for. The Bible is full of law and full of demands to keep it. So, we strive to keep it, for we believe that in striving there is gain.
We use our obedience to Biblical law, to confirm, maintain and progress our Christian life. We would never suggest that a person is saved by obedience to the law. What a stupid idea! We often suggest Roman Catholics believe that, we Protestants don't. Mind you, Roman Catholics don't believe such nonsense, but then Protestant insecurity often promotes a good dose of "tyke" bashing from time to time. No! obedience is something a Christian does in response to their salvation in Christ. So, we put our trust in Jesus for our salvation, and go forward in obedience. "Trust and obey", remember!
We tend to believe that our faithful obedience to the law of Christ confirms our salvation. Our living for Jesus is the "fruit" of our salvation. We put our trust in Jesus, and as a result, good works will naturally follow. Given this type of thinking, we do everything in our power to live those good works day by day. Not to live a good life only confirms our non-standing in Christ.
We also tend to believe that faithful obedience gains God's approval and love. It is the way we keep in with him, the way we maintain our standing in his sight. "Jesus loves good little boys and girls", remember! So, we strive for God's love and approval.
Finally, we tend to believe that obedience progresses growth in holiness. Striving to keep God's law somehow restrains the evil that lurks within us and slowly but surely purifies us. We believe that, day by day, as we struggle to obey the law of God, we will be changed into the likeness of Christ. Our great desire is to be changed, so we strive to be changed.
Sadly, this thinking is actually a heresy. It goes by the name nomism (pharisaism, pietism). For Bible believing Christians to be infected by the very heresy the apostle Paul denounces is hard to believe, but sadly many are infected, and infected badly.
So then, there is a widely held belief that striving at obedience confirms our standing in Christ, gains the approval of Christ, and progresses our Christ-likeness, our holiness.
Does obedience achieve these ends?
The law and guilt
The more we strive to obey the more we stand condemned.
The sad truth is that obedience doesn't confirm, maintain, or progress our Christian life; in fact, it does the opposite, Rom.7:7-11. The universal experience of believers is that although we strive to keep the laws of Christian piety, we fail to keep them, and find confidence in our perseverance undermined. We believers often have little assurance in our eternal salvation and little confidence in our growth toward Christ-likeness. We either live with regret and resignation, or take up the path of self deception, ever wearing the "victory smile".
We strive to obey so as to confirm our standing in Christ, yet the good works don't follow; our righteousness is but filthy rags. All that follows is sinfulness, day in and day out. If we are Calvinist, we quickly come to the conclusion that we may not be one of the chosen few. If we were, would we not be living a righteous life? If we are Arminian we believe we can lose our salvation through unfaithfulness, and our unfaithfulness is just as blatant as the Calvinist.
We strive to gain God's approval through our righteous life, yet day in and day out we find ourselves rebelling against our Lord. If Jesus only loves good little boys and girls, then we are unloved and lost.
We strive to progress our Christ-likeness, we strive to be holy, to overcome this body of sin, yet of course we are never changed. The more we strive at Christ-likeness, through obedience to the law, the more corrupt we become. We end up defeated and guilt-ridden.
Striving toward faithful discipleship only ever seems to undermine the very thing we are trying to achieve.
How then do we retain our sanity in the Christian life? How do we survive?
Psychological denial of guilt
The art of guilt denial is achieved through the following:
The problem we face is indwelling sin, or what is often called "recurrent sin". Recurrent sin entails a constant failure to obey Christ, a failure that produces massive guilt. To survive as a Christian we develop a number of techniques to dull the blade of guilt. Let us look at four classic denial methods:
i] We can lessen guilt by shaping the law to our own capacity. This is known as reductionism. It is quite a good method. For example, when it comes to the Sabbath Day law, we shift the day from Saturday to Sunday and carefully define what "keeping" the law entails in such a way as to make it keepable. We may argue against buying petrol on a Sunday because it makes another work, but we would never hesitate turning on the lights when we get home, as if that isn't keeping someone employed.
The Christian life is not an easy one, yet because of law-obedience, the burden of failure and guilt is often too hard to bear. The believer is left with little else other than to foster the art of denial.
ii] We may dissipate the guilt by burying it and then reshaping the buried energy into an acceptable religious feeling, a feeling such as righteous indignation. We then transfer the generated energy on to everyone else. This is known as sublimation and dissipation; it is a psychological means of lessening the impact of guilt. Jesus identified this as pulling specks out of a brother's eye while failing to remove the log in our own. For example, if there is someone we don't like in the Christian fellowship, we often find some sin in their life to justify our dislike. We are driven to find the speck in their eye to aid the denial of the log in our own.
iii] We may deny our failure, deny our sin, by calling it something else, by giving it a religious justification. For example, we often redefine sensual attraction as brotherly love. Sexual immorality, within a caring congregation, is often rife. The cause is usually related to an unwillingness to accept the natural power of sexual attraction. We end up denying our feelings, and that denial often leads us to act out the very thing we have denied.
iv] We may erase the guilt (for today at least) by laying it on Jesus in prayer and confession, or adopting methods of self-flagellation. We might like to call this the pious approach. The only problem with this method is that we never seem to get off our knees. Of course, there is nothing wrong with confession itself, it's the need for repetition and flagellation that is the problem.
Many Christians believe that "the work of the Holy Spirit within us depends for its continuance and perfection upon our response, our co-operation, our obedience" (R & W). Paul said of the Bible-believing Jews who rejected Jesus, that they did so because "they did not know the righteousness that comes from God and sought to establish their own", Rom.10:3. We need to remember that most of the children of Israel perished in the wilderness; they did not enter their rest. They did not enter "because of their unbelief", Heb.3:19. "Therefore, since the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us be careful that none of you be found to have fallen short", Heb.4:1.
No matter how hard we try, failure remains a dominant aspect of our discipleship. We strive to change our imperfections, but the more we strive the more we fail. The end result is that we have little confidence in our salvation, let alone any resilience to press forward in our service to Jesus. Living a lie seems our only choice. Repressed guilt only promotes psychological denial and fosters pharisaism.
How then should we view our Christian walk if it's not obedience to God's law?
Faith, the one law
What does God expect of his children, what law must we obey? What command does God give us, for which obedience fills him with joy and makes us eternally worthy in his sight? There is only one way to be right with God and have it confirmed throughout life, to gain his approval and to stand before him in the last day perfected in Christ, and that is to rest firmly on his promises in Christ.
Justification by grace through faith
A simple definition of justification is found in these words:
It's just-if-I'd never sinned.
The verb "justify" means, "make righteous", although Biblical usage tends toward a law-court meaning of: "declare", "reckon", "acquit" , so "judged / counted right with God", Barrett, "or "shown to be righteous", Rom.4:2-8. The noun "justification" can be either legal, "the state of being in a right relationship with God", deemed as having "covenant acceptance", Dumbrell, or ethical, "the conduct that follows from that relationship", Williams. The apostle Paul seems, most often, to use the word in the sense of "judged right with God." In reformed circles, the noun "justification" is usually taken to mean "the gift of righteousness", Rom.5:17, R.S. Smith, while the verb means "confer a righteous status on", Cranfield. A person is justified before God when God accepts them as one of his righteous children.
To summarize: justification is an eternal and completely effective action by God in which he views a person free of any guilt and acceptable in his sight.
i] Incorporation into the remnant community of God's people - made one of the righteous. This community (the new Israel) is the fulfillment of the promise to Abraham, and is realized in the person and work of Christ, Rom.11.
In my favorite Bible story, the Pharisee and the Tax Collector, Luke 18:9-14, the tax collector was judged righteous before God by asking, "God, have mercy on me, a sinner", ie. he rested on the revelation of divine mercy. As a consequence, he "went home justified before God", ie. in the sight of God it was just as if he had never sinned. He was forgiven, regarded no longer as a rebel, but rather an obedient son of God. Thus he inherited eternal life.
ii] The transfer (imputation) of guilt from the sinner to Christ, whose death on the cross expiates that guilt. Christ takes upon himself the curse of a disobedient people, Rom.5:9. 2Cor.5:21, 1Peter.2:24
iii] The "transfer" of Christ's personal righteousness to the sinner. Christ's vindication is shared by those who stand with him, Rom.5:15-17. (cf. Christ is our righteousness, 1Cor.1:30, which righteousness is imputed to the believer, Rom.1:17, 3:21, 22, 10:3). Reformed theologians see this "transfer" in terms of the imputation of Christ's righteousness, although this is disputed by many others. Those who dispute the notion of imputation tend to argue that the "transfer" of Christ's righteousness is more like impartation: the new state of a believer "in Christ", ie. union with Christ, by faith, results in being treated as Christ is, namely, righteous. This does seem to better represent Paul's argument.
iv] An act of God's unmerited grace, ie. "God's covenant mercy" - forgiveness bestowed on members of the covenant where a just condemnation would be more appropriate, Rom.3:24.
v] A response of faith by the repentant sinner, in the sense of accepting God's promises revealed in Christ, Rom.4:5, 5:1.
Speaking as if the Tax Collector was a real person, we could analyze his situation this way: His standing in the sight of God was secured for him by Christ's death and resurrection. His sinfulness was transferred to Christ on the cross; it died there and was buried with Christ. His sin was therefore no longer counted against him, for Christ had borne its punishment, Gal.3:13, 2Cor.5:21. Yet, that was not the end of it. Christ's righteousness was transferred to him, in the sense that by being untied to Christ, "in Christ", through faith, he rose with Christ from the dead and found himself alive to God, possessing the righteousness of Christ. Thus God declared him right in His sight. It was just as if he had never sinned; no longer a sinner. He was now a member of God's righteous community; no longer an outcast, now blessed. This divine grace that flowed to him was through faith. It all rested on the fact that he asked for it. cf. Rom.3:21-26.
Justification is an eternal predetermination of the will of God to account us righteous in his sight, graciously granting this as a gift of grace (God's covenant mercy) on the basis of our repentance and faith. "A Christian is free from all things and over all things so that he needs no works to make him righteous and save him, since faith alone abundantly confers all these things", Luther
Yet, when it comes to this righteousness which is ours in Christ, are we declared righteous or made righteous?
God's declaration makes us eternally righteous.
Justification is an eternal declaration of righteousness by God, on the basis of our faith in the completed work of Christ. It is crucial to understand that what God declares so, is so. Therefore, "declared" or "made" is inevitably the same thing. As far as God is concerned, we are perfectly righteous in Christ even though we still possess the "body of sin". As a gift of God's grace through faith, this state of holiness is ours eternally.
In the "made righteous" or "declared righteous" debate, there are two errors we must carefully identify:
i] Some stress "made righteous" as if a believer can be sinless in their Christian life. This error is called "sinless perfectionism". As Luther said, "the old Adam retains his power until he is deposited in the grave".
Paul, in Ephesians 2:1-10, expounds the eternal standing of a believer in Christ. We were initially unrighteous and therefore objects of God's wrath. But out of mercy, grace, love, we are made "alive", raised with Christ, saved, renewed, born again, and even are so transformed that we are actually "seated" with Christ in the heavenly realms. And all this for a Divine purpose in eternity, v7. Then in v8 Paul gives his formula for justification. We are not just righteous in status, but in reality; not just declared righteous, but eternally incorporated into the community of God's righteous children. And this, he says, is "by grace .... through faith ...... not by works, so that no one can boast". Finally, Paul declares we are wholly a creation of God, a new community, a new Israel. We are gathered together to perform a "good work", both now and in eternity.
ii] Some stress "declared righteous" as if a believer is righteous only at the point of conversion. That is, justification entails the forgiveness of past sins. Obedience then becomes a necessary element to maintain our standing in Christ. Justification actually entails the forgiveness of past, present and future sins; in Christ we are eternally forgiven.
Within the limitations of our humanity we are, in the power of the Spirit, that resurrected new creation, that righteous community of God. In reality, we are that way now, although in this "last day" we might better say we will be "holy", as part of God's predetermined purpose to gather a perfected people to himself, Rom.8:28-30. We are the righteous children of God, the "offspring" of Abraham, the chosen family of God, the "children of promise", the new Israel, in that we hold tenaciously to our Lord Jesus. We are the righteous children of God, the inheritors of the promises of God, not on the basis of family ties (natural descendants of Abraham), nor on the basis of a right keeping of God's law, but by grace appropriated through faith. Abraham "is the father of all who believe but have not been circumcised, in order that righteousness might be credited to them", Rom.4:11. And this "in order that God's purposes in election might stand: not by works but by him who calls", Rom.9:11-12. What we are is as good as what we will be because of who God is, not by works, but by grace through faith.
Christ, the seed of Abraham, the faithful remnant of Israel, became Israel's curse, and as the risen Lord, vindicated, inaugurated the promised righteous community. To be a member of that community, through faith in Christ, is to be eternally righteous.
So then, what God declares so is so. Through our incorporation in Christ by faith we stand eternally right in the sight of God.
While Martin Luther was lecturing on the Psalms, 1513-15, he came across a truth hidden for generations. It was a July afternoon, filled with the lightening of a summer storm. There in Psalm 22 were the words, "My God, my God, why hast Thou forsaken me?" Luther responded, "Christ forsaken! Thou forsaken for me?" Like the brilliance of the lightening, truth leapt from the pages of scripture. "God came on Sinai with terror, but now in forgiveness."
Standing approved in the sight of God, whether seen at our conversion, during our life's journey, or in the day of Christ's return, has nothing whatsoever to do with obedience to the law of God. There is only one command which we must obey, it is that we have faith in Christ for our salvation. Being a child of God, righteous before God, now and for eternity, is a gift of divine mercy appropriated through faith. We stand before him approved, justified, forgiven, by faith.
What then of our growth in Christ-likeness? By what means does this progress?
Becoming like Christ
So far we have established that standing eternally righteous before God, perfect in his sight, is a gift of divine grace appropriated through faith in Christ, and this apart from works of the law. We now come to the business of living the righteousness that we possess in Christ. The argument that follows proposes that there is only one way to grow in Christ-likeness and so begin to realize the perfection we possess in Christ, only one way to be what we are, and that is by grace through faith.
Sanctification is commonly defined as "the progressive realization of the person we are in Christ." Yet, the word "progressive" can lead to error, particularly where obedience to the law is used as a mechanism to progress Christ-likeness, holiness. A better definition of sanctification is as follows:
As a product of justification, sanctification is a state of holiness, which, in the renewing power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, we seek to realize in our daily life, albeit imperfectly.
i] A work of God's grace, 1Thess.5:2.
Sanctification involves being conformed to the likeness of God's Son, of being glorified, Rom.8:29-30. It is a learning to express the holiness which we possess in Christ; to be transformed into the likeness of Christ, 2Cor.3:18; to "attain to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ", Eph.4:13; to "put on the new self which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator", Col.3:10.
ii] The sacrificial work of Christ. Heb.13:12.
iii] A work of renewal through the indwelling Spirit of Christ. 2Thess.2:13, 1Pet.1:2
iv] An attention to Biblical truth (including the law of God), through which the Spirit will work. Jn.17:17.
v] Faith in Christ for renewal. Ac.26:18, Col.1:21-23.
vi] A willingness to walk toward the perfection we possess in Christ. Rom.6:19, 2Cor.6:17, 7:1.
Sanctification needs to be understood as a product of justification, which requires, like justification, the application of faith. We are righteous in the sight of God, and that righteousness is being shaped in our life day by day, not by an effort of our will to keep the law, but by trusting Christ to change us into his image, to change us into the likeness which we already possess in him.
In summary, sanctification is "the work of God's free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness", The Shorter Catechism.
Given that sanctification is a "work of God's free grace", how does the sanctifying process proceed?
The sanctifying work of the Spirit of God
The renewing work of the indwelling Spirit of Christ.
Christ-likeness progresses in the life of a believer through faith in the renewing work of the indwelling Spirit of Christ.
Although a child of God is free from the supervision of the law, we will tend not to act counter to the principles of the law. I will move toward Christ-likeness because "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me", Gal.2:20. We are identified with Christ in both his death and resurrection. "He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification", Rom.4:25. The believer is in Christ, and Christ in the believer. Therefore the old life is dead in Christ and a new life created in Christ, Rom.6:5-15. "In Christ" we are a "new creation". So, in simple terms, the child of God has received the indwelling blessing of the Spirit of Christ, Gal.3:14, and therefore tends to "live by the Spirit" rather than "gratify the desires of the sinful nature", Gal.5:16.
The indwelling Spirit of Christ struggles with our sinful nature, encouraging us to follow the leading of the Spirit, rather than the leading of the flesh. If we choose to be "led by the Spirit", to "walk" by the Spirit, to "keep in step with the Spirit", we will tend to "not gratify the desires of the sinful nature". The law, as it were, is written on our heart.
The leading of the Spirit is shaped by the whole mind of Christ revealed in the scriptures. We show ourselves to be keeping in step with his leading when we flee from those evils which the moral law exposes, and when we press toward the ideals of the "law of love" summarized in the Sermon on the Mount.
Our motivation to cooperate with this leading of the Spirit is driven by the very character of Christ's sacrificial love which takes root in our being and drives us forward; "Christ's love compels us", 2Cor.5:14.
So it is by trusting the indwelling Christ for his strengthening in service that we begin to evidence the "fruit of the Spirit" (albeit imperfectly). Christ, in his death and resurrection "condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirements of the Law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit", Rom.8:4. So "the only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love", Gal.5:6. "If we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other........" Gal.5:25-26. cf. Rom.8:9-14 (v11, "give life" in the sense of enlivening us to live a righteous life).
So then, sanctification is a state of holiness, which, in the renewing power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, we seek to realize in our daily life; albeit imperfectly.
Does this mean then that we are free from the law?
Free from the Law's oppression
The apostle's understanding of freedom from the law.
It is difficult to imagine how we might function in the Christian life without the restraining and guiding influence of the law. In fact, it is often argued that without the law we would tend toward lawlessness. When Paul deals with the "weak" (Jewish Christian nomists, Judaizers, members of "the circumcision party") in his letters to the Romans and the Galatians, he has to answer the charge that he was devaluing the law in his teaching.
The complaint was that he taught that the law was of no value, that in fact it was evil, that as Christians we were to live freely without the law, being "not under the law", living less than holy lives, knowing that God's grace would always abound in forgiveness. In fact he was charged with teaching, "let us do evil that good may result", Rom.3:8. That is, if there is no purpose in striving toward righteousness, then we might as well strive to satisfy our selfish desires, because at least in doing that, good will result in the outpouring of God's forgiveness.
It was essential for Paul to answer these charges, because unless he addressed them, his nomist brothers would be setting aside their salvation, replacing a saving righteousness of faith, with a useless righteousness of works. By placing themselves under the law they were again placing themselves under the curse of God. Israel had failed to keep the law and was cursed because of it. To return to the law is to inherit that curse.
For Paul, the law served an essential need "until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come", Gal.3:19. "The law was added so that the trespass might increase", Rom.5:20. That is, it served to expose the sinfulness of Israel and their need for a saviour. "So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith", Gal.3:24. Once led to Christ, the law had fulfilled its role. "Now that faith has come, we (believing Jews) are no longer under the supervision of the law", Gal.3:25. The new community of God's children, the new Israel (both Jew and Gentile), finds itself standing approved in the sight of God by faith, not by obedience to the law.
Yet, it does not follow that the child of God, free from the authority of the law, then acts counter to the principles of the law. Free from the law does not mean free to sin. "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me", Gal.2:20. The child of God has received the indwelling blessing of the Spirit of Christ, Gal.3:14. It is because "God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts", that we "live by the Spirit", and therefore do not "gratify the desires of the sinful nature", Gal.5:16.
Freedom from the law does not mean freedom to sin. Freedom from the law means freedom from the law's oppression. Freedom from the law frees a believer from the power of sin and therefore frees us to live a righteous life (albeit imperfectly) by means of the indwelling compelling of the Spirit of Christ.
What then is the function of the law?
The prime function of the law
The law serves to expose sin.
Paul the apostle defines the purpose of the law of God in these terms: "the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith", Gal.3:24. The primary purpose of the law is to expose sin and drive us to Christ for salvation.
Consider the Sermon on the Mount in the gospel of Matthew. Here is the first and foremost rule for disciples. It is true that the sermon is a wonderful guide to the Christian life, yet its prime purpose is to expose sin and lead us to the cross of Christ.
In the sermon Jesus said, "I have not come to abolish" the law, and "unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven." Then comes his discussion on righteousness, a righteousness none of us could ever hope to achieve in our life.
In 5:21-31 Jesus defines the sin of murder and adultery to include the thought as well as the physical act. At face value it seems he is commanding his disciples never to have angry or sensual thoughts, and that the thinking of them is an act of unrighteousness which may undermine their status as disciples. For a disciple it is better to be "castrated" than to continue to have sensual thoughts. Yet, this is not the point he is making.
What Jesus is doing is exposing the curse upon Israel. Jesus says "Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them", Matt.5:17. In the sermon Jesus completes the function of the law. That function is to expose sinfulness, Rom.7:10-11, and thus our need of a saviour, Gal.3:24. Jesus speaks of a righteousness which "surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law". How does a person possess this righteousness, without which they "will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven"? Definitely not by doing it, for who could obey the demands of Matthew Chapter 5?
So then, which man am I? Am I the wise man who hears the words of Jesus and "puts them into practice", or am I the foolish man who hears the words of Jesus and "does not put them into practice"? In truth, I am the man who has built his house on the sand, and I await the storm and the "great crash". I had better quickly find someone who has built his house on rock and ask to come into his house before its too late.
Jesus is not giving a new law in the Sermon on the Mount, rather he is exposing the total loss of the people of Israel who stand under the curse of the law. To claim right standing in the sight of God demands perfection, demands a love which is free of anger toward a brother, a love free of lust toward a sister. Israel is therefore lost and needs a saviour; she needs someone who can secure a righteousness for God's people which exceeds that of the Scribes and Pharisees. She certainly does not need a righteousness of obedience, for even if the letter of the law is obeyed, perfection is still beyond reach.
How then can we ever inherit the promised blessing to Abraham, the promise of a kingdom, a righteous community of God's people? We need someone of the seed of Abraham who, representing us, takes upon himself the curse of the law and is vindicated for us. "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled". "Whoever believes in him is not condemned", Jn.3:18. Jesus does not come to destroy the law, but to finally achieve its intended end, the blessing of God to all who believe.
The prime function of the law is not to reveal a righteousness to be done, but rather to expose our need for a bestowed righteousness.
Has the law no other function?
The Law's secondary function
The role of the law in shaping Christ-likeness
We have seen that the primary purpose of the law is to expose human sinfulness. Yet, the law has another purpose, a secondary purpose. The law serves as a guide to the Christian life. It sets parameters for the renewing work of the Holy Spirit.
Both the moral law and the ideals of Christ, in the Old Testament and in the New, serve to define the mind of God. Law gives us an understanding of the character of God. It is God's intention, as a gift of grace by the inworking of the Spirit of Christ, appropriated through faith, to shape those characteristics in us. So then, we use the law to give shape to the renewing work of Christ within.
Biblical law shapes renewal in two particular ways:
First, we place the basic commands of the moral law behind us, as it were. They then serve as something we should move away from, a chasm from which we flee.
At all times we see the process of renewal as a gift of grace which we appropriate through faith. For our part we must cooperate with the Spirit's work of renewal. Therefore the doing of morality is dependent upon a "new heart" within, it is dependent on the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ. "Christ in us" (the indwelling presence of the Spirit of Christ within a believer) gives life to our mortal bodies. The doing of morality always primarily remains a matter of faith, a matter of trusting in the renewing work of Christ.
Second, we then look to Christ and his moral ideals, and press toward them in our Christian life. The perfection of the Sermon on the Mount is something we work at rather than keep. It is not something we expect to do perfectly, for we stand in Christ's obedience, not our own.
Although Christ has broken the back of "the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenlies", Eph.6:12, he must still "reign until he has put all enemies under his feet". Therefore we must "be self-controlled and alert (for).. the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour", 1Pet.5:8. In this battle we will constantly fall short of the glory of God. Yet, "if any one sins, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the perfect offering for our sins", 1Jn.2:1-2.
So then, when we find ourselves compelled toward evil, let us turn in trust to Christ and his compelling love. It is through the prayer of faith that we are able to begin to become the person we already are in Christ.
In summary then, God's law serves as an instrument for the Spirit's work of renewal and is lived out in the power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. A child of God will find within a desire to flexibly apply the requirements of the law in their lives, a desire to keep the limited expectations of the basic moral law, and to press toward the ideals of Christ's perfection. So the law serves as a guide for the renewing work of the Spirit.
Given that in our Christian walk the law does serve a positive function in guiding our renewal, by grace through faith, is there still the danger of nomism?
The inherent danger of Law-obedience
The heresy of sanctification by obedience / nomism
As already noted, it is commonly taught that submission to Biblical law serves to restrain evil and thus progress righteousness, progress sanctification. This thinking assumes that Biblical law moves the actual righteousness of a believer (state) toward the righteousness they possess in the sight of God (status). So when the law is placed over a believer, so the theory goes, it serves to suppress sinfulness and help shape the believer into the image of Christ. Such thinking prompts many Christians to believe that it is in the struggle to keep Biblical law that they are changed into the image of Christ, that they are sanctified.
This understanding of God's Law has always been with us. Consider the following three examples:
i] The medieval doctrine of 'De Congruo' (meritorious works) put forward the idea of grace through good works.
This type of thinking has helped shape the present popular view of sanctification as something totally separate from justification, and something which progresses through obedience to God's law.
ii] Pietism emphasized sanctification over justification, limiting justification to the forgiveness of former sins, and teaching that sanctification progressed through faithful obedience to the law.
iii] Rationalism, particularly Kant, reinforced the view that sanctification is a process of moral renewal which advances by means of an effort of the will applied to the law of God.
Take for example the way the Christian church handles the issue of divorce. In attempting to apply Jesus' impossible teaching on divorce we implement crude regulations such as nullifying a marriage to allow remarriage, so bypassing Jesus' instructions on the subject. In my church, the Anglican church, we allow remarriage for the innocent party, denying it to the guilty party, while happily offering marriage to those who have had endless sexual encounters, as if a casual sexual union is not the one flesh union created when "a man shall leave his father and mother ......" Pharisaism at its worst!
We see in the struggle to keep God's laws a suppressing of our brutish nature and thus a means of conformity to the image of Christ. We believe our sanctification progresses in the struggle, yet day-by-day we "fall short of the glory of God". Unwilling to see our advance in Christ-likeness halted, we are forced to deny failure, bury the guilt and sublimate it into some form of righteous indignation. All of a sudden easy divorce in our society becomes a hot issue and one to be strongly denounced. Picking specks out of the eyes of others helps us to ignore the log in our own.
The problem of law-obedience is not a new one. As already noted, the apostle Paul had to address the self same issue in his letter to the Galatians. Commentators argue over the exact problem that Paul was confronting in the church. Paul's opponents are obviously Jewish believers, or certainly law-bound believers. They probably didn't believe that a person was saved by law-obedience, possibly believed that their salvation was confirmed and/or maintained by law-obedience, and certainly did believe that their Christian life progressed, became more holy, was sanctified, by law-obedience. These nomists in the church believed that their Christian life was progressed by being "extremely zealous for the traditions" of Judaism. They believed that "observing special days and months and seasons and years", practicing "circumcision", striving to keep the whole law, was the means for a believer to progress holiness and thus secure eternal blessing. Yet, for a Christian, to return to law-doing to control sin in their lives and so advance their righteousness before God, is to "rebuild" what was "destroyed". In the end it but proves that "I am a lawbreaker" and therefore under the condemnation of God.
So then, for a believer to return to law-keeping to progress their holiness is to undermine their very standing in the sight of God, the very holiness they already posses in Christ. Submission to the law does not promote godliness, it only enacts God's curse. "Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?..... Does God give you the Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?" Gal.3:3-5. "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse", Gal.3:10.
Nomism toward training in righteousness, toward holiness, serves in the end, to undermine our faith in Christ and thus our salvation.
Although personal sinfulness will be a constant intrusion during our earthly walk, we will find it steadily overruled (although not completely eradicated) by the operation of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. In this struggle to "live by the Spirit" we will be prepared for our reign with Christ in eternity. This will occur because, in our identification with Christ's death we are dead to the power of sin, and in his resurrection we share in his life-giving power (renewal) through the indwelling Spirit. Thus our sanctification, which is a state of holiness, is realized in the renewing power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ, albeit imperfectly, by grace through faith.
My standing in the sight of God has nothing to do with my mere righteousness. I stand only in Christ by grace through faith. And as for becoming like him, well this too is wholly his doing, again by grace through faith. There is nothing I can do to make myself like Jesus. In fact, in the sovereign will of God I am already as Christ is, and this a free gift of his grace appropriated through faith.
So, when it comes to my righteousness, whether it is the perfection I already possess in the sight of God, or the realizing of that perfection (imperfectly) during my life's journey, it is totally dependent on what Christ has done for me and what he is doing within me through the renewing work of the Holy Spirit. All is of grace, appropriated through faith in Christ, and not by works of the law.
The New Perspective on Paul
Pauline studies are presently in a state of flux (more rightly turmoil) due to the emergence of what is known as "the New Perspective on Paul". The new perspective debate relates to the subject matter of this study, so, for an analysis of The New Perspective on Paul follow the link, and for a considered interaction with new perspective views, use the "notes" attached to the Lectionary Sermons and Bible Studies for Romans.
First published as a monograph 1992. 2nd edition 2002, lectionarystudies.com.