Studying Galatians? Here’s Some Help.

There is a defect in our belief in the freeness of divine grace. To exercise unshaken confidence in the doctrine of gratuitous pardon is one of the most difficult things in the world; and to preach this doctrine fully without verging towards antinomianism is no easy task, and is therefore seldom done.

– Archibald Alexander[1]

Alexander captures perfectly the challenge: to preach the doctrine of gratuitous pardon fully without veering into anti-law/cheap grace, pseudo-theology is no easy task, and is therefore seldom done… and I might add, even more rarely done accurately or well.

Philp Ryken provides us one of the best examples I’ve yet encountered in his commentary on Galatians. And yet, he is not perfect. As Alexander observed this, “is no easy task.” Ryken manages to get the big picture entirely correct, and to explain it an easily understood manner. He does so in spite of getting some of the details wrong. He often misunderstands the point of the New Perspective on Paul, and yet does so in the midst of making valid points about the message of Galatians.

The reason I bring that up is this: it has been those details which have caused most contemporary Christians (even Christian scholars) to get the big picture of Galatians wrong. I celebrate Ryken because he maintains the accurate big picture! However, I am concerned for the future because he fails to correct some of the details that led us to the situation now confronting us.

That having been said, I wholeheartedly commend Ryken’s Galatians commentary to you as the best layman’s explanation of Paul’s letter to the Galatians presently available.

If I were to summarize the message of Galatians, and consequently the message of Ryken’s commentary, it would be this:

Having been saved entirely by grace through faith, do we now keep the law in order to retain our salvation? ABSOLUTELY NOT! We keep the law because we are dead to it and alive to/through Christ, who is the embodiment of the law’s requirements! But we now walk in his character (walk in the Spirit/keep the law’s instructions) through grace and faith, every bit as much as we were initially justified by grace through faith.

The follow on question of, “In what manner does the law of God now instruct believers?” is a very different question.

  1. First, we must acknowledge that the law plays no process in justification other than to point out our need for it.
  2. Second, we must acknowledge that our place in Christ’s affections is never improved through law-keeping.
  3. Thirdly, we must acknowledge that the law of God continues to describe Christ’s character, and only then ought we to ask, “How does the law of God now instruct me, and how shall we now apply it?”

Most contemporary Christians never move past the second point, and consequently never ask the critical question, which would enable them to complete the Lord’s Great Commission: teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.

As a complement to his Galatians commentary, I would also strongly commend to you his book Written in Stone: The Ten Commandments and Today’s Moral Crisis.

If one wants to get into the weeds and/or attempt to defend Ryken’s reading of Galatians, in that case, the writings of Tim Hegg or R.J. Rushdoony are very helpful. But for the purpose of simply understanding Galatians accurately oneself, there is no commentary superior to Philip G. Ryken’s on Galatians.


[1] A. Alexander. Thoughts on Religious Experience, 1844; repr. London: Banner of Truth, 1967, 165–66.

Considering Tassels

This post was originally written in 2016, but I was having considerable formatting issues with it that I couldn’t seem to resolve, so I decided to start over from scratch, and it is therefore now re-posted. I remain in complete agreement with what I wrote back then.

Abstract: Wearing culturally-developed tzitzit on one’s belt loops is a valid manner of honoring the command of Num. 15:38 and Deut. 22:12, but is not a literal fulfillment of the commandment. All things considered, for Gentile believers it is likely not the most well-advised manner of honoring this instruction. Additional reflection may yield a more advantageous and multiple-commandment-balancing approach.

“Speak to the people of Israel, and tell them to make tassels on the corners of their garments throughout their generations, and to put a cord of blue on the tassel of each corner.” Numbers 15:38

“You shall make yourself tassels on the four corners of the garment with which you cover yourself” Deuteronomy 22:12

The command regarding tassels ought to instruct all who believe, whether Jew or Gentile. The question of how it ought to instruct may depend upon on one’s ethnicity, time or place.

I would assert, for example, that a Jewish man (or woman, potentially) wearing a tallit kitan or using a tallit gadol with tzitzit attached is a valid keeping of this command, and that a Gentile doing so may be a valid keeping of this command.

I would also posit that a Gentile wearing culturally-developed tzitzit on one’s belt loops is a valid manner of honoring the command, but not a literal fulfillment (or keeping). All things considered, I would also suggest it is likely not the most well-advised manner of honoring this instruction due to reasons of potential misunderstanding, misapplication, and offense.

Nevertheless, we see from the text that God considered it important for His people and we might observe that the principle behind this case law related to: remembrance, identity, and witness. Furthermore, that the keeping of the command assisted the Israelites in the practice of walking in godliness, and promoted a sense of belonging and community. Could anyone argue that today’s Gentile believers don’t also need this?! Additional reflection may yield a more advantageous and multiple-commandment-balancing approach to honoring this instruction.

I am, therefore, seeking an application of the command regarding tassels that is:

  1. consistent with God’s original intent,
  2. consistent with the significance of the command in the milieu of the original implementation,
  3. inoffensive to as many parties as possible,
  4. consistent with a professional image (be in the world but not of the world), and
  5. feasible for wide-scale adoption across the people of God in the United States (our milieu).

Historically speaking, it is of great interest to note that at the time when God gave this commandment, everyone in the Ancient Near East (ANE) wore tassels on their garments—Israelite and non-Israelite. The fringe functioned as one’s signature (pressing the fringe into clay in the same manner as signet rings came to be used), as a sign of your prestige, and were a method of identification or sign of belonging (to a class, family, or tribe). The Israelites’ fringes were to be a distinctive application of a normative cultural expectation.

If one were to argue that wearing tassels on one’s belt loops is a direct fulfillment of the command and that this is necessary, I would ask, “Where is the parapet around your roof?” (Deuteronomy 22:8)

Similarly, wrapping teffilin is a valid method of honoring, or helpful symbolic application in the interest of keeping the commands of Deut. 6:8; 11:18, but it does not—in and of itself—fulfill the commandment. How can we prove this? Because we are also told in the same language that the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the redemption of the first born “shall be to you as a sign on your hand and as a memorial between your eyes” (Ex 13:9, 16).

In my personal edition of the Morning Prayers I attempted to capture the heart of these commands in the following manner: “Today, Father, may your words be always in front of my eyes; may my hands be engaged in the practice of your commands.” There is a wide variety of ways in which to keep this injunction; observing Unleavened Bread is among them, and the phrasing of the commandment to let this observance be a sign on your hand and memorial between your eyes speaks more to observing the festival with intention than with a physical practice of writing the date of Unleavened Bread on our hand or something similar.

So long as one recognizes that wrapping tefillin is not the actual keeping of the commandment, it remains a helpful spiritual discipline, but once one begins to think that in the practice of wrapping tefillin you have satisfied the intent of the commandment, problems develop.

Given that:

  1. specifically knotted tzitzit have become an ethnic identity marker for the Jewish people,
  2. that unless I wear a cornered garment I cannot literally fulfill this commandment anyway, and
  3. that the commandment was given in the context of a distinctive application of a cultural norm,

I think it is more than well-advised to practice the command in a manner that does not potentially lay a stumbling block in the path of my brother the Jew (saved or unsaved: one thinks of the reaction of UMJC folks to Gentiles wearing tzitzit in general and specifically to wearing them on the belt loops) or the misinformed Gentile Christian, who perceives it as coming back under the law.

For the last couple of years I have worn a blue and white bracelet as my manner of honoring the tzitzit (and tefillin) command. I am not entirely satisfied (theologically nor practically) with a tzitzit bracelet, but it was a healthy step in the right direction (in response to having become a stumbling block to my Synagogue President neighbor, even though wearing tzitzit “properly” on a tallit kitan).

I am entertaining ideas like embroidering 3 white and one blue line on the sleeves of my shirts, or attaching a fringe that is clearly different from the traditional Jewish tying of the tzitzit to the corners created by the vents of a camp-style shirt. I don’t always wear un-tucked, vented shirts, however, so I lean toward the embroidery idea, as this is non-offensive and within the bounds of normative cultural expectation (one thinks of logos on shirt sleeves) that is nevertheless distinctive.

Imagine if every man in our congregations wore shirts with the “tzitzit logo” on the edges/wings (canaphim, c.f. Malachi 4:2 & Numbers 15:38) of their sleeves! Think of the identity-lending power, and the community-belonging power of this! Invest that practice with the significance of fulfilling Deut. 6:8 and one is keeping the commandment in a way that is faithful to God’s intent while also conscious of the commands, “You shall not curse a deaf man, nor place a stumbling block before the blind, but you shall revere your God; I am the LORD” (Lev 19:14), and “Build up, build up, prepare the way, Remove every obstacle out of the way of My people” (Is 57:14).

The more I think about it, the more I am convinced that this sleeve logo idea is probably the application most consistent with the spirit of the command regarding tzitzit. Think about it: our culture is familiar with all football jerseys being the same and yet having distinct identification markings, both in color and logo. Logos have become ubiquitous on a variety of culturally normative clothing styles. To put a distinct arrangement of white and blue threads on the sleeves of a shirt (sleeves being the closest thing to “wings/corners” we have on contemporary clothing) references a familiarity with the most recently common observance of the command (rabbinically defined tzitzit), honors the commandment, offends no one, and yet retains the reminding, identifying, community-building power of the original command in its Bronze Age context.

How shall today’s believing Laplander apply this command? I don’t know, but they ought to be asking that question. And the eventual result will be a culturally diverse, yet commandment-honoring keeping of God’s law that testifies both to the “house of prayer for all nations” reality of God’s people, but also to the coalescing power and identity-giving nature of being “imitators of God therefore like dearly beloved children.”

P.S. It occurs to me that I have elsewhere expressed some of what undergirds the above in a very succinct manner:

If love emphasizes people and law emphasizes principle, without the dynamic interplay of both aspects of God’s character, we get an unhealthy (i.e., sinful) imbalance. Therefore, if it is lawful, “so far as it depends on you,” to “live peaceably with all,” then it seems it would be loving to use language [or halacha] that puts, “no obstacle in anyone’s way, so that no fault may be found with our ministry.”

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Background on fringes as normative ANE dress:

  • “The tassels, according to ancient Near East parallels, were threads of the embroidery and could be decorated with a flower head or bell. The more ornate the hem, the greater the social status and wealth of a person (Milgrom 1983: 61–65).” from Douglas R. Edwards, “Dress and Ornamentation,” ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 233.
  • “fringes (tassels, borders, hems), a common decoration on Near Eastern garments.” from Paul J. Achtemeier, Harper & Row and Society of Biblical Literature, Harper’s Bible Dictionary (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 323.
  • “Fringes,” in J. Hastings, Dictionary of the Bible (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1902), 68-70.
  • Stephen Bertman, “Tassled Garments in the Ancient East Mediterranean”, The Biblical Archaeologist, Vol 24, No. 4 (Dec., 1961), pp. 119-128.
  • http://rzim.org/a-slice-of-infinity/from-the-fringes
  • J. Milgrom, “Of hems and tassels: Rank, authority and holiness were expressed in antiquity by fringes on garments,” Biblical Archaeology Review, v. IX, # 3, May/June 1983, pp. 61-65.
  • J. Milgrom, The JPS Torah Commentary, Volume 4 – NUMBERS, Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society, 1989 – 1996, p. 410-412
  • W. Gunther Plaut, et al. The Torah: A Modern Commentary. N.Y., Union of American Hebrew Congregations, 1981, p. 1123

09-12-2018

The Lord woke me up an hour and 19 minutes before my alarm. I do believe that it was the Holy Spirit Who woke me up, or an angel, but it was hard to believe while in bed. I realized while stumbling up the steps toward my office that part of the reason is I find it difficult to believe God wants to spend time with me. I know that to be true theoretically; I’m not sure I believe it in my heart.

The verse for today is Hebrews 3:12-13:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.

Oh the irony.

Lord, forgive me.

Actually, I do believe it; that’s why I’m here right now, doing this. I struggle to act on it because I cannot prove it intellectually.

Lord, help me. Help me to learn the grammar of Spirit to spirit communication. Help me to know You heart to heart.

Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!
And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting! Psalm 139:23-24

A Concise, Coherent, and Orthodox Explanation of the Trinity

All beings have a spirit. Some beings are spirit; some beings are corporeal. All beings but one are created.

Human beings are corporeal, and naturally inhabit the physical realm. The beings described in scripture as personed but incorporeal are called elohim, and naturally inhabit the spiritual realm.

God is an elohim; or God is spirit. God is the Elohim; He alone natively holds all authority.

Uniquely among all beings, God is a single being of three persons. All other single beings are a single person. Single person/single beings are called individuals, because they are an indivisible, singular person. God is not an individual, but a triune being.

Similarly, God is the only uncreated being, and is uniquely infinite rather than finite.

The second person of the singular, triune being, God, inhabited a corporeal form at a specific point in history, and is now, again uniquely, both fully God and fully human. We call that person of the God-being, Jesus. He remains one being with the Father and the Spirit.

We capture all of this meaning (and more) when making the concise statement, “God is holy.” In other words, God is wholly other, completely righteous, entirely separate, and uniquely unique.

So now you know; God is Trinity: the only entirely righteous, uncreated, eternally existent, tri-personed, singular Being.

For a defense of this explanation see: the Bible.

For additional amplification see:

Baptism and the New Covenant in Brief

The New Covenant is the mechanism of delivery for the Gospel, which God preached beforehand to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3b; Gal 3:8).

Salvation is accorded to New Covenant participants who believe (Gen 15:6), and those individuals are described as the “sons of Abraham,” and comprise the many nations to whom Abraham is father.

The common features of God’s covenant/words/promise(s) to Abraham in Genesis 12, 15, and 17 are that God will bless, God will multiply, and God will give the land, also that this will all be done through Abraham and his offspring.

Circumcision is the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham and was the sign feature of Abraham and his descendants “keeping” their obligation in this covenant relationship. “This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your offspring after you: Every male among you shall be circumcised” (Gen 17:10). The problem, of course, is that Abraham’s descendants don’t keep their side of the bargain; they neither walk blamelessly before God nor circumcise every male on the eighth day.

So long as this covenant depends on the actions of the human participants it is the Old Covenant (“All the words that the LORD has spoken we will do.” Ex. 24:3 “All that the LORD has spoken we will do and we will hear/obey” Ex. 24:7 “circumcise your hearts” Dt 10:16) The key, however, is that God is going to keep the covenant, as is foretold in Deuteronomy, where before the book ends God has promised, “the LORD your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live” (Dt. 30:6).

As Jeremiah makes clear, the promise of the New Covenant is that God is going to circumcise their hearts, aka, “write [the law] on their hearts… for I will forgive their iniquity and remember their sins no more” (Jer. 31:31-34). These are obvious descriptions of the details of the Gospel promise(s).

So, while circumcision is the sign of the Old Covenant (“which you shall keep”), baptism becomes the sign of the circumcision of the heart. That sign—as is fitting of a superior covenant (Heb. 7:19, 22)—is applied not just to the men, but to every participant in the family of those descended from Abraham by faith.

In the same way as circumcision was given to all who were a part of the Old Covenant family, but it did not impart salvation, so the New Covenant sign is applied to all born into the New Covenant family, though the sign does not impart salvation.

How, someone might ask, do we know that baptism is the sign of the New Covenant?

First, because it is a sign of a spiritual act: the circumcision of the heart, rather than a physical act executed upon the old man. Second, because Paul states that we have been “buried with [Christ] by baptism into death so that we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:3-4). Third, because Peter writes that “baptism… now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 3:21). Finally, because Paul tells us that “the circumcision of Jesus Christ is having been buried with him in baptism, in which you were also raised with him through faith,” which takes us right back to Abraham, who was credited righteousness because of faith, and whose descendants are those who believe—those “of faith.”

The inescapable conclusion is that baptism is the sign of New Covenant identification, which like the Old Covenant sign, is given both to new converts and the offspring of covenant participants. Like the Old Covenant sign, the New Covenant sign does not itself save but signifies the saving work of God through Christ.

The Definition of Sin

I recently listened to the guys from CrossPolitic converse with Greg Johnson, the pastor of the PCA church hosting the Revoice conference. I appreciated how hard they worked to convey a different perspective to their guest. As I listened, however, it became apparent that the fundamental difference dividing their thinking from that of their guest was the definition of sin. I think the CrossPolitics guys recognized this as well, but I would like to suggest that our definition needs to take one more step.

Yes, sin is missing the mark. Yes, sin is lawlessness, but I think more important today is the realization that sin is anything less than the glory of God. That mark of complete impossibility is what we must repent of. The law is a detailed explication of what the glory of God looks like in action; a description of the character of God in all its glory.

Pastor Johnson is struggling with the idea of asking folks to repent of something non-volitional (and there is much more that should be said on that topic), but if sin is understood biblically, we must all be repenting of falling short of the glory of God, not just of willful sins, but of the state of being a corrupted image.

Only then can we fully embrace the need to turn our hearts (and our feet, our lips, our eyes, etc.) away from anything but the glory of God, that consuming light where some sweet day we will once again be able to discern nothing detailed about the other except their being robed in the glory of God (and therefore be unashamed). O to no longer regard each other according to the flesh!

I love the Anglican confession that contains these three descriptors, reminding us that we “have sinned…through ignorance, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.”1 Too often these days, we recognize only “deliberate” sins as sin, and while it is easy to agree that we were “conceived and born in iniquity and corruption” (to quote Calvin’s liturgy2), I suspect it puts the proper point on it to recognize and acknowledge that sin is falling short of the glory of God. Which of us Pharisees has the hubris to think we’ve met that standard?

Though I would set myself up for constant disappointment, I would like to hope that I never again hear that tired question/challenge: “Are you saying that _______ is a sin?” Yes, yes, I am; we are literally wallowing in sinfulness, and the Lord loves a broken spirit and a contrite heart; a heart that spends so much time gazing upon Christ that it realizes ever more fully how far short it falls, and therefore glories in the chesed (חֶסֶד )in which we move without condemnation, a heart that clings to the Father who knows our frame and remembers that we are but inglorious dust.

Footnotes

  1. Common Worship: Holy Communion | Confession
  2. Jonathan Gibson. Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present (Kindle Locations 5792-5802). New Growth Press. Kindle Edition.

Tradition & Community

In the context of community, traditions enable the living out of the Gospel. Appropriate traditions will enable us to live out God’s commands in this time and place. Tradition often gets a bad rap in today’s world, but without it we could not function. What’s more, without a collection of consistent practices we will be unable to successfully reflect God’s image to the watching world, because we don’t reflect as individuals so much as we reflect as a Body.

Tradition, by its very nature, is a flexible, changing collection of practices. Traditions exist to aid in the honoring and observing of God’s way, and they vary from location to location, from time to time, and from society to society. Consequently, we must use our Reason to contemplate the words of Scripture and the history of Tradition in seeking to ensure that our practices continue to serve the same purpose for which they were created.

It must be remembered that Tradition is a tool that exists to serve the principle that is obedience to God. Whenever we begin to keep traditions for Tradition’s sake, we have allowed that which exists to serve to become that which we serve, and a sense of bondage inevitably results: a new law is created.

This is what had happened to Israel at the time of Christ. Because their identity was more, “we are Israel” than “we are those rescued by God,” they grew proud in the accumulation of their efforts to be godly. Prompting Jesus to rebuke them vigorously, “You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.”

Community is formed by a collection of common traditions. This is how we observe the Sabbath; this is how we memorize Scripture, this is what we pray after eating, etc., etc. Community is the environment in which we practice the application of God’s instructions in a collaborative and supportive manner.