The Present Role of the Law (Torah)

Even the Apostle Peter said that St. Paul’s writings were difficult to understand, and throughout history Christian men (and women) have often found them difficult to align congruently with the rest of Scripture.

In the past 150 years it has become fashionable to act—and even believe—that the Law was done away with by Messiah’s sacrifice. In a certain and specific sense that is true; but the way in which it has commonly come to be understood is blatantly and grievously erroneous.

Dispensationalism was largely responsible for spreading this unfortunate idea; an idea that is in many ways responsible for the present deplorable state of Christian morals in America (see Barna’s recent report). What I find so astounding, however, is the degree to which the dispensational approach to Paul’s writings have so profoundly influenced those who would vigorously protest any suggestion that they are dispensationalists.

But more to the point, or at least to my point, is this assertion: it has been the predominant, historic, and orthodox Christian belief that every believer is beholden to keep God’s commandments as they exist in both the Old and New Testaments.  Attempts to figure out how to walk out that obligation vary widely, and I have my own opinion. The point, however, is that varying applications aside, we must agree that, as Article 7 of the Articles of Religion state:

…no Christian man whatsoever is free from the obedience of the Commandments which are called Moral.

Granted, that begs the question, “Which commandments are moral?” But I leave that for another discussion.

Allow me, finally, to arrive at the quote which I originally set out to blog upon.

The following was written between 1832 and 1863 by Charles Simeon, the father of Anglican evangelicals, fellow of King’s College, Cambridge, and vicar of Holy Trinity Cambridge.

He begins with stating the objection urged against the Gospel; “What shall we say then? Shall we continue in sin, that grace may abound?” And then he answers it at large; and affirms, that the covenant of grace, so far from invalidating our obligation to good works, absolutely secures the performance of thema….[1]

[Christ, our incarnate Lord, has fulfilled every part of God’s law; enduring its penalties, as well as executing its commands: and this he has done, as our Surety: so that, if we believe in him, we may plead his obedience unto death in bar of all the punishment it denounces against us; and may even plead it also as having procured for us a title to all its promised blessings. Our blessed Lord, in fulfilling the law, has abrogated it as a covenant; and has obtained for us a new and better covenant, of which he himself is the Suretyb. As a rule of conduct, the law does, and ever must, continue in force; because it is the transcript of the mind and will of God, and contains a perfect rule for the conduct of his creaturesc: but as a, covenant it is dissolved; and is, in respect of us, dead; so that we have no more connexion with it than a woman has with her deceased husband: our obligations to it, and our expectations from it, have ceased for everd.[2]


a Rom. 6:14–16.

[1]Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae Vol. 15: Romans(London, 1832-63). 165.

b Heb. 8:6, 8, 13.

c 1 Cor. 9:21.

d Gal. 2:19.

[2]Charles Simeon, Horae Homileticae Vol. 15: Romans (London, 1832-63). 166.

Fulfilling the Law

What does Paul mean in Romans 8:4 when he says that the aim of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection is that “the righteous requirement of the Torah might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit”?

Wait a minute! Isn’t Christ the fulfillment of the Law? Why does it say fulfilled in us?! In Appendix 6 to his latest book, The Future of Justification, John Piper sets out to answer this question.

Some take this to mean that Christ fulfilled the law for us when he obeyed it perfectly and died as the perfect sacrifice on our behalf.[1]

Piper agrees that this is true, “but,” he goes on to say:

I don’t think that is the point of verse 4.

Piper goes on to point out that the text does not say that the law is fulfilled for us but in us. He observes that the text indicates this fulfillment will take place by way of walking or doing, by way of living it out. (What, we must ask, is the antecedent of “it”?) In verse 4 it says that the fulfilling will take place in those who walk “according to the Spirit.” We would be remiss, however, not to note that walking in the Spirit is contrasted with walking in the flesh, and the fleshly person is described as one who “does not submit to God’s law.” (verse 7). As opposed, it is clearly inferred, to those who walk in the Spirit and therefore do submit to God’s law.

So Piper sets out to answer the obvious question:

What does it mean to fulfill the requirement of the law? And specifically, how can any of my “walking” by the Spirit—which is always imperfect in this life—be said to fulfill God’s law, which is holy and just and good?[2]

He then sets down 12 theses on the Law in an attempt to answer these questions. His 12 theses follow. I will be engaging each of them in subsequent blogs (they’re pretty good, actually).

1. Fulfilling the righteous requirement of the law in Romans 8:4 refers to a life of real love for people (Rom. 13:8-10; Gal. 5:13-18; Matt. 7:12; 22:37-40).

2. Our fulfilling God’s law in loving others is not the ground of our justification. The ground of justification is the sacrifice and obedience of Christ alone, appropriated through faith alone before any other acts are performed. Our fulfilling the law is the fruit and evidence of being justified by faith (Rom. 3:20-22, 24-25, 28; 4:4-6; 5:19; 8:3; 10:3-4; 2 Cor. 5:21).

3. This fulfilling of God’s law in loving others is rendered not in our own strength but by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:13-16, 22-23).

4. This fulfilling of God’s law in loving others through the Spirit is rendered by faith, that is, by being satisfied with all that God is for us in Christ and him crucified-the perseverance of the same faith that justifies (Gal. 3:5; 5:6; 1 Tim. 1:5; Heb. 11:6, 24-26; 10:34).

5. This fulfilling of God’s law in loving others through the Spirit by faith is not a perfect love in this life (Rom. 7:15, 19, 23-25; Phil. 3:12).

6. But this fulfilling of God’s law in loving others through the Spirit by faith will become perfect when we die or when Christ returns, and we will live in the perfection of love forever (Rom. 8:30; Phil. 1:6; Heb. 12:22-23).

7. Even though we will one day be perfected in love, the totality of our existence, from conception to eternity, will never be a perfect one, because it will always include the first chapter of our fallen life. We will always be forgiven-that is, we will always be those who have sinned. We will always be in need of an imputed, alien righteousness and a sin-bearing Substitute for our right standing before God. In this way, Christ will be glorified forever in our salvation. We will forever lean on his righteousness and his sacrifice (Heb. 7:25; Rev. 5:9-10; 15:3).

8. Even though imperfect, this Spirit-dependent, Christ-exalting love (which is essentially self-sacrificing gladness in the temporal and eternal good of others, 2 Cor. 8:1-2, 8) is the true and real direction of life that God’s law requires. In this life, we have new direction, not full perfection. This direction is what the law demands on the way to perfection (cf. texts under #1).

9. This fulfilling of the Old Testament law in the loving of others through the Spirit by faith is sometimes called “the law of liberty” (James 1:25; 2:12) and “the law of Christ” (1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 6:2).

9.1. When the fulfilling of the law is called “the law of liberty,” it means that, in the pursuit of love, Christians are free from law-keeping as the ground of our justification and as the power of our sanctification. Instead, we pursue it by the “law of the Spirit of life . . . in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:2). We look to the Spirit of Christ for transformation so that love flows by power from within, not pressure from without. We are dead to law-keeping and therefore at liberty to bear fruit for God in the newness of the Spirit (Rom. 7:4, 6). The law of liberty is the leading of the Spirit, and “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (2 Cor. 3:17) (Jas. 1:25; 2:10-12; Gal. 5:1; Rom. 7:4, 6; 2 Cor. 3:17-18).

9.2. When the fulfilling of the law is called “the law of Christ,” it means that our pursuit of love is guided and enabled by the life, word, and Spirit of Jesus Christ. The law of Christ is not a new list of behaviors on the outside, but a new Treasure, Friend, and Master on the inside. He did give us “a new commandment” (“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also are to love one another,” John 13:34). But this standard of love is the life and power of a person who indwells us by his Spirit (Rom. 7:4; 8:11). We pursue love as “the law of Christ” by looking to Christ as our sin-covering sacrifice, our all-sufficient righteousness, our all-satisfying Treasure, our all-providing Protection and Helper, and our all-wise counselor and guide (Rom. 7:4; 8:9, 12-14; 1 Cor. 9:21; Gal. 2:20; 6:2).

10. The Old Testament law can be understood narrowly as a set of commandments, or more broadly as the entire teaching of the Pentateuch, or even as all the instruction of God in the Old Testament wherever he gives it.

10.1. In the narrow sense, one may think of the law as commanding perfect obedience that, if we could perform it (the way Adam should have) by depending on God’s help, would be our righteousness and the ground of our justification. But, because of our sin, the law does not lead to life in this way (Gal. 3:21), but shuts us up to look away from law-keeping to Christ so that we might be justified through faith in him (Gal. 3:21-25).

10.2. In the broader sense of the whole Pentateuch or the whole Old Testament, we may think of the law not merely as making demands, but also as offering justification through faith by pointing forward to a Redeemer who would provide the ground of that justification, and in whom Jews and Gentiles would be counted righteous because of his blood and righteousness (Gen. 15:6; Rom. 4:3; Rom. 3:19-22).

11. When the law is understood in its entirety, its aim is that Jesus Christ get the glory as the one who provides the only ground for our imputed righteousness through faith (justification) and the only power for our imparted righteousness through faith (sanctification) (Rom. 5:19; 10:4; 2 Cor. 5:21; Phil. 1:11; 3:8-9).

12. Therefore, I give a summarizing three-part answer to the question, “How can our imperfect obedience and love fulfill the perfect law of God?”

12.1. First, our imperfect love is, nevertheless, real, God-dependent, Spirit-enabled, Christ-exalting love that flows from our justification and is not a means to it. And therefore it is the new direction that the law was aiming at and what the new covenant promised. In short, Christ-exalting love as the fruit of faith is what the law was aiming at.

12.2. Second, our imperfect love is the first-fruits of a final perfection that Christ will complete in us at his appearing. Romans 8:4 does not say that the entire fulfillment of the law happens in us now. But our walk by the Spirit begins now, and so does our fulfillment of the righteous requirement of the law.

12.3. Finally, our imperfect love is the fruit of our faith in Jesus who is himself our only justifying perfection before God. In other words, the only law-keeping we depend on as the ground of our justification is Jesus’ law-keeping. His was perfect. Ours is imperfect. And so we will never (even in eternity) have a whole life of perfection to offer God. The acceptability of our lives to all eternity will always depend on the perfection of Jesus offered in our place. Our imperfect love now and our perfect love later will always be the fruit of faith that looks to Jesus as our only complete perfection. In the end, the law is fulfilled in us everlastingly because it was fulfilled in him from everlasting to everlasting. Our imperfection and need is a pointer to his perfection and all-sufficiency; and that pointing-that exaltation of Christ-is the aim of the law.

 The entire book may be read online here.


[1] Piper, John. The Future of Justification. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2007), 215[2] Ibid, 216

Discernment

Several months ago a friend asked me when the last time I’d read 1 Corinthians 14 was. We were having a conversation about spiritual gifts, especially tongues. When I was 19 a friend of mine and I did an in depth study of 1 Corinthians and concluded that there was no way tongues had “ceased.” However, neither of us had ever experienced it for ourselves. So my attitude from that time had been, “God, if you want to commune with me in this way, I am willing.” However, at my friend’s urging I re-opened 1 Corinthians 14 and was immediately convicted by the first verse.

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. 1 Corinthians 14:1

“Earnestly desire” certainly did not describe my attitude towards the spiritual gifts. This began a change in our congregation’s expectations for corporate and personal worship.

On Pentecost of this year (I found the timing significant), a close friend of mine and I spoke in tongues for the first (and so far only) time. I cannot tell you what transpired exactly, although I have a guess, but I can tell you that it was without a doubt a move of the Holy Spirit upon me. My overwhelming impression was that what I experienced is described by Paul in his letter to the disciples in Rome:

Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness. For we do not know what to pray for as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words. Romans 8:26

It had never previously occurred to me that the Spirit might speak those groanings through my vocal cords, but there is no better way to describe what poured out of me. I would say “uncontrollably” because in a sense that is how it felt, but I was very aware that while a torrent of groanings or words in a different language were rushing out of my inner man, I could definitely have quenched that flow. It was if I was a fire hydrant on a hot summer day, and words were the water gushing out of me.

Paul said, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself,” and “if I pray in a tongue, my spirit prays but my mind is unfruitful.” My conclusion has been that in my weakness, the Spirit prayed through my spirit for the building up of my inner man in ways that with my mind I am incapable of. I pray regularly with my mind; I have spent my life building up my mind, but my spirit had never before received intentional ministry.

In my experience this overwhelming, unmistakable action of the Holy Spirit has been rare. More often He seems to interact with me or with us in a way that is aptly described as a still, small voice. So still and so small that it is difficult to know whether it is the voice of your mind or the voice of His Spirit speaking. It is at these times that I desperately wish for a more powerful discernment.

The discerning person can tell, for example, when prayer is not genuine contact with God but a conversation with oneself, when apparent humility is actually a twisted form of pride; when a vision is really an hallucination and an ecstasy a psychosomatic disturbance; when inspirations are projections of suspect desires and when a vocation to celibacy is more a flight from intimacy than a call from God.[1]

I have begun to notice, however, that when this still, small voice speaks there is not a doubt but a knowing that God’s Spirit just communicated and about what He said.


[1] Sandra Schneiders, “Spiritual Discernment in the Dialogue of Saint Catherine of Siena”

Impossible Expectations

Christianity (in general) is suffering from theological nonsense. I have been attempting for several years to provide corrective insight to these theological problems when and where I had opportunity. However, I have found that the average Christian either doesn’t know what his theological assumptions are, or generally knows what his theology is but doesn’t grasp how that intersects with the day-to-day existence of his life. This has proven to be a mostly insurmountable problem.

However, I have realized recently that the problem is actually much more endemic than our theology. The reason our theology has become disconnected with the life of the Gospel is that we have completely erroneous psychological assumptions. To be specific, Christians in general assume that an abundant life is theirs by virtue of grace, and make no connection between their actions and the state of their life.

In other words, we believe the equivalent of the idea that by virtue of believing that because Derek Jeter did all the work necessary to become an all-star baseball player we can also become all-star baseball players by believing in Derek Jeter. We forget that Derek Jeter’s all-star status was the result of daily following the regimen required to form baseball skills.

What am I saying? Yes, we are saved by grace, but what that means is we are given access to the baseball diamond. It still remains up to us to pick up the bat and hit 100 pitches a day. It is still our responsibility to rise early each morning and run sprints.

This leads to the “elephant in the room” of Christianity; the big issue that no one wants to admit let alone talk about. We have the same existential problems as our non-believing neighbors, only our problems are further complicated by guilt and the nagging feeling that it shouldn’t be like this.

The present status is that Christians espouse the idea that the Gospel provides the life abundant, but live as if the promises Scripture makes aren’t really attainable today. This has progressed to the degree that there are theologies which specifically state that Scripture’s description of a believing life pertain to the world to come. Talk about capitulating!

Leo Tolstoy described our situation well,

all men of the modern world exist in a continual and flagrant antagonism between their consciences and their way of life.[1]

Messiah’s death on the cross provides us the opportunity to be formed in His likeness as a result of the Holy Spirit’s transforming work in us, which is itself a response to our physical efforts at the renewing of our mind.

Each of us grows up in surroundings that train us to speak, think, feel, and act like others around us. “Monkey see, monkey do,” goes the proverb. This is the mechanism by which human personality is formed, and it is largely for the good. But it also embeds in us habits of evil that permeate all human life. Humanly standard patterns of responding…seize upon little children through their participation in the lives of those around them. Sinful practices become their habits, then their choice, and finally their character.

The very language they learn to speak incorporates desecration of God and neighbor. They come to identify themselves and be identified by others through these practices. What is wrong and destructive is done without thinking about it. The wrong thing to do seems quite “natural,” while the right thing to do becomes forced and unnatural at best—especially if done because it is right.[2]

The Holy Spirit does a work of renewal, brings about rebirth, but a new character must be formed just as the old character was formed. Spiritual practices will become habits, and then our choice, and finally our character.

Prayer, solitude, fasting, meditation on Scripture–these are tools that we are meant to use. Tools are designed to produce results. As Eugene Peterson says, what distinguishes us from the animals and from the angels is that we use tools.

We are not animals, living by sheer instinct, in immediate touch with our environment. We are not angels, living by sheer intelligence, with unmediated access to God. We are creatures, heavily involved with tools. Unlike animals, we use knife and fork to get food to our mouths, and hammer and saw to build a home for ourselves. Unlike angels, we use the scriptures to hear what God says to us, and the sacraments to receive his life among us.[3]

The spiritual disciplines are not tools for doing or getting, however, but for being and becoming. Our society is riddled with technology, but it is exclusively dedicated to doing or obtaining, while we neglect the spiritual technology that Jesus modeled for us. We neglect it because we have assumed that a new character is bequeathed to us by grace. And indeed we are given grace for each moment, but it is grace in response.

Let’s adjust our expectations in line with reality. Character is not born but formed. Likewise character is not born again, but reformed (renewed, transformed) after being born again. The transforming work of the Holy Spirit (progressive sanctification) is done in response to our effort. Can we earn salvation by effort? NO! However, we must work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Philippians 2:12). We must train ourselves for godliness (1 Timothy 4:7-8), we must discipline our bodies if we hope to attain the reality of the gospel promise (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

G.K. Chesterton said:

Christianity has not so much been tried and found wanting, as it has been found difficult and left untried.[4]


[1] Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God Is Within You. Trans. Aylmer Maude (London: Oxford University Press 1936). 136[2] Gangel, Kenneth O. and Jim Wilhoit. The Christian Educator’s Handbook on Spiritual Formation. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books, 1994. (chapter 18 by Dallas Willard, “The Spirit is Willing: The Body As a Tool for Spiritual Formation”)

[3] Peterson, Eugene. Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer. San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1991. 1

[4] As quoted in Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives. San Francsico: Harper Collins, 1991. 1

Changing Character

When one is contemplating the changing of behavior from fleshly (or sinful) to godly there are a couple questions that naturally arise. Since we want to avoid legalism how does one change outward behavior while the inner man still wants to speak crossly, or let a discipline slide, or entertain a lustful thought?

We have on our hands a “which comes first the chicken or the egg” conundrum. Since we all ready discussed “Believe => Think => Feel => Do” it would seem natural that this process should have something to do with our solution.

A second question seems to beg an answer: what role does the Spirit of Messiah play?

I’ve been thinking about this for several weeks now, and it has been an interesting time to ponder because I’ve simultaneously been on the Maker’s Diet for a little over 40 days (and have lost 35 lbs to date). In the process I have noted that once one sets your will to do a thing, it becomes easy with practice. This seems so simplistic, yet it is the key.

Will => Do => Realize is the pattern of transformation. This is connected to our earlier formula in that the setting of one’s will happens as a result of something believed. The pattern of thinking is determined by that belief and the subsequent willing. That setting of one’s will and the thinking process that accompanies it creates a feeling of “wanting” to do whatever it is that needs to be done. In the case of my example, changing the content of what I eat.

Because I believed the contents of what I read in Jordan Rubin’s book, The Maker’s Diet, I determined to act on that belief, and then felt like eliminating sugar, grains and starches from my menu. The first week it was very difficult to stick by my newly diminished menu. In the moments where my feeling flagged it was my will which asserted itself. In fact, in order to accomplish it successfully I took a week of vacation from work so that I could spend extra amounts of time planning and then preparing my meals.

By the third week, it had become second nature to reach for a handful of almonds when I felt the urge to snack that habitually accompanies TV watching, for example. The aptly identified force of habit is a power that we must harness for positive effect. When one is in the habit of submitting momentary emotions to the dictates of your will (and it must be your will, by the way) transformation becomes the natural realization of your habitual practice.

This, of course, is all assuming that what you believe is sound. Since belief is the foundation, what you determine to do will be either beneficial or harmful as a result of whether you believe truth or a lie.

This, I suspect, is what Solomon had in mind when he penned:

“Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom; get insight; do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown.” Proverbs 4:4-9 (ESV)

You might wonder where the Spirit of God is in all of this? Let’s discuss that in the next post.