Christians and the Law

I’m preaching this Sunday on Growth in Righteousness as an essential aspect of the Christian Life.  My text for Sunday is Matthew 5:17-20:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish but to fulfill.  For truly I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not one iota, not a dot, will pass away from the Law until all is accomplished.  Therefore whoever sets aside one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same, they will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven; but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven.  For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the Scribes and the Pharisees, you will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven. (This is my own translation).

I found this text, and the study of it through the week, to be very interesting considering what my denomination is considering right now.  There is a motion being voted upon by the Presbyteries to remove the explicit ordination standard of “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness” from our ordination requirements, and to replace it with a rather innocuous, confusing, and ambiguous statment that uses a lot of words to say nothing at all.

I couldn’t read and meditate on Matt 5:19, “whoever sets aside one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same,” without thinking of what’s happening in the church.  The church continues to set aside or relax the Biblical teaching on marriage and divorce, sexual immorality and purity, tithing and stewardship – will Presbyterians be the least in the Kingdom?  Will we be there at all?

We are called to righteousness.  To reflect the glory of God is to live a righteous life.  Jesus tells us that unless our righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, we will not enter the Kingdom of Heaven.  We cannot be righteous apart from Christ, it is His righteousness that saves us, His righteousness that covers us.  But at the same time, if the life we now live we live in the Spirit of Christ, then should not our lives reflect and be marked by righteousness as well.

We are quick to argue, “I am saved by grace through faith – not by works.”  Yes, and amen.  But read on, we are saved by grace through faith apart from works, “created in Christ Jesus for good works (righteousness).  The purpose of God’s grace in your life, the goal of your salvation, is that you would give glory to God through the righteousness of Christ manifest in your life.

Martin Lloyd Jones put it this way:

The whole purpose of grace, in a sense, is just to enable us to keep the law.  There is nothing more fatal that to regard holiness and sactification as expereicnes to be received.  No; holness means being righteous, and being righteous means keeping the law.  Therefore if your so-called grace (which you say you have recieved) does not make you keep the law, you have not recieved grace.  You may have recieved a psychological experience, but you have never recieved the grace of God.  What is grace?  It is that marvllous gift of God which, having delivered a man from teh curse of the law, enables him to keep it and to be righteous as Christ was righteous, for He kept the law perfectly.  Grace is that which brings me to love God; and if I love God,  I long to keep His commandments. ‘He that has my commandments, and keeps them,’ Christ said, ‘he it is that loves me.'”
(Martin Lloyd Jones – Studies in the Sermon on the Mount – page 197).

Friends, stand firm, do not turn to the right or left from God’s word, but walk in the light that it shine upon your path, that you may grow in righteousness as you walk with the Lord.


Out of the mouths of babes… more thoughts from G.A.

“Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge?  God judges those outside.  Purge the evil person from among you.”
(I Corinthians 5:12-13)

As I mentioned last week, I had the opportunity to attend the General Assembly’s Committee on Church Orders and Ministry as an overture advocate.  On Monday morning, as the committee began to address the business before them, there was a scheduled “Open Session,” an open mike time for anyone with a vested interest in the issues before the committee to share their thoughts.  Each speaker had 90 seconds to speak, and they could say pretty much anything they wanted.  There was a wide range of testimonies, from those advocating the inclusion of all people (including homosexuals) into the ordained ministry to those in favor of maintaining the standards and principles the church has held for centuries.  Everyone spoke passionately from personal experience, and, in my humble opinion, the most powerful testimonies were from those who spoke about how the grace and love of God in Jesus Christ helped them to overcome sin in their lives, including sexual sin.

There was one speaker, however, who really stood out.  He was a 13 year old boy, who, along with a handful of other teens, had organized to speak in favor of repealing the ordination standards to allow all people to serve.  He began by reading from Deuteronomy 21:18-21:

“If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them, then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives, and they shall say to the elders of his city, ‘This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.’ Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear. ” (Deuteronomy 21:18–21, ESV)

This young man, with great wit and charm, suggested that it’s a good thing that his parents did not uphold this command, otherwise he wouldn’t be standing before us today.  Logically, he then said that if that Old Testament command was “out of touch” and inapplicable to our lives today, couldn’t we also say the same of the prohibition against homosexuality in the church? 

The problem, however, with his approach, was that he failed to see how this passage addressed the greater, communal nature of sin and its devastating effect on the covenant community of the people of God when left unchecked.  Had he truly understood the passage, he would have known how he had unwittingly made a case against his own position (though I doubt anyone on the committee caught it).

Patrick Miller, Old Testament Professor at Princeton Seminary, wrote about this passage in his commentary on Deuteronomy.  He notes that while this passage seems “barbaric” today, Israel regarded the Fifth Commandment (“honoring your parents”) with the same seriousness as the treatment of God neighbor.

“In the statute concerning the rebellious child, such rebellion is clearly regarded as resistance to divine direction as mediated through parental authority and teaching.  That behavior is not simply a bad thing but is representative of a festering sore in the midst of the people, a corruption that can undo the community’s devotion to its Lord and its continued attention to the Lord’s way… The statute, therefore, bears testimony once again to Deuteronomy’s setting of the love of the Lord and the Lord’s way as not only the highest good but an absolute necessity for the people to live as God’s people and enjoy God’s blessing.  Punishment is not determined by how much explicit harm has been done to individuals but by the depth of the wound to the body politic and religious when the fundamental directions of the Lord’s way are violated” (Miller, Patrick D. Deuteronomy, Interpretation, A Biblical Commentary for Teaching and Preaching, (Louisville, John Knox Press, 1990)pg 167.).

Rather than give Biblical evidence that the Old Testament laws no longer apply, this passage actually testifies to the serious nature of un-confessed and un-repentant sin.  Yes, we are all sinners (hetero- and homo-sexual alike), and we are all deserving of God’s wrath.  We all must cling to and trust in the grace of God in Jesus Christ for our salvation.  None of us has the claim to moral perfection and self-righteousness, our righteousness is found in Christ alone.  But to say that God’s word no longer applies to our lives, to attribute to “God’s will” what scripture univocally calls a sin, is to deny God’s will and His way for our lives.  To take away the church’s ability and authority to lovingly and carefully discipline those who are lost in sin goes against the very nature of our life together.  The blind toleration, or worse, the willful promotion of sin, will rob the church of our mission and ministry.  The love of the Lord and of His way is our highest good and an absolute necessity for us to live as God’s people and to enjoy His blessing.

I am reminded of The Westminster Confession of Faith which teaches that “although true believers be not under the law as a covenant of works, to be thereby justified or condemned; yet is it of great use to them, as well as to others; in that, as a rule of life, informing them of the will of God and their duty, it directs and binds them to walk accordingly; discovering also the sinful pollutions of the nature, hearts, and lives…”  Unfortunately, there was no opportunity to address and correct the gross misunderstanding of God’s word presented by this young man.  There was no instruction regarding the use of the law in the light of the gospel.  Instead, God’s word was mocked and biblical discipline was sneered.  If this is the future of the church, we’ve got a lot of explaining to do.