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Holiness Wars: Antinomianism in Church History

This is part two of four in a short series on Antinomianism. Read part one “What Is Antinomianism?”.


Like Moses (Dt 6:5; Lev 19:18), Jesus taught that the whole law was summarized by the command to love God and neighbor (Mat 22:37). He came not to abolish but to fulfill the law (Mat 5:17-20). Nevertheless, Jesus was famously accused by the religious leaders as an “antinomian” for refusing to accord the same weight to the extrabiblical rules of the elders. Evidently, Paul, too, was accused of “antinomianism” by his critics. “And why not do evil that good may come?—as some people slanderously charge us with saying” (Rom 3:8; cf. 6:1). Encouraging believers in God’s grace, nevertheless warned them against “using your freedom as a cover-up for evil” (1 Pet 2:16). Peter adds that “lawless people” were using the gospel as an excuse for license; “ignorant and unstable,” they were twisting the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 Pet 3:16-18). It should be noted that the charge of antinomianism and the reality of a lawlessness based on Scripture-twisting could only arise perpetually throughout the church’s history because the gospel of free justification in Christ apart from works is so clearly taught in Scripture.

As Packer’s first type indicates, the first form of explicit antinomianism was a stripe of Gnosticism. Gnostics identified the body with evil, the prison-house of the soul, longing to be reunited with the cosmic Christ (distinguished from the human Jesus). For some, this meant extreme asceticism and mistreatment of the body; for others, licentiousness, since it didn’t matter what the body did, as long as the spirit was pure. The church father Augustine was famously converted from a life of debauchery in Manichaean Gnosticism.

Martin Luther and his colleagues faced a more “Christ-centered antinomianism” in their day. Luther compared reason to a drunk man who fell off one side of his horse and got back on only to fall off on the other side. No sooner had the reformers proclaimed the liberating power of God’s free grace than “certain fanatical spirits” announced that the law was no longer necessary for believers. Coining the term “antinomian” (against law) for the first time, Luther denounced Johannes Agricola and others who defended this view. (In fact, Agricola even sued the reformer for slander, though he eventually dropped the suit.) While believers are free of its condemnation, the law remains God’s standard of living and plays its distinctive role together with the gospel in our lifelong repentance. Luther wrote, “Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!” Antinomianism is a “blasphemy and sacrilege,” Luther thundered in his “First Disputation Against the Antinomians” (1537). The debate reached its climax in 1539 with Luther’s book, Against the Antinomians.

A second antinomian controversy erupted in Lutheran circles when the “Philippists” (those who claimed Philip Melanchthon, though with dubious warrant) denied the imputation of Christ’s active obedience and turned the gospel into a form of law while dispensing with the law itself. The fifth and sixth articles of the Formula of Concord affirmed the law-gospel distinction, rejected antinomianism and affirmed the third use of the law (to guide believers), which Melanchthon had in fact systematized before Calvin.

Actually, Packer’s second type (“Spirit-centered”) is close to the first type (Gnostic dualism). In both, antinomianism is virtually indistinguishable from extreme mysticism. In varying degrees of intensity, this impulse runs through various medieval sects to some Anabaptist groups and radical Pietists, who mediated it to a host of “enthusiasts” in Germany, England (especially in the Protectorate), and America.

At the time of the Westminster Assembly (convened by Parliament in 1643), there were a few hyper-Calvinists suspected of this “enthusiastic” taint. This version exhibits characteristics both of Spirit-centered and Christ-centered antinomianism. They were usually called antinomians because at least some of them held that the elect are justified from all eternity (even apart from faith), emphasized inner experience of the Spirit over all external ministry, and the freedom from the moral law’s direction. This identification of extreme mysticism with antinomianism was especially evident in New England’s “Antinomian controversy,” provoked especially by the teachings and trial of Anne Hutchison in 1637.

There certainly were some bona fide antinomians afoot during this era. However, they were not in the mainstream. In other cases, the charge was brought by those with a more legalistic bent—typically identified as “neonomians” for turning the gospel into a “new law.” For example, Richard Baxter accused John Owen of antinomianism and Owen returned the favor by warning about Baxter’s neonomianism. On the basis of the Reformed confession, there is no basis of any charge against Owen, though his appraisal of Baxter seems justified. Similarly, the New England elders may have been justified in their concerns about Anne Hutchison’s alleged visions, but even if John Cotton—a distinguished English Puritan recently transplanted—sounded antinomian at points, it was mainly because the New England elders were in fact neonomians.

In many cases, the antinomian charge was leveled by neonomians against classic Reformed pastors. A classic and tragic example is the so-called “Marrow Controversy.” Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity (1645) had enjoyed a wide readership among Puritans, including commendations from the likes of Jeremiah Burroughs. Aside from a brief polemic against the sabbatarian position, the book reflected typical Reformed conclusions. By the early 18th century, the Church of Scotland was influenced by neonomianism and the “moderate” party, influenced by the Enlightenment. Coming upon Fisher’s volume, Scottish minister Thomas Boston reprinted it in 1718, with a preface from the great James Hog. However, the 1720 General Assembly declared it “antinomian” and in spite of the arguments of Hog, Boston, and ten other leaders, including Ralph and Ebenezer Erskine, this decision was reaffirmed in 1722. This led to a schism in the 1730s, forming the Associate Presbytery. A position that was considered standard Reformed orthodoxy in 1645, even by members of the Westminster Assembly, had become “antinomian” by the Church of Scotland only a half-century later.

Arminians had long vilified Reformed theology as either explicitly or implicitly antinomian. Arminius himself had first provoked criticism by denying that Romans 7 could possibly describe the experience of a genuine believer. His followers have maintained that Reformed soteriology inevitably leads to carelessness and vitiates the seriousness of the call to holiness. William Law argued the same in 1729 in A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life (1728) and A Practical Treatise Upon Christian Perfection (1726). Indebted to the radical mysticism of writers like Jacob Bohme, Law denied justification and at times verges on Pelagianism. Though no Pelagian, John Wesley expressed his debt to these works and he sought Law’s personal counsel on various occasions. In John Wesley’s view, Calvinism leads inexorably to antinomianism—a view he maintained especially in sharp polemics with Augustus Toplady (Anglican minister and author of the hymn “Rock of Ages”). His protege, John Fletcher, carried forward the charge with his book, Five Checks to Antinomianism (1770). The antinomian charge was renewed by Charles Finney and has been a staple of Arminian polemics to this day.

Yet Wesleyanism has generated its own form of antinomianism. Drawing from Wesley’s doctrine of entire sanctification, the Higher Life or “Victorious Life” movement emphasizes the mystical rather than activistic side of Wesley’s thought. “Let go and let God” is not a maxim that Wesley would have countenanced, but it reflects the emphasis of medieval and pietistic quietism. The key Wesleyan ingredient is the idea of sanctification as a “second blessing,” a separate experience subsequent to conversion, that makes it possible for believers to live above all known sin. Associated with the Keswick conferences in England and America, this movement emphasizes that this blessing comes in “full surrender,” as the self of the believer is replaced with the indwelling Christ and his Spirit.

In more recent years, a few writers from the dispensationalist camp have argued that these two blessings are not only separate events, but that one may make a decision for Christ (“making Jesus one’s personal Savior”) without bearing the fruit of faith in good works (“making Jesus Lord of one’s life”). The latter, a “carnal Christian,” may even no longer believe in Christ, yet be eternally secure. The call is to become a “victorious Christian,” by “letting Jesus have his way,” but sanctification is not necessarily given with justification in our union with Christ. It should be added that in this construal, “eternal security” is based not on God’s unconditional grace of election, redemption, and effectual calling, but on the believer’s having fulfilled the terms of God’s offer of salvation by making a decision for Christ.

In my next post, I’ll explore the rich summary of sanctification in the Reformed and Lutheran confessions, especially in the light of current controversies. Read part three, “Antinomianism and Reformation Confessions”

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Holiness Wars: What Is Antinomianism?

Writing at a time of intense controversy and division within Reformed ranks, the English Puritan Richard Sibbes wrote, “Factions breed factions.” We are called to the peace and purity of the church, but when is the concern for peace a crutch for compromise and when does our appeal to the church’s purity become a cloak for own pride and dogmatism?

Of course, we all say that we should find our unity around primary truth, but I know of no historical debate in which a partisan advocated schism in the name of “secondary matters.” Repeatedly these days I hear church leaders dismiss important age-old debates because they are not “gospel issues,” as if we had not been commanded by our Lord to “teach them everything I have commanded you.” At the same time, some of the most divisive issues in our churches today concern matters that are not even addressed clearly in God’s Word.

One issue that is clearly addressed in Scripture is sanctification: the work of the Spirit through his Word in uniting us to Christ and giving us the grace to grow up into Christ, bearing the fruit of the Spirit. Given the centrality of justification to the Reformation debate, it is not surprising that Reformed, Lutheran and other evangelical bodies are crystal-clear in their confessions and catechisms on this point. In some circles, though, it is at least assumed in practice that our confessions aren’t quite as clear or as emphatic on sanctification. Reformation theology is great in defining the gospel, but when it comes to the Christian life, we need to supplement it with healthy doses of Thomas a Kempis, Spener, Wesley, and their contemporary voices.

In my view, this would be a tragic conclusion to draw. However, before I make that case, it’s important to define antinomianism. After all, it’s one of those labels that is often thrown around carelessly today, as in previous eras. This is the first of a 4-part series of posts on antinomianism. After defining it, I’ll offer a very brief history of the debates in church history. Then, I’ll offer some contemporary reflections by drawing on the rich summary of Reformed teaching on sanctification in the Reformed and Lutheran confessions. Finally, I will discuss sanctification and its relationship with the gospel.

Defining Antinomianism(s)

Literally “against law,” antinomianism is the view that the moral law summarized in the Ten Commandments is no longer binding on Christians. More generally, antinomianism may be seen as a characteristic of human rebellion against any external authority. In this sense, ironically, we are by nature antinomians and legalists since the fall: rejecting God’s command, while seeking to justify ourselves by our own criteria. The modern age is especially identified by the demand for freedom from all constraints. “Be true to yourself” is the modern creed. The rejection of any authority above the self, including obvious biblical norms, is as evident in some denominations as in the wider culture.

In technical terms, however, antinomianism has referred historically more to theory than to practice. For the most part, few of those suspected of this heresy have been charged with dissolute lives, although the concern is that an error in doctrine will inevitably work itself out practically.

One of the best summaries of the different varities of antinomianism is offered by J. I. Packer in his Concise Theology (Tyndale House, 2001), pages 178-80: (1) “Dualistic Antinomainism,” associated with Gnosticism, which treats the body (and its actions) as insignificant; (2) “Spirit-centered Antinomianism,” which views the inner promptings of the Spirit as sufficient apart from the external Word; (3) “Christ-centered Antinomianism,” which “argues that God sees no sin in believers, because they are in Christ, who kept the law for them, and therefore what they actually do makes no difference, provided that they keep believing”; (4) “Dispensational Antinomianism,” which denies that in the “church age” believers are obligated to the moral law; (5) “Situationist Antinomianism,” which teaches that love is the only rule and that duties (not just their application) will therefore vary according to circumstance.

In my next post, I’ll explore some of the examples of these varieties of antinomianism—and false charges of antinomianism—as they have played out in church history.

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Steve Bridges Memorial

Comedian Steve Bridges was found dead in his home in LA on March 3, after returning from a trip to Hong Kong.

Many knew Steve as the impersonator of recent presidents, including Mr. Obama. In fact, he performed side-by-side with President George W. Bush at a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner. Widely respected not only for his work but for his friendship and character, Steve was honored recently in a tribute by Jay Leno on “The Tonight Show,” where Steve frequently appeared as a guest.

The White Horse Inn knew Steve from his several appearances as the voices of famous evangelical leaders calling in to the program. I knew Steve from college days. We became friends the first week we arrived on campus and were roommates at Biola. We were scheduled to have lunch this week and I join his family, friends, and fans in mourning his death at 48. More important than everything else that can be said about Steve is that he loved God because God first loved him–he knew, embraced, and celebrated the gospel of Christ and this hope fueled his life and vocation.

To offer our own tribute to Steve and thanks for his friendship, the White Horse Inn is offering a series of clips from the various programs where he joined us over the years. Of course, it’s free of charge to download and pass around as you wish.

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The God-Centered Gospel

Dr. Horton has a very helpful and important article in next month’s Tabletalk magazine on the importance of remembering that all three persons of the Trinity are involved in our salvation. Ligonier has posted this article on their website and here is a little teaser:

It’s terrific to see so many younger Christians excited about being “God-centered.” However, Islam and Orthodox Judaism claim to be “Godcentered,” too. The Christian faith is distinguished by its claim that God is the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and we know this from Scripture, preeminently in the Son’s entrance into a fallen world in our own flesh. We dare not approach “God” in His blinding majesty apart from Christ our Mediator. Apart from Christ, the Father is our Judge, and His glory is the worst thing we could ever encounter. That’s not because the Father is less loving than the Son, but because we are sinners. And we can say our “amen” to the Son only because of the Spirit who indwells us.

Read the entire article – The God-Centered Gospel

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Work Out Your Salvation

“Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.” It’s often used either as a whip or explained away (“Now, what Paul isn’t saying is…”). As usual, it’s crucial to examine the statement in the flow of Paul’s letter.

Context, Context…

First, the whole statement reads, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his own good pleasure” (Phil 2:12-13).

Second, “Therefore,…” already clues us to what has gone before. Paul has described Christ’s humility and exaltation for our salvation, which he commended as an example for believers. Jesus Christ is Lord, having been exalted to the Father’s right hand as our Redeemer (Phil 2:1-10).

Third, in chapter 3 Paul will draw a line between his assets and liabilities, and move his assets (“righteousness under the law”) into the liabilities column, counting his good works apart from Christ as “dung, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith…” (Phil 3:8-9).

You Are Light, So Shine!

With these pieces of the puzzle in place, we can focus on the pericope in question, 2:12-18, which summons the Philippian church to live as lights in the world. Christ, the Light of the World, is their example. Of course, Jesus Christ is in a sense inimitable, utterly unique. He alone descended from heaven in the incarnation, laying aside his sovereign privileges. And he alone endured humiliation, even to the point of death on a cross, for our shame; he alone was raised to the position of all authority and power above every name in heaven and on earth. His work alone saved, and not by offering an example, but by doing what only he could do. Nevertheless, it is also presented as an example for us to follow—not so that we will be like Christ, but because we are in fact in Christ, united to him in his death and resurrection.

It’s important to begin with the obvious: Paul says “work out your salvation…,” not “work for” it. It is something that we have already been given. Not only justified, we are regenerated and are being conformed progressively to the image of Christ. Even this sanctification is God’s work: “…for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.”

Divine and human action do not constitute a zero-sum game. Hyper-Calvinism confuses works-righteousness with good works, human activity with an attempt to attain justification. Of course, if one is seeking a meritorious reward, then works are condemned. Not only our sins, but our righteousness, falls short of God’s glory. To offer up our own pretended righteousness to God actually arouses his anger (see chapter 3). In regeneration, we are passive: acted upon and within by the Spirit through the gospel. In justification, we receive Christ’s imputed righteousness (again, chapter 3). In sanctification, we “work out our salvation with fear and trembling,” knowing that God is completing in us that renewing work that he began. It is done with seriousness, but also in the freedom of children rather than the anxious fear of servants who wonder if they will be condemned.

A Real Imperative

The indicative announcement of Christ’s achievement for us in verses 1-11 grounds his imperative. Nevertheless, it is a real imperative. And it’s an imperative not only to rest in Christ, but to work. Because we rest in Christ alone for our justification, we can finally perform good works without wondering anxiously if they are good enough. Of course, they are not good enough to pass God’s righteous verdict as our Judge, but their deficiencies are pardoned for the sake of Christ. It is a great comfort to know that our perfect justification and sanctification in Christ already brings forgiveness of the sins clinging even to our best works! So now there is work to be done, from our salvation, not for it. Work it out. Flesh out its implications. On the basis of the gospel’s indicatives, take seriously the imperatives to love and serve your neighbor. Let’s not collapse justification into sanctification or sanctification into justification. They are distinct yet inseparably related aspects of that salvation that Christ has won for us.

So Paul is not simply telling us to look to our justification. That’s not working out our salvation. He’s very specific in the details: “Do all things without grumbling or questioning, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ, I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain” (vv 14-18). Timothy and Epaphroditus are being sent to minister to them and they will undoubtedly be examples of such service (vv 19-30).

We miss Paul’s point if we think that he is talking about justification here. If that were the case, then the imperative would be the condition of justification. However, the call to be “blameless and innocent” is to live uprightly before other sinners, not to offer one’s “righteousness” as a guilt-offering to God. Paul alludes here to the wilderness generation, that was “crooked and twisted” (Deut 32:5). They “grumbled” and “complained” against God and his servant Moses (see also 1 Cor 10:1-12). As Numbers 20:10-14 indicates, this grumbling was actually a formal and legal charge that the people brought against Yahweh. (Amazingly, God allowed himself to be put on trial and even struck for his people as he was the water-gushing Rock that Moses was commanded to strike.)

So the Philippian church needed encouragement to flesh out, live out, and work out that salvation that Christ had won for them. Humility, patience, and sacrificial love should characterize their lives. They are “lights in the world, holding fast to the word of life“—that is, the gospel. They never look away from the gospel, but rest in Christ in relation to God even as they are active in good works toward their neighbor.

Bottom line: The gospel is not the enemy of good works, unless one is seeking justification by obedience, as Paul makes clear in chapter 3. In fact, the gospel is the ground of good works. The goal is both to be clothed with Christ’s alien, perfect, and complete righteousness and to be more and more “filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God” (1:11). So not only when we are resting in Christ for justification, but when we are going out of ourselves to love our neighbors in sanctification, the Triune God has it all under control. We’re only working out that which he has worked for and within us according to his gospel. Holding fast to the word of life, we work out our salvation in the knowledge that “he who began a good work in you will bring it completion at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil 1:6).

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Conversion and Conversionism

Mike Horton discusses conversion, the ordo salutis, and the reading list for his recent MR article, “What To Do When Your Testimony Is Boring”.

What’s the difference between ‘conversion’ and ‘conversionism’?  

Conversion is a biblical teaching wherein we learn that we’re not active in our regeneration.  However, activated by God’s grace, we repent and believe.  Repentance and belief are gifts, but we are the ones repenting and believing – this is conversion.  “Conversionism” (the conversionism in the evangelical church, with which we’re all familiar) is reductionistic in two ways.  First, it reduces the field of conversion to those who have no connection with the church.  When we treat conversion as always something radical and distinct from the ordinary means of grace in the covenantal nurture of Christian families and churches, we make void the promise “for you and your children,” (Acts 2:39).  Half of our missionfield—those covenant children already entrusted to our care—is cut off.  They are not Christians; they must become Christians outside the ordinary operations of the church’s ministry, in an event specially crafted to produce conversions.  Second, it reduces the time of conversion to a moment in the past.  In the New Testament, though, conversion is a lifelong process.  The question is not whether I repented and believed once upon a time.  My older brother isn’t walking with the Lord.  Nevertheless, whenever I have raised the question, he assures me that he is “saved” because he responded to an altar call and invited Jesus into his heart when he was 7.  There is no valid profession of faith today, but he was taught early on that none of this really matters.  Conversion—the daily call to die to self (repentance/ mortification) and live to Christ (faith/vivification)—is ongoing.  It is a life of conversion, however imperfect and incomplete, not a moment of conversion, that believers embrace by God’s grace. 

You write about the Arminian “order of salvation” that makes faith logically prior to regeneration – most Christians would agree that one must believe in Christ’s work as sufficient for their salvation before they’re ‘regenerated’ (i.e., ‘born again’).  Where’s the tension?

Years ago, Billy Graham wrote a best-seller titled How To Be Born Again.  The idea is that the new birth is something that we can bring about by following the right formula.  The Spirit persuades, woos, invites, and pleads, but the decision is ours as to whether we will be brought from death to life.  However, Scripture clearly teaches in many places that we are spiritually dead, enemies of God, in bondage to sin and unbelief, willfully suppressing the truth in unrighteousness.  There is nothing in between being dead and alive.  If you’re dead in relation to God and righteousness, then you are actively embracing bondage to sin and death.  If you are alive in Christ, then you are dead to sin as the controlling power over your life and destiny.  This new birth is not just an offer; it is a gift.  To receive it, one must be raised spiritually by God’s grace.  In our fallen condition, we may seek idols: spirituality, various religious systems, moral improvement programs, and philosophies of life.  However, “There is no one who seeks God” (Rom 3:11).  No one would embrace Christ in a condition of spiritual death (Jn 3:5; 6:44; Eph 2:1, 5, etc.).

Although they allow that the offer of faith—even the provision for faith—is a gift, careful Arminian theologians recognize that they cannot, strictly speaking, call faith itself a gift of God.  They recognize that this would mean that God grants faith to some and not others—making the new birth dependent on God’s gracious decision rather than our own free will.  However, Scripture repeatedly speaks of faith as a gift of God’s grace.  “So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy (Rom 9:16).  “While you were dead he made you alive together with Christ—by grace you are saved” (Eph 2:5).  Everything, including faith, “is the gift of God…” (Eph 2:9).

Repeatedly throughout the New Testament we read that faith is given by the Spirit through the preaching of the gospel (Mt 4:23; Mk 13:10; Ac 14:7; Rom 1:16; 10:8, 17; 1 Cor 1:18; 9:16, 23; 2 Cor 4:3; 8:18; 10:16; Eph 1:13; 3:6; Col 1:5, 23; 1 Thes 2:4; 1 Pet 1:23, 25; 4:6; Rev 14:6).  Those who accept Christ have no one to thank but God; those who reject Christ have no one to blame but themselves.

This is a wonderful truth for many reasons.  First, it means that the new birth is God’s gracious initiative.  Nothing I did brought it about and therefore nothing I do (or don’t do) can keep it from realizing its goal (Phil 1:6).  I choose Christ because he first chose me (Jn 15:16).  Second, it means that the Triune God not only makes salvation possible and then offers it to sinners, but that he actually saves sinners by electing, redeeming, calling and keeping them to the end.  In Arminianism, God makes salvation possible for everybody, but does he actually save anyone?  Given the human condition, making salvation possible for those who are “dead in sin” is simply not enough for anyone to be saved.  This is a game-changing doctrine.

What books have you found particularly helpful in developing your understanding of conversion and regeneration?

Second only to Scripture in this regard are the Reformed confessions and catechisms.  I’d recommend especially the relevant sections of the Heidelberg Catechism and Canons of the Synod of Dort as well as the Westminster Confession and Shorter Catechism.  In addition, I’d recommend John Murray’s Redemption: Accomplished and Applied and R. C. Sproul’s Chosen By God.  I explore this doctrine in Putting Amazing Back Into Grace (chapter 8), For Calvinism (chapter 5), and The Christian Faith (chapter 17).

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Loving Muslim Neighbors

IMPORTANT UPDATE: Rick Warren responded yesterday to the Orange County Register story with a helpful clarification.

“Who is my neighbor?”, the rich young ruler asked Jesus. The query was an attempt to deflect responsibility. Of course, I have a responsibility for my family, kinsmen, and fellow Jews, but surely not for the outcasts, the morally unclean, or the Gentile. No loophole, Jesus replied. Your neighbor is the one right under your nose, whomever God created in his image. Like the rich young ruler, we all have ways of defining “neighbor” as someone who is like us. It’s group narcissism: not really loving my neighbor, but loving myself and what I see of myself in others.

Who Is My Neighbor?

We recognize our responsibilities to our own families, church, and perhaps various voluntary associations. There are school ties: fraternity/sorority mates, secret societies, and alumni associations, where belonging gives advantages in climbing the corporate ladder or getting your kids into Harvard. In a less mobile era, churches reflected the demographics of their neighborhood, as it was often divided between the farm and the town, or along racial and socio-economic lines (different sides of the tracks). Even in many cases where blacks and whites worshipped together, the former sat in the loft—never in the main gallery—and certainly did not drink from a common cup in Communion. (Paul says something about this in 1 Corinthians.) In our mobile society today, churches are more divided than ever into ever-smaller niche demographics defined by the marketplace.

In all of these cases, we choose our neighbors. They are people who are like us. We share similar playlists on our iPod, shop at the same stores, drive similar cars, and even dress alike. When we move to a new city or suburb, we find a neighborhood, church, and school that most closely fits our own self-chosen identity. (Of course, some people have more freedom to choose than others.)

However, our closest neighbors are not those we choose; they are the ones who are chosen for us, by God, either in his common grace (providence) or special grace (salvation). The most obvious example is our nuclear and extended family. The church is another place designed by God rather than the market. At least in principle. Ideally, based on biblical principles, a local church should reflect the unity of faith and diversity of culture that belongs to its particular time and place. When the defining location is “in Christ”—”one Lord, one faith, one baptism,” then all sorts of people show up who are different from you. They are not only your neighbors, but your brothers and sisters. You didn’t choose them; God did. Who is my brother or sister? Those whom God has given to his Son and therefore to me as someone to love in a concrete yet mysterious depth of mutual affection.

But who is my neighbor? As far as our neighborhoods are concerned, increasingly, socio-economic demographics are more definitive than other factors, such as race or religion, which cut across income-levels.

Our family lives in a typical middle-class track home. Two doors down from us is a family of Muslim immigrants. How do I embrace them as a gift from God—as neighbors rather than aliens? It is interesting to see how our children more naturally interact with this family than my wife and I. The children play together regularly, either at our house or theirs. Sometimes there is tension, especially when they get into a theological conversation! Sometimes the kids get into lively discussions and our children have developed a genuine love for their friends, praying that they will come to know Christ and offering witness where they are able. For the most part, they simply accept each other as neighbors.

My wife and I do our best to remember not to offer treats during Ramadan. I’ve tried to help get one of the kids a job, my wife gave them a stroller, and we sign up for their school contests. But surely we are not loving our neighbors if we have not shared the gospel with them ourselves. I have done so with the oldest son from time to time, but I confess that it’s difficult. Faith is so bound up with culture—not only in Islam, but in their perception (too often the reality) of Christianity in America. Where do you begin? Yet we’re neighbors. In Jesus’ book, that word means a lot more than it ordinarily would in my own. Especially when it comes to the parents, heir difference from me intrigues me, but it also allows me to justify a certain distance, even unavailability. I walk into their home, surrounded by framed texts in illuminated Arabic script and swords, and they too sense the dance of the porcupines. Yet I want to be their neighbor and I suspect that they might want to be mine. I want to see them from God’s perspective, as a gift the he has chosen for me, rather than as a resource that I choose or don’t choose for myself.

Building Bridges

A recent article in the Orange County Register reports that Saddleback Church pastor Rick Warren has stepped out into the choppy water by building bridges to the Islamic community. He has spoken in a number of mosques and to large groups of Muslim clerics. It’s part of a new initiative, called the King’s Way, which is, according to the report, “proposing a set of theological principles that include acknowledging that Christians and Muslims worship the same God.” Here are a few highlights from the article:

    • On one occasion, Saddleback Church hosted an “interfaith” soccer game with pastors and imams taking on the teens. “At the dinner, Abraham Meulenberg, a Saddleback pastor in charge of interfaith outreach, and Jihad Turk, director of religious affairs at a mosque in Los Angeles, introduced King’s Way as ‘a path to end the 1,400 years of misunderstanding between Muslims and Christians.’” Then a document was presented, affirming common belief in “one God” and “two central commandments: ‘love of God’ and ‘love of neighbor.’” It expressed the goal of making friends, building peace, and working together on social service projects. “We agreed we wouldn’t try to evangelize each other,” said Turk. “We’d witness to each other but it would be out of ‘Love Thy Neighbor,’ not focused on conversion.”
    • One of Warren’s neighbors, Yasser Barakat—a Muslim from Syria, befriended the Orange County pastor and they have been fast friends ever since. In fact, “‘He calls me his Muslim brother,’ Barakat said. ‘It all started with a friendship.’”
    • According to this article, Gwynne Guibord, an Episcopal priest said that when she and Muslim leader Jihad Turk co-founded the Christian-Muslim Consultative Group in 2006, they left evangelicals out of the invitations—fearing that the desire to convert Muslims would threaten the project. Now, however, both are convinced that the worries are unjustified. In these gatherings, people weep as they realize how many misconceptions they had of each other.

Reaching Out Without Watering Down

Rick Warren’s initiative on this, as on other fronts, is admirable for its motivation. I don’t question the sincerity of his neighbor-love or of his concern to create greater friendship, understanding, and social cooperation. As a recent Newsweek cover-story documents, this is extremely rare in Islamic countries, where persecution of Christians is alarming. So wherever bridges of friendship and understanding can be built, so much the better.

However, I have some concerns on two fronts. The more important concern touches the ultimate mission and identity of believers and the church. Do we in fact worship the same God? It is true that there is widespread misunderstanding among Muslims concerning the Christian view of God—that the Trinity implies three separate gods and that the incarnation was the result of God the Father’s sexual relations with Mary, for example. Nevertheless, even when these misconceptions are resolved, the fact remains that Christians worship the Triune God revealed in Scripture and Muslims believe that this is blasphemy. We are not simple monotheists, but Trinitarians: God’s identity as three persons is just as basic to our faith as the one essence that they share. With respect to the latter, we disagree sharply over who this God is: his attributes, character, purposes, and relation to the world.

Out of respect for our neighbors, we have to allow them to register their own “No!” to our creed and out of faith we have to confess and witness to the revelation of God’s Word. Rick Warren categorically denies that he is trying to merge Christianity and Islam. “My life and ministry are built on the truth that Jesus is the only way, and our inerrant Bible is our only true authority,” he said on his site (Pastors.com). Given that, though, doesn’t love require that we extend neighborly friendship and seek to bring them the gospel? Is this not the way it should be with all of our neighbors? Surely not every social event has to be an evangelistic opportunity, but then it also should not be a religious one either—as if churches and mosques could find some common ground of faith for their charity towards each other. The bridge-building between neighbors should happen in neighborhoods, not in “interfaith” quasi-religious gatherings.

The “King’s Way” statement acknowledges common belief in the law of love. However, even this is interpreted in radically different ways in the authoritative texts of both religions. The “love” of Allah is radically different in definition than love as it is manifested by God and commanded in Scripture. More importantly, there is no gospel in Islam. It is a religion of works-righteousness from start to finish, with no rescue operation of God incarnate for sinners. The God we worship is known in Jesus Christ and any god who could be known apart from this Savior, dying and rising for us, is an idol. To separate belief in God from the gospel is to vitiate biblical faith at its core. The Allah of the Qur’an and Hadith is the archetype of terror and I have witnessed the overwhelming relief of those who have been freed from the fearful resignation to Allah by embracing the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ.

I do not for that reason wish to deprive my Muslim neighbors of the free expression of their religion. In fact, I would defend their right to it with life and limb. Nevertheless, our faith is missionary not in the jihadist sense but as the inherent impulse of the gospel itself as good news that must be proclaimed to the ends of the earth. The above-cited Register article reports, “‘I don’t know if you have noticed this, but God likes variety,’ Warren told an audience of 8,000 Muslims at a Washington, D.C. convention in 2009, according to a transcript published by the religion news website beliefnet. ‘People of all beliefs (can) be, and discuss, and, yes, even disagree, without demeaning or debasing each other.’”

Certainly it is true that we should engage in civil conversation. It is not merely democratic values, but the New Testament, that requires Christians to love their neighbors regardless of the response. However, to tell Muslim friends, “I don’t know if you have noticed this, but God likes variety,” is to imply that God approves idolatry as if it were equivalent to the diversity that God does in fact like—indeed, creates—when he saves people “from every tribe, kindred, language, and people” by his blood (Rev 5:9).

Neighbor-Love without Illusions

My second misgiving is subordinate to the first, but perhaps worth mentioning. I do not doubt that there are many Muslims who embrace democratic values, but it is naïve for Christians to assume that Islam is simply a religion, much less one that is freely embraced. Ask any devout Muslim.

Until we come to understand, respect, and respond to Islam in all of its difference, we will not prepared to love our neighbors properly. Islam does not proclaim good news to the world, which is freely embraced by faith apart from political coercion. Islam makes no distinction between mosque and state. In fact, the nation that matters ultimately is Islam: the ummah or community of Muslims around the world. This is not only an international kingdom of those who are joined spiritually to each other in a common faith, but a political state. Islam is a totally-encompassing geo-political, social, legal and cultural system. Whatever divergences may be allowed by specific rulers, Islam itself does not recognize, much less tolerate, any idea of a state that permits the free exercise of religion. Believing that all people are by nature Muslim, Islam divides the world sharply not into believers and unbelievers, Muslims and non-Muslims, but rather into believers and apostates (“infidels”). The latter are called Dhimmis—literally, “one whose responsibility has been taken.” If they are allowed to live within the Dar al-Islam (House of Islam), it is only as apostates who may not practice their faith (at least openly), much less seek to convert others to it. The non-Muslim world is Dar al-Harb (“House of War”).

Now, it doesn’t take much research to show that Christians have failed gravely in their discipleship. Our hands are stained with the blood of “Christendom,” which in many ways was indistinguishable from Islam in its “one-kingdom” confusion. The difference, though, is that when we have confused Christ and culture, we have acted in clear violation of the teaching of the New Testament. However, Islamic states are only inconsistent with their sacred texts when they do not impose sharia, declare holy war, and extend the universal caliphate of Allah to the ends of the earth as a political empire. Whether through patient moderation or radical extremism, Islam remains a worldwide culture that is only secondarily religious. One may endure a liberal democratic compromise for a time, but only for a time.

For example, it was reported last week that Muslims in Switzerland are setting up their own “parallel parliament,” called the Ummah Schweiz, based on sharia law rather than the common laws of Switzerland (http://www.stonegateinstitute.org/2863/muslim-parliament-switzerland). It is becoming increasingly clear that Islam is fundamentally committed to an absolute and all-encompassing control of territories and nations even where its adherents are a minority.

Love and War

The holy wars that God commanded in the old covenant were types, a mere foretaste of the final judgment when Christ returns. Yet we are now living in the period between Christ’s two advents when the kingdoms of this age are ruled by God’s common grace while his church grows and expands by his gospel. In Matthew 5, Jesus makes it clear that the era of a holy land, with holy war, is suspended. Instead of driving the idolaters out of his land, we are to proclaim the good news, endure persecution without retaliation, and pray for our enemies. No matter how Islam continues to expand its reign of terror across the globe, focusing especially on Christ’s co-heirs, believers everywhere must resist any appeal to political coercion to defend the faith. Like Paul, who appealed his case to Caesar on the basis of his Roman citizenship, we may invoke our Constitutional liberties, but we must not claim any political privileges beyond the freedom to practice the Christian faith, including the freedom to evangelize which is at the heart of that faith.

There are at least three easy ways of avoiding the command to love our Muslim neighbors. The first is to ignore them, to pretend that America is a “Christian nation” and that the “other” does not really exist. That’s a version of the group narcissism I referred to above. The second is to demonize them, as if they were not fellow image-bearers of God whom we are called to love and serve and to whom we are called to bring the gospel. The third way is to try to establish some religious common ground that can make them seem less “other” and more like us, so that we can love them. The hardest thing is to love them simply because they are our neighbors and, as such, make a claim on us in all of their difference from us, a claim that we cannot ignore precisely because God’s law and his gospel are true—and savingly true—for them as well as for us. May we all pray for more of this kind of love.

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The Pain and the Gain of True Holiness

I’ve been struck again by the wonderful depth and simplicity of Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, this time with respect to his treatment of the spiritual struggle in the final chapters. Justification is not a process or a reward for those who are victorious in battle. Rather, it is a completed verdict that is rendered on the sole basis of Christ’s imputed righteousness. Precisely on this basis, we have a lot of work ahead of us. It will be a battle; we’ll win some and lose some. However, the war itself has been decided. We live from Christ’s victory over sin’s guilt and power toward Christ’s victory over sin’s presence. In the meantime, it’s choppy waters.

What pain and what gain? First, it’s crucial to notice that Paul is not talking about justification but sanctification here. The pain is perpetual struggle, warfare, and battle between the Spirit and the flesh, not between justification and condemnation. All of those who are justified are in Christ and therefore are indwelled by the Spirit. In the old covenant, provision for atonement was made in the sacrificial system of the Temple that the Spirit filled with his glory. And yet, in the new covenant the law is written on our hearts, our sins are forgiven, and the Spirit indwells us as his temple. Yet this very indwelling of the Spirit arouses the flesh to arms. Paul is not saying that we walk in the Spirit in order to be justified, but that those who are justified are in the Spirit and therefore must “walk by the Spirit” (Gal 5:16).

Seeking to bring the church back under the old covenant, Paul’s opponents in Galatia had not even realized that the heart of the law is love. Like his gospel, Paul’s law is too simple. His critics demanded that Gentile believers be circumcised, keep kosher, and “observe days and months and seasons and years” (4:10). In the meantime, they looked down on others (especially Gentiles who didn’t act like Jews). Like Jesus in his exchanges with the Pharisees, Paul not only blames his opponents for confusing the law with the gospel but for setting aside God’s law (summarized by love) to obey their own rules, programs and ceremonies. The result of this false righteousness was disregard for God’s law under the pretense of fulfilling it. Legalism bred arrogance; instead of building each other up in the gospel and love, they were biting and devouring each other over who was “in” and who was “out.”

“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (Gal 5:18). Clearly, this cannot mean that the Spirit is opposed to the moral law, which he has summarized (like Jesus-indeed, Moses as well) as the command to love. In fact, the “fruit of the Spirit” are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” (v 22)-precisely the moral characteristics that the law aimed at but never could bring about because of our perversity. Far from setting aside the moral law, Paul is saying that the gospel is the only foundation on which true godliness can arise. Like Jesus, Paul refuses to pit law against love; it is love, not the observances and rules that we impose, to which all of God’s moral commands are directed.

Only in Christ, justified apart from works of the law, can the deeper intent of the law be fulfilled in us. In other words, now that we are in Christ, justified by a perfect righteousness imputed, we are finally free to “walk in the Spirit” and to fight against the flesh without any anxiety about the outcome. Will there be set-backs? Of course! Failures only happen if you’re in the fight. You will fall short, but that’s not the point anymore. Justified in Christ alone, you are free to love and serve your neighbor simply out of tainted love, more or less for his or her own good.

In their commentaries, Luther and Calvin make the same point: to no longer be “under the law” means that we are free of its condemnation, not of its command. Because we are justified, we are able to bear the fruit of love toward our neighbors: “that is,” Luther comments, so that the law “might begin to be fulfilled in us.” Only our justification is perfect, since it’s the imputation of Christ’s righteousness; the fruit of faith-namely, love-is partial in sanctification. And yet, it is truly begun. Paul is telling us, Luther adds, that we will never fulfill the law sufficiently, while “in the meantime nevertheless endeavoring diligently to walk in the Spirit, that is, wrestle against the flesh and follow spiritual motions…for that is all ye are able to do. Obey the Spirit and fight against the flesh.” Paul’s point is not to seek justification by works, but, having been justified by grace alone, to “walk in the Spirit, and thereby not fulfill the lusts of the flesh.” Passive recipients of God’s favor and gift in Christ, we are thereby made active enemies of our sinful attitudes and actions. “Yea, the more godly a man is,” Luther says, “the more doth he feel that battle…Of this battle, the hermits, the monks, and the schoolmen, and all that seek righteousness and salvation by works, know nothing at all.”

So this is the irony: only a gospel of free righteousness in Christ alone, apart from works, is able produce the fruit of the Spirit, while works-righteousness keeps the fruit of the flesh well-watered. All of our righteousness before God is imputed. “But it followeth not,” Luther adds, “that thou shouldest make a light matter of sin, because God doth not impute it. True it is that he doth not impute it; but to whom, and for what cause? To such as repent and lay hold by faith upon Christ the mercy-seat, for whose sake, as all their sins are forgiven them, even so the remnants of sin which are in them be not imputed unto them.” They can freely accept the true weight of their sin precisely because it is borne by Christ. Nevertheless, “God always hateth sin,” and the believer does also-which is precisely why the battle is so severe. Those who do not abhor their sin and cling to Christ “die in their sins.” “Wherefore we speak not of them which dream that they have faith and yet continue still in their sins. These men have their judgment already: They that live after the flesh shall die.”

This is precisely Paul’s point in verse 21, after listing the fruit of the flesh: “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” The verb “do” here is a present participle, prassontes, meaning “practice”-as a pattern of life. Paul is not listing unpardonable sins; rather, he is talking about someone who is not even in the fight, someone who has not taken a definitive stand with God against his own sin. For Paul, “the flesh” means our old identity in Adam, under the power of sin and death. You will fall, but you take God’s side against your sin-and not just in general, but specific sins. You hate it. You long to be free of its presence in your life. The flesh remains strong, “to keep you from doing the things you want to do” (v 17). Nevertheless, the condemnation of the law has been removed and now we are free to engage the battle without fear, self-righteousness, or despair-in dependence on the Spirit. The command is not to win enough victories over sin to enter into the life of the Spirit. On the contrary, believers are in the Spirit and therefore are commanded to “walk by the Spirit” and so bear the Spirit’s fruit.

Even this can be turned into a form of self-righteous ranking, though. Many teach that Paul has in mind a “second blessing.” Economy fliers are justified, but through a separate act of faith some move up to first class. They live the higher and victorious Christian life. They are not run-of-the-mill “carnal” Christians, but sold-out, on-fire, radically-crazy-for-Jesus people, living “in the Spirit” rather than “in the flesh.” But here, as in Romans 6-8, Paul teaches that all believers are simultaneously justified, filled with the Spirit, and therefore engaged in a battle that seems often like a hopeless cause when viewed from our point of view. No believer is “carnal” (i.e., defeated, living “in the flesh”) or living above the battle with indwelling sin. Antinomianism and legalism tempt us to go AWOL in this battle, either by passive resignation to indwelling sin or by an activism that has neither the gospel as its power nor the law of love as its goal.

If God cannot condemn us, since we are justified, then how can we condemn each other? Ironically, legalism is breeding antinomianism in the Galatian church. Legalism has no power to create a new heart; on the contrary, it’s like pouring gasoline on the raging fire. Notice how, among the “works of the flesh,” Paul includes “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy” in between “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery” and “drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (vv 19-21). Outside of Christ and his Spirit, it’s death; legalism and antinomianism merge into one. Sniping gossips and censorious judges are lumped together with witches. Dividing the church into “haves” and “have-nots” is right up there with orgies and idol-worship. Refusing to cling to Christ alone for all of their spiritual blessings, each in its own way sets aside both the gospel of grace and the law of love.

The reformers were quite right to see parallels between the legalism of the first-century and the medieval church. We should also see parallels with our own day. In our own evangelical circles, we often hear more about spiritual disciplines, devotions, quiet times, and personal growth than we do about either the gospel or the law that summons us to love our neighbors. We tend to think of sanctification-this war of the Spirit against the flesh-almost exclusively in terms of our own inner life. While that is certainly present and personal disciplines are included in the pursuit of godly maturity, the fruit of the Spirit and of the flesh are revealed chiefly in our relationships with others. Clinging to the merit of works leads us to set aside God’s law of love, which none of us fulfills as we ought, in order to establish our own more flashy and attainable works of piety that God has never commanded. Like the external show of the religious experts confronted by Jesus and Paul, medieval piety drove sinners deeper into their narcissism rather than leading them outside of themselves, looking up in faith to God and out in love toward their neighbors. Like Jesus and Paul, the reformers pointed out how this kind of works-righteousness actually focused not on that charity that we owe to others-”the weightier matters of the law,” but fasts and washings and seasons and pilgrimages and other acts of private devotion that we think will impress God. However, they not only enrage God; they serve no useful purpose for our neighbors.

Calvin observes, “Let arrogance go and we shall be most moderate towards one another…But it often happens that we compare ourselves with others and from the low opinion that we form of them set a high price on ourselves.” If the gospel of free grace really does characterize the basis, source, and confidence of the church, then instead of looking for opportunities to catch a fellow believer in sin, Paul says “you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness” and “keep watch on yourselves,” since each of us is just as prone to fall. We will “bear one another’s burdens” instead of loading them on each other. “For if anyone thinks he is something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself” (6:1-3).

In this freedom, Paul can exhort, “And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. So then, as we have opportunity let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (vv 9-10).

Here is the irony: Only in the gospel, where we passively receive Christ and all of his benefits, through faith apart from works, is it possible to become active in good works for the first time. On the secure basis of the Father’s acceptance in his Son are we able now at last to work hard, to “not grow weary of doing good,” to “not give up,” to strive more and more to put to death the deeds of the flesh and to love and serve our neighbors. Only because we are saved by grace apart from works can grace-wrought works blossom. Now the commandment is a wonderful summons to a life of love, knowing that our failure to fulfill this law will never be used against us in the court of law. So forget about your merits! Think now of those neighbors you encounter today who need your gifts, your time, your money, your words of comfort and exhortation. Love them not as a way of mollifying an angry judge or even of improving your own sanctification, but simply because they need you.

“Now let the Papists go and try to break their way into heaven by the merit of works!”, Calvin exclaims in response to this verse. Even our rewards “are the freely granted fruits of adoption,” gifts of God’s grace rather than merit. “The vast number of the needy overwhelms us; we are drained by paying out on every side. Our warmth is dampened by the coldness of others. Finally, the whole world is full of hindrances which turn us aside from the right path.” What does it matter? It is our vocation. Having been given everything by grace, God makes us debtors not to himself anymore, but to others. “Our common humanity makes us debtors to all; but we are bound to believers by a closer spiritual kinship, which God hallows among us.”

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The Law of the Modern Man

I awakened this morning with an email from Rod Rosenbladt with this attachment. It’s the indefatigable George Carlin on his identity as a “Modern Man.” Rod’s comment was thought-provoking: “And this is the man we’re supposed to be preaching the gospel to in America?”

Something of a white Boomer rap, Carlin’s brilliant riff exposes our fallen heart: especially that tendency we have toward works-righteousness. Works-righteousness? George Carlin? Yes! If you thought you had to leave a legalistic church to become free to “be yourself,” this celebration of the self may give you pause.

In Galatians 4, the Apostle Paul throws his critics a curve-ball. One of the main reasons that his opponents wanted people to become Christians by coming under the old covenant was their failure to realize that the ministry of Moses was temporary and typological. It was like being an heir of an estate while still being under-aged, more like a slave than a son (Gal 3:23-2). Then in 4:3 he adds, “In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world.” This phrase, “elementary principles of the world” (stoicheia tou kosmou) was well-known in the Hellenized world. In fact, the Stoics had based their whole philosophy bringing their lives into conformity with these laws of nature (even deriving their name from it).

What’s jarring is that Paul uses this phrase to describe the Mosaic system now. It wasn’t wrong (just as the moral law written on the conscience of Gentiles isn’t wrong); it’s just elementary, a task-master—like the nuns at Catholic school who wrapped you on your knuckles if you acted up. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (4:4-5). He adds,

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weaek and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (vv 6-11).

In other words, the Gentiles were living “under the law” along with the Jews, but in different ways. Both had the moral law, either in the conscience or as delivered directly by the hand of God in written form. And both had failed to keep that law. So anyone who seeks to justify himself before God by keeping the law is in bondage to “the elementary principles of the world”—even if those principles are found in the Bible!

It’s not a question of content. The moral law remains the abiding expression of God’s holy character and righteous demands, the standard by which he will judge the human race on the last day. Rather, it’s a question of one’s relation to the law here and now. To be under a certain covenant is to be obligated to keep its stipulations or suffer its curses. Now that Christ—the reality—has come, the new covenant has been inaugurated. Having served its purpose, the old covenant is now obsolete. Going back to the “elementary principles,” whether in the form of the Mosaic economy or natural law, in order to justify oneself is in fact to place oneself under condemnation. In short, apart from Christ Jews as well as Gentiles are “in Adam.”

This argument must have provoked a lot of heated reaction among Paul’s agitators in Galatia. Basically, he’s saying that those today—Jews or Gentiles—who cling to Moses rather than Christ (or even in addition to Christ) are in exactly the same relation to God as Gentile idolaters.

So we can see that George Carlin’s expression of his life philosophy is just as legalistic and self-justifying as any comparable version in the Christian world today. There is only one safe place to be: in Christ. Only in Christ can you be a son instead of a slave. (“Son,” by the way, is a legal term: the firstborn heir who was entitled to the whole estate. That “there is no male or female” in Christ (Gal 3:28) means that the gospel runs counter to the ancient laws of inheritance. Not only slaves and Gentiles, but women, are “sons” in that legal sense.)

Outside of Christ, there are only different forms of slavery. No matter how the religious or irreligious profess their self-confident autonomy, they are actually slaves. Paul’s opponents had flattered the church into which he poured his energies and that responded initially with such affection for Paul’s gospel. “They make much of you,” Paul says, “but for no good purpose. They want to shut you out, that you may make much of them” (4:17).

Again, there is nothing wrong with laws, principles, and wisdom for living. By God’s common grace, good advice may be found outside as well as inside the church. Christians are still obligated to God’s moral law, even as unbelievers are still going to be judged by it. The real question is whether the law functions for them in a covenant of works, where they are personally bound to keep it perfectly on penalty of death, or in a covenant of grace, where it is no longer their prosecuter but testifies to the fact that in Christ they are justified by his imputed righteousness. Does one seek life by this law as it is revealed in general and special revelation? In other words, when we’re evaluating our life and destiny, do we say, “Well, at least I’ve followed my best lights—tried to do the right thing, followed my little voice within, been true to myself, made the most of what I’ve been given,”etc.? Or do we say, “Lord, be merciful to me, a sinner”?

Compare Paul’s argument with Jesus’s comments to the Pharisees in John 8. After telling them that the truth would make them free, the religious leaders replied, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed” (Jn 8:31-36).

Why do we try to justify ourselves, as Carlin does in this performance? Because we know we’re guilty. Heir of Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant, the “modern man” tries to break free of this guilt by making him accountable to himself rather than to God. But that still doesn’t do the trick. In fact, it just deepens the guilt. The inner legislator is a demanding task-master. There is no end to the plans, schemes, make-overs and expectations. We’re too fat, too thin, too lazy, too “workaholic,” and so on. This thirst for glory and drive for self-justification keeps us self-absorbed: the very essence of sin.

Once you get out from “under the law”—that is, “the elementary principles of the world” as a way of self-justification, to come under Christ as your covenant head, you are truly free not only from the guilt but also the vicious cycle of sin’s power. So Paul can turn in chapter 5 to “the fruit of the Spirit”—which in content expose the deeper intent of the moral law. Not just outward actions and behaviors, but inner motivations and orientations, change. At last, instead of being turned in on ourselves as narcissists, alternating between self-loathing and self-justification, we can look up to God in faith and out to our neighbors in love. Ironically, when we stop defending ourselves in a covenant of works and cling to Christ in the covenant of grace, we are free for the first time actually to obey God’s commands out of faith rather than any attempt to secure our identity and life. God’s commands continue to direct our steps, but as the Father’s instructions rather than the Judge’s sentence. The law no longer stands over us, as an external threat, but is written on our hearts even as we are forgiven all of our transgressions against it—past, present, and future. Now that Christ has come, we are no longer slaves but sons. No wonder Jesus said, “If the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.”

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More on Bible Translations to the Muslims

Coming out in 2012 is the documentary Half Devil Half Child which follows missionaries in Bangladesh who are preaching in secret to the Muslim world. They are facing opposition from other Western Missionaries who are allowing Muslim “Christians” to continue to live and act like Muslims. This teaser clip speaks to the issue we brought up last week concerning the removal of offensive words in Bible translations being produced for Muslims.

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