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Posts Tagged ‘moral law’


I left off my discussion of the law and Calvin on the verge of talking about the uses of the law in The Institutes of the Christian Religion, the Essentials Edition.

The first function of the law is to convince us of sin. The law comes to us as sinners, and reveals us as sinners. Fundamentally, it reveals the righteousness of God but then necessarily exposes our own unrighteousness. We tend to be blind to our sin. We easily recognize other people’s sin, particularly when we are hurt by other people. But sin has corrupted our hearts, and the law of God written there. As a result we struggle to accurately discern right from wrong. As sinners, we also struggle to see ourselves as we really are. So God gave us the law to address this great need in us.

“For man, who is otherwise blinded and drunk with self-love, must be compelled to recognize and confess both his weakness and impurity.”

We are used to our evil desires. Sin also seeks to deceive us, posing as righteousness through our fear and pride. The law sheds light on the situation, helping us to see through the lies we’ve believed. It reveals that we really are guilty and should feel guilty.

God is not trying to make us miserable, for misery’s sake. “For we know that he never tires of doing good to us, and always heaps blessing upon blessing.” So this knowledge of self thru the law is really for our good, should we repent and believe. The misery is meant to promote our repentance when we see the mercy of God in the gospel. “His purpose, then, is that men, renouncing all belief in their own strength, should acknowledge that it is only his hand that sustains them…”.

Ultimately, of course, we are blessed only in (union with) Christ. “In Christ, however, his face shines upon us full of grace and sweetness, despite the fact that we are poor, unworthy sinners.” Exposed as weak & sinful, we are also driven to Jesus to gain life and contentment. This doesn’t happen without the law.

The second function is to restrain sin. Some people live in fear of punishment. You know, they slow down when they see a police car. The law, which includes sanctions, discourages sin in most people. This is not the same as obedience, since it is driven by slavish fear of punishment, not by faith and gratitude with an eye toward the glory of God. Shame and fear make society more peaceable, but they are not what God’s is aiming for, which is conformance to Christ who obeyed the Father out of love (for Him and us).

As a pastor and parent, there are times I am glad that some sin is restrained in the lives of my congregation and children. I’d rather the congregation, family and individuals involved not have to suffer the consequences of sin. I’m okay with someone avoiding sexual sin out of fear of pregnancy, STDs etc. For awhile. I would like to move them to faith, hope and love as motives for obedience. All things in due time.

The third, and controversial, use of the law is to encourage obedience in Christians. The power of obedience is the Holy Spirit, not the law. The law provides direction: this is what pleases God. The law provides promises to encourage. Sadly, when this is discussed, people opposed to the 3rd use of the law hear us saying that law has power to enable obedience. Reformed teachers don’t say this, but point to the Spirit. Here’s Calvin, “believers whose hearts are already ruled and quickened by God’s Spirit.” It is the Spirit who, in fulfillment of the New Covenant promise, writes the law on our hearts. Further, “led by the Holy Spirit they are moved by the wish to obey” which is also promised in the New Covenant. While we see law and grace as opposing principles with regard to justification, they are not with regard to sanctification. They work together! The law provides direction to grace. Grace provides desire and power to fulfill the law. Meditating on the law (think Psalm 119) is used by the Spirit to stir us toward obedience, “to persevere in obedience and to turn away from his faults.”

We are still burdened with the flesh, which resists obedience. So each of us needs the law to “be a constant goad to him, to stop him growing sleepy or dull.”

Calvin then begins to defend his position. Some people, and theological systems, “rashly reject Moses and would have us ignore the law.” He asserts that we are not bound by random rules and principles, if we want to be holy, but the permanent and unchanging moral law which is a reflection of God’s righteous character. Paul asserts as much in 2 Timothy 3. The OT, which was the Scriptures he was referring to, is useful  to admonish, rebuke, correct and train the righteous man for good works.

“In urging upon us the perfection to which it calls us, it shows us the goal at which we should aim our lives. Provided we persevere in that aim, that is enough. Our whole life is like a race; when we reach its end the Lord will bless us by letting us reach the goal we presently pursue, even though we are still a long way off.”

Calvin argues that the curse of the law, not the law itself, was abrogated by Christ. The Christian is no longer, or should no longer, be fearful of God because Christ has borne the curse for us. We have been adopted as sons, and have the Spirit of sonship not the spirit of slaves. Justified, we are at peace with God and our subsequent sins do not destroy that peace purchased by Christ if we are truly united to Christ. Jesus changes our relationship to the law.

Part of the law, or a type of law, has been abrogated. The ceremonial law has not only fulfilled, but our attempts to keep it are a winding back of redemption. Our redemption’s goal is to make us like Jesus in character, which is reflected in the law. The ceremonial law addresses guilt and pollution, the very things Jesus removed through His propitiation on the cross. To still obey that part of the law (offering sacrifices) is to say that the work of Jesus did not deal with our guilt and pollution. Those Mosaic sacrifices did not really remove their guilt and pollution, but were provisional in nature until the Son came to actually remove our guilt and pollution, and to prepare God’s people for that time.

“Such observances obscured his glory once the gospel had been revealed.”

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The next chapter in White’s new translation of Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion concerns the law. At about 40 pages it is short in comparison to the chapter on free will. It is, however, no less significant.

In part the law helps us in terms of self-knowledge. It is necessary for our humility, to discover the illusions we have about our moral courage & strength. It will lead us, properly understood, “to abandon all trust in our own righteousness.”

He begins with the notion of the inner law, written upon each person’s heart. The corruption we receive from Adam, and our own transgressions flowing from it, tend to smudge said internal law as well as dull our conscience. Therefore, God found it appropriate to give the people of Israel (and by extension us) the written law. This has an important consequence: “we are not free to follow our heart’s desires wherever they may lead, but that we are wholly reliant on our God and must keep only to what pleases him.”

He briefly interacts with the Pelagian notion (sometimes expressed by our Arminian brothers) that God would not give a law we could not keep. They have a very man-centered view of the law. It is not a measure of our ability, but of God’s glory. It reflects His character, and what ours ultimately will be. Being his creatures by creation, and children by redemption, we have a duty to obey.

“The Lord, however, is not content to teach us only to revere his righteousness. He seeks to train our hearts to love it and to hate iniquity, and thus adds both promises and threats.”

We struggle to keep God’s law. We struggle with resting in His righteousness, but keep trying to establish one of our own doing. Our standards, not simply our strength. We try to confine the law to outward action, not seeing (or wanting to see) that it is about inward desire and spiritual righteousness. So, God not only condemns murder but also the unrighteous anger and hatred from which it flows even if we don’t carry through with the act. Jesus exposes the Pharisaical externalization of the law in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is not a second Moses, introducing a new law. He is explaining the law He gave through Moses.

In rightly understanding the law we need to consider both command and prohibition. This means we consider the “good and necessary consequence” of the law. He explains it this way:

“… we will first look at the content of each commandment, and then, on the basis of what it says, we will attempt to formulate a contrary argument alone these lines: if this thing pleases God, the opposite must displease him; if this thing displeases him, the opposite must please him…”

This approach finds its culmination in the Westminster Larger Catechism‘s section on the law. He notes “The Lord forbids that we should injure or hurt our neighbor, because he wants our neighbor’s life to be dear and precious to us.” In this way the sin we have grown accustom to is exposed so it can be rooted out in the power of the Spirit. Your flesh will always try to evade the truth.

Calvin then enters the aforementioned process and discusses the Ten Commandments from this perspective. There are some helpful discussions, like images, the sins of the fathers, multi-generational mercy, the shift from Saturday to Sunday regarding the day of rest, etc. On the last point, many misunderstand Calvin’s view of the Sabbath since it is fairly nuanced. I recommend Gaffin’s book on the subject.

“Their claim that Christians are under the law of grace does not mean that they should lead unruly lives, free as it were of restraint. Rather they are engrafted into Christ, by whose grace they are delivered from the curse of the law, and by whose Spirit they have the law written in their hearts.”

By this last thought we see that in the New Covenant, the law is (re)written upon our hearts. This is important because it was so smudged and distorted by our sinful nature.

Each sin deserves condemnation. In this Calvin attacks the Roman view of venial and mortal sins. The fact that each sin of the saint doesn’t “kill grace” is due to God’s mercy, not on account of the nature of the particular sin. Our justification means that we continue to have peace with God even though our sins may still be many (Romans 5).

Calvin sums up the law’s curses and promises in this way:

“My answer is that the law’s promises were not given in vain, but that they are conditional, and can only be fulfilled for those who have accomplished all righteousness- a righteousness not to be found among men. Once we understand that they can do nothing for us unless in God in his goodness freely receives us apart from our works, and once we by faith embraced his goodness which he offers us in the gospel, these same promises, conditional as they are, are not in vain.”

He is beginning to introduce us to the 3 functions or uses of the law. This is a most important concept. … (to be continued)

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I know, that is an ambitious title. These things are connected in our theology; or at least they should be.

When I interact with those who advocate for believers’ baptism they often point to the New Covenant which is said to be very different than the Old Covenant (it is in some significant ways). The New Covenant, they say, leads them to hold to a regenerate or pure church such that the difference between the visible and invisible churches to be nearly insignificant. While there is nothing in any of the direct statements about the New Covenant that prohibit infant baptism or demand believers baptism they think it does. They are using a good and necessary consequence argument to defend believers’ baptism. We Reformed paedobaptists also use an argument based on good and necessary consequence. The difference is that we acknowledge this but they usually don’t.

The author of Hebrews refers to the promise of the New Covenant twice: in chapters 8 and 10.

For he finds fault with them when he says:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord,
    when I will establish a new covenant with the house of Israel
    and with the house of Judah,
not like the covenant that I made with their fathers
    on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt.
For they did not continue in my covenant,
    and so I showed no concern for them, declares the Lord.
10 For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel
    after those days, declares the Lord:
I will put my laws into their minds,
    and write them on their hearts,
and I will be their God,
    and they shall be my people.
11 And they shall not teach, each one his neighbor
    and each one his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’
for they shall all know me,
    from the least of them to the greatest.
12 For I will be merciful toward their iniquities,
    and I will remember their sins no more.” Hebrews 8

The author wants them to know that 1) the New Covenant is better and 2) the Old Covenant is obsolete. This does not mean the covenants are completely different and disconnected. The word used here for “new” is “kainos” instead of “neos”. “Kainos” can mean renewed rather than absolutely new. It can also refer to “more recent”.

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Any conversation about homosexuality inevitably will turn to what the Bible says. There are bound to be many misunderstandings about what the Bible says, and attempts to say that it doesn’t really say what it says. This is where Peter Hubbard turns his attention in the 4th chapter of Love Into Light.

It is just a chapter, so it is a survey that focuses on a few key texts. There are whole books devoted to this singular topic. This is intended to hit the highlights.

“Real Bible study is an act of corporate execution as we die to our preferences and together stand in the counsel of the only Person Who embodies and defines life.”

Studying the Bible is painful for all of us because it doesn’t say what we wish it would. Each of us may have a different topic with which we disagree with the Bible. But, as he notes here we have to wrestle with it or we have made ourselves to be autonomous.

Many, like Matthew Vines, will accuse us of misinterpreting the Bible. They will accuse us of mishandling them to issue a blanket, absolute condemnation of something the Bible never condemns. I think Hubbard makes a good point about this.

“Who wants to misinterpret the Bible at the expense of hundreds of thousands of people who feel condemned to lives of shame and loneliness? Who has the time and the desire to dream up sexual prohibitions that God hasn’t created?”

In other words, those with whom we disagree seem to paint us in the worst possible light: homophobes, bigots etc. I understand the desire to avoid guilt and shame. I ran from God for awhile, wanting to enjoy activities that the Bible says are immoral. We all have those things, and they are pretty important to us at the time.

The first charge made is that the prohibitions against homosexuality were temporary. Some of the prohibitions are found in Leviticus with a number of other immoral sex acts (Leviticus 18). People like Jay Bakker and Jack Rogers say it was wrong for the Israelites, but not for us today. Jay, like many today, will point out that Leviticus mentions they shouldn’t eat shellfish, wear clothing made of wool and cotton, getting tattoos and other such far less important things. The argument is that we have evolved past things.

Okay, some of those things were about how Israel was set apart ceremonially from the nations around them. What you won’t find is a penalty for eating shellfish. At most, you wouldn’t participate in corporate worship as being ceremonially unclean.

The penalty for all those sexual acts (which they neglect to mention include incest and bestiality) is death. This are how Israel was set apart from the nations morally. This was a severe penalty. We are talking about two fundamentally different things. Are we to assume that we have evolved enough to say that incest and bestiality are okay too? Or are they the only permanent prohibitions in that exact context? See how misleading their argument is?

Hubbard argues (the above was mostly mine) that Jesus affirmed and fulfilled the Old Testament. He fulfilled the ceremonial laws in such a way as to render them obsolete (read Hebrews for example). He fulfilled the moral law for us, but not in a way that renders it obsolete. We see that the New Testament affirms the Old Testament prohibitions on numerous sexual sins, including homosexuality. That brings us to one of the controversial texts in this debate: 1 Corinthians 6:9.

That passage includes an original term by Paul- arsenkoite. It is a debated term, claimed to mean “male prostitute.” How does Hubbard respond? “The Apostle Paul coined this term from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament. He was pointing back to Leviticus 18:22.”  It is the combination of arsenos  and koiten. It is not connected to rape, or prostitution, but of having intercourse with another man as if he were a woman. He is restating the OT prohibition against homosexuality.

Another claim is that the prohibitions are misunderstood. The claims regarding 1 Corinthians 6:9 is such a case. Another is Sodom and Gomorrah. They, supposedly, were judged for being inhospitable. Yes, they were that. But the original story in Genesis 19 makes clear that they wanted to engage in homosexual activity with the men. As Jude 7 notes, they were immoral. That it manifested itself in attempted homosexual rape is pertinent. Both Philo and Josephus interpret this to mean it refers to homosexual acts, not simply sexual violence.

A third claim is that such prohibitions are rooted in ignorance. Mel White is one man who puts this forth, as though the homosexuals then were very different from the loving, committed homosexuals today. This argument is a form of chronological arrogance, for there were committed gay and lesbian relationships in Paul’s day. It assumes we are more enlightened and wiser than those blood thirsty primitives. If only they understood that some are homosexual by nature. Romans 1, they claim, refers to those who are heterosexual but engage in homosexual activity. The point of Romans 1 is not to isolate homosexuality, but to show homosexuality as one of the results of exchanging the truth for a lie. Sin manifests itself in many ways, as Paul mentions in Romans 1. Homosexuality is one of them.

Others, like Luke Timothy Johnson, place our experience above Scripture. The commands of Scripture, he argues, are fallible. Paul was subject to his personal prejudices and preferences. It assumes that the Bible is merely a human document and that it also is fallible when it says that the Spirit inspired Scripture. The Scriptures are authoritative, my experience is not. I am to judge my experience by Scripture, not Scripture by my experiences.

In fact, it would appear that the claims are merely projections of their own arguments which take texts out of context, misunderstands the words used and are filled with ignorance of history as well as Scripture. If we have the opportunity to talk through these texts with a homosexual or an advocate for them, we can use the material here to address those concerns and show that the problem is not the Scriptures or our fundamentalist interpretation.

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I’m currently preaching thru Colossians 3, addressing matters of sanctification. I’ve been hitting the “vice list”. But there is another type of sin hidden there.

11 Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (ESV)

The church there was in danger of splitting along ethnic, socio-economic and other lines. This tendency has not been extinguished. It is part of our fallen condition that stubbornly refuses to die despite redemption. Racism in the church is NOT a new thing, and not just a “white thing”.

“We humans have never had the resources in ourselves to love each other well across ethnic lines. There is too much selfishness in all of us.”

I’ve had more conversations about race and socio-economic issues (those 2, I find, are often confused). I’m trying to read more about this, and have far more to read (perhaps Perkins, Ellis, Bradley, Noll and others). I long for our congregation to reflect biblical realities (the good ones), and for our denomination to make concrete, meaningful strides in this area. It is not easy. I’m often frustrated: by myself and others. I also have adopted an Asian child and 2 African children so now they have the hyphen. So this is both a personal and professional issue for me.

As a result, I decided to read John Piper’s recent book Bloodlines: Race, Cross and the Christian. This book is essentially an exposition of the gospel that is applied to the issue of racism (though I find that term less than accurate, thinking we are all of one race, descended from Adam via Noah).

Piper starts with his own story of growing up in Greenville, SC. He admits to his racism, and rejoices in Christ’s redemption that includes the putting to death of that racism. He is not blind to the on-going issues within the evangelical church that mirror the world in this regard. That is why he wrote the book to reveal what the gospel says about all this.

If we start with the bloodlines, we see that we all have a common ancestry. It may not be 7 degrees of separation, but if you go back far enough we are connected. I recently saw a question about the table of nations in Genesis 10. Why are they there? I believe they anticipate the promise given to Abram in Genesis 12. Those nations still mattered to God and He would bless them through Abram’s seed. The distinctiveness of Israel was temporary! God’s people will come from all the nations, as we see in Revelation 5.

What we see in Revelation 5 is that the cross purchased people from every nation, tribe, tongue and language. Redemption from bondage. Purchased to set free, not purchased to enslave. Christ, as the seed of Abram, fulfills that promise. This fulfillment brings us all into one body, a new man as Paul says in Ephesians 2.

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If we ignore the imperatives of Scripture, there is a Hole in Our Holiess. This is the premise of the 4th chapter in Kevin DeYoung’s book.

By and large, we hate commands. We don’t like being told what to do. Kids don’t like to listen to the parents or teachers. As adults we don’t like to listen to our bosses. We don’t just “question authority” we undermine and resist it.

“God cares enough to show us his ways and direct our paths. … Divine statues are a gift to us. God gives us law because he loves us.”

While others may try to lord it over us, God’s intention is good. It is evidence of love, but we read it as hate. The problem is not with Him, but us. Even as Christians, there is resistance not only to particular commands at particular moments, but to the Law period.

The Church has wrestled with the Law for quite some time. Scholars have landed in various positions. Among Calvinists, this is one of the many practical differences between Covenant Theology and New Covenant Theology. Historically, Reformed Theology has had a 3rd use for the law. We hold to a 3-fold distinction in the law that NCT rejects. We recognize the moral law, the civil law and the ceremonial law. They cannot ultimately be separated from each other. But they are distinguished and have a different relationship to Christ. The moral law reflects the character of God, and transcends all administrations of the covenant. The civil law is the application of the moral law to the nation of Israel as a theocracy, and includes the punishments for breaking particular laws. The ceremonial law is about the removal of guilt and pollution from breaking the moral law. It is also about maintaining the separation between Israel and the nations.

“Typically, this has meant that the moral law (e.g., the Ten Commandments) is directly normative, but the civil and judicial aspects of the law point to what is true for all people at all times.”

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In the third chapter of The Hole in Our Holiness, Kevin DeYoung looks at the pattern of piety found in Scripture. It is not enough to know we are called to holiness, but we also need to know what it looks like, and doesn’t look like.

Holiness means separation. That is the bottom line. God sets us apart from the rest of humanity in two ways. First, we are definitively set apart at justification. We are set apart as Gods’ people. So, every Christian is sanctified. But God continues to set us apart from the world morally. This is progressive sanctification. You don’t have one without the other. Both of these are a result of grace.. The first is an act of grace (one time event) and the second is a work of grace (a process) according to the Westminster Confession of Faith.

What Holiness is Not

It is not rule keeping. Holiness certainly includes obedience. People often get off course by thinking about non-biblical rules. We are set apart for God. We are to obey his law. Jesus was not too keen on the Pharisees for neglecting God’s law from man-made traditions. It is not about dancing, whether or not you drink a beer with dinner, or have the occasional cuss word slip out when you smash your thumb with a hammer. It is about gentleness, not getting drunk, and having lips used to edify and express gratitude.

“Holiness is more than middle class values. … checklist spirituality is highly selective.”

It is not generational imitation. Some people think it is having the standards and practices of an earlier generation. It could be the 1950’s in Amercia, Calvin’s Geneva or the Puritan’s England. This is what got the Amish in trouble. DeYoung notes that the 50’s may have had a better standards of sexual decency. But when it came to race relations, not so good. Just an example. We are trying to apply the timeless law in our time, not recreate another time.

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