Law and Grace, Faith and Works

legalLast week we were looking at some unhealthy attitudes toward the Old Testament (and the Gospels, along the way). But it’s not just about the attitudes toward that (huge) section of Scripture. It’s really about how we look at the Bible itself.

For some people, the Bible is merely a book of rules, a legal code, the constitution for God’s Kingdom. Wade Tannehill said it well the other day:

But here is what has changed. The legal texts of Moses were in some cases highly detailed and prescriptive. Some would read the New Testament literature as if it were the same genre as the Book of the Covenant or the Holiness Code. This amounts to viewing the New Testament books, not as occasional literature written to aid disciples in a Christocentric reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, but as a flat law code of new legal stipulations for Christians.

Where the old law / new law dichotomy really misses the point is its misunderstanding of law in Scripture. Those seeking to understand the New Testament writings as a legal code are making a similar mistake to the Judaizers of old. The law is imagined to be in a position it was never intended to hold. The law has never been a means of salvation. No one has ever been saved by law-keeping, under any covenant. Salvation has always been by grace through faith.

Yes! Exactly. When we think that what Jesus did was substitute one written code for another, we fall into the trap that Paul condemned in the Galatian letter. When we depend on law, any kind of law, then we are no longer depending on grace. And that’s a dangerous thing: “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Galatians 5:4)

I heard a man speak at a youth camp 30 years ago, presenting the argument that the New Law was merely an improvement on the Old Law. He argued that when Paul says we aren’t saved by works, he only means works of the Law of Moses;”obviously we are saved by works.”

No! The New Testament is not a revised copy of the Pentateuch. It’s about coming into a relationship with God through Christ, seeking to live out our lives as an imitation of our Redeemer. We do that not to be saved but because that’s who we were called to be.

“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

Not saved by works, but created for works.

We don’t need a new legal code. We need a Savior.

All that is necessary is God

I’m wanting to spend some time this week with a much-repeated phrase: “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” We hear that phrase time again, used to justify this action or that one. As I pointed out yesterday, everyone assumes that they are the “good men” and their rivals the “evil.”

I don’t like the saying. I used to. But the more I hear it used and abused, the more I feel a need to analyze it. And under analysis, it just doesn’t hold up.

Even though it probably wasn’t created by Edmund Burke, this saying does seem to have arisen out of ideas that were popular in the 18th and 19th centuries. Man was king. There seemed to be no limit to what men could do. Who needed God? God could be acknowledged as a creator who set in motion a marvelous creation… and nothing more. If anything was going to be accomplished, it would be done by men.

If evil was to be defeated, it would be by good men, unfettered by the need to look to God for approval of their actions.

All of which makes me understand why non-Christians spout such phrases and marvel at the fact that Christians will repeat them. All that is necessary for the defeat of evil is God. It begins and ends there.

Look at the book of Revelation. What would the recipients of that book/letter have thought if someone had come and said, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I think they’d have said, “Here, read this. It says something different.” They were being called to “do nothing” in the eyes of the world. They were to pray. They were to be faithful. They were to expel false teachings from within their own community, but as far as the evil empire was concerned, they were to do nothing. (which would have drawn the ire of the “all that is necessary” crowd)

For God had promised to take care of evil. Maybe not as quickly as we’d like, hence the cry “How long?”. But it is God who is responsible for stemming the advance of evil. Even when we are called to be help in that, we need to understand that the victory does not hinge on our action. As Mordecai told Esther, “If you keep silent at this time, relief and deliverance will rise for the Jews from another place.” (Esther 4:14) If good men “do nothing,” God will raise up deliverance from another place. It doesn’t depend on us.

All that is necessary for the defeat of evil is God. It begins and ends there.

That’s my first criticism of this saying. It’s godless. We live in a society where saying we trust in God is admired and actually trusting in him is ridiculed. Sadly, that “god-free” attitude has permeated the church, as well.

Let’s make “In God We Trust” more than a phrase stamped on a coin. All that is necessary for the defeat of evil is God. Let’s act like we believe it.

Joey

Joey (2nd from left) with his parents and little brother

I guess it’s one of the biggest fears that parents have: losing one of their children. One woman who had suffered this several times in her life said to me: “Parents shouldn’t have to bury their children.”

My friends Bob and Sally Tamez will have to do that this week. Joey passed away on Friday. I’ve written before about Joey’s struggle with cancer and his deep faith in God. The entire family has leaned on God throughout this whole episode. In Joey’s last moments here on earth, family and friends were gathered around his bed “singing him to heaven,” as they deemed it.

There are still hard times ahead for Bob and Sally, as well as their kids: Casey, Tina and Timmy. I’m glad that they have the support of loving Christians. I know that God will comfort them. And I know that it will still hurt very deeply.

Please raise them up in prayer today, tomorrow when they have visitation at the funeral home and Wednesday when they will have the funeral. Should you wish to send them a note of encouragement, I can send you their address privately.

We cling to the promise: “I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever! And I hold the keys of death and Hades.” (Revelation 1:18)

Joey will live again.

Pragmatism

I’m wondering if we haven’t placed “what will work” above “what is right,” in many cases. Admittedly, I’m still thinking about turning the other cheek from last week’s discussion, though I think this intrusion on our belief system occurs in other places.

What it comes down to is this: people say, “That can’t be right because it just won’t work in the real world.” Be it turning the other cheek, be it lending without expecting anything in return, be it trusting in God for our financial security, be it trusting in God for our physical safety, all of it can be shown to “not work.”

Here are some things in the Bible that could be said not to work:

  • God’s promises to Abraham. Have you ever noticed that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob spent their lives living in tents? That their descendants ended up spending over 400 years in slavery? Those promises to Abraham were a nice theological device, but from a pragmatic standpoint, they didn’t work all that well.
  • The faithfulness of God’s prophets. What did being true to God get most of the prophets? Ridicule. Scorn, Rejection. Imprisonment. Death. Undeniably, faithfulness “doesn’t work.”
  • Jesus’ ministry. Jesus couldn’t keep a group of followers together for long. The few he had fought frequently among themselves and scattered when he needed them most. And he ended up dying on a cross. That certainly didn’t work well.
  • The Jesus Way.” For centuries, Jesus’ followers were beaten, imprisoned and killed. Centuries. Hundreds of years. Dozens of decades. Does anybody really believe that turning the other cheek, loving enemies, etc., has any practical place in a violent world? It doesn’t make sense.

Tell Gideon about the effectiveness of torches and pitchers as weapons. Talk to Joshua about trumpets as weapons and Jehoshaphat about using singers as the shock troops for your army. Talk to Peter about using prayer to get someone out of jail.

When we bow down before pragmatism instead of bowing down before God, we compromise our beliefs time and again.

In ___ We Trust

A friend of mine wrote a rant on his blog which seemed to be directed at my recent posts on politics. I’m not really sure, because if he was referring to what I wrote, he obviously didn’t understand most of it.

The last statement in his post really caught my eye:

And please vote so that those simple brethren can continue to have the right to their ignorant opinions.

At first I was really irritated by the “ignorant opinions” comment, but then I realized that that’s just the way my friend talks. He’s a black/white, all/nothing kind of guy, so if you don’t see things the way he does, you’re ignorant. Since we rarely see eye to eye, I’m considered ignorant most of the time. I can live with that.

What worried me, however, was this idea that by voting, someone can continue to give me the right to have my opinion. I’ve heard such said about military service, but that’s the first time I’ve heard it said about voting.

And I realized why such talk is so dangerous. Maybe not directly to those in the church, but definitely to those outside. When we start saying that America gives us our freedom, America gives us our rights, America gives us our prosperity and our way of life, America gives us just about everything the average person holds dear, is it any wonder that they see no need for God? Is it any wonder that the average U.S. citizen would just as soon worship America as worship God?

In this way of looking at things, our military gives us our freedom. Our government grants us our liberties. Voting allows others to have ignorant opinions. God gives a few spiritual things that aren’t of much consequence, but the things that really count are granted by the gods Democracy and the U.S. of A.

I’m not saying that this is what Christians believe, though many talk as if this were their outlook. I’m saying that when Christians talk in this way, non-Christians see that the presence of God in our world is not nearly as important as the continued existence of this country.

People had freedom in Christ long before the United States came into being. People had the ability to express opinions and ideas about Christianity for over 1700 years before this country was established. The freedoms that matter do not depend on your voting, your military service or any other human activity.

Some trust in ballot boxes, some trust in soldiers, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God!