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.

So how’s your list of widows coming?

Continuing yesterday’s discussion (thanks for the comments!), I want to give a good example of how our conversations are shaped by our current situation. Churches of Christ are part of the stream of belief that is called the Restoration Movement. The Restoration Movement flourished in the United States in the 19th century, and many of the doctrines that we hold were shaped around what was and wasn’t practiced in churches in general at that time (particularly Presbyterian and Baptist).

I know that idea is distasteful to many, which is why I want to offer an example. My colleague, Steve Ridgell, is doing a series of blog posts on gender roles in churches of Christ. Yesterday he brought something that is rarely discussed: the list of widows, as described in 1 Timothy 5.

“Honor widows who are truly widows.” (1 Timothy 5:3)
“Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.” (1 Timothy 5:9–10)
“If any believing woman has relatives who are widows, let her care for them. Let the church not be burdened, so that it may care for those who are really widows.” (1 Timothy 5:16)

So there was to be a list of widows that would be honored and cared for by the church. (Context shows that this care includes financial support) These women were to be active in the church, and there seems to be an implication that they will be expected to continue to serve. Seemingly, according to verse 12, they made some sort of pledge of devotion to the church.

Do you know of any congregation that does this? Do you know of any congregation that has seriously discussed how to fulfill this?

My thought is that we are quick to dismiss this passage because it hasn’t been a part of our practice nor that of churches around us. We may talk about it out of curiosity, but few seek to practice it in any way, despite it meeting all of the standards that command-example-inference hermeneutics would demand.

Some would argue that the lack of clarity on the exact practice is what limits us, but shouldn’t that merely be a call for further study and investigation as to what Paul is talking about?

We don’t practice it because nobody practices it. Which means our beliefs come less from the Word than from the beliefs of those around us.

Or am I missing something?

photo by Ariadna on

Form versus function

As I read through the comments this week, I couldn’t help but think about a missiological principle, that of form vs. function. It has to do with what is done and why it is done.

We know that. We do. We feel comfortable substituting the holy kiss with the warm handshake. We look at John 13 and say that Jesus was teaching about service, not creating a new act of worship through washing feet. Many people feel that “raising holy hands” can be accomplished with the heart. [Sometimes we misuse the word “cultural” by saying “That’s just cultural.”]

There are other areas where we feel that the form and function are inseparable. Most feel that pizza and Sprite aren’t suitable replacements for the elements of the Lord’s Supper. Most members of the churches of Christ feel that water is an intrinsic part of baptism, to such a degree that the term “water baptism” sounds foreign to our ears.

How do we decide? How do we know when fulfilling the function is enough and when to insist on the exact form?

Goats and cheeseburgers

Years ago, my family and I were in Buenos Aires. While there, we went to the Abasto Shopping Center. There we saw something we’d never seen: a Kosher McDonald’s. (It’s the only one outside of Israel)

What makes a McDonald’s kosher? Well, among other things, there are no dairy products on site. Exodus 23:19, 34:26 and Deuteronomy 14:21 say, “Do not cook a young goat in its mother’s milk.” Broad interpretation of these verses forbids all mixture of meat and dairy.

The prohibition about cooking a young goat in its mother’s milk seemingly had to do with a fertility rite that was common in Canaan. The Law was addressing a specific practice from a specific historical context. It really wasn’t written to keep you from having cheese on your Big Mac.

As we look at biblical texts, we need to remember that they have a context, they have an original purpose which may not be identical to our purposes.

We need to remember that laws about not cooking baby goats in their mother’s milk shouldn’t be applied to cheeseburgers.

God’s Law

The first five books of the Old Testament are known as the books of the Law. Among other things, they contain the commands of the Law which Moses gave to the people. It wasn’t just Moses, of course. This was God’s law for His people.

The Law addresses everything from routine matters of daily life to specific ordinances for worship. We see an example of this in Leviticus 2:

“When anyone brings a grain offering as an offering to the LORD, his offering shall be of fine flour. He shall pour oil on it and put frankincense on it and bring it to Aaron’s sons the priests. And he shall take from it a handful of the fine flour and oil, with all of its frankincense, and the priest shall burn this as its memorial portion on the altar, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. But the rest of the grain offering shall be for Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the LORD’s food offerings. “When you bring a grain offering baked in the oven as an offering, it shall be unleavened loaves of fine flour mixed with oil or unleavened wafers smeared with oil. And if your offering is a grain offering baked on a griddle, it shall be of fine flour unleavened, mixed with oil. You shall break it in pieces and pour oil on it; it is a grain offering. And if your offering is a grain offering cooked in a pan, it shall be made of fine flour with oil. And you shall bring the grain offering that is made of these things to the LORD, and when it is presented to the priest, he shall bring it to the altar. And the priest shall take from the grain offering its memorial portion and burn this on the altar, a food offering with a pleasing aroma to the LORD. But the rest of the grain offering shall be for Aaron and his sons; it is a most holy part of the LORD’s food offerings. “No grain offering that you bring to the LORD shall be made with leaven, for you shall burn no leaven nor any honey as a food offering to the LORD. As an offering of firstfruits you may bring them to the LORD, but they shall not be offered on the altar for a pleasing aroma. You shall season all your grain offerings with salt. You shall not let the salt of the covenant with your God be missing from your grain offering; with all your offerings you shall offer salt.” (Leviticus 2:1–13)

No guesswork is involved here. No reading between the lines. No necessary inferences. No Encyclopedia Brown hermeneutic.

When God wants to specify something, He knows how to specify.