There is a great difference in excellency, usefulness, and comfort between people of clear, digested knowledge, and confused, undigested apprehensions. -Richard Baxter

Archive for Law and Gospel

meandering toward a Sunday lesson. . .

*Feast in the House of Simon the Pharisee,Between 1618 and 1620
Pieter Paul Rubens

Sometimes I get stuck when I stare at a Scriptural passage for an extended period. I have to write something to get unstuck. It’s a bit unorthodox to present the raw materials for what you hope will form the substance of a forthcoming lesson, but I welcome anyone’s corrections or clarifications or criticisms. Really, I do. Here’s the work-product of how to sum up what Paul is saying in Galatians

For weeks now we’ve tried to hammer home a major theme of Paul’s letter—namely that not by works shall a man be justified, that is, considered in right-standing before God. Such is the non-negotiable feature of the Gospel. No man can be saved—delivered from the wrath of God for their being a sinner—without the intervention of Christ. His grace, not my works, is what matters and what is able to reconcile me to God.

But what then is the life to which He has called us. If salvation cannot motivate me to be holy—that is, if my holy acts are incapable to warrant my salvation—then what is my motivation for being holy? Paul has demonstrated that mere obedience to the Law without the help of the Spirit only leaves you frustrated and no closer to what the Law really solicits; but the Gospel surely doesn’t intend for us to live as we please. So what then is the purpose of any striving for the life God intends in His adopted children?

How do we find our motivation to act when our actions never had currency with God in terms of our salvation? (That’s not really the question, is it?)

If works are futile for my salvation, then what good are works at all? There’s a point to them, of course—why else would Paul here in chapter 6 insist on sowing to the Spirit—i.e. investing in those things which have eternal significance, instead of to our flesh, the ephemeral? But what is to be the basis of our motivation for performing them?

That in doing them, we understand more deeply what it is to be truly His. To have benefited from His work on an unfathomable scale, but then to remain aloof of the kind of universe He has supplied us, to live without reference to His identity and purposes for us is a huge disconnect. If He has done all this through Christ for us, then for what reasons would we choose not to live unto Him—that is, live under His reign and rule, under His provision and protection, for His purposes and priorities?

Of course we’re to live unto Him, but we’re to live as already-forgiven, already-adopted children. We’re to live trusting those realities, to live out of a sense of those realities. As I’ve said, perhaps numerous times, before: a life confident of God’s favor will act in ways qualitatively different from one for whom there is no such confidence. Both scenarios believe in God. Both acknowledge His holiness and one’s lack thereof. Both know God wills for us to be and do as He is and does (with exceptions, of course, pertaining to our natures). But the latter thinks the gap between God’s and one’s own holiness is the gap that must be closed if there is to be any peace in this life, and that the gap is closed on the basis of what one has done. The latter also believes that the extent to which he/she conforms to the character and purposes of God is what determines whether the approval of God is theirs. Contingency abounds in that in no sense can the love or favor of God be counted upon. Even if His favor doesn’t stand entirely on an individual’s shoulders, to leave any of the responsibility to him is to make the whole deal up for grabs—there’s room for God’s rooting for you and then at some point concluding you didn’t quite pass muster and then consigning you to the outer darkness. Any time you include even the slightest part of you in the equation of whether His favor shall come and be sustained upon you, you make that favor always at risk of revoked (I use the word revoked—i.e. having once had something and then had it taken away–since any progress toward God—any knowledge or pleasure in His will—would imply that some favor, if not full favor, were already in place, otherwise there’d be no progress towards Him).

I’m still trying to reconcile these two statements of Paul, statements driven by theology construed by the same man:

1. For no one shall be justified by works of the Law (2:16)
2. Do not be deceived. God is not mocked, for what one sows, that he shall reap. For he who sows to his own flesh shall reap corruption, but he who sows to the Spirit shall reap eternal life. (6:6,7)

The first statement makes obedience to the Law ineffectual for the righteous requirement of God that justification signifies. My work at obeying the Law will always be insufficient to fulfill what the Law solicits. So obedience to the Law is purposeless, or so it might seem.

The second statement seems to make what it is you do of critical importance to the destiny you will experience. That to which I am sowing—to which my heart, and thus my will, is oriented—has reference to the return I will receive. There remains a causal relationship between what I invest and what I get in return.

So, obedience to the Law is futile, yet obedience to that which is eternal—which certainly the Law encapsulates—is essential. Ugh. Is Paul speaking out of both sides of his mouth? Of course not, but the juxtaposition here is still difficult to untangle. Is lawfulness both futile and essential? That’s a non-sequitur.

Perhaps, something I just read in Gary Thomas’ little book, Authentic Faith, helps to bring some order to the statements’ ostensible irreconcilability:

[Paul] didn’t improve on his morality after meeting Christ, because Pharisees went out of their way to live blameless lives. Paul didn’t pray more as a Christian, because Pharisees were masters of spiritual discipline. The only real difference in Paul’s life is that he became centered on the freedom of Christ’s provision, which enabled him to love God by serving others instead of being obsessed about his own religious achievements.

Thomas helps me see that the dovetailing of those two statements relies on a matter of focus. Law bids us to love: love God, love neighbor. But complying with the command to love in order to be loved by God is impossible. But despite the fact that my version of loving will never adequately warrant His loving me, I’m still commanded to love. Who loves best? Those who are most confident of that love. It’s not so far from what Jesus had to say to some Pharisees regarding the nature of forgiveness.

Luke 7:36 One of the Pharisees asked him to eat with him, and he went into the Pharisee’s house and took his place at the table. 37 And behold, a woman of the city, who was a sinner, when she learned that he was reclining at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster flask of ointment, 38 and standing behind him at his feet, weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears and wiped them with the hair of her head and kissed his feet and anointed them with the ointment. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet, he would have known who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, for she is a sinner.” 40 And Jesus answering said to him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he answered, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A certain moneylender had two debtors. One owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. 42 When they could not pay, he cancelled the debt of both. Now which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered, “The one, I suppose, for whom he cancelled the larger debt.” And he said to him, “You have judged rightly.” 44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. 47 Therefore I tell you, her sins, which are many, are forgiven-for she loved much. But he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 And he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” 49 Then those who were at table with him began to say among* themselves, “Who is this, who even forgives sins?” 50 And he said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

She was no perfect follower of the Law. She was clearly in flagrant violation of it; on that count, both Pharisees and Jesus were in agreement. But she did recognize how much she’d been forgiven. And what was her response? To love so strenuously (her tears, her adoration exemplifying the condition of her heart), not in order to be loved, but as an expression of that confidence in His love for her may provide us a snapshot of what it means to be both insecure in your ability to merit favor but confident of favor that propels you to showing the kind of character (love) the Law wished, but was unable, to engender. She does not deny her need of forgiveness. She does not conceal her faith in Jesus’ ability to grant it. She does not withhold a drop of adoration for Him. Jesus, in turn, confirms with His words what was already true for her in eternity: she was forgiven. And how had her faith “saved” her? Was her act what sealed the deal? Not exactly, but her act of adoration only confirmed what was true of her heart: to repeat, she had faith in her own bankruptcy (an odd turn of phrase, I know, but still, I think, accurate) and she had faith in His sufficiency, His singular authority.

So you’ve got a lawless woman, committing a lawful act of the highest order (the worship of her redeemer), as a function of having been forgiven of her lawlessness. She knows no act of contrition can “make up” for her lawlessness; so she affirms in principle what Paul claims in Galatians 2:16 (for no flesh shall be justified by works of the Law). But she also knows that living truthfully before God—to acknowledge your bankruptcy and His authority—will manifest in both worship and love of that which has reference to eternal things. She comes to Him looking for wholeness, not a few drachma to tide her over or buy herself liquor; so her heart is oriented toward the things of God and is thus in principle sowing to the Spirit as Paul enjoins in Gal 6:6,7 (but he who sows to the Spirit shall reap eternal life).

To sum up, the love this forgiven woman shows Jesus. . .love which as Jesus explains will overflow to loving, not only to the Messiah, but to whomever. . .knows it will not “earn” her favor, but she also knows that such love is what those who know the living God will do. She represents what a life that knows its inability to meet the Law’s demands, yet manifests the Law’s character as a function of having been forgiven—forgiveness motivated by nothing other than the love of God.

linking to the Law

Here’s a decent link (make sure to follow the links it points you to also) to an essay that may help clarify the issues related to the place of the Law in the life of the Church. Perhaps lost in the melange of texts yesterday was this simple thesis: the Law, so defined as the character and will of God expressed in the form of instruction to God’s people and in accordance with God’s unfolding plan in history, remains of abiding concern for God’s people, those redeemed by God’s Son. Since God never changes, any instruction to His people consonant with His character remains ever applicable. And since the function of any given Law relates to the place in the story of God’s unfolding plan, then whatever laws were meant to foreshadow what would be accomplished in Christ are no longer necessary since He has now come and done what those laws foreshadowed. Goes without saying, the topic is so vast.

Into the breech: let’s discuss the Law

Prep for this Sunday’s exploration of the Law as it pertains to the Church: Have a look here at the West Wing’s comment on the Law. What’s credible about Bartlett’s portrayal? What’s conveniently left out of his tirade that might undercut his case? We’ll try to nail down how the Church ought to regard the Law–Law as the instructions God gives us. And we’ll also try to make sense of all the different kinds of laws–some as odd as they are old to us–we find in the Old Testament: which laws are no longer binding on the Church and how can we, if at all , discern the difference.

weights, measures, and you

In case you weren’t at vespers last night, here’s my meditation on Deut 25:13-16. I still have a lot to learn about finding unity in a message, and then not making all these complicated shifts in the message.

Deut. 25:13 “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small. 15 A full and fair* weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God.

We find in the Book of Deuteronomy, laws on the grandest scale, as well as those pertaining to the smallest of details. But every Law Moses enumerates from the Spirit of God has the same function: to provide and preserve true life in the land God’s chosen people were about to occupy. From the majestic dimensions of the Tabernacle to the fabric of the tassles worn by the Priesthood, there is no aspect of Israel’s life in the land for which God has no concern. That concern extends even to how people conducted themselves in commercial transactions:

13 “You shall not have in your bag two kinds of weights, a large and a small. 14 You shall not have in your house two kinds of measures, a large and a small.

In our day we stand at a gas pump and assume the measurement of the gas it says we’re getting is true to the amount of gas we’re actually purchasing. Imagine the chaos that would follow were we to discover that we’d been defrauded in our purchase. That’s why you see a sticker on every pump from, ironically, the Bureau of Weights and Measures, certifying its accuracy. Especially now, when gas costs so much, accurate weights and measures are so essential. It is to our advantage to have accurate readings.

For Israel, stability would issue from trust—trust in their Lord and trust in one another. In all things, fidelity. In all things, equity. That’s why two unequal kinds of weights and measures are here unequivocally banned. To purchase grain in ancient Israel, you would place your weight on the merchant’s scale, and he would keep adding grain to his side of the scale until the scale balanced. But if the buyer’s weight was actually heavier than he admitted, the seller would unwittingly place more grain on the scale to offset the difference. In the end, the seller would be defrauded of grain. This defrauding could be practiced by buyer and seller alike. If the seller misrepresented his weight, the buyer would leave with less than what he’d paid for. So the practice of using inequitable weights and measures was for one’s personal advantage. Therefore God outlines succinctly the integrity that must be between fellow Israelites, and then broadens its consequences both positively and negatively.

15 A full and fair* weight you shall have, a full and fair measure you shall have, that your days may be long in the land that the LORD your God is giving you. 16 For all who do such things, all who act dishonestly, are an abomination to the LORD your God

At issue here, of course, is integrity; dishonesty is the vice that threatens a society. But there’s a theme contained herein whose implications far exceed that of commercial interests. It’s the theme of right and true measurement. For Israel, life—true life—would issue from an appeal and a submission to right measure.

So, consider: Each of us brings into the world, so to speak, one kind of measure—a self-made measure of ourselves, our value, our rights. From our earliest days, we consider ourselves to be worthy of finding true and satisfying life in the world. And in our first considerations of God, who doesn’t at first assume we’re worthy of His favor? We tend to see ourselves as essentially good, or at least, unworthy of anything unfavorable to our condition. And even if we don’t intuitively arrive at that conclusion, surely we are immersed in a culture that, like the tide, continually washes over us with the notion that our hearts are just fine, good enough, even untainted. And in that air of positive thinking, we are likewise prone to measure the holiness of God too lightly, or to conceive of it too arbitrarily.

Such is the weight and measure of ourselves we bring to the scales.

Our Lord, however, brings another weight and measure. In Him is the true weight of God’s holiness displayed. Jesus walked the Earth as a sinless Man, showing all who saw Him what God was like in ways no one had seen before. Jesus’ attentiveness to the Father, His confidence in the Spirit, His perseverance through suffering for the glory of God—every step He took meted out to us a little more of the measure of God and the weight of His glory. Add to that His Zeal for God’s name to be revered and His righteousness to be manifested in His people—surely God’s Holiness was of foremost concern, and in Him we feel the true weight of that holiness.

But so, too, is the true measure of our condition revealed. Jesus didn’t pull any punches in His assessments of those He encountered. Among the irreligious, he awakened them to the folly of their pursuits. Among the religious, he warned them even more strenuously of mistaking outward piety for inner holiness. He confronted them. . .and he confronts us at our deepest level, incisively addressing our hearts—dissatisfied with effecting mere behavioral change or slavish mimicry. But why should He be so up front with us? Why call out so unflinchingly the darkness He finds in us? Because He knows who and how we are. He knows the games we play, the lies we tell ourselves, the pretense we cling to, the fear we won’t admit. The longer we cherish our version of ourselves, the longer we live lives out of the balance He means for us.

The Table from which we are about to partake—think of it again as the scale by which God measures several quantities. In the broken bread and the poured out wine—in this, Jesus’ body and blood spiritually represented to us–He places before us how weighty is God’s holiness and how devoid we are of it.

And it is in seeing that disparity between what we have and what God requires that we see the other quantity that brings balance to the scales: His grace. Only love, expressed in grace could supply what was lacking in us. And in seeing that disparity resolved we are nourished—nourished deeply by the Spirit who means to keep us mindful of His holiness and His ability to overcome our lack.

The measure of ourselves we bring into the world we use for our advantage—not unlike the scurrilous Israelite who would seek to defraud his neighbor: the longer I think my version of myself is true, the longer I can think what I deserve is true. Yet, in the end, we must concede that God, seeing all things, shall not be defrauded of His will, or His Justice, or His Glory. The Cross bears that out. The Cross tells us that God would not be defrauded of the holiness He sought from those He created. God’s zeal for equity explains why it took such a radical and costly sacrifice to bring balance and reconciliation between man and God. He would not be defrauded by those who bring faulty and false forms of measure.

So, as you come forward momentarily, think of your approach as placing your weight upon His scale and seeing its utter weightlessness. And as you are handed the bread and wine, think of them as God’s placing the weight of His Holiness upon the scale, and see its immeasurable weigh. And then as you partake, consider the grace He supplies to bring balance to His scale—not only to bring balance, but to bring life. For Israel, rich life had to do with right measurement. It is the same for you today. Submitting to His true measure is the only way to find and enjoy His true life. For it’s in the Grace we receive through this sacrament that we find the life He meant for us. Appeal to His measure. It is to your advantage.