Friday, June 15, 2012

Law and Grace

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the distinction between law and grace. The question of law vs. grace lies at the heart of Scripture, and is foundational to the Christian life:

For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. (Romans 6:14, NASB)
John's Gospel begins with the amazing statement that
the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ (John 1:17, NASB)
So we have two foundational principles: first, Christ's coming is characterized by grace and truth in contrast to the Law; and second, that we are not under the mastery of sin because we're not under law, but under grace.

Now, Scripture differentiates between "law" and "the law". The first is a principle, the second is specifically the Law that Moses received from God. I've written about the Mosaic Law before, so there's perhaps nothing to be gained from going into great detail about it here. To a certain degree we can use the two interchangeably, because the Law of Moses is the most perfect law (Romans 7:9--12). This is really the only Law God gave, and so we might think of it as the ultimate example of the principle of law. Certainly if the Law of Moses was limited through the sinfulness in our flesh (Romans 8:1--4), then any other law must be just as futile.

But today I'm more interested in the question of "law" than "the law." That is, law as a principle as opposed to a specific Law.

Let's start by making it clear that God has never justified a sinner on the principle of law. Sinners have only ever been justified on the basis of faith (see Romans 4). From Abel to today, God justifies the one who does not work but believes. There has never been one sinner justified, but by faith.

But God did give the Law to Moses, and the people agreed to it (Exodus 24:7). And so they were tried (as it were) under law. The principle of law is, God deals with us based on what we do. We work to be accepted by Him.

Grace, of course, is the opposite principle. Grace is the principle that God treats us as He wants to, with no regard to what we deserve. Grace is the principle that we work because He has already accepted us. So where law says you get what you work for; grace says you get what God wants to give you, regardless of your work. Law is the principle of what man does, grace is the principle of what God has done.

Where law said, "forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors," grace says, "forgive one another as God for Christ's sake has forgiven you." Law says, obey and God will bless; grace says, God has already blessed, now obey.

We need to be jealous of grace. We need to be very careful that we don't give up the grace of God. It's easy to fall into legal thinking, and thus abandon grace. We're not justified by law, we're not to walk by law. We can't begin in the spirit and finish in the flesh: the principle of our justification is the principle of our sanctification.

There is no place we see the distinction between law and grace like in the whole notion of our approach to God. Believers under the Law couldn't approach God: the high priest alone, and only once a year, was allowed into God's presence (cf. Leviticus 16; Hebrews 9:6--10). And there was danger in approaching God: the high priest is warned in Leviticus that he might actually die if he approaches God unworthily. This is approaching God on the principle of law.

But Hebrews teaches that we are to approach on the principle of grace. We have an High Priest who has already been accepted into God's presence for us. And because He is there for us, we are to approach with full assurance (Hebrews 10:19--25). Our consciences are purged once, and now we have no more conscience of sins. We come into God's presence freely, with no thought of any judgment at all, because God has already declared us clean and fit for His presence. This is exactly the principle of grace: God has already done all the work, we are only called to reap the rewards.

Now, the whole question of law and grace centers on the paradox of God's Sovereignty and Man's Responsibility. Law says, "Man is responsible," while grace says, "God is sovereign." And Man's responsibility and God's Sovereignty meet in exactly one Person; the Lord Jesus Christ is both Sovereign God and Responsible Man. In fact, Man's responsibility is completely fulfilled and completed in Christ. God has looked for a righteous Man, and it was when Christ came that He found that Man. Christ is the Man that God was looking for, and He has stopped looking. This is the real point of Hebrews 1:1--3. God has found what He wanted: one Man has pleased God, and God's no longer looking for anything from Man. When I approach God, I have nothing to offer Him except Christ. And God is looking for nothing from me, except Christ. Christ is my righteousness, my holiness, my wisdom, and my redemption (1 Corinthians 1:30 & 31).

It's important for us to understand this principle: that God is no longer looking for anything from Man. What God wanted in Man He found in Christ. This bears repeating: God has found what He was looking for, and He's not looking any more. God is delighted in His Son, and He's called us to be delighted in His Son too.

So when I go to approach God, He's not looking at me to see whether I'm worthy to be there. He's already said I am (Colossians 1:11 & 12), and He's invited me to come in (Hebrews 10:19--25). So I approach God. But when I get into God's presence, I find that being in God's presence is a very cleansing thing. This is what 2 Corinthians 3:18 says, we become like Christ as we look at His glory. Notice the order: we don't see Him as a result of getting better; we get better as a result of seeing Him. The former is law, the latter is grace.

Someday we're going to see Christ physically, and that's a cleansing thing too (1 John 3:2 & 3). Notice, it's the hope of seeing Him that leads to purity. It's not that we purify ourselves so we can see Him, it's that we're guaranteed to see Him, and this makes us purify ourselves.

Law reasons from man to God; grace reasons from God to man. Law says, "I'm no good, so God can't possibly love me" but grace says, "God is unimaginably good, and therefore He loves me." Grace is sovereign. If I am reckoning on my own goodness, I find myself very quickly despairing, because I've basically none. But if I reckon on God's goodness, I can rest because I know that will never change.

Now it is true that God disciplines His children; but notice, He does it because they are His children. In fact, Hebrews makes God's discipline proof of sonship (Hebrews 12:7--11). We don't become God's sons through discipline, but we are disciplined because we are His sons. Notice that even God's discipline on us flows from grace. Again, grace is the principle that we are to live up to what God has already given. But He has already given it, regardless of whether we live up to it or not.

William R. Newell said it this way:

To believe, and to consent to be loved while unworthy, is the great secret. ("A Few Words about Grace," Romans Verse-by-Verse)
This is what Scripture presents as the Christian life. God has abundantly blessed me with all spiritual blessings in the heavenlies in Christ. This is where it all begins: there's nothing for me to earn, because Christ has already earned it. This is grace: not what I am for God (law), but what God is for me.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Reading List

From time to time I've been asked for a book recommendation. A while back I wrote down a list of recommended reading for a friend, and I thought it might not be a bad idea to post something like that here. This isn't exactly the same list I gave him, but it's very similar.

Please note, just because I recommend a book, that doesn't mean I recommend the book's author, nor the other books that author wrote. I hate to make that disclaimer, but I'm afraid I have to.

So here are some books I highly recommend:

Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Volume 12 This is a collection of Darby's Gospel messages, and it centers on God's grace. This volume contains "God's Grace and Man's Need," "The Prodigal with the Father," and "Two Warnings and an Example." This is undoubtedly Darby's best work, and probably the best Christian book I've ever read. I recommend this book unconditionally to anyone.

Sit, Walk, Stand by Watchman Nee. This book is very close to my heart, reading this book was a life-changing moment for me. It was also the time I had to learn that just because something spoke to me, it doesn't mean it'll speak to everyone. At any rate, this book is short and easy to read, but very powerful. It's a brief overview of the principles of the Christian life based on Ephesians. I can't recommend this book highly enough. You can find it on Amazon.

Discipline in the School of God by J. B. Stoney. This is Volume 13 of Ministry by J. B. Stoney, New Series. Not the easiest book to find (I recommend trying the Dover Bible Fund), but well worth the effort to find it. This is probably Stoney's most famous work, originally published as a series of articles in Bible Treasury. Stoney examines the lives of Biblical characters from Adam to Abel, to Noah, to Paul. He looks at God's dealings with each of them. This book is wonderful, but it's humbling and cuts straight to the conscience. I've bought this one several times, it's one of those books you buy just to give away.

Romans Verse by Verse by William R. Newell. I've talked about this one before. Buy it now. You can find it on Amazon.

Lectures on the Church of God by William Kelly. This is hands-down the best thing I've ever read on the Church. William Kelly is a stellar expositor. I prefer Darby's writings to Kelly's, but I don't think there's any question that Kelly was the more careful expositor. This books is very easy to read, and not terribly long; but it's thorough and careful. I need to read it again.

The Church and it's Order According to Scripture by Samuel Ridout. If it weren't for Kelly's book, this would be the best I've read on the Church. If you only have one book on the Church, it should be Kelly's; but this should be the second.

Law and Grace by Alva J. McClain. This is another I've talked about before. I am convinced the whole topic of Law and Grace is of the first importance in the Christian life. This book is not the most complete, but it's dead-on. Short, readable, and straight to the point, this is a great book, and worth running out to get. You can find it on Amazon.

The Coming Prince by Sir Robert Anderson. I have to admit I'm not done this one yet, but I'll go out on a limb and recommend it anyway. This book is stunning for it's careful and painstakingly thorough exposition of Scripture. It's a study of Daniel's 70 weeks. You can find it on Amazon.

The Believer Established by C. A. Coates. This is an introduction to the Christian life for new believers. It's really worth a read, although the last chapter is a little legalistic. This is another one you'll be able to find at the Dover Bible Fund.

Collected Writings of J. N. Darby, Volume 10. This volume is all about the Law, and it's incredible. Well worth reading. You can read this one online at STEM Publishing. It's Darby, so it's not the easiest read in the world, but it's really worth the time and effort it takes.

I've a lot more books that are worth reading, but this is a solid core. Maybe we'll get more recommendations in the comments.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Finally, brethren

Well, I'm done. I just finished the final volume of Collected Writings of J. N. Darby.

Monday, June 4, 2012

Dead with Christ

This is loosely based on some talks I gave over the last few weeks. I thought it would be worthwhile to share online.

11 Wherefore did I not die from the womb, --come forth from the belly and expire? 12 Why did the knees meet me? and wherefore the breasts, that I should suck? 13 For now should I have lain down and been quiet; I should have slept: then had I been at rest, 14 With kings and counsellors of the earth, who build desolate places for themselves, 15 Or with princes who had gold, who filled their houses with silver; 16 Or as a hidden untimely birth I had not been; as infants that have not seen the light. 17 There the wicked cease from troubling; and there the wearied are at rest. 18 The prisoners together are at ease; they hear not the voice of the taskmaster. 19 The small and great are there, and the bondman freed from his master. (Job 3:11--19, JND)

In Job 3, Job laments his life by saying he'd have been better off dead. He makes several statements about death that catch our attention, especially in verses 17 through 19. Job says death is where the bondman is free from his master. This has a direct application when we turn to the New Testament, where the Holy Spirit uses the principle of ``freedom in death'' for three relationships:

  1. we are dead to sin (Romans 6)
  2. we are dead to the Law (Romans 7, Galatians 2)
  3. we are dead to the world (Galatians 6, Colossians 2 & 3)
Let's look at each of these in more detail.

Romans 5 ends with the statement that where sin abounds, grace more-than-abounds. And so Romans 6 starts with the obvious question: if more sin means more grace, should we just live in sin to get more grace?

Alan Gamble said that this question is the inevitable result of the Gospel, and I think he's correct. Paul's Gospel says,

Be it known unto you, therefore, brethren, that through this man remission of sins is preached to you, and from all things from which ye could not be justified in the law of Moses, in him every one that believes is justified (Acts 13:38 & 39)
If we're going to preach a Gospel of absolute remission, a Gospel where any sinner who doesn't work but believes is justified and will never be judged for his sins--- in other words, the same Gospel Paul preached, the same Gospel Romans teaches--- then we're going to have to answer the question, ``So should we just keep sinning?''. In fact, Gamble says if you don't get that question, you're probably not preaching the Gospel at all.

So Romans 6 opens with the inevitable question: should we just keep sinning? Please note the question is not, ``Can we just keep sinning?'' That question is easy to answer, if you understand the Gospel. Of course you can! If you really understand the Gospel the Scripture teaches, there's no question whether you can keep sinning. God justifies the ungodly. God justifies the one who doesn't work but believes. God will not impute iniquity to the one who believes. One who believes is justified while he is still ungodly, and God declares him righteous regardless of what he does. But that's not the question of Romans 6. Romans 6 answers the question, ``Shall we continue in sin?'' And the answer is ``Absolutely not!''.

Why shouldn't we continue in sin? Is it because God will punish us? Is it because He will un-justify us? No, it's because we have died to sin (Romans 6:2). We were baptized into Christ, and thus have been baptized into His death.

Are you ignorant that we, as many as have been baptised unto Christ Jesus, have been baptised unto his death? We have been buried therefore with him by baptism unto death, in order that, even as Christ has been raised up from among the dead by the glory of the Father, so *we* also should walk in newness of life. For if we are become identified with him in the likeness of his death, so also we shall be of his resurrection; knowing this, that our old man has been crucified with him, that the body of sin might be annulled, that we should no longer serve sin. (Romans 6:3--6, JND)
Our old man was crucified with Christ, so that the body of sin is annulled, and thus we no longer have to serve sin.

This passage has caused some considerable trouble in people's minds. On the one hand, there are those who would tell us that since the old man was crucified with Christ, there is no longer sin in us; on the other hand, there are those who insist that since sin is clearly still in us, the old man might be crucified, but he's still there... just not quite dead (or something). Both of these views overlook what Romans actually teaches. Ultimately, it comes down to a misunderstanding of what the "old man" actually is, and a confusion of the "old man" with "the flesh". The "old man" isn't something I have he was something I was. I was an "old man", a man of Adam's nature and lineage. But that old man has died, and thus I'm not that man any more. So does that mean I'm without sin? Not at all, nor does Romans 6 actually teach that. Romans 6 tells us that the old man's death is what frees me from sin: sin is clearly still in the picture, but it's not in control because I'm dead to it. I'm not that old man any more, and thus I'm not a slave to sin. Now, Romans 7 will expand on that and introduce another character: the flesh. Even though I'm not the old man anymore, I'm still living in his body (the "body of sin"). That body will be redeemed one day, and I will be completely without sin. But until that day, I live in a sinful body, even though I am dead to sin. That's the teaching of Romans 7:17--24 as well as Romans 8:1--14.

So why shouldn't we live in sin? Because we're dead to sin. We've died with Christ, and the death has severed the ties with sin. Sin rules over Adam's descendants, but Christ has freed us from sin when we died with Him. A dead man is free from the rule of sin. I'm not Adam's descendant any more: that life ended at the Cross, so now I have a new life, which is under no obligation to sin.

Notice I still have this thing called "the flesh", which is introduced in Romans 7. Romans 6 doesn't deal with "the flesh", and Romans 7 doesn't deal with "the old man": they are distinct things in Romans. One is what I was, the other is something I have. I'm not the old man anymore, but I won't be free of the legacy of sin from Adam until Christ transforms my vile body into the likeness of His glorious body (Philippians 3:21). I'm not the old man anymore, but I still have to live in his body.

But the point is not that I am sin-free, but that I am free from sin. Sin has no obligation over me, I have a new life. I have died with Christ so that I can walk in "newness of life" (Romans 6:4). The life I live now isn't my own, it's Christ's (Galatians 2:20). Thus, I can walk in "newness of life."

And notice I'm not told to die to sin, I'm told I have died to sin. It's not something I have to do, it's something that's already been done. My obligation isn't to die, my obligation is to reckon that to be true (Romans 6:11). I have died with Christ, I am dead to sin. My responsibility is to think that way; to believe what God has said about me.

As a side note, there is an expression you'll hear about "dying to self". You won't find the expression "die to self" or "dying to self" in Scripture: it's just not there. Scripture doesn't confound the new creation with the old: the old man has been crucified with Christ, there's no more dying for him to do. The new man doesn't need to be crucified with Christ, it's been created for newness of life, not for death. So we're not called to die to self, we're told we have died with Christ.

There is a sense in Scripture where death works in us. That's the whole argument of 2 Corinthians 4 and 5. But notice that death works in us so that the life of Christ is manifested in our mortal bodies. Again, it's not that we die to self, nor that we need to die with Christ. We have died with Christ, but there is a practical working of death that works in our unredeemed bodies. I am in Christ, I am a new creature. But I am still waiting in the redemption of my sinful body. That day is coming: the Son of God is coming from Heaven to transform this mortal body (Romans 8:22 & 23; 1 Corinthians 15:49--58; Philippians 3:21), and then I'll have a body like His. Until that day, I am living in an old man's body, a body of death (Romans 7:24), a body with sin in it (Romans 8:10). Death works in that body, because it's as death works in me that the life of Jesus is manifested in my mortal body (2 Corinthians 4:7--12).

So because I've died with Christ, I'm dead to sin. Romans 7 takes it further and says that since I've died with Christ, I'm dead to the Law (Romans 7:4).

So that, my brethren, *ye* also have been made dead to the law by the body of the Christ, to be to another, who has been raised up from among the dead, in order that we might bear fruit to God. For when we were in the flesh the passions of sins, which were by the law, wrought in our members to bring forth fruit to death; but now we are clear from the law, having died in that in which we were held, so that we should serve in newness of spirit, and not in oldness of letter. (Romans 7:4--6, JND)
I've talked about the Law before, and I don't want to go on at great lengths about it again. But we recall that the Law was given through Moses in order to demonstrate man's sinfulness (Romans 3:20). This is the whole argument of Romans 2:12--3:20. Before Moses, men were sinners. The Law didn't create sin: murder and adultery and idolatry were wrong before the Law forbade them. But the Law was given to make men conscious of sin. Sin is lawlessness: it's a creature saying ``you're not the boss of me!'' (1 John 3:4). Transgression is violating a specific command. The Law specifically gave rules for men to obey. When men violated the rules, they trangressed. The Law doesn't make man a sinner, but it makes man a transgressor. Man was a sinner before the Law was given, but he became guilty of transgressing specific rules once those rules were given.

So Romans 7 describes what happens when a man tries to keep the Law. It begins with the specific statement that we've died to the Law so that we can bring forth fruit to God. We can't be fruitful and have the Law at the same time. If we want to bring forth fruit to God, we have to be free from the Law. The rest of Romans 7 describes the problems when a man tries to keep the Law: he can't. The Law was given to ferret out sin and make it obvious. When we (who have sin in our flesh) try to keep the Law, it does exactly what God designed it to do: it finds the sin in our flesh and makes it obvious to us.

Galatians 2 takes up this theme, but here we've died to the Law so that we can live unto God (Galatians 2:19). So here again, we need to die to Law so that we can live to God. We might say that living to God requires dying to Law. I've died with Christ, and thus I'm dead to [the] Law. Because I'm dead to the Law, I can live unto God. Because I'm dead to the Law, I can bring forth fruit to God.

Now we reach the conundrum: does dying to law mean I can just do whatever I want? In a sense it does; but that's kind of missing the point. Scripture doesn't say I've been made dead to the Law to live in lawlessness; it says I've been made dead to the Law so that I can bring forth fruit to God.

Does my dying to Law mean I'm not bound by the Ten Commandments? Yes. That's exactly what it means. It means I don't have a checklist for things I'm allowed to do and things I'm not allowed to do. My standard of conduct isn't a set of rules, it's Christ Himself.

Although I'm dead to the Law, I'm still called to obey. Not obey the Law, mind you, but obey Christ. I am not under Law (neither the Law of Moses nor any other law), but I am legitimately (i.e. legally) subject to Christ (1 Corinthians 9:21). I am dead to sin, so I am not to live lawlessly, but God doesn't deal with me on the principle of Law. We are saved by grace and are called to walk by grace. We are to walk as we have received the Christ (Colossians 2:6).

So I'm dead to sin and dead to the Law. Is that all? No, Galatians 6 gives us a third "dead to":

As many as desire to have a fair appearance in the flesh, these compel you to be circumcised, only that they may not be persecuted because of the cross of Christ. For neither do they that are circumcised themselves keep the law; but they wish you to be circumcised, that they may boast in your flesh. But far be it from me to boast save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom the world is crucified to me, and I to the world. (Galatians 6:12--14, JND)
I have died with Christ, and therefore I am dead to the world.

I was in a meeting once where an older brother got up and spoke about the second shortest verse in the Bible: "Remember Lot's wife" (Luke 17:32). I have to admit that address really touched my conscience. I'm a lot like Lot's wife.

If we consider Lot's wife, we realize that her sin wasn't that she insisted on staying in Sodom. Rather, having been delivered from Sodom, she turned and looked back. That sounds like me in a lot of ways. The Son of God came and died here for my sins to save me from the present evil world. I'm dead to the world by the Cross of Christ, and now I need to beware, because it's all too easy to look back over my shoulder at it.

Colossians 2:20--3:6 is all about our relationship to the world. Paul asks in Colossians 2, "If you've died with Christ from the elements of the world," then why do you practice a worldly religion? Worldly religion is all about ordinances: you can't touch this or taste that or handle something else. That religion has an appearance of wisdom, he says, but it's all done to the satisfaction of the flesh. It doesn't do your spirit a bit of good. And this sort of worldly religion is all around us. Whether it's the modern-day Galatians who forbid eating pork, or the stereotype evangelicals who believe you can't cuss, smoke, drink, or dance; in either case they're propping up a fleshly religion.

What Colossians teaches as the unworldly walk of a Christian is this: "have your mind on the things that are above, not on the things that are on the earth; for ye have died, and your life is hid with the Christ in God" (Colossians 3:2 & 3, JND). This isn't a religion about what you eat or drink or smoke: it's a walk that's characterized and empowered by the life of Christ. Christ is in Heaven, at God's right hand. He is my life, because I have died with Him. Christ, my life, empowers a life that's totally different from the world around me.

I confess I don't live up to this to any appreciable degree. But I can't help but wonder what my life would look like if I really practiced Colossians 3 Christianity. If my mind was in Heaven (where, after all, my Head is), and my affections were up there too... what would my life be like? The worldly religion of ordinances isn't what I've been called to live out. I might not cuss or drink or smoke or dance, but I can't help think that's not what people would notice.

It seems to me the key to avoiding the pitfall of the world is our affections. 1 John 2 says "love not the world". Colossians 3 says "set your affections on things above." It's a question of our hearts. Christ is in Heaven, and my heart ought to be full of Him there. Satan's goal is not really to make us terrible sinners, he just needs us to not be looking at Christ.

After all, I've been called to live in this world, but not be of it. Someone else observed we're really good at being of it, while managing not to be in it. We have Christian schools, Christian camps, and all manner of para-church organizations. We can quite feasibly make it through a week without ever actually stepping outside our little Christian bubbles. But ironically, what's going on in those bubbles is exactly the same thing that's going on in the world. We might not be brushing shoulders with sinners, but we're living just like them.

So I've died with Christ. My history ended at the Cross, so far as God is concerned. I now live a new life, a life of faith in the Son of God. And it's not really I who live it at all, but Christ who lives in me. That's normal Christianity according to Scripture. I don't live up to it very well, but it's my calling. Because I've died with Christ, I'm dead to sin, the Law, and the world. I need to remember that, and not go back to the very things God has freed me from.