Essay: Grace, law and the covenants
Gary Fakhoury is the author of "The Nature of God: A Biblical Review" and "Observances in the New Covenant: A Biblical Review," available from the author and at www.thejournal.com on the Internet. This is the first article of a two-part series. Comments may be sent to The Journal or to the writer at 248 Blue Hills Parkway, Milton, Mass. 02186, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
By Gary Fakhoury
MILTON, Mass.-In my AC days the Ambassador Club assignment I dreaded most was table-topics master. Holding everyone's interest for 20 minutes was always a daunting prospect until I discovered Romans 10:4: "Christ is the end of the law for righteousness for everyone who believes."
I soon learned that all I needed to do is throw down the Protestant gauntlet on the law and I would have 30 eager young men begging for the chance to get out of their chairs. I would throw Galatians 2:16 at them; they would toss back Romans 7:7. I would hurl back Ephesians 2:15; they would fire back 1 Timothy 1:8. And so on.
Not a lot of understanding was imparted in these theological food fights, to be sure. But, because there were so many proof texts each side could fling at the other, they ate up a lot of time, which was all I was shooting for anyway.
But in recent years, with the stakes so much higher, the discourse on law and grace hasn't progressed much in some circles. Everyone seems to have his or her pet scriptures, and few seem as interested in what the other guy's scriptures are saying as their own. There are "Protestant" scriptures and "difficult" scriptures and "law lovers' " scriptures, but, I wondered, aren't they all God's scriptures?
Would God have us explain away or ignore even a single word He has inspired? What are all these seemingly contradictory teachings saying to us? Is it even possible to give full weight to each passage without ending up in a muddle?
In this study you'll see I wasn't interested in defending anyone's teachings. I just wanted to know: What does God want me to believe about the covenants, about the law, about grace?
The only assumption I brought to this study was that the writers of Scripture do not contradict themselves or each other. With that, here are six conclusions I believe Scripture led me to reach.
From the day we are born, we humans are in a terrible fix. We come into this world with the stain of sin on our hands, bequeathed to us through our first parents, and, having willingly followed in their footsteps, we are all sentenced to die by the court of heaven (Romans 5:12).
A considerable portion of the New Testament was written to tell us how can we be saved from this condemnation. Indeed, this is the very essential meaning of the term "salvation."
Altogether the New Testament offers us a salvation schema consisting of three closely related but distinct concepts: justification, imputation of Christ's righteousness and sanctification.
Salvation is not just one or two of these things, but all three; perhaps lending new significance to the proverb that "a threefold cord is not easily broken." First we will examine the meaning of justification.
Paul's most complete treatise on the human predicament and salvation is found in his letter to the Romans. Paul's first task in this lengthy exposition was to establish this fundamental truth: We are all, morally speaking, unworthy of God. We are terminally sick. Man at his best falls tragically short of God's holy standards; indeed, his own standards. Thus we are all sinners by nature, unworthy of a holy God.
In Romans 1:18-3:20 Paul takes up this point. Whatever the standard of righteousness, Paul insists, Jew and gentile alike have failed to live up to it. For the gentiles, nature itself-if nothing else-should have given them some sense of propriety (verses 19-20).
And did not God give them a conscience to help regulate their thoughts and acts? (Romans 2:15). Yet they fell prey to deeds that even men without Revelation must admit are vile (Romans 1:24-32).
But the Jews were indeed special. They received special revelation from God: the law (Romans 2:17-20; 3:2). Yet none of them ever kept it perfectly (verses 21-24; Romans 3:9-19). Thus the Jew, in spite of all his advantages, finds himself in the same sinking boat as the sinful gentile, since he, too, has sinned.
Thus "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (verse 23). Paul argues throughout this letter that the law indeed defined sin as violations of God's will (verse 20; Romans 7:7) and served to certify sinful behavior as official transgressions (Romans 4:15; 5:13). In this role as communicator of God's will, the law is holy, just and good (Romans 7:12).
Yet all have, knowingly or not, fallen short of God's will for men (Romans 2:12; 3:9-19; 11:32). What's worse, this sinful state requires an eternal-death penalty, for a holy God cannot dwell with evil (Romans 3:5; 5:12; 6:23).
It is the fact of sin, not its degree, that makes all men sinners. Even one sin puts us utterly outside God's standards and presence. So, short of a miracle, Paul is saying, we're all as good as dead.
For, even after we realize our sin, nothing we can do now would erase the guilt of our past sins. And the law, at this point, can be of no help at all to us; in fact, as the exposer of our sins, it is the very source of our condemnation! (Romans 3:19-20). We cannot expect what condemns us to save us.
Since humans can't pay off an eternal-death penalty themselves, the only possible way out, the only way we sinners, manifest enemies of God, could possibly secure the acceptance of the holy One of heaven would be if someone would pay that penalty of death for us. And, of course, someone has paid it: Jesus the Messiah (Romans 3:21-26; 5:6-11).
This "righteousness of God apart from the law," testified by the law itself (verse 21), is the demonstration of God's righteousness, God's love; for in His mercy He has decided-in spite of the rightful claim of the law on our lives-to pass over our transgressions for only the price of faith in Jesus Christ (Romans 3:24-26). Paul emphasizes that it is God's righteousness that makes this possible, for, as he so clearly explained, we of ourselves have no righteousness to speak of.
Through faith in Jesus Christ, we are then justified by God's grace, or unmerited pardon (verse 24). The verb justify is dikaioo. To be justified, in Paul's usage, is to be found in right standing with God.
Paul consistently uses this word in a legal context. To be justified is to receive acquittal for one's sins in advance of the judgment. To be justified is to be not condemned; in this case, by the court of heaven. Thus it signifies judicial pardon. In Romans 5 Paul says:
"Therefore, as through one man's offense [Adam's] judgment came to all men, resulting in condemnation, even so through one Man's righteous act the free gift came to all men, resulting in justification of life" (verse 18, NKJV throughout).
So before we had Christ we were not at peace with God. We were, in fact, His enemies (verse 10). We were "condemned." But now we are "justified," or made right, before God. When we are justified God looks upon us as if we are innocent of the charges laid upon us (Colossians 2:13-14).
Justification, then, is the opposite of condemnation. Instead of convicted, we are, against all evidence, acquitted. Instead of rejected, we have been accepted; we "have peace" (Romans 5:1). We stand before God free and clear of the charges against us, with no fear of the wrath due us for our breaking of His holy laws (Romans 5:9).
All since Adam have been either justified before God or stand condemned before Him. There is no middle ground and no other way to find right standing with God except by faith in Christ's unique work of reconciliation on the cross (Romans 3:25-26; 5:18; Colossians 1:20) performed once for all (Romans 6:10).
If a man is arrested for armed robbery, his freedom can only be attained one of three ways: if he is found not guilty of the charges for which he is accused; if the law itself is no longer binding; or, perhaps in some systems, if someone else paid his crime's penalty for him (unlikely as that might be).
In Christ, Paul says, the latter is the case. We were indeed condemned to death for the breaking of God's laws. Therefore Jesus had to die if we are ever to live.
We are declared innocent of sin before God's holy court, then, through faith, not because we are actually sinless. Paul is clear on this:
"But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness" (Romans 4:5). (See also 2 Corinthians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 3:18.)
The One who was actually sinless was made sin so that we who are actually sinful can be declared sinless. Christ, in a way, trades positions with us. He paid the penalty for our sin, of which He experientially had no part, and in exchange we receive eternal life, which comes through His moral perfection, of which we experientially had no part.
So the man who believes in Christ, sinful though he may be, is viewed as sinless in God's sight, through this utterly gracious act of pardon. As Edwin H. Robinson well said: "Only forgiveness without reason can match sin without excuse."
The Jewish sense of righteousness, at least as taught to Paul and practiced in the first century generally, was thought of primarily in the sense of personal performance: how well one's life conformed to the Torah (Philippians 3:4-5).1
Paul's insistence that we are put right with God by an act of God's mercy and not through works of our own (Ephesians 2:8-9) was shocking to Jews of his day and was a major point of conflict with them (as in Galatia).
Any judge of Israel who acquitted a guilty person would be considered an unrighteous judge (Deuteronomy 17:8-13). Paul turned the whole matter on its head by insisting that, because God has acquitted guilty men, He is righteous (Romans 3:26). It shows God's mercy (Romans 9:14-16) and His love (Romans 5:8).
Ironically, it shows His holiness as well, for Paul insists that no human is righteous or holy enough to approach God. Even a single sin makes us unworthy of Him. The contemporary Jewish notion that if one tried hard enough right standing with God could be attained didn't take into account how holy God is and how abhorrent sin is to Him, though the prophets clearly said so (Isaiah 55:9; 64:6; Habakkuk 1:13).
In declaring all men unfit for God because of sin, Paul is only following the line of the Scriptures (see verses beginning with Romans 3:10).
We might well wonder how Paul came to this understanding when so many of his contemporaries in Judaism did not. To understand that, and to see why Paul could be so certain-yea, dogmatic-about these revolutionary ideas about this new relationship with God, we need to consider his epiphany on the Damascus road, recorded in Acts 9.
Saul, we remember, was a Pharisee so zealous for the law he would travel hundreds of miles on the chance he might find some Jesus followers to have executed (verses 1-2). So naturally, when Jesus introduced Himself to Saul on the road to Damascus, Saul was "astonished" (verse 6).
Why, wasn't this the very One who hung on a Roman cross, whom His duped, unlearned, unrighteous (compared with himself; Philippians 3:5-6) followers called the Messiah? Why, everyone knew Messiah would save His people, and the Scriptures teach that this One's very death testified that He was not who He said He was (Deuteronomy 21:23).
But there was little question that Saul was being approached by a divine being (verse 5). From this obvious fact followed some inescapable conclusions: First, if Jesus were Lord, then His followers, who did not keep the law as meticulously as He, must be the true followers of God. And, if this was so, then one's approach to God could not be predicated upon one's observance of the law, for, if that were the case, he (Paul) would have been on God's side, not them!
Clearly, something was at work here which rendered the righteousness Paul attained through the law to mean nothing (Philippians 3:5-9).
If efforts to establish his righteousness through the law could blind him so completely to God's will and purpose, then obviously Paul had to conclude that the law was no longer the vehicle by which men could be found righteous in God's sight.
Therefore, Christ must have been the "end of the law for righteousness," or for the attaining of right standing with God (Romans 10:1-4). Faith in Jesus, like these people had, must now be the means by which we receive His acceptance (Romans 10:5-9), for that was the only thing these simple folk had going for them that he, a career Pharisee, did not.
Moreover, if the law was no longer the basis upon which a relationship with God was to be established, neither was there a racial advantage of Jew over gentile in receiving right standing with God. It naturally followed that, if faith were now the only issue in receiving God's acceptance, gentiles who had faith must be no less accepted than Jews (Romans 10:10-13).
All these revolutionary ideas were implicit in the facts leading to Saul's experience on the Damascus road.
To be fair, the attempt to "seek to establish [one's] own righteousness" (Romans 10:3) is the main feature of not only first-century Judaism, but every religion in the world. From the perspective of the New Testament, this is a form of self-worship, of idolatry. For under it the glory goes to men and not to God.
All religions except Christianity teach, in essence, that we can pull ourselves up by the bootstraps of special rituals and good deeds and attain eternal glory.
Christianity teaches that, no, you can't. God is holier than that, and you're too sinful for that. The only way to avoid wrath and find reconciliation is through faith in the atoning work of Jesus (Romans 5:11; 11:32). Man is powerless to work up the righteous demands of the law and powerless to work off the penalty for its disobedience.
Paul insists that what is required of us to have right standing before God (and all that is required) is to acknowledge our helplessness before our sinfulness and ask to have Christ's atoning death applied to us. To think otherwise is to say Jesus need not have died (Galatians 2:21).
Thus we are reconciled to God by "His grace, by which He has made us accepted in the Beloved" (Ephesians 1:6).
This is the biblical doctrine of justification by grace through faith, and Paul's argument to the Galatians on this is virtually identical to what we've seen in Romans (Galatians 2:16-21; 3:5-14). (Other issues raised in Galatians we'll examine later.)
In Paul's letter to Titus, he neatly sums up virtually everything we have been discussing so far:
". . . When the kindness and the love of God our Savior toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior, that having been justified by His grace we should become heirs according to the hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:4-7).
The second strand of our unbreakable salvation cord is Christ's imputed righteousness. The Scriptures teach that through our justification God actually imputes Christ's righteousness to us (Romans 4:5-6, 23-24; 5:17-19; Philippians 3:9). We are accepted by God because of and through this distinct act of grace.
This is bound closely to our justification for a couple of reasons: One, it occurs through the justification event (Romans 4:7-8). Two, as with our justification, something that is Christ's is applied to us that, in reality, we do not have.
Thus we are not only not considered sinful, but we are treated as righteous as Christ is righteous. This is not something we have always been taught:
"Some religious teachers tell you Christ lived a righteous life for you over 1,940 years ago, and since you 'can't keep the law,' as they claim, God 'imputes' Christ's righteousness of 19 centuries ago to you-by sort of 'kidding himself' that you are righteous, while you are given license to be a spiritual criminal breaking His law! God does not impute to you something you do not have. Far from this-the living Christ by His power makes us righteous! He imparts to us power to actually become righteous" (What Do You Mean . . . Salvation? , Worldwide Church of God, p. 24).
Herbert Armstrong, who wrote the letter reprinted on page 6, did not consider that Christ's righteousness imputed to us is the only way God can view us as righteous! For, even with the Holy Spirit and even with our striving to do good, the Scriptures nowhere teach that any human being in any spiritual state has ever attained the holiness of God (1 John 1:8-9).
Rather, they teach that, even though God is so holy He cannot even look upon sin, we have been fully accepted by Him through Jesus Christ (Habakkuk 1:3; Ephesians 1:3-6).
A moment's reflection bears this out. For, if Christ's righteousness is not imputed to us, how is it we could ever dwell with an utterly holy God? (Ephesians 2:4-6). What fellowship can light have with darkness? (1 John 1:5, 8-10).
For God to accept us as His children, He needs to view us as righteous, which, given our imperfection, He can do only when we have faith in the atoning work of Jesus Christ the righteous (1 John 2:1-2).
The real me is rarely on a par with the ideal me, the me I want to be (Romans 7:14-25). But, because Christ's righteousness is mine through faith, I am accepted (Philippians 3:9).
This is grace. This is unmerited acceptance, not just for what we do, but for what we are. Just as He has accepted His Son, so now He accepts you and me and chooses by His own will to view us in the brilliant light of Christ's righteousness.
Through grace we are pardoned and accepted by God on the ground of His Son's sacrifice alone and not any merit of our own. What impact ought all this have on our relationship with God? I think Chuck Smith, in Why Grace Changes Everything (p. 164), said it well:
"Because of Christ, we can experience true oneness with God . . . And even if we fail, even though we are still weak in so many areas, our righteous standing before God doesn't vary with our shifting attitudes or changing moods. Our relationship is steady and secure because it isn't based upon us or our performance. Our relationship is predicated upon the work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. He took our sins upon Himself and died in our place to make our salvation by faith a reality. We can leave behind the mentality that says God only loves us when we are good and rejects us when we are bad."
I'm sure some are reading this and thinking: But we do have a role to play in our salvation!
Yes, we do, and it's a critical one that we'll discuss in a moment. But let's take a minute and allow what we have been talking about to settle in our minds; that is, the only thing that has ever made or will ever make eternal life possible is what God has done for us in Christ.
We love Him only because He first loved us (1 John 4:19), and that expression of love reached its greatest height when He sacrificed His only begotten Son that we might live with Him forever (John 3:16).
This was all His idea, His initiative and His doing. We had nothing to do with it, and we in no way deserved it. The New Testament has shown us clearly that we receive, not achieve, right standing with God.
So let's allow ourselves to rejoice in the fellowship He has freely offered to us. Our conscience before God is clear now, not because we have kept all God's laws perfectly this month, but because Christ holds open the curtain leading to the Holiest of All (Hebrews 9:8-10), where our Father receives and accepts us.
We can dwell in His holy place as a prince walks in and out of his father's palace, for we are now His sons. The relationship depends not principally upon our performance, which will always fall short in some way, but upon His love for us, just as it is with our own children.
It is the embrace we freely receive from His throne that has released us from fearful expectation of wrath (Ephesians 2:1-6) and gives us the Spirit whereby we can cry out "Abba, Father," as a child cries out "Daddy!" (Romans 8:15; Galatians 4:6).
Let's not be afraid to reflect upon what God has done for us in Christ and to praise Him and simply be thankful. This isn't Protestant. It is biblical (Romans 15:7-13; Hebrews 13:10-15; 1 Peter 2:9-10), and we are robbed of something precious when we don't allow ourselves to do so.
As mentioned earlier, we can think of the New Testament teaching on salvation as a threefold cord: justification, imputation of Christ's righteousness and sanctification.
This section is about the third element in the New Testament salvation schema: sanctification. Its root word, hagios, is the same word from which we get the word holy.
So in biblical language to be sanctified is to be holy, or Godlike. Scripture teaches we are set apart for this holiness at conversion (1 Corinthians 6:11).
But sanctification differs from the other two salvation elements in two important ways: First, it is not only a one-time occurrence; it is a continual process. This is why the writer of Hebrews speaks of us as "those who are being sanctified" (Hebrews 10:14; see also 1 Thessalonians 5:23).
I believe this element of salvation is what Herbert Armstrong had in mind when he taught that "conversion is a process."
Second, although we have no role in the other two salvation events other than faith in Christ, we are said to have a critical and active role in our continued sanctification, or growth in holiness; and men who choose not to participate in that will suffer eternal death (Matthew 13:41-42; 25:26-30; Luke 8:13-14; 13:24-27; John 15:5-6; 1 Corinthians 3:16-17; Hebrews 6:4-8; 10:28-29; 12:14).
Indeed, to be saved by grace does not mean we are saved to sin, but saved from sin (Romans 6:1-2).
So if it is possible, as the above scriptures plainly say, for those once converted to be found condemned in the day of judgment as a result of wrong moral and spiritual choices, then sanctification must be a critical element in our salvation.
Indeed, the New Testament insists that God expects those He is saving to be transformed into His spiritual likeness so we'll actually reflect the righteousness God has imputed to us by faith (Romans 6:19, 22; 8:1-39; 12:1; 2 Corinthians 7:1; Ephesians 4:24; Philippians 3:13-14; 1 Peter 4:1-3; 2 Peter 3:18).
We should be clear that this sanctification in no sense earns us salvation. But the lawfulness and works of service that come out of this process are what will happen in those who do, in fact, have saving faith (James 1:27; 2:8-12, 18).
We don't do good to become saved; we do good because we are being saved (Matthew 25:31-45; Ephesians 2:10). A righteous life is not the basis of God's saving of us, but the result of it (Titus 2:11-14).
Jesus said, "Be you perfect, as your Father in heaven is perfect" (Matthew 5:48). Of course, Jesus is not stipulating a requirement for salvation here; if so, we're all doomed! (1 John 1:8-10). But He is stipulating a requirement of the heart.
Those who are truly being saved will want to be spiritually perfect and will evince that by doing their part in working in partnership with God's Spirit to transform their innermost selves into His image. That is when spiritual fruit is born, which is evidence that we are, in fact, being saved (Luke 8:15; John 15:8; Romans 6:22).
Conversely, those who live lawlessly prove by their lives that Christ is not inhabiting them and that they are not, whatever their verbal confession, being saved.
For Christ does not dwell in sin, and those who do will soon find Christ no longer dwelling in them and will be eternally condemned (Matthew 7:21-23; 13:41-42; 18:8-9; Galatians 5:19-21; 1 Corinthians 6:9-10; 9:27; 1 Timothy 1:18-20; Hebrews 10:26-31; 1 Peter 4:1-5; 2 Peter 2:18-22; 1 John 1:5-7; 2:3-6, 15, 28-29; 3:4-15, 24; 5:4-5, 18-20).
After all, why did God make a new covenant in the first place? He made the New Covenant to make men's hearts right before Him so they would obey His commands.
Israel did not have the heart to obey God's laws (Deuteronomy 5:29), although He wanted them to (Deuteronomy 6:5-6). Failing that, a new agreement had to be established, whereby men receive a heart transplant, we might say, finally giving them the ability to imitate Him (Jeremiah 31:31; Hebrews 8:8).
This is why, from the very first, those who would be Christians were instructed to repent; literally, to turn away from their former life of sin (Acts 2:38; 3:19). Jesus said He had come to accomplish exactly this (Matthew 9:12-13), so He commanded repentance to be front and center of the gospel that should be preached (Luke 24:47).
Thus we see Paul saying as much in his travels throughout the world (Acts 17:30; 20:21; 26:19-20). We should note that repentance is no one-time event; it is central to our ongoing sanctification (1 Corinthians 7:9-11).
A Christian, then, is one who by definition is being sanctified or spiritually perfected. This is the reason God justifies us in the first place: to make that process of moral and spiritual perfection possible.
This gives us an answer to the fair question: If God were only trying to save us, why doesn't He just whisk us off to our reward right after we accept Jesus?
The answer is that the Master Potter is recreating us in His likeness (Romans 9:20-21). In this sense we can say that the New Covenant is not just an instrument of salvation, but of perfection (Matthew 5:48; Ephesians 5:25-27; 1 John 3:3).
All this is fundamental to God's overarching goal to restore His rulership over the entire creation (Acts 3:19-21). The notion that God can bring into His Kingdom, or rulership, someone He does not rule is a contradiction.
The New Testament's total salvation message, then, involves both a method of salvation (justification by grace through faith) and a standard of salvation (sanctification through the active life of the Spirit).
But let us understand that sanctification is not expressed in the Scriptures as our effort to "qualify" for salvation; salvation is a gift from God (Romans 6:23). A gift, by definition, is undeserved, unearned. Indeed, even repentance itself, which engenders sanctification, is a gift from God (Romans 2:4).
But the above scriptures do teach that we can disqualify ourselves from salvation.
Salvation truly is a gift, but we can choose to not accept the gift. We can do this by choosing to live lawlessly, by choosing not to abide in Christ through His Spirit, by choosing to abandon the faith. This is why the above scriptures exhort us not to and warn us of the eternal consequences if we make these choices.
Adam and Eve were not given the wonders of Eden through good works, but they certainly were removed for their bad works. And so it will be with us.
Salvation, then, is a perfect paradox: God gives us the Kingdom freely (Romans 3:24-26; Galatians 2:21; Ephesians 2:8; Titus 3:4-6), and those who will receive it exert themselves to reflect His moral perfection (Matthew 11:12; 1 Corinthians 9:27; Philippians 3:12-14; Revelation 21:7).
The truth lies nowhere near the middle; it lies at each of the two extremes. This presents a huge challenge to the Church, for the degree to which a ministry does not keep a firm grasp on both of these psychological opposites is the degree to which it is less than fully Christian.
It is the human mind's natural inclination to avoid paradoxes, I think, which has caused so many of God's people in recent years to lurch from one of these biblical truths to the other.
You will receive little argument from me that, historically, many WCG teachers overemphasized our individual moral performance over against God's gracious acts. But the above scriptures are clear, and we ignore them to our peril. "Once saved always saved" is not a biblical concept.
As clear as the New Testament is that our works add nothing toward our receiving eternal life, it is equally clear that they have everything to do with how we will spend our eternal lives, because we will be rewarded according to our Christian works.
The scriptures on this are so straightforward they need little elaboration (Matthew 10:42; 13:23; 16:27; Luke 19:16-19; 1 Corinthians 3:8; 15:41-42; Revelation 22:12).
Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that there are degrees of eternal glory that will be given to the saints in the resurrection; Jesus made it clear that these varying degrees of honor and glory will be distributed to us according to our varying degrees of works of service to God and man.
Though there is joy in Christian service, there is pain too (1 Corinthians 15:19); we have Christ's sure word that He is well prepared to remunerate at His return.
One naturally hears little about this eternally important issue from teachers fixated upon grace. It's difficult, apparently, to rail against works as the enemy one week and promote it as fundamental to our reward the next.
But those who are following teachers who direct them only to think about Jesus' "finished work on the cross" are not being well prepared for the day of judgment. There is much hanging in the balance that will make an eternal difference for every one of us.
For Jesus' work on the cross might be finished, but the living Christ's work in us is not.
It is difficult to overestimate the impact the advent of the Holy Spirit had on the early followers of Jesus. As we reads through Acts and the Epistles, it becomes clear to us that the coming of the Holy Spirit, especially to the gentiles, was understood to have revolutionized the nature of the relationship between God and men.
This is especially apparent in Acts 10. The gentile Cornelius was a "God-fearer," in some way attached to a synagogue and a worshiper of the true God, giving alms and praying always (verses 1, 31). But he was not a full proselyte who kept all the Torah, for he was uncircumcised (Acts 11:2-3).
While Peter was speaking to Cornelius and his family in Cornelius's home, the Holy Spirit audibly came upon these gentiles through the gift of tongues, just as it had come upon Jewish men and women on Pentecost (verse 44).
The Jews who had come with Peter were "astonished" at this (verse 45), for, as they well knew, "salvation was of the Jews."
Peter confessed later that God's acceptance of uncircumcised gentiles was the last thing he would have expected, and he would have withstood it (Acts 11:17) had it not been for God's relentless work to bring them in through his disturbing vision (verses 5-10) and the gift of tongues signifying gentiles' receipt of the Holy Spirit (verses 15-17).
This was confirmed at the Jerusalem conference by Peter (Acts 15:8-9) and James (verse 14) in recognizing that God "acknowledged" and "visited" gentiles by the Holy Spirit; by this God made them full members of the household of faith, irrespective of any formal allegiance to the Torah.
The covenant, previously signified by a commitment to keep all the Torah with circumcision as its outward sign, was now signified by receipt of the Holy Spirit (Romans 8:9, 14).
The apostles learned that acceptance from God must have its basis, then, not in allegiance to the Torah per se, but in the spiritual reality of God's presence in the heart and mind of the individual.
This is precisely Paul's argument to the Galatians, who, in their desire to become circumcised, did not consider that in the Holy Spirit they already possessed the seal of salvation (Galatians 3:2-3).
As the years passed, the apostles came to understand more about this new arrangement, or covenant, God was making with men. The longest treatment of the subject appears in Hebrews.
The writer of Hebrews first insists the Sinai covenant was never intended to be more than a provisional anticipation of better things to come (Hebrews 9:9-10; 10:1). Why didn't it succeed? Without the Holy Spirit, the people brought under it did not fulfill its conditions; they did not continue in God's covenant (Hebrews 8:7-9).
This is closely related to the fact that its features did not give men true release from sin and access to God's presence (Hebrews 10:1-4, 19-22).
Indeed, the tabernacle ritual itself witnessed that the way into the sanctuary was not yet opened and was only figurative of the spiritual reality to come (Hebrews 9:8-9).
The very mention of a "new" covenant in the writings of the prophets was witness that the first covenant would be annulled and was destined to pass away (Hebrews 7:11-19; 8:1-13; 10:5-9). The second supersedes the first because it completely achieves what the first failed to accomplish (Hebrews 7:18).
The New Covenant will succeed, however, because we have an all-competent High Priest forever enthroned by God in power (Hebrews 1:13; 7:15-16), so He is able to save all those who make Him their mediator between God and themselves (verse 25).
This covenant is sealed by Christ's death. Therefore, full and final remission of sins and eternal life can now be had by all God's people (Hebrews 8:6; 9:15; 10:8-18).
Even the promises under the New Covenant are superior, for we will receive an eternal inheritance, not just an earthly one (Hebrews 8:6; 9:15).
But what convinces the writer of Hebrews that this is the final and successful covenant, or arrangement? It is the fact that in this covenant God puts His law in His people's hearts (Hebrews 8:10), equipping them with power to accomplish His will (Hebrews 13:20-21).
This critical difference between the old Spiritless covenant and new spiritual one is explained by Paul in 2 Corinthians 3:3-11, where the old administration of law is described as an "administration of death." Why?
Paul does not elaborate here, but he develops the theme in Romans, and he is consistent on this: Laws-even glorious ones-can result only in frustration and condemnation if not accompanied by the animating life of the Spirit.
As we saw earlier, in Romans Paul establishes that "all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), because the law of itself could only reveal man's moral imperfection (Romans 5:20; 7:5). Paul completes the thought:
"For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit" (Romans 8:3-4).
The Commandments revealed God's will for man in elementary form (Romans 2:19, 20;7:7), and indeed they were designed to "bring life" (Romans 7:10).
Even so, while residing only in the form of letters carved into stone, without the Spirit to carve their righteous values and principles into human hearts, these commandments proved more than the bulk of Israelites were capable of keeping.
So, under the terms and conditions of the Old Covenant, the law slayed men, truly representing a "ministry of condemnation" that was erased by Christ's sacrifice and the coming of His new spiritual ministry.
Thus we do not see in 2 Corinthians 3 an abrogation of laws, but of the Spiritless conditions under which those laws were delivered. The "ministry," or administration, of death is what this passage says has been abolished, not the laws of that administration (verses 7, 9).
This is so because now, by the administration of the Spirit, we experience an internalization of the law through the Spirit to impart life and right living, as in Romans 8:4 and Hebrews 8:8.
Another way Paul expresses this is with the term letter, setting it against spirit. The first word is gramma, indicating the Spiritless old administration of the Torah. This is the antithesis of pneuma, or the Spirit-led obedience of the New Covenant (see also Romans 2:27-29; 7:6).
Is Paul here saying, then, that conforming to a Pentateuchal law is an act of gramma and therefore sub-Christian?
No, he is saying that the old administration was arranged in such a way that the laws God gave did not produce righteousness, but condemnation unto death, because they remained inscribed only on tables of stone, in letters, and not on men's hearts, through the Spirit. Kittel is helpful here (abridged edition, p. 132):
"The basic antithesis is . . . between law as a purely written prescription and the Spirit. Romans 7:6 makes this point clear. As mere gramma, which does not rule the heart, the law does not enable us to serve. We have become dead to the law in this sense. Without Christ and the Spirit it is ineffective. But this does not mean that there is an absolute antithesis between gramma and pneuma. It simply means that in and by itself what is written cannot give life. On the basis of Jeremiah 31:33 what Paul has in mind is that the law that is merely written can only condemn us, but the law that God writes on the heart by the Spirit gives life."
This is why Paul says in Galatians 5:18, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law." Paul is expressing the great truth that Christian transformation is the miracle by which the Holy Spirit produces attitudes in us that transform our minds. In the Spirit we think differently, thus we act differently.
Although the law helps distinguish between light and darkness and defines sin (Romans 2:19-20; 7:7), there is, for the Spirit-led, no need for moral intimidation from the law as there was in the administration of the Old Covenant (Exodus 20:18-19).
The coercive aspect of the former administration of law is not necessary for those in whom the Spirit dwells. The highest Christian-living principle is that we don't obey God only because we are commanded; we obey because it is becoming our nature to act that way.
This is the process of sanctification at work. This is the Christian spiritual and moral ideal and what the New Covenant is all about. It is what Jeremiah foresaw and what Jesus came to give us. It is God reproducing Himself in us, the purpose of salvation and the reason for human existence (2 Peter 1:2-4; Genesis 1:26).
So the New Testament writers agree that the primary distinguishing characteristic of the New Covenant is its basis in a spiritual experience and a spiritual relationship with God the Father, through Jesus Christ our mediator, who gives us the power to execute His will through His Spirit.
The one question we have yet to answer, then, is which if any of the Pentateuchal laws properly express God's will for partakers of the New Covenant.
Having examined the scriptural truths regarding justification and imputation of Christ's righteousness through faith, sanctification, eternal damnation and reward-and the Spirit-based nature of the New Covenant-we get to the heart of the pro-lawanti-law debate.
Obviously, I believe the Ten Commandments are binding upon men in every age, regardless of covenant. To show why I believe this, it would be a relatively simple matter to quote all the pro-law scriptures in the New Testament and leave it at that.
But, as was said at the outset, our desire is to incorporate all the scriptures on grace, law and the covenants in our thinking, giving them equal time and emphasis as God's Word.
So I'll first examine all the "anti-law" scriptures we have yet to study, then the "pro-law" scriptures.
The texts that anti-law advocates have cited over the years to prove that laws contained in the law of Moses do not have authority in the Christian life are Acts 15:1-29; Romans 7:1-6; 10:1-13; 2 Corinthians 3:3-18; Galatians 3:15-25; 4:1-7; 21-31; 5:18; Ephesians 2:15; Colossians 2:14; Hebrews 7:12-18; 8:13; along with Exodus 34:28 and Deuteronomy 4:13.
We have already unearthed Paul's meaning in Romans 10:1-13, 2 Corinthians 3:3-18 and Galatians 5:18. Now we will examine the others.
The Jerusalem conference of Acts 15
As much as we might like to have the Jerusalem conference answer our questions, we need to keep in mind that the brethren in Jerusalem were trying to answer their questions.
We must determine the nature of the problem they were trying to solve so we can properly understand the implications we can draw from this event.
The situation was this. In first-century Judaism one's allegiance to the law became the sole means by which one became identified as a partaker of God's covenant.
Under this regime the law of Moses became, literally, a document of election: One's willingness and ability to keep it determined one's status and standing with God.
This was precisely the situation in Galatia (Galatians 6:12), which led some to "desire to be under the law" (Galatians 4:21). In the ritual of circumcision, through which a gentile would commit to keep all the law of Moses just as would an observant Jew (Acts 15:5), the Galatians hoped to finally achieve God's complete acceptance.
Paul's position, as we've seen, was that this was both unnecessary and impossible (Galatians 5:1-4). He insisted that all his gentile charges utterly reject the pressures of the circumcisers who promoted "confidence in the flesh," for it is not physical matters but the transformative power of the Holy Spirit that makes men the "true circumcision" (Philippians 3:2, 3; Galatians 3:1-3; 6:12-15).
The last straw in this drama was laid, then, when men came from Judea teaching the gentiles in Antioch that "unless you are circumcised according to the custom [ethos, in reference to ritual] of Moses, you cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1).
Paul and Barnabas sharply disagreed (verse 2), and they went to Jerusalem to discuss it with the apostles and elders.
Many opinions were expressed at Jerusalem, but, according to Luke's account, the critical ones were Peter's and James's. Peter saw it this way:
In other words, the covenantal status of uncircumcised gentiles had already been settled by God and was evinced by the obvious gifts of His Spirit. Circumcision, in this context, could accomplish nothing of value for the gentiles.
This is because circumcision, although itself a biblical ordinance, was in reality just the thin edge of a wedge that drove people ever deeper into a morass of ritual preoccupations, some biblical, some not (as we see well reflected in the Gospels).
The efforts by Jews to perform these works well enough to deserve God's approval was a hard, dispiriting affair, a losing game from the start. Peter realized this and wanted to exempt his new gentile brethren from this legacy of frustration.
After Peter, Paul and Barnabas spoke, there was silence. Everyone knew one voice was yet to be heard, and a unified decision would require his assent. Richard Longenecker, in The Expositor's Bible Commentary (Vol. 9, p. 446), explains why:
"James, the Lord's brother, presided at the Jerusalem Council. Known as 'James the Just' because of his piety, he was ascetic and scrupulous in keeping the law. The Judaizers within the church looked to him for support, knowing his legal qualifications as well as his personal qualities (Epiphanius, Contra Haereses 78.6-7; Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 2.1.23; 23.4-7). But while rigorous and scrupulous in his personal practice of faith, James was more broad-minded than many of his followers."
James starts by reminding everyone again of God's revelation to Peter about the gentiles, then cites Amos 9:11-12 to put the whole matter into prophetic perspective. God had said He was going to take out of the gentiles a "people for his name" (Acts 15:14), and it appeared obvious to James that this was precisely what they were seeing.
Thus the matter of circumcision was settled. The gentiles were not to be "troubled" with circumcision (verse 19).
That left the issue of perceived gentile uncleanness, especially as it pertained to table fellowship, to be resolved (verse 20).
Of course, abstention from fornication would be enjoined on all Christians. But temple prostitution, which was ubiquitous in the gentile world, put gentiles especially at risk on this point, and the apostles understood that any suspicion on the part of the Jewish brethren of gentiles' involvement in these ritual practices would have ruptured the fellowship.
Was the entire law of Moses terminated?
Galatians 5:3 says, "Every man that becomes circumcised . . . is a debtor to keep the whole law."
Anti-law advocates take this to mean that the apostles understood if they abrogated circumcision they were in fact abrogating every command of the law of Moses for Christian living or any other purpose. Is this true?
This scripture is indeed relevant to the Jerusalem council's decision, but not for the reasons they think. This is because Galatians 5:3 (indeed, most of the letter) is about why the Galatians were acceding to circumcision.
Paul's point is not that circumcision is some sort of mystical linchpin that, if pulled, explodes the Torah to bits. The Torah itself never speaks of circumcision this way.
In context it is clear he is saying: Gentiles, if you are circumcised for the purpose of attaining right standing before God, you'd better keep all the law of Moses flawlessly, because you're depending upon your ability to execute law, and not upon God's grace.
It was the gentiles' motive in accepting circumcision Paul wanted to expose.
To understand that justification is the specific issue at hand in Galatians 5:3, we need only look at the next verse: "You have become estranged from Christ, you who attempt to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace."
Indeed, in Judaism adult circumcision was a sign of putting oneself under the authority of the whole law. That was its purpose for gentiles.
So does rejecting circumcision equal rejecting the whole law? Yes! But only for the purpose of gaining justification, as Galatians 5:3-4 clearly states.
The law of Moses was to be rejected as a means to gain right standing with God, for no law or collection of laws could ever accomplish what can only be received by grace through faith (Galatians 2:16).
To Paul, undergoing circumcision for the purpose of achieving right standing with God was tantamount to earning salvation, and that was unacceptable to him and to Peter (Acts 15:11).
However, standards for Christian living, as they pertain to commands in the law of Moses, are nowhere addressed in Acts 15.
Would gentiles know automatically not to covet, to always honor one's parents, to shun idolatry? Paul did not think so (Romans 7:7; Ephesians 6:1-3; 1 Corinthians 10:14).
The reason these important Christian-living principles and others were not included in the list of instructions in verse 20 is simply that Christian living was not the issue the apostles were trying to resolve.
One need only examine the laws that the gentiles were commanded to keep in verse 20 to see that this is so. Strangled animals and blood and food offered to idols are clearly ritual concerns. You don't resolve ethical or moral shortcomings by telling people to avoid strangled animals.
In fact, there are at least three reasons that anti-law advocates' claim that the Jerusalem council abrogated the law of Moses for any purpose is untenable:
The issue at hand is the role of Jewish ethos and the status of gentiles in the household of faith. This is what precipitated the conference (verse 1) and what constituted its solution (verse 20).
Acts 21:20-25 also makes this clear. There James and the elders ask Paul to prove to the Jerusalemites that he was himself keeping the law by undergoing purification rituals. Then in verse 25 James says something germane to this discussion:
"But concerning the gentiles who believe, we have written and decided that they should observe no such thing, except that they should keep themselves from things offered to idols," etc.
The laws they imposed upon the gentiles were seen at the time of the Jerusalem conference and now, almost a decade later, as being ritual concerns just like the purification rituals Paul was about to undergo! Even fornication had a ritual relationship in the lives of gentiles through pagan temple ceremony; see 1 Corinthians 8:7-8.
Fittingly, this part of Leviticus is part of a section that includes laws for gentile sojourners in Israel (and corresponds to some degree with instruction given to Noah in Genesis 9:4-5, which Jews believed applied to gentiles).
This is confirmed in verse 21 when James notes that the gentiles should follow these teachings of Moses, presumably to preserve harmony with the Jewish Christian communities that were found in all the cities of the gentiles.2
"For whoever shall keep the whole law, and yet stumble in one point, he is guilty of all. For He who said, 'Do not commit adultery,' also said, 'Do not murder.' Now if you commit adultery, but do not murder, you have become a transgressor of the law. So speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty" (James 2:10-12).
If nothing in the law of Moses was now authoritative for Christian living, someone obviously needed to let the Jerusalem council's presiding officer know, because that was clearly not his sense of the situation.
In sum, then, one main issue and an important consequence was resolved at the Jerusalem conference. First, there was no requirement for gentiles to keep the Mosaic ethos, or rituals, to be considered full members in the household of faith.
These included circumcision (verses 1, 5), but probably also table-fellowship rules (Galatians 2:11-16) and temple-related rituals (Acts 21:20-25).
This meant that gentiles did not, in effect, need to become Jews to become Christians. The only ritual concerns to be laid upon them were to be those of verse 20 and not for salvation (verse 11) but probably for unity's sake with Jews in gentile lands (verse 21). The ostensible reason for the conference was to settle this issue.3
However, since circumcision was the sign of one's allegiance to the entire law of Moses (verse 5; Galatians 4:21; 5:3), the implication of the apostles' circumcision decision was that the law was inoperable as a vehicle by which men can earn salvation through works of their own. This is why Peter says what he does in verse 11.
The entire law of Moses was inoperable for this purpose (and was always so) and should not be viewed this way. This corresponded to Paul's letter to the Galatians exactly (Galatians 2:16-21).
So, we could say, part of the law was abrogated for every purpose (circumcision, at least for gentiles), and all of the law was abrogated for one purpose (to achieve right standing with God).
But James's clear statements, and several more New Testament teachings we'll see next month, make it clear that the apostles did not believe all of the law was abrogated for every purpose.
Paul has already established in Romans 6:4 that we have been "buried with Christ" through our figurative watery grave of baptism. He here returns to that death concept and adds a twist through the institution of marriage.
To begin, we need to understand he is speaking specifically to the Jews in the crowd (verse 1), his "brothers." He makes a point of this because what he is about to say specifically relates to the religious history of Jews and their view of the law.
What was their view of the law? Everything we saw before in this letter: that they viewed and responded to it in an effort to justify themselves with God but failed utterly in it (chapters 2-3).
Paul suggests that this was like being married to the law and reminds them that, where a death occurs in a marriage, the union dissolves (verses 2-3).
And there has been a death, for you-the woman-have become "dead to the law," which was your former husband (verse 4). What does this mean?
Notice further: You have become dead to the law "through the body of Christ"; that is, the death of Jesus on the cross (compare Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24).
What did Jesus' death on the cross do? It paid the penalty for our sins, delivering us from death.
Why was this necessary? Because the law without the Spirit actually aroused sinful passions in our flesh that brought the death penalty (verse 5).
As we saw earlier, the law of itself could bring only death because it exposed sin and, worse-Paul says here-aroused it (probably the forbidden-fruit syndrome is in view).
So Paul is saying that our personal efforts at attaining right standing with God through the law must die with Christ. Only then, he insists, can we Jews be freed to "marry" another, the risen Christ (verse 4), who gives us power to serve as we should in the Spirit and not in "the oldness of the letter," the now-discredited way of personal works-righteousness (verse 6).
While we are in verse 6, we need to understand what Paul means by our being "delivered from the law." Elsewhere, Paul speaks of our "liberty" in Christ (Galatians 5:1). What does he mean by these things? What, exactly, are we freed from? Two things:
First, we have been freed from the law as a system of salvation (Galatians 2:16; 3:10-14). As we've seen, we have been reconciled to God and found peace with Him by the blood of Jesus Christ and only by the blood of Jesus Christ (Romans 5:1-12). We will live forever with God, not because we are perfect but because we are forgiven.
Second, Paul teaches us that through this very act we are freed from the power of sin (Romans 6:14-23). The old man being buried forever, we are risen with Christ to a newly righteous life (Romans 6:1-11).
Now, in the Spirit, our hearts will be changed to want to obey God, to reflect His values and character in everything we think, say and do. Christians serve "in the newness of the Spirit and not in the oldness of the letter." This brings us right back to Romans 7:6.
This new Spirit-led life will yield better fruit than had ever been accomplished through human effort to respond to mere words or letters (gramma) on parchment or stone.
Paul uses virtually the same wording in 2 Corinthians 3, which we examined earlier, and everything said there about the new life of the Spirit is relevant here.
For, as Paul would so clearly say later in this letter, there is a right way and a wrong way to attain righteousness. The wrong way is the Jews' futile efforts to attain it through their purely human attempts at keeping the law. The right way-in fact, the only way-is through faith; that is, through recognition of one's dependence upon God (Romans 9:31-32).
Thus in every sense Christ is the center and ground of our righteousness. He is our justification and our power to obey, through His Spirit, "that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us" (Romans 8:4).
Was the failure also because of some defect in the "letter" of the law, the gramma? Was the law the problem?
Paul anticipates this question and answers it in the very next verses, showing that the law was not the enemy; our sinful nature was the enemy. The law became a curse only because it so effectively exposed our unrighteousness.
We'll look at that in detail next time.
Editor's note: The print version of The Journal of Oct. 31, 1997, includes two sidebars with this article: one on Jewish legalism and one on grace, the latter written in 1958 by Herbert W. Armstrong.
© The Journal: News of the Churches of God