Legalism & Galatians Part 2: Law, Liberty & The Flesh

In a previous post, I asserted that popular confusion about law, grace, and the Christian life is often partly due to misunderstanding what was happening in the Galatian churches and what Paul taught to correct it. I argued that the Galatian trouble centered on their understanding of justification and its relationship to Mosaic Law, and that they were led astray by unbelievers who, in reality, cared as little for the Law of Moses as they did for the gospel.

Seen in this light, the epistle does not encourage sweeping rejections of effort and struggle in the Christian life, nor does it provide a basis for excluding firm boundaries against sin (often termed “man-made rules”) in Christian living.

But loose ends remain. Further study of the letter not only resolves the remaining issues but also clarifies common points of confusion such as the distinction between conscious self-discipline vs. “the flesh” (or the non-biblical term, “self-effort”) and the difference between slavery to the Law vs. obedience to Christ.

Some Problem Passages

Galatians 5:1

For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (ESV, Gal. 5:1)

“Freedom,” “free” and “yoke of slavery” are the key terms here. The “yoke of slavery” is often taken to refer to all forms of do’s and don’ts beyond what is expressly revealed in Scripture. Given the fact that the Galatian problem specifically referenced do’s and don’ts God had revealed in Scripture (“circumcision”—13 times!) this is an interesting application to derive from the text. It’s possible the reference to days, months, seasons, and years in Galatians 4:10 includes some “man-made rules,” but may just as readily refer to what God gave to Israel.

The “yoke of slavery” was not rules in general or even the Law of Moses, per se, but the corrupt teaching that the Law (or some parts of it) is the path to justification. How the justified go about living holy lives is not in view in 5:1.

So where does this view of 5:1 come from? In many cases, it’s simply read into the text for convenience. Others, though, are taking 5:1 in light of a faulty understanding of “the flesh” in Galatians 3:2-3.

Galatians 3:2-3

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:2-3)

Here, Paul seems to point out the absurdity of beginning their Christian experience through the work of the Spirit, then attempting to grow in holiness (sanctification) by self-effort. But what do the terms “the flesh” and “being perfected” actually mean? Rather than accepting our first impression as fact, perhaps we should take a closer look?

ESV’s and NASB’s “being perfected” translates the Greek epiteleo (present middle/passive). NIV (1984) paraphrases: “trying to attain your goal.” The 2011 NIV shows more restraint: “trying to finish” (so also NET). KJV and NKJV opt for “made perfect,” implying a completed act: “now made perfect.”

So is Paul correcting their understanding of their position in Christ (justification, etc.) or correcting their view of the Christian experience (sanctification)? The Greek is somewhat ambiguous on that point, so a study of “the flesh” in Galatians is helpful.

“The Flesh” in Galatians

The word for “flesh” (sarx) occurs 18 times in Galatians. Several of these refer to the physical body or some physical aspect,1 but the remainder speak of “the flesh” negatively in a variety of ways.2

Positionally, the flesh is dead through our union with Christ (Gal. 5:24a, Rom. 6:6-7), but in experience, it is still very much alive (Rom. 6:12-13, Colos. 3:5, 8—which, by the way, interprets Rom. 6:11). In Galatians, the flesh clearly includes a set of fallen appetites (Gal. 5:24b, “passions… desires”), and its “works” are various forms of indulgence of corrupt desires (Gal. 5:19-21). The flesh is anti-Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:17), anti-service (Gal. 5:13) and anti-good works (6:9). It is actually opposed to “fulfilling” the law (Gal. 5:14).

So if the flesh opposes good works and Law-fulfilling, what are we to make of the passages where Paul links the flesh to “the law” (3:2, 3:5)?

The answer lies in what we’ve already observed about the Galatian problem and Paul’s corrective teaching. Galatians 3:3 is surrounded by references to justification and is not a departure from that topic. Here’s the passage again with some context:

I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose. O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? … Does he who supplies the Spirit to you and works miracles among you do so by works of the law, or by hearing with faith—just as Abraham “believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”? Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham. (Gal. 2:21-3:7)

In this sequence, Paul begins with how we obtain righteousness and ends with how we become true sons of Abraham. These are both ways of speaking of our position with God, our standing, as is evidenced by the reference to what is “counted” as righteousness in Galatians 3:6 (compare Paul’s extended discussion of justification in Romans 4 based on the same quotation from Genesis 15:6).

In context, “now being perfected” refers to completing our standing with God, our justification—a foolish effort for at least two reasons: (1) the old covenant was never intended to justify, and (2) believers already stand in grace, fully justified by faith. There is nothing to perfect (finish).

What, then, does “in the flesh” refer to? It should come as no surprise that “the flesh” in Galatians 3:3 has the same meaning we see in all the other non-physical references in the epistle. It refers to the sinfulness that remains in believers. Since the Law is already fulfilled in Christ, and justification is already fully accomplished for those who believe, any effort to complete that standing through the Law is a farce. What is really driving that effort is pride, envy, strife, and similar “passions” and “desires” (5:24b).

Galatians 4:9-10

What about Paul’s reference to “turn[ing] back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more”? Is he speaking here of believers who know they are fully justified “returning” to personal effort as a growth strategy?

The understanding of 3:3 above has no difficulty here. These weak and worthless elementary principles are not the Law of Moses. The predominantly-Gentile Galatians could not “return” to those; rather, Paul indicates that attempting to be “more justified” through portions of a now-ended covenant is, in reality, an expression of pride, envy, strife, and various evil desires (see, again, Gal. 6:12-13).

To put it another way, if you have finished a journey, then try to somehow go further by stepping on to some stairs that are not actually there anymore, what you do is fall (Gal. 5:4).

Wrapping Up

“The flesh” in Galatians does not include the tiniest particle of desire to grow in Christlikeness or to bring God pleasure (Col 1:10, 2 Cor. 5:9) through disciplined obedience (1 Tim 4:7b-8), nor was calling believers to work hard at serving others and at growing in holiness any part of the Galatian error.

“The law” in Galatians refers either to the Mosaic Covenant itself or (possibly more often) the specific error of viewing Law as a path to justification. It does not refer to law as an abstraction, much less to “man-made rules.”

In most cases, “faith” in Galatians is the alternative to the false gospel of justification by works (e.g., Gal. 2:16, 3:11, 3:24). In this epistle, faith is not set up in opposition to works as a method of living the Christian life (i.e., sanctification). Indeed, the idea that we grow either by faith or by works is implicitly rejected in statements like these:

For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Gal. 5:13)

And let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up. (Gal. 6:9)

The word for “justify” (dikaioō) and its close cousin “righteousness” (dikaiosunē) appear thirteen times in 2:15-5:15, the section of the book that focuses on countering the Galatian error. As always in Paul, it refers to the believer’s standing before God and what is credited to him.

Galatians does not encourage us to view the Christian life as one in which nothing but faith is required of us, nor does it teach that growth in sanctification occurs by faith alone.

1 These are: 1:16, “anyone;” 2:16 “no one;” 2:20, “live in the flesh;” 4:13 “bodily ailment;” 4:14 “condition;” 4:23 & 29, “born…the flesh;” 6:13, “boast in your flesh.”

2 Negative references to “the flesh” in Galatians:

  • in contrast with the Holy Spirit: Gal. 3:3, 5:16 & 17, 5:19 (cf. 5:22), 6:8
  • parallel with the “works of the law”: Galatians 3:3 (compare Gal. 3:2, 3:4)
  • what “freedom” may, but should not be, used for: Galatians 5:13
  • in contrast to serving one another and “fulfil[ling]” the Law: Galatians 5:13-14
  • what produces “works” such as “sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife…and things like these”: Galatians 5:19-20
  • what is already crucified: Galatians 5:24
  • linked with “passions and desires”: Galatians 5:24
  • sowing to it contrasted with doing good works: Galatians 6:8-9
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There are 26 Comments

DavidO's picture

Many reformed commentators do indeed understand Gal. 5:1 to include freedom from "man-made rules".  These include, if memory serves, John Gill, Matthew Henry, and the Westminster Divines (see Chapter 20 of the WCF).  And I think such an understanding is legitimate on the basis of a greater to lesser sort of reasoning. 

First, one could argue that any reinstitution of OT law that had been obsoleted amounts to a commandment of man, despite it being originally issued by God.  Second, if those laws of God which have been set aside are not to be reinstituted for a believer, surely no rule of human formulation ought to be laid upon a believer's conscience as divinely authoritative.  

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I think the greater to lesser argument doesn't work unless the role  "made made rules" in the argument has the same function as "God given rules."

So the greater to lesser argument works in this case:

God given rules cannot justify, therefore man-made rules cannot either.

But this argument fails...

God given rules cannot justify, therefore man-made rules cannot sanctify (or, as the argument attempt so often goes in reality: man-made rules are just bad, bad, bad.)

DavidO's picture

I think the phrasing is generally along the lines of:  Since the keeping of the law neither acquires nor maintains one's just standing before God, man-made rules can do neither as well.  But . . .

I understand that your primary concern here has been in regards to a sanctification by faith alone philosophy, but I'm uncomfortable with completely limiting the application of Gal 5 to justification.  My reason is related to the fact that progress in one's sanctification is indicated by more than one NT writer necessarily following justification and even as some legitimate basis for confidence in one's being genuinely justified.  

So when one believer's violation of fence-like man-made rules (however well-intentioned) is treated as sin by other believers, it's a problem germane to the teaching in the book of Galatians.  

DavidO's picture

every doctrine and ordinance of men is a yoke of bondage which should not be submitted to; nay, any action whatever, performed in a religious way and in order for a man's acceptance with God, and to obtain his favour, and according to his observance of which he judges of his state, and speaks peace and comfort to himself, or the reverse, is a yoke of bondage:

(emphasis mine)

Bert Perry's picture

I appreciate what David says, but let's take a couple of examples from history where we have some man-made rules that we apply without sin, IMO.

Obvious one; slavery.  The Bible does not ban it, but regulates it--but our man-made rule is that a man cannot participate on the "ownership" side because it requires man-stealing, violates Bibilcal rules of freeing the slave in seven years, and the like.  In the same way, we ban polygamy because persuading a young woman to be a part time wife to an old man instead of a full time wife to a young man requires a certain level of violence, often including banishment, killing, and castration of rivals for her affections.  Plus, Paul prohibits it for church leaders and notes that just one wife imposes something of a burden for serving God--what then with two or more?

Really any application of Scripture to situations today is going to involve some level of inference and application of Biblical principles--and hence one can reasonably see it as "man-made rules".  The question is not whether we do it, but rather whether we do it well, and how it relates to our doctrines of justification and sanctification.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

DavidO wrote:

... progress in one's sanctification is indicated by more than one NT writer necessarily following justification and even as some legitimate basis for confidence in one's being genuinely justified.  

So when one believer's violation of fence-like man-made rules (however well-intentioned) is treated as sin by other believers, it's a problem germane to the teaching in the book of Galatians.  

The first statement is certainly true. I don't see how the second follows from it, though.

I'm pretty sure that, if they think it through, everyone believes that Scripture must be applied and that we are not living the life if we fail to do so. The problem is mostly a rhetorical one, but the rhetoric causes quite a bit of confusion.

What I mean is that people often talk as though man-made rules were a harmful or useless category of belief/practice, but I don't think anybody really believes that. There is no Bible verse says it's wrong to randomly kill kittens, but none of us would view that as Christian conduct. We have not bothered to codify it in church covenants or college handbooks, but it's a rule nonetheless. 

So... I'm kind of expanding on what Bert said there. Examples can be found of "man-made rules" that even the most ardent anti-legalists hold to.

The problem in Galatia (and with so many before them, really) was misunderstanding what law was meant to do, thinking it can justify or--in itself--transform. So both "OT saints" and "NT saints" are vulnerable to thinking that obedience secures or adds to justification, or the opposite error: thinking that obedience does not have a role in sanctification. But in both the old and new covenant arrangements, justification is by faith and transformation/holy living is, at least in part, through obedience.

Dan Miller's picture

1. Is Law keeping necessary for justification?

1a. If so, then is it the OT Law as given and taught by the elders or Pharisees?

1b. or, is it new laws as given by men today?

2. Is Law keeping necessary for sanctification?

2a. If so, then is it the OT Law as given and taught by the elders or Pharisees?

2b. or, is it new laws as given by men today?

2c. or, is it something else?

3. Is Law keeping simply a way do express our love for God and to enjoy His kindness in giving us commands that bring true joy?

3a. If so, then is it the OT Law as given and taught by the elders or Pharisees?

3b. or, is it new laws as given by men today?

3c. or, is it something else?

 

I'm thinking these questions might serve to help point out more precisely what you are thinking. 

DavidO's picture

Ok, I think I have been less than clear.  I don't say that no application outside the express command can be made without creating a man-made rule that should be ignored.  I also don't say that man-made rules ought never be mandated in certain contexts in order to maintain order.   I tried to specify what kinds of things I was talking about when I said "fence-like" man-made rules.  I was trying to avoid examples to keep out of the weeds.  

Like Bert, I would be opposed to slavery that involved ownership, man-stealing, or an indefinite term, but I don't think everything historically called slavery is evil.  And I certainly don't think killing cats is wrong in every instance.  Even some random ones.  :)

I don't think, though, everyone thought I was hoping to gain approval for the day I make my slave go on an unfettered (see what I did there?) kitten killing spree.  :)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

No, it's killing kittens that is pure evil. Cats are fair game, absolutely. Biggrin

On the more serious point, where I was going with that is that people often talk as though man-made-rules was an entirely useless or unhelpful category, but since they don't really believe that, the energy would be better spent identifying where the real problem lies.

I've been working on that a bit, but it's still sketchy. Seems like there are multiple fails on the list of "things that make people get disgusted with do's and dont's in general in the Christian life"

  1. Poorly supported:    one of the most common scenarios is just that the arguments for saying "[this feature of our current culture] should be rejected by all real Christians" are just, frankly, stupid.
  2. Ignorance on the other end:   sometimes the scenario is that the one doing the negative reacting just really not understand the cultural situation and is reacting emotionally to even the suggestion that a practice they dearly love might be wrong.
  3. Context of excess:   the prohibition on the table is coming from an individual or ministry that devotes enormous amounts of energy to regulating externals, including what certainly seem to be (and maybe are) many very minute and petty details. So there is an impression (accurate or not, in varying degrees) that this is a superficial, externals-obsessed subculture.
  4. Inappropriate certainty & judgmentalism:  often accompanies #1--the one declaring the prohibition is doing so with a level of dogmatism that isn't warranted by the evidence, either in Scripture or in the culture... typically with implied or expressed harsh judgments of those who disagree.

These scenarios often give rise to charges of "legalism." I think "legalistic" (in the sense of 'resembling legalism') is often appropriate. In some extreme cases, yes, ministries seem to even lose sight of what our standing in Christ is grounded in. "Right with God" blurs into "accepted by God" or even "loved by God" so--intentionally or otherwise--many get the impression they are pretty much losing their salvation if they don't keep the rules. That is legalism in the purest sense.

More needs to be done to clarify the lingo "we" use when we're talking about the Christian life and how God views "us" as opposed to "what we do." Maybe I should do an article or two on that. (I don't personally use "right with God" or "not right with God" in reference to obedience... because of the Revivalism-bred confusion this feeds.... that and the fact that Scripture doesn't speak of believers in those terms... except to teach that they are always right with God. Rom. 5:1)

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm going to insert some responses below.... hopefully it won't look too confusing... I'll bold them

Dan Miller wrote:

1. Is Law keeping necessary for justification?

No. Never was.

1a. If so, then is it the OT Law as given and taught by the elders or Pharisees?

It isn't really relevant because there is no law, indeed could never be any law, that could justify. It just isn't what law does.

1b. or, is it new laws as given by men today?

2. Is Law keeping necessary for sanctification?

Yes. James and others even speak of "the law of Christ." In Galatians Paul commends "fulfilling" the Law.

2a. If so, then is it the OT Law as given and taught by the elders or Pharisees?

No. These folks distorted what God had given on many points.... though there main error was categorical: seeing law as path to justification

2b. or, is it new laws as given by men today?

No

2c. or, is it something else?

It is a combination of what God has given us and what we do to apply it

3. Is Law keeping simply a way do express our love for God and to enjoy His kindness in giving us commands that bring true joy?

That would be oversimplification. The commands of the NT are intended for our good but also for God's glory and our transformation. So they prescribe a "walk." 2 Cor. 7:1, Eph.4.1, etc. The blessing/joy is often not apparent! Some (most?) of it is for eternity and not now at all! 

3a. If so, then is it the OT Law as given and taught by the elders or Pharisees? No. They didn't have it right and even their "source" (Mosaic Code) is defunct.

3b. or, is it new laws as given by men today? See 2c above.

3c. or, is it something else?

 

I'm thinking these questions might serve to help point out more precisely what you are thinking. 

Dan Miller's picture

Here are my answers.

Dan Miller wrote:

1. Is Law keeping necessary for justification?

Yes, Someone had to keep the law perfectly to earn salvation. 

1a. If so, then is it the OT Law as given and taught by the elders or Pharisees?

1b. or, is it new laws as given by men today?

Neither, it was the OT Law, correctly applied to life

2. Is Law keeping necessary for sanctification?

2a. If so, then is it the OT Law as given and taught by the elders or Pharisees?

2b. or, is it new laws as given by men today?

2c. or, is it something else?

Something else. The OT Law, correctly applied to life(needs clarification!), is our new life. We are sanctified (position), and we reckon (accept our identity in Christ), repent (abandon our old man's thoughts and accept the mind of Christ), kill the old man, and live by the Spirit. 

But I am reluctant to say that all that Law keeping (even expressed as Law of Christ and Law of Love) is done for sanctification. It would be better to say that if it is done in the Spirit, it is our being sanctified.

And then the clarification above needs to be made. 

In Galatians, the issue of OTLaw-pushing, rules of men, and slavery does violate the Gospel. So I think we'd agree that justification is at stake.  The brand of legalism Paul is confronting in Galations ties works to justification. 

The way I see it, there are two(+?) "brands" of legalism. 

Bert Perry's picture

First of all, agreed with David that not all slavery is wicked--we ought to bring back the debtor's prison for poilticians, for example.  (but not kittens)  On the light side, I read David's comment initially as saying that he wasn't opposed to slavery that involved man-stealing......don't know if that's my error or his, but I got a smile out of it and am not accusing him of desiring to recapture the Amistad from the liberated.  :^)

Regarding Aaron's list, it strikes me that when he points out many of our rules are poorly supported, he's referring a lot to the logical fallacies we tolerate, like the various forms of the genetic fallacy (guilt by association is huge in our circles), the hasty generalization, and the non sequitur.  Often this occurs when there is really no clear Biblical argument for the rule being proposed.

One thing about Dan's list that bothers me a bit is the use of the word law.....here I think we can get away with it, but it strikes me that if I did it with a lot of people I go to church with, they'd definitely get confused vis a vis Paul's use of it.  I don't have a really good solution--I tend to refer to God's morality at times to differentiate from Paul's usage (which I think really refers more closely to Talmud than the books of Moses in the context), but I'd love to hear from others (Ed Vasicek--you out there?) on this.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

I'm not understanding your post, I think.

I don't believe that keeping 100% of the law 100% of the time would result in justification, even if someone could do it. So where Jesus tells His interlocutor "do this and you will live," or something similar, I'm inclined to think He is not speaking of justification. Luke 10:28-29... in v.29 the man desires "to justify himself."   ... which was the real problem. 

My main reason for taking the text this way is that if we understand Paul correctly on imputation, we are all guilty of Adam's sin, and perfect law-keeping from cradle to grave would not cancel that out--it would simply keep our load of guilt (as in, culpability) from growing as we sin.

So there is no mechanism in law-keeping itself for...

a. canceling out the debt we are born with

b. transforming our character from corrupt to Christlike

We have to be credited with righteousness that is not our own, and once that is accomplished (along with adoption, union with Christ, Spirit indwelling, and more) we are able to engage in obedience that is part of a transformative process. But it never contributes to paying the sin-debt at all.

 

One more note...  there are no "rules of men" in Galatians. At best, there are a couple of verses that might include that. But Paul's focus on "circumcision" is not random. They really were mainly using the "rules of God" in the wrong way.  (Admittedly, this turns them into "rules of men" in a backward sort of way: since they were no longer rules of God, what's left?  But this is not really the same thing as coming up with our own do's and dont's)

Dan Miller's picture

Sorry for being unclear. The "Someone" keeping the Law to earn justification is Jesus.

Anne Sokol's picture

I've been rolling this thread around mentally for a while, but I'm so out of it, I'm not sure I want to type out all my thoughts. But, I think I will start with some questions that trying to answer are very interesting even for me.

1. Aaron, the man-made rule to read your Bible every day is an excellent one. Can you please list, as comprehensively as you can, what you gain by obeying it? I mean, particularly in your relationship toward God and/or how God sees and views you when you obey or don't obey this rule?

2. Anyone, about the slavery example, are there instances in which one could have a slave and be fulfilling the requirements of God better than if they refused to have a slave? I.e., what spiritual, Christ-like virtue is being portrayed in that rule (that slavery is wrong)?

3. Is it really possible to make a man-made rule that forces us to fulfill, or assures us that we are fulfilling, God's law in our hearts (His law, to love him and love our neighbors)? Like, if a law cannot be made against love, joy, peace, long-suffering, etc., is it possible to make laws that enforce these things, not only in outward actions but in our inward beings (thoughts, intentions, motives, affections, etc)?

 

TylerR's picture

Editor

Regarding Gal 5:1, Aaron wrote:

  • "The 'yoke of slavery' was not rules in general or even the Law of Moses, per se, but the corrupt teaching that the Law (or some parts of it) is the path to justification."
  • I agree completely. Well said. 

Regarding Gal 3:2-3, Aaron wrote:

  • "Since the Law is already fulfilled in Christ, and justification is already fully accomplished for those who believe, any effort to complete that standing through the Law is a farce."
  • I agree as well. The problem is that the Judaizers were attempting to pervert the simplicity of the Gospel by adding the Mosaic law to the finished work of Christ. Thus, their equation was "Jesus + Law = Salvation." Paul scoffed at that idea, as though the Spirit began salvation, and they finished it. Sounds more than a bit like the Roman Catholic scheme of justification (Catechism of the Catholic Church, para. 2027). 

Tyler is a pastor in Olympia, WA and an Investigations Manager with a Washington State agency. He's the author of the book What's It Mean to Be a Baptist?

Dan Miller's picture

Aaron Blumer wrote:
...

I don't believe that keeping 100% of the law 100% of the time would result in justification, even if someone could do it. So where Jesus tells His interlocutor "do this and you will live," or something similar, I'm inclined to think He is not speaking of justification. Luke 10:28-29... in v.29 the man desires "to justify himself."   ... which was the real problem. 

...

I have thought that Jesus is speaking here of the the Law and [failed] justification. That is, Jesus intends and accomplishes the "First use of the Law." Remember that the question asked was, "25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”"

The guy wanted to know what HE had to do to gain eternal life. "Love God, Love your neighbor." And the guy knows he can't do it. He immediately starts trying to bring the neighbor part down to a level he thinks he can do. 

Bert Perry's picture

Anne Sokol wrote:

I've been rolling this thread around mentally for a while, but I'm so out of it, I'm not sure I want to type out all my thoughts. But, I think I will start with some questions that trying to answer are very interesting even for me.

1. Aaron, the man-made rule to read your Bible every day is an excellent one. Can you please list, as comprehensively as you can, what you gain by obeying it? I mean, particularly in your relationship toward God and/or how God sees and views you when you obey or don't obey this rule?

2. Anyone, about the slavery example, are there instances in which one could have a slave and be fulfilling the requirements of God better than if they refused to have a slave? I.e., what spiritual, Christ-like virtue is being portrayed in that rule (that slavery is wrong)?

3. Is it really possible to make a man-made rule that forces us to fulfill, or assures us that we are fulfilling, God's law in our hearts (His law, to love him and love our neighbors)? Like, if a law cannot be made against love, joy, peace, long-suffering, etc., is it possible to make laws that enforce these things, not only in outward actions but in our inward beings (thoughts, intentions, motives, affections, etc)?

 

I really like #1; the comments I made were proscriptive, that is prescriptive.  We start first with the obvious; the great number of agnostic/otherwise unbelieving professors of religion in our universities demonstrates clearly that reading the Bible every day does not save you--the German form critics come to mind in this regard, though I'd be pleasantly surprised if some of them did believe.  So we dispense with the legalism argument right there.  How do we make the argument, then?  Well, my way is to say that nothing in the Bible requires you to talk with your wife--you are to listen to them with understanding, provide the marital comfort when they want it, and the like, but do you really have to talk to your wife and find out what makes her tick?

I speak facetiously here, of course; no sane man would do that.  OK, then why do so many "Christians" neglect to hear Jesus out on what He wants through the reading of Scripture and prayer?  So I would argue it's a valid inference from the very nature of God--as One who reveals His Will in His Word.  Or as we say in engineering, "read the manual".  

Regarding #2 and the issue of slavery, I've viewed the church's response as primarily towards the slaveholders and the society that tolerates it, not the slaves themselves.  Any church in a slavery-tolerating society needs to apply God's Word regarding man-stealing, cruelty towards "servants" ("servus" is Latin for "slave", by the way), and the like.  

And toward the servants?  that's a lot harder.  Are we talking debtor's prisons for debts willingly contracted, or are we talking America's peculiar institution?  There probably is a point where the evils of the institution are so evil that churches might be justified operating an underground railroad a la Harriet Tubman.  On another level, though, did the underground railroad harden the nation so that the Civil War became inevitable, and a Wilberforce bloodless emancipation impossible?  I can't really say.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Aaron Blumer's picture

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Anne Sokol wrote:

I've been rolling this thread around mentally for a while, but I'm so out of it, I'm not sure I want to type out all my thoughts. But, I think I will start with some questions that trying to answer are very interesting even for me.

1. Aaron, the man-made rule to read your Bible every day is an excellent one. Can you please list, as comprehensively as you can, what you gain by obeying it? I mean, particularly in your relationship toward God and/or how God sees and views you when you obey or don't obey this rule?

I don't think this one counts as man-made...  Josh 1.8, Psalm 1.2, many others.  Though maybe it's "more like a guideline, really." Smile

We obey because it's right and God has told us He uses this (Php. 2:12 for example). Sometimes there are observable or detectable benefits, sometimes not. This is usually not the important question, because the results are not our concern.

But in general, 1 John 1:9 and context is helpful on this. While our standing in grace (Rom. 5.2), our union with Christ, our position as adoption children, etc., is not altered by our obedience or lack of it, God is actively pleased or displeased by our actions. Otherwise, what could 2 Cor. 5:9 possibly mean? (among other passages)

Also our actions bring Him glory or they do not... or perhaps do in varying degrees. Otherwise, what could 1 Cor. 10:31 possibly mean?

So pleasing Him and reflecting His glory are a couple of results... and they are plenty all by themselves! But we know there is more because God is work using our obedience to transform us.

Anne Sokol wrote:
2. Anyone, about the slavery example, are there instances in which one could have a slave and be fulfilling the requirements of God better than if they refused to have a slave? I.e., what spiritual, Christ-like virtue is being portrayed in that rule (that slavery is wrong)?

It is the virtue of doing right rather than wrong.

It's true that looking at a person as a whole, it's always possible to be failing in area 1, but thriving in areas 2 and 3. While someone else might be walking worthy in area 1 but not being obedient in 2 and 3. So if you plug "slavery" in as "area 1," sure someone who does could, on the whole, be better than someone who doesn't... all things considered.

But it doesn't matter. Wrong things are still wrong regardless of "the person as a whole." And right is always better than wrong... this is by definition.

Anne Sokol wrote:
3. Is it really possible to make a man-made rule that forces us to fulfill, or assures us that we are fulfilling, God's law in our hearts (His law, to love him and love our neighbors)? Like, if a law cannot be made against love, joy, peace, long-suffering, etc., is it possible to make laws that enforce these things, not only in outward actions but in our inward beings (thoughts, intentions, motives, affections, etc)?

A rule does not enforce anything. It doesn't even necessarily get enforced, though that's often the case. We're really just talking about obedience. God commands us to love Him, and this is, in fact His first rule (Matthew 22:37-40). But many "rules" are simply applications of Scripture, expressions of obedience in some specific way.

So, to put it another way, a "rule" in the sense of applied Scripture as an imperative or a prohibition of some sort--these are things people choose to live by or choose not to live by. They have no power to enforce. The power to enforce is something else... and the role of coercion is a completely different topic having to do with "powers that be" (to use the biblical phrase) and their legitimate spheres of authority and so on.

But maybe it helps to clarify what I'm not saying with all this: I am not saying that acts of superficial obedience with no faith, no devotion to Christ, and no prior justification does any substantial good. So several scenarios are possible...

  • A faithless, non-justified person can conform to requirements thinking this is a means of justification... But this accomplishes nothing. (It's better than his doing pure evil, but only in the sense of outcomes... people around him benefit from his living a "moral" lifestyle... and temporally he has some benefits, in terms of natural cause and effect.... but his standing with God is not helped one bit.)
  • A believer--who is, of course, justified--can think that he is living the Christian life properly, and that God will transform him, if he rejoices in the gospel but, other than that, doesn't practice any disciplines; he doesn't believe he must strive, run the race with endurance, press toward the mark, diligently add virtue to his faith, beat down his body, exercise himself in godliness, and other biblical phrases.  
    He is nowhere near as bad off as the first guy, but he is in for surprises at the Second Coming. (1 John 2:28-29 comes to mind)
  • A believer, also justified, may think that though he came to be in Christ by faith alone, he must now do A, B, and C in order to remain justified, or he may think he never was justified and won't be until he does A, or B, etc. This is what was happening in Galatia. In this case, the believer is still justified, but has seriously erred into legalism.
  • A believer, justified as all believers are, may think that his position as God's child, accepted in the Beloved, in Christ, etc., is fully accomplished and cannot be altered in any way, yet also believe that now, as a slave of Christ, he has duties, obligations, commitments to keep, a new lifestyle to live--and further believe that his obedience is graciously used by God as part of His transforming work. He may also understand that obedience to Christ means applying His commands to daily life in whatever conditions he finds himself in.      ... This believer would be correct.
Aaron Blumer's picture

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Dan Miller wrote:

Aaron Blumer wrote:

I don't believe that keeping 100% of the law 100% of the time would result in justification, even if someone could do it. So where Jesus tells His interlocutor "do this and you will live," or something similar, I'm inclined to think He is not speaking of justification. Luke 10:28-29... in v.29 the man desires "to justify himself."   ... which was the real problem. 

...

I have thought that Jesus is speaking here of the the Law and [failed] justification. That is, Jesus intends and accomplishes the "First use of the Law." Remember that the question asked was, "25 And behold, a lawyer stood up to put him to the test, saying, “Teacher, what shall I do to inherit eternal life?”"

The guy wanted to know what HE had to do to gain eternal life. "Love God, Love your neighbor." And the guy knows he can't do it. He immediately starts trying to bring the neighbor part down to a level he thinks he can do. 

Yes, I missed the "eternal life" reference in the context. I'm still not sure Jesus really intends to answer his question though. Jesus is often eliptical in response to questions because He sees past them to the person's real problem. It's really a lot of fun to read! In many cases He is clearly being nonresponsive in the sense of not going where the questioner wants at all. In other cases, it's hard to tell for sure.

So I'm inclined to think that yes, He is using Law to expose the questioner's true condition... but He is also not saying that if the guy really did keep all of the law, that would somehow cancel out his status as one "in Adam" rather than "in Christ" or cancel the guilt that goes with being a son of Adam.   ... which I don't think you were saying either though I wasn't sure earlier.

In some ways talk of keeping the whole law is sort of automatically nonsensical, like talking about square circles, because if a persion could keep the whole law he would not be the sort of being who really even needs to... and if he was the sort of being who desperately needed to keep the whole law to gain eternal life....he would already be the sort who cannot possibly do that. *shok* ... and Dash 1

So it gets completely circular in hurry.  It's pretty much a rhetorical device ... a way of helping people see that graciously credited righteousness is truly our only hope!

Anne Sokol's picture

I want to talk about this example of slave ownership, to demonstrate that rules are not really the point of what accomplishes God's will on earth or in our lives.

Let's say we live in Hebrew society  a few 1000 years ago. I'm a Hebrew man. And I see my "neighbor" making a deal to indenture his daughter in order to get money to pay a debt.

Another man who knows this neighbor has just noted the situation and continued walking by. The man my neighbor is agreeing is not really a kind man either--he's known for his cruelty even at times. So ... I'm concerned for this child being indentured. I go over to my neighbor and indicate my interest in the transaction, and I'm told the price and years of her indenture-ship (slavery, we could say).

Rather than let the child be passed into the possession of this unkind man, I have the money to buy her myself, so my neighbor can have sufficient money to repay his debt. So I buy the girl for her certain years of service, having no desire to "own" her or disrespect her person; rather, out of respect to her person, I want to pay for her, so I can keep her free--even though she may end up living in my house with my children, etc., for these years.

Legally, I have bought a slave. But herein, I have also fulfilled the law of God-- to love my neighbor as myself.

And considering the vast numbers of women and children in multiple forms of "slavery" today, we might do well to think about how we can live out the law (heart) of God towards them.

.... Will return later for #s 1 and 3 ...

Anne Sokol's picture

Faith sanctifies me, not my works.

This is what I didn't understand for years and years. I had this idea that my maturity would be getting more and more advanced in doing christian exercises (so to speak), and God would be more and more pleased with me the more and more I achieved these things. I think this is normally kind of how we view sanctification. That it is a type of earning because it's based on my behavior and achievements.

But I understand things a bit differently right now, and I will try to explain what, exactly, is different, in clear points so that it might be understandable.

I realized that Christ's righteousness applied to me affects my every-day life, not just the day I will stand before God.

Christ is my sanctification. What does this mean?

Every law of God is too high for me to attain, and Christ attained it for me. This is my faith for today-- and as the days go by, I must go deeper and deeper into this belief and into the love that arises to God in thanks for this.

Whatever "good work" I do, it never meets God's standard. But I believe that Christ attained God's standard of righteous living (sanctification) on my behalf, and my good deeds follow this.

For example:

Reading my Bible every day? REeding it through in a year? That is no where near what God's law demands of me. I must perfectly believe God's words, perfectly love God's words, and perfectly do God's words. I must meditate on them continually. I  must value them more than any sum of money.

I cannot achieve this standard in this lifetime! However, Christ achieved it! He really did it! It's is absolutely amazing what Christ did in perfectly living out God's will toward His word.

Now, here I am. Today, the read your Bible every day is a popular man-made rule--in the pharisees day (before universal literacy and the copious amounts of easily published literature), they wore phylacteries to try and satisfy God's standard. But did they believe, love and do it? They thought so.

What happens with this mistaken approach to sanctification is that is starts with me and my performance.

Here is perhaps what should be: Dear God, Your commands about Your Word are so high, so good, so right. So perfect! Thank you that Christ perfectly fulfilled Your desires towards Your Word. Thank you that He always believed Your Words and never doubted or questioned them. He built His entire life on your words! Never swerving from them. Thank You that He loved Your Words--and that means He loved You because You are the one who spoke them and who continually fulfills them! Dear God, thank You  that in every single way, Christ obeyed and did Your Words.

Thank you, too, that he satisfied all this for me, too. And Lord, show me how, today, to live towards your words as Christ did. Lead me in believing, loving, and doing your words. Do your will in my life here. By Your Spirit in me, show me where I am not believing Your words, where I am not loving you because of your words, and where I need to live out obedience to your words. Make me a follower of Christ as I relate to your word.  

OK, that's the idea. And it might look like reading my bible every day. Or reading it 3 times a day. or reading it all day Saturday. or meditating on a verse or portion. or seeing and applying a new obedience. But those disciplines  are merely tools-- they are not sanctification (the achievement of Christ's righteousness in me).

But that is one main thing I have changed in my approach to sanctification-- that it's not trying to follow helpful rules--that is one level, but it's limited, accomplished pretty much by lowering God's standards to some level we can keep (mostly).

 

that is why i say faith sanctifies me (the belief that Christ, for me, attained God's standard) and not my works (which will never attain God's standard of perfection in this life).

Two other things i won't elaborate on-- our works or disciplines can be useful for subduing our bodies and for serving others.

Aaron Blumer's picture

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12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (ESV2011, Phil 2:12-13)

Well, I'd agree that "rules are not the point." They are, however a means... and even then, only one of them--a very important one. Any practical application we make of Scripture is really a rule by another name (though of course we often botch the process of interpretation/application and end up with a foolish rule... and often enough no attempt to apply Scripture is made at all.. even worse.  But doing something badly isn't an argument against the activity; it's an argument against doing it badly.)

As for sactified by faith not works, in the NT it is quite clearly both-and not either-or.

If that isn't the case, what does this passage mean?

12 Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, 13 for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. (ESV2011, Phil 2:12-13)

And why does Paul encourage faith working (usually in relation to "love" in the context)?

1 Thess 1:3 remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.

2 Thess. 1:11 To this end we always pray for you, that our God may make you worthy of his calling and may fulfill every resolve for good and every work of faith by his power,

Bert Perry's picture

One thing that comes to mind regarding Aaron's comment is that perhaps a great portion of the trouble with a lot of our rules is that we adopt a rule in one setting, but try to impose it in all settings whether or not the logic works.  

 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

Aaron, 

"Both...And" is probably right. 

Aaron Blumer wrote:
...

Well, I'd agree that "rules are not the point." They are, however a means... and even then, only one of them--a very important one. Any practical application we make of Scripture is really a rule by another name (though of course we often botch the process of interpretation/application and end up with a foolish rule... and often enough no attempt to apply Scripture is made at all.. even worse.  But doing something badly isn't an argument against the activity; it's an argument against doing it badly.)

...

Depends on what you mean by "means." Cart-and-horse type problem? See James and works necessarily following faith.

At the end of this paragraph, you bring up "doing it badly" not being an argument against doing it. Right. But what modifications of thought are necessary for "doing it well"? I think you should contrast Colossians 2 and 3 and I think there you'll find "doing it badly" contrasted with "doing it well."

Anne Sokol's picture

Are we free from the law? The answer is Yes and No. Can man-made rules benefit us or harm us? The answer is Yes and No.

Some notes from The 1689 Bapt Confession of Faith. And soon, I may post notes from Samuel Bolton's book The True Bounds of Christian Freedom-- he exactly addresses many of these issues.

From the section: The Law

Although true believers are not under the law as a covenant of works, to be justified or condemned by it, yet it is of great use to them as well as to others, because as a rule of life it informs them of the will of God and their duty and directs and binds them to walk accordingly. It also reveals and exposes the sinful pollutions of their natures, hearts and lives, and using it for self-examination they may come to greater conviction of sin, greater humility and greater hatred of their sin. They will also gain a clearer sight of their need of Christ and the perfection of His own obedience. It is of further use to regenerate people to restrain their corruptions, because of the way in which it forbids sin. The threatenings of the law serve to show what their sins actually deserve, and what troubles may be expected in this life because of these sins even by regenerate people who are freed from the curse and undiminished rigours of the law. The promises connected with the law also show believers God's approval of obedience, and what blessings they may expect when the law is kept and obeyed, though blessing will not come to them because they have satisfied the law as a covenant of works. If a man does good and refrains from evil simply because the law encourages to the good and deters him from the evil, that is no evidence that he is under the law rather than under grace.

The aforementioned uses of the law are not contrary to the grace of the Gospel, but they sweetly comply with it, as the Spirit of Christ subdues and enables the will of man to do freely and cheerfully those things which the will of God, which is revealed in the law, requires to be done.

 

And from the section: Good Works:

When we have done all we can, we have only done our duty, and are still unprofitable servants. And in any case, in so far as our works are good they originate from the work of the Holy Spirit. Even then, the good works are so defiled by us, and so mixed with weakness and imperfection, that they could not survive the severity of God's judgement.

Yet, quite apart from the fact that believers are accepted through Christ as individual souls, their good works are also accepted through Christ. It is not as though the believers are (in this life) wholly unblameable and unreprovable in God's sight, but because He looks upon them in His Son, and is pleased to accept and reward that which is sincere, although it is accompanied with many weaknesses and imperfections.

 

 

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