Theology Thursday - Dispensationalists on the Law & the Christian

On “Theology Thursday,” we feature short excerpts on various areas of systematic theology, from a wide variety of colorful (and drab) characters and institutions. Some are orthodox, but decidedly outside the Baptist orbit. Others are completely heretical. Regardless of heresy or orthodoxy, we hope these short readings are a stimulus for personal reflection, a challenge to theological complacency, and an impetus for apologetic zeal “to encourage you to contend earnestly for the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints” (Jude 3).

Myron Houghton

“Those who believe that salvation is by grace alone through faith alone recognize that the role of the law is to show sinners that they are, in fact, sinful and that they need a Savior. Once the law has accomplished this purpose, it ceases to function as a part of salvation: ‘Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes’ (Rom 10:4).

This use of the law in showing the lost their need of a Savior becomes a hermeneutical principle. Any passage that makes demands by causing the reader to be afraid of God, whether in the Old or New Testament, is to be considered law. By the same token, any passage that offers God’s free forgiveness apart from demands, whether in the Old or New Testament, is to be considered gospel.”1

“[T]he word ‘law’ can be used in several different ways in Scripture:

  1. the Ten Commandments (Rom 7:7-13),
  2. the civil law of the Old Testament (Lev. 11:16, cf. vv. 1-45),
  3. the ceremonial law in the Old Testament (Lev 6:9, 14),
  4. the first five books of the Bible (Rom 3:21c),
  5. any statement in Scripture that condemns or makes a person feel guilty (Rom 4:14, 15),
  6. God’s Word in general (James 1:25),
  7. the righteous standard of moral law (Rom. 8:4),
  8. a principle or fact (Rom 8:2a), and
  9. Christ’s command for believers to love one another (Gal 6:2).

I previously mentioned these in the context of the Reformed theology articulated in the Westminster Confession, which teaches that numbers 2 and 3 of this list do not apply to the believer today. However, I mention them again to show that in my understanding of dispensational theology, numbers 1-5 do not apply to the believer today. The believer is not under law when ‘law’ is used in the first five ways listed above. However, one can still affirm the meanings of law as described in numbers 6-9: the role of God’s Word in the life of the believer, the role of moral law’s righteous standard, the law as a principle, and the role of Christ’s command for believer to love one another.”2

“Is the believer today under the law? We have seen that the law makes demands, shows us our guilt, manifests God’s wrath, and terrifies us of Him. The gospel, however, does not make demands, but shows us God’s promise of salvation and forgiveness based upon Christ’s death and resurrection. But we know that the New Testament Epistles clearly make demands under believers today. If Law and Gospel are the only two categories available, the believer must be placed under Law. To me, there is another category: Grace. While grace in the form of Gospel does not make demands, grace as guidelines for managing a believer’s life does make them. So, rather than placing today’s believer under the law, since Paul stated in Romans 6:14 that today’s believer is not under law but under grace, it seems better to view believers as under grace as a set of guidelines that makes demands upon them.”3

Alva McClain

“The charge has been made that in affirming the believer is not under the law we are rejecting a part of Scripture. This slanderous charge has been answered already by the Biblical evidence presented earlier, but I wish to deal with it more specifically.

First, we deny categorically any rejection of the law. On the contrary, we accept the law of God in Scripture in its totality, including all its elements—moral, ceremonial and civil—not merely a small part of the law stripped of its penalties, as our opponents are accustomed to do. They, not we, are the real rejecters of the law!”4

“To summarize: In relation to the Christian, the law, as law, having been completely fulfilled and satisfied in Christ, has been “done away.” But as law it still remains to operate as an external restraint upon the ungodly. On the other hand, the law, as inspired Scripture, abides for all the saved and as such is ‘profitable’ in all its parts. Only the soul is saved by grace, understanding clearly what took place at Calvary, can truly delight in the law of the Lord. Such a one has seen in the cross the awful severity and doom of the law and rejoices in the assurance that its demands have been satisfied to the last farthing by the Lamb of God.”5

Charles Ryrie

“If Christ ended the Law, then why does the New Testament include some laws from the Mosaic Law in its ethic? How could the unit end and yet have specifics in it still binding on the Christian? …”6

“The only solution (which I have never seen proposed by anyone else) that seems to do full justice to the plain sense of these various Scriptures distinguishes between a code and the commandments contained therein … The Mosaic Law was done away in its entirety as a code. It has been replaced by the law of Christ. The law of Christ contains some new commands (1 Tim 4:4), some old ones (Rom 13:9), and some revised ones (Rom 13:4 with reference to capital punishment). All the laws of the Mosaic code have been abolished because the code has. Specific Mosaic commands that are part of the Christian code appear there not as a continuation of part of the Mosaic Law, or in order to observed in some deeper sense, but as specifically incorporated into that code, and as such they are binding on believers today. A particular law that was part of the Mosaic code is done away; that same law, if part of the law of Christ, is binding. It is necessary to say both truths in order not to have to resort to a nonliteral interpretation of 2 Corinthians 3 or Hebrews 7 and in order not to have to resort to some sort of theological contortions to retain part of the Mosaic Law.”7

Notes

1 Myron Houghton, Law & Grace (Schaumberg, IL: RBP, 2011), 115.

2 Ibid, 116-117.  

3 Alva McClain, Law and Grace: A Study of New Testament Concepts as They Relate to the Christian Life (reprint; Winona Lake, IN: BMH, 2011), 120.  

4 Ibid, 70.  

5 Ibid, 72.  

6 Charles Ryrie, Basic Theology: A Popular Systematic Guide to Understanding Biblical Truth (Chicago, IL: Moody, 1999), 350.

7 Ibid, 351-352.  

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TylerR's picture

Editor

I posted a preliminary sketch of my own view on the law for the Christian on my blog. It is similar to Ryrie, whom I read a long time ago on this and always thought was close to the mark. It is only a tentative outline, and I'll add to it throughout the years. It represents where I'm at now. It needs Scripture references and a whole lot of other stuff, but it's there for discussion . . . and critique! 

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?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I recently came across this tome by some Reformed Baptists on, among other things, the place of the Old Covenant Law for the believer today under the New Covenant. I'm going to request it via inter-library loan and see what they have to say. Should be an interesting perspective. If anybody has it, feel free to gimmie your opinion on it . ..  

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?

TylerR's picture

Editor

I took another look at James, and read through the whole letter this morning before church. James 2:12 is the key to this passage. I'm not sure what it means! I have to take a closer look at it. Thanks for pointing it out. It's a tough one . . .

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?

ScottS's picture

Tyler, regarding:

How do you get a past-tense flavor with no ongoing consequences from the perfect tense-form of this verb?

A perfect tense does not indicate how those effects continue. There are still "ongoing consequences," namely:

  1. IF someone murdered (v.11b), the Law still condemns (that is the function of the Law).
  2. IF (or better, 'when') someone breaks any one point of the Law, under Law one is still condemned by that Law as if the whole had been broken (because breaking one part breaks the whole, v.10).
  3. IF ('when') someone breaks the Law, which is righteous (Paul is more explicit on this in Rom 7:12, but James is assuming the righteousness of it to judge), they are still shown to be unrighteous, worthy of condemnation by the Law.

So there are at least those three effects that are ongoing. 

How those effects actually apply will vary depending upon faith. (I'm going to mix some Pauline revelation in here, as I do not follow the crowd that sees Paul and James as being opposing to each other; rather, I see them as complementary.) The Law should convict one that righteousness cannot come by it (per Gal 3:24), it should cause one not to use the Law to work for righteousness (Rom 4:4; Phil 3:9).

For those that have come to righteousness by faith, the law has ended any purpose of proving righteousness (Rom 10:4). Rather, righteousness should flow from the liberty one has in faith. I think this is likely what "judged by the law of liberty" is referring to; God will judge the works of believers not for purposes of condemning (as the Law would), for they are already set at liberty—set free (Rom 6:18; 1 Pet 2:15-16)—but rather for purposes of rewarding those that rightly use that freedom (1 Cor 3:13-15; Rev 22:12). And this same idea I believe is the point of James's discussion of the relation of faith and works. James clearly ties faith to righteousness (James 2:23[a]), as Paul did (Rom 4:3), but James makes the further statement related to that, for after having faith, Abraham showed himself to be of such faith that he is "called the friend of God" (James 2:23[b]). This friendship is why Abraham was even willing to sacrifice Isaac for God—so for James, "justified by works" (James 2:21, 24) is not referring to the accounting of righteousness, which was clearly by faith even for him, but rather indicating that true faith manifests itself evidentially in good works (James 2:18; without that evidence, there is only a dead faith that has no salvific effect, James 2:14, 17, 20, 26). This evidence of true faith is the justifying foundation for God rewarding such faithful works, for such works show the intended completion God's purpose for faith and salvation (James 2:22; Eph 2:8-10).

So back to the passage in question, these believers should be evidencing their faith by not showing partiality for rich over poor (James 2:1-4), for wealth is not a measure of one's faith or good works (James 2:5-7). This was opposite the Old Covenant promise of Deuteronomy 28:1-6, 8, 11-12, where one who did the Law, followed all, was promised wealth. It was a promise the Jewish believers James was writing to would be all too familiar with. But they were not under the Old Covenant, neither its Law or its potential blessings and curses, any more. They were again operating under liberty from that Law, fully under the promise of God by faith as Abraham had, and so were expected to manifest that faith not in obedience to Law for reward, but in love for God and Christ's work for them.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

TylerR's picture

Editor

You wrote:

these believers should be evidencing their faith by not showing partiality for rich over poor (James 2:1-4), for wealth is not a measure of one's faith or good works (James 2:5-7). This was opposite the Old Covenant promise of Deuteronomy 28:1-6, 8, 11-12, where one who did the Law, followed all, was promised wealth. It was a promise the Jewish believers James was writing to would be all too familiar with. But they were not under the Old Covenant, neither its Law or its potential blessings and curses, any more. They were again operating under liberty from that Law, fully under the promise of God by faith as Abraham had, and so were expected to manifest that faith not in obedience to Law for reward, but in love for God and Christ's work for them.

This is the hinge of disagreement, and it reflects a fundamental difference in the way we think of the Old Covenant:

  • I agree a person must demonstrate his faith by righteous living, because he loves God. This is a universal principle - transcending covenants.
  • I disagree that wealth was promised to everybody who followed the Law. The context you cited are the covenant blessings and cursings. These are general statements to the entire community, general warnings of punishment for disobedience and blessings for obedience. The law had rules protecting and providing for the poor built into it, and Jesus Himself acknowledged that poor believers will always exist. I don't think an Old Covenant believer automatically expected wealth to flow to him in a great river if he obeyed the law. This presupposes this OC believer thought the law saved him. I thought we agreed a believer, from any time period, always obeyed God because He loved Him!?
  • I don't think James is pointing to a fundamental re-alignment away from the Old Covenant here. I think he is using Lev 19:8 (ciited in Jas 2:8) as the hinge to prove their own sin to them. He calls them to obey Lev 19:8. I don't think we can say he wasn't calling them to conform to the damands of Lev 19:8. That is key for me.

As far as James 2:8 goes  . . .

  • Many dispensationalists see the contrast as being between (1) the Mosaic Law and (2) Grace in Christ - in other words, a discontinuity
  • Why couldn't the contrast be between (1) the legalistic, blasphemous Judaism of the day (cf. Galatians) and (2) the real grace of salvation, which has been the same for all time? 

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?

ScottS's picture

Tyler, you state (my numbers in brackets to comment on below):

I disagree that wealth was promised to everybody who followed the Law. The context you cited are the covenant blessings and cursings. These are general statements to the entire community, general warnings of punishment for disobedience and blessings for obedience [1]. The law had rules protecting and providing for the poor built into it, and Jesus Himself acknowledged that poor believers will always exist [2] . I don't think an Old Covenant believer automatically expected wealth to flow to him in a great river if he obeyed the law. This presupposes this OC believer thought the law saved him [3]. I thought we agreed a believer, from any time period, always obeyed God because He loved Him [4]!? 

  1. I agree with you about the context of "covenant blessings and cursings" and that the statements are "general statements to the entire community." But if a general statement to bless and curse is not a promise to the individuals of that community, then who? Especially given that Israel at this time is not under a king who would consolidate the wealth to himself (1 Sam 8:14-15, 17)? The following blessings of children, land, and cattle increasing (Dt 28:4), food for a family (Dt 28:5), and storehouses of more (Dt 28:8), that is, all the blessings that deal more with the family wealth aspects (Dt 28:11), had to have an individual component behind the fulfillment of them. And further, while the statement was "general" in the sense that it was applicable to anyone who obeyed, it was very specific in the nature of blessings promised by God. So I cannot dismiss those points as not meaning what they say and that they have application to individuals. But I also understand there is a national aspect to these, so...
  2. God knew the people, the individuals, would not obey as they should, that the people would fall instead into the curses (Dt 30:1; 31:16-18; after all, there is none righteous, Ps 14:1–3; 53:1–3; Eccl 7:20; Rom 3:10). So that prosperity would not come as it could have if all had obeyed. For the sin of individuals in a community, especial a community in covenant with God, affects the community (e.g., Josh 7:1). And in particular as James is noting, the rich, sinful man oppresses (James 2:6; e.g. 1 Kg 12:13-14). A wicked, rich man might keep a godly, poor man from receiving the blessings of God as the poor man ought to have because of the community aspect. So yes, rules were in place for the poor within the Law, for God knew the Law would not be obeyed in total as it should, by the people in total as they should, and some protections were in place to help insulate those who are most vulnerable to sinful man's oppression (which also further condemned the sinful oppressors who would also likely not be following that part of the Law).
  3. That Old Covenant followers (whether believers or not) expected wealth for obedience seems quite evident to me, and even that salvation was linked to that. Such was evident within the time of Jesus, and I believe therefore the primary thought among the Diaspora who James was writing to:
    • The Pharisees were a wealthy lot, and believed it to be because of their obedience (Lk 18:11-12), deriding Christ's downplay of money (Lk 16:13-15). But Christ revealed they were oppressors (Mt 23:14) with misguided priorities on money (Mt 23:16-17).
    • The disciples could not grasp under their Old Covenant understanding that a wealthy, law abiding man (Mt 19:18-22) would not be saved (Mt 19:23-25).
    • The disciples also had to be taught that riches and storehouses for such were pointless without a proper heart (Lk 12:16-21; 16:19-23).
  4. With obedience, even under the Old Covenant, there was to be a proper heart (Dt 30:15-17), for not having such they would fail (Dt 28:47-48). But even believers who did then (or now do) love God still fail to obey at times (both then and now, under Law or free from Law) because of our sinful nature. And being a believer does not guarantee that one is only obeying out of love; that should be the motivation, but may not always be the motivation.

So I do believe an incorrect understanding of how wealth from obedience would occur, and what wealth meant, plagued Judaism.

Jesus obeyed the Law perfectly, but in this sinful world, He had no great wealth. This was not because He did not deserve it under the Old Covenant (as an individual, He did), but because He too was dealing with many in Israel (i.e., everyone else) not obeying the Law fully, so even faithful individuals in Israel, such as Jesus, would not see the rewards promised, for the sin of the nation was still very great (one might say at its greatest in rejecting the Messiah). But Jesus, from His obedience, will still have that wealth promise fulfilled (along with much more), as will those that are faithful, for "the meek shall inherit the earth" (Mt 5:5) when they inherit the kingdom (Mt 25:34), and blessings will come (Mt 19:29; Rev 21:7). This all comes through Christ's inheritance of all (Dan 7:14; 1 Cor 15:27-28; Heb 1:2; Rev 11:15). But it will not come until the final fulfillment of the New Covenant promises to Israel at the start of the millennial kingdom, when Israel will be turned fully to Him.

I'm not sure I see the connection you refer to with Lev 19:8, which I think was a typo, and so I assume you meant Lev 19:18 for James's citation in James 2:8. But whether a "fundamental re-alignment" is intended or not depends on what you mean. I agree that James was pointing to the command of Lev 19:18 as a good thing to follow, but not because it was part of the Law; rather because it reflected the heart of God and the heart a believer under liberty from the Law by faith should have (especially toward other believers, whether poor or rich, in the context of James's use). This goes back to my original post here, that ethical standards transcend Law, being based in the character of God, even if those standards were also later codified in Law (as here in Lev 19:18).

And I agree that the argument of James 2:8 is in part against a "legalistic, blasphemous" Judaisitic thought among the Diaspora (as the disciples had about views on wealth) who might have once tried to follow Law without the heart and faith behind the obedience. But perhaps we disagree on the fact that because Judaism had corrupted the following of Law does not negate what the Law could have done for blessing Israel (or an individual thereof) had they fulfilled it fully. Nor does the "legalistic, blasphemous" use of the Law mean that the Law itself is wholly contiguous with grace in Christ. That salvation has always been by grace through faith does not mean that those under Law would not have been condemned (temporally) for failure to follow it, even if saved, and they were under restrictions and condemnation of Law that those under the law of liberty in Christ are not under. So there is still a discontinuity between Mosaic Law and grace in Christ, even while eternal salvation has always been by faith in God and obedience always required a heart of faith to have any real worth to it.

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

TylerR's picture

Editor

You wrote:

That Old Covenant followers (whether believers or not) expected wealth for obedience seems quite evident to me, and even that salvation was linked to that.

I have two questions, and I'll provide my own short take so you don't feel like I'm interrogating you!

  • Are you saying that OC believers expected to become wealthy by obeying the law, or are you saying that the perverted form of Judaism resulted in equating wealth with righteousness, or both? My own take is that we're missing the point if we posit OC believers obeyed the law so they could become wealthy. It would be like saying "obey Christ today so you'll spend eternity with God." That would be missing the point. It would be works salvation. I may be misunderstanding. If we sat down for coffee, all this could be resolved in seconds. The limits of online communications . . .
  • Are you saying that James' citation of Lev 19:18 was not to say, "the OC law says this," but it was to say, "this universal principle which transcends covenants which happens to be in the OC says this"? That is, is do you see "the law" which James mentions as being God's universal ethic for believers, which is not necessarily tied to the OC system specifically? I agree this can be the case in certain contexts, but James goes on to cite "the whole law" and provides examples (Jas 2:10-11) which lead me to believe he has been referring specifically to the OC law throughout this entire section.

I am still wondering if we shouldn't see the contrast as being between (1) the perverted, false interpretation of the OC which was common in this day and (2) an authentic, heartfelt obedience to the Lord's commandments (which often transcend time). I'm not sure "the law of liberty" is really about (1) under law, but now (2) under grace. James seems to suggest the OC law, in some real sense, is applicable.

It seems to me as if we're forcing a system onto the text here, like Cinderella's ugly stepsister trying on the glass slipper (e.g. "I'll MAKE it fit!").  I need to briefly explain my own take on Jas 2:1-12, but haven't had the time yet. Sorry.

Feel free to read and comment on my own preliminary sketch of the law and the Christian here. A sidenote - in what way do you believe the Sermon on the Mount is applicable to believers today? I'm just curious, and don't feel compelled to offer up a detailed answer. It would help me get where you're coming from!

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?

ScottS's picture

Quickly regarding each of Tyler's questions

  • I think OT believers believed God's promises, so the way the OC was stated, they believed obedience would yield both salvation and wealth. Because of this, the "perverted" view arose that wealth indicated one was being obedient (and therefore would be saved; hence the disciples dismay about the rich not being saved). But there are numerous wealthy unbelievers, so wealth clearly was never intended to be a universal barometer of obedience. And even among Israel (who the promises apply to), for the wealth promises to manifest each individual had to be obedient because one sinful individual among the whole could affect all (I refer again to the Achan incident in Josh 7:1 as an example, but there are many others). So obedience was to be with a heart of love, but that I do not think that means the desire to be blessed by God was not also present in the motivation of believers.
  • I think James 2:8 is making a connection between the OC law and the universal principles behind some of those laws (the ethical ones). That is, James is quoting the Law. He is connecting it to the whole of that Law. But he is doing so to point out that if one is obeying because it is Law, one is doing good (by obeying), but is then missing the point that if you transgress elsewhere, you have still failed to obey the Law and are as guilty as if one had broken them all. Rather, it is better to obey because that obedience follows the heart of God, and not be shackled to obedience to appease a Law that will condemn. Under liberty, if one fails, one fails at that point, but will not be judged to have failed fully. But also under liberty, one should be more motivated to obey, because each success counts (unlike under Law, where 1,000,000 successes can be wiped out by 1 failure); it counts in reflecting one's faith (James 2:18).

Regarding your final question, I'll go with the safe answer: I think the Sermon on the Mount is applicable to believers today for it is "profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work" (2 Tim 3:16-17).

Scott Smith, Ph.D.

The goal now, the destiny to come, holiness like God—
Gen 1:27, Lev 19:2, 1 Pet 1:15-16

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