The Problem with Gender Studies

When I recently asked a class of undergraduates at Oglethorpe University if any of them thought there were “no meaningful differences between men and women,” two female students raised their hands. When I pointed to the obvious reproductive differences between males and females, which give young women the unique ability to conceive and bear children, they looked at me as if I had committed an act of hurtful bigotry. “It’s just not fair to put people in a box like that,” one of them offered. The other pointed out that not everyone has the unambiguous experience of feeling male or female. Gender, she observed, is complicated.

The context was a discussion of Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation that early nineteenth-century Americans recognized that women and men are equal, but that they also believed that women and men naturally serve different gender roles. I was attempting to elicit from my students the obvious recognition that while we may not hold the same assumptions about gender roles as did Americans during the 1800s, even we in the twenty-first century recognize that there are some basic physical differences between women and men—differences that have important social implications for the way we order society.

This observation is still too radical for some. The problem is not that they fail to appreciate the facts about human genitalia, which any three-year-old could explain to them. The sticking point, rather, is in that word “meaningful.” There may be physical differences between males and females, they concede, but those differences are not universal, nor are they determinative of anything. Gender is entirely socially constructed. It is the product of nurture, not nature, and to associate biological sex differences with gender is merely to promote the systemic injustices of gender inequality.

Read the rest of this article at Public Discourse.

Same-Sex Attraction and the Church

For far too long in this country it has seemed possible to enjoy both the Christian life and the American dream. Christians have conflated the way of Christ and the pursuit of happiness. It has never worked as well as it was supposed to, but the inconsistencies and contradictions have always seemed relatively minor. Now that has all changed, and in this excellent little book Ed Shaw, pastor of Emmanuel City Centre in Bristol, England, is calling the church to wake up.

Christians, including young evangelicals, are increasingly being persuaded that it is unreasonable, or, as Shaw puts it, implausible, to ask those who experience exclusively same-sex attraction to live celibate lives. Sexuality is considered to be central to human identity, and sexual experience is thought to be an essential part of any decent life. To expect a person to be celibate – for his or her entire life – is to ask that person to deny his or her very own self. It is to reject any and all possibility of happiness. And for many Christians this is simply too difficult to stomach. God wants us to be happy, doesn’t he?

Shaw captures the humanity and emotion of the argument for same-sex relationships in his opening story about a young man named Peter. Peter is an enthusiastic member of his evangelical church. Like other teenagers, he has experienced the excitement, the challenges, and the temptations of puberty, struggling to manage the fascinating new phenomena of sexual attraction in Christlike ways. But unlike all of his friends, Peter knows that he doesn’t merely have to wait, to practice abstinence until he finds the right woman. Peter is exclusively attracted to men and hasn’t been able to change that, and he knows that according to Christian teaching, that means he may never have sex.

Read the rest of this review at Reformation 21.

Love Casts Out Fear: Christian Witness in an Anxious Age

America’s version of Christendom has collapsed, and most evangelicals are still trying to figure out what this means for the nature of Christian witness. We are so used to being engaged socially and politically from a position of power and privilege that we do not even know where to begin now that it is so obvious we are a minority. Many are discouraged, afraid, and even bitter. While our African American brothers and sisters have long known what it meant to be an oppressed minority (and so are consequently less surprised by recent social and political developments and less likely to freak out over every new development that all is lost), for white evangelicals this is new.

Tim Keller and John Inazu have an excellent article at Christianity Today reflecting on the challenges of Christian witness in an increasingly pluralistic and anxious age.

Whatever one thinks of mainline Protestantism today, … it once provided the sociological and institutional framework that sustained the Protestant culture. That framework no longer exists. In its absence, the deep and accelerating cultural trends toward individualism and autonomy have continued to erode trust in social institutions—business, government, church, and even the family. And neither evangelicalism nor Roman Catholicism nor secularism has been able to fill the vacuum left by the shrinking of the Protestant mainline.

This new cultural reality raises some anxieties, but it also presents many of us with an opportunity to rediscover Christian witness in a world that we do not control. The dominant Protestant culture enabled some Christians in this country to forget, as the book of Hebrews proclaims, that here we have no abiding city. While we are called to love our neighbors and to maintain what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence,” no human society can be identified with the kingdom of God. Christians profess that our citizenship is in heaven (Phil. 3:20), which means that we are never quite at home.

Although Keller and Inazu are careful not to say it explicitly, the widespread confusion and panic this is causing is reflected in evangelicals’ willingness to support Donald Trump. Trump has no coherent policy framework to offer the country, but that’s not what many evangelicals are looking for. They are looking for someone to “shake things up.” They want someone who will stick it to the cultural and political elites. Upset over a revolution in sexuality and gender, they are willing to support a philanderer who has demonstrated little respect for women or for marriage in his life. Fearful about threats to religious liberty, they are willing to support a racist who has declared that practitioners of the world’s second largest religion should be banned from entering the United States.

Keller and Inazu rightly call Christians not to give in to such fear-driven public engagement but to engage as a means of witnessing to Christ, who is, after all, continuing to reconcile all things to himself regardless of the state of American politics. After all, America is not the kingdom of God. We need to rediscover what it means to live as resident aliens.

To live as resident aliens entails a certain vulnerability, but it does not always mean persecution. Claims that American Christians today are facing persecution sound tone-deaf not only to secular progressives but also to many non-white religious believers who have long been actual minorities. That isn’t to say that demographics aren’t changing, or that Christians in the United States don’t face legal abuses and miscarriages of justice. But it is a caution about the use of language and a posture of the heart.

One practical implication?

Christians might engage in the cause of religious liberty with more hope and less anxiety. Many Christians today feel increasing legal pressures on their institutions and the ways of life they are accustomed to. Some of these challenges are significant: campus ministries experience hurdles to campus access, Christian adoption and social service agencies confront regulations in tension with their missional convictions, and Christian educational institutions face threats to their accreditation and tax-exempt status. We should not be naïve to these challenges, and we should work diligently to find appropriate legal and policy responses. But we must make our case in publicly accessible terms that appeal to people of good will from a variety of religious traditions and those of no religious tradition. In doing so, we cannot ignore the importance of religious liberty for all. There is no principled legal or theological argument that looks only to the good of Christians over the interests of others.

Focusing on others means attending to the challenges and limits that they confront in the practice of their faith. Today’s cultural climate makes it especially essential for Christians to defend the religious liberty of American Muslims.

You can read the rest of Keller and Inazu’s excellent article here.

The Christian Idols of Sex, Marriage, and Family

In the sex-saturated culture in which we live, both progressives and traditionalists have come to embrace overly sexualized narratives of sex, marriage, and family. Both tend to idealize sex as a fundamental part of human flourishing, essential to personal wholeness. Progressives emphasize the goods of sex to such an extent that they have largely abandoned the notion that good sex can only take place within a heterosexual, married relationship. The only ethical guidance they seem to be able to provide individuals seeking sexual flourishing is to tell them to respect the consent of others and do what seems right to them. Traditionalists, for their part, idealize the permanent union between a man and a woman and the nuclear family that is supposed to flow from it as if it were the greatest and most wonderful relationship that any person could know in this life.

These narratives have deeply shaped Christians too. Progressives in the church increasingly find themselves questioning classic Christian prohibitions of fornication (i.e., sex before marriage), homosexuality, and divorce, while traditionalists cling all the more tightly to the glories of the married relationship to which everyone is called and for which everyone who is not having sex must necessarily wait. Progressives are abandoning gender as merely a human construct, while conservatives are holding to gender distinctions all the more rigidly as the inviolable decree of creation. Both groups seemingly despise the celibate life, finding it deeply implausible, and both tolerate divorce in virtually every instance in which a couple really wants it.

From the perspective of the gospel, both of these narratives are deeply flawed. True, Jesus clearly affirmed traditional Jewish teaching regarding sexual immorality, and he affirmed that marriage is between a man and a woman because that is how God declared it to be from creation. Up to that point, at least, the traditionalists are right.

But Jesus said so much more than that – the gospel says so much more than that – and that is getting lost in the debate. If the church hopes to truly exercise a prophetic voice in the midst of a culture whose radical oversexualization produces ever greater numbers of abused, scarred, and disillusioned victims, it needs to recover the good news of Jesus for sex, marriage, and the family.

Catholic ethicist Julie Hanlon Rubio points out that Jesus consistently challenged his followers not to hold too tightly to marriage and family. Jesus, like his most famous follower, the Apostle Paul, lived a celibate life, and like the Apostle Paul he did not hesitate to characterize the celibate life as one that is especially conducive of devotion to the kingdom of God. He called his disciples to leave their family members for the sake of the kingdom, using language that still shocks us today (if we have ears to hear it):

If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26-27)

The problem, for Jesus, was not sex. The problem was that marriage, like other familial bonds, places on human beings a host of demands that can easily distract us from the things of God. It calls us to serve one another with absolute fidelity. It tempts us to pursue a life oriented to pleasure, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It makes us, like the rich young ruler, unlikely to be willing to take up our cross and follow Jesus once we have considered what the cost of such discipleship might be.

Indeed, when the disciples heard the extent of Jesus’ teaching on marriage their response was not, as it is for so many traditionalist Christians today, to yearn for it all the more deeply (and feel ever more guilty for denying sex to those who are not yet or cannot be married). On the contrary, they exclaimed, “If such is the case of a man with his wife, it is better not to marry” (Matthew 19:10). And Jesus does not rebuke them for this conclusion. On the contrary, he said,

Not everyone can receive this saying, but only those to whom it is given. For there are eunuchs who have been so from birth, and there are eunuchs who have been made eunuchs by men, and there are eunuchs who have made themselves eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven. Let the one who is able to receive this receive it. (Luke 19:12)

When is the last time you’ve heard a sermon on that text? Jesus, like Paul, recognized that there is something better than sex in this life, a calling that far transcends gender roles, and one that is worth pursuing for those willing to receive it. He himself chose that path, rather than the path of marriage.

And yet, his point was not to reject the family. His point, rather, was to get his followers to look beyond their own marriages and families to the much more important family of those who have been reconciled into communion with one another and God. When his own biological family came seeking him, attempting to interrupt his kingdom work, he spoke words that would shock us if we actually took them seriously:

“Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?” And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.” (Luke 12:48-50)

Nor was Jesus simply thinking of his own unique messianic situation when he said that. On the contrary, each of the synoptic gospels records Jesus, immediately after his conversation with the rich young ruler, pointing his own followers in the same direction. As Mark’s version puts it,

Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundred-fold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life. But many who are first will be last, and the last first. (Mark 10:29-31)

To be sure, sex, marriage, and family are good things, gifts from God. But they are not the best thing. And if the words of Jesus or Paul mean anything to us at all, there is something about the celibate life that is, in fact, closer to that best thing. The early church saw that (indeed, they took it much too far), but our culture has blinded us to it.

If the Christian sexual ethic has become less plausible in American churches today, if churches are less and less willing to call their followers to the path of radical discipleship, indeed, if the celibate life of the Christ to whom we are supposed to be conformed has itself become inconceivable to us, then that is a testimony to just how much Christians – progressive and traditionalist alike – have failed to hear the gospel and believe it. Just like our culture, we have idolized sex, marriage, and family. We have confused the American dream with the gospel.

If that is indeed the case, then as Ed Shaw puts it in his must-read, Same-Sex Attraction and the Church: The Surprising Plausibility of the Celibate Life, the church should give thanks for the phenomena of homosexuality and same-sex marriage because it might just serve as the wake-up call the church needs. In the words of the songwriter Rich Mullins, “We are not as strong as we think we are.” If progressives are caving in to the spirit of the times, then traditionalists are too often basking in a hypocritical self-righteousness. Both need to repent and return to the gospel.

If the church wants to speak a prophetic word that is indeed good news for a culture steeped in sexual confusion and scarred by a pandemic of abusive and failing sexual relationships, it must once again hear this word from its lord. Starting with ourselves, we must give up our idols, take up our cross, and follow him.

Should Christians “obey the law”?

My series of posts on the law during the past few weeks (starting here) have sparked some healthy and welcome discussion in various places. I’ve already addressed some of the questions that arise regarding the third use of the law, Jesus’ teaching about the law in the Sermon on the Mount, and the use of the Ten Commandments in Christian worship. Here I want to address a fourth follow-up question. Here’s how one questioner put it:

It would seem to me problematic, however, to say that Christians are not bound in any sense to obey the law – for instance, breaking the commandments against murder or theft would clearly be a sin for a Christian. So, while the focus of the Christian life is not obedience to the law, surely obedience to the law is a necessary part of the Christian life. Thus, my question is whether it is appropriate to speak of Christians being bound by, or obeying the law in any sense?

It’s an excellent question, one made all the more difficult to answer by declarations like this from the Apostle Paul:

Or do you not know, brothers and sisters – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? … But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit. (Romans 7:1, 6)

Let me start by saying that the primary object of our obedience is God, not the law. Run a word search on the word ‘obey’ in the New Testament and you will find this to be the case. Still, it is also the case that we are to obey God’s commandments. Jesus said, “If you love me you will keep my commandments,” (John 14:15), and the Apostle John writes, “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and obey his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome.” (1 John 5:2-3)

The question is, does the New Testament equate God’s commandments with the law? James comes the closest to doing so when he writes that a person who commits adultery or murder becomes a “transgressor of the law,” and he says that “whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it” (James 2:10-11). At first glance this seems to run directly contrary to the way Paul consistently talks about the law. For instance, in Galatians Paul uses precisely the same point to emphasize that Christians are not under the law. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (Galatians 5:3-4).

Did James support the Judaizers? Did he somehow renege on his support for the decision of the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15), over which he presided, that the Gentiles were not bound to observe the whole law? That is highly doubtful, and in fact, James’s argument in his letter suggests greater nuance than at first meets the eye. For James does not typically refer to the law without qualification. Rather, as he puts it in James 2:12, Christians are to “speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty.”

It’s hard to know exactly what James means to accomplish by adding the phrase “of liberty,” because he does not explain his use of the term. But it seems likely that either 1) he uses the term to remind us that we are not in fact under the law nor bound by all of its decrees, but only by some of them (i.e., the Ten Commandments), or 2) he is using the phrase to remind us that we are subject to the law in a non-covenantal way, a free way, along the lines of what the Reformed tradition has traditionally meant by the third use of the law. I think the latter is more likely.

So where does this leave us? It suggests that when Christians read the law we come to it in a spirit of liberty – of freedom from the law – but nevertheless with a heavy dose of respect, since the law remains profitable for correction, rebuke, instruction, etc. (2 Timothy 3:16). In other words, we still learn from it something about God’s will, what Christian theology has traditionally called God’s “moral law.” And given that we are called to obey God’s will, we are called to obey his will wherever it is revealed, including in that law as it is rightly interpreted through Christ. That’s what it would mean to speak rightly of obeying God’s law, and that’s why we can say that when we murder, or commit adultery, we transgress the law. The point is not that we are now under the law once again, but that we have transgressed against its teaching regarding the will of God.

Is this how the New Testament ordinarily speaks? No, and that should give us great caution. I believe there is tremendous value in using the language the New Testament tends to use and approaching ethics the way the New Testament tends to approach ethics. Still, as long as we understand what we are saying, there is no reason why we could not speak this way. My chief concern is that we often do not understand what we are saying, and that even when we do, our hearers do not.

There is, then, a right way to incorporate the Ten Commandments into our preaching according to the third use of the law, which is why I, for instance, will be preaching this Sunday on the sixth commandment, You shall not murder, through the lens of Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:21-26. Christ came to fulfill the law and it is the moral substance of the law as fulfilled in Christ that God is writing on our hearts by his Spirit (Hebrews 8:10). David Murray captures this way of approaching the Ten Commandments in his recent blog post on the Ten Pleasures. Christians come to the law in a spirit of liberty, delighting to obey God’s will as revealed there, and as interpreted in light of Christ. That’s how we fulfill the law.

Does Planned Parenthood Fit Within the Bounds of Principled Pluralism?

My (sort of) colleague at Calvin College, Micah Watson, has written an excellent piece at Public Discourse reminding pro-life human rights supporters why they should never support federal funding for Planned Parenthood. Watson explains why certain practices should never be accepted or promoted based on the values of principled pluralism, even though principled pluralism is good and necessary for liberal democracy. As he puts it,

Any morally acceptable pluralism will have to draw lines somewhere, excluding some groups while including others…. Our pluralism is broad indeed in the legal sense, as our commitments to freedom of association and freedom of speech extend to a host of groups with which no morally decent person should associate. Government funding, however, is a different matter. Government funding sends a positive message that the government’s partner in this or that venture is a reliable organization promoting the public good. Whatever complexity abides in some gray areas of public policy, as Ryan T. Anderson and Robert P. George write in the Harvard Health Policy Review, there simply is no understanding of the public good that can include funding organizations that perform and profit from the deliberate taking of innocent human life.

It’s an excellent piece, and one that will help us think more carefully about what we try to justify on the basis of principled pluralism. For instance, a growing number of Christians argue that the church should accept same-sex civil marriage as a legitimate expression of principled pluralism (see one report soon to be discussed by the Synod of the Christian Reformed Church here).

As Watson demonstrates, however, if pluralism is to remain principled, it must have its limits. Ever since the Apostle Peter declared that “we must obey God rather than men,” (Acts 5:29), Christians have maintained that government’s authority ends precisely where it actively promotes injustice or immorality. It is one thing for government to tolerate slavery, abortion, adultery, poverty, or same-sex sexual relationships, for instance; it is another thing entirely for government to promote such phenomena. And whatever the government does, the church must continue to proclaim the justice and righteousness of the kingdom.

Watson is not writing about the church, per se, but he makes a strong argument that those who support the human right to life should insist that federal funding for abortion is outside the bounds of principled pluralism. You can read his whole piece here.

The Public Character of Conservative Evangelicalism

Republican Senator Ben Sasse is coming under increasing criticism for his ongoing, vocal opposition to Donald Trump. Some critics are suggesting that it’s more about Sasse than it is about Trump. And more and more evangelicals and conservatives are jumping on the Trump bandwagon.

But Sasse, an elder in a Reformed church and former board member of Westminster Seminary California (who recently spoke at WSC’s commencement), is no career politician and he’s not in this for a power trip. Sasse is one of those few remaining high-profile Republicans who grasps that conservatives can do far more damage to their cause – and to their country – by attaching it to a horrible candidate than another Democratic president ever could.

The same must be said about evangelicals.

The primary problem with Trump is not that he’s not conservative or that he’s not evangelical. It’s that he consistently demonstrates contempt for his fellow citizens and for the rule of law itself. He poses demagogically as a strong man, pandering to fear and fostering visions of greatness, while offering nothing in the way of serious political leadership. Conservatives like Sasse who refuse to tow the line on Trump are not doing so because they are purists who lack a healthy dose of pragmatism. On the contrary, they are attune to the lessons of history.

Michael Gerson eloquently captured what is at stake for evangelicals in particular:

Evangelical Christians are not merely choosing a certain political outcome. They are determining their public character — the way they are viewed by others and, ultimately, the way they view themselves. They are identifying with a man who has fed ethnic tension for political gain; who has proposed systemic religious discrimination; who has dramatically undermined the democratic values of civility and tolerance; who has advocated war crimes, including killing the families of terrorists; who holds a highly sexualized view of power as dominance, rather than seeing power as an instrument to advance moral ends.

In legitimizing the presumptive Republican nominee, evangelicals are not merely accepting who he is; they are changing who they are. Trumpism, at its root, involves contempt for, and fear of, outsiders — refugees, undesirable migrants, Muslims, etc. By associating with this movement, evangelicals will bear, if not the mark of Cain, at least the mark of Trump.

Gerson grasps the fact that evangelicals’ witness to the gospel is ultimately inseparable from their public political witness. Their attempt to proclaim Christ in word and deed is contaminated by their willingness to support someone like Donald Trump, even if that support only stems from fear of Hillary Clinton. It takes an awful long time to live down the political causes you support and the political movements you publicly attach yourself – just think of the way in which the politicized legacy of the Christian Right continues to define the way in which most Americans think of evangelicalism.

Make no mistake. Evangelicals will regret supporting Donald Trump.

How Should We Use the Ten Commandments in Worship?

I am regularly asked what I think about the tradition followed by many Reformed churches of reading the Ten Commandments in worship every Sunday morning. As a means of answering that question, let me offer a few thoughts here.

First a few preliminary observations:

  1. It is important to remember that giving the Ten Commandments so much emphasis in Christian ethics (let alone Christian worship) is a relatively modern phenomena in church history. It was not a practice followed by the early church (see here and here). It is indelibly tied up with the emergence of Christendom.
  2. It is worth noting that among Reformed churches the Ten Commandments are used in various ways. Sometimes they are read according to the first use of the law (i.e., as a teacher of sin to drive us to Christ), to be followed by a corporate confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness. At other times they are read according to the third use of the law (i.e., to teach us about God’s moral law as a means of serving him in gratitude for our salvation), following the corporate confession of sin and assurance of forgiveness.
  3. It is safe to say that the people in the pews often don’t understand the significance of how the law is functioning. Based on conversations I’ve had with many people over the years, regardless of where it is used in the service, many people have the impression – fostered in part by the practice of simply reading the law in worship without explanation or commentary – that Christians are, in fact, under the law, with the weight of its promises and threats hanging over them.

So what do I make of this practice? I believe most Reformed churches do not read nearly enough scripture in their services. Worship should be saturated with scripture – in the prayers, the songs, the sermons, and the liturgy in general. How else will Christians learn to take scripture seriously, and how else can we be confident that our worship is the sort that God desires?

On the other hand, scripture should not be read at random, without explanation or commentary as to its role. For instance, it would be inappropriate to read a passage requiring various sacrifices from Leviticus without making it clear that this passage does not bind Christians. Similarly, it would be inappropriate to read a passage warning of God’s judgment upon sin without accompanying that with some sort of proclamation of the gospel.

How does this apply to the reading of the Ten Commandments in worship? I am a strong believer in the value of a “covenant renewal” portion of a service, an exercise where the congregation can confess its sins and hear God’s assurance of forgiveness. What I would suggest is that the Ten Commandments, like many other passages, can play a valuable role in this part of the service. Given their role in scripture as the paradigmatic expression of the law, I think the Ten Commandments are most naturally read according to the first use of the law, before the confession of sin. This enables the congregation to hear the curses found in the law, confess its sins, and then hear the gospel as the true paradigm for the Christian life. A healthy practice is then to read a gospel-based passage that calls Christians to conformity to Christ, such as Colossians 3, Romans 6, or Romans 12. This helps Christians to grasp the fact that although they are not under the law, the gospel itself empowers them for Christlike service.

This is my preference, though I should say that there are many other passages from the law I like to read before the confession of sin (for instance, Psalm 15, or Deuteronomy 27:15-26), and I think it is dangerous for any congregation to get into a rut – falling into the reading of the same passages over and over such that they lose their meaning to the congregation.

I do appreciate the fact that the Ten Commandments can also be read according to the third use of the law, after the assurance of forgiveness. However, given that this use does not reflect the covenantal function of the Ten Commandments in their scriptural context, I would argue that it needs extra clarification on the part of the pastor or liturgist. The pastor needs to observe, when reading the Ten Commandments in this way, that Christians are not under the law as were the Israelites who first heard the Decalogue, but that we can still learn from it and be reminded of God’s moral will from it as long as we read it in light of what Christ has done. For instance, Christians need to be taught that we will not necessarily receive earthly blessing by keeping this law, nor are we under the covenantal wrath of God where we fall short. Likewise, it needs to be clarified that we are not obligated to cease from work every Saturday because the Sabbath has been fulfilled in Christ. In short, if we are using the Ten Commandments according to the spiritual (i.e., third) use of the law, according to 2 Timothy 3:16, and not according to its Old Testament function with its blessings and curses, we need to explain that.

My primary emphases, then, would be:

  1. Use a variety of scripture passages in worship. There are so many excellent ones out there that we never use. Why do so many churches use the Ten Commandments all the time?
  2. As much as possible, allow the passages you read to function in the service in a way that communicates their covenantal role in scripture. Use law passages in a law way, gospel passages in a gospel way, sanctification passages in a sanctification way, etc. This will help your congregation better understand how to read, interpret, and follow scripture in their own lives.
  3. Where you depart from this usage, make sure you explain it to your congregation. Do not assume that your hearers understand the gospel and the way it radically alters our use of the law.
  4. Make sure that the ultimate thrust of your service is always to drive people to Christ, and not simply that they might know that their sins are forgiven, but that they might embrace the call of discipleship, to take up their cross and follow him.

What Did Jesus Mean By “the Least of these Commandments” (Matthew 5:19)?

A second objection sometimes raised when I say that conformity to Jesus is the appropriate paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics), not conformity to the law (see my previous articles on the law here), is taken from Jesus’ statement in the Sermon on the Mount that “whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19). It is sometimes paired with Jesus declaration in John 14:15, “If you love me you will keep my commandments.” And it is assumed that when Jesus refers to “these commandments” or “my commandments” he is talking about the Mosaic Law, or at least about the Ten Commandments.

But that is clearly not the case.

Take a look at the Sermon on the Mount again. Jesus begins the Sermon on the Mount, as is well known, by proclaiming the blessings of the kingdom of God and calling his disciples to be salt and light in the world. Then, knowing that his hearers will find his teachings radical and fresh, especially in comparison with the scribes, Pharisees, and teachers of the law, he clarifies that he is not overturning the Law and the Prophets (i.e., the Old Testament) but fulfilling them. In other words, his hearers ought not to play the novelty of his words off against the Old Testament, as if the Law and the Prophets were the final and complete revelation of God. Rather, as the one who fulfills the Law and the Prophets, Jesus is the greater revelation, the one to whom true followers of the law must now listen. In short, if you claim to want to follow the Law and the Prophets, you must follow Jesus.

Consider Jesus’ words in this light:

Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly, I say to you, until heaven and earth pass away, not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished. Therefore whoever relaxes one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever does them and teaches them will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you, unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 5:17-20)

Theonomists like Greg Bahnsen claimed that when Jesus spoke of “these commandments” he was referring to all the commandments of the Mosaic Law, and many of us have heard this claim so many times that, no matter how contrary to the rest of the New Testament it seems (think of Paul’s declaration in Ephesians 2:15 that in his work Christ was “abolishing the law of commandments and ordinances”), we have trouble reading the text any other way.

And yet, interpreted in context, it is clear that when Jesus refers to “these commandments” he is speaking of “these my commandments,” as in, “these commandments that you are hearing from me right now.”

Ask yourself, why does Jesus even find it necessary to clarify that he has not come to abolish the law or the prophets? Because when his hearers hear his teaching, so different from that of the scribes and Pharisees (the teachers of the law), they will assume just that. After all, Jesus’ constant formula in the Sermon on the Mount is to quote the law or the rabbinic commentary on the law and then respond with an appeal to his own authority: “You have heard that it was said to those of old … But I say to you …” (5:21; 5:27; 5:31; 5:33; 5:38; 5:43).

Given Jesus’ repeated contrasts between his teaching and that of the law and of the teachers of the law, given Jesus’ call to his followers to embody a greater righteousness than that of the teachers of the law, it is necessary for Jesus to remind his followers that the law pointed forward to his greater righteousness all along. Neither the law nor the prophets were ever ends in themselves. Jesus is saying that if you really want to follow the Law and the Prophets, you need to follow him. In fact, later in Matthew’s gospel he will portray representatives of the law and the prophets (Moses and Elijah) meeting with Jesus in the Transfiguration, and what does the voice of the Father in heaven say? “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him” (Matthew 17:5). It’s arguably the central theme of Matthew’s gospel.

If you are in any doubt about it, consider how the Sermon on the Mount ends. Jesus closes the sermon not with an exhortation about the importance of the Law of Moses, but with a parable about the importance of hearing Jesus’ words and doing them:

Everyone then who hears these words of mine and does them will be like a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on the rock. (Matthew 7:24-25)

Needless to say, the rock Jesus is talking about here is not the law but the teachings of Jesus. And his hearers understood that. As Matthew puts it, “when Jesus finished these sayings, the crowds were astonished at his teaching, for he was teaching them as one who had authority, and not as their scribes” (Matthew 7:28-29). The scribes, for obvious reasons, had to quote the law or the tradition of the law for everything that they taught. They had no authority in and of themselves. But Jesus not only invoked his own authority; he explicitly placed that authority above that of either the law or the tradition of the law. “You have heard that it was said to those of old … But I say to you …”

There is no doubt that Matthew intends us to view the Sermon on the Mount as the revelation of one who is greater than the law because he fulfills the law. This teaching, from this mountain, is far greater than the teaching that came from Mount Sinai in the wilderness. As Paul observes in Galatians, the law “was put in place through angels by an intermediary” (3:19), but the promise has come through faith in Christ. Or as the author to the Hebrews goes to such great lengths to explain, in past days God spoke to his people through prophets, through angels, and through Moses, but “in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:2-3; Cf. Hebrews 1-3). That is the basis for the theme of Hebrews from start to finish: “the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (10:1), but in Christ the true form has come.

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (John 1:17-18)

Do Christians Understand the Third Use of the Law?

Whenever I say that conformity to Jesus is the appropriate paradigm for the Christian life (i.e., Christian ethics), not the law, I typically hear the objection that I am forgetting the third use of the law. The typical proof-text offered for the third use of the law is 2 Timothy 3:16-17:

All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be competent, equipped for every good work.

The concept of the third use of the law was first articulated by the Lutheran theologian Philip Melanchthon (although the spirit of it is found already in Martin Luther), but it was through Calvin that it became so important to the Reformed tradition. Calvin distinguished between three uses of the law:

  1. the pedagogical use of the law, which is to teach human beings that they are sinners under a curse, and so prepare them for the gospel
  2. the civil use of the law, which is to order the life of human society, with the civil government’s use of the sword if necessary
  3. the spiritual use of the law, which is to teach and exhort those who are no longer under the law (i.e., Christians) what righteousness looks like

Calvin argued that in its proper sense the Old Testament law served primarily to fulfill the first use of the law, the pedagogical use, to teach people their sin and drive them to Christ. But he argued that for Christians, who have received the gospel, been justified, and are no longer under the law (Romans 6:14), the third use, the spiritual use, becomes primary.

Most Reformed Christians understand this, I think, but what I fear many do not understand is how this spiritual use actually works. Many Christians seem to think the third use of the law means that once we have believed the gospel we are placed right back under the law again. Christ has forgiven our sins and given us his Spirit, so now we can get back to following the law. It’s a paradigm of law-gospel-law. Sometimes these same Christians continue to view the law as the one eternal covenant that God has made with his people. For them, the Christian life doesn’t look very different from the life of an Old Testament Israelite. True, we know about Jesus, and we have the Spirit in a greater measure than they did, but the basic form and content of the Christian life is not very different from that of a faithful Israelite.

The problem with this perspective is that it fails to grasp the fact that for Israelites the first use of the law was the primary one. As Paul explains in Galatians 3, the Israelites were under the law as a tutor to lead them to Christ. It was to teach them their sin and drive them to a savior. Israelites were under the law because they were subject to its curses and obligated to perform its sacrifices in order to be right with God. When Israelites heard the Ten Commandments, they heard it as a statement of their covenantal relationship with God:

I am the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me. You shall not make for yourself a carved image … for I the LORD your God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children to the third and the fourth generation of those who hate me, but showing steadfast love to thousands of those who love me and keep my commandments.

This is what some theologians have called the “works principle” of the law, but which we might more accurately refer to as its covenantal or legal force. It is the principle that those who are under the law must do the works of the law in order to receive its blessing and avoid its curse. This is what Paul was talking about when he wrote in Galatians 3:10,12 that “all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.’ … But the law is not of faith, rather, ‘The one who does them shall live by them.'” To be “under the law” for Paul is to be subject to it in this covenantal or legal way.

What is crucial to understand is that when Calvin said that the third use of the law is the primary use for Christians he was sharply distinguishing it from this legal sense. As he puts it in the Institutes, “the law is not now acting toward us as a rigorous enforcement officer who is not satisfied unless the requirements are met. But in this perfection to which it exhorts us, the law points out the goal toward which throughout life we are to strive” (2.7.13).

In short, Christians are no longer under the law in a legal or covenantal sense. We are no longer subject to its penalties should we fail to measure up to its standards. It cannot be enforced against us. In that sense, we don’t even experience it as a law anymore. Whenever we read it, or hear it read, we need to translate it in light of what Christ has done. Christ is now the primary paradigm for our life, not the law.

Where the third use comes in, however, is in its ongoing role for education and exhortation, as Calvin explains in Institutes 2.7.12. We are not be under the law in a covenantal or legal sense anymore, but we can still learn from it and be exhorted by it. When we study the law in light of its fulfillment in Christ, it helps us understand the righteousness to which God has called us. Although we are thankful that it is no longer a “burden” that weighs upon us (Acts 15:10), we are free to peruse its stipulations to understand better why Jesus had to come, what he accomplished, and what he continues to accomplish in us by his Spirit. We are free to read its stories and hear its curses and blessings from a safe distance, using them to spur us on to greater conformity to Christ.

That’s why Paul could be emphatic throughout his writings that Christians are no longer under the law, and yet still say to Timothy that all of Scripture, including the law, remains profitable for Christians’ instruction.

What Paul did not say to Timothy is that Christians are once again under the law. What he did not say is that the Christian life consists in law-keeping. On the contrary, he insisted that he was “not myself under the law,” though he was “under the law of Christ” (1 Corinthians 9:20-21). Paul is emphatic throughout his writings that the Christian life consists not in a return to the law but in spiritual union with Christ (in whom the law is fulfilled) and conformity to Christ’s image (by which the law is fulfilled). To continue to make the law the paradigm for the Christian life is to dwell upon the shadow rather than the substance (Colossians 2:17). It is akin to requiring circumcision rather than baptism, or to modeling our worship after the temple sacrificial system rather than Christ’s instruction in the new covenant. As Paul puts it so clearly in Romans 7:6:

But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve not under the old written code but in the new life of the Spirit.

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