Monthly Archives: May 2016
I once heard the pastor of a Presbyterian church in Atlanta proclaim from his pulpit that “the essence of the Christian life consists in one word: lawkeeping.” It was a statement that reflected that pastor’s consistent emphasis in his ministry, and over time it devastated his congregation. I am yet to meet another pastor who agrees with the claim that the essence of the Christian life consists in lawkeeping.
And yet, I find the spirit of the claim reflected in sermons, books, and online articles over and over again: The heart of the Christian life is obedience to God’s law. The purpose of our justification is sanctification to God’s law. Christians need not fear putting God’s law at the heart and center of our lives because now that we have been saved, we can obey that law out of heartfelt desire rather than out of fear.
Now, let me be clear. There is an element of truth to all of these statements if they are understood correctly. Jeremiah promised that in the new covenant God would write his law on his people’s hearts (Jeremiah 31), and Jesus told his disciples, “If you love me you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
The problem with the constant emphasis on the law, however, is that too many Christians utterly fail to grasp the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus. And no, I’m not talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as far as our justification is concerned. I think most Reformed Christians get that. I’m talking about the way in which the law points toward and is fulfilled in Jesus as the perfect revelation of God’s moral character and will.
Jesus, not the law, is the ultimate expression of God’s will for humanity. Jesus embodies what it means to be a true human being. In his character and virtues we see what true human flourishing looks like. We see the sort of love and sacrificial service that creates genuine communion. We see the mercy and justice that brings reconciliation. We see the piety and patience that testifies to peace with God.
The New Testament pounds away at this theme so often it continues to baffle me that so many Christians miss it. On the one hand, some Christians worry that shifting our emphasis from the law to Christ constitutes some sort of antinomianism (lawlessness). On the other hand, some Christians fail to grasp just how thorough of a transformation the gospel calls us to, as individuals and communities, as the Spirit makes us like Jesus.
Take a look at a passage like 2 Corinthians 3, on which I heard an excellent sermon by Tom Groelsema just yesterday. Paul explains in vivid language how we are no longer under the law written on tablets of stone, what Paul calls the “ministry of death,” a covenant whose glory was terrifying even as it was ultimately fleeting. Rather, we have received the far more glorious ministry of the Spirit, the Spirit who gives us freedom as he transforms us, not according to the law, but into the likeness of Jesus. For “where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all … beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:17-18).
This is just one passage, but the New Testament pounds at this theme over and over. We could literally cite dozens of statements. We might as well declare that our prooftext is the entire New Testament. So why do so many Christians – and so many Christian pastors – miss it? Why does the “so what?” portion of so many Christian sermons sound like a return to the law? Why do so many Christians reduce their engagement with nonbelievers to witnessing to the law?
We are living in a time when most of our neighbors, coworkers, and fellow citizens no longer receive Christian moral teaching – especially when it pertains to matters revolving around sexuality – as conducive of a good life. When they hear Christians talk about life they primarily hear a message about arbitrary rules and judgment. God’s wrath is upon us because we have disobeyed his law, they hear, and only believing in Jesus can save us so that we can get back to the business of obeying his (seemingly arbitrary) law once again. The narrative starts with law and ends with law, and though there is some profound talk about Jesus and grace in the middle, it’s not with Jesus that this story usually ends.
People don’t become Christians because they fall in love with the Ten Commandments.
If we expect nonbelievers to hear the gospel as good news once again we need to recover our focus on Christ from the beginning to the end of our message. The Christian life does not consist in a story of law-gospel-law. We aren’t saved simply so that we can be placed back under the law once again. And the essence of the Christian life and of Christian witness does not consist in a witness to God’s law. The misery of sin need not have any dominance over us because we are “not under law but under grace” (Romans 6:14). We can experience the fruit of the Spirit through “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control,” because “against such things there is no law” (Galatians 5:22-23). We can walk in faith, hope, and love, rather than according to the desires of the flesh, which “keep you from doing the things you want to do,” because “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law” (5:18).
This freedom is what the Christian life is all about. It’s what so many of our family members, neighbors, and coworkers so desperately need to hear, because from beginning to end, it is truly good news.
Thanks to the Ezra Institute for posting this audio of my conversation (it was more of a conversation than a debate) with Joe Boot about two kingdoms theology, held at Spring Creek Canadian Reformed Church in Vineland, Ontario, on April 28, moderated by Arnold Viersen, a Member of the Canadian Parliament. The first part of the audio consists of my 40 minute presentation on two kingdoms theology.
What was fascinating about the discussion was the way in which Joe’s critique of two kingdoms theology and my presentation of it passed each other like two ships in the night. Joe focused on David VanDrunen’s work, while my work has been based almost entirely on John Calvin’s theology. There is a lot of overlap between these, of course, but there are also differences.
The conversation illustrates the importance of exploring two kingdoms theology not as a modern phenomena, let alone as the product of one scholar or institution, but as a rich legacy of the Reformation now going on 500 years old, and with obvious roots in the New Testament and Augustine. Once Joe and I were able to do that in our conversation, we discovered much more agreement than disagreement.
My take? The flag-waving and intramural competition that has characterized conversations about the two kingdoms needs to stop. Christians are in uncharted cultural territory. We have a lot of thinking to do about how to engage our increasingly post-Christian cultures in ways that reflect the gospel and witness faithfully to Christ. We will all do this a lot better if we can learn to think together rather than always to argue with one another.
This is great news from the General Conference of the United Methodist Church yesterday. The UMC has repealed its forty year support for Roe v. Wade and for the pro-abortion Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.
The UMC has never been as theologically “progressive” as other mainline denominations, but this sort of shift doesn’t happen by itself. It is the result of decades of hard work by faithful Methodists who never gave up on the denomination, despite all of its missteps over the years.
Conservative Christians often tell a narrative where denominations only decline, usually due to a leftward shift. It is a narrative of pessimistic resignation, one in which the only appropriate response to theological or ecclesiastical error is to split and start a new denomination. But Christ’s church remains Christ’s church, against which the gates of Hades will not prevail (Matthew 16:18).
This is why unity, hope, fidelity, and hard work remain our call wherever God has placed us. Kudos to those Methodists who never gave up.