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Mercy and the Law of Christ

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

It seems like I’ve spent a fair amount of time these past couple weeks reading critiques of the churches of Christ from various sources.  These critiques, usually written by former members, tend to have a common theme.  The churches of Christ would be better off, they opine, if they stopped being so narrow and legalistic and focused instead on mercy and grace.

That’s a fascinating claim, and it even has a certain amount of Biblical resonance.  Did not Paul argue, for instance, that the grace of Christ set him free from the law of sin and death.  Poor members of churches of Christ!  They don’t see that they’ve been set free already!

However, as I've written before, it doesn’t make much sense.  Logically speaking, law and grace are positively correlated, not inversely correlated.  The greater my respect for God’s law, the more my consciousness of my own sin should grow, along with my awareness of my desperate need for grace.

Things move in the opposite direction when concern for lawkeeping diminishes.  If following God’s law isn’t very important, then breaking it isn’t very important either.  At that point, grace stops looking like grace and starts looking more like apathy.  I really don’t need God’s mercy anymore because my sin is no biggie.

There’s another problem too.  As my respect for divine law and my desire for mercy diminish, so too will my willingness to show mercy.  Good Bible students know that one of the most sobering passages in the entire volume is the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35. 

Most Christians are aware that if you live a life of sin, you will not inherit the kingdom of God.  In this parable, Jesus points out that if you are unmerciful, you won’t inherit the kingdom of God either.  In fact, your failure to show mercy to others will drown out your pleas for mercy to God. 


Christians who honor the law of God, then, should be the most merciful people on earth, both because they have been taught by Christ to show mercy and because they know what will happen to them if they don’t.  I am constantly aware of the gulf between God’s perfect law and my own obedience.  Without His mercy to bear me up, I surely will plunge into the abyss.  For me to be merciless, then, is an act of spiritual suicide.

Without an emphasis on law, though, all this falls apart.  If I violate a law I think is unimportant and indifferently accept God’s apathetic grace, that gives me zero incentive to change my conduct toward those who have wronged me.  God’s law might not matter much, but the offenses of others against me sure do!  We don’t need the law to teach us vengefulness; it’s imbedded in every one of our selfish little hearts.

When I have been forgiven little (I think), I will love little, and I will be little inclined to show mercy.  Not surprisingly, people who accept the first part of this statement end up living out the second two.  As I wrote about a year ago, some of the most vicious, unforgiving people on earth are “tolerant” secular progressives.  Because they do not acknowledge God’s law, they do not admit their need for grace, so they see no reason to extend it to others.

I certainly hope that in the years and decades to come, brethren will be more grace-centric and more conscious of their need to receive and show mercy.  However, trying to get there by downplaying the importance of the law of God (all of it) is going in exactly the wrong direction.  Paul does not free us from the law.  He frees us from the illusion that we can justify ourselves, which is the very illusion that minimizing law creates.

Questions and Motivations

Tuesday, February 25, 2020

We often don’t realize it, but one of the main themes of the gospels is the interaction between Jesus and people who ask Him questions.  If we considered Jesus’ replies to those questions in isolation, His replies would seem so divergent as to be irrational.  In Matthew 13:16, He calls one set of questioners blessed.  In Matthew 13:7, He condemns another set as a bunch of hypocrites. 

What gives?  It’s just a question, right?

In reality, of course, Jesus’ answers are so different because He is responding to different motivations and positions.  The disciples of Matthew 13 get a commendation and a straight answer because they are seeking truth.  So does the woman at the well in John 4 (who is so deferential that she only hints at her questions). 

Nicodemus, interested in the truth but full of himself, gets an answer but also gets taken down a peg in John 3.  The lawyer of Luke 10:25, who thought to set himself up as Jesus’ schoolteacher, ended up getting schooled instead.  Finally, of course, the parade of Pharisees with their trap questions uniformly found out that Jesus was smarter than they were.

Today, the motivations of questioners are every bit as diverse.  Some still want to know truth.  Others think they know it and hope to use their questions to lead you down the primrose path.  Still others ask questions not because they want an answer, but because they believe the question won’t have an answer.  They think this will embarrass you or perhaps justify their unbelief.

This is important for us to remember as we consider both others and ourselves.  Though we can’t see hearts as Jesus could, it’s still possible to discern someone’s intent by considering their words.  I’m perfectly willing to answer questions for hours if the questioner is hungry for the gospel.  On the other hand, I’m not interested in patiently answering objection after objection, only to be met with a haughty “That’s not good enough!”  One suspects that for some, an answer from the Lord Himself would not be good enough.

It’s important too, though, to be honest about our own motivations when we ask questions.  Wanting to learn more about spiritual things is wonderful!  I think the same is true of using questions to teach.  When somebody figures out the answer for themselves rather than the teacher figuring it out for them, the lesson tends to stick longer.

However, we should be wary of questions that are designed to trap others or to justify a conclusion we already have reached.  Jesus used the former tactic, but He only did it to embarrass hard-hearted religious elites who were trying to embarrass Him first.  Unless we are sure that someone is acting in bad faith and needs to be humiliated for the benefit of third parties, it’s not wise and probably not godly to make them the target of our Perry Mason impression.

Similarly, it is better to own our convictions directly, whatever they may be, rather than hedging them around with disingenuous questions designed to make our conclusion seem reasonable.  If there is no answer to a question that will satisfy us, we should save everyone time and not ask it.  There is no value to the smugness that comes from winning a debate when we are the self-appointed judge. 

Truth only can be found in God, and questions are the means by which we seek it.  However, as with everything else, the devil is capable of twisting questions to his ends.  May the questions we ask always serve truth and not him!

Judgment Calls and the Bible

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

Along with most other members of churches of Christ, I believe that the word of God is the sole authoritative guide to serving Him.  In particular, I believe that within the New Testament, we can discern a pattern of work and worship in the first-century church that God expects all Christians to follow. 

However, I also believe that this pattern is limited in its scope.  The Bible does not provide an answer for every question that we might ask about the church.  Should the congregation meet on Sunday night?  Should there be three trays of bread on the Lord’s Supper table, or four (or trays at all, for that matter)?  The Scripture leaves these issues, along with a host of others, to our judgment and discretion.

Judgment also plays a role in the way that we interpret many commandments.  Sometimes, the role of judgment is limited.  1 Timothy 2:1-2 doesn’t leave Christians with a lot of discretion about praying for the government.  We have to. 

At other times, though, our understanding of a passage can’t be anything more than a judgment call.  I have read numerous explanations of what “the husband of one wife” means in 1 Timothy 3:4.  However, I don’t think there’s any way to conclusively determine from the text what the phrase means.  Nor can we duck the question altogether—not, at least, if we want to appoint elders!  Instead, each congregation must judge for itself what a husband of one wife is.

So too, the application of Scriptural principles is left to our judgment.  I can clearly define what adultery is, but I can’t do the same with modesty or uncleanness.  I can offer my judgment about whether a particular garment is modest, but that will never be anything more than my judgment.  On the extremes, I think it becomes increasingly difficult to argue that my judgment is wrong, but on the margin, that argument is very easy to make.

All of this is important for several reasons.  First, we must acknowledge that we do make judgment calls as we apply the word.  Some brethren have real trouble seeing this.  They are every bit as confident in what they say about modesty as in what they say about adultery, even though the Scriptural witness in each case is very different.

This is problematic.  We need to be able to distinguish between our judgments and the judgments of the Lord, or else we will end up in the same boat as the Pharisees!  Additionally, Christians who turn their judgment calls into matters of faith bring the Restoration project itself into disrepute.  It’s easy for critics to point out their error and use that error to deny that a first-century pattern exists at all.

Second, we must acknowledge the right of others to make their own judgment calls, particularly when they differ from ours.  Just because I see the right answer to a spiritual question so clearly does not mean that the answer is, in fact, clear.  “Judge not, that you be not judged,” is not as broad as the world wants to make it, but it is perhaps not as narrow as we want to make it either.

Third, we must confess that not everyone’s judgment is equally good.  We all differ in Biblical understanding, life experience, and good sense, and all those things affect the quality of our judgment.  No, there is no text in the New Testament that explicitly says, “Thou shalt not drink any alcohol, ever.”  However, it’s also the judgment of countless elders, preachers, and older sisters in Christ that drinking is a bad idea.  Is it wise to reject the judgment of the wise?  Probably not.

Rather than being a flaw in our conception of the Biblical pattern, the exercise and development of our judgment is one of its strengths.  Just as God has given each of us the right to read the Scriptures for ourselves, He has given us the right to interpret and reason from them.  As we grow in our ability to judge, we mature in Christ.  May we use this gift wisely, yet fearlessly, so that the longer we walk with Him, the more we become like Him!

It's About Sex, Actually

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Without a doubt, the greatest marketing campaign of the modern era was (and continues to be) staged by the gay-rights movement.  The recent sea change in the national attitude toward same-sex relationships is the result of a brilliant, decades-long initiative in framing and public relations.  Though I don’t approve of the object, I can’t help but admire the skill with which it was carried out!

Consider, for instance, the erasure of the word “homosexual”.  The progressive attitude toward the word is well summarized by GLAAD’s Media Reference Guide, which says, “Please use gay or lesbian to describe people attracted to members of the same sex. Because of the clinical history of the word ‘homosexual,’ it is aggressively used by anti-gay extremists to suggest that gay people are somehow diseased or psychologically/emotionally disordered. . .” 

Indeed, just as there is no “I” in “team”, there is no “H” in LGTBQ+.  I am skeptical, though, that the use of “homosexual” in a clinical context 75 years ago is the reason that it ended up on the ban list.  Instead, it is because “homosexual”, unlike “gay” or “lesbian”, contains the word “sex”, thereby reminding the speaker and hearer that same-sex relationships are sexual relationships. 

This was and is problematic for gay-rights champions because most men in the United States, even now, are repulsed by the thought of two other men having sex.  “Homosexual rights”, then, is a viscerally unappealing term to just under half the population. 

The solution to the problem was to drop “homosexual” in favor of “gay” and to make the gay-rights movement about love and marriage, not sex.  Love and marriage poll a lot better than gay sex does.  Who can be opposed to love?

From a Biblical perspective, though, this shift focuses attention in exactly the wrong place.  Scripturally speaking, a homosexual isn’t somebody who feels a certain way or has a certain kind of personality.  It’s a man who has been intimate with other men, and unless you have done that, you’re not a homosexual.  The doing is what the Bible condemns.

By contrast, the Scriptures have nothing to say about men with personality traits that aren’t stereotypically masculine, nor even about men who love one another.  Indeed, the word encourages that!  John was the apostle whom Jesus loved.  Today, it’s commonplace for me to tell a brother in Christ that I love him.  It has nothing to do with sexual desire and everything to with the affection that we share in Christ Jesus.

“Being gay” is not a Scripturally cognizable concept, and it isn’t the problem.  Two men loving one another isn’t the problem.  Two men having relations with one another is the problem.

From here on out, American Christians are going to live in a world that accepts the practice of homosexuality.  We have to acknowledge that and recognize that it’s going to be yet another barrier to our efforts to reach the lost. 

As we discuss these things with outsiders, though, we must keep the real issue firmly in mind.  Our concern is not with anyone’s inclinations and temptations, but with their violations of the law of God.  If we allow others to make the discussion about anything else, we aren’t going to get anywhere.

Honesty with God or Complaining?

Thursday, February 06, 2020

Over the past few years, one of my favorite hobbyhorses has been the need for honesty in our conversations with God.  In our hymns and prayers, we shouldn’t pretend that things are hunky-dory when they aren’t.  If we’re afraid, we should talk about that.  If we’re angry, we should talk about that.  As evidence, I cite Job, who was angry with God, yet did not sin with his lips, and the many psalms of lament. 

After Bible class one day recently, one of the brethren at Jackson Heights approached me.  He said, “You know how in 1 Corinthians 10, how Paul encourages the Corinthians not to complain like the Israelites did?  What’s the difference between complaining and being honest with God?”

I paused.  “That’s a good question,” I said.

“I thought it was,” he replied.

It _is_ a good question, and an important one.  What’s the difference between the godly who brought their anger and fear to God and were commended for it and the ungodly who brought their complaints to God and were condemned for it?  I think the answer has to lie in the way that the Israelites expressed themselves and the heart their expression revealed.

In particular, I think the Israelites’ primary problem was that they complained not in faith, but in faithlessness.  I’d never noticed this before, but as I flipped through the Pentateuch, looking at every complaint the Israelites offer in the wilderness, a striking pattern emerged.  In almost every instance, they direct their complaint not against God, but against Moses.  Exodus 16:3 is typical.  The people say to Moses and Aaron, “You have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”

This is facially nonsensical.  As Moses points out in Exodus 16:8, “What are we?  Your grumbling is not against us but against the Lord.”  Nevertheless, the Israelites persist in grumbling against Moses and Aaron for the next 40 years.  They attribute to the Lord the power to kill them (which appears earlier, in Exodus 16:3, among many other places) but not the goodness to preserve them.

This is very different from what we see in Job.  Job certainly engages his friends throughout the book, but his primary complaint is always against God.  In fact, engagement with God is what he most desires.  Repeatedly, he pleads for a hearing with his Creator that will give him the opportunity to justify himself and seek fair treatment.  Even in his misery, he remains confident in God’s ultimate justice and goodness.

To put things another way, Job trusts in God, and the Israelites don’t.  Job believes in a world where God is in control, but the Israelites think they are at the mercy of hostile terrain, powerful enemies, and foolish leaders.  To them, God is nothing more than another threat.

When we are honest with God, then, we also must make sure that we are honest about God.  Maybe we don’t understand why we’re suffering.  Job and many psalmists didn’t.  Maybe we’re frightened and angry.  Job and many psalmists were too. 

However, our misery must not lead us to doubt His good nature nor to reject our relationship with Him.  Job and the psalmists never give up on engagement with God, but the Israelites never really engage with Him in the first place.  Their refusal reveals their fundamental unbelief.  Now, as then, faith and unbelief both will meet with their appropriate reward from Him.

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