Friday, May 15, 2015

Sin, the Promise, the Law, and the Word of God

It all starts with God.

In the beginning, God.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.  Scientifically speaking, we do not know exactly how He did this, or how time might have been measured in the era before planets began to spin on their axes and orbit their stars.  Time could not be measured until there was light, but the first thing God said was, "Let there be light."  Symbolically, light could mean the dawn of understanding, but practically, it might mean the first foundation of a time-space continuum in which humanity could incubate.

God created time.  God created space.  God created matter.  Nothing comes from nothing.  Everything comes from God.

When God created, He pronounced all of His creation good.

God created man and breathed into man a special kind of God-consciousness, a special ability to fellowship with God, and a unique ability (among all creation) to make choices, including the choice to rebel against God, to sin.  In vesting humanity with this potential, God knew perfectly not only the risks, but actually what the result would be.  1 Peter 1:19-20 tells us that Jesus was chosen to be our Redeemer before the creation of the world.  Before He created the world, God knew what He would have to do to save it.

As soon as the rebellion happened, God started talking about Jesus (see Genesis 3:15).  The first promise spoke that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent's head.  Even during those ancient beginnings, God mentioned specifics: the seed of the woman, not the seed of the man.  This foreshadows the virgin birth of Christ.  Sin had entered God's perfect creation, but God was not caught off guard.  There was never a time when He did not extend hope through His promises.

Skipping ahead a couple of epochs, God called Abram to be the Father of His people, meaning the nation of people who would ultimately bring Messiah to earth through flesh and blood birth -- the God-man who would solve the sin problem.  God made very specific promises to Abram about the line through which the promise would be fulfilled: a child from his wife, Sarah--only Sarah--even though both of them were well past their childbearing years.  And God added something to the promise: He told Abram that through his offspring, all nations would be blessed.  Messiah would be born an Israelite; the children of Israel are the blessed ancestors of Messiah, but Messiah is for the blessing and redemption of all nations.

When God finally, specifically, told Abram that Sarah would bear this son of promise within a year, He changed Abram's name as a way of continuing to remind us that Messiah was for all nations.  No longer would Abram be Abram: exalted father.  Now he would be Abraham: father of many, father of the family of Christ by blood, and father of the family of Christ by faith.  This was the promise.

Yes, sin had entered the world and separated people from God, but there was also a promise of coming redemption, a cure, a solution, a remedy.

Picture a world, severed from the love of God because of sin, hurtling away in the opposite direction from life, joy, love, health and righteousness, and yet hanging by a thread, the unbreakable thread of a promise from a perfectly faithful God.

Generations passed, and Israel became a nation of slaves in Egypt.  God raised up the prophet Moses to deliver them from slavery, and as they entered into their divinely procured freedom, God gave them the Law.

Now, I need to step aside from my narrative of God's redemptive plan here, and address some problems in the mindset of our current social landscape.  Many Christians are largely antinomian.  Throughout history, Antinomianism has always been recognized as a heresy.  Antinomianism says that because of the gospel (salvation through faith in the death and resurrection of Christ), Christians are free from required obedience to any law, whether scriptural, civil, or moral, and that salvation is attained only through faith, the gracious gift God.  Now, I'd venture to suggest that a large number of Christians today would read that definition and say, "Yes.  Of course.  That is absolutely right.  We are not under law.  We are under grace.  We do not have to obey the law."

There is a popular misconception that the Law is bad, that it was the unkind mandate of a harsh and ungracious God who has now been overturned, along with his law, by the love and tolerance of Christ. This is, as I stated, a misconception.  God has always been loving and gracious, and the Law is good.

Many people do not understand that the Law was given to show us what is pleasing to God, but the Law was powerless to make us pleasing to God.  Jesus came so that we could be fixed internally, made pleasing to God, that the righteous requirements of the Law could actually be met in us, by the power of the Spirit (see Romans 8:3-4).

People hate the Law, but mostly because they do not know it.  They are afraid to study it because they suspect that they might find places where they do not measure up and will either have to suffer guilt or change their behavior patterns.  So they shut their eyes to it, and breathe great sighs of relief when heretical ministers tell them, "Don't worry about the Law.  We don't have to do that anymore!  We are in a new age of grace, and you don't have to be concerned about any rules.  Just read the New Testament.  Forget about the Old Testament."

Of course, they must stop reading the New Testament as well, at that point, because there is no making sense of the New Testament if you don't understand the Old Testament.  There just isn't.  The New Testament establishes the fulfillment of the Law and the Promises, and you can't understand it if you have no background, but it's all about Jesus.

There is a mistaken conception in many Christian and Evangelical circles that the Law was a failed attempt by God to make His people righteous.  These same people also tend to assume that Eve's original sin was a shock and a dilemma for which God had to scramble and patch together a solution.  What they teach goes something like this:  God created a perfect world.  Everything was really nice, and then Eve sinned, and this was a terrible shame and calamity, so now what was God to do?  He tried giving the Law, but that didn't work.  In fact, it was a colossal failure.  Finally, God figured out a solution which would work, and that was Jesus.

That way of looking at it is wrong, and if you read your Bible, not just selected verses out of context, but the whole Bible, you will see how wrong it is.  God has never been surprised or out of control.  He has never attempted a strategy that failed, and Jesus is certainly not "Plan B."

What then is the Law for?  I am going to tell you four things that God accomplished in giving the Law.

(1)  The Law was like a tourniquet to stem the effects of sin on the nation of God.

Remember how I asked you to picture a world, severed from the love of God because of sin, hurtling away in the opposite direction from life, joy, love, health and righteousness?  The world was in a bad state, but the right time had not yet fully come for Jesus to be born.  God was working on things, setting everything up according to His perfect plan in His perfect timing.  He had chosen a nation to birth Messiah, but there were things that had to happen before Messiah came.  In the meantime, there stood humanity in general, and Jesus' ancestors in particular, duking it out in a fallen world stained by sin.

By giving the Law, God gifted those who would read and follow it with guidelines to help them live in health, peace, justice, and even with a certain access to Himself, all things that are rare blessings on a sin-cursed planet.  The things the Law required are beautiful, if you will take the time to read it and see: be honest, give justice to the poor, make restitution for your mistakes, wash after you touch things that are dirty or dead, quarantine your sick people, let your women rest during their menstruation and after giving birth, rotate your crops, be sexually pure.  This Law was a gift from God to help His people live blessed, protected lives in a fallen world.  Of course, few of them availed themselves of this gift, but some did.  The Psalmist who wrote Psalm 119 certainly seemed to understand.

(2)  The Law reveals the righteousness of God.

Nobody can say, "I don't know what is righteous and what is unrighteous. I have no idea how to please God."  The Law clearly shows us what is pleasing to God, and what is displeasing.  Some parts of the Law are pretty easy to understand ("Do not kill"), and harmonize nicely with our natural consciences which exist in most souls, even unredeemed ones, because we are all originally created by God, in His image.  Some parts of the Law make sense to most people.  There are other parts of the Law that are harder for some people to accept, places where God asks us to set aside a certain pleasure for a greater good.  People do not take kindly to the idea of setting aside any pleasure for any reason.

This is where faith comes into play.  We have to trust that the God who created the Universe understands how it works, and if He says, "Don't do that," He knows why it works best that way.

He is righteous, and in the Law He gives us a manual on how to live righteously in His sight.   He explains what is good and pleasing behavior, and what is destructive and deadly.

(3)  The Law, in revealing the righteousness of God, shows us what sin is, and convicts us of our need for forgiveness.

Most people have consciences, unless they have broken or obliterated them by continual sin.  So most of us have at least a limited idea when we do wrong in the first place.  We have an idea when we do wrong, but we still might think that we are okay overall.  We often assume that even though we made some mistakes today, tomorrow will be better, and yesterday was not so bad.

The Law shows us straight out that we cannot get it right.  In Romans 7, Paul uses the commandment about not coveting to illustrate this.  We aren't supposed to steal, we aren't supposed to commit adultery, and we need to honor our parents.  Perhaps we can follow these commandments most of the time.  But then: Don't covet.  Don't let your heart desire what isn't yours.  Not: "Don't take it."  No. You are not even supposed to wish for it.  That 2-carat diamond your friend got from her fiance, the Jaguar your brother-in-law drives, the beautiful spouse, the tropical vacation, the gifted child, the weed-free lawn, the big house, the impressive job, the healthy body.  Don't notice that they have them, and you don't.  Don't blink an eye.  Rejoice in the Lord and have a heart of gratitude.  Do this or stand condemned.

Who can do this?  The Law shows us that we can't possibly, humanly please God.  In so doing, the Law does one more thing:

(4)  The Law points again and again to Christ.

The entire sacrificial system pointed forward to the atoning sacrifice through which Christ would offer His own body for our benefit, to purchase our forgiveness from sin, freedom from guilt, and peace with God resulting in fellowship and love.  Of course, we don't need to do the ceremonial sacrifices anymore, because Jesus completed the sacrificial system once and for all.  We do continue a form of the grain and wine offerings when we take communion in remembrance of Jesus' death; these offerings always accompanied an animal sacrifice under the old covenant, but Jesus accomplished what bulls and rams were never able to accomplish, never even meant to accomplish.  The animal sacrifices clearly pointed forward to the atoning death of Christ.

Every detail of the the design of the tabernacle points to Christ, from the single gate into the courtyard, to the way the curtain clasps show the integration of divinity and humanity, to the lampstand (light of the world) and the table of showbread (bread of life), to the curtain and the ark and the mercy seat.  Christ is God's solution for restoring His fellowship with humanity, the key to the dwelling of God with man.

All of the holy days and celebrations point to different aspects of the work of Christ: the deliverance of the Passover, the extended fellowship of the Feast of Booths, the complete freedom from all debts in the year of Jubilee.

The priesthood points ahead to the work of Christ as mediator between God and man, the only perfect one who could truly own a purity that would enable Him to enter the presence of God on our behalf.

The Law also speaks of the prophet of God who must be heard, and the King who would reign according to God's word, more allusions to the coming Christ who would make all things right.

While the Law shows us that we cannot hope to measure up in our own strength or by any form of self-righteousness, the Law never leaves us without the hope of the coming Promised One.

How should we approach the Law today?

First off, let me clearly state: nobody is ever or will ever be saved by keeping the Law.

The Law had many purposes, but salvation is not one of them.  God gave the Law to provide a way for the faithful to obtain some relief from the effects of sin on their lives (read Deuteronomy 30 for insight into this).  He gave the Law to reveal Himself and His righteousness to us.  He uses the Law to make us conscious of our sin and our need for salvation, and ultimately to point us to our need for Christ. 

The Law was the first revealed Word of God, but Jesus was the ultimate revealed Word of God (see John 1).  What the Law showed us in part on tablets of stone, Jesus showed us completely in a life lived in the flesh.  What the Law promised, Jesus fulfilled.

Jesus, the Word of God, came to us full of grace and truth.  He fulfilled all the Law and the promises.  One of the ancient promises, in Ezekiel 36:25-27, is that God would give His people new hearts and put His Spirit into us and move us to follow His laws and commands.  Jesus accomplished this.  It's all there in John 14-17.  Jesus had to accomplish His mission so that the Holy Spirit of God could come and tabernacle in our very hearts, teaching us obedience, reforming our wishes, redirecting our desires so that we could become truly righteous, from the inside out, and truly pleasing to God.

We should embrace the Law as it reveals the heart of God to us.  We should read it alongside Psalm 119 (and other Psalms, like Psalm 19:7-14).  We should be thankful that we can know what is good and pleasing to the Lord.  We should ask the Holy Spirit to help us understand and love the way of righteousness, the way of God.  We should be thrilled to have a way to learn how we can live beautifully before the God who saved us by His grace, and we should be humbled to realize that it is only through the power of His Holy Spirit that we can appreciate His Law, only through the power of the Holy Spirit that we can obey it.

Galatians 5:22-23 tells us that the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.

John 15 tells us that we must abide in Christ, dwell with Him, and He in us, if we are going to bear fruit.  "For apart from me," he warns, "you can do nothing."

We should be familiar with the Law, but we should carefully guard against using it as a minimum checklist.  In general, the Law helps us discern the heart of God, but overall, we should walk by the Spirit and especially seek to obey the parts of the Law that address our heart condition (for example, Deuteronomy 10:12-16).  When our hearts are right, the rest of the commands eventually follow naturally, and this all happens after we are saved, after we have received the grace that gives birth to faith, after the Holy Spirit has come to dwell in us.

It is only after we have accepted forgiveness of our sins by the sacrificial blood of Christ that we can be pleasing to God.  Even if we obey part of the Law prior to salvation, that "righteousness" is only like filthy rags in the eyes of the Lord.  Jesus taught us that we would fulfill the whole Law if we could love God with all our heart, soul and mind, and love our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:29-31).  We must take to heart Jesus' teaching in The Sermon on the Mount, that our righteousness must exceed that of the pharisees (Matthew 5:20) -- because true righteousness must stem from a pure heart, a new heart, a heart washed by the blood of Christ and infused with the very Spirit of God.

It isn't true righteousness unless you are doing it because you love God and you earnestly desire the good.  There is no way you can love God and earnestly desire the good unless you are saved by His grace and indwelt by His Spirit.  You have no power outside of His that can enable you to live righteously.  But if you are His child, you do have His Spirit, and when you abide in Him, His Spirit living in you, He gifts you with both the inclination and the power to live a victorious life of virtue and joy.

The point is not "We don't have to obey the Law."  The point is that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we are finally able to live righteous lives that are pleasing to God.  And the righteousness is essentially the same as it has always been, before the Law, revealed in the Law, and now in the age of grace.  God doesn't change.  It's not that we must be righteous.  It's not that we don't have to be righteous.  It's that we can be righteous.

This is quite a mystery.

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