Monday, December 17, 2007

Do Not Forsake the Assembly

Hebrews 10 says Christians are to stir one another up to good deeds, “not forsaking our own assembling together” (v. 25). But, what does that mean? The key term “forsaking” translates the GK word egkataleipontes (pres act ptc nom pl masc), which is from the lexical root egkataleipo. According to Mounce, the term is rightly glossed to read “to leave, to leave behind, to forsake, and abandon.” BDAG says it means “to separate connection with someone or something., forsake, abandon, desert.” Kohlenberger adds “to give up.”

The writer to the Hebrews uses the word only one other time. Hebrews 13:5 says, “God has said, Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.” The word “leave” does not have the same finality as “forsake.” The idea of “forsaking” carries the notion of total abandonment. Paul uses the term in 2 Tim 4:10 and 4:16 to speak of those who totally abandoned him. “For Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica” (2 Tim 4:10). “At my first defense, no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me” (2 Tim 4:16). Therefore, the GK term translated "forsake" in Hebrews 10:25 means that the believer must not abandon the Christian assembly.

In conclusion, this text does not mean that a person must come to the assembly every time the doors are open. Rather, it means that we must not “abandon” the assembly. But, what does that mean? Is the notion of abandonment purely subjective? If people come regularly for Christmas and Easter every year, have they “abandoned” the assembly? What if they come once a month and never more, but they come consistently every month? How do we know when someone has abandoned the assembly? Is it purely subjective? I submit that unless we have a clear doctrine of the Sabbath, then we have no objective measure by which to decide what “forsake” means. I would argue that to “forsake” the assembly means unrepentantly breaking the Sabbath (which includes exceptions for acts of mercy, piety, and necessity: Matt 12).

Friday, December 14, 2007

The Gospel and God's Fatherly Discipline

It's critical for Christians to recognize the difference between punishment and discipline. Punishment has to do with the law, exacting penalties for sins against the law. It is not corrective (ex: hell isn't corrective) but is punitive only. Punishment vindicates God's injured majesty and violated justice. It brings joy to God, but it does not bring joy to the sinner. Discipline, on the other hand, has to do with the gospel. It does not mete out the sanctions of divine justice but comes from the loving hand of the Father to his sons (Heb 12:3-17). God's disciplinary providences toward his children are gifts of grace because they are aimed at sanctifying believers for their own good and growth in godliness. Discipline aims at the happiness of its recipients. The Puritans used to say that when God brings discipline into our lives, we should "kiss the rod" of correction.

Often God's Fatherly discipline exposes our sin and brings it out into the open, as in the case of David, and strips us of our idols by painful force. Perhaps David's idol was his high and exalted status as king. He was of such standing in the sight of the people that he felt free to remain home while his armies were at war. David felt free to order Bathsheba to come to him and to have her for himself. He was on a power trip and he felt he had the approval rating to sustain it. But, his lofty status and widely popular approval likely plummeted when his sins were made public for all to see. David wasn't as great as many thought. David's over-blown self-image was ripped away from him by force through God's gracious discipline for David's own good.

So, how should Christians be motivated by God's corrective discipline? We should think about the fact that our sins will either be mortified and godliness vivified through willing application to Christ or our sins will be painfully ripped away from us by discipline. Either way, God will sanctify us. Which way will you grow? Will it be through faithful application to the cross of Christ, or will God expose your sins and will your idols be ripped from you by God's merciful discipline?

Legalists and the Law

Some legalists love to be beaten up with the law, and they criticize any application of Christianity that doesn't beat people up as a “kissy-poo” faith, which is soft and effeminate, unwilling to face up to the hard teachings of the Bible. They beat themselves up and they like to hear preaching that beats them up as well. This used to puzzle me, since it involves the endurance of great and persistent harshness. However, I’ve come to believe that a triumphalistic legalist (as opposed to a defeated legalist) enjoys beating himself up and being beaten up by preaching because he feels that thereby he makes atonement for his own sins. If he’s beaten up sufficiently, he feels better about himself as though he has somehow paid for some of his sins, though all such beatings are utterly insufficient when one considers what we truly deserve. He does not want to hear about forgiveness. He doesn’t want to hear that Christ is wholly sufficient to atone for his sins. He doesn’t want to hear about hell (and good teaching never avoids the negative) only to have the condemnation of hell remitted by the righteousness of Jesus for those who believe because that doesn't motivate him. He is motivated by pride not by faith in Jesus Christ and his grace. The legalist would rather wallow in condemnation, feel better about himself, only to try to do better next time and to be proud of his miserably imperfect work. Christ and forgiveness are for unbelievers, he may say. He doesn’t want to be motivated and disciplined by grace; he wants to be disciplined by the law. The basic reason for this attitude is pride. The essence of pride is belief in self and unbelief in Christ. All Christians are recovering legalists, but someone who is exclusively a triumphalistic legalist is not a Christian at all.

The sanctified heart is overwhelmed and motivated by grace. The one who lives by faith in Christ is increasingly stripped of pride because he knows there is no way to pay for his own sins and there is nothing he can do to merit favor from God. He is humbled into the dust and motivated by faith in Jesus Christ and all that Christ is. All his works are like filthy rags for justification, though he knows that his works of faith and love to God are made acceptable in and through Christ. The one who is motivated by grace works to imitate Christ because Christ has won his affections! His costly love was manifested in his life, death, and resurrection, and the one who looks to Christ longs to emulate him. Christ captures the heart of the believer. All that Christ has done, is doing, and will do to shower us with love and grace proves to us that he really does love us. Scripture says that we love God (and thus obey him) because he first loved us! The Bible teaches that those who understand how much they are forgiven love (and thus obey) much! It is the kindness of God that leads us to daily repentance. God's consistent, steady and powerful love convinces us that his merciful instructions really are for our own good and for God's own glory. Our good works of evangelical obedience and worship don’t glorify God because they are in themselves glorious, worthy, or meritorious in any sense (they are too imperfect for that). Rather, they glorify God because they flow from a humble heart of faith in Christ, who is in himself glorious. They glorify God because they display the Spirit’s free and gracious work in us, which was purchased and applied by Christ’s righteousness, and they glorify God because we cannot claim that there is any merit or absolute worthiness (for justification) in them.

The Law and the Gospel

Hey Ben (and all), tell me what you think of this.

There are basically three positions on the distinction bewtween the law and the gospel: (1) antinomianism, (2) legalism, and (3) law-gospel balance.

These three categories are not completely distinct, but are the main points along a continuum of beliefs. There are intermediate and overlapping views, but these three will provide us with a good sense of the issues at stake. Obviously my outlining of these categories is biased toward what I think “balanced” means; so, the reader will have to judge whether or not I’m right.

The law-gospel distinction relates both to justification and sanctification, and the errors at the extremes (antinomianism and legalism) are the result of mixing and confusing justification and sanctification.

ANTINOMIANISM: The law is bad and the gospel is good.
Antinomianism teaches that there is a radical separation between the law and the gospel in both justification and sanctification. According to Antinomianism, the gospel is that we are under no obligation whatsoever, and that it is in fact wrong, to obey the law for our sanctification. Antinomians believe that all of God’s commands are law, and the law serves only to kill us and show us our need of Christ. We must renounce the way of the law and embrace the way of the gospel. The gospel shows us that Christ's work alone pleases God and that no Christian good works are pleasing to God. Therefore, God simply requires that we believe (passively and restingly) in what Christ has already done for us. Pure antinomianism teaches that genuinely saved people can live their whole lives without doing any good works. In this way Antinomianism takes the truth about justification and wrongly applies it to sanctification, mixing two things that should not be mixed.

Historically, this position became most prominent after the Reformation and found favor among some of the extreme Lutherans and Radical Reformers. Contemporarily, old school “no Lordship” Dispensationalism held to this school of thought.

LEGALISM: The law is the gospel.
Legalism teaches that we are obligated to keep the law for both our justification and sanctification. To the degree that we are sanctified (doing good works in faith and love), God declares us “not guilty” and “righteous,” but to the degree that we are unsanctified, God views us as guilty. On this perspective, the law is not at all too hard for us to keep for justification. Faith and good works are often understood as two ways of talking about the same thing, both of which are aspects of the obedience that is necessary to be constituted legally righteous before God. Legalism often speaks of God’s "graciously" giving the law and making us able to keep it, but it doesn’t speak much of a Substitute law-keeper who keeps the law on behalf of others. Legalism takes the truth that we must do good works for sanctification and wrongly applies it to justification, thus confusing the two.

Historically, post-Trent Roman Catholicism, some deviant forms of Arminianism, and those who held to Richard Baxter’s Neonomianism have been advocates of this view. Today, legalism is gaining ground again in various academic expressions of dynamic justification through the teachings of Daniel Fuller, Norman Shepherd, and advocates of the New Perspectives on Paul.

LAW-GOSPEL BALANCE: The proper law-gospel distinction.
While antinomianism applies principles of justification to sanctification and legalism applies principles of sanctification to justification, the balanced position sees the proper distinction between justification and sanctification. The balanced view teaches that there is a sharp law-gospel distinction in justification, but a gospel-law continuum in sanctification.

Justification. The law requires perfect obedience for justification (to be declared righteous before God the judge and to have a right and title to eternal life), such that nothing short of absolute holiness can make a man “just” in God’s sight (Gal 5:3). After the fall, justification by works is impossible because we are all sinners (Rom 3:23); therefore, the law serves only to kill us and show us that we fall far short of God’s glory (Rom 7:7). Personal law-keeping is thus utterly excluded from justification. But, the Gospel teaches that Christ has kept the law in full for His people both by enduring its curse and by meriting its blessing on behalf of all who believe in Him (Rom 3:23-26; 5:12-21). The “law” shuts us up to condemnation and out of justification by works (Gal 3:10-14), but the “gospel” teaches that Christ has kept the law for us, asks us to renounce all good works for our justification, and entreats us to trust in Christ in order to be robed in His perfect law-keeping (His righteousness) for our justification (Rom 4:5-8). This is the proper law-gospel contrast in justification.

Sanctification. The gospel not only reveals the way to be justified, it also reveals how to be sanctified, which is no less important. Christ’s redemptive work not only makes us just, it also makes us holy (Rom 6:12-14). It frees us from both the condemnation and the power of sin. Jesus Christ points all justified people to the law as a rule of walking (Rom 13:8-10) that must be obeyed out of love for Christ (Jn 14:15), gratitude for what He has done and will do (1 Jn 4:17-21), and for our own good (Deut 10:12-13). The law is good and holy and is God’s gracious gift to the believer, which should be cherished, esteemed, enjoyed, reverenced, studied, and diligently and meticulously obeyed (Rom 7:12; Ezra 7:6, 10). Justification frees the believer to obey the law and to continue in obedience even though we sin. What Christ has done wins our hearts (justification) and moves us to obedience for our own joy and for God’s glory (sanctification), but not for our justification. This is the proper gospel-law continuum in sanctification.

Historically, the sons and daughters of the Reformation embraced this balanced view. Though Luther made some extreme statements, if you read him carefully, you'll discover that he understood the balance. Calvin and the Calvinists all held a balanced perspective on the law and the gospel. Our Baptist forefathers also understood well the law-gospel distinction. Caleb Evans (1737-1791) wrote, “When I was only a youth, I beheld with admiration my father in the pulpit and was delighted with the heavenly sounds which flowed from his lips. Hearing the aweful terrors of the law and the astonishing grace of the gospel, I was brought into the very dust before the throne of a holy God, and enabled to magnify the riches of free grace.” During John Ryland Jr’s (1753-1825) funeral sermon, the preacher said, “Pelagian pride and Antinomian licentiousness; the first of which he detested as an insult on the grace of the gospel; the last on the majesty and authority of the law.” In Ryland’s last printed sermon, he wrote, “Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law [justification], not from the blessing of the law [sanctification]. For surely, it is a blessed thing to have a certain standard of duty, a directory to show us how we ought to walk and please God.”

Legalism and antinomianism are both reductionistic in their approach to law and gospel. Antinomianism denies the proper role of the law in sanctification. Legalism denies the proper role of the gospel in justification.

Both antinomianism and legalism produce ungodliness, while only the proper law-gospel balance consistently yields the holiness without which none will see the Lord. Antinomianism creates a permissive attitude, while legalism creates either pride (not holiness) or defeatism (surrender to unholiness because of repeated failure).

There is a sense in which legalism is antinomian and antinomianism is legalistic. Legalism is antinomian because it invariably diminishes the absoluteness of the law and makes it easy enough to keep. Antinomianism is legalistic because though it throws off God’s law it makes every man a law unto himself and a slave to his own passions.