Q – Jim,
God bless you for your faithful teaching of the Bible. My wife found your explanation of Matt 5:17-18 on the internet and it is an answer to my prayers. I’ve been struggling with the law vs. grace issue — specifically over these verses, and have not had a better explanation by anyone. This includes major commentaries and ‘famous’ preachers. This issue is extremely important as it defines the Way of salvation. Yet from my experience, I really doubt 1 in 10 preachers even understand it. As you said, some preachers use this passage “to justify imposing facets of the Law of Moses on the Christian Church – Sabbath-keeping, tithing”, etc.” Pastors breeze through verses about freedom in Christ, but then insist the 10 Commandments are binding.
Don’t get me wrong, I still believe it is wrong to cheat on my wife, but if you really look at the 10 Commandments, one involves the “ceremony” of the Sabbath, and I suppose you could get real legalistic about what it means to misuse the Lord’s name. And if these are binding, what gives them the liberty to declare it, but not other laws? Anyway this has been my confusion and frustration and your explanation speaks to my spirit.
Jim – Thank you very much for the kind and encouraging comments concerning our “Law vs. Grace” teaching. And, I’m glad that your wife ‘providentially’ found our site. I agree with your assessment (sad as it is) that most preachers do not understand the Sermon on the Mount.
I will tell you (giving credit where it’s due) that a fellow named John Reisinger was instrumental in shaping my thinking on the subject. I have known John for several years. We have our differences and have had our fair share of debates. But, he was the first fellow I ever read who genuinely interacted with Jesus’ language in that sermon. His books on the subject are entitled “The Tablets of Stone” and “But, I Say Unto You…” Those books made me go back and develop my theology around the actual text instead of my assumption of what the text ‘probably meant.’ You can find John’s books at www.amazon.com.
It appears that you have a good grasp on the essential elements of the argument. It’s gratifying to meet someone who takes the Word seriously enough to let it define and interpret itself. That’s another thing that bewilders me. The Bible is such a consistent, logical book that I don’t know why people work so hard to confuse it. Perhaps we sinful folk are just too afraid of the concept of freedom to truly embrace it.
Q – I do have some further questions as a result though. As a Christian, what defines sin now? Is it only what is done outside of “faith”? (Rom. 14)
Jim – I wouldn’t build my case on Romans 14:23. The one who is accused of sin in that verse is the one who does not have faith. So, if you were looking to define sin for Christians, this would not be the best place to start.
Q – If this is so, does faith mean conscience here?
Jim – Yes, in that context, faith has to do with freedom of conscience to eat and drink things that may have been sacrificed to idols. Because Paul knew that an idol was nothing, he had the freedom to eat. But, if a weaker brother did not have the same freedom-producing faith, then Paul would not eat such things in front of him, in order that his weaker brother would not stumble. Because, for a man who is weak in the faith to eat something his conscience has convicted him of is tantamount to rebellion. Thus, to eat something you are convicted is unclean is sin.
So, yes I would agree that Paul was discussing conscience as a matter of faith in Romans 14.
Q – And what “commands” is the New Testament referring to when it instructs us to obey God’s commands–like in 1 John?
Jim – Well, I have two responses here. Both require that we realize the Jewish/Hebrew mindset of the First Century.
Jesus was asked on several occasions to comment on aspects of the Law and the commands of Moses. In one instance, a lawyer asked Jesus which commandment the greatest. The question was most likely a reference to the Ten Commandments, not that the lawyer was truly interested in Jesus’ opinion. He was trying to tempt Jesus; to catch Him in His own words by getting Him to favor one commandment over another. But, Jesus surprised his listeners by answering out of a completely separate part of the Levitical rules.
“Then one of them, which was a lawyer, asked him a question, tempting him, and saying, Master, which is the great commandment in the law? Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matt 22:35-40)
The whole of the Old Testament – “the law and the prophets” – hung on those two concepts; love God and love your neighbor. The first half of that answer was drawn from Deuteronomy 6:5 and the second half from Leviticus 19:18. So, according to Jesus, the command to love supersedes all other commandments.
Now, the apostle John picked up that same line of thinking in his writing. But, you must remember that Peter, John and James were apostles to the Jews, the circumcision, just as Paul was the apostle to the Gentiles. So, when he spoke of commandments, it was natural language for his Hebrew audience. Hence, he wrote:
“Brethren, I write no new commandment unto you, but an old commandment which ye had from the beginning. The old commandment is the word which ye have heard from the beginning. Again, a new commandment I write unto you, which thing is true in him and in you: because the darkness is past, and the true light now shineth. He that saith he is in the light, and hateth his brother, is in darkness even until now. He that loveth his brother abideth in the light, and there is none occasion of stumbling in him.” (1 John 2:7-10)
When John interacted with the notion of love of God and neighbor as the highest, greatest principle, he wrote that it was both new and old. It was old in that it was part of the ancient Law of Moses, just as Jesus had quoted. But, it was new in that it was an essential element of the New Covenant, superseding the detailed commands and requirements of the Old Covenant of Law.
So, based on the evidence, I conclude that when we read of “commands” in the New Covenant economy, they are the commands of the newer, higher, better lawgiver – Christ himself. The all-too-common notion that the commands mentioned in the New Covenant force us backward to Sinai ignores the teaching of Jesus and the apostles on the subject.
Here is another example: The Jews who followed Jesus were steeped in their conviction that God would accept them on the basis of their works, or good deeds. So, one day they asked Jesus which works would accomplish that goal. Presumably, they wanted Jesus to give them a comprehensive list of required works from the Law that would give them the surety that they had pleased God. But, Jesus’ answer was brilliant, direct and simple.
“Then said they unto him, What shall we do, that we might work the works of God? Jesus answered and said unto them, This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent.” (John 6:28-29)
There are no works of the flesh sufficient to obligate God to save a person. Whereas the Old Covenant was wholly based on keeping rules and doing works, the New Covenant changes the activity of fleshly acts to the activity of believing. Coming from Jesus’ own lips, it’s hard to conclude that He intended to drive people back to Moses for their justification.
So, all of that leads me to answer that the commands referred to under the covering of the New Covenant are the commands to love God, love your neighbor, and have faith in the finished work of Christ.
Q – Thanks again for your insight and dedication to God’s Word!
Jim – Thank you for the kind words. I hope I can live up to them. Feel free to drop us a line whenever the urge strikes.
Yours in Him,