Legalism is something to which we are all prone, because it is one of the key tendencies of the sinful human heart. At its base it is an assertion of our control over our relationship with God. It is a soft-pedalling of the greatness of God’s grace to sinners. On the surface it may appear to be an exalting of the law, however the law is understood. Yet when we examine the nature of legalism, we find that the opposite is true. Once we imagine that we can somehow add to God’s grace or establish our righteousness by our deeds, we have in fact dragged God’s law down to our level of imperfection. If salvation is by faith in Christ plus some form of obedience, the gospel is diminished tot he extent that we add to the principle of Christ alone. (Graeme Goldsworthy. Gospel-Centered Hermeneutics, 171)
Luke 24:13-25 (HCSB)…
Now that same day two of them were on their way to a village called Emmaus, which was about seven miles from Jerusalem. 14 Together they were discussing everything that had taken place. 15 And while they were discussing and arguing, Jesus Himself came near and began to walk along with them. 16 But they were prevented from recognizing Him. 17 Then He asked them, “What is this dispute that you’re having with each other as you are walking?” And they stopped walking and looked discouraged. 18 The one named Cleopas answered Him, “Are You the only visitor in Jerusalem who doesn’t know the things that happened there in these days?”19 “What things?” He asked them.So they said to Him, “The things concerning Jesus the Nazarene, who was a Prophet powerful in action and speech before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and leaders handed Him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified Him. 21 But we were hoping that He was the One who was about to redeem Israel. Besides all this, it’s the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women from our group astounded us. They arrived early at the tomb, 23 and when they didn’t find His body, they came and reported that they had seen a vision of angels who said He was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but they didn’t see Him.”
My commentary: The story starts with a group of discombobulated disciples, still trying to put the pieces together after Rome crucified their Messiah. In an ironic twist, they end up griping about their “failed Messiah” to the risen Messiah Himself, even dumbing down some of the first eyewitness reports of the resurrection (I’m trying to imagine Jesus’ facial expression).
He said to them, “How unwise and slow you are to believe in your hearts all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” 27 Then beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, He interpreted for them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures.
My commentary: Jesus rebukes them for being ignorant to centuries of Scripture that foretold all that would happen. But the great part is in verse 27, when Jesus gives the disciples a Bible study through the entire Old Testament! A Jesus-led Bible study? Yes, please! (I would love to be a fly on that wall). But I want you to notice this key phrase: the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures. This is our lens for reading the Law and the Gospel in the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is more than just a bunch of disconnected clippings of life in the Ancient Near East, or proverbial moral statements. It is an intricate narrative that points to one hero alone…
But what exactly is the point? Some would say the point of Scripture is to be more like Jesus. Others would say the point is to pay closer attention to his teachings–while others would emphasize his actions. What do you think Jesus said to His disciples concerning the Old Testament Scriptures? He taught them that the Old Testament in its entirety pointed to His redemptive death and subsequent resurrection. The underlying question in the heart of the Torah is, “Didn’t the Messiah have to suffer these things and enter into His glory?” (v.26).
But how should this inform our reading of the Scriptures? Surely not every obscure passage is about the cross, right? Should I read Obadiah or Philemon as though every verse and passage was a reference to the cross of Jesus? Well, no, not exactly. But yes! Here’s what I mean…individual verses deal with a scattered variety of topics, but you must see them through the narrative of Scripture–the full story–as one that is about Jesus redeeming the world through his gruesome death. Even if a verse does not directly make reference to the cross, the framework surrounding the verse is looking forward to (or looking back to) the finished work of Jesus. THIS is what Jesus is telling His disciples. But even after what must have been the most mind-blowing Bible-study ever given, these men are still not receptive of the message–proving even further that the Holy Spirit must open our hearts to understand God’s Word–but let’s finish the story…
They came near the village where they were going, and He gave the impression that He was going farther. 29 But they urged Him: “Stay with us, because it’s almost evening, and now the day is almost over.” So He went in to stay with them. 30 It was as He reclined at the table with them that He took the bread, blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. 31 Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized Him, but He disappeared from their sight. 32 So they said to each other, “Weren’t our hearts ablaze within us while He was talking with us on the road and explaining the Scriptures to us?”
Wow. Just wow. At the moment that Christ gives out the sacraments, the Holy Spirit opens their eyes to recognize Jesus, not only physically, but as presented rightly in the Scriptures. Specifically, it says that their hearts were “ablaze” leading up to the full recognition of Jesus. This is profound. Yes, we need to do the hard work of studying and exegesis when reading the Bible, but we also need the Holy Spirit to open our eyes to see the glory of Christ, or it will be nothing more than literature for us–or, even worse, a set of moral teachings–instead of broadcasting the treasuries of Christ.
This is also attested powerfully by the Apostle Peter, as he explains to a group of second generation Christians the times he has personally seen the Lord. But then he pulls an unexpected move: he tells them they are better off because they have the Scriptures.
“So we have the prophetic word strongly confirmed. You will do well to pay attention to it, as to a lamp shining in a dismal place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts. First of all, you should know this: No prophecy of Scripture comes from one’s own interpretation, because no prophecy ever came by the will of man; instead, men spoke from God as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:19-21, HCSB).
Based on all of this, I suggest that while you are prayerfully reading the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit might be already working in your hearts (setting it “ablaze”), even when you are struggling to understand, and that you must tenaciously continue until “the day dawns and the morning star [Christ] rises in your hearts.”
The cross is the blazing fire at which the flame of our love is kindled, but we have to get near enough to it for its sparks to fall on us. – John Stott
It’s easy to romanticize the Bible as a giant reference tool full of verses to make us feel better about ourselves. Or as God’s answer book, loaded with sound-bytes for everything that triggers our curiosity, including where to apply for our dream job. Even worse, God’s little love note to us…I digress.
My understanding of the Bible changed when I realized that it was not written about me, but God. Rather than looking for a divine psychologist to fix my problems, my gaze realigned onto a transcendent Other, as my universe began to revolve around the glories of who God is. After this, the Bible made my heart come alive. Years later, I still have to keep two things ever before me…
Every word you read in the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, the Psalms, the Chronicles, and even the apocalyptic literature, all fits warmly under these two headings: you are either reading Law, or you are reading Gospel. A Law-demanding life is hopeless without the power of the Gospel, yet the good news of the Gospel is nonsensical without the Law. Simply put, the Scriptures are truncated unless both Law and Gospel are in it together.
The Law first pointed to the Ten Commandments (called the moral law), and was later expanded to include the entire Torah–which included a total of 613 commands. Jesus summarized the Law of God with these two,
He said to him, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. (Matthew 22:37-40, HCSB)
We (Christians) sometimes make a couple of mistakes when we think of the Law. First, it’s a temptation to think of the Law as an anachronism relegated to the world of the “Old Testament.” Yes, there are many imperatives in the Old Testament, but there are also many imperatives in the New Testament. We should think of the Law as all of God’s commandments in Scripture. The second mistake we make is to denigrate the Law as legalism, per se, which is non-binding on believers from the New Testament. But Paul said, “the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and just and good” (Rom. 7:12, HCSB).
When we fail to keep the commands of God and are rightly condemned as a result, it is the Gospel that declares us justified before God, by grace, through faith in Christ alone (Rom. 5:18). Justification is more than mere forgiveness. When your debt is forgiven, you can still be left broke, though without outstanding debts. But when a person is justified, they experience a credit. In this case, we are given the wealth of Christ’s righteousness (2 Cor. 8:9)! But where did He get it from? You say, “Well, He’s God, so he was already righteous.” That’s true…in His divinity. But in the doctrine of the incarnation, something buck-wild occurs. The sinless Christ learned obedience (Heb. 5:8, ESV), lived His life as a Spirit-filled man (Mark 1:9-13), and though we failed to obey God since the time of Adam (Rom. 5:14), Christ adhered to His Father’s Law perfectly (Rom. 5:19-21). Jesus becomes the propitiation for our sins (Rom. 3:25), and the justification for sinners who are graciously enabled to turn to Him (24). Justification, then, means we end up with the righteous resume of Christ!
Everything you read in the Scriptures show one of these, because the Bible is Law and Gospel. When you read one while ignoring the other, you truncate the whole council of God’s Word, and substitute something more palpable (and impotent) in its stead. For example, if you were to only read the imperative truths of Scripture that exhorted you to some type of obedience, you would either despair, or become legalistic and self-righteous. You must read imperatives (Law) along with the indicatives (Gospel). But if you only care about Gospel passages that proclaim your true your identity in Christ to make you feel good about yourself, yet do not acclimate to that truth by responding in loving obedience, you become antinomian and relativistic. You still need the Law! You need it to give you rails by which you can respond in your loving worship to a holy God, who calls us to love him wholeheartedly, and our neighbor as ourselves. This is the whole council of Scripture–it’s everything God must say to us in this moment in history. If you are discouraged by a bland reading of Scripture, I suggest you read MORE Scripture, and you read it while looking for these two themes. You will constantly be hearing how God has purposed you, how you have failed, and how He, in His lovingkindness, has made a way.
Unless you have some type of reading plan, such as a yearly Bible reading, or a schedule, you may find yourself gravitating towards the same books of the Bible. Perhaps it’s because the passages you go back to regularly stroke your self-esteem! Or it’s because you love to beat your self up with commandments. But you need the full meal of God’s Word. Read the whole council of God. Ask the Holy Spirit to open your heart to it. Be humbled to the dust by His transcendence. Be elated to the skies by His lavish mercy.
Anything I’m missing from this list?
(Thanks for the thoughtful contributions from Derek [#1], Bethany & Matthew [#5], Kaleb [#12]), and Bobby [#15])
To deal with sin, you must kill the parasite, not the symptoms
The famous phrase, “Preach the Gospel, and if necessary, use words,” is like saying, “Wash my car, and if necessary, use water!”
It’s nonsensical, and a bit counterproductive.
The Gospel is good news that must be known, and therefore shared. Now, there are consequences of the Gospel, which are our good deeds, done alongside the good news of Jesus that we share. But the consequences that are our good deeds are just that: consequences of the good news about Jesus.
So if you follow that old phrase you’ll do little more than cause people to attribute your good deeds to your humanity instead of Jesus. That’s why we tell them the Gospel–we want them to know where salvation comes from. We must combine good news with good works for people to see that we’ve been transformed by a good God. So the old saying is wrong.
But it’s catchy!
(illustration adapted from Sam Storms)
Last night I spoke on worship from the viewpoint of John 4:13-26. From there I alluded to the “right way” and “wrong way” to worship God, but I wasn’t able to expound further on that, so, I’ll just continue the conversation here.
In a nutshell, here is how Jesus explained worship…
This means that a holistic worship of God must involve,
So not only do we know who God is, but our hearts should LEAP in response to this knowledge! Sam Storms puts it this way,
If you are wondering what the difference is between “rationally” believing that God is glorious and having a “sense of the excellency” of God’s glory, it is the difference between knowing that God is holy and having a “sense of the loveliness” of God’s holiness. (quoting Jonathan Edwards, A Sincere and Pure Devotion to Christ.)
Of course, this kind of worship has other implications too…obedience
According to the full scope of the Bible, the fruit of worshiping in spirit and in truth is always obedience. (“If you love me, you’ll obey my commandments” – Jesus). So that rules out “singing loud on Sunday, but doing my thing on Monday.”
This also takes the pressure off our infatuation with outward worshiping. True worship is not defined by what we do with our bodies or voices. Rather, what we do with our bodies and voices are simply a manifestation of what’s going on in our hearts (satisfaction in spirit and in truth). In fact, whether you raise your hands in worship or not has no bearing on how much God approves your worship, since he already approves of you perfectly through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus. So, another way of looking at it is that your worship is already made perfect throughout Jesus Christ.
However, your engagement in that perfected worship depends on you.
You see, I love my wife Brianna. But I don’t just text her “I love you.” I come home excited to see her! But I’m not just excited, I’m so in love with her, that I’ll do the dishes, fold some shirts, and listen to her, so that she knows my heart for her. My love for her moves beyond words, to affections, then action towards her. In the same way, a person who is so taken by the Good News of Jesus Christ will not just mouth words, or lift their hands, but be moved in the entirety of their life to do anything that Jesus asks, not out of obligation, but out of adoration (worship). For this reason, immerse yourself in the Gospel and find out for yourself!
Of course, if you think long enough about the Gospel, it may just move you to raise your hands, dance, bow, weep, etc.
Just let it happen!