The Law of God

This world is not my home…or is it?

Those who follow me on twitter may see several tweets with the hash-tag #Ruthproject. The Ruth project is a new work I am working with a fellow pastor from Birmingham. We are working on a commentary on Ruth. But this will not be just a normal, exegetical work, it is actually a pastoral and theological labor focusing on the nature and goal of redemptive history. We will focus on the content of Ruth’s majestic love story, but also detailing why Ruth serves as a miniature picture for all of God’s history.

We will offer a theological framework for how we are to look at redemptive history and how God is working in it. The commentary hopes to be practical, pastoral, and layman-friendly.

Here is a quote from the introduction:

What you believe about the future shapes how you live in the present.  If your final expectation is just to go and dwell forever in ethereal heaven, compare what your world view and your practice would be to someone whose final hope is of dwelling in a renovated and perfected physical creation in a resurrection body.

Lord-willing we will be able to provide a manuscript draft to our publisher by the end of the summer. Our goal is to have it published by the Family Advance Conference in November.

Not a Primitive Philosophy

Will Willimon writing for the Christian Century asserts that truthfulness is most clearly seen in its practical force. “How shall they know you are my disciples? When you love one another.” This was Jesus’ simple response. At the same time we must not forget that truth is contextualized in history by the writer of history. Life cannot be divorced from truth. Life is formed and lived out by truth if it is to be lived out accordingly. Pagans may conform externally to the law, but manifest “enlightened self-interest” in their actions. The Christian faith, on the other hand, sees truth affecting both external and internal motivations. These motivations are self-less and are shaped by the God/Man who was the embodiment of truth Pilate wondered about. As Willimon concluded:

Christianity is not another philosophy  or some primitive system of belief; it is a community  of people who worship the Jew whom Pilate sent to the cross.

This devotion to the Jewish Messiah is what enlivens the Christian truth and what changes the world.

The Evangelical, the Damning Statistics, and What To Do About It, Part I

The results are in and they don’t look good. Christianity Today reports on the Sex Lives of Unmarried Evangelicals. The two surveys offer differing numbers, but the conclusion is summarized in this manner:

Bible Reading? Evangelicals who infrequently read the Bible were 70 percent more likely to have been recently sexually active than frequent Bible readers.

Church Attendance? Evangelicals who attend church less than weekly were more than twice as likely to have been recently sexually active than weekly attenders.

Conversion? Of the sexually active singles, 92 percent had sex after becoming“born again.” That’s largely because the average age when evangelicals under 40 became “born again” was 8.

Evangelical statistics have a way of increasing our national Christian guilt, which is something that usually is already mighty high. Furthermore, the numbers usually paint a more pessimistic picture than what is actually taking place. My general principle when dealing with these statistics is to cut the percentage by a third. When the oft-cited “50% of Christian married couples end in divorce” statistic is referenced, this usually means about 35% of Christian married couples divorce. Those original statistics also included Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons. A Non-Trinitarian marriage is anything but a Christian marriage.

But however you do the math, the numbers are still frightening. No one can deny that they reflect a weak evangelicalism. It is not that evangelical churches are fully entertainment driven without any substance, but that the substance they offer is not sustaining, and therefore leading our young generations to find pleasure is worldly entertainment. Part of this worldly entertainment is the casualness of the sex culture.

Since this is the case we have responded in the way we evangelical do best: we have over-reacted. We have bought into the “world is against us” slogan and we have acted upon it with zealous fury. We have sheltered our children to the point of stifling their rhetoric and making them miserable spokesmen for the Lordship of King Jesus. On the other hand, we have overly exposed them to the vastness of sexualized culture. By the age of ten they all have their Lady Gaga lyrics as accurately as a Puritan boy his catechism memorized.

What can evangelical churches do to provide a culture that despises impurity and treasures purity?

The remarkable response–according to the statistics– is by focusing on the simple means of grace of Church attendance, Prayer, and Bible reading one reduces dramatically the chances of engaging in fornication. I have stated many times that the evangelical problem is one of prioritization. And what does priority look like in the church? The damning news is that conversion is not enough. For many parents conversion serves as a perpetual moral babysitter. As long as words are spoken affirming the X,Y, and Z of Christian conversion then we are on our way to bringing up pure children. But conversion or its vocabulary are not enough! The evangelical culture has evangelized their children to death, and then they are left wondering where did we go wrong.

Here is a sample quoted above:

Evangelicals who infrequently read the Bible were 70 percent more likely to have been recently sexually active than frequent Bible readers.

Let’s say 50% of this is true. Without going into detail of what this “Bible-Reading” should look like–a worthy discussion to be had–in what ways are churches inculcating their children with the Sacred Scriptures? In other words, what are they doing to instill a desire in our children to drink deeply of the Biblical narrative? Have churches made the Bible so one-sided and narrowly explicated that our children long to escape to a different narrative of the world?

As we affirm Sola-Scriptura, let us also delve into the Scriptures in a transformative way. “Your word is life,” says Yahweh. And this alone is enough to make the point of the study. When one saturates himself in life, then he will find death-like practices abominable.

To echo N.T. Wright, let’s return to a simply Christian view of life. Our understanding of sexuality needs to be transformed by a new understanding of who we are in Christ. Our new creation life is a life that treasures sex in its right context. Further, it sees the life of another human being as sacred, and therefore violating that sacredness–which is what pre-marital sex is–is a violation of life; a profound misunderstanding of the Imago Dei.

The Scriptures and its reading will help us re-shape our view of ourselves and others, but it must be done in a context that perpetuates the reality that the new world brings a new light and this light is filled with redemptive and ethical consequences. Therefore, forsake the works of darkness and drink deeply of the words of life.

*An additional post on “How to read Bible” will soon follow.

Fifth Sunday in Lent: Psalm 119:9-16, Re-Shaped by the Word of God

Prayer: May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord, our Rock, and our nearest Kinsman, the Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.

Sermon: People of God, this morning we conclude our Lenten Study through the Psalter. We will finish our studies by looking at a section from the longest psalm in the Bible, Psalm 119. I was thinking this week that if we learned a good tune to this psalm we could spend an entire psalm-roar singing it. This would be a noble pursuit. In this giant among the psalms we see that “delight…in the law of the Lord’ which is described in Psalm 1.”[1] This psalm is in some ways an exposition; a further elaboration of Psalm 19:7, which says, “The law of Yahweh is perfect, restoring the soul: The testimony of Yahweh is sure, making wise the simple.” More

The Purpose of the Law

In a fascinating and humorous article, Debra Murphy exposes the ignorance of law makers, while offering a healthy analysis of the purpose of the Ten Words. Murphy writes:

The Commandments don’t speak to a public; they give life within a community. What might seem to be restrictive and unrelentingly legalistic (thou shalt not this; thou shalt not that), turns out to be the parameters by which we exercise our freedom. That is, the Ten Words given in Exodus chapter 20 (and the hundreds of laws and mandates that follow in succeeding chapters) help give human freedom its proper aims, for they show us “the responsibilities without which no one can be legitimately free, or free for very long.”

A Parishioner Problem with the Uses of the Law

I was recently confronted by a passionate Christian. This individual was disturbed by a brief discussion I had offered on the three uses of the law. This person could not reconcile my audacious comment that the law leads us to Christ for our salvation and then Christ leads us back to the law for our sanctification (the moral use of the law; traditionally the third use). Though I had explained in the most clear and explicit fashion that keeping the law perfectly is impossible and that the grace of God under girds all our efforts, this parishioner found the idea of walking according to the precepts of the Lord to be anathema. “We are no longer under the law,” she argued. “Christ fulfilled the law, so that we do not have to follow it anymore, rather we follow Christ.” This form of thinking generally stems from a misunderstanding of the purposes of the law. Unlike many traditions, Reformed Theology emphasizes three uses of the law. If our only emphasis were on the first use, Luther would have won the day.

In a book written some years ago by Norman Geisler and Frank Turk, the authors sought to convince the readers that legislating morality was morally wrong. However, as many have pointed out, what is there to be legislated that is not moral? The common assumption– particularly from non Van Tilians– is that certain laws can be neutral. This is the dilemma of the parishioner. To affirm the abiding validity of God’s law is to place oneself under a moral standard. This moral standard, of course, is condemnatory, they argue; or worse: graceless. This picture–of course– is less than Biblical for David’s love for the law of God was sweeter than honey.

In the words of Vern Poythress the shadow of Christ is imprinted all over the law of Moses. However, this does not mean that Christ rejects or abolishes what He fulfills (Matthew 5:17). Instead, His coming and incarnation gives it (the law) greater meaning and crystallizes its true purpose. What the parishioner could not grasp is that in order to love Christ you must love His commandments.

A Brief Homily on the Three Uses of the Law

According to St. James, the law of God is an expression of God’s unchanging character and the royal law of liberty. Paul says in Romans 7 that it is God’s good gift to humanity. And this is only the New Testament! When we go back to the pages of the Older Testament, particularly in the Psalms of David, we find in the longest chapter in the Bible: Psalm 119, David’s perpetual love affair with the law of God. If I began to read of David’s love for the law you would think I was talking about the love of a man for his wife. Rather, David is speaking of words, life-giving words. Not just life-giving words, God’s words, reflecting His character.

Though there has been some dispute on how the law of God is understood, for our purposes, Reformed theology has summarized this matter in terms of three valid ways of using the law.

The first way to use the law is pedagogical, that is, the law reveals the holiness and righteousness of God and consequently our shortcomings that drive us to Christ. One powerful way to tell those outside God’s grace of His Gospel is to teach them that God is holy and that they fall short of His glory and are therefore in need of His Son.

The second use of the law is civil. It serves to restrain evil through threats of punishment. It means that the law of God serves to stop evil men from being as bad as they can be. If there were no threats of punishment, our society will quickly fall into anarchy and pure lawlessness. We have seen from our study of history what happens to societies that refuse to punish evildoers. But according to Romans 13, the civil government serves as God’s sword to execute judgment upon those who live for evil.

The third function of the law is the moral use. The moral standards of the law provide guidance for believers as we seek to live in humble gratitude for the grace God has shown to us. Perhaps the most evident place we see this is in Exodus 20, which is the giving of the Ten Commandment on Mt. Sinai. Instead of God beginning directly with the law, rather He prefaces the 10 Commandments with the kindness of His grace: I have brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. The grace of God was shown to the Israelites in redeeming them from bondage. So now, God tells the Israelites that if they want to live peaceably with all men, then they must follow His perfect standard by His grace.

In a sense we can understand the law as driving us to Christ and Christ in turn driving us back to the law for our sanctification. For the modern church to despise so great a law is to despise what David considered sweeter than honey. Indeed if we teach others to despise God’s law we will be called least in the kingdom of heaven. God forbid.

Theonomy and Mormonism

I first came across the writings of the late Greg Bahnsen in 2002. Since then I have had a theological fascination with the application of Biblical ethics to all of society. God’s unchanging character, as Bahnsen asserted, meant that His laws were unchanging to all peoples and all nations. In the years that followed I became aware of the vast mis-representation of the theonomic view. The first failed attempt by Westminster Seminary in 1990 and the constant failures of Kline’s disciples to do away with the Reformed view of the law while embracing Lutheran distinctions quieted opponents of Biblical law for some time. However, since the death of Bahnsen and Rushdoony, theonomy has been consistently attacked. Reformed scholars seeking the approval of the masses have enjoyed mocking the writings of the dead (Bahnsen, Chilton, etc.) because it brings about an implicit applause from academia, which deplores the idea of an ethical system being built around God’s inerrant law-word. One wonders if these scholars would make the same voracious accusations if Bahnsen and Rushdoony were still alive.

One recent example of this is found in the Reformation 21 blog where Rodney Trotter ( a friend informs me this is Carl Trueman) seeking to find some humor in the true story of a Muslim who is married to 86 wives, prefaces the link to the story with the following observation:

Well, I always thought that having 85 wives was OK, but 86???? Come on, mate, that’s pushing the envelope too far! When does he ever get time to watch the footie??? And, no, he’s not a theonomist or a Mormon, he doesn’t live on the Utah/Arizona border, and he probably doesn’t lie awake at night worrying about the federal government putting mind-changing drugs into the water system.

I always enjoy the insightful commentary and links from Ref21, but the author of the blog far from making a humorous observation is actually making an explicit accusation and erroneous association between polygamy and theonomy. Further, he places Theonomy and Mormonism in the same line as if the two bore certain commonalities. I must inform the author that his association lacks class and only serves to perpetuate the pagan and in many situations the evangelical aversion to all things Old Testament. Perhaps this is the time to remind readers that theonomists are some of the most godly and wise parents, husbands, wives and children that I have ever met. This is not because of their inherent ability to be wise and godly, rather it is because they have sought to find true wisdom in God’s revelation in the Older Covenant. And further, theonomists see polygamy as an abomination in the eyes of God. So why on earth would any informed reformed brother use theonomy as an attempt to humor blog readers?

Waltke on Jephtha’s vow…

Bruce Waltke interprets the language of Judges 11 when he speaks of Jephthah’s only daughter “whom he murders (An Old Testament Theology, pg.607).” He argues later that Jephthah breaks the sixth commandment by sacrificing his daughter, which the Prophets condemn (Jeremiah 19:5). Waltke contends that “in a case of a vow dedicating a child to I AM, the Law calls for monetary payment instead (Lev. 27:1-8).” Indeed if Waltke is correct that Jephthah sacrificed his daughter, then God’s Law repudiates Jephthah’s abhorrent practice.

Lee Irons on the Law of God

I confess I enjoy reading Lee Iron’s blog. It is one of the thirty blogs I read frequently on my google reader. But my interest in Irons is the interest Libertarians have for Republican propaganda: Once in a while they make a good observation. In fact, there may be some overlap and we may even agree with certain things like limited government and free market capitalism. But while we agree with certain things, we come to these conclusions for different reasons and through different routes. Whereas Irons and I concur with infant baptism, we disagree on the nature of infant baptism, its efficacy, and its role in covenant life. Whereas, Irons and I concur with covenant theology as a system, we have completely different perspectives on its nuances and application. He chooses the Klinean route and I the Bahnsen route.

But most significantly, our differences lie in our view of the law of God in this New Covenant era. Iron argues:

The Decalogue was the central, summarizing core of the Old Covenant, and therefore it cannot be the immediate standard of conduct for the New Covenant people of God. If it was, we would be required to observe the Sabbath on the seventh day of the week (as the fourth commandment teaches: “Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is the Sabbath of the LORD your God” (Exod 20:9-10).

For someone who claims to adhere to Biblical Theology, it is an odd statement to misunderstand the nature of the Sabbath in the New Covenant. As it has been understood for many centuries in Reformed exegesis, the Sabbath–which was on the sixth day–takes on new significance in the New Covenant as the Lord’s Day. The Sabbath is never abrogated in the New Covenant; what has been abolished are ceremonial celebrations and certain Old Covenant feast days, as Paul argues in the epistles. But what is most bothersome about such statements is Irons’ complete dismissal of how the early church and Reformed dogmatics has understood this simple connection. Just as circumcision takes on new significance in the New Covenant as the washing symbol of water, so too, the Sabbath becomes the Lord’s Day of exaltation to the great God of heaven and earth.

Irons continues by arguing thusly:

If the Decalogue per se, as given to Israel on Mt. Sinai and recorded on tablets of stone, were the immediate standard of conduct for the New Covenant people of God, then we must all move to modern day Israel so that our obedient children can live long in the land that the LORD our God is giving us (the fifth commandment).

Truly, I am saddened that Irons had to go through such difficulties in the OPC. He could certainly find a home in the PCA. I am aware–unfortunately–of many pastors who would take similar positions to Irons, perhaps not formally, but in their preaching and practical life. Or perhaps Irons would find an even better home in the Lutheran tradition, where it is common to dismiss the application of the Ten Commandments as archaic and part of a different dispensation. The arguments used by Irons and others are somewhat pristine, in that they want to see Christ as the fulfillment of the law, meaning that Christ has abolished the law. But while attempting to maintain such pure and noble motives, they make Christ an abstract being. One that demands no allegiance; One that is satisfied with a limited realm of glory; One that sees the world as neutral ground shared by believer and unbeliever alike; One that teaches if you love Me, then do not keep the commandments of my Father in the Old Covenant, but only my new commandment to love one another. But how is this love demonstrated? How can it be demonstrated without an absolute standard?

Another idea that is also erroneous is Irons’ assumption that God viewed Israel as a distinct piece of land and her laws as distinct Sinaitic laws meant only for a specific time and a specific people. Richard Pratt has argued persuasively that what God intended for Israel was the conquering of the Abrahamic promises. This Abrahamic promise guaranteed the whole world as an inheritance (Romans 4).There is no dispute as to the size of this inheritance. There may be dispute about the nature of the laws in the New Covenant and how they are to be properly applied using epochal adjustments, but Irons will not grant me even that. So, my fascination will continue with Irons and our ever continual list of disagreements.