Thursday, September 22, 2011

Justin Martyr: Old Covenant versus New Covenant

Justin Martyr (103–165) is a famous early Christian apologist. His understanding of the relationship between the law of Moses and the new law of Christ is very instructive. Justin argues that Jesus is the new law, eternal and final, who has replaced the old law of Moses. Approaching God in the new covenant age requires, therefore, that a person repent from idolatry and other sins, persevere in one’s confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and maintain piety.

The excerpt below is taken from ch. 11 of Justin Martyr’s Dialogue with Trypho (adapted from Trypho was a Jew who was interested in philosophy.
“There will be no other God, O Trypho, nor was there from eternity any other existing … but He who made and disposed all this universe. Nor do we think that there is one God for us, another for you, but that He alone is God who led your fathers out from Egypt with a strong hand and a high arm. Nor have we trusted in any other (for there is no other), but in Him in whom you also have trusted, the God of Abraham, and of Isaac, and of Jacob. But we do not trust through Moses or through the law; for then we would do the same as yourselves. But now (for I have read that there shall be a final law, and a covenant, the chiefest of all, which it is now incumbent on all men to observe, as many as are seeking after the inheritance of God. For the law promulgated on Horeb is now old, and belongs to yourselves alone; but this is for all universally). Now, law placed against law has abrogated that which is before it, and a covenant which comes after in like manner has put an end to the previous one; and an eternal and final law—namely, Christ—has been given to us, and the covenant is trustworthy, after which there shall be no law, no commandment, no ordinance. Have you not read this which Isaiah says: ‘Hearken unto Me, hearken unto Me, my people; and, ye kings, give ear unto Me: for a law shall go forth from Me, and My judgment shall be for a light to the nations. My righteousness approaches swiftly, and My salvation shall go forth, and nations shall trust in Mine arm?’ [Isa 51:4–5]. And by Jeremiah, concerning this same new covenant, He thus speaks: ‘Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah; not according to the covenant which I made with their fathers, in the day that I took them by the hand, to bring them out of the land of Egypt’ [Jer 31:31–32]. If, therefore, God proclaimed a new covenant which was to be instituted, and this for a light of the nations, we see and are persuaded that men approach God, leaving their idols and other unrighteousness, through the name of Him who was crucified, Jesus Christ, and abide by their confession even unto death, and maintain piety. Moreover, by the works and by the attendant miracles, it is possible for all to understand that He is the new law, and the new covenant, and the expectation of those who out of every people wait for the good things of God. For the true spiritual Israel, and descendants of Judah, Jacob, Isaac, and Abraham (who in uncircumcision was approved of and blessed by God on account of his faith, and called the father of many nations), are we who have been led to God through this crucified Christ.”

Friday, September 16, 2011

Not under Law But under Grace: An Exposition of Romans 6:15–23

“Christians are under grace, not law!” This is a slogan that Christians, following the Apostle Paul, have frequently parroted. The problem is: have we understood what Paul meant by this slogan? Protestants typically interpret law in the phrase for you are not under the law but under grace to mean law in general, but this is to take Paul’s teaching out of its historical context, and to apply it in an illegitimate way.

The law that Paul was talking about in Rom 6:14 was specifically the law of Moses, not law in general whether divine or human. On the surface, the noun νόμος (law) in the phrase ὑπὸ νόμον under law looks indefinite, but it needs to be kept in mind that in New Testament Greek the definite article is frequently not used after prepositions. In the end, context needs to determine whether ὑπὸ νόμον means under law (in general) or under the law (of Moses). The big issue in the early church was whether or not Gentiles could be saved by faith in Jesus Christ apart from following the law of Moses (see Acts 15:1, 5). The orthodox Christians said “yes,” whereas the Judaizers said “no.” This is the particular historical context that argues for ὑπὸ νόμον to mean specifically under the law (of Moses). This is consistent with the rest of Paul’s argument in the epistle to the Romans, which is concerned with Jews versus Gentiles in God’s plan of salvation as foretold in the Hebrew Bible (i.e., the Old Testament). This Judaizing issue was being replayed in Rome after Nero’s accession to the imperial throne led to increasing numbers of Jews returning to Rome following the cessation of Claudius’s edict of expulsion. 

In Paul’s day, there were people who objected to Christianity on the basis that it was anomian or law-less. In the historical context of Paul’s day, this was a specifically Jewish objection. Paul’s Jewish opponents viewed that Christian teaching which proclaimed that being right with God was a matter of belief in (i.e., submission to) Jesus Christ rather than a matter of obedience to the law of Moses as constituting a rejection of Moses and Mosaic law, rebellion against the covenant, and disobedience to God.

In Rom 6:15 Paul picks up the objection of his Judaizing opponents to the Christian teaching that God’s people are under grace rather than law in the new covenant age. His opponents’ objection was: “Following your teaching, Paul, we should all sin, because we are not under the law but under grace.” This objection appears as a direct response to Paul’s final statement in Rom 6:14. From Paul’s opponents’ perspective, being under grace rather than law was to reject God’s standards of righteousness as defined in the law of Moses. They thought that Christianity was a license to sin, but Paul strongly strongly rejected this implication (Rom 6:15).

Consistent with Old Testament teaching, Paul understood that there are only two ways of living in the world. On the one hand, there is the way of life that leads to God; and on the other, the way of death that leads away from God. Paul captures this in Rom 6:16 by talking about two states of slavery: “Do you not know that to whom you present yourselves as slaves for obedience, you are slaves to whom you obey, either of sin which leads to death, or of obedience which leads to righteousness?” According to Paul, there are only two masters whom we can serve: sin or obedience. Serving sin is the way of death, whereas pursuing obedience is the way of righteousness and life. These two possibilities applied in the old covenant age, and Paul understood that they apply just as equally in the new covenant age. The coming of grace in Jesus does not render invalid the basic framework of the dual halakhic (i.e., the two ways of living) ethical system of the Old Testament. Paul’s opponents were wrong to think that this is what Christianity advocated.

Paul understood that Christian conversion involved a heart transformation that brought converts into slavery to righteousness (Rom 6:17–18). Paul was thankful to God that the Christians in Rome had undergone this transformation. Before conversion they had been “slaves of sin,” but since their conversion “you have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching that you received” (Rom 6:17). The phrase from the heart is a deliberate echo of the new covenant prophecies of Deut 30:6: “And Yahweh your God will circumcise your heart, and the heart of your offspring, so that you will love Yahweh your God with all your heart and with all your soul, that you may live”; and Jer 31:33: “ For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares Yahweh: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people.” Paul understood that the Old Testament prophecies about the restored (i.e., new covenant) obedience of the people of God are fulfilled through conversion to Christianity. It is also significant that the law written in the heart is equated by Paul with the standard of teaching that you received. The model of teaching received by the Roman Christians was Christian teaching. It was the Christian gospel. The gospel is the received tradition of the Christian community, passed down from Christ to his apostles, and from them to subsequent Christian teachers. Receiving this teaching into the heart is the key to freedom. The Christian gospel, the new covenant word of God, has the power to set people free from slavery to sin; but this is freedom for the sake of obedience to righteousness (Rom 6:18). There is no morally neutral territory. From the beginning of time, there has only ever been two ways of living: one a way of life, and the other a way of death.

Paul’s imagery of slavery to one of two masters was an accommodation to the weakness of the understanding of his readers (Rom 6:19). He used this illustration for the purpose of encouraging his Christian readers to pursue Christian sanctification: “just as you have presented your members [i.e., the parts of your body] as slaves to impurity and to lawlessness for lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves to righteousness for sanctification” (Rom 6:19). Divine grace is not a license to sin. The Jewish accusation that Christianity was ἀνομία lawlessness was far from the truth. Being part of the new covenant is about walking in righteousness with the law of God written in our hearts. Being a Christian is about being holy, as the gospel of Christ brings holistic transformation. It is true that Christians are under grace, not law; but this is not the same as saying that Christianity is law-less, that Christians are not bound to any law, that they are free to live without any sense of morality. If law in the phrase under law is taken as denoting all possible forms of law, then Christianity is truly anomian. But if Paul, in the light of the historical context of his day, is specifically talking about the law of Moses as the law which we are not under, then a place is left for understanding that the gospel is new covenant law, and the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies (such as Deut 30:11–14; Isa 2:1–4; Jer 31:33; Ezek 36:26–27) that speak of the vivifying function of eschatological torah in the heart of God’s new covenant people. Paul was objecting to old covenant law. He was not denying that Christians are under new covenant law, which is the gospel, “the standard of teaching that [we] have received.”

As Jesus said, “You cannot serve two masters” (Matt 6:24). When Paul’s readers were “slaves of sin,” they were “free of righteousness” (Rom 6:20). Slavery to sin is incompatible with slavery to righteousness. Paul also reminds his readers of the consequences of their former way of living. “What fruit did you get then from the things of which you are now ashamed? For the end of those things is death” (Rom 6:21). Serving sin leads to shame and death. It is a dead end and totally fruitless. This fruitlessness of slavery to sin contrasts markedly with the consequences of slavery to righteousness. “But now, having been set free from sin, and having become enslaved to God”—that is, after Christian conversion—“you have the fruit of sanctification, and its end eternal life” (Rom 6:22). Slavery to righteousness is equated by Paul in Rom 6:22 as being slavery to God. The two masters that we must serve in life are either sin or God. Serving sin is useless. It leads to death. But serving God, as the Old Testament consistently teaches, has great benefit. Serving God means bearing and enjoying the fruits of holiness. Furthermore, the end destination of this way of living is eternal life. It is significant here that Paul views eternal life as residing at the end of a lifelong process of sanctification. Eternal life in the presence of God is the goal of Christian halakhah.

Paul concludes his teaching concerning righteousness in Rom 6 by summing up the consequences of the two possible ways of living in the world. He shifts from the image of fruit to that of wages: “the wages of sin is death” (Rom 6:23). The concept of wages is used as a metaphor for what God “pays back” to people. There are consequences for how we live our life in the world. If we indulge in following sin, then the end result of that is God’s payback of death. “But the gracious gift of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” is not like the consequences of sin: “the gracious gift of God … is eternal life” (Rom 6:23). This verse is often quoted by Christians out of context, as if to say that God’s gracious gift of eternal life in Christ has no connection with the need for personal righteousness on the part of the believer. God’s gracious gift in Christ Jesus is eternal life, but this cannot be divorced from the process of sanctification that leads to eternal life. In effect, the phrase eternal life in Rom 6:23 is basically a synecdoche, a figure of speech in which a part is used to refer to the whole. Eternal life lies at the end of a process of sanctification. The whole of this process is the gracious gift of God.

To continue in sin, therefore, because we are not under law but grace is to fail to understand the meaning of God’s new covenant grace. God’s new covenant grace not only involves God graciously sending Jesus to make full atonement for our sins, but also God graciously writing his law in our hearts, so that we might be able to obey him, and to live as a consequence of walking in the way of personal righteousness in the context of atoning grace. To say (as some have said to me in the past) that the idea that personal righteousness is necessary for salvation is inconsistent with grace is ironically to fail to understand the nature of God’s grace. People who say that have, in effect, narrowed God’s grace down to simply the imputation of Christ’s righteousness received. It is definitely true that Christ’s righteousness stands at the heart of God’s grace, but God’s grace to us Christians is more than simply the reception of an alien righteousness. God’s grace involves both the reception of an alien righteousness and its personalization in a holistic way within the believer. The extrinsic righteousness of Christ truly applied will see itself reflected in the Spirit-induced intrinsic righteousness of the believer. The extrinsic without the intrinsic is inefficacious. Being under grace instead of law, therefore, does not make us lawless.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Grace Is Not a License to Sin: An Exposition of Romans 6:1–14

Christianity is a religion of grace. The concept of grace as God’s undeserved favor to sinners is, generally speaking, strongly promulgated in evangelical Protestant theology today. But is grace a license to sin? A small minority of Christians down the years have come to that conclusion, but the Apostle Paul argues in Rom 6:1–14 that being under grace involves being set free from sin to serve and obey God. Christianity is a religion of grace, but grace actually involves God moving his people to obedience.

In Paul’s day, there were people who objected to Christianity on the basis that it was anomian or law-less. This was a specifically Jewish objection. Christianity proclaimed that being right with God was a matter of belief in (i.e., submission to) Jesus Christ rather than a matter of obedience to the law of Moses. Christianity, therefore, “devalued” the law of Moses in the sense that the law of Moses was viewed as being subordinate to the revelation of God’s will that had come through Jesus and his apostles. In effect, orthodox Christianity viewed the law of Moses as being divine revelation of second-order magnitude. But this “devaluation” of the law of Moses was viewed by orthodox Jews as being heretical. It was viewed by them as constituting a rejection of Moses and as being disobedience to God.

One of the objections of such people against Christianity was that it was anti-torah. They heard Paul speaking of being under grace instead of law, so they assumed that he and Christianity must be law-less. They also knew Paul’s teaching regarding the primary function of the Mosaic covenant in salvation history: that the purpose of Israel receiving the law from God in the first place was so that Israel would sin against it, thereby creating the opportunity for grace to abound. As Paul argues in Rom 5:20: “The law came in, in order that the transgression might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”

Paul reflects the objection of such people in Rom 6:1. Romans 6:1 is basically a quotation of one of the objections offered against Paul and his view of the purposes of God in giving the law to Israel. The word translated as increase in Rom 6:1 is a deliberate reference to the language that Paul was using to explain God’s purpose in giving Israel the law (see Rom 5:20). Paul’s opponents were basically saying: “Well, Paul, if God gave the law to Israel, so that Israel would sin, in order that grace might increase, then following your logic, the more we sin, the more grace will increase. Let’s continue then to sin, in order that grace might increase! Your teaching here, Paul, is absurd. Your religion promotes sin, and that is obviously wrong!”

But this portrayal of Paul’s teaching was incorrect. It is true to say that Paul understood that God gave the old covenant to Israel primarily as an instrument to bring about the covenant rebellion of Israel as a backdrop for God’s gracious dealings with Israel and the nations through Jesus. It is true that the giving of the law of Moses led in the purposes of God to an increase in sin in order that grace might increase all the more. But this is not to say that God wanted Israel to sin, nor is it to say that God wants such sin to continue as part of the new covenant that Christ has come to establish.

Paul argues against this Jewish misinterpretation of his teaching by appealing to the significance of Christian baptism. Arguing his case from Christian baptism is a weak argument to use in a debate with non-Christian Jews, but the epistle to the Romans was written to Christians. The main problem for Paul was that the traditional orthodox Jewish view of the law was accepted by many (primarily Jewish) Christians. These Christian Judaizers were in turn promulgating their views in Rome. With the return of Jews to Rome after Nero’s accession to the throne had brought an end to Claudius’s edict of expulsion, the Judaizing position was growing in influence in Rome, and causing disunity within the church. Arguing from Christian baptism is a powerful argument in a Christian context.

The basic principle put forward by Paul was that we (Christians) have died to sin. Having died to sin, it is not theoretically possible to continuing living in sin (Rom 6:2). This death to sin was formally sealed and symbolized in Christian baptism. Christian baptism is a baptism “into Christ Jesus” (Rom 6:3). Through baptism, Christians formally become one with Christ, a member of his body, the church. Baptism unites us to Christ. This means that baptism also unites us to Christ’s death. Baptism also unites us to his burial. Christian baptism means that the Christian is dead and buried with regard to sin! But being dead and buried is not the end. Through baptism (whose efficacy continues as long as faith continues), the Christian also shares in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. Christ’s resurrection from the dead is new life. “Just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so also we [Christians] … walk in the newness of life” (Rom 6:4).

Being a Christian is about having new life; and having new life, also means having a new lifestyle. This life and lifestyle necessarily go together. Paul proves the truth of Christians having a new way of life, by pointing out that sharing in Christ’s death means that we Christians will (in the future) also share in Christ’s resurrection in an experiential way (Rom 6:5). This unity in Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection means that our former self (i.e., the person that we were before our formal conversion at the point of baptism) has been crucified together with Christ. This has happened in order that the body of sin (i.e., our sinful nature) might be rendered inoperative, i.e., that it might be destroyed, so that we might “no longer be enslaved to sin” (Rom 6:6). Union with Christ means, therefore, being “set free” from slavery to sin (Rom 6:7).

“If we have died with Christ, we believe that we we will also live together with him” (Rom 6:8). Union in his death goes together with union in his life. It is a total package. And just as Christ has been raised from the dead never to die again, “death no longer rules over him” (Rom 6:9). When Christ died, he died because of the power of sin; but he did so “once and for all” (Rom 6:10). The fact that Christ was raised from the dead to live forever means that his death has dealt fully with the problem of sin. Sin, having been dealt with, Christ’s resurrection life is fully lived under the positive purposes of God. With his resurrection, Christ’s suffering ended. In effect, his resurrection means that he is free from the overbearing power of sin. The implication of all of this is that just as death no longer rules over Christ, likewise sin and death should not be allowed to rule over us Christians. Paul spells this out in Rom 6:11: “So also consider yourselves as being dead to sin, but alive to God in Christ Jesus.” Our baptismal union with Christ means that, in a way analogous to Christ himself, Christians have been set free from the power of sin to live new lives in the service of God. To say that Christianity is law-less because it does not follow the law of Moses in every detail according to Jewish tradition is to fail to see the purpose behind the coming of the new covenant and the significance of the believer’s union with Christ.

Paul concludes his argument against this anomian objection in Rom 6:12–14. In Rom 6:12–13 he notes the ethical consequence of our baptismal union with Christ, and calls upon his Christian readers to serve God in righteousness: “Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body, to obey its desires” (Rom 6:12). The bodies that we currently live in are destined to die. This is the consequence of sin in the world , yet Christians have already been set free from the power of sin. We are not, therefore, to allow sin’s former reign to continue to control us. The pronoun its in the phrase its body is textually uncertain with regard to its gender, although the evidence seems to favor its referent being your mortal body. The desires of the mortal body are sinful desires, but these are not to be obeyed. Neither are Christians to “offer your members as tools of unrighteousness to sin” (Rom 6:13). The word translated as members denotes limbs or parts of the body. Christians are not to use their bodies in the service of sin to do what is not right. Rather, says Paul, “offer yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as tools of righteousness to God” (Rom 6:13). Christians have been set free in Christ to serve God rather than sin, and it is to God that we are to offer ourselves in obedient service. God is the King that we serve, not sin. Christians are to serve God, because “sin will not rule over you” (Rom 6:14). The sense of the future tense of the verb translated as will rule seems to be incorporating the time from the present into the future. This is at least the sense that emerges in the light of the present tense used in the second clause of v. 14: “for you are not under the law but under grace.” The law of Moses in the old covenant age was a historical epoch in which sin and death reigned over Israel (see Rom 5:21). In this, the covenant rebellion of Israel served to replicate and intensify the original rebellion of Adam, which brought death into the world in the first place (Rom 5:14). But Christians through their union with Christ now participate in the new covenant. We belong to the historical epoch in which grace and righteousness rule (Rom 5:21), and continuing to serve sin is incompatible with this new reality.

Being under grace does not mean, therefore, that Christians live in a moral free zone. Paul’s Jewish opponents were wrong to suggest this. Christians have been saved to serve God in righteousness. Christianity may appear to be anomian and anti-torah from the traditional Jewish perspective, but obedience and righteousness are still important. Christ came to enable the obedience of faith among all nations. Grace, therefore, is not incompatible with personal righteousness. Indeed, grace guarantees the proper service of God.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Key to a Father’s Happiness according to the Book of Proverbs

Every Father’s Day children wish their father “Happy Father’s Day.” But what really makes a father happy? The book of Proverbs has a fair bit to say about the role of fathers, and what makes for a happy father.

The book of Proverbs presupposes that fathers should love and take delight in their children (Prov 3:12). Parents obviously have a responsibility to provide for their children’s physical and emotional needs, but the primary role of fathers according to the book of Proverbs lies in education. Proverbs presupposes that fathers will be instructing (Prov 1:8; 4:1), commanding (Prov 6:20), and disciplining their children (Prov 3:12). Discipline actually stems from a father’s delight in his child (Prov 3:12). Just as God seeks to instruct his people by speaking his word to them, human fathers are to pass God’s instruction (i.e., torah) and wisdom on to their children, and particularly to their sons.

Proverbs 1:8–9:18 functions as a model for how fathers should instruct their children. Fathers can instruct their children about many things, but moral instruction is most important. Fathers should encourage their children to pursue wisdom, motivating them to do so by helping them to consider the supreme value of wisdom, and the desirability of the benefits that flow from it.
“Hear, my son, your father’s instruction; and forsake not your mother’s teaching; for they are a graceful garland for your head and pendants for your neck” (Prov 1:8–9).
“Hear, O sons, a father's instruction; and be attentive, that you may gain insight; for I give you good precepts. Do not forsake my teaching. When I was a son with my father, tender, the only one in the sight of my mother, he ktaught me, and said to me, ‘Let your heart hold fast my words; keep my commandments, and live. Get wisdom; get insight. Do not forget, and do not turn away from the words of my mouth. Do not forsake her, and she will keep you; love her, and she will guard you. The beginning of wisdom is this: get wisdom; and whatever you get, get insight. Prize her highly, and she will exalt you; she will honor you if you embrace her. She will place on your head a graceful garland; she will bestow on you a beautiful crown’” (Prov 4:1–9).
If the father’s primary role is educating his children, then it makes sense that a father will experience happiness to the extent that his children receive and follow his instruction. It is significant that the main section of the proverbs of Solomon in the book commences with the following proverb: “A wise son makes a glad father, but a foolish son is a sorrow to his mother” (Prov 10:1). The idea that a wise son makes a glad father is repeated in Prov 15:20. Wisdom in the Old Testament is defined as hearing and doing torah. Children who follow God’s instruction bring joy to godly fathers. As Prov 23:24–25 states: “The father of the righteous will greatly rejoice; he who fathers a wise son will be glad in him. Let your father and mother be glad; let her who bore you rejoice.”

The opposite of wisdom is foolishness. Accordingly, the foolish child brings the opposite of joy to his or her parents: “He who sires a fool gets himself sorrow, and the father of a fool has no joy” (Prov 17:21); “A foolish son is a grief to his father, and bitterness to her who bore him” (Prov 17:25). Foolish children cause trouble and shame for their fathers: “A foolish son is ruin to his father,” on par with a quarrelsome wife (Prov 19:13); a child who is “a companion of gluttons shames his father” (Prov 28:7); “He who loves wisdom makes his father glad, but a companion of prostitutes squanders his wealth” (Prov 29:3).

Children should listen to their father’s instruction (Prov 1:8), and keep their father’s commandments (Prov 6:20). Listening to a father’s instruction allows a child to “gain insight” (Prov 4:1). “A wise son hears his father’s instruction, but a scoffer does not listen to rebuke” (Prov 13:1). “The one who keeps the law [i.e., instruction, torah] is a son with understanding, but a companion of gluttons shames his father” (Prov 28:7). “A fool despises his father's instruction, but whoever heeds reproof is prudent” (Prov 15:5). As a means of learning wisdom, the book of Proverbs calls upon us to listen to our parents: “Listen to your father who gave you life,and do not despise your mother when she is old” (Prov 23:22). An unwillingness to listen to our parents goes together with an unwillingness to listen to God. Therefore, respect for one’s parents is important. Whoever thinks that stealing from one’s parents is okay “is a companion of a destructive man” (Prov 28:24). Cursing one’s parents leads to eternal death (Prov 20:20). “The eye that mocks a father, and scorns to obey a mother, will be picked out by the ravens of the valley, and eaten by the vultures” (Prov 30:17). Using violence against one’s parents “brings shame and reproach” (Prov 19:26).

Wise and godly children are the key to a father’s happiness. This means that fathers can promote their own happiness by teaching their children well.