Saturday, February 23, 2013

From Law to Grace

I don't regret my decision to start listening to my doubts. Doing so has taken my relationship with God to new levels of depth and authenticity. But it also has its risks. As I questioned and tested more and more of the assumptions of my faith, I came to realize that my old view of the "gospel", the central message of Christianity no longer made sense.

Let me first present the view on the law and gospel that I've heard so often preached.

The Mainstream Evangelical View of Law and Grace

The Lord is a God of covenant relationships. He appeared to Abram, a Mesopotamian nomadic pagan, calling him to leave his homeland and travel to the land of Canaan, promising to make him into a great nation and bless him. In an excellent example to Christian missionaries, Abram obeyed, leaving behind his whole life and going where God sent him. God later made a covenant to give Abram countless descendants and a land for them to live in; indeed that through him "all nations will be blessed", a promise to send His son as redeemer to the whole world 2000 years later. God made to seal this promise with the standard "covenant-cutting" ceremony of the time, but put Abram into a deep sleep and performed the ceremony alone so that the covenant promises would not be dependent on a messed-up man who pimped out his wife to foreign kings (twice!) but only on God's sovereign good pleasure. God gives Abram a new name and circumcision as the sign of the covenant for him and his descendants and he dies at a good old age. Abram's immediate descendants Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph, despite their repeated failings and misfortunes, each have the covenant of Abraham affirmed to them.

Fast forward to Egypt, 400 years later, where the descendants of Abraham, the Israelites, are now slaves of the pharaoh. God, through Moses and a lot of high-budget miracles, despite their constant whining and disobedience, rescues them from slavery and brings them back to the land promised to Abraham earlier. God gives them the "Mosaic law" to help restrict and convict them of their sin and need for a Savior, help them live in relative harmony in the land of Canaan, and to "point forward" from the shadows of the rules and rituals to the reality to come in Christ. God's heart aches as He knows (and predicts to Moses) that the Israelites will be unable to keep this law and will eventually be cast out of the promised land as a result, until the Messiah comes to bring the promises to ultimate fulfillment.

1600 years later, Israel has indeed failed to keep the law but has disobeyed and turned from God, and as a result has been divided, exiled, and brought back severely humbled. The time has fully come for God to fulfill all that was promised in the law. He sends His perfect Son, Jesus Christ, to live with His people and give them the greatest gift imaginable: Himself. He teaches the people that love for God and neighbor is the fulfillment of the law they could not keep and, in the culmination of the whole tradition of priests presenting sacrifices, dies on the cross as the ultimate sacrifice for our sins.

The apostle Paul, perhaps the ultimate theologian, puts the whole narrative together for us. The law was never the final reality for the Israelites (or anyone) to look to and they were never supposed to try to try to justify themselves by perfectly following it; it was meant to show them their sin so they would repent and turn back to God as most perfectly revealed in Christ. He refers back to Abram, who, before the law was ever given, "believed God and it was credited to him as righteousness", as the example of justification by faith that the Israelites should have followed even before the object of that faith was fully revealed. The law, which saved no one and made nothing perfect, whose usefulness was negated by the sins of the people, was never meant to be the basis for God's relationship with His people; it has always been about faith, and that in Christ.

There are many true elements to this law-to-grace narrative, but in its totality it hasn't held together in my mind. I have been wrestling with why this is for the past few weeks.

The Tension

I've already mentioned the quandary between law and grace that got me to admit that the Bible (as I read it) had contradictions. Moses said that the Israelites could obey the law and be declared righteous by doing so; Paul says this is impossible and was never the intention of the law. Paul's message of the insufficiency of the law and our total reliance on grace, taken at face value and as echoed by countless preachers, is irreconcilable with Moses' presentation of the law as a guide to attainable righteousness and life.

Then, more fundamentally, I realized that Paul's message seemed to fundamentally undermine the giving of the law. Paul (and, I would argue, reformed/evangelical preaching) presents the gospel as the offer of freedom by grace from our enslavement to the law, which made nothing perfect but only condemns and is powerless to save us. This would all be well and good, except of course that the law was also given by God.

Some verses from the Pentateuch offering one side of the law:
   Leviticus 18:5: You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the LORD."
   Deuteronomy 6:25: And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us."
   Deuteronomy 30:11-14: For this commandment that I command you today is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will ascend to heaven for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ Neither is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will go over the sea for us and bring it to us, that we may hear it and do it?’ But the word is very near you. It is in your mouth and in your heart, so that you can do it.
And Paul's side:
   Romans 3:20: Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.
   Galatians 3:17-20,23-25: What I mean is this: The law, introduced 430 years later, does not set aside the covenant previously established by God and thus do away with the promise. For if the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise. What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions until the Seed to whom the promise referred had come. The law was put into effect through angels by a mediator. ... Before this faith came, we were held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed. So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.
   Romans 10:5: Moses describes in this way the righteousness that is by the law: “The man who does these things will live by them.”
And from Hebrews:
   Hebrews 7:18-19: The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.
   Hebrews 10:1-4: The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins. But those sacrifices are an annual reminder of sins, because it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
These verses demonstrate the tension I was feeling. It's especially acute when Paul in Romans 10:5 cites Leviticus 18:5, which was meant to motivate and encourage the Israelites to obey the law, as an example of what not to do. It seemed like the Israelites were led astray, ordered by God to seek righteousness from the law (and inevitably fall short) rather than in Christ. Oh, those poor, "chosen" people, born before salvation by grace through faith was revealed when all the scriptures taught was salvation by works! Paul (or the interpretation of Paul I'd been taught) and Hebrews seemed to be presenting the gospel as a God-given solution to a God-given problem (enslavement to sin and the law). And this wouldn't do.


A quick aside on the nature of covenant. A lot of theologians and preachers define "covenant" to be nearly synonymous with "promise". In this view, the Abrahamic covenant was God's promise to Abram to make him into a great nation, bless him and all people through him, etc. A lot of significance is drawn from the surreal scene in Genesis 15 where God goes through the covenant-cutting ritual alone. In this view, it means that the covenant in no way depends on Abraham, who has no "side of the bargain" to do, nothing to contribute to the covenant--and for good reason! God's covenant, the thinking goes, can't depend in any way on sinful people, but only on His own, perfect word and promises to bless unconditionally.

Except two chapters later, God does place a requirement on Abraham, namely circumcision. This requirement isn't just extra, but is essential on Abraham's end for him to "keep" God's covenant. Genesis 17: 9-14:
Then God said to Abraham, “As for you, you must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.
That sounds kind of like God is placing a requirement (or condition) on Abraham and his descendants to stay in the covenant. So it is, in fact, conditional. But you may say that this isn't so much a "condition" as it is a sign of the covenant, as Paul seems to count circumcision as being separate from the law in Romans 2:25-29. What about the law? Hundreds upon hundreds of requirements, many of them carrying the penalty for disobedience of being "cut off from [one's] people", that is, out of the covenant.

So clearly God's covenants with people can be conditional. In fact, our entrance into the new covenant in Christ's blood is also conditional, upon our faith. I would say that God's status as the sole oathtaker, maker of these unilateral covenants, does not mean that He is simply going to bless us despite how much we sin (though we do see the truth of this in the Old Testament and life today). It means that God is in total control over the covenant, able to add blessings or conditions for the human recipients as He sees fit. It's less of a contract and more of a business relationship.

Old and New Perspectives

After that aside, let's go back to the main tension: how Paul seems to present the law (with which, as a former pharisee, he would have been very familiar) in a completely different light than it is presented in the Old Testament. As it turns out, Paul (and other New Testament writers) use Old Testament material in some very unexpected ways that would definitely fail the modern definition of "good exegesis".

For example, Matthew 2:15 says that Jesus fulfilled Hosea 11:1: "Out of Egypt I called my son." But a quick analysis of the Hosea passage reveals that this is just a prelude to an account of the son's (Israel's) stubborn disobedience to the Lord. This passage is not only not predictive but retrospective, it portrays the "son" in a negative, sinful light. And Matthew applies it to Jesus.

Or see Hebrews 3:7-11, which cites Psalm 97:7-11. But if you look closely, this citation is not perfect. Psalm 95:7-11 reads:
Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah,
as you did that day at Massah in the desert,
where your fathers tested and tried me,
though they had seen what I did.
For forty years I was angry with that generation;

I said, “They are a people whose hearts go astray,
and they have not known my ways.”
So I declared on oath in my anger,
“They shall never enter my rest.”
Compare the italicized lines with the citation in Hebrews:
“Today, if you hear his voice,
do not harden your hearts
as you did in the rebellion,
during the time of testing in the desert,
where your fathers tested and tried me
and for forty years saw what I did.
That is why I was angry with that generation,

and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.’
So I declared on oath in my anger,
‘They shall never enter my rest.’ ”
Those do not say the same thing. And, as if to answer the possibility that he was simply working from a different version of Psalm 95 than we have, the writer of Hebrews then references it correctly a few verses later, in verse 17: "And with whom was he angry for forty years?" The change in the Greek is smaller, simply the insertion of the word dio ("therefore"), but the fact remains that the author seems to have changed a cited text to support his point. The fact that this happened in Hebrews, which is apparently written in very scholarly Greek, indicates that this turn of phrase was probably accepted by its readers, not treated with suspicion. What is going on? Did the writers of the Bible not know how to treat the Bible?

Peter Enns, who mentions these and other OT-NT discrepancies, theorizes that both of these writers (and Paul) were citing the OT not from a historical perspective but from the new perspective they knew: that Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, had come to earth and defeated death. This truth, which they had arrived at not by careful reasoning but personal revelation, was sufficiently large to merit reinterpreting everything they had known, including earlier revelations from God, in a new light. (This is the point of much of the book of Hebrews) Enns explains this "recontextualization:
It is not that Old Testament words are taken out of context and tossed into the air to fall where they may. Rather, the New Testament authors take the Old Testament out of one context, that of the original human author, and place it into another context, the one that represents the final goal to which Israel's story has been moving.
So we see in the Bible at least two very different ways to read the Old Testament--the standard historical-grammatical way, trying to understand how it would have been received by its original audience, and the..."different" way the New Testament writers handle it, as recontextualized in light of Jesus. It's essential to keep the existence of these two perspectives in mind when dealing with perceived conflicts between the Testaments like I saw in Paul. In this case, I think the "tension" between Paul and the law comes from ignoring the original purpose and context of the law and only interpreting it as Paul did, after Christ.

Differences in Context

So, in the original, Old Testament context, the law is given as the moral fabric of Israel to be obeyed and that obedience would be the Israelites' righteousness (Deuteronomy 6:25). How does this not contradict Paul's later teaching? I think the answer lies in the context surrounding the law, and the questions it answers. The biggest problem with the law after it was originally given was that the Israelites, in a polytheistic, paganistic culture, ignored it and turned to worship other gods in addition to, or instead of, the living God. Keep in mind that the OT does not deny the existence of other nations' gods, only that they are worthy of worship. In ancient Near East (ANE) cultures, as long as you paid the proper respect and service to your family or local god, it was considered fine to explore other gods and see what they had to offer. God's insistence that His people worship Him alone, for He is a "jealous God", is, as far as I know, unique for that time, so it's easy to see how the people might have had trouble getting this into their heads.

In the New Testament context, though still in a polytheistic society, pagan worship is no longer the big problem the Israelites have with the law. Instead it is Phariseeism--not ignoring the law, but following it zealously, "relying on it" (Romans 2:17), instead of the God who wrote it, to be righteous. This line of thinking said that since the Jews were God's chosen people, they had an automatic "in" with Him (a Jewish tradition taught that Abraham stood at the gates of Hades/Sheol, preventing any circumcised man from entering) and only nominal obedience to the law was require to remain part of this covenant. The Jews considered themselves to be a special people in a privileged position with God, over and above everyone else; the Pharisees wore their zealous obedience to the law on their sleeves not so much as an example to help others but to assert their own moral superiority. This seems to be the kind of people Paul is speaking to in Romans 2:17-29 as he is trying to knock them off their pedestal, and it is also the background of thinking Paul himself came from.

So this helps to explain why the law is presented so differently between the testaments--its role was threatened by two very different sin issues. Discouraging seeking righteousness from the law was necessary with the Pharisees, but would have been confusing or counterproductive for the ancient Israelites. But there is more. Paul's central concern is--and I think the concern for Christians today should be--individual "justification", or restoration of right standing before God and the eternal life ("salvation") that goes with it. But this was not so in the Old Testament when the law was given. The picture of righteousness was much more corporate than individual--note all the descriptions of the Israelites turning to or from God seemingly as one. And it was more temporal; the highest hope from God was not eternal life but a long, prosperous, blessed life of shalom in the land God had provided and the survival of the nation of Israel and (later) the Davidic line of kings. I'm guessing this difference in focus was simply a reflection of the different time periods and cultures in which the books were written. God didn't try to give the Israelites the law expressed in a classical way of thinking and certainly not in a modern one--He interacted with them in a way that made sense to their ancient way of thinking.

And in this ancient way of thinking, I don't think the law was nearly as much of a burden as it seems to us today. The general view on deity in the ANE was that the gods were a lot like people, with needs, desires, and flaws of their own. To paganistic cultures of this time, people were created to serve and provide for the gods as slaves; their obedience was entirely for the god's sake. If misfortune befell someone, he would assume he had somehow offended one of the gods and would try to find out his trespass and make amends to whatever god he had offended, but the process involved a lot of guesswork and "blanket confessions". Then enter Yahweh, who made it very clear that He was not like other nations' gods. He had no needs and made His will for His people crystal-clear, not for His own sake but for theirs, "that it may go well with you and with your children after you, and that you may prolong your days in the land that the LORD your God is giving you for all time" (Deueronomy 4:40). Here was a God who did not punish people for violating His indiscernible whims but showed them exactly how to live uprightly before Him!

But by the New Testament, the focus had shifted. Though the good nature of the law was not questioned, it had become undeniably clear, through history, that the people were deficient in keeping the law. But some, the teachers of the law, had forgotten this. The faith-works distinction, which the Pharisees were so adept at drawing, simply did not exist when the law was first given. In the ancient Near East, there was no sacred-secular divide. Everything that happened was, in some sense, the direct action of a god. All of life was lived to the gods. Obedience to the law was not supposed to be a series of rote actions or prescribed routines, but was supposed to be holistic, down to the deepest level of being. In Deuteronomy 6:6 Moses reminds the Israelites that "And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart". In contrast, Isaiah 29:13 laments, "Because this people draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me, and their fear of me is a commandment taught by men". The book of James is a great New Testament look at how inextricably faith and action are supposed to be connected. The law, as originally given, is not for justification by works because, among other things, justification by works is built on a distinction that was not made at the time and should not have been made. (This also applies to the Christian faith-works dichotomy that James addresses)

One other thing--when Paul and other NT writers talk about the role of the law in the individual, eternal sense of salvation (to convict our sin), do they mean the Mosaic law? Because if they do, it was only given to the Jews; how are gentiles and those who were never under the law to be convicted of their sin? I don't think Paul's message about 'law' should be restricted to the Mosaic law. Even if he was originally writing about the Mosaic law, this could be because he was writing largely to Jewish audiences or to churches dealing with "Judaizers" (false teachers who taught that Christians also had to become Jewish). The role of the law that Paul argues, to bring our sin and need for repentance to the forefront, can apply equally to the "law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2) or simply the law of conscience. (Romans 2:14-15) When speaking of the law, Paul also seems to mix the old, historical law (Romans 2:12-16) with the new understanding of the law applied to us individually and giving way to grace (Galatians 3:23-25).

Here is a table I made with some HTML magic outlining some of the big differences between the Old and New Testaments' differing perspectives on law and righteousness.

Old CovenantNew Covenant
Possible kinds of "law" Mosaic law Mosaic law, "Law" of Christ, conscience
Role of the law Law is to be obeyed Law convicts us of sin
Eschatological hope Temporal, corporate salvation Eternal, individual salvation
Endemic sin/Threat to the law Worshipping foreign gods (forsaking the law) Attempting to justify oneself by works (misusing the law)

I think the effectiveness and "goodness" of the law was also culturally dependent. Around 1500 BC, when the Mosaic law was given, it was a golden standard, the good gift of a God who is not silent, arbitrary, or needy but desires to alive in harmony with His people and give them blessings, and so told them exactly how to live in a way that was pleasing to Him. Even when they disobeyed the law, the Jews admitted that it was good and the fault lay in them, trusting God (by faith!) to maintain his covenant faithfulness with them. But by the time of Christ, something had changed. Chastised for disobedience by exile, the Jews were determined to get it right this time and, with what we know as the Old Testament completed, started fastidiously attempting to follow the laws in it, even creating their own traditions that went above and beyond the demands of the law and enforcing them to avoid breaking the law on any point whatsoever. Instead of realizing their sin and repenting it to the lawgiver, these "law-followers" believed that because of their chosen status and perfect adherence to the law, God could never reject them. It is to this lie of legalism, still present in today's world, that Paul speaks and interprets the law, not to the Israelites' original struggle with disregarding the law for pagan gods.

So, in summary: the Mosaic law was never meant to justify alone but was meant to be the expression of the Jews' covenant faithfulness to God (like Abraham's faith) and the way for them to live in harmony with Him, the land, and each other, which we do see at times. It was also meant to convict them of sin, a purpose at which we also see it succeeding in places (Josiah in 2 Kings 22-23, Ezra in Ezra 9-10), but it had become ineffective even for this in Jesus' time. It is to this Pharisaical culture, not to Moses, that Paul and the other NT writers speak about the role of the law. The fact that the law ultimately seemed to have failed at its purposes--not because of any intrinsic deficiency but because of the peoples' sin--set up tension and expectation for a new, better law; not only that, but a new, better covenant between God and His people, which Christ came to inaugurate.

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