As much as I had begun questioning the gospel I'd been taught, all of these questions were still at least somewhat external. Though I was growing tired of hearing them, I didn't believe these teachings were actually true, and I was fine with simply not believing them, or at least seeking to modify them into a better form. At least at first, I expected to still remain an evangelical after doing so. What I was struggling against were caricatures and 'bad habits' of the evangelicalism I saw around me—something that I have more recently been tempted to forget. I 'knew' they weren't true and sought better alternatives; they didn't have to characterize the Church.
But there was one doubt that plagued me singularly, wreaking havoc on my ability to see any kind of coherent biblical narrative or make sense of large swaths of Scripture. It wasn't a disagreement with something I was being taught; in fact, it was an issue I almost never even heard mentioned. It was an apparently inescapable contradiction in what the Bible itself said. And not just something surface-level that could be explained away by an appeal to genre or ancient literary conventions, like the disparate genealogies of Jesus in Matthew and Luke, but a fundamental discontinuity in the theology and overarching narrative of the Bible. It could be stated succinctly:
Is the gospel a God-given solution to a God-given problem?
My starting point
It began as an offshoot of my quasi-dispensationalist dissatisfaction with biblical interpretation that seemed to disregard the original context and meaning of a passage in favor of its retrospective, 'Christological' meaning. Applying this, evangelical theology viewed the law in light of Christ: it was given to point out our sin by contrasting it with God's standard of perfection, both to mitigate sin and to convict us of it to point us toward Jesus. (Rom 3:20, Gal 3:19) The law was like a stern babysitter or tutor (Gal 3:24) that imprisoned us in our sins, condemning them but not healing them, until Christ should come and set us free. Everyone's default state is to be sinful, under the law's curse (Gal 3:13). 'Sin' is, in some form, trying to add some kind of law to the all-sufficient salvific work of Christ, trying to be justified apart from Him, which is impossible (Rom 3:20). By faith in Christ, we are justified apart from the law (Rom 3:28) as Christ takes the curse and penalty of the law on Himself and gives us life. (Rom 3:24-25)
This is, roughly, the view of the law I was given: we start out under law, which screams to us, "Sinner!", and by nature objects of God's righteous wrath (Eph 2:3), but thanks to Christ we are no longer under law but under grace (Rom 6:14), able to either live free from the law's demands or finally fulfill them by His grace, not our own moral effort. My church kind of waffles between the Lutheran and Reformed extremes on the law, but from either perspective it's clear that salvation has always been by grace through faith; we were never expected to save ourselves by obeying the law.
In the biblical theology class of 2012-2013 I took at my church, I started thinking and wondering more critically about how the Old and New Testaments, or the covenants of law and grace, fit together. Part of this was simply the practical question: how do the precepts of the Mosaic law relate to us as Christians today? We talk about how the purpose of the law is to convict us of sin—so why aren't we letting us convict it of breaking the Sabbath (Exo 20:8-11), not circumcising our children (Gen 17:9-14), eating pork (Lev 11:7-8), or wearing different kinds of fibers (Lev 19:19)? Reflecting on these differences between the Mosaic law and how Christians seem called to live, I (reluctantly) gravitated towards a view that, again, seems shockingly dispensational to me today.
I think each covenant is a way God chooses to relate with His people and how He chooses His people. There is nothing intrinsic or necessary to His nature about either covenant. They are totally arbitrary—there is no ethical concept of 'good' apart from God's commands, and right is right only because He says so. What troubles me isn't that there is no external definition of good apart from God, but that His decrees are not intrinsically based on His nature—either in the old covenant, or presumably the new. Each covenant has its own system of ethics. (2012-9-23)
But continuing that journal entry, I glimpsed (maybe for the first time) the troubling implications of this view of the covenants. I couldn't see how God could make such a covenant with the Israelites, but so radically change it at the advent of Christ and, in doing so, reveal that the original covenant was deeply inadequate.
The bad news is not the good news. Showing the hopelessness of Israel's condition under the law does not equate to promising Jesus. … So the question becomes, why did God make a doomed, futile covenant with His 'chosen' people? (2012-9-23)I was beginning to think about this law-grace dynamic historically. The view of the law as existing to show us our hopeless sinful condition and drive us to Jesus as our savior worked on an individual level for modern people—but I was getting tired of thinking of salvation in individual terms. On a national, historical level, it made no sense. The law was given to Israel specifically as a nation, not to all of humanity as individuals. And it was given over a thousand years before Christ came. So what are we to make of the plight of God's 'chosen' people the Israelites, who spent all that time with a flawed, imperfect (Hbr 7:18) covenant that could only point out their sin but offer no solution, with only a distant, poorly-seen hope of the future Messiah (to say nothing of the other nations)? What kind of a gift is this for a good God to give His children? Why did He leave them for so long with only half the gospel—the bad half? I kept thinking about the implications:
The law doesn't 'point to Jesus' because the provision for what to do if/when you break the law is contained in it. If it was put in place to show us our transgressions, then why aren't we repenting of our failure to make the sacrifices, or wear the right clothing—if it is by our failure to uphold the law that we are condemned? (2012-9-24)Again: if the Mosaic law really was given to point out our sin, why do we refuse to let so much of it do its convicting work? I began to suspect that we had lost the ability to think about the 'law' in its original context, and could only see it Christocentrically.
I looked for a better way to think about the law and how it related to salvation, later writing:
God didn't give the Israelites, His people, a faulty system to keep them from being saved. The thing that saved them, then like now, was faith. The punishment associated with breaking the law was temporal, not eternal—they broke the covenant, so He punished them as He'd warned from the beginning. They had to earn God's blessings, but not salvation. But at any rate, works were never the basis for man's relationship with God, but faith—faith inextricably tied to obedience. We do not obey God to be 'saved', we obey because he is Lord and we love Him. The gospel does not free us from having to obey God, it frees us to obey Him as He intended. (2012-12-11)
I was beginning to see beyond the simplistic 'faith vs. works' dichotomy, that the law was not simply about "works" that could never save, but that justification was always from faith. Giving the law was not equivalent to commanding them to seek salvation by works. I hinted at a concept I would expand on later, that obeying the law might not be for the sake of earning your salvation by "works" but about enjoying the blessings of pre-existing salvation. My view was kind of similar to the Reformed one (especially that last sentence), still well within the bounds of evangelical orthodoxy. Unfortunately, the biggest problem with this perception of law and grace was the Bible.
Why does God seem to command people to seek life through [the law] if it was never intended? ... God never wanted Pharisees—He never intended for anyone to actually try to be justified by obeying the law. So how do you explain His commanding them to obey it all so they would live? I picture Him saying it with a wink—'By the way, this is all impossible, but just play along.' If God never intended anyone to be saved by the law, why was He so emphatic about obeying it so you might live? Lev 18:5, Deu 6:25... And this after the establishment in Abraham of justification by faith—what were they supposed to think? 'Wait, so if we disobey the law, does that nullify our righteousness by faith?' (2012-12-13)
It almost seems like God did expect the Israelites to be justified by law. Was the whole system of law a big joke, delivered with a wink, with Christ the punchline that God expected the Israelites to 'get'? 'You will be declared righteous by obeying the whole law (only you can't, this way doesn't work, you just have to believe like Abraham)' (2013-1-12)
If God never intended for people to seek salvation through the law, why did He tell them to and say they could do it? [Deu 30:11-14] If Abraham had already established the precedent of salvation by faith, why was the law then given at all? (2013-1-20)This view of faith and obedience made much better sense of the Old Testament than saying that God gave the Israelites the law simply so they would fail at it, realize their hopeless sinfulness, and turn to Jesus. I wanted to believe that God had never sent the Jews from Mount Sinai on a hopeless quest for self-justification by works. But standing firmly in opposition to this more optimistic view of the law was the apostle Paul.
The problem of PaulI was back to my meta-question of "why does the Bible not say what it means?" But it got worse as I realized the tension was not just between the Bible and evangelical teaching, but (as far as I could tell) within the Bible itself. God told the Israelites to seek life and righteousness by keeping His commands.
You shall therefore keep my statutes and my ordinances, by doing which a man shall live: I am the LORD. (Lev 18:5 RSV)
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.' (Deu 6:25 RSV)And further, in Moses' final, summary address to the Israelites at the end of Deuteronomy, he tells them that they are able to obey the law today, not after Christ rescues them. There is no hint of the law being impossible; the message simply seems to be that you are able to obey this law, so you should.
"For this commandment which I command you this day is not too hard for you, neither is it far off. It is not in heaven, that you should say, 'Who will go up for us to heaven, 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. (Deu 30:11-14 RSV)So then how can Paul say that no one will be justified (or, equivalently, declared righteous) through the law, that no one could ever follow it, and that it simply brings knowledge of sin?
For no human being will be justified in his sight by works of the law, since through the law comes knowledge of sin. (Rom 3:20 RSV)
We ourselves, who are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet who know that a man is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ, and not by works of the law, because by works of the law shall no one be justified. (Gal 2:15-16 RSV)Paul's answer to the question "why the law?" seemed to fit the evangelical teaching: it was added "because of transgressions", to consign all things to sin, to confine us, to be our "custodian" (Greek: paidagogos, as in "pedagogy"), to lead us to justification through faith in Christ.
This is what I mean: the law, which came four hundred and thirty years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance is by the law, it is no longer by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, till the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made; and it was ordained by angels through an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one; but God is one. Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not; for if a law had been given which could make alive, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the scripture consigned all things to sin, that what was promised to faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint until faith should be revealed. So that the law was our custodian until Christ came, that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a custodian; (Gal 3:17-25 RSV)In Romans 10, Paul mourns his fellow Jews who have not found their righteousness in Jesus, but sought to establish their own righteousness by law—yet he describes this righteousness by citing Leviticus 18:5! In other words, he seems to be saying that God commanded the Jews to seek the righteousness through the law that led them to reject the righteousness of Jesus, for which they are now condemned!
Brethren, my heart's desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved. I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but it is not enlightened. For, being ignorant of the righteousness that comes from God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God's righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law, that every one who has faith may be justified. Moses writes that the man who practices the righteousness which is based on the law shall live by it. [Lev 18:25] (Rom 10:1-5 RSV)Hebrews' treatment of the law was, if possible, even worse. The law that was supposed to have been given by a perfect God to His chosen people as a treasured gift was called "weak" and "useless", merely a shadow of the grace to come, whose sacrificial system was secretly defective.
On the one hand, a former commandment is set aside because of its weakness and uselessness (for the law made nothing perfect); on the other hand, a better hope is introduced, through which we draw near to God. (Heb 7:18-19 RSV)
For since the law has but a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices which are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who draw near. Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered? If the worshipers had once been cleansed, they would no longer have any consciousness of sin. But in these sacrifices there is a reminder of sin year after year. For it is impossible that the blood of bulls and goats should take away sins. (Heb 10:1-4 RSV)
This was my biggest doubt yet. I tried reading those verses every way I could think of, looking for some way to avoid the seemingly inescapable contradiction between them. Paul's view of the law not only seemed incommensurably different from the view depicted in Deuteronomy, it turned salvation history into a farce. At worst, the law seemed to be something that Jesus saves us from; at best, it was a stopgap measure, a deliberately ineffectual solution to the problem of sin which Jesus would later solve in earnest. Neither view made any sense in light of the fact that the law was itself given by God, supposedly for a redemptive purpose. I kept looking for ways to make sense of this tension, to coherently tie together the old and new covenants, but each time I came up with an idea, another unaccountably strange verse from Paul would jump out at me and shoot it down. That darned Paul!
By early 2013, my faith was in shambles as as result of all of these doubts about both what the Bible said and the questions my biblical theology class was raising. What really didn't help matters was that, at first, I was reluctant to address my growing doubts. I saw it as allowing my intellect to control and lead my relationship with God, which I knew was bad. Early in the fall semester, still wrestling with my doubts about God's goodness, I journaled:
I thought the answer was just to trust God more, in spite of my doubt, to not let it come between us. But that doesn't mean I set it aside and let it grow. It means I deal with it to know God better. But what else was I supposed to conclude from all the times I heard Christianity contrasted with an 'intellectual assent'? It led me to deny a (big) part of who I am. I didn't rigorously answer these doubts before because I thought having complete answers was unimportant. (2012-9-26)
What Don Miller's railing against Christianity as 'lists and formulas' seems to say, my questions don't matter, I just have to 'know God relationally'. But suspecting someone to be a liar puts a damper on a relationship. (2012-10-2)I realized that I couldn't simply marginalize my intellect and "trust Jesus" instead, or put my relationship with Him ahead of "having all the answers", as I viewed my questioning quest. These things couldn't be set in opposition to each other without denying a vital part of who and why God had made me to be. My doubts weren't being actively suppressed, but it did feel like they were being swept aside or relativized.
In the tradition I'm from, questions aren't so much fearfully suppressed as they are buried under 'the gospel' or a wash of platitudes. (2013-1-2)Not long after this I published my post on the denial of doubt, which expanded on an idea I had had on the value of doubt a few months ago:
This is why skepticism is needed—it is so easy to believe that my ineptitude in missions in a serious problem that must be repented of, that I am not properly applying the great commission to my life, to get swept up in the evangelical tide and accept it 'on faith' as a given, labeling your doubts as sin. Because God calls us to put on faith—in what?—and cast off doubt. If the church stops questioning and doubting itself, it veers off into catastrophe. (2012-11-2)So I held onto my doubt, rather than simply 'laying it down' for the sake of a shallow 'faith' that shied from tough questions. My 'faith' (actually my ability to make rational sense of Christian theology) reached its nadir in late January 2013. As I described in my post on sola scriptura, I finally admitted to God what I had been fervently denying for so long: "Your Word has contradictions in it. What do I do now?" It was then that I think I realized what faith truly was.
I am unwilling to reject God even as my mind is telling me to do so and doubting. So my intellect and will are distinct after all. If God really is faithful, it doesn't matter whether I believe that He is. The 'strength' of my belief is secondary—that is, my certainty/level of understanding. (2013-1-27)For the first time, I actually saw that my faith was different from my intellectual conception of Christianity. The latter was utterly defeated, yet somehow I still had faith. I still wanted to trust and believe in God. Even when He made absolutely no sense to me and I could see no reason to trust Him, I continued to trust Him to bring me light and restore order in my troubled soul. The day after, I reflected:
I think God is separating my faith/will and intellect from each other. I now have to learn how to have faith that isn't coterminous with rational thought. (2013-1-28)
In a post on my big doubt last February, I came to some preliminary conclusions about the relationship between the covenants. I tried to free the Mosaic law from the straitjacket our exclusive focus on its Christocentric meaning had become and situate it in its ancient Near Eastern context. I tentatively concluded that the context in which the law was viewed and the way it was treated had changed from when it was initially given to the first century AD. I was still a long way from figuring out the questions raised by Paul, but my admission about the Bible and discovery of a faith that wasn't in thrall to reason had freed me to begin to seek a new, better way to approach Scripture.