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040  It's Not Law

This will be the last of my "What the Bible is Not" series. I might offend some folks with it. No matter; what I'm going to say is true, and nearly all Protestant Evangelicals need very badly to hear it because a lot of what we have been taught is not Christianity.

The religion of King David was temple-centered worship of YHWH, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In that religion men were taught then-unheard-of principles and precepts by adhering to the laws delivered by Moses. These laws were God's concessions to a Bronze Age people, meant gradually to guide them toward a better way of living that God had in mind for them.

However, the temple that the Davidic monarchs built was destroyed in the 6th century BC by the Babylonians, and the Hebrews were taken captive en masse to live in Babylon. Without the temple, the Hebrews--by then called "Jews" because what was left of them was mostly the family of Judah--started to develop a form of their religion that centered on the Law of Moses, a form which they could practice anywhere even without the temple. Discussions by learned men called "Rabbis" enumerated the laws from Moses and created formal practices around them. By the time Jesus began his ministry, this law-based form of Judaism was well underway. In the New Testament, the practitioners of this form of Judaism were called "Pharisees." (The Saducees, also mentioned in the New Testament, were those who continued temple-centered Judaism until the Romans destroyed the temple in 70 AD.)

Jesus had quite a few things to say about Pharisaical Judaism in the gospel accounts, none of them positive. Just for two, quick examples, Matthew 5 contains a laundry list of ways that the Pharisees' law fell short of God's intent,and Matthew 23 contains another. Paul, the Apostle, spent a large proportion of his letters to the Church explaining how disciples of Jesus were freed from the Law of Moses to live as led by the Holy Spirit, and exhorting the believers not to be fooled into returning to the law-based Jewish system.

So now let's roll the clock forward to the 21st century, where Protestant Evangelicals have been taught that the most important thing about Christianity is that the Bible is the Word of God. That's the first claim in perhaps 70% of the statements of faith that I've read in the Protestant world. "You don't need to hear from God. He's already spoken," young believers are taught. "Do you want to know God's will? Read the Bible."

For an awful lot of people, Christianity is first and foremost a matter of following the rules. The job of the individual Christian in their view is to read the directions in the Bible and obey them, and as long as he or she does so diligently, everything will be fine. This is a wonderfully simple model of Christianity, simple enough for anyone to grasp and practice.

The problem is that it's not Christianity.

Ponder this question for a moment: if your practice of Christianity consists of reading the Bible, parsing out commands from it, and putting them into practice, how does your Christianity differ from the Pharisaical Judaism of Jesus' day?

If your answer is that the New Testament is a better, truer law, then you really haven't understood the New Testament. (And, no, that's not really the message of the letter to the Hebrews, nor is it the meaning of James' comment about the Law of Love). Paul, the Apostle, spent a great deal of time in his letters explaining how law lacks the power to produce the righteousness that God desires from us. His excitement about the Christ arose from the fact that in Christ, believers are empowered to live righteously by the third member of the Godhead, the Holy Spirit, and no longer need to concentrate on the Law. Go reread Romans 8 if you doubt me.

How do you suppose Paul would feel if he knew that Protestant Evangelicals had turned his words into a new Law that Christian believers have to obey, just like the old Law?

He would throw a fit like he did at the Galatians, that's what he'd do. "You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace." (Gal 5:4) Paul's words are not meant to be a new law, and treating them as though they are is a clear indication that one has not understood Paul.

Here are several things that Paul, the Apostle, did not say, but which modern Evangelicals seem to believe:

If you walk under the instruction of the Bible, you will not carry out the desire of the flesh.

...if by obeying the Bible you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are obeying the Bible, these are sons of God.

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows from the Bible will from the Bible reap eternal life.

Here is what he did say:

If you walk in the Spirit, you will not carry out the desire of the flesh. (Gal 5:16)

...if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are being led by the Spirit of God, these are the Sons of God. (Rom 8:13b-14)

For the one who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life. (Gal 6:8)

Take the time to compare those two sets of quotes. The first is what Evangelicalism has been teaching. The second is what Paul taught. They are not the same. What we're supposed to be celebrating is not the coming of the Bible, but the power provided by the Holy Spirit to lead a godly life.

I imagine that right now, many of you reading this are thinking "He's telling me to stop obeying the Bible!" Am I? Not at all. Quite the contrary, in fact. I'm quoting the Bible; clearly I think it contains relevant instruction. I'm pointing out what the Bible actually teaches and how it differs from what we're taught week in and week out. Christianity is not about reading rules from a book and obeying them. Christianity is about receiving the Spirit of God from God Himself and then learning how to depend on that Spirit. It's about building a relationship with the real, living God and growing in understanding and personal character as He does His work in us and through us.

What I'm saying is, if you treat the Bible as Law, you've missed the point.

It turns out that reading and internalizing the Bible is part--part--of what needs to be done if we are to learn how to walk in the Spirit. But walking in the Spirit is not accomplished by parsing out rules from the New Testament and obeying them as Law. That's not Christianity, it's Pharisaical Judaism. 

We have to discover what the Bible really says about walking with God, and we have to learn how to do that. Learning to walk with God takes time and devotion, trial and error, fellowship and forgiveness, study, prayer, fasting, wrestling, and years of difficult and painful change. The change that God wants for us does not occur overnight and does not come cheap. Making it possible cost Jesus His life; and if we're doing it properly, it will cost us our lives, too. 

I'm finished talking about what the Bible is not. The Bible is something, and it is something important. I will be talking about that next. But for the moment, let's all apply ourselves to praying and asking God how best to walk in the Spirit, and asking also in what ways we've prevented ourselves from doing that. Treating the Bible as Law is not Christianity. Walking with God in the Spirit is Christianity. Let's be Christians.

 

Phil Weingart

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