Categories
Theology

An Interview with the Apostle Paul on Faith, Works, Law, and Gospel

Thanks for joining me this morning as I interview the one and only, Apostle Paul. Paul, thanks for joining me today and helping me understand Galatians 3 a bit better. What a wonderful section, by the way! Well, anyway, let’s get started. Can you tell me the audience you have in mind?
Those who have been bewitched and are deserting him who called them in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel.

Wow, strong language. Why is this such an important issue to you?
It was before their eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.

Interesting. Well, note-to-self: a “different” gospel lacks the grace of Christ and the cross of Christ. I’ll remember that. What was your central concern as you wrote this portion of the letter?
Let me ask you…do we receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?…Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Did you suffer so many things in vain—if indeed it was in vain? Does he who supplies the Spirit and works miracles do so by works of the law or by hearing with faith?

I see. Let me try to sum that up: your central concern seems to be that faith, not works, is the foundation for the Christian’s life in the Spirit and progress toward perfection. Why is this the case?
[It was this way for]…Abraham [who] believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.

What does Abraham have to do with this?
Know then that it is those of faith who are the sons of Abraham.

Now Paul, I’m a Gentile (Polish, German, and Italian mainly, with a bit of Serbian). And the Galatians, they were Gentiles too. Why involve this Jewish patriarch?
[Because] the Scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, preached the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “In you shall all the nations be blessed.” So then, those who are of faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith.

Earlier, you mentioned that we do not receive the Spirit by works of the law. What would happen if I relied on works of the law?
All who rely on the law are under a curse.

Why?
It is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.”

But aren’t the most righteous people in the world those who live by the letter of the law? I mean, doesn’t their morality merit favor with God?
It is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.”

But isn’t the law of faith?
The law is not of faith, rather, “The one who does them shall live by them.”

This all seems like terrible news–no one can be perfect. How then can we be redeemed from this curse of the law?
Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.

How did Christ become a curse for us?
[As] it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.”

Of course! But going back to Abraham again: what then does this have to do with him and his children?
[This was] so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Can you give an illustration or example to help me understand?
Even with a man-made covenant, no one annuls it or adds to it once it has been ratified.

I’m not following you.
The promises were made to Abraham and to his offspring. It does not say, “And to offsprings,” referring to many, but referring to one, “And to your offspring,” who is Christ.

I’m still lost, Paul. Can you explain further?
This is what I mean: the law, which came 430 years afterward, does not annul a covenant previously ratified by God, so as to make the promise void. For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise.

Now I understand. So, just as a human covenant cannot be changed, so God’s promise (his covenant) to Abraham cannot be made void just because of the law–which came more than four centuries later anyway. In light of this, what is the purpose of the law?
It was added because of transgressions.

How long would the law be in effect?
Until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary.

Paul, I get the Abraham tie-in. But, angels? What gives? 
An intermediary implies more than one, but God is one.

Alright, so the law, given by angels, is not the fullest and final revelation of God. God’s ultimate revelation of himself comes from himself—in Christ—not from someone else. If all this is true, then wouldn’t it seem that the law is contrary to the promises of God?
Certainly not!

Why?
For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law.

Why didn’t God establish a law that could give life and righteousness?
The Scriptures imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.

So that brings it back to your central concern: faith is foundational in the Christian life. Those who trust in Christ receive the blessing promised to Abraham. You sure do tie up all your loose ends, Paul. But what about before Christ came and the possibility of faith in him?
Before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith.

Since we now know Christ and have faith in his finished work, does that change things with the law?
Now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian.

Does that change the way God views us?
In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ.

We are sons of God, baptized into Christ, and clothed with Christ. Awesome! What then are the implications of this for everyday life?
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Marvelous. Beautiful. To close, can you sum up your argument in 140 characters or less? (That’s a popular way people express themselves in the 21st century.)
If you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.

Thanks, Paul, for joining me! Again, Galatians 3 and this interview have proved beneficial to me, and I trust it will do the same for our readers. Praise God! 

Categories
Theology

The Miracle of Striving

Often, the mystery of how we grow as Christians baffles us. There are some Christians who say, “God takes care of all the work. Those commands in the Bible simply show you that you can’t do them and need Jesus.” Others say, “No, you gotta clench your fists and get to work. God gets this rolling, but you need to seal the deal.”

I think both of those approaches to sanctification are wrong.

If we are going to be ruthlessly biblical however, we are going to see grace and effort working together. We are going to see that Paul is adamant that Christians need to strive, but all of their striving is by God’s power and grace. Earlier this week, I spent a devotional time in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-24, where this idea is extremely clear:

12 We ask you, brothers, to respect those who labor among you and are over you in the Lord and admonish you, 13 and to esteem them very highly in love because of their work. Be at peace among yourselves.14 And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. 15 See that no one repays anyone evil for evil, but always seek to do good to one another and to everyone. 16 Rejoice always, 17 pray without ceasing, 18 give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. 19 Do not quench the Spirit. 20 Do not despise prophecies, 21 but test everything; hold fast what is good. 22 Abstain from every form of evil.

23 Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. 24 He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.

In one breath, Paul can command the Thessalonians to “be at peace,” “admonish,” “rejoice,” and “do not quench.” In the next breath he can say, “Now may God sanctify you completely.” How can he do this?

Paul understands that, at bottom, the Thessalonians will grow in holiness only by God’s grace. He also understands that his teaching, exhorting, and commanding are the God ordained means to accomplish what God wants in the Thessalonians. So yes, God is sovereignly working for the holiness of the Thessalonians (and us). On the other side of the coin, people have to actually do something. As John Piper has said, Christians have to act the miracle of sanctification. And who gets the credit for that acting? God. Therefore, it is not legalism for Paul to give a command, and it is not legalism for us to do so either.

Paul is clear that Jesus delivers from the wrath to come (1:10). He delivers through his perfect obedience and substitutionary death. The only proper response to being rescued by Jesus is love, joy, thanksgiving, abstaining from evil, devotion, and obedience. John Stott once wrote, “To teach the standards of moral conduct which adorn the gospel is neither legalism nor pharisaism but plain apostolic Christianity.” Those who have been saved by grace will respond with obedience. They will not obey perfectly, of course, and that is why salvation is all of grace. It is only by the grace of God that our soul and body will be kept blameless when Jesus returns (5:23). That is why Paul prays in verses 23-24, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you!” We do the acting, but God is the one causing the acting to happen in such a way that he gets the glory and ensures that we will arrive at the end the way he intended.

So what’s the difference for you and me? If someone asked me, “If you seek to do some act of obedience even though you don’t want to do it, isn’t that the definition of legalism?” my answer would be, “No, because my theology is right.” That might sound like a snarky answer, but think about it.  If I believe my rejoicing in God (one of Paul’s commands above) merits love from God, then yes, it is legalism. But consider an alternative. I strive to rejoice in God even when I don’t feel like it. I do it not to earn God’s love because I realize I am already loved in Christ through the gospel. No amount of rejoicing will earn more of God’s favor I already have. Instead, I know rejoicing in God is what God deserves in light of the gospel and that only rejoicing in him will bring true joy. I ask God to help me strive. I confess my apathy and laziness. I recognize that Christ is the treasure and some other comfort has subdued his rightful place in my heart. I realize that through my striving, God is working in me to kill idolatry, laziness, apathy, self-pity, etc. in order to find true happiness in him. Only when I strive this way is my striving not legalism but proper response to God’s grace in the gospel. 

And that kind of striving, my friends, is a miracle. It is a gift of grace, and that makes it all the more beautiful, lovely, and exciting. I want this for myself, and you. May God be gracious to do it!

Categories
Theology

The Importance of Conversion in the Church

Scripture is clear in teaching that we are not all journeying toward God–some having found Him, others still seeking. Instead, Scripture presents us as needing to have our hearts replaced, our minds transformed, our spirits given life. We can do none of this for ourselves. The change each human needs, regardless of how we may outwardly appear, is so radical, so near our roots, that only God can bring it about. We need God to convert us…I fear that one of the results of misunderstanding the Bible’s teaching on conversion may well be that evangelical churches are full of people who have made sincere commitments at some point in their lives but who have not experienced the radical change that the Bible calls conversion.”

– Mark Dever, Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), p. 113.

Categories
Life Theology

Does God give eternal life to those with faith or obedience?

He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. (Romans 2:6-10)

Paul tells us that the people who have eternal life are those “seek for glory and honor and immortality.”  How do they seek these things?  They seek glory, honor, and immortality “by patience in well-doing” or, also, “perseverance in a good work.”  In verse 10, Paul says that glory and honor and peace will be given to “everyone who does good.”  Later on in Romans, Paul will make clear that man is not justified on the basis of good works (3:20, 24, 28; 4:5; 5:1).  So what does he mean here?  Is Paul speaking of real obedience or hypothetical obedience?  The ESVSB writes that Paul is speaking of real obedience that is made possible by the Holy Spirit (i.e. heart circumcision; see 2:26-29).

If Paul is not speaking of actual obedience, then verse 6 should not be taken literally and therefore, there may not be a day of judgment according to works.  But that is not what the rest of the Bible teaches, and that is certainly not what Jesus taught (see Matt. 25 among other passages).  It is true that in the context of this section (1:18-3:20), Paul is clear that all people are unrighteous and sinful and no one is right before God.  However, as the ESVSB points out, the only way people can be righteous and blameless before God is one whose heart has been circumcised by the Spirit, not by obeying the law.  It is a complete reversal of logic: those who cannot obey the law are empowered to obey the law, not by trying harder, but by being transformed by the Holy Spirit. In the Parable of the Sower, Jesus explains that the good soil represents those people who have been saved by God and circumcised in the heart.  Jesus points out that these people have heard the word, hold it fast in an honest and god heart and “bear fruit with patience” (Lk. 8:15).

Douglas Moo, on the other hand, points out that another possible interpretation of this passage is that Paul is setting forth the biblical conditions of salvation apart from Christ.  Moo writes that “the stress in v. 6 on man’s work as the criterion in the determination of a person’s salvation or condemnation makes it difficult to fit grace into the situation at all (p. 142).   This is not convincing for me because 1) Scripture never tells us that God promised eternal life based on good works; 2) Paul does not say works are “the” criterion, he merely says that he will render a judgment “according to…works.”  This is not “on the basis of” or “because of the merits of.”  It is “in accordance with”; 3) In this chapter, Paul is not talking about hypothetical situations; he seems to be speaking in a very straightforward way about what will really happen to real people for all eternity; and 4) Paul, later in Romans and also in Galatians, says that eternal life that is given is in accordance with good works (see 6:22; 8:12-13; Gal. 6:8-9).

What Paul does not mean is that Christians are saved another way apart from faith (as we saw in the points above).  What Paul does mean is that truly justified, regenerate, Spirit-filled Christians obey God and do good works and will be rewarded accordingly.  Their good works are in accordance with their salvation, but not the foundation of salvation.  The “proof is in the pudding,” so to speak.

True Christians are those who continue to good with patience, for they must work with patience in this life because true, godly, Christ-centered good works in the economy of this world are seldom rewarded.  In their good works, a true Christian does not seek for recognition or self-gain or worldly success (though there may be remnants of those sins they battle against).  Instead, as Paul writes, they “seek for glory and honor and immortality.”  Not self-glory, for they want glory to go to their Father in heaven; not their honor, for they want Christ and his church to be honored; not immortality for the sake of escaping hell, for they want to be with Christ, in his presence and comfort, for all eternity.

Categories
Life

Teaching the Bible at Beam

One of the great (new) joys I have here in South Africa is to teach the Bible along with my friend Rylan Reed to four guys who work at Beam Africa, a local development center for township children, here in Pretoria.  Last week we talked about new birth and what God has done to make us dead sinners alive in Christ.  This week, we discussed grace, faith, and good works from Ephesians 2, James 2, and Abraham’s life.

Here are some pictures from our time together today:

Question of the day: “How do we know if someone has true faith?”

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From the left: Ludwig, Brian, and Ronney.

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I promise you I’m talking, not sneezing.

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Rylan talking about the relationship between faith and works in James 2 (the guy on the right is Blessing).

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