LAW AND THE GOSPEL

John Baptist’s parents: “Both were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Lk1:6)

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THE LAW OF GOD, THE MOST SALUTARY DOCTRINE OF LIFE, CANNOT ADVANCE MAN ON HIS WAY TO RIGHTEOUSNESS, BUT RATHER HINDERS HIM. [Thesis #1 of 28 Heidelberg]

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LUTHER’S SUPPORTING STATEMENT

 “This is made clear by the Apostle in his letter to the Romans (3:21): “But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law.” St. Augustine interprets this in his book “The Spirit and the Letter” (De Spiritu et Littera): “Without the law, that is, without its support.” In Rom. 5:20 the Apostle states, “Law intervened, to increase the trespass”, and in Rom. 7:9 he adds, “But when the commandment came, sin revived.” For this reason he calls the law “a law of death” and “a law of sin” in Rom. 8:2. Indeed, in 2 Cor. 3:6 he says, “the written code kills”, which St. Augustine throughout his book “The Spirit and the Letter” understands as applying to every law, even the holiest law of God”.

MY OBSERVATIONS

It is difficult to conceive that anything Paul declares to be “holy, just and good” (Rom7:12) can  hinder a person’s endeavours to live a righteous life, let alone “kill”. When the bible describes someone as “righteous” it is not inferring they attain to God’s holiness but that they act uprightly in accordance with such divine light as they possess. For the majority that will be perceived through natural precepts –“Gentiles, not having the Law but doing by nature the things contained in the Law so becoming a law for themselves, their consciences bearing witness such that a particular action is either condemned or condoned” (Rom2:14-15). The religious may be further enlightened by what has been revealed in sacred text. A biblical example of the latter case was John the Baptist’s parents, Zacharias and Elizabeth. Luke reports that “Both of them were righteous in the sight of God, observing all the Lord’s commands and decrees blamelessly” (Lk1:6). The Law (Torah) did not appear to be hindering this pair.

Role of conscience

As Paul indicated in Rom2, for most it is the faculty of conscience which witnesses to God’s law written in the heart, i.e. in the human spirit, provided to us at birth (Eccles12:7) the existence of which Augustine and Luther denied, but not so the earlier Fathers and not so Paul (Rom2:15; 1Thes5:23). It is after all the intellectual spiritual entity that departs the body when body and brain are dead and buried. But the point in this context is that those who take heed and act according to their conscience are clearly less likely to commit evil than those who do not. In terms of instruction (i.e. law): what shall set a child on the right track in life? One whose parents and teachers have taught him the difference between right and wrong (i.e. the law) or one who has not received such instruction? Law/instruction/guidance on how God wishes us to live our lives can only be a good influence – yet Luther is quoting Augustine in saying that ALL LAW is detrimental to progress in righteousness, i.e. it is worse than useless. Luther concedes elsewhere that civil law is necessary and beneficial for society, so why should that not apply at the moral level?. When Luther refers to Paul’s statement that “law increased the trespass”, he is right, but that was in the sense of magnifying an awareness of that trespass such that if it were carried out it would be more sinful than if the law had not been known.  Hence, “what shall we say then? Is the Law sin? IN NO WAY! On the contrary, I would not have come to know sin except through the Law; for I would not have known about coveting if the Law had not said, “You shall not covet.” (Rom7:7).

Opposing laws within man

But here is an example of where Luther has misunderstood his favourite apostle entirely: When Paul refers to “the law of sin and death” in Rom8:2, he is referring back to what he had said a few verses earlier (7:23) concerning another law (i.e. a governing principle) within his mortal body, or more precisely the brain by which it is governed:

For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my (spiritual) mind and of making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me . Who then shall deliver me from the body of this death? – I thank God it is through Jesus Christ” (Rom7:22-24).

 It is in this context that Paul writes “the law is spiritual, but I am carnal” (Rom7:14). And that spiritual law is witnessed by that which is also spiritual – the God-given conscience, functioning (for most but not all) within the God-given spirit. This is the very heart and purpose of gospel salvation: “that the law is fulfilled by us who do not live according to the flesh but according to the spirit. (Rom8:4). As can be verified at HERE my use of “spirit” (as a component of man -1Thes5:23) rather than “Spirit” (inferring Holy Spirit) is in accordance with the Textus Receptus  – i.e. whether the original Greek for spirit had been transcribed as “πνεῦμα” or “Πνεῦμα”.

Law and the gospel

Concerning Luther’s reference to “the written code kills” – what Paul was saying in 2Cor3:6 is that whilst slavishly observing the letter of the Law may kill, fulfilling its intention in spirit brings life. Again, many Protestant bibles (with the worthy exception of the KJV) disregard the Textus Receptus casing, translating πνεῦμα as Spirit rather than spirit. Paul is not referring to the Holy Spirit but in this case the spirit (i.e. intention) of the law. When the earliest scribes understood Paul to be referring to the Holy Spirit, the Textus Receptus reads “Πνεῦμα” as it does in 2Cor3:3.

Finally, when Paul writes (to the astonishment of many): “For it is not those who hear the law who are righteous in God’s sight, but it is those who obey the law who will be declared righteous (Rom2:13), he is affirming that the Christian must indeed fulfil the law, not in letter but in spirit. Likewise, James: “If you fulfil the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘you shall love your neighbor as yourself’ you are doing well” (Jam2:8). As ever Paul when rightly understood concurs with James: “For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “you shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Gal5:14). Thus, says Paul, “everyone who loves another person has fulfilled the law” (Rom13:8). It has been fulfilled, not in letter but in spirit; the practitioners have been justified not by the acts of love themselves (i.e. works) but by the underlying faith that prompted them (like the Mt25 “sheep”). This principle is explained in my earlier post on Conscience and the Comic Christ

Slow progress

I had intended to cover the first seven theses in this post. There is no chance – not if virtually every facet of Luther’s alleged insights into law and the gospel are to be shown to be biblically dubious. And as Luther acknowledges in his introduction to the theses, they are paradoxical and therefore counter-intuitive. But that throws dire aspersions on God’s providential care for humanity and Christ’s oversight of His Church through the centuries. For God will have known that very few could come to hear the gospel presented as Luther interpreted it, no one before the 16th century even having had the opportunity. For unlike the principles of right living and compassionate humanity prompted through the working of conscience, Luther’s law and  gospel dichotomy is thoroughly counter-intuitive. Consequently, no one could instinctively know what God required of them unless they had received his version of the Gospel. But pre-16th century that would have been impossible – for Augustine’s much earlier distinctive teaching on law, grace and the virtual bondage of the will was not accepted in full by the Catholic Church, and further contradicted at Vatican II (1960s).

Such concepts are equally alien to the Eastern Orthodox Church, the permanency and sacerdotal nature of which is a further challenge to the validity of the movement Luther initiated. For whilst typically avoiding dogmatic terms such as transubstantiation, they along with Roman Catholics acknowledge the real presence of Christ in bread and wine, typically describing the Divine Liturgy (their Eucharist) as “the awesome sacrifice entrusted to the Church to be re-enacted and given to the faithful for the nourishment of their faith and forgiveness of their sins”. So, if Luther were right, from the 2nd to 16th century no historically traceable church understood or preached the substantive means by which a person could escape an eternity in Hell.  Nor could anyone applying their mind or reason have determined the matter given the counter-intuitive nature of what Luther believed was necessary.

A plea from the heart

Luther’s take on law and the gospel undoubtedly provided peace for his soul as it has done for millions since. My plea to today’s children of the Reformation is to think through what I have just written concerning their founder’s assertions. Prayerfully consider what his analysis implies about God’s nature and providential care for humanity as well as Christ’s oversight of His Church through the centuries. And what is he saying about people? – if the God whose nature was perfectly reflected in the life of the historical Jesus (Jn14:9) instinctively hates natural man that much, the latter must be odious indeed. “Odious and an abomination to God” wrote Calvin – and that was just the children (ref#1). Having been a Calvinist for 28 years I am grateful that the Holy Spirit has shown me that what I had been convinced was biblical truth was in fact something else. A revelation sweet as honey in the mouth but bitter in the gut in view of what I had earlier believed concerning God and the people (including my parents) I had known and loved but were not Christian. Yet I do not weep for my former Evangelical compatriots, many of whom I remember fondly; for the departed souls of all who have genuinely loved the Lord and their fellow man currently rest serenely in heaven, along no doubt with myriads of unexpected bedfellows. For the context of biblical salvation was never “who gets to heaven when they die” but who shall partake of the divine nature even whilst in mortal flesh (2Pet1:4) so as to become “conformed to the image of God’s Son” and be raised to the sublimity of the divine. Having as it were been pre-prepared, those qualifying to be resurrected in the age to come (Jn6:54) shall receive an extraordinary affiliation with Christ (Rev21:9), unimaginable privileges (Rev3:21) and (although the detail of this is yet to be revealed) have awesome responsibility (Rev2:27-28). Suitable preparation requires access to “the exceedingly abundant grace which is in Christ Jesus” (1Tim1:14), the means for which had been explained by the apostles in both written and verbal form (2Thes2:15) – the sacred mysteries then handed down, faithfully preserved and dispensed within the Apostolic Churches in East and West, but regrettably not within many of the churches that severed from Rome.

Holy Scripture: catalyst for error; arbiter for truth

Back to Luther and his alleged exegetical prowess. If you continue to follow these posts it should become evident that he was textually selective and prone to misconstrue context (here not recognizing Rom8:2 in the context of Rom7:23 – it is the law of the flesh that brings sin and death, NOT the Law of God). Most tellingly, for this is surely the test for any who claim to have skill in exegesis, he was unable to reconcile his interpretation of Paul with the rest of Scripture. That is one reason he wished for James, Hebrews, Jude and Revelation to be removed from the bible. His greater problem was actually the teaching of Jesus (especially Mt25) and the evangelism of Acts, but that would have been pushing it. The bible is anything but perspicuous and has consequently been a catalyst for error. According to Paul it is the Church that is the pillar and ground of the Truth (1Tim3:15). The bible is nevertheless the final arbiter for truth. So, if a fully COHERENT biblical synopsis could be provided it certainly would need to be taken seriously, that is why I am endeavouring to show that Reformed theology simply does not achieve that. [It fails to meet many of the ten points I set out in the previous post on assessing the validity of biblical insights and synopses]. Why such an assault? – because Reformed theology barbarizes God’s character, denigrates His providential care, undermines Christ and the Spirit’s oversight of the churches through the centuries, over-maligns the human condition and jeopardizes any hope of re-uniting the Body of Christ.

The painful path to unity

My motives in all this? First and foremost a defence of God’s intelligible goodness, His equitable justice and providential care. Secondly, to make a stand for the many outside the Church who show by their humanity and deference to the God-given faculty of conscience that they are not “children if the devil” but are beloved of God (cf. 1Jn3:12; 1Jn4:7; Mt25:40), benefitting at a forensic (guilt-removing) level from Christ’s Passion (1Tim2:6).  Thirdly, it is for the healing of the Body of Christ – a sublime prospect in itself and essential if what Jesus referred to as “this gospel of the kingdom” is to be preached coherently before His return in glory (Mt24:14). The world needs to hear such a message whilst those called out from the world need to know how best to prepare for their Master’s return. It is only fair on both counts, for the world has long endured conflicting, confusing, sometimes cringeworthy accounts of the Gospel, whilst the vast majority of Christians find themselves in a particular Christian denomination either because that is the tradition through which they were converted or it was the church they were brought up to believe to be the true one. Only in a few cases are theological acumen or spiritual devotedness the determining factor.  

Such a restoration will occur if God so determines it – by owning and prospering the work of those who seek to bring it about. If that is to be so, and Scripture suggests that it will be or shall at least be attempted (Mal4:5-6), it cannot but be a painful process. For such could never occur from a particular party being able to boast “Told you so”, but from an acknowledgement of error on all sides. That especially applies to churches in the West, primarily due to the influence of an Augustinian monk and his patriarchal head, but also because the Eastern Orthodox Church’s theology has been less systematized and dogmatized, the more impenetrable truths being held in mystery.

I trust the remaining theses shall be processed more quickly. I felt prompted to communicate a little more concerning my background, spiritual encounter and motives in this particular post.

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NOTE on Luther, law and the gospel:

Ref#1 “Children are odious and an abomination to God; their very natures being a seed-bed of sin”  John Calvin: Institutes of the Christian Religion – Second Book chap. 1 para 8

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