Liberated from Legalism 6

Freedom.jpgOnce again, we have been set free in Christ and the Spirit is adequate to guide us into all God wants of us. Again…

Legalism is any practice or belief that is added to the gospel that compromises the sufficiency of Christ as Savior and jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance.

Legalism then is the charge against you or me, often sensed at the deepest level, that we are not accepted by God in Christ and indwellt by the Holy Spirit.

So, what can we do?
6. We need to learn how to read the Bible through the lens of the Abrahamic promise instead of the Mosaic Torah. Paul’s most complex section, chps 3-4, is taken up with learning how to read the Bible all over again. What does he say?

* He says we need to remember that we were empowered at the beginning, not by Torah works but by faith: 3:1-5.

* He says Gal 3:6-14.
* He says the Law came after the promise and didn’t undo the promise: Gal 3:15-25.
* He says the ground is level at the foot of the cross: we are all children of God: Gal 3:26-4:7.
* He says there is a theologizing way of seeing Hagar and Sarah as symbols of slavery and freedom (4:21-31).
This is how to read the Bible. It makes all the difference in the world.
7. We need to listen to the logic of grace: grace needs nothing added. Gal 5:1-6.
8. We need to follow the Spirit: the Spirit can guide us through love. Gal 5:16-26.
9. We need to care for others with pastoral compassion: Gal 6:1-10.
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  • Scot:
    As usual for me, I want to clarify how, on the one hand, the law is good and also, as you know I believe, still the way of life in Messiah for Messianic Jews, while on the other, Paul has to speak of the Abrahamic promise as an overarching and better promise.
    First, from the perspective of Galatians, in which non-Jews are being told by some proselytizers that God does not accept them unless they enter into the category of Jewish identity through conversion and Torah-keepong, it is important for Paul to clarify that these Jews who are coercing the Galatians are ignorant of the Torah itself. This is a misuse of Torah. It is God’s way of life for Israel and much of it is universal wisdom about how to live. But it is not an identity badge which makes one kosher to God.
    Second, from the perspective of the covenant, Paul is saying not only that Gentiles should understand the law in relation to the Abrahamic promise, but Jewish people should as well. The Torah, which the coercers are misusing, is about Israel’s national blessing or curse in the land, while the Abrahamic promise is much larger, about God redeeming the world through Israel to the nations.
    If the law is understood as part of the larger promise and not narrowly as an identity badge required for redemption, then it is a beautiful thing. The law itself teaches that non-Jews are not bound by certain sign commandments (circumcision, dietary law, Sabbath). The conclusion of the Jerusalem Council fits well with the teaching of the law and prophets: the full Torah for Messianic Jews and only the universal aspects of Torah for Jesus-followers from the nations.
    My Paul book (it’s on amazon) is all about Paul’s example in Acts and his letters and how it all fits together with his view of the law (it’s a short easy read).
    Derek Leman

  • Rick

    A related, but slightly off-direct topic question(s): What would you say is the main focus of contemporary non-Messianic Jews, the Mosaic Law/Torah, or the Abrahamic promise? How do they see/emphasize the relationship between the two?
    Just curious.

  • MatthewS

    For some reason, the line jeopardizes the adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance stood out to me as I read this. The discussion may have moved past this, but a comment –
    There are specific teachings in the NT. 1 Thess 4 (there are others) states that God’s will is for us to avoid sexual immorality. People will say (and sometimes honestly believe) that the Lord told them to do all kinds of things. We are not without some external standards to get at least a general idea of they are full of nonsense. But someone might use the notion of adequacy of the Spirit in moral guidance as a trump card: Who are you to judge what the Spirit has told me?

  • Scot McKnight

    Yes, of course, which is why Paul was criticized and why he had to criticize those who misused his theological ethics. But that’s the direction of misuse rather than genuine understanding.
    For Paul, the Torah was a Spirit-expression and all Spirit-led life would conform to Torah or transcend Torah by living out its truest directions. Paul, like Jesus, sees this in love (Galatians 5) and in the fruit of the Spirit. For Paul, if you listen to the Spirit you will have those fruits and what does the Torah say against that? Nothing.
    One more point, as a subtle pushback: fear of where his teaching might lead, if exaggerated, did not appear to be a significant concern for Paul. The desire to protect misuse tended, as in our day, to minimizing the power of the Spirit’s direction.

  • Bob

    Hey Scot,
    Wonderful post and much needed information in our current religious culture. The lens of the law is veiling the truth of God’s love and grace to far too many believers.
    Question: how do you connect the Abrahamic promise to the New Covenant ratified by the blood of Jesus?

  • Derek,
    By the way, thanks so much for your long, painstaking and good answer a while back in answer to a comment and questions I had for you. Much appreciated!
    I was wondering, are you saying then that Jewish Christians today are obligated to be under Torah. It seems like Christ has broken that for both Jews and Gentiles, and that we are in the same boat when it comes to salvation and how that is worked out. Not to say that maybe Jewish Christians can follow the law in a certain way, even as they did during the days of the early church.

  • beckyr

    Good to see mention of living through the Spirit, with the Spirit, leaning on the Spirit………

  • Rick:
    Mainstream Judaism of the more observant variety today emphasizes grace repeatedly in the liturgy. So, I would say the free and irrevocable election of Israel (Abrahamic promise) is emphasized. The ultra-Orthodox are very bad on their understanding of the place of non-Jews in God’s plan (sadly), but modern Orthodox, Conservative, and more liberal Jews understand God’s blessing flows from Israel to every people group, since all are God’s children. God’s intent was to redeem the world by placing his Presence within one people to reach all others.
    Yes, I very much believe that Torah is the way of life for all Jewish people in Messiah Jesus. Consider Paul’s example in Acts (21:20-24 is a good example) of keeping Torah and offering sacrifices at the Temple. Also, Acts 15 assumes that Torah is for Jews and debates only whether it is for non-Jews.
    Derek Leman

  • Scot,
    I like this series but I especially appreciate the way you are approaching this. You have said much about how we read the Bible. That is such an important issue for contemporary Christians. Sometimes we draw some correct conclusions but for all the wrong reasons. All of us need to be reminded (as you are in this series) of the importance of reading the Bible well. That certainly impacts what we think a particular book says.

  • Derek, Thanks. It just seems to me that it is something Jewish Christians CAN live out, but something they are no longer bound to, not in the way you seem to be saying. Though I may be missing some important theological points in this, you are making.
    For example, your take would then be that all Jewish male babies must be circumcised. But Paul says neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything, but a new creation. And in that letter we know he says that there is no longer Jew nor Gentile, but we are all one in Christ. That seems to indicate to me one people with one way of life in Christ and by the Spirit.
    As to the examples you cite in Acts, I take them as akin to Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9, and that it was evangelistic and missional as to why Paul did what he did. And that the early church was working with people where they were. That Paul’s gospel essentially ends up being the message for all of God’s people: Jews and Gentiles alike.

  • ….and my guess is that my point on Paul’s gospel you would concur with, but that you are reading it differently than I.

  • MatthewS (#3),
    I would encourage you to linger longer over the 1 Thessalonians 4 (vs 3-8) text that cite. Think of what Paul could have written from his Jewish background. He could have quoted endless verses from the Old Testament about sexual purity and sexual guidelines for all sorts of situations. Paul did not do this. He did the more dangerous thing. Notice how he ends his teaching: “Therefore, he who rejects this instruction does not reject men, but God, who gives us his HOLY SPIRIT.” Paul was willing to rest the Thessalonians’ sexual behaviors to the Holy Spirit, not a bunch of directives. Why do we believe we have to prop up the Holy Spirit of God so people won’t sin?

  • david yates

    I’ve warmed to the idea that legalism is adding anything to Christ. And my current attempt to understand the Jew – Gentile problem is this: Paul’s opponents might have had various ideas about how they saw things, which would need very particular counters in each case. The Paul we have is a broad spectrum response, and cannot be analysed the way Wright does, but rather goes something like: not only Torah (ritual and moral) but also land and progeny of Abraham, the whole job lot, except faith, are not and never were righteousness. They were all of flesh and sin. The Jews were the temporary messengers of the promise, not themselves the promise. So, Wright would be wrong to say that national Israel was the saved people of God, and that now Christians are the continuation group in the world and should all get together as some monolithic, homogenous entity, somehow now working for the coming Kingdom. The way in which Christians are one is not like that, and it is not a worldly organisation. Christians are, to be sure, to behave themselves and be productive, and get along together, but there is room for all sorts of groupings of Christians with their own projects and ways of doing things (under the Spirit), as they all look to Christ bringing the coming Kingdom.