Expositional commentary on Scripture using an inductive exegetical methodology intent upon confronting the lives of Christians with the dogmatic Truths of God's inspired Words opposing Calvinism and Arminianism, Biblical commentary, doctrine of grace enablement, understanding holiness and wisdom and selfishness, in-depth Bible studies, adult Bible Study books and Sunday School materials Dr. Lance T. Ketchum Line Upon Line: I. Dealing with the Errant Definitions of Legalism & Liberalism

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

I. Dealing with the Errant Definitions of Legalism & Liberalism

The term Legalism is used nowadays (errantly) to refer to a strict interpretation and application of the Word of God. The argument against strict interpretation is errantly justified by a liberal interpretation of what grace means in the Word of God.

For many today, Liberalism is understood to be a good thing. In some ways, it is good to be liberal. Generosity is good and means a person is liberal in his giving of money and time to help to meet physical needs as well as liberally giving love, forgiveness, mercy, and compassion to others. However, Liberalism can also mean open-minded, tolerant, or not bound by traditional or conventional ideas, and values. A Libertarian is a person who is favorable to or in accord with concepts of maximum individual freedom possible, esp. as guaranteed by law and secured by governmental protection of civil liberties. Regarding Biblical interpretation, Liberalism is basically defined as opposing strict or rigorous interpretations while favoring a more free approach of allegory as opposed to literalism. Extreme forms of Liberalism has great disdain for those who hold to literal interpretations of Scripture. Liberalism is not stark unbelief. Liberalism is merely varying degrees of broader interpretation of the Word of God than intended in arguing grace liberty to the point of license to do whatever one wants to do. In other words, Liberalism broadens the definitions of what the Word commands in less restrictive, more liberating ways.

Understanding that both Legalism and Liberalism are condemned in Scripture, we must find out from Scripture what differentiates between the terms. First, Legalism is NOT merely too strict an interpretation and application of the Word of God. God commands a strict interpretation and application of His Word. Therefore, a broader more liberal/loose/liberating interpretation of Scripture is actually contrary to Christ’s teachings.

“17 Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. 18 For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled. 19 Whosoever therefore shall break {luo loo'-o; literally loosen; the idea is to teach a more relaxed, broader, more liberal interpretation} one of these least {in size or importance; i.e.; seemingly insignificant} commandments, and shall teach men so, he shall be called the least in the kingdom of heaven: but whosoever shall do and teach them, the same shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I say unto you, That except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees, ye shall in no case {double negative in Greek text; not at all or not by any means} enter into the kingdom of heaven {this is not referring to the final eternal state of existence, but is referring to the Kingdom Age because God-kind righteousness is required; i.e., justification “by grace through faith”}” (Matthew 5:17-20).

Before I begin dealing with the theological substance of Christ’s teachings in Matthew chapters five (5) through seven (7), let me say that those who teach that Christ’s teachings in these three chapters is for the Kingdom Age believers, and not for Church Age believers, completely miss the point of what Christ is teaching. The Jewish Levitical priesthood had perverted the Mosaic Covenant and both the moral Law and ceremonial Law of God to be the means of both salvation and fellowship with God through which the blessings of God would flow. To some degree they were correct regarding the issues of fellowship with God, but where they were in error in their interpretation and application of the moral Law (the commandments) and ceremonial Law (the sacrifices, Priesthood, holy days) was so subtle that the error completely perverted (leavened) the whole (Gal. 5:9) and was a complete perversion of God’s intended faith way (“the just shall live by faith;” Hab. 2:4, Rom. 1:17, Gal. 3:11, and Heb. 10:38). Granted, no believer can keep the Law the way Matthew chapters five (5) through seven (7) detail until they are fully glorified/transfigured. However, that is exactly what the text teaches. During the Church Age there is progressive transfiguration through the supernatural workings of the indwelling Holy Spirit through hypostatic unity (“fellowship”) as He changes the yielding saved sinner from within. When the believer comes to understand that reality, then, and only then, will he seek to discover what the faith way is; i.e., living by grace enabling.

First, we can clearly see from Matthew 5:17-20 and the two following chapters, that Liberalism is not what defines Christian liberty. In other words, the restrictions of the Law are not loosened or lessened under the dispensation of grace (supernatural enabling from within, i.e. “from the heart”). In fact, according to what Christ teaches in what follows Matthew 5:17-20, in the rest of chapters 5, 6, and 7, the restrictions of the moral obligations of the Law are defined in an extremely more strict and definitive way, not a more loose, less restrictive way.

Second, the text is not talking about a performance based salvation that requires a person to live sinless to be saved. The text is talking to saved believers about the outcome of their salvation “by grace through faith.” Only those “born again” of the Spirit of God, indwelled by the Spirit of God, and supernaturally enabled by the indwelling Spirit would be enabled to produce God-kind righteousness in their lives and to live the expectations of this extremely more strict and definitive way Christ interprets the Law and the Prophets. It is this extremely more strict and definitive way in which Christ interprets the Law and the Prophets that is referred to elsewhere in Scripture as the spirit of the Law as opposed to the letter of the Law. The letter of the Law is the mere legalistic external application of Law keeping. The spirit of the Law applies to the desires of the heart regarding Law keeping. Acceptable obedience MUST be preceded with the right motivation/desire/attitude about who and what we are and about Who and What God is before that obedience can be blessed of God.

“23 Thou that makest thy boast of the law, through breaking the law dishonourest thou God? 24 For the name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles through you, as it is written. 25 For circumcision verily profiteth, if thou keep the law: but if thou be a breaker of the law, thy circumcision is made uncircumcision. 26 Therefore if the uncircumcision keep the righteousness of the law, shall not his uncircumcision be counted for circumcision? 27 And shall not uncircumcision which is by nature, if it fulfil the law, judge thee, who by the letter and circumcision dost transgress the law? 28 For he is not a Jew, which is one outwardly; neither is that circumcision, which is outward in the flesh: 29 But he is a Jew, which is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the spirit, and not in the letter; whose praise is not of men, but of God” (Romans 2:23-29).

“6 Who also hath made us {hikanoo, hik-an-o'-o; enabled or fitted with all necessities} able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life. 7 But if the ministration of death, written and engraven in stones, was glorious, so that the children of Israel could not stedfastly behold the face of Moses for the glory of his countenance; which glory was to be done away: 8 How shall not the ministration of the spirit be rather glorious? 9 For if the ministration of condemnation be glory, much more doth the ministration of righteousness exceed in glory. 10 For even that which was made glorious had no glory in this respect, by reason of the glory that excelleth. 11 For if that which is done away was glorious, much more that which remaineth is glorious” (II Corinthians 3:6-11).

Those who hold the spirit of the Law in their hearts do not view the Law as merely restrictive. Those who hold the “spirit” of the Law in their hearts view the Law as liberating. The Law exposes the invisible chains of the bondage of what sin is that imprison us to our fallen natures and to Satanic temptations of our corrupted desires. If we only see the “letter” of the Law, we only see the symptoms of sin and only deal with, and externally try to correct, the symptoms. The spirit of the Law reveals to us the corruption of our own fallen natures and the fact that the external symptoms revealed by sinful acts, and when dealt with eternally by ceasing or restraining the acts of sin, are merely like taking an aspirin for a headache caused by a brain tumor. The root issue of sin is never dealt with. The root issue is the very desire for sin in the first place.

Until practical sanctification through hypostatic union (the indwelling of the Spirit) and hypostatic unity (the “filling” with the Spirit as the believer yields his will to the indwelling Spirit) are a practical reality in a believer’s life, the very best a believer can do is try to fulfill the letter of the Law externally. However, he will never fulfill the spirit (inward obligations) of the Law, which exponentially increases God’s expectations compared to the letter (external obligations) of the Law.

The spirit of the Law is the inward desire for perfect holiness both inwardly AND outwardly that brings about intimate knowledge and fellowship with God. If a believer has the spirit of the Law in his heart, this spirit is what dominates his thinking and every decision that comes before him. His thinking is dominated with what will be pleasing to God and acceptable before God. He certainly is not thinking liberally regarding a looser, less restrictive interpretation of God’s expectations. Instead, when he holds the spirit of the Law in his heart, he will be thinking more definitively. Whenever there might be doubt about something being unacceptable, he will ALWAYS abstain from doubtful things or practices. That is one liberating aspect of the spirit of the Law in his heart. It immediately removes from the discussion, or equation of decision making, any thing that might be defined as “doubtful disputations” (Romans 14:1).

What then is the Word of God’s instruction regarding Law keeping as a means of practical sanctification before God? Certainly we can see that Law keeping cannot save anyone because keeping the Law requires we inwardly keep the spirit (inward obligations) of the Law. That means, we must eradicate even our desire for sin. If the desire to sin is there, we have broken the spirit of the Law. This extreme expectation of the spirit (inward obligations) of the Law is an absolute impossibility. This expectation of the spirit (inward obligations) of the Law demands that we cry out to God in hopeless despair for deliverance from the guilt and judgment that the failure to keep the spirit (inward obligations) of the Law brings with it. This is exactly God’s intent in giving the Law.

“9 What then? are we better than they? No, in no wise: for we have before proved both Jews and Gentiles, that they are all under sin; 10 As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: 11 There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. 12 They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one. 13 Their throat is an open sepulchre; with their tongues they have used deceit; the poison of asps is under their lips: 14 Whose mouth is full of cursing and bitterness: 15 Their feet are swift to shed blood: 16 Destruction and misery are in their ways: 17 And the way of peace have they not known: 18 There is no fear of God before their eyes. 19 Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. 20 Therefore by the deeds of the law {Law keeping} there shall no flesh be justified {referring to salvation by self-justification through Law keeping} in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. 21 But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; 22 Even the righteousness of God which is by faith{fullness} of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe {imputation & impartation}: for there is no difference: 23 For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; 24 Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: 25 Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; 26 To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Romans 3:9-26).

Salvation cannot come to us by Law keeping because we cannot keep the spirit of the Law in the strength of our own corrupt nature, no matter how much we may desire to do so. That is why repentance of “dead works” is so critical to salvation and is a primary manifestation of an understanding of the doctrine of condemnation.

“1 Therefore leaving the principles of the doctrine of Christ, let us go on unto perfection; not laying again the foundation of repentance from dead works, and of faith toward God, 2 Of the doctrine of baptisms, and of laying on of hands, and of resurrection of the dead, and of eternal judgment” (Hebrews 6:1-2).

Secondly, once we are saved “by grace through faith,” we must keep the spirit of the Law to be practically sanctified before God. Here again we find another impossibility apart from God’s enabling grace through yielding to the indwelling Holy Spirit of God. This is what Paul was referring to in Galatians 3:1-5 and also in II Corinthians 3:6 when he said by inspiration of the Spirit of God, “Who also hath made us {hikanoo, hik-an-o'-o; enabled or fitted with all necessities} able ministers of the new testament; not of the letter, but of the spirit: for the letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life.”

Matthew 5:1-7:29 are critical verses defining God’s expectations in the interpretation and application of the Law and the Prophets (what we call the Old Testament books). It is clear from Matthew 5:17-20 that Jesus commanded a strict and narrow interpretation of the Law and the Prophets. In fact, we can dogmatically say that what Christ Jesus teaches in Matthew 5:1-7:29 is a much more strict interpretation and application of the Law and the Prophets than what was previously applied by the legalistic Pharisees. This is what Christ is talking about in the phrase “except your righteousness shall exceed the righteousness of the scribes and Pharisees” in Matthew 5:20.

After the statement in Matthew 5:17-20, Jesus goes on in detail explaining His stricter, narrower interpretation and application of the Law and the Prophets. Jesus is defining the differences between the spirit of the Law and the letter of the law. The Pharisees only sought to keep the letter of the Law externally. They never even gave consideration to the necessity of first obeying the spirit of the Law inwardly. The spirit of the Law was the desire to please God more than anything else and glorify Him through our lives. This motivating attitude (spirit) is what defines true faithfulness and true obedience “from the heart.”

A critical point here is that Christ’s stricter interpretation and more definitive description of God’s expectations regarding the application of the Law and the Prophets is NOT resolved by a MORE legalistic approach to the Law and the Prophets. The Jews could not obey from the heart the less stringent, more liberal interpretation and application. Why then would anyone think Christ was teaching that they needed to be MORE legalistic?

The solution to legalism is not liberalism (in any degree) and the answer to liberalism is not increased legalism. Christ was seeking to bring these legalistic Jews to the place of hopeless despair regarding their own ability to keep the Law in any real and practical way from the heart. Christ was seeking to reveal to the legalists that the purpose of the Law was to reveal man’s hopelessly lost, guilty, and condemned condition before God. Christ was seeking to bring the legalist before God to cry out to Him in hopeless despair; I cannot do and I cannot be what you expect of me! I need your grace! I need your supernatural enabling! Until we see that purpose in Matthew chapters 5 through 7, we will miss Christ’s intent regarding this serious instruction correcting perverted teaching regarding the purpose of the Law. The answer is not found in either liberalism or legalism, but in God’s grace.

As we look at a number of these examples that Jesus gives in the strict interpretation and application regarding God’s higher expectation of obedience, one dominant theme runs throughout; obedience must be an inward desire before the outward action can be either controlled or accepted by God. This principle of obedience is not new to the Gospels or the New Covenant epistles. There must be a genuine desire to obey the Law from the heart that goes beyond pleasing God merely so that the sinner can get God to do he wants God to do. The Law and the Prophets detail this expectation over and over again.

“Praise ye the LORD. Blessed is the man that feareth {reverential awe of} the LORD, that delighteth greatly {finds obeying God exceedingly pleasureful} in his commandments” (Psalm 112:1).

“Thy words were found, and I did eat them; and thy word was unto me the joy and rejoicing of mine heart: for I am called by thy name, O LORD God of hosts” (Jeremiah 15:16).

“8 Behold, I go forward, but he is not there; and backward, but I cannot perceive him: 9 On the left hand, where he doth work, but I cannot behold him: he hideth himself on the right hand, that I cannot see him: 10 But he knoweth the way that I take: when he hath tried me, I shall come forth as gold. 11 My foot hath held his steps, his way have I kept, and not declined. 12 Neither have I gone back from the commandment of his lips; I have esteemed {hoarded, saved, or treasured} the words of his mouth more than my necessary food” (Job 23:8-12).

“1 My son, if thou wilt receive my words, and hide my commandments with thee; 2 So that thou incline thine ear unto wisdom, and apply thine heart to understanding; 3 Yea, if thou criest after knowledge, and liftest up thy voice for understanding; 4 If thou seekest her as silver, and searchest for her as for hid treasures; 5 Then shalt thou understand the fear of the LORD, and find the knowledge of God” (Proverbs 2:1-5).

“30 The mouth of the righteous speaketh wisdom, and his tongue talketh of judgment. 31 The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide” (Psalm 37:30-31).

“1 My son, forget not my law; but let thine heart keep my commandments: 2 For length of days, and long life, and peace, shall they add to thee. 3 Let not mercy and truth forsake thee: bind them about thy neck; write them upon the table of thine heart: 4 So shalt thou find favour and good understanding in the sight of God and man. 5 Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding. 6 In all thy ways acknowledge him, and he shall direct thy paths” (Proverbs 3:1-6).

There is no reason for the Jews (or deceived Christians today) to think that God could be pleased with the mere external, legalistic obedience of His commandments. In fact, we can go beyond the fact that God merely is NOT pleased with such nonsense. We can unequivocally state that God is displeased with the very idea of legalistic externalism and hates it; He loathes it.

“10 Hear the word of the LORD, ye rulers of Sodom; give ear unto the law of our God, ye people of Gomorrah. 11 To what purpose is the multitude of your sacrifices unto me? saith the LORD: I am full of the burnt offerings of rams, and the fat of fed beasts; and I delight not in the blood of bullocks, or of lambs, or of he goats. 12 When ye come to appear before me, who hath required this at your hand, to tread my courts? 13 Bring no more vain oblations; incense is an abomination unto me; the new moons and sabbaths, the calling of assemblies, I cannot away with; it is iniquity, even the solemn meeting. 14 Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hateth: they are a trouble unto me; I am weary to bear them. 15 And when ye spread forth your hands, I will hide mine eyes from you: yea, when ye make many prayers, I will not hear: your hands are full of blood. 16 Wash you, make you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes; cease to do evil; 17 Learn to do well; seek judgment, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, plead for the widow. 18 Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. 19 If ye be willing and obedient, ye shall eat the good of the land: 20 But if ye refuse and rebel, ye shall be devoured with the sword: for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it” (Isaiah 1:10-20).

Most English translations (including the KJV) do not do a good job with Matthew 5:17; “Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil.” Critical to understanding the whole of Matthew chapters five (5) through seven (7), is our understanding of the two Greek words translated “destroy” and “fulfill” in Matthew 5:17. The word “destroy” is from the Greek word kataluo (kat-al-oo'-o). It means to loosen downwardly, to take apart, disintegrate, or dissolve. Christ said, Do not think that He came to do such as thing. Instead, understand that He came to “fulfil” the Law. Many have offered numerous explanations regarding Christ’s meaning of this statement. However, I think the best meaning is simply in the context of the grammar of the statement.

The word “fulfil” is translated from the Greek word pleroo (play-ro'-o). The word means to fill to the fullest extent; to cram full. Granted, Jesus did fulfill the Law in both the sense of living it in its fullest intent from the heart and substitutionally satisfying its sentence upon the guilty offender through His death, burial and resurrection thereby propitiating God’s wrath upon sin (I John 2:2). We know Jesus fulfilled the Law in this way from numerous Scriptural testimonies.

“1 Brethren, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for Israel is, that they might be saved. 2 For I bear them record that they have a zeal of God, but not according to knowledge. 3 For they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about to establish their own righteousness {through legalistic Law keeping}, have not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God {justification by grace through faith}. 4 For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth” (Romans 10:1-4).

As Romans 10:4 says, Christ came to end the false teaching of apostate Israel that Law keeping could bring them the God-kind righteousness necessary to either salvation or “fellowship” with God. However, this is not the context of Matthew 5:17. The context is that Jesus did not come to lessen or loosen God’s expectations of sinners regarding Law keeping. Jesus came to restore the extreme, fullest extent of God’s expectations in perfect Law keeping both inwardly and outwardly; i.e. from the heart.

The Law and Grace do not oppose one another as enemies. They are cooperating partners. Neither do they exist apart from one another. They are inseparable partners of Truth that must walk hand-in-hand if mankind is to be restored both in salvation and sanctification. An old poem by an unknown author states:

To run and work the Law commands,
Yet gives me neither feet nor hands;
But better news the gospel brings:
It bids me fly and gives me wings.

The Law by itself brings nothing but guilt, failure, despair, hopelessness, and condemnation. Until we understand the doctrine of grace, there is little wonder why we hate the Law and its outcomes. When all we see of God is the Law, we can find little about God that would cause us to love Him. However, this scene of life is rapidly changed from a cloud of doom and despair to a rainbow of hope and blessings of God’s wondrous love, mercy, forgiveness, and eternal promises once a proper understanding of the doctrine of grace is added to our scenario. The Law by itself is a portrait of destruction and ruin. Add an understanding of the doctrine of grace to it and the portrait begins to progressively unfold into the present potentials of this life and the eternal blessings of progressive unfolding of “the regeneration.” Grace saves us “through faith” and begins to progressively transfigure us through progressive sanctification as we actively work in partnership with the indwelling Holy Spirit of God.

Secondly, this union of Law and Grace is an indestructible, eternal union. Matthew 5:18 says, “For verily I say unto you, Till heaven and earth {referring to the final stage of God’s judgment in the dissolution of the original creation} pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the law, till all be fulfilled.” When will this union of Law and Grace be dissolved by God in that it will no longer be necessary. At the end of the world! The necessity of the marriage of Law and Grace enabling will be dissolved when the world is dissolved and redeemed mankind is glorified and delivered from the very presence of sin.

“9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us-ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance. 10 But the day of the Lord will come as a thief in the night; in the which the heavens shall pass away with a great noise, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat, the earth also and the works that are therein shall be burned up. 11 Seeing then that all these things shall be dissolved, what manner of persons ought ye to be in all holy conversation and godliness, 12 Looking for and hasting unto the coming of the day of God, wherein the heavens being on fire shall be dissolved, and the elements shall melt with fervent heat? 13 Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness. 14 Wherefore, beloved, seeing that ye look for such things, be diligent that ye may be found of him in peace, without spot, and blameless” (II Peter 3:9-14).

The word “fulfilled” in Matthew 5:18 is not from the same Greek word translated “fulfil” in Matthew 5:17. The word “all” in the phrase “all be fulfilled” in Matthew 5:18 is most probably not merely referring to the Law, but to all eschatological promises of the Law and the Prophets. In other words, “all be fulfilled” refers to the final completion of the New Genesis; i.e., “the regeneration” in God’s creation of the “new heaven and earth” (Rev. 21:1).

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1 comment:

Kent Brandenburg said...

I agree with this. It seems that there are a few other aspects as well that are a problem:
1) Uncertainty about the Words of God, and, therefore, the meaning of the Words.
2) Related to number one, the inability or unwillingness to make application of biblical principles to cultural issues, etc.