Christianity 201

August 11, 2014

Delighting in the Old Testament Law

With today’s installment of Christianity 201, we’re happy to report that Canadian pastor Clarke Dixon is going to be the first of a number of regular contributors here. (You won’t have to wait six months for the next appearance.) As always, you’ll be able to link back to read at source.

When I think of “the law” I think of something cumbersome or wearisome. I picture myself wading through Leviticus. Perhaps you know what I mean. But in Psalm 19, David was downright giddy about God’s law. Why the disconnect between us and David? Click the title to read at source…

The Torah and the Christian. Delighting in the Old Testament Law

by Clarke Dixon

Torah MitzvotPreviously we saw from Psalm 1 the importance of God’s law for those who want to be “like trees planted by streams of water” (Psalm 1:3 NRSV). But the Christian might ask “Why would we take “delight” in a law that we do not even follow much of the time? Or should we start following all those rules and regulations we find in the Old Testament?”

Good questions, the last of which became important to the early church and was the concern of an important church meeting in Acts 15. The final decision was quite short and to the point:

For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to impose on you no further burden than these essentials: that you abstain from what has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what is strangled and from fornication. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. Farewell
(Acts 15:28-29 NRSV)

If only all church meetings could be kept so simple! You will notice that the “essentials” are essentially those matters in which Jewish ethics would be quite contrary to the practice of paganism that new believers were coming out of. So, no you do not need to become a Jew, but yes, you do need to pay attention to the God of the Jew. So how is the Christian of today to relate to the law as found in the Old Testament? Can we “take delight” in it, and so resonate with Psalm 1? Here are four questions to help us think on it.

First, what kind of instruction are we talking about?

Note the temptation to immediately think of law in negative terms as regulations. When you mention “law” I think of rules, and the first rule that comes to mind is that which limits the speed I can legally attain on my motorcycle. Now since downsizing to a 125, the speed I can legally attain is not so different that the speed I can actually attain, but no matter, some rule maker is trying to spoil my fun!

But what if, when we hear the word “law,” we think, not of rules and regulations, but of instruction. Let’s consider the motorcycle example again. If instead of thinking of speed limits and kill-joys, I think instruction, I will think back to my brother instructing me on the basics of operating the controls, changing the gears, and wot not. And I will think of the motorcycle safety training course which was an absolute hoot to be on. As someone learning to ride, the instruction was something I could take delight in, something I naturally wanted to meditate on. Where we tend to think of what fun we might be missing on by thinking of God’s law as rules, we ought instead to think of the joy it leads us into by thinking of it as instruction for life.

And so we can delight in the law of God as found in the Old Testament. Perhaps we will not set up cities of refuge as the law instructs, but we will delight in that example of God’s provision of justice and compassion, and will seek to be just and compassionate ourselves. We may not keep laws on leaving some crops unharvested, but we delight in learning about God’s love for the poor and foreigner those rules point to. We may eat lobster contrary to the Old Testament law, if eating ocean going bugs is your thing, but we will delight in the holiness of God that all those dietary restrictions point us to. Some of the law will not work in our time and place, but all of it will instruct us on who God is and what kind of people He wants us to be.

Second, what kind of a band is this?

Note the change that happens between the Old and New Testaments. The Old Testament law is like the score that a composer brings to an orchestra to perform. It is very specific, each note of each instrument has been chosen by the composer and if any one musician ditches the score, the piece simply will not work. But when the musicians get it right, it is a thing of beauty.

We must be sure to be thinking straight about this, for there is a temptation to say that the Old Testament law was a bad thing that badly needed replacement. Not so. The law of God found in the Old Testament is a beautiful thing, and had the musicians, Israel, kept to the score better than they normally did, then its beauty would have been much more apparent. It would have been seen as the masterpiece that it is:

5 See, just as the Lord my God has charged me, I now teach you statutes and ordinances for you to observe in the land that you are about to enter and occupy. 6 You must observe them diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, “Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!” 7 For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is whenever we call to him? 8 And what other great nation has statutes and ordinances as just as this entire law that I am setting before you today?
(Deuteronomy 4:5-8 NRSV)

But now things are different and since the advent of Jesus and the gift of the Spirit God has been doing a new thing. As a follower of Jesus Christ I am less like the bass player I was in Grade nine music class trying to follow a score provided by the teacher, and more like the bass player I was in my former rock bands working on original songs. We never had musical scores, instead I had freedom to come up with my own bass lines. However, I was never free to do anything I wanted. I had to keep in time, play in the correct key, and come up with lines in a style appropriate to the piece. Likewise as Christians we are free from the law, but we are not free to do whatever we want. We need to keep in step with the songwriter. He is not helping us with our song, we are serving His purposes as He composes His song: “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.” (Galatians 5:25 ESV)

We are given the wonderful privilege of being invited to make music with our Lord. While we have freedom, we do need to keep in step with the Great Bandleader, so that our part fits in with His masterpiece. But in getting to know our Bandleader, we do well to spend time listening to that great masterpiece He has already provided, the Old Testament law. There is a wonderful “trademark sound” that can be discerned in both the Old and New Testaments. Though we are not required to keep the law in all its rules and regulations, knowing the law helps us know the Lawmaker, the Composer of the greatest masterpiece. And that is something we can take delight in!

November 13, 2012

To Whom Did Paul Say, “For What I Want to Do I Do not Do”?

While we recognize that Romans 7 is New Testament, we often over-Christianize it and miss out on the Old Testament world that shaped the times of the apostles. Scott Lencke at the blog The Prodigal Thought works through this thought, you’re encouraged to read this at source where it appeared (sans soundtrack) as De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da.

Everyone know The Police song, De Do Do Do, De Da Da Da? If not, you can have a listen and watch here.

Now Romans 7 is difficult enough just on its own terms. But add in the distraction of Sting belting out one of his great hits, well, it’s simply all over (especially after watching the video!).

Why Romans 7 and The Police?

Romans 7 is that chapter where Paul uses the word do so many times. Yes, that chapter! I count 20 times in vs15-20! There we find the famed words,

‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’

Actually, did you know Romans 7 causes difficulty? Not because of The Police, but rather because people have been debating for a very long time whether Paul is describing the normal life of a Christian or non-Christian.

The popular belief today, at least amongst evangelicals, is that Paul is describing a Christian. For starters, it is argued, if Paul says, ‘For in my inner being I delight in God’s law,’ this cannot be reality for an unregenerate, depraved human. Not only that, but what I think happens even more is that we look at our own lives, evaluate our daily living, and concur that vs15 and vs19 speak very truly about us – ‘I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.’

Now, while some might loathe the idea of utilizing our experience to understand Scripture, I wouldn’t say it’s completely terrible. I’m an advocate of something like the Wesleyan quadrilateral that recognizes we have more than Scripture alone in helping us understand God’s revelation. Rather this perspective takes a more holistic approach, identifying a) Scripture, b) tradition (there is such things as good tradition), c) reason (not ‘objective rationalism’) and d) experience as important in grasping the revelation of God.

So, my point is that understanding Scripture is not completely devoid of our human experience and encounter with God and his truth.

Thus, having said that, those 2 well-known verses (Rom 7:15, 19) might parallel something going on in our own lives. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it was given to describe our situation. You see, this banter about whether Paul is describing the Christian or non-Christian life, I think it might just bring us on an adventure of missing the point. Well, I would concede it’s part of the point. But I don’t believe it’s the greater point of Paul in what is our ch.7 (you know Paul didn’t have chapter and verse divides in his letter).

What I think happens is that we gloss over a vital statement. And I suppose we miss the larger context of the letter and the sweeping thought of chapters 6-8. So maybe we start there.

What in the world is going on in Rome? For this letter was written to a particular church in Rome.

Paul is writing to a church that is extremely divided. Why?

Some 6 to 8 years before Paul wrote to the church, the emperor Claudius had expelled all Jews from the area of Italy (see Acts 18:1-2). Thus, the church became strongly Gentile. But the successor to Claudius, emperor Nero, allowed the Jews to make their way back into this area of the Roman empire. So we have a church situation that has become mainly Gentile over a number of years, which means you have a strong group of people mainly disconnected from the Abrahamic faith of Israel. Mix in a strong group of Jews desiring to see their great heritage fall to the wayside and you’ve got a bit of a challenge.

So here is a man with wisdom and pastoral compassion trying to help both Jews and Gentiles. You can sense it right throughout the letter.

But what about the difficulty of Romans 7? How does this fit into the Roman context?

Well, we could work through chs.6 and 8, but let’s come back to that. This is where 7:1 becomes all-important.

Do you not know, brothers and sisters—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law has authority over someone only as long as that person lives?

Who is Paul speaking to?

Jews! Those who know the law.

Yes, Paul does tell us early on in the letter that even those who do not have the Jewish Torah have a law for themselves (see Rom 2:14-15). But, looking at this statement in 7:1, I think it quite clear Paul is speaking to those who know Yahweh’s Torah, as summed up in the Law of Moses.

When you realize that Paul is mainly speaking to Jews, in this little interlude between chapters 6 and 8, I believe it opens up the passage quite a lot.

It’s not so much about whether Paul is describing a Christian or non-Christian, though we can talk about that, and I will. Rather it’s primarily about one who is trying to live under the law.

And so I do believe we can ascribe to a Jew, a good Jew in the context of the first century, these words of Paul: For in my inner being I delight in God’s law (7:22).

Paul’s not really caught up in our debates about prevenient or irresistible grace. He is describing a good Jew like himself based right in the tension of the first century as things were strongly evolving into the light of the new covenant in Christ. For someone who delights in the law but tries to live under the reign of the law, that person is going to find herself or himself in quite a pickle. Such a Jew might end up arguing with themselves, like Gollum and Smeagol, as seen here. Such a major internal war!

This is why the preceding words of chapter 6 become extremely important. Especially statements like these: For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace (Rom 6:14).

The one joined to Christ has been freed from the reign of both sin and law. Law + sin = a jumbled mixture of problems in a Jew. But living under the reign of grace, as seen and expressed in the faithfulness of Jesus, releases one to ‘serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code’ (Rom 7:6). And Paul reminds us of the delivery that takes place in Jesus Christ (7:24-25). Not only that, but ‘through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death’ (8:2).

‘Ok, then. But what about 7:25, part b,’ one may ask?! It says: So then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature a slave to the law of sin.

Yes, a good Jew will want to be a slave (or obedient) to the torah-law. But that person living in light of their sinful nature, the flesh, will become a slave to the law of sin. It’s reality for Paul, for any Jew. Again, Law + sin = a jumbled mixture of problems in a Jew. This is why Paul could give his list of achievements for being best Jew of the century, but at the same time list his persecution of Christians (see Phil 3:4-6). Living under the reign and lordship of the law is ludicrous, even making one proud of their accomplishments that are contrary to the will of God (and for Paul, that was watching Christians be murdered!). A proper Jew needs releasing from such a view, being drown in the reign of the grace of God in the faithfulness of Jesus.

Now, there is no doubt we could think about the application of chapter 7 for us, Gentiles, some 2000 years later. Though let me remark that I don’t think it completely possible to think like a Jew, even more a Jew from some 2000 years ago like Paul. Still, we can consider the ease of making our own law (not in a Rom. 2 sense, but from an extreme moralistic framework). And, thus, we try and live an overly controlled life under this law, which really ends up wrecking our own hearts and lives, as well as others’. We have to grapple with the practicalities of living under the reign of law rather than the reign of grace.

But Paul is talking about those who know the law, the Mosaic torah. In this extremely divided Roman church, he is taking time to address his brothers and sisters in the fleshly heritage.

And, so, in a sense, Paul is creating a before and after situation. Jews would have once been driven by their commitment to the precious rule of the law (or maybe they still were). But now it was time to live under the reign of grace, under the new way of the Spirit, under the rule of Christ Jesus. That was the glories of which Paul was proclaiming.

This is what Romans 7 is all about, tucked into the middle of a letter to the church in Rome, tucked in between two very telling chapters, that being chapters 6 and 8. I think if we remember this, it will help us continue to understand what God has done for us and in us through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ. And it will release us to live more and more under the reign of grace, the Jew first and also the Gentile.

~Scott Lencke