Tom Pittman's WebLog

2013 September 11 -- His "Law" Is Too Small

Billy Graham founded the magazine ChristianityToday some 50-odd years ago to be a flagship periodical for Evangelical thinking. I have been reading it for not much less than that. Their news lacks the right-wing slant of WORLD magazine, but like most dead-tree publications these days, they are more about opinion than news. And like all the other opinions, I can do better myself, without their help. Oh well.

Six months ago, one of their main (opinion) articles presented "The Gospel in One Word" (Love) by a fellow who didn't read his Bible very carefully. What else is new. I sent off an email to the editor complaining about it, and in the subsequent dialog I mentioned that the guy was obviously not a Lutheran, because he found the word "love" in the First and Second Great Commandments, and therefore claimed it proved that the gospel is about love. Of course it proves no such thing. First, the commandments are about our love, while the gospel is said to be about God's love. But Lutherans in particular distinguish "Law" and "Gospel" as the two main themes of Scripture, and in their thinking the commandments are Law, not Gospel.

Perhaps as a consequence (or maybe it was already in the pipeline, I don't know) this month's CT features an opinion piece by a different pastor, titled "God's Word in Two Words" -- you guessed it: Law and Gospel.

The problem is, every reduction of Scripture is wrong.

Reducing the gospel to one word misses out on all that Paul says in defining the gospel, and -- especially if that reduction is "love" -- totally ignores all that Scripture teaches about how Jesus' own specially trained disciples understood it. I am too much of an inerrantist to believe that crock. Jesus did not err in what he taught his disciples, and they did not err in their implementation of it after his ascension, and Luke and Paul and the evangelists did not err in explaining it to us. Not one of them ever said "the gospel is about love," nor anything remotely like it. 20 times in the book of Acts we are given the content of somebody telling unbelievers what they must do become Christians, and not once did they ever mention love. Four more times we are told what Paul said in court to unbelievers -- not really an evangelistic situation, he's on trial for his life and must follow the courtroom rules -- and still not once did he ever mention "love." In fact the word does not even occur in Acts.

Reducing of all of Scripture to two words fares no better. Tullian Tchividjian is recently the senior pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church, and one does not become pastor of a famous church by being stupid. He reads his Bible, and he did not say much really contrary to Scripture so much as he left too much unsaid, so as to give a wrong interpretation. The problem with his interpretation might be (ahem) reduced to the simple line, His "Law" Is Too Small.

The easy way to see the problem is to compare how people in the pews understand a gospel of "unconditional grace" (Tchividjian's term) with how that understanding might fare in Tchividjian's own home in the example he himself cited:

When one of our kids throws a temper tantrum, thereby breaking one of the rules, we can send her to her room and take away some of her priviledges. But while this may rightly produce sorrow at the revelation of her sin, it does not have the power to remove her sin. In other words, the law can crush her, but it cannot cure her... If Kim and I don't follow up the law with the gospel, Genna would be left without hope.
I'm not sure I understand the nature of this hopelessness, unless being sent to her room is an eternal punishment from which she can never recover by being good. Somehow I doubt her parents are that cruel, because the (ahem) law of the state forbids it. She can learn to not throw tantrums, and many children do in fact learn such things without anything like "gospel" given to them -- indeed they learn better if the tantrum is punished rather than rewarded with "unconditional grace." Tantrums are a learned behavior: children learn that making a nuisance of themselves achieves certain desired ends. If the desired ends do not follow, they don't learn the behavior. Unconditional grace (forgiveness apart from repentance, which I cannot find in Scripture, see my essay "As God Forgave Us") may be part of his problem, but he does not clearly tell us what kind of "gospel" he offers his daughter. That's a problem with reductions: you don't know what the (reduced) words mean.

But let us suppose that Tchividjian treats his daughter exactly the same as his parishoners expect God to treat them after hearing his sermon. They sin, we all sin from time to time, Tchividjian admits it, and it is the capstone of his essay. Genna throws her tantrum. The "Law" which according to Tchividjian is only condemnation, pronounces her guilt. The parishoner who beat his wife before coming to church, understands that he has sinned. But nobody throws him in jail, the wife and Tchividjian alike announce to him God's unconditional forgiveness -- no promise to do better required, no consequences, no damnation to Hell, just "unconditional grace." So what happens? He goes home, refreshed by the Gospel and by God's unconditional forgiveness, and beats his wife again. In Tchividjian's home, that would be like Genna throwing a tantrum, and being duly scolded (the "Law") and then unconditionally forgiven (the "Gospel"), she continues throwing her tantrum without interruption. Ah, but he doesn't do it that way! That's the "gospel" he preaches and writes about in CT, but he cannot live it in his own home, nor does it make his daughter good. What makes her good is the desire to be good. Sometimes that is motivated by the fear of punishment, and sometimes by the promise of reward. Unconditional forgiveness merely encourages continued sin -- and that is exactly how everybody who learns from Tchividjian's sermon (without reading Romans 6, nowhere mentioned in his essay) understands it.

The gospel in Scripture is rather different. So is the law. The law in Scripture tells us how to behave so that people don't get hurt, and so that we properly acknowledge God as Creator. If we fail to do it, people get hurt, and Scripture can help by pointing to the failings. God cannot allow people like that into His perfect Heaven (it wouldn't be Heaven if people continued to be hurt), so there's another place for them. The gospel (the Greek word in the Bible means "good news") is that Christ died to erase the past karma, so we can live that sinless life God demands and expects of everybody in Heaven. But we still must stop sinning. That's what Jesus told the woman taken in adultery, "Stop sinning." That's what the word "repent" means. It does not forgive past sins -- only the blood of Jesus on the cross does that -- but the Holy Spirit can help us want to stop sinning. If you don't want to do that, well, you probably wouldn't like it in Heaven, and God certainly cannot allow you in. You did not earn God's grace, but there definitely is a condition on it, which is that you stop sinning. With God's help, you can do that, and God commands it. Besides, it's a good idea. Genna needs to stop throwing tantrums. Maybe she already did, in the real world of Tchividjian's home.

2013 September 12 -- His "Law" Is Too Small (Part 2)

There is another way in which Tullian Tchividjian's "Law" is too small. Everything God does is Good, and God made the Law, so it is Good. Not in some hostile and temporary way as Tchividjian imagines it, but God's Law is in every way good.

Missionary physician Paul Brand wrote a marvelous book (ghosted by Philip Yancey) Fearfully and Wonderfully Made, in which he gives different parts of the human body metaphorical significance for understanding the Body of Christ, or more generally, Christian truth. One remarkable chapter relates the "rigid and unyielding" bones of our skeleton to the "rigid and unyielding" commands of God's Law. Brand was stationed for a while in a hospital where war veterans came for treatment. One had lost a bone of an arm shattered by a grenade or some such, and had been fitted with an external metal prosthetic (this was long before they did surgical bone replacements); his arm flopped uselessly until the prosthetic gave it rigidity. Just as the rigid and unyielding bones of our skeleton free us to do what we were made to do, so the Law of God frees us to do what we were made to be.

About the same time I was reading Brand, a research scientist at Bell Labs came as a seminar speaker at the university where I was working on my PhD. Bell Labs had a shirt-and-tie dress code, which he, as an anarchic fresh-out recent student rebelled against. So he wore jeans and T-shirts -- until he discovered that the secretary pool was not doing his work. When he respected them by dressing properly, they started getting his work done. Like Brand's skeletal bones, compliance with the "rigid and unyielding" dress code freed him to do the work he was being paid to do there.

God's Law is a positive Good, not merely a negative and harsh school teacher to tell us we are wrong (although it is that, when we need it), but also a positive benefit to enable society to function properly. The whole Law, Jesus said (and the Apostle Paul repeated), is summarized in two commandments, first to love God above all else, and then to love your neighbor as yourself. When we do this consistently, everybody gets along great. When we choose to do otherwise, innocent people get hurt. The Christian life that Jesus taught, is not to depend on God's grace to cover all our sins while we go on doing whatever feels good (nevermind who gets hurt), but to treat everybody exactly how we want to be treated. Sometimes that has implications that are not obvious, so we have particular commands to point us to the proper understanding of it. "This do," Jesus said, "and live." It was not intended to be an impossible goal, but something that everybody can do -- and indeed we must do it in Heaven, for otherwise Heaven would not be Heaven. If you don't like doing it now, what makes you think you will like it any better in Heaven?

Maybe not Tchividjian himself, but most of the people sitting in his pews hearing him preach on Sunday morning truly believe as Tchividjian claims to believe, "I can't [do it]. Neither can you. What I can say is that Jesus' blood covers all my efforts..." We can't do it, so don't even try, just let Jesus unconditionally wash away all our sins, past, present and future. You won't find that message in the Bible, but rather,

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? -- Rom.6:1, oNIV
You can do it. Jesus and Paul expect you to do it. Mistakes happen, but fix them and Stop sinning. With God helping you, you can do it.


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