More Than a Love Letter
Jeff S. Smith
I delight in the law of God according to the inward man," wrote the apostle Paul in Romans 7:22. He was discussing the internal battle in every saint between the knowledge of what is right and the temptation to indulge what is not.
Paul expresses for us what ought to be the natural attitude of every child of God, an abiding affection and appreciation for the law of God which directs and chastens us toward good and away from evil (Matt. 6:13). It is commonly taught today that the New Testament of Jesus Christ is nothing more than a love letter from God to man. The supposition is that a love letter includes no conditions and so is devoid of anything approaching the concept of law common to the Old Testament.
Is this distinction scriptural? If so, what are its implications?
everyone knows that God sent His only begotten Son to the Earth because He so loved the world (John 3:16). And it should be equally clear that the 27 books of the New Testament represent an expression of that love, especially for those who submit themselves to the gospel and are saved from their sins (I John 4:19). But some have stated that the New Testament is nothing more than a "love letter" from God to man, comparing it to a missive from one lover to another. The supposition continues to digress from truth, in that it contends that the New Testament does not have any element of law within it for believers to heed.
Such a comparison to a common love letter is dangerous, first, because it envisions the two parties as equals. Secondly, it seems to gloss over the dire warnings and ominous mentions of retribution on the wicked that the New Testament features in the gospels, the Revelation, and letters to Galatia, the Hebrews and Thessalonica.
This comparison also conditions the mind to question the legal concepts of justification and conditionality found in the New Testament. I am in the possession of several love letters from my wife, written before we decided to marry, and not a one of them dispenses anything approaching law to me. Comparing the New Testament to a love letter opens the door to a Calvinistic approach to the Bible, minus much responsibility among men to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling (Phil. 2:12).
Indeed, the New Testament communicates God's love toward man, but it is not fair or expedient to call the gospel just a love letter. It is so much more. And part of that more is the concept of God's law for His people.
generation of men has been given some rule of law by God. Adam and Eve were commanded to tend the garden and abstain from the tree of knowledge of good and evil. This rule they violated and received a just penalty. Noah's generation was condemned because of its wickedness. The law of Moses reigned over a thousand years in Hebrew history, defining right and wrong and establishing the penalty for the latter.
Paul noted that one value of the law of Moses was in bringing to him a knowledge of his shortcomings and inability to mitigate them himself (Rom. 7:7-12). But were it not for the law, he would never have sinned at all, because sin never would have been defined, "for where there is no law there is no transgression" (Rom. 4:15).
If there is no law today for mankind found in the pages of the New Testament, then there is no transgression. But John says that "sin is lawlessness' (I John 3:4). If there is no law, there is no sin. If there is no sin, we need neither grace nor a Savior.
fact, the New Testament is replete with descriptions of law and admonitions to obedience. Consider I Corinthians 9:19-23 where the apostle Paul is discussing his habit of accommodating his preaching approach to his audience of the moment. He preached on the prophesied Messiah when among Jewish audiences, but approached matters differently when among Gentiles, pointing to their idolatrous and ignorant religion instead (cf. Acts 17). In verses 20 and 21, he contrasts his approach with Jews and Gentiles. To the Gentiles, he became as one without law, that is one not under the law of Moses. Yet he quickly adds that while he does not live under the law of Moses anymore, he is "under law toward Christ."
The New Testament teaches that the law of Moses, including the ten commandments, was taken out of the way at the cross (Eph. 2:14-15, Col. 2:13-14, II Cor. 3:7-18). In addition, the Hebrew writer notes that the priesthood of Christ was made possible by a change of the law, in that our Lord was not a Levite, as required under the law of Moses (7:12). Paul asserted that he was no longer under the law of Moses and mingled with Gentiles as proof. Yet, he admitted that he was now under law toward Christ.
What can this mean but that there were certain things defined as right, in which he was obliged to submit, and certain things defined as wrong, in which he had to abstain? Where are these distinctions made but in the books of the New Testament?
In Galatians 6:2, he admonishes the saints to "bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ." Whatever spin one tries to apply to this verse, the phrase "law of Christ" will still emerge every time. There is a law of Christ for his disciples to follow.
Notice the element of law in Paul's own contrast between the works of the flesh and the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5. He writes of the liberty which we have in Christ against the bondage of living under the law of Moses and admonishes all to be led by the Spirit rather than the Mosaic code (verse 18). Then he defines certain works of the flesh and decrees "... that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God" (verse 21). While you cannot earn your salvation, you can earn your condemnation. Even Christians who commit apostasy give up the benefits of Christ's blood and face the same penalty as infidels (Heb. 10:26-31, II Peter 2:20-22). Could a simple love letter contain such language? Hardly. This threat of condemnation and promise of reward is indicative of the tenets of a New Testament law which facilitates the extension of God's grace.
James refers to the perfect law of liberty twice in his epistle. In James 1:25, he is reminding us of the importance of looking into the perfect law of liberty, continuing in it and being a doer of the work. To do otherwise is to reject "the implanted word which is able to save your souls" (verse 21). In James 2:12 again, he encourages his audience to "so speak and so do as those who will be judged by the law of liberty." James even calls God the "Lawgiver" (4:12).
In Romans 3, Paul contrasts the old and new laws, asserting that boasting is not forbidden by the law of works, "but by the law of faith" (Rom. 3:27). Indeed, faith and law are concepts so intertwined in the New Testament that to separate the two does incredible damage to the gospel. Paul's apostleship was "for obedience to the faith among all nations" (Rom. 1:5, 16:26). Where simple love is not something that can be obeyed, a law is to be obeyed. Therefore Peter worries over those who "do not obey the gospel of God" (I Peter 4:17). Paul foresees retribution upon "those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ" (II Thess. 1:8).
He writes Timothy for the second time to encourage him to "be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (II Tim. 2:1). In order to fulfill this admonition, Paul compares the Christian to an athlete who "is not crowned unless he competes according to the rules" (verse 5). Now Paul does not reduce the gospel of Jesus Christ to a rule book, but be assured that God's will must inspire and demand an obedient response. As Jesus told his Sermon on the Mount audience, the crown belongs to the faithful one who does God's will (Matt.7:21), who competes according to the rules.
The Hebrew writer, in contrasting the old and new covenants, makes clear the legal foundation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. "For where there is a testament, there must also of necessity be the death of the testator. For a testament is in force after men are dead, since it has no power at all while the testator lives" (9:16-17). This is a legal appeal showing that the New Testament is lawfully established. The contrast between old and new centers around the offer of mercy through the blood of God's only son. "For it is not possible that the blood of bulls and goats could take away sins .... For by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified" (Heb.10:4, 14).
In this new covenant, God promised that "Their sins and lawless deeds I will remember no more" (Heb. 10:17). The New Testament of Jesus Christ is superior to the law of Moses, in that it contains provision for the complete forgiveness of transgressions against it. To have sins and lawless deeds, there must be a law. If there is no law, there is no sin. If there is no sin, there is no need for grace. If the New Testament is not a legal foundation for disciples of Christ, we live in a state of spiritual anarchy.
Paul wrote that man is justified by faith, rather than by perfect obedience to the law of Moses or personal merit (Rom. 4:1-8). Like Noah, Abraham found God's grace because he was a man of faith who strived to be blameless and upright. We, too, are justified by faith when our faith is like Abraham's, trusting in the righteousness of the word of truth and willingly submitting ourselves to it (Rom. 6:17, James 2:20-24).
who have swung the pendulum to the extreme stance that grace excludes laws and obedience will no doubt assume that these contentions nullify salvation by grace through faith. Nothing could be further from the truth. Various passages have been presented that connect the concepts of grace, faith and salvation to that of the New Testament law.
No one can earn his salvation for only sinless perfection would merit such a reward. The very first sin one commits makes it forever absolutely impossible for him to earn his salvation. A hundred good works cannot alone wash away a single sin. The grace of God, however, appears to all men as an offer of mercy washed in the blood of His own dear Son. Attention to the commands of the New Testament does not earn one his salvation but brings him into contact with the free gift he could never merit on his own (Rom. 6:23).
e-mail this author at SmithJeffs@aol.com
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