Obey the Gospel

Faith Recovery Podcast
Faith Recovery Podcast
Obey the Gospel
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We must obey the gospel because it is the final standard in all matters of faith and life.

In “Obey the Gospel,” the Three Failed Pastors discuss the Christian system as guided not by a written text but by an oral announcement.


“Obey the Gospel” Episode Notes:

In saying that the gospel is the final authority for all matters of Christian faith and practice I have intentionally coopted the formula traditionally applied to the Bible.[1] The church must look to the gospel and not to the Bible as the authoritative guide for the individual Christian and as the basis of unity within the Christian movement.

In this section we will:

  • Survey the failings of the Bible as the authoritative guide
  • Outline God’s intent for a scriptural use of Scripture
  • Make a biblical case for the gospel as our standard
  • Explore the practical implications of making the switch.  

The Bible won’t cut it.

Astute readers will instantly recognize the irony of the heading above. It’s common in Christian vernacular to refer to the Bible as a sword. We make the association based on a couple of iconic scriptures:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 NIV)

Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17 NIV)

“Word of God” in the Hebrews verse obviously refers to the Scriptures available to the author since he (or she) had been expounding Psalm 95 just prior. Paul in the Ephesian passage refers to something else since this preliterate Gentile church didn’t have access to a leather-bound volume they could wave around. That should be obvious at least to Bible scholars. As we will see not only does “word of God” refer to something else in Ephesians, none of the instances of its use in Paul’s writings refer to the Bible.
As nearly as we can tell, the passage in Hebrews is the only place in the New Testament where Scripture (not including the New Testament) is specifically called “the word of God.”

If this is the case (and we will prove that it is) why does every Christian everywhere immediately envision a gold-leafed volume whenever “word of God” is uttered? We contend that the association has come down from the Reformers and not from the apostles. Not only is the doctrine of sola scriptura[2] unbiblical (ironically) it’s also destructive.

The letter kills

It has been said that rules were made to be broken. To that maxim I would add, “And it doesn’t matter who made them.” Far from being a sin deterrent, Paul describes God’s law as “the power of sin.”[i] He unpacks that shocking statement in Romans 7 where he describes three different laws weaving us into a web of sinful behavior. The law of sin is an innate rebellious tendency residing within each person. The law of sin becomes activated when it encounters the law of God. The law of God on one hand and the law of sin on the other pull the person in two. The inner self longs to be righteous but fallen physical person craves what is now forbidden. It seems that the writers of the New Testament conceived of death was the separation of body from spirit.[ii] So Paul aptly calls this personal disintegration “the law of death.” At the end of the chapter the tension forces Paul to cry out, “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”

As Paul repeatedly reminds his readers in Romans 7, there was nothing wrong with God’s law except who it was addressed to. And yet the repeated violation of God’s law was no indication that it had been given in vain. According to Romans 5:20a “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase.” It doesn’t seem that God has ever been a moralist, but that he will even incite sin for a higher purpose:

But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20b-21 NIV)

Grace doesn’t mitigate sin; it converts it to more grace. And having in desperation come for grace we find freedom from sin’s grip. Since the law is the power of sin, God’s grace breaks that power through this truth, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1 NIV)

These dynamics of sin, law, and death aren’t specific to the Torah. It’s not the content of the law but the nature of law that awakens sin and kills the sinner.[iii] We affirm that Scripture comes from God and is good, but that it can become deadly when used to produce a litany of religious rules.

While Protestant and evangelical traditions insist that salvation is by grace through faith apart from works, they’ve continued to formulate behavioral prescriptions from Bible passages. The church might agree that “There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,” but not with the basis of that confidence which was:

All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. (1 Corinthians 10:23 NASB95)

The church’s tendency to retain the Bible as a legal standard appears in the way the above verse is rendered in the NIV.[3]

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.

Since nothing in the Greek text indicates a need for quotation marks around any part of this verse and with no Greek analogue to “you say” there must be some other reason why these additions were made to this translation.[iv] It seems obvious that it was to steer readers away from an antinomian reading of Paul. At yet, in so far as law is defined as written rules, Paul was antinomian. The gospel of grace cannot coexist with any written code.

How ironic that the church has turned Paul’s letters into the very thing he abhorred.

I have the right to do anything—but not everything is beneficial. I have the right to do anything—but not everything is constructive.

Much disputing

Nobody fully understands the Bible. We should, and do, suspect anyone who claims to. The church has spent two millennia collecting, rejecting, losing, canonizing, translating, updating, studying, and expositing a collection of writings by various authors we relate to less and less with the passage of time. While various attempts have been made to affirm the utility of Scripture because of divine aid, nobody has called off the interpretive enterprise citing the achievement of complete understanding. We find this dynamic among literary and even legal scholars, but their texts don’t carry the weight of divine authority. If the Bible is God’s standard, we don’t get to get it wrong and yet we’ve yet to get it right.

Since no one understands the Bible, no two people understand it exactly alike. If we really treated the Bible as our sole standard no congregations could exist because each person would find all others out of compliance with his or her interpretation. Unity among Christians only exists where the Bible has come under some other authority whether or not the group admits it. Denominations are built not on the Bible but on Bible interpreters. Historically, the more actual authority a group delegates to Scripture the less cohesive it becomes.[4]

It’s good that the Bible prohibits using the Bible as our standard since it also commands us to be unified.[v] According to Paul, the removal of a legal code was a precondition to unity among God’s redeemed people:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. (Ephesians 2:13-15a NIV)

It’s easy for the modern Christian to read this text and casually agree that requirements like circumcision needed to be removed to allow Gentiles to join Israel, but circumcision was no mere tradition or cultural phenomenon. Genesis 17 unequivocally decrees that uncircumcised males must be excluded from God’s people. If Scripture can be set aside for unity in one place, by what rationale do we make Scripture the arbiter of unity in another?

From the time Christians started treating the Bible as their supreme authority it has stood in the way of unity. The Colloquy of Marburg[vi] poignantly demonstrates the Bible’s ability to divide God’s people. Held just 12 years after Luther nailed up his 95 Theses, this meeting aimed at resolving a doctrinal difference over the unity feast of Christ – the eucharist. Martin Luther and Huldrich Zwingli were called together by German nobility to consolidate their respective reform movements. Of the 15 points of doctrine to be discussed at the colloquy, 14 were summarily accepted by both camps. On the 15th issue, the significance of communion, Luther chose “biblical authority” over his brother. With the New Testament as with the Old, the letter still kills, and the law still divides.


“Obey the Gospel” corrections:

In this episode, Nathan made up some statistics on the spot regarding mandatory drug sentencing for crack cocaine vs. cocaine powder. Here are the correct statistics:

The U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which allocated $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs and established a series of “mandatory minimum” prison sentences for various drug offenses. A notable feature of mandatory minimums was the massive gap between the amounts of crack and of powder cocaine that resulted in the same minimum sentence: possession of five grams of crack led to an automatic five-year sentence while it took the possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger that sentence. Since approximately 80% of crack users were African American, mandatory minimums led to an unequal increase of incarceration rates for nonviolent Black drug offenders, as well as claims that the War on Drugs was a racist institution.

“War on Drugs,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online

“Obey the Gospel” Footnotes:

[1] Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 3: “What is the Word of God?” Answer: “The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.”

[2] We understand that there are differences in the way various traditions define this doctrine, but we use it to refer to the belief that the Bible is the final authority by which all others must be evaluated.

[3] We don’t mean to pick on the NIV. It’s our preferred translation. But since it is recent and applies a functional equivalence method of translation, it sometimes displays the biases of contemporary biblical scholars.

[4] The “American Restoration Movement” grew out of the proposition that all human authority should be rejected in favor of a simple reading of Scripture. It immediately splintered into over 60 factions.


References:

[i] 1 Corinthians 15:56

[ii] James 2:26

[iii] 2 Corinthians 3:6

[iv] The NIV makes the same modifications in a parallel passage – 1 Corinthians 6:12

[v] Romans 15:5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 2:1-2

[vi] https://www.britannica.com/event/Colloquy-of-Marburg

Multiple Personality Design – DDWJWD Part4

Even if millions of Jesus clones could somehow produce a functioning society, his example would still fail to address the vast array of choices and experiences even within the life of one individual. Consider this admittedly-hard-to-follow quote from the singular mind of John Oman:

But, when we imagine that we can finally direct our lives by mere imitation of the life of Christ, we fall into a misleading and distracting encyclopedic estimate both of Christ’s life and our own. How, we are asked, can the life of Jesus have been perfect? Was He interested in art? Did He concern Himself about public service? Are we in our complex time to have no other interests than sufficed for His simpler age? And then we find that many interests which have nourished themselves from His spirit, are ruled out by His example.¹

We just don’t have enough information in the Gospels about the life of Christ nor did the life of Christ encompass enough experience for it to serve as a pattern to shape the behavior of every believer. This flaw would besmirch the wisdom of God if it were not for one glorious fact – God wants each of his children to be a unique individual and not a Jesus clone.

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Have you ever seen one of those families where every member favored every other? When you see one of them out in public away from the rest of them, you know immediately that they must belong with that family. Yeah, we’re not those people. My wife and I look different from each other and I suppose that has resulted in all our kids looking pretty different from each other. Not only do they all look different, but they all also act differently. My two sons especially differ from each other as much as any two people anywhere in the world. One likes to be clean, the other likes to get dirty. One likes to build; the other likes to destroy. One can be gentle to a fault; the other would pick a fight with Leroy Brown.

We love both of our sons. We love the things that make them unique. We’d never want the younger one to be more like the older one or vice versa. We like their differences. God’s that way too.

Every person is unique and that’s a good thing. A cursory observation of creation reveals God’s desire for diversity. Belief in creation colors our worldview to value the whole spectrum of human variation. When God crafted beings to bear his image on this planet he made them diverse:

So God created mankind in his own image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27 emphasis mine NAW)

When we use the word, “image,” we often mean something like, “exact likeness,” such as with software, in photography, or when we say, “That boy is the spitting image of his father.” God’s image, though, must be expressed through variety. Perhaps that’s because part of the character of God is a love for diversity. God began humankind with diversity and has tended to our growth as a species to produce further diversity. As a case in point, consider this excerpt from Paul’s sermon to the Athenians:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. “For in him we live and move and have our being.” As some of your own poets have said, “We are his offspring.” (Acts 17:26-28)

In other words, God orchestrated racial, ethnic, and cultural differences between people because he’s big enough for all his children to find him in their own way.

Please don’t misunderstand; I’m not espousing pluralism any more than Paul did. In context, Paul used this truth about God’s superintending the diversification of humans to affirm that he can’t be worshipped through idolatrous practices. God loves diversity, but it doesn’t follow that he loves everything. The point remains, God’s children come in all shapes, sizes, preferences, and propensities.

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The life of Jesus as recorded in the four Gospels can’t possibly accommodate these differences. When we encourage people to reproduce the life of a thirty-something, male, Jewish, carpenter-turned-itinerant-preacher, we promote uniformity over diversity. Nothing could be further from the message of Scripture or the gospel.

I used to host a Meetup for religious defectors. One time I asked an atheist ethnic Jew what made him abandon his faith. He told me that he was born with mild cerebral palsy and that as a child he had to go through eight hours per day of intensive therapy. To maintain their existence and his therapy, his parents recruited strangers from the community to come into the home and help him a day at a time. He explained, “As I’ve thought about all of those people who gave up their time to help a stranger, I realized that good people come from all kinds of backgrounds. I just couldn’t accept that we Jews could be God’s chosen people when there were so many good non-Jews in the world.”

I responded, “It’s interesting that you say that because I was just reading in Joshua 5 where Joshua meets ‘The Commander of the Lord’s Armies’ and he asks him, ‘Are you for us or for our enemies.’ Now, if I was writing a tribal narrative about how the Jews are better, I would have had the angel respond, ‘For you,’ but that’s not how it goes. Instead, The Commander says, ‘Neither.’”

At that point, a young lady who was also an atheist, but former Baptist, let out an audible gasp. She did not expect that response either. Critics of the Bible want to cast it as dogmatic and racist, but nothing could be further from the truth. God didn’t institute the nation of Israel, so everyone could convert to Judaism; his work with that race had the redemption of all nations as its aim.²

This doctrine of diversity becomes nonsensical if we must hold up one expression of human life as the gold standard. How can we do what Jesus would do by leaving baby penises in their natural state or by working on Saturday or by eating pork? These issues divided the early church, but the apostles all came down on the side of diversity.³

God created humans in diverse forms. Then he orchestrated the development of humanity to produce a myriad of expressions. Then, he called people in a variety of circumstances to reflect his image within those circumstances. Not only didn’t he require them to become Jews, he also didn’t require them to change much of anything except for their self-reliance. Consider Paul’s counsel to those in Corinth:

Nevertheless, each person should live as a believer in whatever situation the Lord has assigned to them, just as God has called them. This is the rule I lay down in all the churches. Was a man already circumcised when he was called? He should not become uncircumcised. Was a man uncircumcised when he was called? He should not be circumcised. Circumcision is nothing and uncircumcision is nothing. Keeping God’s commands is what counts. Each person should remain in the situation they were in when God called them.
Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so. For the one who was a slave when called to faith in the Lord is the Lord’s freed person; similarly, the one who was free when called is Christ’s slave. You were bought at a price; do not become slaves of human beings. Brothers and sisters, each person, as responsible to God, should remain in the situation they were in when God called them. (1 Corinthians 7:17-24)

It’s hard to imagine clearer instructions not to do what Jesus did than this one. Paul asserts that God endorses our circumstances when he calls us in them. Gone are the days of leaving nets and abandoning occupations to follow an itinerant preacher. Now, God wants to demonstrate his redeeming power in husbands, wives, Jews, Gentiles, accountants, doctors, IT professionals, technicians, and even lawyers.

God wants everyone to be conformed to the image of his Son, but that image cannot be confined to the life of one man who never married or raised children and died before reaching middle age. Christ requires that those who come to him lay down their life, but only so he can give it back redeemed and released to fully shine in all its unique hues.


Footnotes:

  1. Oman, John. Grace and Personality (Kindle Locations 2872-2876). Kindle Edition.
  2. Deuteronomy 4:5-8; Isaiah 49:5-6
  3. Acts 11:1-18; 15:1-35