Be Free or Be Evil

Faith Recovery Podcast
Faith Recovery Podcast
Be Free or Be Evil

In “Be Free or Be Evil” the Three Failed Pastors discuss the potential of the elementary principles of the world to unleash untold evil.

Stanley Milgram’s experiments on obedience demonstrated, “the capacity for man to abandon his humanity…into the larger institutional structures.” In other words, when we must be free or be evil. So, Christ died to set us free.

In our previous episode, we discussed the role of law as both a facilitator of the elementary principles of the world and as a limiter of their potential for harm. This week, we’ll consider what happens when the elementary principles come under the control of wicked people.

“Be Free or Be Evil” Episode Notes:

Laws are supposed to mitigate corruption, but they frequently serve it.

I recently read about how Johnson and Johnson created a dummy company to absorb losses from a class action suit related to asbestos in their talcum powder products. Once that company was formed it filed chapter 11 bankruptcy nullifying the hundreds of millions of dollars in judgments against Johnson and Johnson. Consequently, thousands of women suffering from ovarian cancer and mesothelioma received zero compensation from the company. This whole maneuver was entirely legal.

Laws exist because people are inherently corrupt and yet it’s people who write, interpret and enforce laws. The best any legal system can do is stop more corruption than it facilitates. Even a law given by God becomes corrupt through human handling. Matthew 23 depicts Jesus barraging the teachers of the Mosaic law with a series of indictments. We saw the one about their being “whitewashed walls” earlier. Here’s another one:

“Woe to you, blind guides! You say, ‘If anyone swears by the temple, it means nothing; but anyone who swears by the gold of the temple is bound by that oath.’  You blind fools! Which is greater: the gold, or the temple that makes the gold sacred?”

(Matthew 23:16-17 NIV)

Why would someone stipulate which oaths are binding and which are not? I can think of no other reason than to deceive someone into thinking you’re dealing with them honestly when you’re not. So, the teachers of God’s law used it to sanction fraud. Those who learned this doctrine would not only have continued shady dealings but done so under the presumption of divine endorsement. How much harder would it have been to call such a person to repentance? Back to the example of Johnson and Johnson, how many of those executives salved their conscience with the justification that their actions were legal?

The elementary principles don’t just endorse personal corruption, they also breed it.

Authority and conformity are the means to power and the pursuit of power tends to corrupt. Proud people think they know best, and they come to feel entitled and/or compelled to bring their inferiors in line. Once they’ve begun to pursue power, they find the path littered with moral compromise. By the time they can influence the actions of other people they’ve become masters of coercion and manipulation. Power and corruption have correlated throughout human history.

Under the elementary principles, people are capable of anything.

Paul confessed that in his pre-converted life he’d served human authority and cultural conformity under the guise of religion. Rather than falling in behind God’s Messiah, he became his enemy. His own recap bears repeating here:

For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers.

(Galatians 1:13-14 NIV)

I imagine Saul of Tarsus as he fasted for three days in Damascus[ii] asking, “How did this happen?” According to Galatians 1, his answer emerged, “Because I was seeking to please people. Never again!”

If a deeply pious, conscientious Jew like Saul of Tarsus was capable of mass murder, where does that leave the rest of us? Conformists and rule-followers will conscientiously exterminate their fellow humans under the right circumstances. When laws are civil and society polite, we often fail to recognize our own moral bankruptcy. We retweet a virtuous-sounding platitude and pat ourselves on the back. We work hard, pay our taxes, and keep to ourselves, so we celebrate our status as societies contributing members. None of these actions say one word in favor of our real moral fiber. All that is needed for evil to triumph is for evil to move slowly or for it to appear as the only solution in a time of crisis. Once evil has passed into law it will quickly become a necessary evil and almost everyone will participate.

We must be free to become good. When we do good under external influence, it no longer counts as good. The person who does good under external influence will just as easily do evil under the same master.

I’ve quoted a lot of Bible verses to make my case here, but the moral hazards of serving the elementary principles are plain to the observant eye. About the transition in his subjects from moral individuals to agents of evil Stanley Milgram notes:

Specifically, the person entering an authority system no longer views himself as acting out of his own purposes but rather comes to see himself as an agent for executing the wishes of another person.[iii]

Milgram goes on to term this transition, “the agentic shift.” He goes on to discuss its moral implications:

The most far-reaching consequence of the agentic shift is that a man feels responsible to the authority directing him but feels no responsibility for the content of the actions that the authority prescribes. Morality does not disappear but acquires a radically different focus: the subordinate person feels shame or pride depending on how adequately he has performed the actions called for by the authority.[iv]

In his epilogue to the book, Milgram allows himself a philosophical analysis of his findings. His words speak poignantly of the need for each person to be set free from the elementary principles of the world:

Men do become angry; they do act hatefully and explode in a rage against others. But not here. Something far more dangerous is revealed: the capacity for man to abandon his humanity, indeed, the inevitability that he does so, as he merges his unique personality into the larger institutional structures.

This is a fatal flaw nature has designed into us, and which in the long run gives our species only a modest chance of survival.

What is the limit of such obedience? At many points we attempted to establish a boundary. Cries from the victim were inserted; they were not good enough. The victim claimed heart trouble; subject still shocked him on command. The victim pleaded to be let free, and his answers no longer registered on the signal box; subjects continued to shock him.

The results, as seen and felt in the laboratory, are to this author disturbing. They raise the possibility that human nature, or – more specifically – the kind of character produced in American democratic society, cannot be counted on to insulate its citizens from brutality and inhumane treatment at the direction of malevolent authority.[v]

Milgram, as disturbed as he was by his findings, offers no solutions in his book. His work only served to raise an alarm that to my knowledge has yet to be heeded in any way.[vi] Nearly 2000 years before Milgram, Saul of Tarsus saw this capacity for brutality in himself. He became aghast at it and at himself in the blinding light of Jesus. He knew he needed to be saved and he knew exactly what from.

Our choices come down to be free or be evil.

Milgram’s findings and Saul’s reveal the destructive ramifications of living under the elementary principles of the world. Saul’s example further demonstrates the enslaving and corrupting potential of religious belief. People already abdicate their humanity to authority and conformity, but those effects become more pronounced when the supposed authority is divine, and conformity is to a holy norm. I think the apostle Paul would have wholeheartedly agreed with this quote from the late Christopher Hitchens:

Violent, irrational, intolerant, allied to racism and tribalism and bigotry, invested in ignorance and hostile to free inquiry, contemptuous of women and coercive toward children: organized religion ought to have a great deal on its conscience.[vii]

Mr. Hitchens’s words point more clearly to the human need for salvation than any I’ve heard from most pulpits on Sunday morning. Hitchens blamed religion for what Milgram demonstrated to arise from human nature. No doubt religion often intensifies those corrupting influences. But that observation proves the human inability to escape the corrupt society even through our loftiest pursuits.


[i] Article on Johnson and Johnson lawsuit.

[ii] Paul’s conversion story from Acts 9:1-19

[iii] Milgram p.133

[iv] IBID p.145-146

[v] Excerpts from Milgram p.188-189

[vi] A similar study in 2009 confirmed Milgram’s findings

[vii] God is Not Great

Free Association – Galatians 1:1-2

Let’s do a little word association. When I say, “Christian,” what word pops into your head? I’d be willing to pay $20 to anyone who can honestly say that they associated “Christian” with “subversive.” If your first word was “conservative,” “fundamentalist,” “rightwing,” or the like, you can send me $20. In America, Christians institutions work to defend “traditional values.” But that’s not the ancient faith. It’s something else – something tame and malignant.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against “values.” It’s the “traditional” that betrays Christ with a kiss.

Everyone knows that Jesus was a subversive, but we assume that his opponents were to blame. Jesus didn’t like hypocrites and he called them out, isn’t that right? Aren’t you glad that you’re not a hypocrite like those Pharisees? I know I am. Surely if you and I were in power at the time of Christ he would have used his carpentry skills to build more tables for our merchants and money changers.

No, I’m not a revolutionary.

I’m an expositor…of something revolutionary.

This is the first installment in my exposition of Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Stick it to the man…and all the rest of y’all!

Paul, an apostle—sent not from men nor by a man, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father, who raised him from the dead

Galatians 1:1 (NIV)

Apostles represent.

Paul introduced himself as a representative first and foremost. He did that a lot in his greetings. This one is different from the others in couple of ways.

He begins by telling them who he didn’t represent. If Christ himself met me on the road to Damascus (or any road for that matter) and made me his emissary I would lead with that. I’d get some business cards made up and maybe a badge of some sort. Paul didn’t discount his position as Christ’s apostle, but in this particular instance, he distanced himself from any human influence before giving his credentials. Why would he need to do this?

As we unpack this letter, his reasons will become clear, but at this point it’s important to observe that a person can claim a divine office while representing a human institution. The most notable example would be the pope. He may be known as the vicar of Christ, but he’s appointed by a conclave through a majority vote. The pope might write a letter and sign it as the apostle of Christ, but he can’t legitimately add, “and not of men.”

Paul didn’t just include such a disclaimer, he led with it.

He not only led with it, he repeated it. Notice the seeming redundancy – “not from men nor by a man.” Why couldn’t he have just said, “not from men,” and left it at that? Wouldn’t “men,” include any particular “man.” Did he repeat for emphasis? If so, I think I would have phrased it, “not from any man or even all men.” No, I think there’s something more here.

Paul didn’t repeat himself; he just got really specific. “Not from men nor a man,” would only be redundant if “men” and “man” referred to essentially the same thing. As we continue through this letter, we’ll see that they refer to two separate, but related forces – conformity and authority.

In saying that he wasn’t sent “from men,” Paul declared his office free from the influence of humans as a group. Whatever Paul was doing rose above, and, when necessary, defied social pressure. Herodotus was right that custom is king, but 500 years later, Paul declared that king dethroned.

And custom wasn’t the only king that Paul disavowed.

At the writing of Galatians, the Roman Empire spanned from Spain in the west to Syria in the east, from Britain in the north to Ethiopia in the south.

The people within those borders lived, worked, and traded under the dictates of one man, Caesar. How could one man control the conduct of millions?


A cynic might have answered, “armies,” but armies operate on authority in even higher concentrations. Think of the drill sergeant hurling verbal abuse at squad of armed fighting men. Authority keeps these men, any of whom could end the sergeant on the spot, in line. Literally.

Whether in the case of a sergeant, a Caesar, or a CEO, authority doesn’t depend on numbers like conformity. When Karen wants compliance, she doesn’t rally the cashier’s coworkers; she demands to speak with the manager. Every human institution operates on authority and authority is wielded by individuals.

In saying that he was not the representative of “a man,” Paul severed any connection between his office and any human authority.

Eleven words into his letter (eight in Greek) Paul knocked out the two props which have supported civilization for millennia. Nobody wants to think of themselves as a conformist, but without conformity we wouldn’t be able to anticipate the actions of others or conduct ourselves successfully in social situations. We might resent authority, but we’re probably glad that interpersonal disputes get solved in courtrooms rather than through armed conflicts in the streets. Now, here’s Paul disavowing cultural conformity and human authority.

Talk about subversive!

A better offer

If I told you that I got a letter in the mail today, you might ask who it was from. What if I told you it wasn’t from anyone? You might be confused. The very idea of receiving something in the mail implies a sender. So did the notion of apostleship. To be an apostle was to be sent. Paul began by excluding any sort of human sender, but that doesn’t mean nobody sent him.

He goes on in Galatians 1:1 to say that he was sent, “by Jesus Christ and God the Father…”

There’s been some dispute over the past 150 years or so about whether the earliest Christians thought of Jesus as God or whether that idea was syncretized from pagan sources and later adopted at the Council of Nicaea. Let me submit this phrase as exhibit “A” in the case for an early understanding of Christ’s divinity. Paul, writing around 55 CE, didn’t see Jesus as just a great man. He said that he wasn’t sent by a man, but by Jesus Christ.

Not only does he distinguish Jesus from human authorities, Paul associates Jesus with God. The two “persons” sent Paul together. He wasn’t sent by God through Jesus, but by Jesus and God. That God would do anything in partnership with someone else has serious theological implications. The Qur’an insists that such a thing could never happen:

Allah forgiveth not that partners should be set up with Him; but He forgiveth anything else, to whom He pleaseth; to set up partners with Allah is to devise a sin Most(sic) heinous indeed.

Surah 4:48 (Al-Qur’an English Edition. Islamic Studies Press.

According to the Qur’an, Paul has committed the unpardonable sin and he’s not even completed his greeting. This would be true if Jesus were not God, but he is.

Paul’s apostleship stood above the purview of all human authority because it sprung from divine authority. Every child knows that you can only resist authority through another authority. If mom said you can’t go with your friends, ask dad and vice versa. In that case, the other authority may not outrank the first one, so freedom may not be achieved. The legal system defines levels of authority, and so a prisoner may be released by appealing to a higher court. Authority trumps authority. Paul’s apostleship was free from human authority because it was based on the ultimate authority.

This may not sound like liberation at first blush. We’re conditioned to think that God’s standards are more stringent and his retribution more certain than any human authority. That would be true if God’s kingdom operated on the same mechanisms as human authority. As we will see, while there had been a system like that in place, it has been outmoded. We get a clue as to the nature of this better system from the little word, “and.” Remember, Paul wasn’t sent by God, but by Jesus Christ and God the Father.

The ground of all being is a Partnership. Dictators, despots and tyrants rule alone, but God has never been alone. We might think of the whole enterprise of creation and redemption as the Eternal Partnership looking to take on new members. While membership implies obligations, it also, as they say, has its privileges. Partners share responsibility and authority. We pray because we’ve been authorized under divine authority. From within this partnership, we experience God’s supreme authority as final permission to break with the social contract and take the better offer.

But what happens when human authority won’t defer to the divine?

Reversed rulings

Painting by Jan van ‘t Hoff on Click on photo to view his site.

Jesus exemplified free living under God. He also demonstrated the price of such living in a world still controlled by human power structures. Among all of the glorious messages reverberating from the passion of Christ is this truth: “God won’t stop human authorities from enforcing their rule however they see fit.”

So, how can he expect us to live above their control?

The answer lies in the last phrase of Galatians 1:1, “…who raised him from the dead.”

God doesn’t prevent evil deeds. To do so would only delay and perhaps amplify further evil. Instead, he converts them. If Jesus was who Paul said he was then the crucifixion was the nadir of human evil. First light on the third day would reveal that act to be the righteousness of God. Conquerors forcefully subjugate the will of others. Christ did more than conquer.

Following him means we must do the same.

Consider these familiar words from Romans 8:

Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?  As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;

we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

Romans 8:35-37 (NIV)

It has been said that freedom isn’t free. Unfortunately, we’ve come to expect that someone else will pick up the tab, whether that be a soldier on foreign soil or Christ himself on the cross. Paul would have repudiated that thinking. In saying that he’d not been sent by a man, he understood that he was obligated to live in the costly freedom which Christ has purchased. Those of us who’ve been redeemed by the Lamb must also be counted as sheep to be slaughtered.

At this point, you might be tempted to look for freedom on your own terms. It’s not out there. Remember, there are two controllers of human behavior – authority and conformity.

On earth as in heaven

People who dodge authority find themselves conforming to a counter culture. When I was in high school, you could pick out the “partiers” by how they talked and dressed. Their behavior in some ways defied authority, but it was still bound to the group. From my brief foray among their ranks, I remember how they used certain language to encourage group loyalty. For instance, nobody was to use the phrase, “go straight,” regardless of context. If you were giving someone directions and used the phrase to mean, “don’t turn here,” members of the group would emphatically recite the motto, “Don’t go straight; go forward!” It was a tacit way of saying, “If you give up partying, we’ll disown you.” Counter cultures can even become more oppressive than the mainstream.

Ironically, when counter cultures become large and powerful enough, they always develop their own authority structures and codes of conduct such as in the case of gangs and criminal syndicates.

The human condition comes bundled with authority and conformity. There’s nowhere among other people that we can go to escape these two controlling forces. I think this has been the appeal of monasticism. People disappear into the desert to “find themselves” or to silence the demands of society so they can find enlightenment or nirvana or something esoteric. This isn’t a bad thing, so long as its temporary. The great weakness of the monastic path in my opinion is that it doesn’t readily translate into concern for other people or action on their behalf. Surely, we’ve not found the best version of ourselves if the person we find is self-centered. For freedom to be worth pursuing, it mustn’t become an end in itself. We become free to become truly good and we become truly good for the sake of others.

We must become free from our community to become good, but we become good to contribute to our community.

This brings me to the next verse in Paul’s letter.

 and all the brothers and sisters with me,

To the churches in Galatia:

Galatians 1:2 (NIV)

This letter wasn’t sent from an individual, but from a family – Paul and his siblings. In the previous section, I said that we’ve been invited into an Eternal Partnership, but that was only part of the picture. If you were as astute, you noticed that Paul has already described God as “the Father.” Jesus Christ and God the Father partnered in the sending of Paul, but that partnership is also a family. To join the Eternal Partnership, we must be adopted into the Eternal Family.

To accept God’s invitation into his family is to join an alternative society. We are the “called out” also known as “the church.” The letter to the Galatians is a letter from Paul and his spiritual siblings (i.e. the church) to others in their spiritual family, the churches of Galatia.

Just as the authority of Jesus Christ and God the Father supersedes that of human rulers, so the culture of the church supersedes human cultures. We’re free from cultural conformity because we’ve joined a new society with its own norms. Because this society is God’s family, those norms spring from each person’s essential nature with infinite room for personal expression.

Maybe the best way to summarize what I’ve said so far is to say that Paul introduced himself as a representative of a regime that commands its subjects to be free and of a culture where the norm is personal authenticity.

That may sound like a lot to get from two verses. The only way to know whether I’m just making all of this up, will be to explore the rest of the letter.

What Would Jesus Don’t – DDWJWD Part 5

Of course, there’s about as much danger of everybody “doing what Jesus would do” as there is of everybody Wanging Chung. Jesus was an outlier even in his day. Really doing what Jesus would do would require everyone to quit their jobs, spend forty days in wilderness prayer and fasting, preach itinerantly trusting God for provisions, heal the sick, cast out demons, raise the dead, lambast the religious establishment, train a small band of followers, forego marriage, live homeless, the list goes on. If you’re a Christian, sit down right now and try to count how many people you know who’ve just chosen singleness for the kingdom. One such person was the late singer, Rich Mullins. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he wrote a song titled, “Hard.”


I love the person I read about in the New Testament. The depiction of his lifestyle of poverty and community compels me. I can’t live that way, though, without neglecting the people I’m supposed to love. I suppose I could “junk it all, but Jesus,” but then, what would he have me do but love those around me? Don’t get me wrong, I believe that we must “hate”¹ our families for his sake, but that doesn’t mean every person should abandon his or her responsibilities to preach about the kingdom.

Such a requirement seems to fly in the face of the rest of the Bible. Jesus left his family in Nazareth to preach about the kingdom and then he left them for good by getting himself killed. His being “devoted to God” resulted in the neglect of his mother in her old age. At this point, Jesus’ example and his teaching come into conflict. Consider his rebuke of the Pharisees in Mark 7:9-13:

And he continued, “You have a fine way of setting aside the commands of God in order to observe your own traditions! For Moses said, ‘Honor your father and mother,’ and, ‘Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death.’ But you say that if anyone declares that what might have been used to help their father or mother is Corban (that is, devoted to God)— then you no longer let them do anything for their father or mother. Thus you nullify the word of God by your tradition that you have handed down. And you do many things like that.”

The apostle Paul had an even harsher rebuke for those who would attempt to live like Jesus instead of caring for their aging parents:

But if a widow has children or grandchildren, these should learn first of all to put their religion into practice by caring for their own family and so repaying their parents and grandparents, for this is pleasing to God. Anyone who does not provide for their relatives, and especially for their own household, has denied the faith and is worse than an unbeliever. (1 Timothy 5:4,8)

I don’t know about everyone else, but I’m not going to leave my family and live homeless if I find caveats like these in the Scriptures. Much less will I tell other people that they need to do such things. Exceptions like these leave the WWJD ethic up for interpretation. We know that we ought to follow Jesus but we’re not told which specific aspects of his life we must reproduce.

With implicit divine authority stripped away from Jesus’ example, people are left to decide just what WWJD looks like in practical application. WWJD comes to represent any moral code that a good percentage of our peers say reflects the essence of The Nazarene.


Image by John Hain from Pixabay


Charles Sheldon, the author of the book upon which the WWJD bracelets were predicated, answered the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” with acts of charity and social action. Not coincidentally, he ministered during the ascendancy of the “social gospel” movement which emphasized community development and poverty alleviation as Christian works. While no one would disagree with Sheldon’s motives, his application falls a bit short of the entire person of Christ. For instance, Christ taught about the end of the world and judgment – two topics that the social gospel tended to minimize.

The WWJD merchandizing fad took place in the nineties, a time when church leaders were pushing back against the lax discipleship of the church growth movement of the preceding decades. Ministries like Promise Keepers and True Love Waits ascended along with the WWJD fad. The church had failed to weave moral fiber into its revivals and crusades so we turned to parachurch and packaged programs to rehabilitate our atrophied souls. Honestly, we were less interested in whether Jesus would feed the poor and more interested in whether he’d go to an “R” rated movie or have sex with his girlfriend (spoiler – he didn’t watch movies or have a girlfriend).

According to Mike Freestone, co-creator of the first WWJD bracelets, “People wear them to keep a check on their lives and to witness to others.”²

It doesn’t take too much reading between the lines to recognize that the real question behind the embroidered letters, “WWJD,” was, “What Would Jesus Don’t?” This real question hiding behind the challenging, but impractical one on the surface, turned the exalted Lord of all into an invisible chaperone. The Jesus of the Gospels, whose life was far too alien to present to kids in youth ministry, got left out in favor of one crafted to look over shoulders either in approval or disapproval.

Unsurprisingly, a sociological study of over 3000 religious American youth in the early 2000s found that almost none of them espoused traditional Christian beliefs. Rather, they had come to adopt a system of doctrines which the authors of the study termed, “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism,” the tenets of which are listed as follows:

1. A God exists who created and orders the world and watches over human life on earth.
2. God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.
3. The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.
4. God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.
5. Good people go to heaven when they die.³

I know correlation doesn’t establish causation, but it doesn’t require too much of a stretch to find a connection between the replacement of “turn or burn” appeals with a culturally contingent slogan and the subsequent replacement of evangelical essentials with fuzzy moralism. It’s likely that asking “What would Jesus do?” has bred a non-Christian religion within our churches.


  1.  Luke 14:25-26
  2. “WWJD Products Inspire Thousands,” Christianity Today, November 17th, 1997.
  3. Smith, Christian. Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (p. 162). Oxford University Press. Kindle Edition.

The Bible on the Bible

“Hey, you’re dressed queer.”

I look over. The speaker is an elderly man, mid-70s I’d guess. He is tall and thin and is wearing of those caps that cabbies wore in movies from the Forties.
“You’re dressed queer,” he snarls. “Why you dressed so queer.” I have on my usual fringes, and, for good measure, have worn some sandals and am carrying a knotty maple walking stick I’d bought on the Internet for $25.
“I’m trying to live by the rules of the Bible. The 10 commandments, stoning adulterers…”
“You’re stoning adulterers?”
“Yeah, I’m stoning adulterers.”
“I’m an adulterer.”
“You’re currently an adulterer?”
“Yeah. Tonight, tomorrow, yesterday, two weeks from now. You gonna stone me?”
“If I could, yes, that’d be great.”
“I’ll punch you in the face. I’ll send you to the cemetery.”
He is serious. This isn’t a cutesy grumpy old man. This is an angry old man. This is a man with seven decades of hostility behind him.
I fish out my pebbles from my back pocket.
“I wouldn’t stone you with big stones,” I say. “Just these little guys.”
I open my palm to show him the pebbles. He lunges at me, grabbing one out of my hand, then chucking it at my face. It whizzes by my cheek.
I am stunned for a second. I hadn’t expected this elderly man to make the first move. But now there is nothing stopping me from retaliating. An eye for an eye.
I take one of the remaining pebbles and whip it at his chest. It bounces off.
“I’ll punch you right in the kisser,” he say.
“Well, you really shouldn’t commit adultery,” I say.
We stare at each other. My heart is racing.
Yes, he is a septuagenarian. Yes, he had just threatened me using corny Honeymooners dialogue. But you could tell: This man has a strong dark side.
Our glaring contest lasts ten seconds, then he walks away, brushing by me as he leaves.

This little vignette from A.J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically, hilariously highlights the impracticality of attempting to obey the Bible in our contemporary world.

As my own, less funny, experience with shutting down a church and trying to stay within the confines of the speed limit attest, following the letter of the New Testament isn’t any more tenable.

Following all the Bible’s instructions isn’t possible, but that’s okay because the Bible doesn’t expect us to.

While it contains rules, they weren’t written specifically to us. Yet, for some reason we’ve come to believe they were.

Our generalization of commands written to other people can be subjective and arbitrary too.

As a for instance, would you include, eating only meat that had first been drained of blood on a list of rules Christians should observe?


What about Acts 15:29 which says, “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals and from sexual immorality. You will do well to avoid these things”?

In context, these instructions are very clearly from a letter written as a specific response to a specific situation affecting a specific group of Christians living in a specific region of the world. Having the benefit of the backstory with the letter situated in a larger narrative, we instinctively know that those instructions weren’t given to us.

And yet, when we look at the greeting just a few verses earlier, it reads a whole lot like the other epistles to which we feel beholden, “The apostles and elders, your brothers, To the Gentile believers in Antioch, Syria and Cilicia: Greetings.”

If it’s an authoritative epistle written by a council of the Lord’s apostles, why don’t we afford it the same treatment as the other epistles? The only difference seems to be situational. Should this letter have survived outside the book of Acts and been collected with the others, I have no doubt that it would have been dubbed, “The Epistle to the Syrians,” or just “Syrians.” I also have no doubt that Christians would have been arguing throughout the past sixteen centuries as to just how much blood might be acceptable in a piece of meat.¹

While the epistles contain a trove of wonderful wisdom and commentary on the gospel, we must keep in mind that they are other people’s mail.

The authors of those letters indicate no inkling that they thought they were writing volume two of God’s book. Paul seems least of all aware that anyone would later compile his letters to include them in a canon of holy writ. Near the end of his life, he put his hope in the transferability of his simple message and manner of life rather than in the codification of his writings. In 2 Timothy 2:2 he wrote to his beloved protégé, “And the things you have heard me say in the presence of many witnesses entrust to reliable people who will also be qualified to teach others.” Not coincidentally, this also seems to have been Jesus’ method for perpetuating truth.²

To be fair, Peter does call the writings of Paul Scripture in 2 Peter 3:16. But what does that mean?

Let’s look at the designation in context to get an idea:

And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures. (2 Peter 3:15–16)

There it is. I agree that the writings we find in Matthew through Revelation are inspired, so I have no problem agreeing with Peter that the letters of Paul are Scripture. Under grace, “Scripture,” comes to fulfill a purpose different from the one it served under law. Whether we find it in the New Testament or the Old, Scripture provides wisdom. Paul proclaimed that regenerated people were under no obligation to follow the letter of the Torah, while also encouraging them to find Jesus in it. In the same way, we needn’t follow the letter of the New Testament, but must seek Jesus there.³

By including Paul’s writings along with “the other Scriptures,” Peter classifies them along with the books of the Old Testament like Deuteronomy. I’ve never been inclined to cook a young goat in its mother’s milk, but should the need arise, I am free to do so without pang of conscience. I can also pray with a hat on.

Under grace, we must treat all Scripture as wisdom literature.

Why? Because everything is lawful, but not everything is beneficial. Isn’t that what Paul said in 1 Corinthians 6:12 and 10:23?

Consider what Paul wrote about the value of the Hebrew Scriptures:

But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it, and how from infancy you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:14–17 emphasis mine NAW)

Just because the Torah no longer bound believers with the condemning power of a legal code didn’t mean it no longer had value. By the way, Paul didn’t pen these words in reference to any portion of the twenty-seven books we call the New Testament. In encouraging him to attend to the Scriptures he’d been raised on, Paul didn’t mean for Timothy’s conscience to be bound to its procedural dictates.

When we, as Peter did, acknowledge Paul’s writings as Scripture, we must treat them like Paul treated the Scripture he had in hand. To do anything else would be to violate Paul’s own intent since he himself said:

For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor. For through the law I died to the law, so that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose.(Galatians 2:18–21 ESV)

Had Paul meant for his writings to enslave those set free by the gospel, he would have been a transgressor according to his own words.

I don’t know what kind of awareness might be granted to those who’ve passed on, but if Paul knows that his words have been turned into a new law, he must be fuming. What’s more, those who handle Matthew through Revelation that way come under Peter’s indictment as those who’ve twisted the Scriptures.

Treating the Scriptures as a trove of divine wisdom actually will make us value them more. If we see the New Testament as a book of laws, all it can do is condemn us and divide us. From my previous experience, I know that people don’t go looking for more rules than the ones they’re already keeping. If we see it as a book of wisdom, we’ll pore over it time and again mining all of its beneficial insights.

On the other side of the coin, if we read something in the New Testament that our gospel-renewed minds know would not benefit our spiritual family or the cause of Christ in our day, then we’re beholden by the gospel to violate that instruction. While laws can be arbitrary, wisdom must stand the test of experience. Let that sink in a minute.

The church I serve with comes from a tradition which held very closely to the prohibitions against women speaking in the assembly of believers. Pauline passages such as 1 Corinthians 14:34–35 and 1 Timothy 2:11–15 seem to prohibit female participation in the public gathering of the church. While those passages might be interpreted otherwise, it takes a bit of work. Certainly, there might have been extenuating circumstances to which we’re not privy. That’s most likely the case, but even if Paul meant for all churches to silence their women until Christ returns, should we observe that restriction?

I don’t think so.

The intent of this sort of instruction seems to have been to provide procedural order in the churches to maximize mutual encouragement and to expedite the spread of the gospel. If we really are under a covenant of spirit and not the letter, then faithful treatment of these texts would require us to violate their particulars when they become discouraging and counterproductive.

We’re free to make that call because Matthew through Revelation isn’t our covenant. God wants us to obey the gospel. That’s why Jesus could hold up a cup at his last Passover and say, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood.” A bunch of letters collected and bound together over three hundred years later mustn’t be allowed to supersede the mandates implicit in the redemptive death and resurrection of Christ. We’re beholden to the gospel and the consequences for disobedience are dire.

You might be wondering how we can obey the story of Christ’s death, resurrection, and future return. I urge you to reread Paul’s epistles with a view toward taking note of places where he bases his instructions on the implications of the gospel. The gospel reveals the nature of things. It then becomes incumbent upon us to live accordingly.

Since we’ve been talking about it, let’s take a minute to apply gospel wisdom to gender roles in the church:

Proposition 1: Christ died for men and women alike.
Proposition 2: Women receive the same Holy Spirit as men.
Propositions 3: Our bodies are vessels for the one treasure inside everyone.
Proposition 4: Believers in Christ gather to encourage one another as the various gifts given through the Holy Spirit operate to distribute grace to every member.
Conclusion: Women and men alike should exercise their gifts for the building up of the church.

In addition to pragmatic concerns, the gospel mandates that we make no distinction between people. Paul himself expounded this truth in Galatians 3:28. The gospel ethic teaches equal treatment and opportunity for everyone, doesn’t it?

In a time when women serve as CEO’s and senators, following the letter of Paul’s letters has relegated the church to the cultural sidelines in a zone not unlike the one inhabited by the Amish. The living gospel must push through calcified notions even if they’re found in our own traditions because it’s alive.

Our human nature wants God to write an infallible book which will perfectly reveal his will to humanity.

Like Adam and Eve, we want to ingest something that will provide us the knowledge of good and evil. We’ve appointed the Bible to fill that role, but the Bible doesn’t exactly play along. The Bible speaks equivocally in both human and divine voice.

I believe the Qur’an was written to fill this human longing which the Bible left unmet.

Compare Surah 2:2–5 from the Qur’an…

This is the Book; in it is guidance sure, without doubt, to those who fear Allah. Who believe in the Unseen, are steadfast in prayer, and spend out of what We have provided for them; And who believe in the Revelation sent to thee, and sent before thy time, and (in their hearts) have the assurance of the Hereafter. They are on (true) guidance, from their Lord, and it is these who will prosper.

…with Luke 1:1–4:

Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

I know that the Bible contains sections which claim inspiration directly from God such as in the Old Testament prophets and the Revelation, but none of them endorse all sixty-six books. They don’t even seem to be aware of all of the other books in our canon.

Nothing within the biblical canon endorses or even acknowledges the canon. On the other hand, the Qur’an commends itself in its entirety as the revelation of God from the very beginning. The Bible might make similar claims of inspiration over various books or sections, but never will you find the equivalent of Surah 2:2–5 in the Bible. Nor will you find anything like Luke 1:1–4 in the Qur’an for that matter.

The Bible resists our expectations not because it cannot conform to them but because it means to change them.

The gospel that Paul preached from the Scriptures immediately liberated people from the code of law found in those same Scriptures. This just didn’t compute for many of his Jewish contemporaries and they tried to shut him up.

Some came into one of the first churches Paul had founded to teach that anyone who claims to be in covenant with the Jewish God must keep the law of Moses. They had, it seemed, the endorsement of Scripture on their side. That is, until Paul went further back to the very basis of God’s covenant with Israel, the call of Abraham:

So also Abraham “believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”
Understand, then, that those who have faith are children of Abraham. Scripture foresaw that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, and announced the gospel in advance to Abraham: “All nations will be blessed through you.” So those who rely on faith are blessed along with Abraham, the man of faith. (Galatians 3:6–9)

The Bible tells of a person who had a relationship with God but didn’t have a Bible. What’s more, that person is held up as the archetype for those who will come to God when the promised blessings come to pass. Paul wanted the Galatian believers to know that the time of prescriptive rules written in a text and predicated on punishment had been provisional.

We often see Abraham’s relationship with God as basic, with later revelation adding on that base. That’s not how Paul saw it, though. For him, that relationship was exemplary with later revelation being provisional until more people could experience an Abrahamic relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

God had called Paul to bring in the Gentiles through faith in Christ. For that to happen, they would need a relationship with God as simple and profound as Abraham’s was. The early church had no access to a copy of the Scriptures. They certainly couldn’t take one home to labor over using the inductive study method. What they knew of God, they learned not primarily from the Scriptures, but from what the writers of the New Testament called, “the word of God.”

Time and again throughout the book of Acts, Luke tells of how the word of God spread among a wide variety of people throughout the Roman Empire.⁴ But what was the word of God? Luke couldn’t have meant the contents of the Old Testament because that had already spread through the known world in the Jewish synagogues. It couldn’t have been the contents of the book we call the New Testament because that book resulted from the activity recorded in Acts. The “word of God” that spread over the known world over the span of about a generation was the proclamation about Jesus the Messiah.

That proclamation is the power of God to salvation⁵ which we experience by faith.


  1. The New Testament was canonized in the middle fourth century.
  2. Acts 1:8
  3. Romans 3:31; 15:4; 2 Corinthians 3:12–18; 2 Timothy 3:14–17
  4. Acts 4:4, 29–31; 6:2–7; 8:14–25; 10:36–44; 11:1, 19; 12:24; 13:5–7, 44–49; 14:25; 15:7, 35–36; 16:32; 17:11–13; 18:5, 11; 19:10, 20
  5. Romans 1:16

A Faith that Works – Chapter 2 Excerpt

A Faith That Works is an examination of the gospel as the tangible power of God to save. Many Christians would be hard pressed to articulate exactly in what way the gospel had affected them. The absence of demonstrable change has become so prevalent that we’ve actually found a biblical basis to explain it. This excerpt from what may or may not be chapter 2 of the book dismantles that basis to make way for the legitimate work of God.

I can think of no better evidence to support my case that the gospel of the western church has been rendered inert through mishandling than the prevalence of the belief that Paul meant to describe the normal Christian life in Romans 7. I can’t count the number of times a Christian has told me something like, “Yeah, we’re forgiven by grace but we’re still going to sin every day. I know I’m not as strong as Paul and he had things he couldn’t get over either. Just look at Romans 7.”

Really? Is that the best that the power of God can do? If faith in Christ left Paul “dead” and “wretched,” then what in the “H-E-double-hockey-sticks” did it do for him!?

Far from commiserating with faltering disciples, Paul wrote Romans 7 to depict the state of existence that the gospel saved him from. Through his attempts to conform to an external standard of righteousness, he became as “dead in transgressions and sins” as the pagan recipients of the Ephesian letter had been.

Compare the description from Ephesians 2:1-3 of their pre Christian state with his condition described in Romans 7:

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been dead in sin.
○ “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins,” (Eph. 2:1)
○ “Once I was alive apart from the law; but when the commandment came, sin sprang to life and I died. I found that the very commandment that was intended to bring life actually brought death.” (Rom. 7:9-10)

● Paul and the Ephesians had both been in bondage to evil desires.
○ “…in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts.” (Eph. 2:2-3a)
○ “We know that the law is spiritual; but I am unspiritual, sold as a slave to sin. I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.” (Romans 7:14-15)

● Paul and the Ephesians both had natures that were hostile to God.
○ “Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.” (Ephesians 2:3b)
○ “For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.” (Romans 7:18-19)

If we agree that Ephesians 2:1-3 describes the lost state and then say that Romans 7 describes the common Christian experience, then we imply that the gospel produces no significant practical results. If we’ve come to identify a Romans 7 experience as the result of the gospel, then it’s no wonder there’s so little difference between the lives of Christians and nonbelievers. No wonder so few churchgoers evangelize. No wonder so many kids raised in church leave the faith.

One Rule

When discussing morality and ethics, atheists are wont to say that they are actually more moral than theists because they do what is right because it is right, not out of fear of punishment or hope for a reward. While I will grant that higher morality transcends personal interest, I take exception with anyone, atheist or Christian, who depicts Christian morality in terms of rules enforced through threat or bribe.

The New Testament presents but one rule to govern the lives of Christ’s constituents.  The various biblical writers express it in different ways.  Here is my favorite expression of the one rule:

“Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation.  Peace and mercy to all who follow this rule—to the Israel of God.” (Galatians 6:15-16 NIV)

The problem with the “right for the sake of right” ethical formula is that it requires every adherent to be “right.”  Sadly, we’re not all right.  Many of us are very broken.  Sitting here right now I can’t think of anyone who has done wrong because it is wrong.  That being the case, how on earth could we ever expect that humans would ever on a large scale do what is right because it is right? 

Since we can’t count on others to do right, we’ll need to limit human behaviors through laws enforced by duly appointed officials.  Which means that people will do right because they fear punishment.  On an interpersonal level, we’ll need social norms and societal approval or censure to bring people into conformity.  In other words, humans will do what is acceptable in order to be accepted and not rejected – in order to gain reward or avoid punishment. 

Who can deny that these forces inhibit genuine individual liberty?  Given this complex set of incentives, who can claim high morality?  I submit that only genuine Christians are truly free and therefore truly moral.  They have been remade in the image of God demonstrated in the person of Jesus Christ.    In Christ ,doing and being have become one.  We have become whole.  Our behavior is driven by our inner life.  When human laws or expectation coincide with right we transcend those motives.  When they conflict, we defy them.  Followers of Christ observe the one rule, “the new creation.” 

Religious Unbelief

The Bible warns against unbelief but not against atheism per se.  How could the writers of the Scriptures have warned against atheism?  There weren’t any atheists.  I’ve heard commentators on a local Christian radio station aim Psalm 14:1 (“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”) at atheists.  Of course the implication becomes, “Atheists are fools.”  However, should you have met the 10th century B.C.E. Jewish citizen to which the psalmist referred, he would have confessed to a belief in the existence of God.  The psalmist was not saying that avowed atheists are fools.  He was saying that fools secretly (in their hearts) suppress their awareness of God.

So who are the fools?  The rest of Psalm 14 describes these religious unbelievers as those who elevate themselves by pushing others down.  Such people by their actions deny God as their source.  They may claim to believe that God exists, but they do not trust him to supply them with security, sustenance or self-worth.  They maneuver and manipulate to get for themselves what others have or might acquire.  Such people pray and attend religious services but they do not expect God to respond to their petitions.  Instead, they engage in these activities to further establish their superiority.

As a case in point, consider Jesus’ very telling question addressed to the religious elite of his day, “How can you believe since you accept glory from one another but do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?” (John 5:44 NIV)  These men who stood at the peak of the religious establishment of their day were unbelievers according to Jesus.  From their lofty perch they congratulated each other on their moral superiority and derided everyone else.  They traded genuine engagement with the Basis of their being for the illusion of relative worth.  Rather than find the favor of God, they fed on the “failures” of those whom they defamed.  “They devour my people as though eating bread; they never call on the LORD.” (Ps. 14:4b NIV)

Faith, real faith, is a foreign concept.  People will seek any alternative to humble reliance on God.  Each alternative counterfeits the genuine treasure of our existence.  The most dangerous counterfeits most closely resemble the genuine article.  Those who accept religious achievement as heavenly currency are among the most desperately deceived.  Beware religious unbelief.