Legalism Indulges the Sinful Nature (Bridges)

 “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free…. You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free” (Gal. 5:1; 13 NIV).  One awesome outcome of Christ’s death and resurrection is that we are free in Christ.  Now it is true that sometimes Christians flaunt their freedom by bragging about what kind of alcohol they drink or by using foul language.  People who flaunt their freedom actually lack love towards other Christians (Rom 14:15).

Alternatively, sometimes Christians go to the other extreme by living as if they are not free in Christ.  I appreciate how Jerry Bridges addresses this problem:

Despite God’s call to be free and his earnest admonition to resist all efforts to curtail it, there is very little emphasis in Christian circles today on the importance of Christian freedom.  Instead of promoting freedom, we stress our rules of conformity.  Instead of preaching living by grace, we preach living by performance.  Instead of encouraging new believers to be conformed to Christ, we subtly insist that they be conformed to our particular style of Christian culture.  Yet that’s the ‘bottom line’ effect of most of our emphases in Christian circles today.

…We are much more concerned about someone abusing his freedom than we are about his guarding it.  We are more afraid of indulging the sinful nature than we are of falling into legalism.  Yet legalism does indulge the sinful nature because it fosters self-righteousness and religious pride.  It also diverts us from the real issues of the Christian life by focusing on external and sometimes trivial rules.

Jerry Bridges, Transforming Grace, page 134.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015


Legalism, Love, and the Law

 One of my favorite shorter articles on Christian ethics is John Murray’s contribution simply called, “The Christian Ethic.”  At one point in this article he discussed how God’s law and love relate in Christian ethics.  He gave three specifics: The primacy of love, the priority in love, and the specific nature of the correlation of law and love.

The section I’ll post below made me think of legalism.  Legalists are very law-heavy and quick to judge others when it comes to the details of the law.  Legalists will quickly condemn Christians, preachers, books, Christian music, and so forth if these things do not measure up to their law-heavy and detailed standards.  Legalists are always upset with someone or something and they rarely encourage, help, or share the burden of those who are (in their eyes) inferior.  They are quick to complain and condemn, but slow to encourage and help.  I don’t think it is an overstatement to say this: the more legalistic a person is, the less he or she truly loves others.  The opposite is also true.

Here’s Murray’s discussion of the primacy of love in the law:

  1. Love is primary because only by love can the commandments be fulfilled.  Love is emotive, motive, impulsive, and expulsive.  It is emotive in that it constrains affection for its object, motive because it is the spring of action, impulsive because it impels to action, expulsive in that it expels what is alien to the interests of its object.  We know only too well what a grievous burden is formal compliance with commandments when there is no love.  Why is labor so distasteful, why so much heartlessness, and with heartlessness deterioration in quality and the mark of dishonesty on the product?  It is because there is no love.  Most tragic of all is the evidence of this in the highest of vocations [callings] and the discharge of the most sacred functions.  The apostle reminds us: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I surrender my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” [NASB].

This quote is found on page 178 of John Murray’s Collected Writings, page 178.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Making the Legalist in Us Squirm (Luther)

 Martin Luther’s comments on Galatians 4:3 will make the legalist in us squirm.  But they will also help explain what “Christ alone” means for the guilty conscience:

The law does tell me to love the Lord my God, but it does not enable me to do so or to lay hold of Christ.

I do not say this in order that the law should be despised; nor does Paul intend this. It should be held in great esteem. But because Paul here is dealing with justification, he has to speak of the law as something contemptible and odious, for justification is poles apart from the law. We cannot speak contemptuously enough of the law when we are dealing with this matter. When the conscience is in this conflict, therefore, it should think of nothing and know nothing except Christ alone. The law should be completely removed from sight, and the promise of Christ alone embraced. It is easy to say this, but in times of temptation, when the conscience is struggling with God, it is the hardest of all things actually to do. When the law accuses you, terrifies you, reveals to you your sin, threatens your soul with the wrath of God and eternal death, then you need strong faith in Christ, as if there had never been any law or sin, but only Christ, grace, and redemption. You need to be able to say, “Law, I will not listen to you. The time has come for me to be free, and I will not put up with your tyranny any longer.”

Martin Luther, Galatians, Crossway Classic Commentaries (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1998), 198.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

Taking the Sufficiency of Scripture Seriously (Murray)

 John Murray’s article, “The Finality and Sufficiency of Scripture” is a wonderful explanation of those twin biblical truths about Scripture.  One section of this article that I read today had some comments in it that are still applicable for us in our setting:

Here, I believe, we have too often made the mistake of not taking seriously the doctrine [of Scripture] we profess.” If Scripture is the inscripturated revelation of the gospel and of God’s mind and will, if it is the only revelation of this character that we possess, then it is this revelation in all its fulness, richness, wisdom, and power that must be applied to man in whatever religious, moral, mental situation he is to be found.  It is because we have not esteemed and prized the perfection of Scripture and its finality, that we have resorted to other techniques, expedients, and methods of dealing with the dilemma that confronts us all if we are alive to the needs of this hour.

Later Murray wrote,

..Let us learn from our tradition, let us prize our heritage, let us enter into other men’s labours; but let us also know that it is not the tradition of the past, not a precious heritage, and not the labours of the fathers, that are to serve this generation and this hour, but the Word of the living and abiding God deposited for us in Holy Scripture, and this Word as ministered by the church.  And we must bring forth from its inexhaustible treasures, in exposition, proclamation, and application what is the wisdom and power of God for man in this age in all the particularity of his need, as for man in every age.  There will then be commanding relevance, for it will be the message from God in the unction and power of the Spirit, not derived from the modern mentality, but declared to the modern mentality in all the desperateness of its anxiety and misery.

…Let us reassess the significance of Scripture as the Word of God and let us come to a deeper appreciation of the deposit of revelation God in his grace and wisdom has given unto us as the living Word of God, sharper than any two-edged sword, and let us know and experience its power in its sufficiency for every exigency of our individual and collective need, until the day dawn and the day-star arise in our hearts.

John Murray, Collected Writings, Vol. 1, p. 21-22.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015

Anonymous Persons in Mark’s Gospel (Bauckham)

 When you read through the Gospels you often find that certain people are not named.  For one of many examples, Matthew does not give us the name of the rich young man in 19:18.  Critics sometimes use these instances of anonymous persons to cast doubt upon the accuracy or veracity of the Gospels.  However, there are good reasons why the author of a text – or the author of a Gospel – would not name a person.  One reason, argues Richard Bauckham, is what some scholars call “protective anonymity,” which especially helps explain the anonymity in Mark’s Gospel.

For example, Mark doesn’t tell us who cut off the ear of the high priest’s servant during Jesus’ arrest.  Nor does Mark tell us the name of the young man who later fled from the scene naked after someone tried to grab him and pulled off his cloak (Mk 14:43-52).  Furthermore, Mark doesn’t tell us the name of the man who gave the disciples the colt that Jesus would ride on (11:1-7) and he doesn’t share the name of the woman who anointed Jesus (14:3-9).  Why doesn’t Mark name these people who were associated with Jesus and most likely his followers or strong sympathizers? One good answer to this question is “protective anonymity.”  That is, keeping these people anonymous would protect them from the harm and harassment of Jewish authorities.

The owner of the colt, for example, could have been arrested and charged if the Jewish authorities knew who he was.  Bauckham: “It may well be that Jesus… recognizes the danger and makes the arrangements in such a way that the owner need not be directly implicated by loaning the colt.  Mark’s narrative, with its curious avoidance of reference to the owner, indicates to readers that from this point on Jesus enters a danger zone in which he must employ caution and subterfuge ” (188).  Or consider the woman who anointed Jesus: “…This woman would have been in danger were she identified as having been complicit in Jesus’ politically subversive claim to messianic kingship.  Her danger was perhaps even greater than that of the man who attacked the servant of the high priest, for it was she who had anointed Jesus as Messiah” (190).

This isn’t an infallible explanation of why Mark didn’t name some people in his Gospel.  However, it is a very probable explanation, one that should be seriously considered.  Mark wrote early enough after Jesus’ death and resurrection that the Jewish leaders were still very upset about Jesus and his followers (cf. Acts 3-4).  If Mark had named everyone involved in Christ’s ministry, everyone who helped him or followed him, the Jewish leaders could have used Mark’s testimony against these people.  Perhaps if they had known the name of the woman who anointed Jesus, they would’ve harassed her and her family like they did the man who was born blind (Jn 9).  We can’t be 100% sure, but it is a very plausible reason for Mark to leave some people anonymous in his account of Jesus’ life.

This is a very brief summary of a longer argument that Bauckham makes in chapter 8 of Jesus and the Eyewitnesses (2nd edition).  You’ll have to get the book to dig into the details of this helpful discussion.

Richard Bauckham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses, chapter 8.

Shane Lems
Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC)
Hammond, WI, 54015


Christian Warfare and Depression (Welch)

 Satan and his wicked army often attack Christians and try to get us to believe lies.  Sometimes we believe the lies and our lives go downhill in various ways.  We stumble into sin, we hurt someone, we go through a period of depression, and the list goes on.  What do we do when Satan attacks us with lies and his other strategies?  Ed Welch gives some good direction on this topic:

…What happens in our lives when we simply say to Jesus, ‘Yes, I trust you,’ is that we also trust in his power to stand firm against Satan’s attacks.

  1. Remember you have an enemy.  Follow the lead of wise people who begin each day by actually saying, ‘Today, I must be alert that I have an enemy.’  Realize that you are walking where rebels are known to be in the area.  Their lives are devoted to your destruction.

  2. Assume that warfare rages.  Don’t even bother looking for signs of warfare.  Just assume that you are in the thick of it.  …Are you listening to wise counsel and Scripture? …Listening is a mark of humility, and Satan can’t successfully fight against it.

  3. Don’t think that your case is unique.  This popular lie questions God’s care: all sufferers are tempted to believe that their suffering is unique.  This lie immediately renders all counsel irrelevant because no one understands and no advice applies.  The result is that the aloneness you already experience is now an established fact, and you are given ever more permission to despair.

  4. Know Christ.  Satan’s energies zero in on one point: the truth about Jesus.  If you are growing in an accurate knowledge of Jesus Christ, you are winning the battle.

  5. Humble yourself before the Lord.  Humility is different from feeling low.  It is lowering ourselves before God, and accepting his sovereign will.  Humility says, ‘God owes me nothing.’  ‘He is not my servant; I am his.’  ‘God is God, and he has the right to do anything he wants.’

There is quite a bit more to Welch’s discussion, especially as he relates it to depression in the Christian life.  I’ve summarized these points quite a bit, so I recommend reading the entire section for excellent biblical direction in fighting Satan’s attacks, especially when going through a period of depression.

Here’s where you can find it: Ed Welch, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness (Greensboro: New Growth Press, 2004) p. 68-71.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015

They Came to Jesus and Burned Their Dark Magic Books

The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Acts of the Apostles Dark magic has been around for a long time.  When Israel was going into the Promised Land the LORD told his people not to dabble in the pagan occultic practices of the Canaanites (Dt. 18:9-14).  They were to avoid omens, fortunes, divination, spiritists, sorcery, psychic readings, and other sorts of dark magic.  The same goes for God’s people today.  Paul called sorcery one of the sinful “works of the flesh” (Gal. 5:20).  In Acts 19, when Paul was in Ephesus, many who turned from their sins and believed the gospel ended up confessing their wicked practices of sorcery and dark magic.  They even went a step further:

Large numbers of those who had practiced magic collected their books and burned them up in the presence of everyone. When the value of the books was added up, it was found to total fifty thousand silver coins (Acts 19:19 NET Bible).

I appreciate David Peterson‘s comments on this in the Pillar New Testament Commentary on Acts:

The remarkable humiliation of the exorcists and the consequent glorification of the name of the Lord Jesus by many led to another amazing event. ‘Many of those who believed now came and openly confessed (exomologoumenoi kai anangellontes, ‘confessing and disclosing’) what they had done.’ There was a public expression of repentance on the part of ‘many of those who believed,’ whereby ‘a number who had practiced sorcery (ta perierga,’ ‘superfluous works’, a technical term for magic) ‘brought their scrolls together and burned them publicly.’ Apparently they were moved by the exposure and overcoming of the exorcists to realize that their own previous involvement with the magic arts now needed to be acknowledged. Perhaps they had kept scrolls in which spells were written as an insurance policy, in case their newfound faith proved to be inadequate in some situation! Burning the scrolls was a way of repudiating what they contained and represented a greater trust in God to deliver them from trouble and supply their needs.

Such repentance before God and his people was costly: When they calculated the value of the scrolls, the total came to fifty thousand [drachmas] (argyriou, ‘of silver’, without specifying the units of silver as ‘drachmas’). Luke’s reference to the price of these scrolls once more suggests ‘his strong dislike of the money-making side of magic and his clear rejection of it from the Christian side’ (Barrett). These people recognised that genuine discipleship involved letting go what they treasured in order to enjoy the blessings of God’s kingdom (cf. Lk. 9:23–27; 18:18–30). The scrolls that were burned may have contained the famous ‘Ephesian letters’, with their words of power for warding off demons, and ‘the sort of material preserved in the magical papyri such as thaumaturgic formulae, incantations, hymns and prayers’ (Trebilco). By depicting the defeat of the magicians in this way, Luke conveyed the message ‘that in the name of Jesus, the faithful shall triumph over the forces of darkness: Christians need not fear the devil, for there is no power in him against them’ (Garrett).

David Peterson, The Acts of the Apostles, 19:18-19.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI, 54015