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


The Infallibility of Experts (!?) and Euthanasia (Machen)

The following paragraph is from a radio address that J. G. Machen gave in 1937.  It is highly relevant even in 2017:

“…We have seen in the newspapers recently a good deal of discussion about ‘mercy-killing’ or ‘euthanasia’. Certain physicians say very frankly that they think hopeless invalids, who never by any chance can be of use either to themselves or to anyone else, ought to be put painlessly out of the way.  Are they right?

Well, I dare say a fairly plausible case might be made out for them on the basis of utilitarian ethics.

I am not quite sure – let me say in passing – that even on that basis it is a good cause.  This is a very dangerous business – this business of letting experts determine exactly what people ‘never will be missed.’  For my part, I do not believe in the infallibility of the experts, and I think the tyranny of experts is the worst and most dangerous tyranny that ever was devised.

But, you see, that does not touch the real point.  The real point is that the the modern advocates of euthanasia are arguing the thing out on an entirely different basis from the basis on which the Christian argues it. They are arguing the question on the basis of what is useful – what produces happiness and avoids pain for the human race. The Christian argues it on the basis of a definite divine command. “Thou shalt not kill” settles the matter for the Christian. From the Christian point of view the physician who engages in a mercy-killing is just a murderer. It may also turn out that his mercy-killing is not really merciful in the long run. But that is not the point. The real point is that be it never so merciful, it is murder, and murder is sin.”

“No Christian can hold that morality is just the accumulated self-interest of the race, and that sin is merely conduct opposed to such self-interest.”

J. G. Machen, The Christian View of Man, p. 176-177.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

The Bags Around Our Necks (Binning)

 I’ve been studying and preaching through 1 Corinthians 13 (sometimes known as Paul’s hymn of love) and one resource I’ve been using is Hugh Binning’s Christian Love.  It’s not too long, but it is sometimes difficult to read because of the older language.  However, it is worth the effort!  Here’s a section I ran across today as I was looking at the phrase love “always trusts” (NIV):

It is certainly [excessive] love and indulgence to ourselves that makes us aggravate other men’s faults to such a height.  Self-love looks on other men’s failings through a magnifying glass, but she puts her own faults behind her back.

Binning is alluding to one of Aesop’s Fables that explain how all men are born with two bags around their necks: One is full of the faults of others and it hangs on our necks in front of us, under our noses.  The other bag hangs behind us, and it is full of our own faults.  This means, of course, that we always see the faults of others, but it is hard to see our own faults.  This is similar to the “log in the eye” teaching of Jesus in Luke 6.  Here’s more:

[Excessive self-love] can suffer much in herself but nothing in others; and certainly much self-forbearance and indulgence can spare little for others.  But charity is just contrary, she is most rigid on her own behalf, will not pardon herself easily…, and has no indignation but against herself.  Thus she can spare much candor and forbearance for others, and has little or no indignation left behind to consume on others.

Does that make sense?  In other words, if you don’t love someone you will be quick to look for, find, and point out other people’s flaws and sins while minimizing your own.  If I don’t love my neighbor, I will not put up with my neighbor’s faults and sins, but I will easily put up with my own.

However, love is not that way.  If you love someone, you’ll be patient and kind towards them, despite their flaws and sins, and you’ll be more upset with your own sins than theirs.

Indeed, love is patient, love is kind.  …It does not boast, it is not proud, it does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs (1 Cor. 13:4-5 NIV).

The above quotes are from Hugh Binning, Christian Love, p. 26-7.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI

Gender Confusion, Authority, and Irony

I appreciate how McQuilkin and Copan discuss transsexuality and gender change on pages 270-272 of An Introduction to Biblical Ethics:

“One of my (Paul’s) friends was teaching a philosophy class.  He showed a video clip of a man who wanted surgery to remove a leg because he felt like ‘a one-legged man trapped inside a tw0-legged man’s body.’  The professor asked the class if he should have his leg amputated.  The class though this ludicrous and that the problem was in the man’s mind.  Interestingly, they knew how the body ought to function, that it had a certain purpose or goal, and that this normal-sounding idea was not an idea socially constructed by human bipeds.  Then the professor asked, ‘So what do we do with a woman who claims she is a man trapped in side a woman’s body?’  The class was silent.”

“…By what authority would a sex-change be justified?  Typically it is one’s own feelings (‘I feel; therefore I am’).  So the man who ‘feels like a female’ is therefore justified in going through with the drastic operation.  The reality, however, is that any such operation is actually anti-creational; it produces a body incapable of procreation.  In other words, we cannot change the created order.  Our sexual identity is not up to us to decide.  In trying to find ourselves, we may actually lose ourselves.  Indeed, the fact that so many transvestites remain deeply unsatisfied with their sex-change operations should serve as a caution against such a procedure….”

The authors also point out a few ironies in the transsexual argument; I’ll summarize two of them here:

“A commonly accepted view in today’s society is that sexual identity is simply a social construct and not something given at birth.  But if this is the case, then why all the fuss about, say, women’s rights?  Why press this if there is nothing intrinsic or distinctive about being a woman?”

“Another cultural irony is this: we’re told we can readily change our sexual identity by having a sex-change operation; biology can be altered to fit one’s psychological frame of mind.  However, as we saw above, those struggling with same-sex attraction are told that they can’t ever change, that they were born gay: biology/genetics determines inner awareness of sexual identity.”

These are some helpful points to ponder as we find ourselves in a culture of gender fluidity.  I don’t have time/space to mention it now, but for the record McQuilkin and Copan do point out the truths of forgiveness, healing, and a positive Christian view of sexuality and gender in other parts of this helpful book, An Introduction to Biblical Ethics.

Shane Lems
Hammond, WI






Was/Is There A “Gay Agenda”?

We Cannot Be Silent: Speaking Truth to a Culture Redefining Sex, Marriage, and the Very Meaning of Right and Wrong This new book by Albert Mohler is quite good: We Cannot Be SilentIt’s a book that talks about the history of sexuality in the United States, and answers questions like: how did we go from a relatively decent view of marriage to gay marriage so quickly?  Mohler’s done his homework, and it shows in the book.  I’ll review it more later, but for now I want to highlight a section where Mohler affirms there is – and has been for some time – a “gay agenda.”  Or, in other words, there is, and has been, a concentrated and purposeful effort in the United States to move to gay marriage and beyond.

In 1989 Kirk and Madsen published a book called, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear & Hatred of Gays in the 90’s.  Mohler breaks down the agenda for the gay rights revolution in Kirk and Madsen’s book.  I’ve edited it a little for length:

1) [They – Kirk and Madsen – petitioned the gay] movement to ‘portray gays as victims, not as aggressive challengers.’  Their advice to their own movement was incredibly specific, if not troubling.  For example, they advised, ‘It cannot go without saying, incidentally, that groups on the farthest margins of acceptability, such as NAMBLA (North American Man/Boy Love Association – an organization affirming pedophilia), must pay no part at all in such a campaign.  Suspected child molesters will never look like victims.

2) Similarly, the two argued, ‘For all practical purposes, gays should be considered to have been born gay….”  In stark contrast to the movement supporting legal abortion, Kirk and Madsen argued powerfully against any space for choice when it comes to sexual orientation: ‘To suggest in public that homosexuality might be chosen is to open the can of worms labeled ‘moral choice and sin’ and give the religious intransigents a stick to beat us with.”

3) “In keeping with the public relations strategy, the activists promoted a strategy that would make gays look good and make ‘victimizers’ look bad.  Specifically, they called for attention to figures who could be vilified in order to further their purposes.”  For example, Kirk and Madsen said it’s good to show an angry Southern preacher pounding the pulpit against gays, then switch to a picture of badly beaten persons, or decent looking, likeable gays, and then go back to the angry face of the preacher.  “The contrast speaks for itself.  The effect is devastating.”

Mohler later writes that…

“…Intellectual honesty requires us to recognize that there was a determined group of activists who were pushing a ‘gay agenda.’  The stunning rate of their success in the field of psychiatry, popular culture, and the courts shows us that so much more was going on beneath the surface.  A new set of moral sentiments was sowing seeds for a revolution, one that would bring about the normalization of homosexuality and the legalization of same-sex marriage.  Therefore it is wrong, as many now insist, to deny that there was ever a ‘gay agenda.’

Obviously there’s more to the book than this section, so Mohler does go on to talk about other issues, including how to respond to this massive movement with Christian principles.  Again, I’ll write a more detailed review later.  For now, flag this book as “one to read for sure” if you want more solid info and help in thinking about the sexual revolution from a Christian perspective.

R. Albert Mohler, We Cannot Be Silent (Nashville: Nelson Books, 2015), p 38-39.

shane lems
hammond, wi

Promoting Our Neighbor’s Good Name

The Whole Works of Thomas Boston, Vol. 2: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 2 Thomas Boston (d. 1732), along with many other volumes, wrote a commentary on the Westminster Shorter Catechism.  I’ve enjoyed using it in my studies and sermons on the Ten Commandments.  Below I’ve written a section where Boston talks about one of the implications of the 9th commandment: rather than lying, we should speak well of our neighbor and promote his good name (WSC Q/A 77; cf HC Q/A 112).  The question is, what does the 9th commandment require of us towards our neighbors?

1. A charitable opinion and esteem of our neighbors (1 Cor. 13:7); being ready to hope the best of them, unless the contrary be evident.

2. A desire of, and rejoicing in, their good name and reputation (Rom. 1:8). We are to love them as ourselves, and therefore should be glad of the sweet savor of their name, though their reputation outshine ours.

3. Sorrowing and grieving for their faults (2 Cor. 12:21). The blasting of anybody’s name by their sins, should make us mourn, and the rather that the same root of bitterness is in all naturally: and they are the deeper in God’s debt that get through the world with an unblemished reputation.

4. Covering their infirmities with the mantle of love (1 Pet. 4:8). Everybody has some weak side, and needs a cover from others in love: and it is a dangerous business to aggravate and blaze abroad this to their dishonor.

5. Freely acknowledging the gifts and graces that are in any (1 Cor. 1:4–7).  As none are so good but they have some discernible infirmity, so hardly is one so bad but there is some one thing or another praise-worthy in them. And if it were but one thing, it is our duty frankly to own it.

6. Defending their innocence, as Ahimelech did David’s (1 Sam. 22:14): “And who among all your servants is as faithful as David, even the king’s son-in-law, who is captain over your guard, and is honored in your house?” (NASB). It is necessary and just to defend the innocent, especially if absent, against the poisonous bites of a viperous tongue lest we be held consenting to the tongue-murder of him, in God’s account.

7. An unwillingness to receive an ill report of them, and a readiness to admit a good report of them (1 Cor. 13:6, 7. Ps. 15:3). Love readily opens the door to a good report of our neighbor, but is not very hasty to let in an evil one, being truly sorry if it should be true.

8. Discouraging tale bearers, flatterers, and slanderers, who go about gathering all the filth they can find to throw upon the name and reputation of others. These should be discouraged as the pests of human society, as David did, ‘Whoever secretly slanders his neighbor, him I will destroy’ (Ps. 101:5 NASB).

9. Lastly, watching over one another, giving sound and seasonable admonitions, checks, and reproofs, for what is ill or ill like in others (Lev. 19:17); and telling themselves of it, so as it may not be blabbed out without necessity: whereby both their souls might be timely preserved from the snare, and their good name preserved too.

The above quotes are found in Thomas Boston, The Whole Works of Thomas Boston: An Illustration of the Doctrines of the Christian Religion, Part 2, ed. Samuel M‘Millan, vol. 2 (Aberdeen: George and Robert King, 1848), 316–317.

shane lems

Latin Lesson: Historic Protestantism on Christ’s Kingdom

Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms: Drawn Principally from Protestant Scholastic Theology As a few of our readers may know, in some small pockets of Reformed Christianity there is strong opposition to making distinctions in the way Christ reigns over the world.  Some say we must not distinguish between Christ’s general rule over all and his saving rule over his church.  (FYI, if you’ve not heard of this issue, it’s probably not something you need to dig into.)  I have to admit that I’m not sure why there is such strong opposition to this distinction, since Protestant and Reformed theologians have made distinctions – based on Scripture – in this area for quite some time.  If one doesn’t agree with this teaching, that’s OK; but if one calls this teaching un-Reformed or heretical, that’s simply not acceptable.  In case you’re wondering, here’s how Richard Muller describes the historic Protestant view of Christ’s kingdom (I’ve edited it for length):

Regnum Christi: the rule or kingdom of Christ.  The Protestant scholastics recognize several distinctions that can be made with regard to the exercise of Christ’s rule.  The Lutherans tend to argue a threefold-kingdom: 1) the regnum potentai, or kingdom of power, according to which Christ, as divine Word and Second Person of the Trinity, rules the entire creation providential and is Lord of all without distinction; 2) the regnum gratiae, or kingdom of grace, in which Christ governs, blesses, and defends his church on earth; and 3) the regnum gloriae, or the kingdom of glory, in which Christ governs the church triumphant, when he will subdue his enemies and bring the whole church into her triumphal reign.  These divisions do not indicate several reigns but merely distinctions in the manner and exercise of Christ’s rule.

The Reformed scholastics express essentially the same distinctions in a twofold division of the kingdom into 1) the regnum essentiale (the essential rule, or universal/natural rule) and 2) the regnum personale (the personal rule or economic, soteriological rule).  The former set of terms (essential rule) corresponds to the Lutheran definition of the kingdom of power, and the latter set of terms (personal rule) corresponds to the Lutheran definitions of the kingdom of grace and kingdom of glory.  The kingdom of grace and kingdom of glory belong to Christ as the Mediator of salvation, and are thus both personal and economic.

Muller goes on to note that though Lutheran and Reformed theology differ on some aspects of Christology (related to the difference between the Lutheran and Reformed view of the Lord’s Supper), the Reformed and Lutherans agree on the eternal duration of the reign of Christ and the “cessation of certain modes of administration.”

The Protestant theologians that made these distinctions in the past also gave us some excellent resources on justification by faith alone and on Christian ethics – living the Christian life in light of God’s law.  Based on these things, again, I’m not sure why some are so opposed to this teaching.  It honors Christ as sovereign king over all and goes hand in hand with how live for him in this world.

As Herman Bavinck said, “To distinguish is to learn.”

For the entire article, see pages 259-261 of Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1985).

shane lems
hammond, wi