Dedicated to the devotional, exegetical and philosophical study of theological paradox in Conservative, Thoroughly Biblical, Historically Orthodox, Essentially Reformed theology . . . to the glory of God alone!

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Legalism: What it IS and What it ISN'T

Here is a great synopsis of what legalism is and isn't, from a blog I've been enjoying lately.

Legalism is:

  • Distorting the gospel by adding conditions to free grace: Acts 15:1, 7-11; Gal.1:6-7, 2:11-16, 4:8-11, Gal. 5:2-4; Col.2:16-17
  • Substituting man-made regulations for the Word of God: Matthew 15:1-3
  • Majoring on the minors and neglecting the more important issues: Luke 11:42
  • Over-concern with the externals while disregarding matters of the heart: Matthew 23:27
  • Regarding with contempt or judging a brother based on matters of personal conviction: Romans 14:1-5
  • Trusting in ourselves that we are righteous based on religious performance: Luke 18:9-14
  • Hypocrisy, the leaven of the Pharisees: Luke 11:53-12:1
Legalism is not:

  • A zeal for the commandments of Christ: Matthew 5.19; 1 Corinthians 7.19
  • A ministry that teaches others to follow Christ in obedience: Matthew 28.20; 1 Thess. 4.1-2
  • Strong personal convictions (as long as they are not required of others): Romans 14.2,5
  • Man-made restrictions for personal protection from sinful habits (as long as we do not begin to view them as binding on others): Romans 13.14; 1 Corinthians 6.12
  • A zeal for good works: Eph. 2.10; Titus 1.16, 2.7, 14, 3.8, 14
  • Limiting our liberty for the benefit of others: Romans 14.15, 21, 15.2; Acts 16.1-3
  • Obedience: John 14.15, 23, 15.10; 1 John 2.3-5, 5.2-4

Source: Reformed and Always Reforming by the Reformed Rebel

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Blamelessness and the Law

One of my old posts about the Rich Young Ruler recently received an interesting challenge from a commenter. The commenter pointed out an apparent contradiction between my statement (that it is impossible for anyone to keep the Law perfectly) and Luke 1:5-6.
Luke 1:5-6 - In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly [Gk. ANEMPTOS] in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord

The commenter went on to draw this conclusion:
Unless you say you can be righteous in God's sight via IMPERFECT obedience to the Law, the only reason you can give for why these two people's obedience made them righteous in God's sight, is because God regarded their obedience as perfect.
Which means Luke 1:6 proves that sinners CAN (and often did) perfectly obey the Law of Moses.
So if you find some passage by Paul that says no sinner can keep the law perfectly, you've either misunderstood, or Paul is wrong, or Luke is wrong.
I answered as follows:

 You've brought up an interesting point that deserves attention. I think there is another alternative to your either/or scenario - is it possible we commonly misunderstand the meaning of "blameless"? You defined it as perfect obedience to the law, but I'm going to make a Biblical case that this is not the true meaning. We are naturally legalistic in our thinking, so we often impute shades of meaning to Biblical words that are not actually there. Open-hearted Bible study is the cure for this, and it's a cure we all need. The Bible is a document with amazing continuity and thematic resonance throughout its pages. God doesn't make mistakes, so things that appear contradictory can't be truly contradictory, and these seeming contradictions (a.k.a. paradoxes) often lead to a deeper understanding as we work through them. We are forced to look at things the way God does, and not with our man-made ideas. If we won't to do this, we can only distrust the Bible.

The approach you have taken is probably very similar to that which was taken by the early Judaizers who opposed the apostles. The Judaizers believed obedience to the Law was the way to righteousness. The tone of the whole New Testament, and indeed the entire Bible, is actually opposite to this, as I am about to show with regard to this word, "blameless."

First, let's consider three verses from David (not generally considered a "sinlessly" righteous man or a "blameless" man in terms of keeping all the requirements of the Law).

2 Samuel 22:24 - "I was also blameless toward Him, and I kept myself from my iniquity."

NOTE: He says my iniquity. So David's blamelessness did not equal sinlessness. David describes himself as both blameless and sinful. Or, better, blameless in spite of being sinful. We can and should carry this connection over to Luke 1:5-6.

Psalm 18:32 - "The God who girds me with strength and makes my way blameless?"

NOTE: David's blamelessness did not come from his own sinlessness or observance of the Law. It came from God's direct intervention in his life. He was depending on God, not his own performance (which obviously fell short at various times in his life - yet he said he was blameless toward God).

Psalm 19:13 - Also keep back Your servant from presumptuous sins; let them not rule over me; then I will be blameless, and I shall be acquitted of great transgression.

NOTE: Here blamelessness is described in terms of forgiveness rather than perfection or Law keeping. If blamelessness is a result of forgiveness, then it actually requires one to be a sinner prior to becoming blameless or righteous. This is a strong theme in the book of Matthew, where it is said that heaven rejoices more over one sinner who repents than it does over 99 who don't [think they] need to repent. Paul makes a similar point in Galatians 2:16-17. Again, Scripture has an amazing cohesiveness that can never be broken by any human reason - though many have tried.

Now let's trace blamelessness into the New Testament for some further examples.

Philippians 3:6 - as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to the righteousness which is in the Law, found blameless [Gk. ANEMPTOS].

NOTE: This is Paul's testimony of the life he lived before Christ rescued him. He was externally "blameless" and "righteous" in regard to the law, and yet that wasn't good enough. Later he says, "
not having a righteousness OF MY OWN derived from the Law, but that which is THROUGH FAITH in Christ, the righteousness which comes from God on the basis of faith" (Php 3:9). Romans 7 shows us that somewhere along the line, Paul had a major battle with covetousness, to the point of calling himself "wretched." So, outwardly he may have been blameless all his life, but inwardly there was sin, and the Law provided no resources to change this. Even if there is perfect outward obedience (and apparently there was in the cases of Zechariah and Paul), there can never be perfect inward obedience because every person covets. It's impossible for any fallen human being to completely avoid breaking the 10th commandment, given enough time and opportunity. It happens all the time, but nobody else knows about it.

I Thess 3:12-13 - and may the Lord cause you to increase and abound in love for one another, and for all people, just as we also do for you; so that He may establish your hearts without blame [Gk. ANEMPTOS] in holiness before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all His saints.

NOTE: Here Paul gets to the heart of the matter, which is the heart. Rather than perfect outward obedience, Paul indicates that it is love - as it is given increase by God Himself - which makes our hearts blameless in holiness before Him. As Paul says elsewhere, "Love is the fulfillment of the Law." And love, I daresay, is the exact opposite of covetousness. So it is love, not perfect obedience, that fulfills the Law. And this does not happen SO WE CAN BE saved; it happens BECAUSE WE HAVE BEEN saved, by grace through faith on the basis of Christ's perfect inward and outward obedience.

"Blameless" outward observance of the Law is certainly achievable, but it cannot justify a person in God's sight. This is the limitation of the Law to which I am referring in the post. It is when the inward aspects are applied, e.g. the 10th commandment, that we see our need for a Savior who died for our sins. I do not deny that one can outwardly observe the Law, but with Paul I deny that any person can thereby please God or become righteous in His sight. It is faith alone that saves, by the grace of our loving and kind God, through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Notice also, later in Luke 1, Zechariah was struck mute because he did not believe the angel's message. So, while he was outwardly blameless in observing the Law, he did not have the perfect and blameless heart that would trust the God Who must Himself sanctify all of our obedience, forgive all of our failure, and perfect all of our works. This is the Gospel, and it is continuously interlaced through the whole text of Scripture. I pray you may know the power of it, and be found truly blameless by Him on that day.

Thanks again for commenting. One quick question: the picture on your profile looks like a demon - is there some significance to this? I know that apart from Christ, I could never be anything more than a devil, with or without the benefit of the Law. 


Here's what ANEMPTOS means according to Thayer's Lexicon:

Here is an illuminating bit of insight from Tony Hayling:

We know that Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous in God's eyes in the same way that Noah was. Noah found grace in the eyes of God. They, too, were righteous through faith by grace. They were looking for the Hope of Israel. The rest is the fruit of the grace of God towards them. The operative word is GRACE.

Similarly, their observances and their obedience were fruit of the faith that the grace of God granted to them. The reason they were walking in all the commandments (moral law) and ordinances (ceremonial law) BLAMELESS is not because they were perfect and without blame, but because they were free from the weight of blame, being justified by faith in the promised Savior.

In other words they were as all believers are. They were sinners justified and regarded as blameless in God's eyes because of what God did (or, in their case, was about to do) and not because of what they did or would do.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Jesus Is The Way

Editor's Note: This post was written by my 8-year-old daughter.

Hi! I'm GirlWhomGODloves. Did you know Jesus loves you?

"For God so loved the world, that he gave His only Son, so that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have everlasting life."
~ John 3:16

He loves everyone - even me and you. Are you glad? Isn't this good news? I think it is. Jesus is kind.

This is amazing. Do you think so? I do. Yea! Jesus loves everyone.

I can understand "no end" better than "no beginning." Because how can you have no end if you have no beginning? God has no beginning or end. And neither does His love.

"What can be said, what can be sung" to so faithful a King? Jesus is our King . Jesus is our Savior!

"Jesus said to Him, 'I am the Way, the Truth and the Life.'" Jesus is the way to eternal life! God sent His Son into the world to save the world. That's good news. Are you glad? That's not bad news! I used to think, "How do people get to heaven? Do they fly with wings? No. Do they let a cloud take them up? No, Jesus is the way to heaven. So, don't try to fly to heaven! You won't get there. Heaven isn't in the sky! It's out of the world. If you go to church, that doesn't mean you will go to heaven. You have to believe in Jesus.

"So, faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of christ." ~ Romans 10:17       

~ bye bye ~

Editor's Note: Does anyone want to speculate on the mystery of the week? Where is heaven?                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Blogging: Good, Bad & Ugly

Blog writing is an interesting paradox.

I enjoy blogging immensely. This particular blog allows me the privilege of interacting with folks from all different places concerning topics related to the Gospel, the Christian life, and Biblical thinking. The theological and philosophical dimensions of God's self-revelation are thrilling to explore, and I learn from others along the way. I'm growing and I sense that others are growing as we explore these foundational, life-changing matters. We're asking great questions and discovering sound, Biblical answers. That's the GOOD.

Unfortunately, time is a limited commodity. It's frustrating to have so many posts in draft mode, not quite finished, and so many ideas for articles that are just waiting to be brought to life. If you blog, you probably know where I'm coming from. It's frustrating to want to do more than you can do. It's difficult to enjoy something so much, and yet find it always a little out of reach. That's the BAD.

What's the UGLY? Well, at this moment I have three distinct threads in process, but none of them are moving very quickly.

1. First, there is the "current series" on Isaiah 53. It's been a few weeks since that was touched upon, although it's all been mapped out for a long time.
2. Second, there is a mini-series on "Needs & Neediness," comparing psychology and nouthetic counseling. The final post is turning out to be very long and detailed, and it probably isn't far from publishing. If I could just find two hours to get it finished.
3. Third, there is the ongoing chapter-by-chapter review of James Anderson's book, "Paradox in Christian Theology." We're on chapter 3, but it's been awhile since I looked at either the book or the next part of the review.

Hard as I try, I'm not much of a juggler, so progress is slow . . .

The point of this post is to say, "Be assured, if you are anticipating the continuation of  the discussions mentioned above, I have not forgotten." Little by little, they will come back into focus. In the meantime, I may post short meditations on the usual topics, just because they're interesting and they're ready to post. The other stuff is still cooking - and we all know good cooking takes time.

THEOparadox has some very faithful readers. I'm grateful that God has led some like-minded, Gospel-centered people to this blog, and quite a few who are just curious. We get lots of visitors from search engines. People who want to learn about Biblical paradoxes, Calvinism and related matters typically find their way here via Google or Yahoo - at a rate of 20 or more per week. And there are lots of others who find us while searching for other topics. They come from all over the world. It would appear that our mission statement is being accomplished - in spite of the lag time between posts.

So I want to thank you again, dear reader, for your patience and continued interest in this humble blog. Whatever it is or isn't, it's here to glorify Jesus Christ and magnify His work on the cross. Soli Deo Gloria!

Grace & peace,

Monday, October 19, 2009

Creeds and Confessions for Your Listening Pleasure

Audio files for several important creeds and confessions can be found at the link below. Anyone who desires to understand the Christian faith, Protestant orthodoxy, the Reformation and historic Calvinism ought to know what is found in these foundational documents. "Confessional" Calvinists believe these documents represent the most accurate distillation of essential Biblical teaching available in a more-or-less systematic format.

The "Ecumenical Creeds" are common to all orthodox Christians . . . 

Apostles’ Creed
Nicene Creed

Athanasian Creed

Chalcedonian Creed

The "Three Forms of Unity" are a traditional basis for fellowship among historic Calvinists. (Click here for a short Wikipedia article about the Three Forms)
Heidelberg Catechism

Belgic Confession

Canons of Dordt

These resources are provided by the United Reformed Church, a Calvinistic body of churches from the U.K. (land of the Puritans).

Saturday, October 10, 2009

The Tug of War: Time, Stress & Priorities VS. God, Eternity & Joy

Recently someone noted that he felt overwhelmed with the stresses of life (yes, I think you overheard this, too - but probably not from the same person). That got me thinking about our life in this world and the next. Inevitably, we get bogged down with the incessant demands of activities, relationships, work projects, hobbies, events, schedules, home life, church life, maintenance, technology, and so many other things. All of this can rise to a toxic level as we find ourselves out of  focus, out of sorts, and seemingly out of options. This appears to be a universal experience, especially for those of us who live in the Western world.

In such a state, we find it almost impossible to get our scattered minds settled on the Gospel. Prayer and contemplation become luxuries we feel we can ill afford. Bible study turns into a quick glance at a Psalm - or perhaps nothing at all. We begin to count on the preacher's sermon to get us through the week, and we rely on a few restless moments of sleep to carry us through the steadily advancing days. But those hours are gone too quickly and each day's new mercies get buried under the clutter of our busy-ness.

Yet for each of us there comes a time of true rest, eventually. That rest will be chosen by us through a painful decision to cut off things we enjoy but don't need, or it will be forced upon us by circumstances and ill health and mental strain and the unexpected breakdown which finally forces us to pause. We might be angry when this happens. But at the end of it all is God, calling us to Himself in a voice that is at once quieter and more persistent than all of the earthly demands. His sheep know His voice, and we follow Him. If not, He binds our legs together and slings us over his shoulders and carries us. We seem to be out of commission, but we're actually in a wonderful place of trust-building dependence. These are hard lessons to learn, but necessary to our growth under the difficult reality of being time-bound and priority-driven. It will be wondrously freeing to enter eternity, and be swept up in an intent God-focus that cannot be turned even slightly by the raging distraction of less worthy things.

Till then, this is a wretched and uncomfortable life, filled with sorrow, trouble . . . and flashes of imperishable delight whenever He shows His hand or reveals His smile. Mercy and grace are drawing us up to our eternal rest, even as this world wraps its tentacles more tightly around our feet. We may feel pulled in two different directions, but let us lift our heads and smile up toward the One Who holds our hands more tightly and tenaciously than this world's distractions ever could. He won this tug of war before we knew it.

Friday, October 09, 2009

John Piper on the Paradox of God's Sovereignty and Human Choice

I enjoyed John Piper's recent blog post about "Real Choice, Divine Sway, and the Way Paul Lived."

If I hadn't already given him a THEOparadox t-shirt, I'd give him one now. Well, okay, I'll just give him another one . . .

Here's a quote from Piper's post . . .

"One of the most influential passages in the Bible that God used to open my mind to his sovereignty over my will is Philippians 2:12-13.
Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.
So my working and willing are necessary. They are real. But they are not first or ultimately decisive. God’s willing and working is decisively under and in my willing and working. The word “for” is crucial. I work because he is working in me. I will, because he is willing in me."

The final sentence says it all . . .

"So abandon any anti-Bible intellectual baggage you have inherited from planet earth, and recalibrate your brain to embrace the paradoxes of real human choice and decisive divine sway."

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Dog Fight or Sheep Fight?

Several months ago, C. Michael Patton posted an article encouraging militant Calvinists to tone down their rhetoric and stop being so antagonistic toward folks who disagree with them. It was a good and needed corrective for some of us who claim to be in the "Reformed" camp.

Predictably, a stream of militant-sounding rhetoric followed in the comments. But there were some balanced and thoughtful responses, also. Among them, I found a compelling and God-honoring appeal from someone calling himself "Tim James." Part of Tim's comment is re-posted below because it is worth reading, it's well said and it has a THEOparadox way of thinking underlying it. In fact, Tim's words THEOparadox-ed some needed humility back into me.

Tim James says . . .  

". . . The right approach to scripture and making our emotions and self bow to the authority of scripture is a difficult life long process. The thing is that we all know very little as of “now” in comparison to what we will know “then” when we are in the presence of God. The important thing is the Way, the Truth and the Life. I often sin by not giving all the glory to God and I am convicted of such sin which leads to repentance. I am constantly reminded of how feeble my mind is and how weak I am. Does my lack of knowledge or weakness put my salvation in jeopardy?

Even with the Holy Spirit working on me, I do what I ought not and don’t do what I should. It is this reality of my own state that leads me to understand that I would deny Christ tomorrow if it wasn’t for Him and the grace afforded to me. I also know that I was born evil and would never have chosen Christ were it not for the fact that He called me with an irresistible call exactly as God had desired before I was even born. Sometimes our feeble four dimensional earth bound minds cannot fully comprehend the ways of God. The way to salvation has been revealed but the exact mechanics of this re-birth and indwelling of God is still a complete mystery. It blows my mind every time I consider how awesome God is and what He’s done with salvation.

. . . Should we fight with those who in our eyes are less enlightened than ourselves, or patiently preach truth in love? There’s a lot I don’t know and a lot I’ve probably misinterpreted, but this will not undo God’s purpose and will not destroy my salvation but in fact, when revealed to me, will only draw me closer to God in complete wonder about His mercy and grace as He deals patiently with this pile of dust. This humility and the desire to love others as we love ourselves should temper our attitudes and approach no matter how right we are. What is sometimes depicted does not look like brotherly love at all. I’m not suggesting that we should abandon truth nor the seeking of it, only that the presentation is a little more humble and graceful.

Friday, October 02, 2009

Needs & Neediness - Part 1

Editor's Note: I suppose the recent post on "Hogwash, Bad Hermeneutics and Psychology" was provocative. This article will go a little further in explaining exactly what might be wrong with an "emotional needs" approach to marriage, relationships, and life in general. This is a more or less formal response to a good question asked by Barry Wallace in response to the earlier post.

Affirming Neediness

Neediness, in-and-of-itself, is not a bad thing. God made us needy. He made us to need, more than anything else, HIMSELF. This was true even for Adam before the fall, when he enjoyed the blessedly pure life of innocence. God had made him naturally dependent on God, and the entrance of sin only proved that dependence. This has caused all sorts of problems for us, because when we reject God we start stuffing all sorts of other things into the big empty void of neediness that was designed for Him to occupy. He made that spot for Himself, but we've filled it with everything good and bad that isn't God. It's called idolatry, spiritual adultery, and (more generally) sin. Grace found in repentance is the wonderful path back out of this accursed situation, and grace is especially reserved for the needy. It is offered to the poor in spirit, those who break under the weight of sin, and those who come to God in abject defeat and total surrender. It's for the lowly and it's for the broken-hearted and it's for the needy. This kind of neediness is explicitly called "blessed." (Matthew 5:3-6). Interestingly, the words "hunger and thirst for righteousness" in Matthew 5:6 are an expression of want-and-need in perfect harmony. We're blessed when we finally begin to want what we need.

So, neediness is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very good thing. God made us needy so that we would be continually drawn to Him. This is effectively illustrated by the way our children are born in utter helplessness. What a magnificent bond is formed as a baby learns to receive EVERYTHING from its parents. It's part of the reason why we must be born again, and why we are instructed to become like little children.

Defining Neediness

The idea of "need" is built on two related concepts: dependency and purpose. In other words, for anything to be a "need," it has to be something on which the needy one depends, and it has to have some legitimate purpose tied to it. Neediness implies a relationship of dependence and a purpose to be fulfilled. The legitimacy of the need is determined by the legitimacy of the purpose and by a clearly defined relationship of dependence.

Some things are needs by definition, but are not tied to a legitimate purpose. For example, I need alcoholic beverages in order to get intoxicated - but that doesn't make alcohol one of my legitimate needs. I would have to need to get drunk for that to be the case. Often a need is merely assumed, but the legitimizing factor (an established relationship of exclusive dependence) is missing. For example, I think I need my job in order to make ends meet, but in actuality it's money that I need (and if we take it a step further, it's not even money I need, but the food and shelter and other things I buy with the money). I think I need a car in order to get to work, but that's not true - I only need a means of transportation (it could be a bus, a bicycle, or even my two feet). Let's consider a few more examples of apparent needs for the sake of discussion . . .
  • My wife needs food and water in order to live.
  • My guitar needs strings in order to make resonant music.
  • My car needs oil in order to operate properly.
  • My friends need my encouragement in order to fight sin.
  • My cell phone needs a battery charger in order to operate continuously over time.
  • My driveway needs to be swept in order to look nice.
  • My mind needs a steady dose of Scripture in order to maintain Biblical thinking.
To qualify as a genuine need, the subjective purpose has to be truly dependent on the object.
  • My wife can't live without food and water (at least not for very long).
  • My guitar can't make resonant music without strings (at least not in any way I can conceive. It does make a fairly good sounding drum, though).
  • My car can't operate properly without oil (although someone may be able to suggest an alternative to oil that works just as well).
  • My friends can't fight sin without encouragement (but they can get this encouragement from many different places, not just from me).
  • My cell phone can't operate continuously over time without a battery charger (and a battery, and a reliable source of energy, and a person to plug it in - needy little device, eh?).
  • My driveway can't look nice (in my opinion) without being swept (although there might be an alternative option - what about spraying it down with water?).
  • My mind can't maintain Biblical thinking without a steady dose of Scripture (although the dose can come from many different sources: reading, listening to the Bible, sermons, reciting from memory, a friend's encouragement, emails, even blogs).
As you can see from this list, defining actual needs can be tricky and complicated. Often, we imagine needs where they don't exist, and it requires a logical process of deduction to drill down to the actual dependence and purpose involved. Who ultimately determines whether my driveway needs to be swept? Who decides that it looks nicer that way? What are the consequences of not sweeping a driveway? It isn't going to crumble to pieces because there are a few leaves on it. Ultimately, I determine the driveway needs to be swept because I want it swept. This one is purely a matter of compulsion driven by opinion (that's another way of saying desire), and there's no real need here at all. Maybe I just "need" to be less picky about the appearance of my property.

On the other hand, my wife's need for food and water is undeniable. She can't live without these basic essentials. Our central and most defining need is equally clear and unquestionable: GOD.

Man's need for God is radical. We depend on Him for our very existence. We depend on Him for everything related to our existence. Apart from Him we can neither exist nor exist well. And it's not actually what God provides that we need the most - it's God Himself. This truth is foundational.

Acts 17:28 for in Him we live and move and exist, as even some of your own poets have said, 'For we also are His children.'

In part 2, we will examine the differences between needs and desires, explore the way purposeful dependence relates to our emotions, and we will attempt to further define God's appointed means for the meeting of our various legitimate needs.