I last posted 11 months ago. The fatigue has grown gradually worse but may be lifting. It’s too soon to tell. We now have a more specific diagnosis–chronic mononucleosis. There’s still no cure, but at least the name sounds more respectable.

In any event, while I’ve got a bit of strength, I wanted to share with you my decision to withdraw from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. On May 14, 2008 I submitted the letter below to the Presbytery of the Central United States.

The brothers there received the letter graciously. They endeavored to persuade me to stay, even suggesting that I retain my ministerial credentials in the OPC while laboring “outside of the bounds of Presbytery” at our new church. But it seemed to me for various reasons that this was not the correct resolution. They accepted that and sent me on my way with prayer and without condemnation.

Here is the letter. The first part is fairly boring and may safely be skipped. But for those interested in the nuts and bolts of Presbyterian protocol, I leave it in. Jump down to the next section if that kind of thing bores you or drives you nuts:

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

From:  Bill Baldwin

To: Presbytery of the Central United States, Orthodox Presbyterian Church

RE: Withdrawal from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church

Dear Fathers and Brothers:

I am writing to tell you of my decision to withdraw from the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I am leaving to join with a local congregation of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). The ECC, while having a Reformational heritage, is not considered to be of like faith and practice with the OPC. And they do not hold ministerial credentials in the absence of a call. For those two reasons it is not possible for the Presbytery of the Central US to transfer my credentials to my new church and denomination.

Therefore, I am seeking to leave under the provisions of Book of Discipline V.2.b.(1):

  • When a minister, whether or not he be charged with an offense, informs the presbytery that he desires to renounce the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church by abandoning his ministry and membership therein, or by declaring himself independent, or by joining another body without a regular dismission, the presbytery shall seek to dissuade him from his course, and, if these efforts fail, it shall erase his name from its roll and record the circumstances in its minutes unless the presbytery institutes or continues disciplinary action.

That is to say, I am not seeking to demit the ministry or be divested from office (though an erasure will necessarily remove the only formal ministerial credentials I possess). I am asking Presbytery to dismiss me, perhaps even with its blessing, noting the irregular circumstances in its minutes.

The Book of Discipline instructs us that Presbytery must “seek to dissuade [me] from [my] course.” I am willing to meet with the presbytery for that purpose either at the May 2008 stated meeting or at another time. In the circumstances, I do not feel it would be appropriate for me to deliberate with the presbytery in other matters while waiting for that meeting. I have cleared my schedule for May 17, 2008. If someone from Presbytery could call me at [phone number] and tell me when to appear, I can arrive as soon as half an hour after that phone call. The presbytery may then meet with me at that time or we can put our calendars together and choose another time.

Ok, enough of procedural matters. The rest of the letter below deals with the substance.

Meanwhile, let me explain as briefly as I can, where I’m going and what thoughts have led me there.

Since mid-January, my family and I have been attending City Church in Kansas City, MO. We have been warmly received. There appears to be a place for us and for our gifts there.

City Church, as I say, is a part of the Evangelical Covenant Church (ECC). The ECC has a brief statement of faith that is acceptable to me. It is in the tradition of apostolic, Nicene, Chalcedonian, and Reformational Christianity. But it is not nearly as detailed as the Westminster Standards. This fits in with a growing desire I’ve had to re-connect with Bible-believing Christians with whom I agree concerning the essentials while allowing for charitable disagreement in other matters.

The ECC web site makes the following statement: “We are a Reformation church, a part of the Church universal, and an evangelical church. In that heritage, we share certain central beliefs, which draw us together in faith and fellowship and make possible a freedom among us on more widely ranging issues.”

Organizationally, ECCs are not as tightly run as Presbyterian churches. The church does have a board which functions something like a session and a Mutual Ministry Committee that functions something like a diaconate. Leaders from various congregations meet together in regional “conferences” and as a whole denomination , but these groups do not exercise the same level of authority that Presbyteries and the General Assembly do.

There are two other differences that Presbytery may find of particular note. ECC policy stipulates that pastors must be willing to perform both infant baptism and believer’s baptism. This is a policy I can live with. It seems to me a better choice than dividing from other believers when those believers do not recognize the Biblical reasons for baptizing our children. And it is certainly better than forcing infant baptism on parents who cannot participate in good faith and conscience.

The second difference is that the ECC will ordain women as pastors. I have not changed my position on this matter. I continue to believe that Scripture counsels against this action. But as I have re-evaluated my priorities, I find that other errors of belief and practice, and other ecclesiastical attitudes trouble me more. Since there is no perfect visible church to join, we must evaluate each imperfection scripturally and proceed from there.

So what has prompted me to trade the imperfections of Reformed and Presbyterian churches for the imperfections of the ECC?

Well, first, there just doesn’t seem to be a place for me in the Reformed and Presbyterian circle of churches. If I had found a place, I would probably have chosen to stay and help address whatever imperfections I saw (and have my own imperfections addressed in turn).  I have spent the last 5 years off and on searching for a ministerial call in a Reformed church. There have been several interested churches in the OPC, PCA, and URC. But the end result has always been that a call was extended to another candidate.

In such circumstances I have naturally examined myself to see whether I may not be called to the ministry after all. My inward sense of calling remains robust. And the testimony of those who have been deeply affected by my ministry remains encouraging.

I have also examined my situation to see whether I can make any changes that would make a call more likely. There are certainly many things I would like to change about myself and about my situation. Some, such as my overall health, I can’t. Others are a matter of sanctification; the Spirit is working change in me over time. Perhaps when that work has progressed further I will find the ministerial call I seek.

Meanwhile, I think there is another part of the church that can use my gifts and skills such as they are. It is good then, and consistent with Scripture, if you can willingly send me as a gift to another part of the body of Christ.

I have benefited greatly from my time in the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. I value the training and the fellowship and the wisdom that I have received from OPC and PCA and URC scholars and ministers and friends. I do not leave those things behind. I bring with me to my new church a deep and satisfying Reformed, Covenant, and Biblical Theology. I trust that will continue to be a great blessing to me. I know it has already begun to be a blessing to my new church family.

I want to be honest, though, about some other reasons I have for leaving. These reasons will help you decide how you want to understand my departure and what you may want to say to me as I leave. These reasons may also give you food for thought as you remain and pursue the work of “always reforming” the Reformed church.

First, I have become concerned about what I might call “the leaven of the Pharisees” in the OPC and other Reformed churches. Please understand that I’m not saying I see absolute and pervasive Pharisaism. But I think I see a tendency and I worry that a little leaven eventually leavens the whole lump of dough. I worry that we’ve become cut off from the rest of the evangelical church in part due to some spiritual pride. I’m troubled by the condemning attitude I sometimes see in Reformed churches, both toward outsiders and toward one another. I’m concerned when we seek to prove theological points by appeal to confessional standards rather than by appeal to Scripture. And I’m distressed when we sometimes seem to pursue sanctification by Law rather than by grace alone.

Broadening that point a little, I wish I could see more Christlike love, more kindness in Reformed churches. I think we have too often lost sight of those heart attitudes in our pursuit of other goals. Here I certainly speak as one of the guilty. I need to go learn this love and kindness from others before I can teach it myself. I’d love to see Reformed churches re-connect with the rest of the body of Christ. I think we have as much to learn from them as they do from us. I’ve been putting that proposition to the test since mid-January. I haven’t been disappointed. My new congregation has a love and a kindness that takes my breath away. And I think they have that without sacrificing reverence for God or humility before his Word.

This desire for Christlike love is part of what I was alluding to when I said I’ve re-evaluated my priorities. It’s easy to run down a checklist, note that a church ordains women, and conclude that it has failed the test. But what if the checklist asks whether the people have sacrificial love and the presence of the Holy Spirit? How do you quantify that? How much of it should we be willing to give up to gain a church that doesn’t ordain women? Which question does Scripture spend far more time addressing—need for love or the ordination of women? Our tendency—and I think this is part of the leaven of the Pharisees—is to focus on the questions that have clear cut answers. The Gospel drives us instead to focus on what cannot be measured but only pursued with all our might.

Seeking that Christlike love became central in my quest for a new church. As I sought that church, I realized I was also seeking a church with less of a suburban, middle-class character. Reformed churches seem to be most comfortable serving a certain socio-economic educational class. This can make it difficult for such churches to truly serve the poor. Especially in the suburbs, it’s easy to forget that the poor exist. The suburbs exist to keep the poor at arm’s length. But a church that takes on that character becomes something less than a church, something more like a club.

Suburban churches try to address this problem in various ways. Some of them simply try to send money to the poor. Some try to make a further connection. But it’s very difficult to have the poor in your midst when you’re in the suburbs. I began to feel it was better for me to go where the poor are than to try to bring the poor where I am.

If I want to go where the poor are, I don’t have a lot of Reformed and Presbyterian options. In exploring what my other options might be, I found City Church. My new church is about half black and half white. The people are from various economic and social backgrounds. It looks gloriously like the kingdom of heaven.

My new church is also a praying church. This is something I need as well. I find that I have not believed in the power of prayer nearly as much as I ought. Being among those who do believe has refreshed me considerably and has helped me overcome my fatigue to attend the weekly prayer meeting.

I hope you can rejoice with me just a bit in that, even if you naturally have some concerns. I hope you can see that this move has had a salutary effect on my spiritual health. I believe this move is from the Lord. And the people at City Church believe so as well. Pastor Robert Johnson, in particular, is excited to have me there. We get together once a week to pray. I’ll be leading the worship on Sunday and will be preaching in June. The church is a blessing to me and I, I hope, will be a blessing to them.

Let me last of all address the question of my family. The narrow question before you is what to do with me. But of course I don’t make this move alone.

Mercy, my 12-year-old daughter is the least enthusiastic. The style of worship is boisterous in a way that bothers her. People say “Amen” and “Yes, Lord” and “Hallelujah” all too frequently for her tastes. Also, she has not been able to find close friends. She would prefer to go to the PCA in the suburbs where her friends have gone. So this is hard for her. But it has resulted in some good talks. I’ve explained why we are where we are. I’ve made it clear that I don’t think that other churches are bad churches or that they aren’t believers there. By God’s grace this transition will stretch my daughter’s faith, broaden her view of the kingdom, and help her focus on what is essential.

William, my almost-16-year-old son, has fit right in. He too found the boisterous worship quite different and not entirely to his taste. But he says that he has adjusted well and he really enjoys the people and the Christlike love they show. He has already begun running the sound system. I think this is stretching him as well and has been very good for him.

Lisa, my wife (age undisclosed), is enthusiastic. Before the first service was over, she was certain that this would be our new church home. There was an almost palpable presence of the Holy Spirit at that service, and at subsequent services. She was overwhelmed and immediately drawn in. (I felt the same way. But I also felt the need to express myself more cautiously and to investigate the church carefully.) Lisa continues to love our new church home.

And they continue to love her. Pastor Johnson has recognized her spiritual gift of compassion toward those who are struggling. This recognition is such a blessing to her and to me. In the past she has taken criticism for not being more like a traditional pastor’s wife. I have tried to tell the critics that they are missing the deep value that she brings to the church with her quiet compassion and words of grace. Pastor Johnson picked up on this without having to be told. It almost brings tears to my eyes writing this. It is good to have someone else confirm to my wife the great value of her gifts.

Please forgive anything in this letter that is less gracious than it ought to have been. I hope that we can part as friends who will still remember one another in prayer. I hope you can even see this as a positive move on my part, as something that comes from the Lord, however irregular the circumstances may seem.

May Christ our Savior continue to watch over us. Amen.

Bill Baldwin

I’ve been feeling the terrible chronic fatigue again since last summer. I may have over-exerted myself when we moved into this house. I’m sure the author of Ecclesiastes would have something to say about that.

Back in 2006, I presented my Ecclesiastes material as a Sunday School class once again and revised it extensively in the process. Since my web page is no more, I decided to upload the newer material to a page on my blog:

http://bettercovenant.wordpress.com/ecclesiastes/

Later on I may try to upload some sermons on Abraham from the Genesis series. Those got revised extensively in 2007.

If you’re looking for older material from my defunct web site, you can still find that via the wayback machine:

http://web.archive.org/web/20080120085723/http://bettercovenant.org/

As Joe Garrelli on the TV show NewsRadio once said: “”Dude, you can’t take something off the Internet. That’s like trying to take pee out of a swimming pool.”

Keep me in yor prayers if you think of it.

Well, I don’t know if anyone stops by here anymore. But in case you do, here’s a brief update. I’m tired again. The fatigue started coming back over a year ago. I thought it would go away after a month or two, as it has in the past. It didn’t.

Meanwhile, I had the opportunity to be an interim pastor at the church where we were members. And I candidated to be the new pastor. That didn’t work out. And the way it didn’t work out made it impossible for us to stay at that church.

We looked around at other churches in the area. But they are all so … suburban. I’m tired of the suburban church. If I could find a church in the suburbs that was interested in shedding its suburban character, I might be interested. But for the most part they’re not only in the suburbs, they’re of the suburbs. (The one exception was Pathway CRC in Olathe, KS. There at least they’re struggling against their suburban identity a bit. That’s not the church we’ve ended up at, but we respect what they’re doing.)

I doubt any church sets out to be an upper middle class white church. But that’s where most Reformed churches end up. We all make choices.

So as I say, I’m looking to make a break from the suburban church. And it has become apparent that the suburban church does not have a great deal of zeal to use my ministerial gifts.

Putting all that together, it seems to add up to this. The Reformed and Presbyterian churches do not, for the most part, have a place where they feel they can use my gifts. We may be coming to a parting of the ways. I have other thoughts and concerns that may be tending to the same conclusion. I’ll talk about those if I have time and energy, and if there’s anyone out there still interested and listening.

Meanwhile, as I regroup and rethink, the time has come to pay for another year for my web site http://bettercovenant.org/. I have decided not to spend the money. If you want any of that material, grab it before March 5, 2008. If you didn’t read this in time, I apologize.

That’s all for now.

A while back I posted this picture just for fun and said I’d explain later how it came about.

Meredith Kline Teaches on Suffering

The photo was taken by Thuy Dang, then registrar at Westminster Seminary in California. (She is now sadly deceased.) Here’s the context in which that picture was taken.

It was spring semester, 1995, and I saw Professor Kline and Lee and Misty Irons (front right) eating lunch. So I went over to join them. Kline looked up as I came over and teasingly said, “Only like-minded people are allowed at this table.”

“I’m like-minded,” I said, sitting down. “Only I’ve become a postmillenialist.”

“What?!” roared Kline, leaping from the bench to assume the position picture. Thuy Dang, who happened to be on the spot with a camera, snapped the shot.

Once the drama had concluded, Thuy explained that she was taking photos to be included in brochures and other promotional material for the seminary. “You can put that picture in the section on Nouthetic Counseling,” I quipped. We all laughed.

We chatted for a bit through lunch. I don’t recall what about. When it was time to go, I said, “I just want to make sure you know I was kidding about what I said earlier.” (I was referring of course to my claim that I’d become postmillenial.)

“Except for the part about nouthetic counseling!” Kline replied.

Meredith G. KlineMeredith G. Kline, my teacher and friend, died peacefully on Friday night, April 13, 2007. How can I sum up what I learned from this fellow bondservant of the Lord? There is too much to say.

In 1996 I was serving a year-long internship at an OPC in Orange County, CA preparatory to entering the ministry. One day, I drove down to Westminster Seminary to do some research and to see Kline. He and I and Lee Irons chatted in his office for a bit. He asked how my internship was going.

I told him that the pastor overseeing my internship did not care for my preaching. The pastor told me I was not offering the congregation practical solutions to their problems and practical hopes. I was just giving them “pie in the sky when you die.” (That was not my own phrasing but what the pastor actually and repeatedly said.)

Kline smiled a beatific smile and said, “Give me more of that pie in the sky.”

It was a sweet moment. He knew that there was nothing more important, nothing better, nothing more glorious in ministry than to hold out that heavenly hope. In one way or another, he had spent all our class time and all our conversations holding out that hope to me, teaching me to hold it out to others.

Kline did this because the heavenly hope was his own food and drink. He did not say “Give them more of that pie in the sky” though that sentiment was obviously implied. He said “Give me more.” He taught this hope to us because it was the only hope he had. And nothing distracted him from it.

There’s an old joke about some preachers that they are “so heavenly minded, they’re no earthly good.” Kline knew that this was impossible. He knew that the only value a pastor had to the sheep was to be utterly heavenly minded. And he knew his own heavenly mindedness was his only value to us, the prospective preachers and teachers who sat in his classes.

Meredith Kline is not ashamed to stand before his Redeemer this day. He has exactly what he wanted, exactly what he hoped for, exactly what he taught. Having attained to this “first resurrection,” he awaits with contentment the fuller and more perfect joys of the second.

(This post may be considered a follow-up to The Incarnation and Ethics)

Does the new ethic obligate the Christian to a sort of radical pacifism? That’s the question that came up a couple of weeks back in Sunday School when I spoke a little about the new covenant morality. The questioner gave an example. If someone invades my home, can I defend it? Or does the new ethic obligate me to step aside and let the thief take what he wants? What about defending my person or my family? Must I also allow the thief to do us bodily harm?

It’s a good question. I think it’s not quite the right question, but it’s not quite right in an instructive way. If I answer the question yes then the new ethic degenerates into legalism. The call for a righteousness that exceeds that of the Pharisees becomes a crushing demand that we out-Pharisee the Pharisees. But if I answer the question no I’m backing away from the glorious implications of the Incarnation and the Cross. I’m admitting I got a little carried away with rhetoric but when push comes to shove (ha ha) I’ll sober up and back down. Not back down. Whatever.

So instead I want to answer the question yes and no, or “not exactly, but let me explain.”

Let’s get away from the question of obligation for a moment. Let’s evaluate the act being proposed as though someone’s already done it. Suppose you hear of a Christian man who encounters a thief in his home. He stands aside and says, “Friend, take what you need freely. I will not have your soul stained with this sin.” Suppose the thief attacks and the man refuses to strike a blow in return. Instead he pleads with the attacker not to proceed further down this path of corruption. If the attack extends to the man’s family, he shields them with his body but still refuses to strike a blow.

Wouldn’t we say that such a man had behaved in a Christlike manner? Wouldn’t we find in this story the echoes of the cross? I hope we would not say that the man had somehow failed in his duty to defend his home from being plundered or his body from harm. (I think some might have difficulty with the “failure” to defend family, but I think even that could come from grace and be a taking up of the cross.) We would rather say that he had acted according to the grace given to him. And the result was a moving testimony to the love of Christ.

So far so good. Now let’s bring back the question of obligation. Was the man required to behave this way? Was he, after all, only doing his duty in not fighting back? I don’t think so. I think he was going above and beyond, just as Christ went above and beyond to die on the cross.

Now here’s where it gets tricky and we have to think carefully. Don’t we have an “obligation” to go above and beyond? Aren’t we “required” to take up the cross? Yes we are. But I cannot prescribe for you nor you for me how that will work itself out. Only the grace of God, only the Spirit of Christ working from within can make that prescription. If I make the requirement from without it will become a heavier burden even than the Law of Moses. It will crush you. But if the requirement comes from Christ in you, then his yoke is easy and his burden is light.

Think of another example. Right now there are plenty of people who need kidney transplants. You’ve got two good kidneys. Go give one away. To give your kidney to a stranger would be (or could be) a Christlike action. Therefore you must be obligated to do it.

You see how, looked at the wrong way, the new ethic can become a terrifying new legalism. If I go out and give a kidney, great. Hopefully I’d be doing it out of Christlike love and it would be a testimony to the power of the cross. But if I come back and tell you that now it’s your turn and the love of Christ compels you to give a kidney as well, I’ve taken a wrong turn. I’m trying to take the role of the Spirit in speaking to your conscience.

An example from Scripture can help us sort this out. Consider the early Church. The book of Acts tells us the first believers were selling their possessions and holding the proceeds in common to be given to each according to their need (Acts 2:42-47, 4:32-37). It’s a beautiful and moving testimony to the work of the Spirit and of grace in their lives.

Now we can have two wrong reactions to that story. The first wrong view is to say that those early Christians over-reacted. They shouldn’t have been so careless with their money. People who take this view (and sadly, there are some) point to the fact that Paul later speaks of taking monetary gifts to Jerusalem from other churches (Romans 15:25-27, 1 Cor 16:1-3). Obviously, they say, the Jerusalem church wasn’t prudent with their money. They hadn’t saved some for a rainy day and now other churches had to help them out. That’s a ludicrous view. Clearly, the point of those gifts is that, just as the Jerusalem church had provided for others who had need, so now other believers were providing for them. It’s a beautiful example of the cross at work.

Still, I guess you can have a little sympathy for what drives some people to that view. They’re intimidated by what the Spirit did in the Jerusalem church. And they wonder, does that mean that the pastor and elders of my church need to start telling everyone to pool their resources and stop having any private goods?

That’s the other wrong reaction to the story–as though Scripture is telling us we must become communistic. In fact, the Bible goes right on to speak against that error. Remember Ananias and Sapphira. They sold a plot of land and gave part of the proceeds to the church but claimed they gave it all. How does Peter rebuke them? Does he say, “You really should have given everything to the church. Don’t you know we have no private property here?”

No. Peter says, “While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal?” (Acts 5:4). Peter clearly affirms that the property belonged to them and that, for his part, he had no designs on it and the Church had no claim to it. The problem isn’t that they had private property. The problem is that they were trying to fake the work of the Holy Spirit in order to gain approval. If the Spirit had truly moved them to sell the property and give all the proceeds, everyone would have rejoiced with them. If the Spirit did not so move, no one would have a right to judge them.

That’s the only way this new ethic can work. Otherwise, it’s time for the elders of the church to come audit your finances and take whatever you don’t need (and then some, really) and give it to the poor. That’s what will happen if we turn this new ethic into a set of regulations where I can define for you exactly how far above and beyond God requires you to go.

So, yes. Turn the other cheek. Go the extra mile. Give to the one who asks of you. Bear the cross. Everything you have and everything you are belongs to God, to the body of Christ, and to every stranger you meet. Give as much of it as you can according to the grace and the strength you are given. Seek to hear the Gospel that you may be moved to give even more. And leave your brother’s conscience to the Spirit of Christ who alone can command in a way that is not burdensome.

(This post may be considered a follow-up to This Holy Tide of Christmas which I posted on December 25, 2006.)

Once the Incarnation occurred, it should have been obvious that Old Testament ethics were insufficient. It’s not that there’s anything actually wrong with the morality God gave his people under Moses. I’m not saying a word against the 10 Commandments (any more than Lee Irons was, but that’s a post for another time). But the ethical substance of the Decalogue tells us only of our duty. It outlines our obligations–the good deeds that God requires–and leaves the matter there.

The Incarnation introduces a new element to the discussion. And this new element makes it impossible to discuss the ethics of God’s people in terms of mere obligation.

The ethical core of the 10 Commandments expresses God’s unchanging character. The rules could not be otherwise. Worshiping other gods is something God must condemn. If he did not, he would not be God. Nor could God make creatures in his image and then tell them–contrary to that very image–that it is ok to murder or commit adultery or steal or lie. The Decalogue is one summary (there are others) of what the rules must be because of who God is and what he must require. God himself is obligated by these rules. And that statement does not compromise God’s freedom. It simply means that God is who he is and does not change. God who is supreme, always just, faithful, and true cannot suddenly become God who is one among many, unjust, breaking his oath, a liar. Nor can he permit his creatures to behave in that way without retribution.

In short, God must be good.

But the Incarnation involves a whole different sort of goodness–a goodness to which God was not obligated. He didn’t have to do it. Of course, if the eternal son of God had not become man, we could never be saved, But then God had no ethical duty to save us.

Consider the angels. Some angels rebelled against God so he ejected them from heaven. Now the fallen angels await their final judgment with dread. For them, there is no Savior. And that reflects no injustice on God’s part. God did with the angels what was right and good. He did, in a manner of speaking, his duty. For God must punish sin or be unjust. He who is holy cannot dwell with those who are unholy. That is contrary to his nature.

That much we can learn from the ethics of the 10 Commandments.

If God had treated us according to those ethics (as he did the fallen angels) we would have no cause for complaint. When Adam and his wife sinned, God could have judged them then and there with a final, irreversible judgment. Or he could have ejected them from the garden to await, without hope, their final condemnation. Just as he ejected the angels from heaven.

Then, just like the fallen angels, we would have no legitimate accusation against God. Adam and all his descendants could have been condemned to hell and the unfallen angels would sing unceasingly in praise of God’s goodness. Indeed the Decalogue–as an insight into God’s moral character–gives us no reason to expect a different outcome.

But we did get a different outcome. The eternal Son of God became a man to save his people from their sins. Truly this even springs from the goodness of God, but it is a goodness beyond any ethical obligation. God did not have to save us, yet he did. The Father owed us nothing but wrath. Yet he gave us his Son.

In doing this, God transcended the old ethics of obligation in a way that puts its stamp on everyone who belongs to him. How can we any longer speak of mere duty when God went so far beyond duty to save us?

If the Incarnation fails to persuade us that a new morality is afoot, surely the Crucifixion will awaken our dead hearts. In the Incarnation, God gave us his Son, humbled more than we can possibly conceive. At the Crucifixion, God put that Son to death.

How can we, who have benefited immeasurably from this extravagant, gratuitous, unrequired goodness speak any more of mere duty?

This is what’s behind Jesus’ teaching in Luke 17:7-10 where the servants who do only what was commanded cry out “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty”. That seems a strange thing to say when judging by the old morality. But looked at in the light of the Incarnation and the Cross, it makes perfect sense.

There’s a new ethic in town. It’s an ethic that calls us to be as extravagant with one another as God has been with us. The Law can tell me to love my neighbor as I love myself. Only the Gospel–far transcending the Law–can move me to esteem you better than myself (Philippians 2:3). Moses commands us not to defraud. Only the Spirit of Christ could have made the churches in Macedonia give “beyond their means” (2 Corinthians 8:3). The Decalogue can order me not to murder. Only the love of Christ can compel me to lay down my life for the brethren (1 John 3:16).

This is the newness of the new commandment that Jesus gives in John 13. We are to love one another in the same way Christ has love us–humbling ourselves to the utmost as he did at his Incarnation, laying down our lives as he did at the cross. Moses never issued such a command. He couldn’t. The Law lacks that kind of moral authority.

The new commandment isn’t just another commandment to add to the list. The new commandment differs fundamentally, qualitatively, from all the old ones. The old commandments tell us of our obligation, of our duty. They push us to do right. The new commandment draws us forward to do more than mere duty. It calls us by the love of Christ to freely and cheerfully go beyond all commands. Anyone who seeks to fulfill the new commandment will naturally fulfill the old, and more besides. Anyone who pursues the old commandments will not even fulfill those.

(For a follow-up to this post, see Implications of the New Ethic.)

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.