The Gospel

(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 loved 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.)

Zrim, one of my faithful commenters, has expressed a concern about a couple of my references to Roman Catholics. Those posts appear to imply that I don’t consider Roman Catholics to be fellow believers. I’d like to address that question and add some nuances to my position lest my brief earlier remarks give the wrong impression.

First of all, I do believe that official Roman Catholic doctrine is fatally flawed. In teaching that Mary is “co-redemptrix” with Christ the Roman Catholic church has denied something basic and essential about our redemption, however much they try to finesse what they’re saying. And in actively denying the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that church has, officially and on paper at least, denied the Gospel.

But not all Catholic priests preach these false doctrines. And when they do, not all Catholic laity heed them. Further, I want to say that it is possible to preach false doctrine confusedly and inconsistently. I am certain that I do so because I am fallible. So having articulated a false doctrine at one point or at several does not damn one to the consequences of that false doctrine. We are, after all, not justified by the purity of our articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith alone. We are, simply, justified by faith alone, our at times confused articulations of that doctrine notwithstanding.

If you look at the Roman Catholic liturgy, I think you will find that it contains the substance of the Gospel (though it may contain other things as well). The humble parishioner who hears that liturgy in faith can surely be saved by what he hears or, to be more precise, by Christ to whom the liturgy points. (And I’m not so sure I’d be this generous in assessing the worship at churches that believe in America as a “Christian nation.”)

But let’s bring this closer to home so we can gain some perspective. I find in Reformed literature statements that seem to deny the Gospel, sometimes with less subtlety than the Catholic catechism or the Council of Trent. Consider, for example this articulation of salvation by grace from Doug Jones: “Abraham was obligated to obey the Lord faithfully ‘by doing righteousness and justice,’ thus meeting the gracious conditions of God’s covenant.” Wow. How do we enter into and remain under God’s grace? By faithful obedience in doing righteousness and justice. This statement is clearly contrary to the Gospel, a perverse denial of Paul’s statements in Romans 4 and Galatians 3.

Yet this statement comes from someone who self-identifies as Reformed, who formally affirms the doctrine of justification by faith alone. And it comes in a book that states its mission with the following title: Back to Basics: Rediscovering the Richness of the Reformed Faith. (The book, by the way, makes no mention of either sola fide or sola scriptura.) And if you look at the comments on this book at, people are persuaded that this volume is the real deal.

Or consider this statement on sanctification by popular reformed author Jay Adams: “You will become that much more like God only because of what you have done and thought and said each day” (Godliness through Discipline). As a friend commented when I read this to him, “That lacks the subtlety of the Roman Catholic position.”

What shall we make of such statements, of the people who make them, and of those who approve? The statements are clearly contrary to the Gospel. Shall we say the authors are outside the faith? I would want more evidence. Shall we say that the authors and those who approve these statements have, at least in part, misunderstood the faith at a basic level? Yes, I think so.

What should be our attitude toward people in congregations where such errors are taught? Well, I think we ought to try to bring them to a better understanding of the Gospel. As they hear it, I think some of them, God willing, will come to understand the Gospel for the first time. They will confess that, though they had previously self-identified as Christians, they had not until now been born again.

Others will confess that, though they had been born again years previously (or had grown up believing), they had hitherto had a poor and clouded understanding of the Gospel.

Many will choose to leave the churches where these false doctrines are taught. Some will stay, hoping to effect reform from within.

My thoughts on this sort of thing remain the same when talking about the Roman Catholic church. I can’t agree not to evangelize Catholics as those who signed the Evangelicals and Catholics Together document did. In the same way, I can’t agree not to evangelize Reformed Christians in error-filled congregations, even if those congregations are in my own or a sister denomination. (One purpose of this blog would, in fact, be to pursue just that sort of evangelism among the Reformed.)

I take if for granted that many (but not all) Roman Catholics are unconverted and that, when converted, many will choose to leave that church. And I believe the great majority of Roman Catholics–even those who are genuinely converted–are poorly instructed in the faith. If someone “explains the way of God more accurately” to them, I think many (but not all) will choose to leave.

That’s my basic position. Whether it will decrease or add to the furls in Zrim’s brow, I don’t know. But I think this statement reduces the potential for misunderstanding occasioned by my earlier posts.

Christmas is over as far as the Western cultural celebration. But in the Church calendar, Christmas doesn’t begin until December 25, and it lasts for 12 days. So let’s take advantage of the season, now that the busy-ness is over, to talk about the Incarnation.

The Christmas carol “God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen” has a line in one of its verses that goes like this: “This holy tide of Christmas all others doth deface”. I think “deface” meant something a little different back then–perhaps “render obsolete” would get closer to the meaning now.

In any event, it’s a bold statement–to privilege the Nativity and its commemoration above all other Christian remembrances. And in one sense the statement is quite false. The Crucifixion and Resurrection have a far greater place in Christian remembrance, celebration, and salvation theology. Without the Crucifixion and Resurrection, the Nativity would be of no value to us. It would be a stupendous, marvellous, praiseworthy, and ultimately unhelpful (to us sinners) display of God’s power.

Yet in another sense, the carol is right. Before the Incarnation, the Crucifixion and Resurrection were more than merely unimaginable. They were inconceivable. How could God, who is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, become for his people the perfect sacrifice and the perfected human righteousness without which we must be condemned? How could the changeless change? How could the limitless take on limits? How could the immortal die?

Before the Incarnation there was scarcely a way to frame these questions let alone have any chance of guessing their answer. But once God has appeared in the flesh, his people can conceive of the possibility that he will offer himself up on their behalf and then, taking up his life again, precede them into heaven. Conceiving that, they might have the audacity to hope for what before was inconceivable.

The inconceivableness of the Incarnation weaves itself into Scripture from the very beginning. You will find it in the story of creation. What could be more plainly written into the Genesis account than this–that the distinction between Creator and creature is insurmountable and inviolable?

God creates humankind male and female, not as little gods but as creatures in God’s image. This language emphasizes at once the similarity and difference between man and God. They are like God not as his equals nor as lesser beings of the same sort, but as reflections, as analogies. So man is called to work just as God worked in creation. Yet man’s work is of a different quality. God’s work is simply speaking and seeing things brought into being from nothing by the power of his word.

Man’s work is not of this sort, yet it is similar. It is analogous. It is a reflection. Man’s work, though creaturely, is modeled on the work of his Creator. Yet the nature of this work is easily distinguished. God and his work are on one level, man and his work on another. Though analogous, the two cannot–and must not–be confused.

In the same way, by resting on the seventh day, God implicitly invites man to a similar rest. Yet man’s rest involves ceasing his creaturely activity and refreshing himself. It is like God’s rest but the two could never be confused. (There is a bonus here for those who understand the Framework Interpretation. We see clear notes in the creation account that man’s “days” are not the same as God’s but analogous to them. Even here the distinction between Creator and creature is preserved.)

Notice that this distinction between Creator and creature arises and is insisted on in Paradise, before the Fall. The distinction–even, so to speak, the distance–between man and God does not arise because of God’s holiness and man’s sin. Even before sin entered the world, God was God and man was man. Neither one could be the other.

Yet at the Incarnation, God did become man. The thing is impossible! The Creation story pounded it into our heads that such a thing could never, by any imaginative stretch, happen. Yet it happened! Before it happened, nothing could have been more unthinkable. It was beyond comprehension. After it happened, nothing could have been more amazing. I do not have enough awe in me to meet this event with the amazement it deserves. At times, the clouds part and I catch the merest glimpse of the amount of awe the Incarnation should inspire and I find myself in awe of how much awe that is.

When we add sin into the mix, the thing becomes more awesome still.

It is amazing enough that God the Creator should become, impossibly, a creature. It can only add to our amazement that the Holy One, who cannot dwell with sin, became a creature so he could dwell among sinners.

God made Moses take off his shoes before approaching the burning bush. Even the surrounding ground was holy. When God appeared at Sinai, he told Moses not to let the people approach or they would perish (Exodus 19:21). When the angel of the Lord announced the coming birth of Samson, Samson’s father Manoah said, “We shall surely die for we have seen God” (Judges 13:21). When Isaiah saw the Lord in the temple, high and lifted up, he did not rejoice. He cried, “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isaiah 6:5). How could this infinitely holy God come and dwell among sinners without consuming them?

And what sort of sinners are we? Go back to the beginning and find out. How does the Serpent tempt the woman? He says, you can be just like God, deciding for yourself what is good and what is evil. In other words, you don’t need to be content with being in the image of God–a mere reflection and analogy. You can become exactly like God. The Creator-creature distinction is a myth.

That’s what Original Sin is–an attempt to surmount the distinction between creature and Creator. Naturally, that is impossible.

To redeem such sinners, God does the impossible. He surmounts the Creator-creature distinction. Man fell because he wanted to become God. God saves by becoming a man. The redemption fits the crime.

What man could not do, what caused man to fall when he tried to do it, God, out of his boundless mercy and infinite love, has done. That’s the glory of the Incarnation, of this Nativity that we celebrate. It is beyond all telling.

Merry Christmas to all,

Christmas Day 2006

(For a follow-up to this post, see The Incarnation and Ethics posted on March 6, 2007.