The Road to Faith

By Stephen Terry


Sabbath School Lesson Commentary for November 5 – 12, 2011


“Is the law, therefore, opposed to the promises of God? Absolutely not! For if a law had been given that could impart life, then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” Galatians 3:21, NIV

How strange that Paul should write this. His implication being that a law could not have been given that could impart life. Yet we read in Leviticus 18:5, “Keep my decrees and laws, for the person who obeys them will live by them. I am the LORD.” NIV How can such a contradiction come from Paul, who was raised in Judaism and was totally immersed in every bit of legalism that comes with such an upbringing. This bears closer investigation.

On the one hand we have God via Moses proclaiming that those who obey His laws will live by them. This seems pretty straight forward. Find out what the laws are and carry them around for reference so we can check them off as obeyed and be assured of life. Maybe phylacteries would be a handy way to do this. Then everyone would know that we were committed to doing what God said. Maybe we could also write them on the doorposts of our homes so we would be reminded on entering and exiting what the checklist said. (See Deuteronomy 6:7-9) Of course that would allow us to see outwardly whether or not our neighbors were doing the same. Not that we would judge them in this, but everyone knows that the Bible says, “By their fruit you will recognize them…” Matthew 7:16, NIV

Paul’s statement however seems as antinomian as crosses and symbols of fish on car bumpers are to phylacteries. He begins on a familiar note as he maintains that the law is not opposed to God’s promises. But then he goes on “if a law had been given,” the grammatical structure here implies that it had not been, “that could impart life,” again the implication is the opposite, that it cannot impart life, “then righteousness would certainly have come by the law.” The formula variables would be A = Law Given, B = Law Obeyed, C = Righteousness, D = Life. So the formula would be A + B = C or A + B = D therefore C = D. This is the formula used in Leviticus 18:5. But Paul is maintaining that A + B does not equal either C or D.

Instead, Paul has repeatedly said that a new variable F = C and therefore by definition also D. But F does not equal A + B. (See Romans 1:17, Galatians 3:18, Ephesians 2:8-9, and Philippians 3:8-9) Some disagree with this new variable being equal to either C or D. Instead they replace A with F in the original formula. But if F = C or D then by definition F + B cannot equal either one. Perhaps this is the unworkable example of putting new wine in old wineskins that Jesus referred to. (See Matthew 9:17)

It is easy to understand why some would want the formula to be F + B = C. If it is, then they still have something that will allow them to do a little “fruit inspecting.” Works are much easier to identify than faith. It makes it more convenient to compare my works with someone else’s to see how I am doing and by comparison, how they are doing as well. And by making the formula F + B, I can then judge their faith as well since works are an acceptable standard of comparison.

Some defend these comparisons by maintaining that they are necessary to purge evil from the church. Yet, after several millennia of applying this formula, evil still exists within the church. In fact every apostasy throughout history has arisen first within the church. If this has been meant to be an effective safeguard against evil, it has not worked very well. If anything it has resulted in far more heinous evil in the inquisitions, pogroms, and crusades that have slain many in the name of maintaining a pure church. Too many today see themselves as wielding the spear of Phinehas to root evil from the camp. (See Numbers 25:7-8) Were the evil as clear cut as what Phinehas dealt with then perhaps this would be acceptable but it is not.

Unfortunately, we all too often apply a mistranslation of a Bible verse to attack all sorts of imagined evils. We judge others based on an appearance of evil, not the reality of evil. In the King James Version, the verse reads “Abstain from all appearance of evil.” 1 Thessalonians 5:22. Some have applied this translation as “It doesn’t matter if you are actually doing evil of not. If it looks like evil to me, you are sinning.” However, a more correct translation of this passage is found in the New International Version as well as several other translations, “reject every kind of evil.” The clear difference is that evil has to actually be present, not just its appearance, to be rejected.

How then can a Christian living by the Spirit be secure to live a righteous life within and secure against evil from without if they do not have the law as a guide? The answer is faith. Faith is the active principle of a life lived by the law of the Spirit. This is the faith spoken of in Psalm 23 and Psalm 91. Some would have us believe that God is not like this, that instead of walking through dark valleys with us, or making our food and drink sure in the very presence of our enemies, He is instead looking for ways to get out of helping us. They picture Him as a God who sits in heaven with His checklist and makes notes like “Sally didn’t have an offering at church this week. No blessings for her.” Or “Jimmy went into a bar tonight. Keep all the angels away, and let the Devil have him.” Some Christians actually model this type of God in their own behavior towards others.  How sad.

Jesus portrayed God as a loving father eagerly watching and waiting for his son to return home. A father who loved that son so much that no matter what the son had done, the first thing he would experience was his father’s loving embrace. All that the son had was from his father. But rather than use it to show honor and respect to his father, he threw it away in a far city. We often do the same with the blessings God has sent our way. But God’s love is constant, no matter what we have done. If we choose to return to Him, He watches for us and stands with His arms open to receive us.

John tells us succinctly that “God is love.” (See 1 John 4:8) God Himself wants us to know Him in this way. He says of Himself, “…I will cause all my goodness to pass in front of you, and I will proclaim my name, the LORD, in your presence. I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I will have compassion.” Exodus 33:19, NIV This is the same God that John told us about when he wrote, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” 1 John 1:9, NIV

This is the God I love. He stands ready to forgive all if I only come to Him. And because Jesus died once for all sins, He stands ready to cleanse us from all sin, anytime, anywhere. I like to think of it like a loving mother when her little boy comes in from playing; all covered with mud, clothes dirty, hair a mess. When the child is young, mother draws the bath, places him in the warm water and scrubs the dirt away. She knows her child is too young to do as well at scrubbing as she can.

As the child grows older, mother knows she can hand her son a towel and some soap and shampoo and let him wash himself. Periodically, she checks behind the ears to make sure he is on track. If necessary, she can step in to do the job if he goes to astray with his cleanliness. Eventually, he will become so attuned to cleanliness that he knows where the towels are, where the soap and shampoo are, and can find his own way to the shower. Mother does not even have to monitor his cleanliness. Because he loves his mother and himself, he does what love leads him to do.

This is how God relates to us. The Old Testament was an allegory of this relationship. In the beginning, God had to be personally involved with a lot of hand holding to keep things going in the right direction. Eventually, He felt it was safe to simply provide the towel and the soap. In this case it was a checklist of how to achieve cleanliness. (See Exodus 20) He knew that we would not always do a very good job with the checklist, so He would “check behind our ears” by sending prophets to remind us of spots we had missed.

But now, through Paul, He allows us to opportunity to have a mature faith. That mature faith has only guiding purpose: love. That is the law of the Spirit that Paul writes of in Romans 8. Like the dirty child, we cannot get there straight away. We must mature in our faith. A child who cannot understand the need to keep himself clean cannot understand how anyone can be trusted to seek cleanliness. They judge all others according to their own desires. They reason, “I like to be a dirty little piggy, so everyone else must like to be a dirty little piggy even if they pretend they don’t.”

The child who learns about cleanliness but still needs to be handed a towel and soap is suspicious of anyone wanting cleanliness who does not have a towel and some soap. They will measure other’s sincerity by the presence of the towel and soap. They reason “The towel and soap make me clean, so anyone who does not have a towel and soap must not be clean.”

The child who has a mature understanding of cleanliness will know that cleanliness will come when needed because mother wills it so. Since he loves her and lives in her will, he is perpetually clean. He will patiently help those in the first two stages. He knows they will judge him because they do not see the physical presence of his mother. They cannot see her presence in his heart. They will also judge him because he does not walk around with a towel and soap all the time. But he knows his mother has provided everything for his cleanliness. He is confident in his mother’s love and knows that his understanding of cleanliness comes from her. Because he loves her, he also loves her other children and encourages them to love her also. He understands how F = C or D. He understands the law of the Spirit because it lives in him.



This Commentary is a Service of Still Waters Ministry







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