Friday, February 15, 2013

The Law As a Mirror

My church for its Bible Study is going through Romans: The Letter That Changed the World, with Mart De Haan and Jimmy DeYoung.  I got to attend last night, but I won't be able to attend next week because I'll be in Indiana for my sister's wedding.  But I'll still be blogging about next week's lesson, since I was able to watch it online, plus I can answer the questions in the booklet, in my own way.  The only problem is that I won't be able to communicate to you what others in the group say, but at least I'll be writing something!

But let's proceed to last night's session!  I have three items.

1.  One question that I have often asked on this blog is whether Paul understood the law of Moses to be for Israel alone, or for Gentiles as well.  I've written posts in which I've speculated about this issue myself, and I've written posts in which I've gone through what biblical scholarship has said about the topic.  See here and here if you are interested in these posts.

How does our curriculum handle this issue?  Well, my impression is that it regards the law of Moses as something that God gave to physical Israel alone.  Why, then, does Paul talk to Gentiles about how the law points out people's sin, how the law condemns people because they do not obey it, and how trying to be justified by the law is futile?  Does that not imply that the law is somehow relevant to Gentiles, not just Israel?  The answer that I got from the curriculum is that Paul was not just criticizing the use of the Mosaic law to achieve salvation, but any law, including Roman law.  Over the past several weeks, the curriculum has said that the Romans tried to appease the gods through their own efforts: through sacrifice, through adherence to virtues (i.e., self-discipline), etc.  But the message of the Gospel is that we cannot climb our way to God through our own efforts, for we are sinful, and so God has come down to us by sending Jesus Christ to save us.

(UPDATE:  I do remember someone implying on the DVD that Roman law was not good enough, for it fell short of God's standards for people.  Roman law stressed outward compliance, but God desired for people to be morally pure on the inside, not just the outside.  The idea may be that, even if Gentiles were not subject to the authority of the Mosaic law, God still held them to certain standards.  In my opinion, Romans 2:14 expresses this.)

The irony is, however, that, when our group went on to discuss how the law is a mirror to us in that it points out our sin, we didn't look at Roman virtues; rather, by "law", we meant the Ten Commandments, which are part of the Torah that was supposedly given only to Israel.  That brings me to my next point.

2.  When we talked about how the law is a mirror that points out our sins to us, and how we all fall short of the law, we mentioned the Ten Commandments, but we did not really talk about which specific commandments we have violated.  I seriously doubt that anyone in the group has killed anyone (though people there may have hated others, and Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount says that hate is murder, but I'm really hesitant to say that Paul had the Sermon on the Mount in mind when he said that we disobey the law).  Rather, when we discussed our shortcomings, we focused more on how we have failed to behave consistently in a Christ-like manner.  We may blow our stack with certain people rather than treating them with respect and kindness, for example.  But "Thou shalt not lose your temper and blow your stack with people" is not one of the Ten Commandments (though I do recall that, as a child, my Dad assigned us kids to come up with our own commandments, and "Thou shalt not lose your temper" was the very first one).  So, by "law", the people in my group seemed to mean more than the Ten Commandments.

Maybe.  Someone in the group later referred to Jesus' summary of the law in Matthew 22:36-40, as Jesus quoted Deuteronomy 6:5 and Leviticus 19:18: that we love God with every fiber of our being, and that we care for our neighbor's needs the same way that we care for our own.  The person making this point said that this is a high standard that we can't reach.  Apparently, for my friend, we actually do fall short of the Mosaic law, for we do not love God with every fiber of our being or love our neighbors as we love ourselves.

I wonder, though, if this standard was intended to be so high that we could not reach it.  In II Chronicles 15:15, we read that the Judahites during the reign of King Asa swore with all of their heart and their whole desire to love God within God's covenant.  Apparently, they met the standard!  II Kings 23:25 says that King Josiah turned to the LORD with all of his heart, all of his soul, and all of his might.

Apparently, Josiah met the standard!  And these were imperfect human beings, just like we were.  I'm somewhat doubtful, therefore, that Deuteronomy 6:5 calls for absolute perfection.  There is some standard there, but I don't think that, within the Hebrew Bible, it's as high as the person in the Bible study group may think it is.  What about Leviticus 19:18's command that we love our neighbor as ourselves?  I'm not certain that it does mean that we have to care for every other person's needs in the exact same proportion as we care for our own needs.  Of course we care for our own needs first.  When most people have a job, they're working primarily to support themselves and their families.  But I think that the Mosaic Torah exhorted the Israelites to think of others besides themselves: to help out the poor with gleanings, the corners of the field, and tithes; to let the poor person who owes money to sleep in his own cloak; to respect people's lives and properties; etc.  I still find that I fall short of even the Mosaic law's standard, though, for I bear grudges (in violation of Leviticus 19:18) and I usually don't rebuke my neighbor when I have a problem with him (contra Leviticus 19:17).

3.  Okay, my friend in the Bible study group said that it's impossible for us to love God with every fiber of our being and to care for our neighbors the same way that we care for ourselves.  That's why we need Christ as our Savior, the evangelical message runs.  So, once we accept Christ, do we no longer have to love God with every fiber of our being and care for our neighbors as we care for ourselves?  Is the point of Paul's Gospel that we're sinners and Christ has paid the penalty for our sins, so now we'll go through the pearly gates after death rather than hell?  I've thought about this as we've gone through our Romans curriculum.  Some in the group present salvation as a free gift that God has given to us, which we cannot lose.  Yet, they also maintain that God has changed the hearts of those who receive Christ.  In the DVD that we watched, one of the people talking did not only refer to faith, but also surrender to God.  So there do seem to be elements of Lordship Salvation, if you will, in our curriculum and in our group discussions.  And yet, there's also a recognition that, even when we are Christians, we are far from being perfect.  That makes me wonder how good I have to be before I can have assurance that I am saved, something that I have discussed on this blog before.  Nowadays, though, I just don't worry about it.  If I have a theology, it's that God is love, and that I'm on a path of becoming more loving, even though I fall short.

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