Church Write-Up: The Law and Eternal Life

For church last Sunday, I watched some church services at home.  The reason I did not go out was that the air quality was poor, due (I presume) to the recent forest fires in Washington and Oregon.

A.  The first service that I watched was that of John MacArthur, Jr.  He spoke about the purpose of the law of God.  According to MacArthur, the Judaizers against whom Paul wrote in Galatians claimed that justification (i.e., being right with God) was by faith in Abraham’s time, but that it was by obedience to the law after God gave the law at Sinai.  Why else, they asked, would God have given the law?  MacArthur contended that God gave the law for a variety of reasons.  One reason was to separate Israel from the pagan nations, so that them Israelites would not socialize with them intimately.  That was designed to protect them from paganism.  Another reason was to show the Israelites that they fell short of obedience to God’s moral standards and thus needed a Savior.  The sacrifices atoned for their sin, demonstrating that they were sinners.  And the law contained God’s moral character, of which the Israelites fell short.  The law, for Paul, led to destruction and wrath, since the Israelites did not and could not observe it.  Through Christ, however, the life that was promised in the Abrahamic covenant comes to believing Israelites and Gentiles.  MacArthur talked about the errors of legalism and antinomianism.  For MacArthur, people are still obligated to obey the requirements of the law that reflect God’s moral character, and the New Testament commands.  God, after all, is holy, and MacArthur said that he doubted that he would want to worship a God who was not just and holy.  MacArthur also said that, when it comes to grace teachers (i.e., teachers who say that obedience to the moral law is unnecessary, since salvation is by grace through faith), he expects them to suffer a moral failure, and they often do.  Another point that MacArthur made was that it is acceptable for obedience to God’s moral law to flow from a sense of duty, even when there is not a deep spiritual feeling.  Paul, after all, said that he beats his body and makes it his slave (I Corinthians 9:27).

MacArthur observed that God’s covenant with Abraham did not talk much about sin or morality.  MacArthur speculated that, prior to the giving of the law, there was some unclarity about God’s moral will.  That was why there was polygamy then, MacArthur stated.  That reasoning, by itself, is problematic, for the law itself appeared to permit polygamy, as Deuteronomy 21:15 demonstrates (yet Deuteronomy 17:17 prohibits the king to multiply wives).  At the same time, the law does prohibit certain acts that the patriarchs practiced: Abraham married his half-sister (Genesis 20:11-12), which Deuteronomy 27:22 forbids.  MacArthur may have a point, even if the example that he cited was not very good.  MacArthur may also have had in mind Paul’s enigmatic statement in Romans 5:13-14, even though MacArthur did not cite it or quote it in that particular sermon: Paul there says that sin was in the world prior to the law, yet it was not imputed, and nevertheless death reigned from Adam to Moses.  Before the law, were people let off the hook by God, since God did not yet make God’s will known through the law?  The thing is, God punished people for sin prior to the law: God punished people with a flood on account of their violence, and God destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah.  (UPDATE: Actually, my paraphrase of Romans 5:13-14 is laced with my interpretation. Paul actually says that sin is not imputed where there is no law. There is a scholarly argument that Paul’s point there is that there was a moral law prior to the Mosaic law.)

There are other questions that I have about what MacArthur said about the law.  If God gave Israel rules to separate her from pagans in a sea of paganism, why did God not do the same for the Christians, who were also in a sea of paganism?  Was it because God wanted to give Israel a chance to develop in a righteous direction, setting the foundation for Christianity to come?  Once the foundation had been set, Christians could come on the scene and did not need the Torah’s rituals to keep them separate from paganism.  At the same time, there was some desire on Paul’s part to keep believers separate from non-believers, on some level, for Paul in II Corinthians 6:14 criticizes being unequally yoked; still, Paul in I Corinthians 7:12-14 exhorts believing wives to remain married to non-believing husbands.  I also question whether the Hebrew Bible itself regarded the Torah as a path to destruction, assuming that no one could keep it.  There were righteous people in the Hebrew Bible, such as Josiah, who was said not to turn to the right or the left (II Kings 22:2).  Yet, there were gracious provisions even in the Old Testament: God accepted Israel’s repentance and preserved Israel on account of God’s covenant with Abraham.  Could Paul have meant that the law, apart from these gracious provisions, would lead to destruction?  Or is that a stretch?

B.  The second sermon was preaching on Matthew 7:13-23.  In that biblical passage, Jesus exhorts people to travel the narrow way that leads to life, which few travel, rather than the broader, more popular way, which leads to destruction.  Jesus also warns his disciples of false prophets, and Jesus states that not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” to Jesus will enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but only those who do God’s will.  Doing miracles will not grant a person entrance into the Kingdom.  The topic of the sermon was avoiding “judgment shock,” which means expecting to inherit eternal life at the last judgment and instead finding that one is going to hell.  How does one avoid this?  The pastor said that being in church and simply believing facts about God is not enough, for  the demons believe in God yet are not saved (James 2:19).  Doing good works is not enough, either.  According to the pastor, one inherits eternal life by trusting Christ for salvation, as one’s Savior and Lord.  But were not the people in Matthew 7:21-22 believing in Christ, since they called him “Lord, Lord”?  The pastor said that they were saying that because they were at the last judgment and they would say anything to get out of going to hell.  Yet, the pastor also seemed to suggest that they thought that they were believers before then, during their lifetime.  But they did not have a deep relationship with Christ, which was why Christ said that he never knew them; Jesus also calls them workers of iniquity in v 23.  The pastor also said that he could spend time with a person and figure out what that person’s passions are, implying, perhaps, that true Christians have a passion for Christ.  This is not my favorite kind of message, but I like when the pastor shares aspects of his own testimony.  He said that, in his youth, he wanted to be a band leader, and he is glad that God delivered him from that, since where would he be had he gotten that wish?  He also expressed gratitude for the preachers of his youth who talked about hell and the need to be born again, and that he has more joy as a follower of Christ than he ever had following the world.

Matthew 7:21-22 has long disturbed me.  But I was thinking on Sunday afternoon: it is in the spirit of the prophets of the Hebrew Bible, who said that worship of God was not enough to please God, if people turned around and oppressed and harmed their neighbor.  Why worship God, if one does not want to stand for what God stands for?  Jesus appears to be making the same sort of point.  Was Jesus saying that salvation was by good works, then?  Not exactly: in the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus shed his blood to ransom people and remit their sins (Matthew 20:28; 26:28), so it portrays the death of Jesus as essential for salvation; people, presumably, cannot simply clean themselves up by doing good works, for Jesus needed to die for them to be forgiven, even in the Gospel of Matthew.

I’ll stop here.


About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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