Law does not get a very good rap in today’s culture. For law is associated with such things as right and wrong, truth and falsehood – all of which are under attack in our postmodern times. And it is not just the secular world which has trouble with law, absolute morality, and universal truth. Increasingly – and most unfortunately – the Christian church is also imbibing of the spirit of the age, and has effectively embraced the postmodern mindset.
I speak here especially of what is known as the emerging church. While there is a range of beliefs and practices associated with this new movement, there is a tendency for the emergent movement to simply be a religious version of secular postmodernism.
Now I have written elsewhere about my concerns with the emergent church. Here I want to focus on just one area: the emergent insistence that the Christian life is really only one thing: relationship with Jesus, and everything else – be it sound doctrine or holy living, are really not the main game, and indeed, can be distractions from the real thing.
Again I have written about this elsewhere – mostly recently in my article, “On Creed and Conduct (and Emergents)”. What I want to do here is take a more specific look at the antitheses we hear so often coming from the emergents.
The emergent church has this rather annoying habit of pushing false dilemmas. It strangely insists on a whole set of false antitheses, and forces us to choose between these opposites. The trouble is, most of these are not polar opposites at all. Indeed, they are two sides to the same coin, and cannot, and should not, be separated.
They are forcing us to make choices when Scripture knows of no such phony distinctions. They want an either/or when Scripture affirms a both/and. They want us to make a choice between two options when Scripture insists that we must hold such things together.
American theologian DA Carson is rightly upset at such unhelpful and unnecessary polarisations. He is frustrated no end – as am I – by these silly and unbiblical antitheses. Indeed, his well-deserved frustration comes out strongly in the concluding paragraph of his important critique of the emerging church, Becoming Conversant with the Emerging Church (Zondervan, 2005):
“So which shall we choose? Experience or truth? The left wing of an airplane, or the right? Love or integrity? Study or service? Evangelism or discipleship? The front wheels of a car, or the rear? Subjective knowledge or objective knowledge? Faith or obedience? Damn all false antitheses to hell, for they generate false gods, they perpetuate idols, they twist and distort our souls, they launch the church into violent pendulum swings whose oscillations succeed only in dividing brothers and sisters in Christ”.
The major false dilemma which I here will focus on is the relationship/regulation distinction. Emergents say we must either have relationship, or rules, regulations, law and commandments. Take your pick: one or the other. They continuously force us into this false choice between relationship (whatever that is – it is a pretty nebulous term, usually lacking in clear content) and any kind of list of obligations or duties, commands or responsibilities.
It is as if a follower of Jesus is free of any ethical responsibilities, and one just swims along in this vague, ethereal and nondescript relationship. But no one can read the four Gospels – let alone the entire New Testament – and fail to see how everywhere Jesus insisted that a love relationship with him involved keeping his commandments. Relationship with Jesus, in other words, has a clear ethical component – that is, a series of duties and obligations on our part.
Simply listing a few of the many passages in this regard should settle the argument, and show the deficiency of the emergent position:
-Matt 5:19 Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven.
-Matt 28:19-20 Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.
-Luke 11:28 Blessed are they that hear the Word of God and keep it.
-John 14:15 If you love me, you will obey what I command.
-John 14:21 Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me. He who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him.”
-John 14:23 Jesus replied, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him.
-John 15:10 If you obey my commands, you will remain in my love, just as I have obeyed my Father’s commands and remain in his love.
-John 15:14 You are my friends if you do what I command.
-1 John 2:3 We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands.
-1 John 5:2-3 This is how we know that we love the children of God: by loving God and carrying out his commands. This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome.
-2 John 6: And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands. As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.
If these were the only passages in the New Testament on this topic – and they are not – they would be more than enough to show the utter nonsense being proposed by some in the emerging church movement. There is absolutely no way one can divorce the keeping of God’s law from a love relationship with Jesus. The two are intrinsically connected, and as Jesus warned in Matt. 5:19, anyone who teaches otherwise is in serious trouble indeed.
I want to round out this discussion with a few thoughts I gleaned from a book I happened to pick up today. I refer to the excellent volume by J. Daryl Charles entitled, The Unformed Conscience of Evangelicalism: Recovering the Church’s Moral Vision (IVP, 2002).
In this very important volume Charles bewails the lack of ethical thinking – and behaviour – in the evangelical church. He is especially concerned about the lack of an evangelical social ethic. The entire book is well worth reading. But here I want to focus on just one chapter in the book (ch. 8) in which he closely examines the Gospel of Matthew in general and Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) in particular, and how Jesus so very intimately tied following Him with the importance of law and keeping his commands.
A few quotes will have to suffice here: Charles reminds us that according to Jesus, the Christian disciple is to be “characterised as a doer of the will of God.” And he notes that the final exhortation of Jesus to “teach others ‘to obey everything that I have commanded you’ (Mt 28:19-20) is the concluding declaration of Matthew’s Gospel. For Matthew, then, how the Christian lives is a central motif.”
Jesus is not renouncing the Old Testament law, nor is he inventing a new law. He instead is correcting the faulty understanding of God’s law which prevailed in First Century Palestine. “Jesus is in no way setting aside the demands of the law; rather, he is setting aside a wrong interpretation of those ethical demands – an interpretation that originates in the oral tradition of the rabbis (‘the tradition of the elders,’ Mk 7:13).”
“In Matthew, righteousness is profoundly a matter of doing. It is foremost social in character, serving as active leaven in society. Far from invalidating Old Testament law, the test cases in Matthew 5:21-48 reinforce Old Testament ethical standards, even while Jesus adjusts contemporary interpretation of these standards.”
The Sermon on the Mount is not meant to be something we are only finally able to realise in the next age. It is to be a present reality. “Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:1-7:29 is intended to be didactic and not prophetic in its function; its purpose is ethics and not eschatology. Jesus is calling for obedience to the commandments that love for God requires. That is, the guiding principle of love for God is objectively revealed in keeping statutory commandments.”
Love for God and love for his law are part and parcel of the believer’s walk. Sure, we are not saved by keeping the law. Salvation has always been by grace alone, in both Old and New Testaments. But our love for God is reflected in our longing to please him, and our willingness to “obey everything that I have commanded you”.
There is no silly separation between loving God and obeying God here. Loving God means obeying God. When we do not keep his commandments, we show that we really do not love God. So while the emergents may have had some good intentions here (perhaps to move away from legalism) they have ended up in an equally unhelpful error, license, or antinomianism. Both are wrong. Both are unbiblical. Both must be avoided by the believer.
So please, no more unbiblical false choices here. Please, let’s instead preach the whole counsel of God. Sure, God craves a love relationship with every one of us. But such a relationship is not the antithesis of keeping God’s commands, but is intimately bound up with following him, obeying him, serving him, and seeking to please him in all things.
A personal relationship with God through Christ is a most wonderful thing indeed. It is what distinguishes biblical Christianity from all other religions. But God is not just our bosom-buddy. We must treat God with all due respect and reverence. As the children in Narnia had to be reminded about Aslan, the lion-king, “He is not a tame lion, you know”.