Jesus, Law and Relationship

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”.

[1675 words]

18 Replies to “Jesus, Law and Relationship”

  1. If anyone enjoyed a unique relationship with Father God, it was Jesus and it was this to which Satan appealed whilst tempting him in the desert. But with what did Christ answer him?

    “It is written: ‘Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”
    “It is also written: ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.'”
    For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.'”

    Some folks also say that we should not struggle in our Christian walk but simply be filled with the Holy Spirit. Well that may be true but I am not always filled with the Spirit. I leak. And sometimes the choices I have to make regarding obeying God or obeying my sinful nature, is done using stone cold willpower. I don’t think God thinks any the less of my obeying him out of cold obedience, rather than flaming love.

    In his 1st letter to the 1 Corinthians, Chapter 9:25ff, Paul says. “Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man running aimlessly; I do not fight like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.”

    This is called discipline which give us the word disciple.

    David Skinner, UK

  2. Bill, I suspect that the reason that the emergent church appears so unbalanced is that they are trying to redress what I think is a very real issue with the Body of Christ generally — that being the phony distinction between clergy and the rest of us. But in doing so, perhaps they to an extent throw out the baby with the bath water.

    Nowhere in Scripture do I find the doctrine that I ought to obey my pastor. Rather, the Bible exhorts us to be in submission one to another. Pastor is a function of the Body of Christ, not a position with power to be weilded.

    There are many, like me, who are fed up with the pastoral power trips that are going on, and the relentless commercial and power machinery that is the organised church. (and I should know, I’ve worked for them…).

    I worry about the emergent church too though. But one needs to see where many who attend have come from. Many are broken, damaged people, who have suffered significant spiritual abuse. Perhaps they are not (yet) capable of seeing things clearly.

    “Those who are more spiritual should restore them gently”.

    Stephen Frost, Melbourne

  3. I would agree with Stephen. I know of many young adults in particular who have found the established forms of church to be forms of entertainment with no seemingly real depth.
    These people are finding in the emergent church a group of people who are at least willing to look at, and try to find answers to, some of the issues that the more established places choose not to.
    they are frustrated with the ‘super leaders’ who seem to travel from one conference to another carrying another prophecy of great expectations that people can hang on to for another year.
    Yes, these people are looking for relationship with some meaning attached, but they are also looking for reality. The group I know looked at the emerging movement but also found it lacking. It seems to me that the church may once again be at that place that it so often finds itself through history of needing to honestly question what it does and why.
    Warwick Murphy

  4. Thanks guys

    Several of you raise an important point. It seems that most people coming into the emerging church movement are not new converts, but simply disgruntled believers who have left their own churches. So this is mainly transfer growth, not conversion growth. Sheep stealing is another term for all this!

    Also, for all their dislike of traditional, institutional churches, the emergents are very quickly becoming, well, another traditional institution. They have their own conferences, books, speakers, leaders, videos, etc. Like most reform movements, it soon becomes an established institution, eventually needing to be reformed yet again. Nothing new under the sun, in other words.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  5. Yeah Stephen. Been there. Experienced that. What I find sadly amusing is that history shows that we change one form of temporal kingship for another, one form of papal tradition for another, one form of mortal headship and artificial spiritual hierarchy for another. Yet Jesus came specifically to give us a personal direct relationship to God through Him by the power of the Holy Spirit. How disappointed was God when the Israelites chose a man to be king instead of him. And how he longed for the time when His Son would establish a kingdom rule that replaced that. We live in that reign, yet like the passenger on the luxury cruise ship who doesn’t realise his ticket includes the lavish meal, we still seek mortals to spiritually lead us, to tell us what is actually written in our (spiritual) hearts.

    I had a (brief) conversation with a fellow believer who attends such a congregation and mentioning this concept was a ‘polarising’ discourse – essentially he couldn’t fathom that you can be under authority and yet be in charge of your own spiritual destiny, because of the teaching he sits under (as I used to). I find the pastors of the conservative congregation I attend understand this, and live it, and consequently the congregation is led to be obedient out of love, out of duty, and out of righteousness. The opposite to this is living purely out of our feelings and emotions, which we are warned not to do, for our carnal hearts are easily misled.

    However, there is often real desire and passion in the emerging churches which other churches can lack. Sort of like the dichotomy between romantic love and marital duty – both are good and both should be present – cold-headed decisions mixed with a passionate love. Like other examples you’ve shared, Bill, both can and should co-exist in a Christian’s life.

    Oswald Chambers in ‘My Utmost For His Highest’ often refers to the glory in the tedium, or maybe it’s glory of the tedium – staying true and disciplined and focused on Christ and His purposes through the the day-in day-out boring stuff that really tests us but in which there is much glory to God for our faithfulness and perseverance, because its in this way that we show that we truly love Him.

    I hope for much more discussion on this, as I think that this issue is at the very centre of much of the apostasy of today. It is a core doctrinal problem.

    Garth Penglase

  6. I LOVED this article. I couldn’t agree MORE. One of the things I have been getting a growing revelation on for many years has been the fact that many apparent opposites in the Bible are intended to be embraced together. Otherwise half the truth is missed. There are SO many examples – and the one you have given is excellent!

    I remember about 8 years ago, when asked to preach, I picked the topic of obedience. But my conscience had no peace – I kept getting the thought – preach on LOVE and obedience. I wasn’t interested, but I got no rest until I said, OK God – but you have to give me a revelation on love! And He did! I had a powerful encounter with God that night, that left me in no doubt as to the magnificence of God’s love. And all I wanted to do for the next few days was OBEY God. I was even able to stick to the speed limit!!! I’ve been in no doubt as to the absolute relationship between love and obedience ever since. And as you pointed out, John and 1 John are full of examples of this powerful connection!

    A few other thoughts I’ve had kicking around – on opposites, that may be in fact intertwined:

    1. Hardship and prosperity. Paul – I’ve learned the secret of being content in all circumstances – whether well fed or hungry
    2. Free will and predestination – both are represented in the Scriptures. Perhaps, in the same way that our brains are too small to comprehend the eternal nature of God, and the trinity, perhaps in the same way both predestination and free will can occur at the same time. Just a thought.
    3. Grace and judgment.
    4. Faith and works (Romans AND James)

    And arguments about these issues divide the church, and have done so for centuries, because both sides can be argued with Scripture. Perhaps it’s time, as you say, for the church to realise it’s an ‘AND’ not an ‘OR’.

    Kirsten Jack

  7. Sorry Bill – one more – I can’t resist.
    The REAL emerging church I see, is one that the Holy Spirit is preparing himself. And the ’emerging church’ as referred to in the literature is not yet aware of this underground development. I believe God is preparing a new breed, young and old, from every denomination – he’s preparing his bride – and he’s doing it himself. You meet people with the same heart, the same spirit, with the same revelations – and you just know, that God is on the move – and his Holy Spirit is refining and preparing.

    You’ve probably read ‘the vision’ (below). I love it, because it speaks of the new breed – and it stirs me up!!!

    The Vision
    This man comes up to me and he says
    What’s the vision
    What’s the big idea
    I open my mouth and the words come out like this
    The vision
    The vision is Jesus
    Dangerously obsessively undeniably Jesus
    The vision is an army of young people
    You see bones
    I see an army
    And they are free from materialism
    They laugh at 9 to 5 little prisons
    They could eat caviar on Monday and crust on Tuesday
    They wouldn’t even notice!!!!
    They know the meaning of the matrix
    They write their address in pencil
    They are mobile like the wind
    They belong to the nations
    They need no passport
    They are free
    Yet they are slaves of the dirty
    and hurting and dying
    What is the vision?
    The vision is holiness that hurts the eyes
    It makes children laugh and adults angry
    It gave up the game of minimum integrity long ago to reach for the stars
    It scorns the good and strains for the best
    It is dangerously pure
    Light flickers from every secret motive, every private conversation
    It loves people away from their Satan games, their suicide leaps
    This is an army that will lay down their lives for the cause
    a million times a day
    Its soldiers choose to lose that they might win the great
    ‘Well done faithful sons and daughters’
    Such heroes are as radical on Monday morning as they are on Sunday night
    They don’t need fame from names
    Instead they grin upwards and hear the heavenly crowd chanting again
    and again:
    And this is the sound of the underground
    The whisper of history in the making
    Foundations shaking
    Revolutionaries dreaming once again
    Mystery is scheming in whispers
    Conspiracy is breathing
    This is the sound of the underground
    And the army is disciplined
    Young people who beat their bodies into submission
    Every soldier would take a bullet for the cause
    For me to live is Christ and to die is a gain
    Sacrifice fuels the fire of victory
    Winners, martyrs
    Who can stop them
    Can hormones hold them back? Can fear stop them?
    Can failure succeed? Can death kill them?
    And the generation prays like a dying man
    With tongues beyond talking
    With warrior cries with sulfuric tears
    Waiting watching
    24/7 365
    Whatever it takes
    That they will gave
    Shaking mediocrity from its cozy little hide
    Laying down their rights and their precious little wrongs
    Laughing at labels, fasting essentials!
    The advertisers cannot mold them!
    Hollywood cannot hold them!
    Peer pressure is powerless to shake their resolve!
    Will they surrender their IMAGE!!!!!!! or their popularity?
    They pray as if it ALL DEPENDS ON GOD!
    And they LIVE as though it all depends on them.

    Kirsten Jack

  8. G’day Bill. Great article. In light of this, I would like to see your thoughts on the ‘The Pastor and the Imam’ conference held on the weekend in a CCC church locally. Many big popular churches seem to be obsessed with reaching out to various groups, putting aside the whole Gospel to only focus on the love bits, trying to avoid offending people. I think they call it being ‘inclusive’. Another aspect of this is ‘staying under the radar’ on certain issues such as abortion, gay rights, IVF and such issues. A high profile pastor called it ‘quiet diplomacy’. The problem is, that these leaders influence the greater body & cause many beleivers to go along with such political correctness. Thank God that we have voices such as yours to speak up and give a warning cry. God bless you for your work. Ryan Foley.
    Ryan Foley

  9. Thanks Ryan

    I must confess, I had not heard of that conference before. I will look it up, and if what you say is even remotely accurate, there will probably be an article coming to this site on the topic real soon! Thanks for the tip, and for the kind words.

    Thanks also to the kind and encouraging words from Kirsten.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  10. It seems that most people coming into the emerging church movement are not new converts, but simply disgruntled believers who have left their own churches. So this is mainly transfer growth, not conversion growth. Sheep stealing is another term for all this!

    Hi Bill,

    I agree with the first and second sentences. But isn’t the third a little harsh? If one shepherd abuses and drives off his sheep, so that they wander off to another flock, should the second shepherd be accused of theft? Should s/he be required to return said stolen sheep to their master?

    If so, then I must disagree with you on that.

    There is one shepherd … Jesus … and we all are the sheep of his pasture. This idea that the sheep belong to the pastors is quite wrong-headed I think. Maybe you didn’t mean it to come across like that?

    Stephen Frost, Melbourne

  11. Thanks Stephen

    Actually the phrase “sheep stealing” is a somewhat common term used for those who come to a church by transfer growth.

    And you assume those who leave churches always do so because of abuse or being driven off. But we know that perhaps most people who leave churches do so for much less serious reasons: a lack of commitment, personality conflicts, they are simply church shoppers, they don’t like the type of music, etc. I write all this up here:

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  12. Well done Bill, this is a very serious issue and is very seductive for seekers who fear getting into something that otherwise they see as judgemental.

    I think there is a strong analogy with loving and obeying God and loving and obeying parents. Too often today parents want to be abovce all their children’s friends, and we are increasingly expecting the same of God – just be our friend, don’t tell us what is right and wrong.

    Our relationship with children suffers, with adverse consequences for them in the same way our relationshp with God is in the contemporary church.

    Jim Wallace

  13. Thanks Jim

    Yes the parent-child analogy is a good one. Families are about loving relationships, but they are also established by boundaries and rules.

    It is interesting that in one of the few times when Jesus does refer to his disciples as friends, he mentions it in the context of keeping his commandments: “You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:14).

    So there can be loving relationships with Jesus, but never at the expense of ignoring all that He asks of us and expects of us.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  14. Bill, you would not, I believe, put yourself in the same camp as Christian Reconstructionists such as R J and Mark Rushdoony, Gary North, Bojidor Marinov, Martin Selbredes, Paul Michael Raymond, as exemplified by, but you are singing from a very similar songbook at this point. God bless!

    Steve Swartz

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