Corporate and Individual Responsibility: An Introduction

I want to write some posts about corporate and individual responsibility in the Bible. This is an extremely thorny issue. At the moment, I am only beginning my investigation of the biblical texts. Thus, this post will raise more questions than answers. In the future, I will be focusing major attention on Ezekiel 18, and what it does and does not say. Other related passages are Joshua 7 (the account of the failed attack on Ai), 2 Samuel 21, Deuteronomy 24:16, 2 Kings 14:5-6, Daniel 9, and Exodus 20:5-6. Assessing how these texts relate to each other to form a coherent picture is a very thorny task. The reason I am addressing this issue is that the PCA has addressed and will be addressing corporate responsibility regarding the race issue.

What are some categories that the Bible uses to address the question of corporate and individual responsibility? The first category is a distinction between guilt and consequence. Obviously, guilt is one consequence of sin. However, there are other consequences that can be incurred by someone who has no direct guilt. This might be a helpful way of understanding why it is that 36 men get killed in the attack on Ai for something that they themselves did not do. One might say that Achan murdered those 36 men by transgressing the ban.

A second category distinction is between human retribution and divine retribution. Who assesses the punishment, in other words? Does human retribution apply to corporate guilt, or that only the purview of God? Bear in mind that this particular distinction is not the same question as repentance, and whether repentance needs to be corporate or individual.

A third category distinction is between sins of omission and sins of commission. This one should be familiar to most of my readers. A sin of omission is something that we (or I) should have done but failed to do, whereas a sin of commission is something that we (or I) should not have done, but did anyway. This has a bearing on possibly composite sins. On the racism issue, for instance, if a church committed racist acts, and the presbytery of which it was a part failed to discipline that church for said actions, then the presbytery incurs the guilt of omission. While the presbytery may not, as a whole, have committed the action itself, it is still responsible for its required and biblical response. The same is true on a denominational level.

The fourth, and perhaps stickiest question of all, is the question of covenantal continuity. There is a tension between the continuity (on the one hand) that the true church has with itself in all generations, regardless of denominational boundaries; and the discontinuity of governing bodies that are directly responsible for the discipline of members within its scope. In the case of the PCA churches that Sean Lucas has in mind, for instance, the question will revolve around some of these questions: have these churches ever repented? Did the southern presbyterian denomination repent before the founding of the PCA? Is there continuing sin on the matters of racial equality? If so, what is the responsibility of current bodies within the PCA, and is the whole denomination at fault, or only some presbyteries?

A fifth question to ponder is a very important question: what constitutes racism? I have addressed this question briefly before. Having read a bit more, and done a bit more thinking, there are some things I might say differently. For instance, the question of how the biblical passages relate is a far more difficult question than the previous post would seem to indicate. I still hold to my position on affirmative action being inherently racist. I also hold that evolution and a theory of polygenesis (that we do not all come from Adam and Eve) open the door to racism.

Why talk this way about all these careful distinctions? One reason is that we want to tell the truth. It is not truth to confess to sins for which we have no guilt any more than it is truth not to confess for sins of which we are guilty. We need to assess carefully and biblically what guilt we have in the question of racism. Whatever truth of guilt we have can then lead us to repentance and restoration.

I attended recently a memorial service for the Charleston Nine at a black church in Winnsboro. It was a wonderful experience. I was afraid at first that the talk would all be about social justice. Instead, it was focused on Jesus Christ and the gospel, while mentioning racial issues in the context of the gospel. Yes, there was much talk about the unity that the church has in Christ, as was appropriate. But it did not sideline the gospel, for which I was very thankful. As was mentioned by my black brothers at GA this year, any repentance that we do needs to have feet, so that actual change can happen in our churches. Some churches are further ahead in this process than others. Some degree of compassion and understanding will need to be present.

The Silencing of Naysayers

Hugh McCann linked to an interesting article on what is happening in Kentucky over the gay marriage decision. It apparently didn’t take long for some in the LGBT community deliberately to target Christians for what they believe. The ACLU’s response to the excellent argumentation in favor of Kim Davis’s position is that no one should be held to a different standard, now that gay marriage is the law of the land. Let’s test that response on a different law.

If abortion becoming legal is the law of the land, then should all naysayers against abortion be silenced? Are we requiring people to agree with laws nowadays? There are hundreds, if not thousands of laws that I would disagree with (if I even knew what half of them were: the federal law-code is ridiculously verbose) in this nation. No one has ever tried to silence completely the naysayers against abortion. That was because it was recognized that this is still a matter of free speech.

We need to remember an important distinction in the matter of law: if there is a ruling on the books that homosexuals may get married, then that means that the state cannot prosecute homosexuals who get a marriage license. That ruling cannot be made into a bludgeon to silence all dissent. If agreement with the ruling is the interpretation that the court goes with in the Kentucky case, then the court will make a fundamental error regarding what the law of the land is supposed to do.

Let’s take another example, one less controversial. If I disagree with a speed limit in a particular place, am I required verbally to agree that the speed limit in that zone should be what it is? In the case of a speed limit, the answer is no. I don’t have to agree that this is a good speed limit. But if I speed, then I make myself liable to the law. In the case of SSM, of course, there may quite conceivably come soon a time when we Christians are going to have to disobey laws of the land, because they contradict what God has commanded in His Word.

The ACLU might come back with this argument: “Ah, but Kim Davis is a government employee, and therefore she is required to uphold the law of the land.” To this, the response is quite simple, and two-fold: 1. Although it is now legal in the US to get a marriage license, that is not the same thing as saying that everyone is required to agree with it. 2. Government employees are not required to agree with the law regarding abortion in order to hold a public office. Why should they be required to agree with the SSM ruling in order to hold office? By their argument, the four justices who wrote dissents cannot be allowed to keep their office. If one reads the article, it becomes clear that the lawsuit had nothing to do with a gay couple being unable to get a licence in Kentucky. There were many other options available to them. The application for a marriage license was only sent Kim Davis’s way AFTER they learned of her stance on gay marriage. This is deliberate targeting. The ACLU argument is very weak indeed.

Quote of the Week

This week we hear from G.K. Beale, as he has been influenced by  C.M. Pate:

The NT perspective on the role of the law can best be understood in the light of the beginning destruction of the old creation and the emergence of the renovated creation. For example, some have observed that Paul has apparently contradictory views of the law in Romans and Galatians, sometimes viewing it quite negatively and at other times positively. The fact that the end-time new creation has broken into the old world means that these two worlds overlap and that the old world is already beginning to crumble. Consequently, the law for unbelievers living in the old creation results in enslavement to sin and judgment. This judgment begins during the old age…and is consummated at the end of the age, when the old cosmos will be judged by being destroyed and old-age inhabitants will be consigned to the second death because of their violation of the law…On the other hand, the law is a source of blessing for spiritually resurrected believers living in the new creation because in Christ they have power to fulfill the law in Christ in a way that spiritually dead people do not. (footnote: I am indebted to C.M. Pate, The End of the Ages Has Come (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1995), pp. 124-148, for his excellent discussion of how the overlap of the ages solves the dual Pauline perspective on the law, though he does not relate this to old creation and eschatological new creation.) G.K. Beale, “The New Testament and New Creation,” in Biblical Theology: Retrospect and Prospect, edited by Scott Hafemann (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2002), pp. 159-173, quote on p. 168.

This struck me forcefully as a very helpful way of thinking about the law, as long as one does not take a dispensational spin on it. The statement would also require some clarification. For instance, in Galatians, where Paul is more negative on the law, it is the forward-looking pedagogical use of the law that he has in mind (see the particularly evocative picture of “tutor” in the end of chapter 3). Beale does not mean that the law is part of the old age, and that it is therefore done away with in the new creation. Rather, there is a typological function of the pedagogical use of the law. This can help explain why the same covenant of grace is differently administered under the time of the law and the time of the gospel, as the Westminster Standards puts it. The pedagogical and typological function of the law is especially (though not exclusively) associated with the old age. The third use of the law (as a guide for the Christian life) is especially (though not exclusively) associated with the new age now that the fulfillment has come. It is not as though the pedagogical use of the law has been completely discontinued, or that the third use of the law sprang up de novo in the New Testament. However, in the eschatological view of things, as the law points forward, the typology is more in view because the antitype had not yet come. Now that the antitype has come, the normative aspect is more in view.

If N.T. Wright had only realized that this was what Paul was getting at in his different treatments of the law, he might never have started on his course of leaving the Reformational doctrine of justification. There are other ways of reconciling Romans and Galatians without resorting to a Roman Catholic limitation of “works of the law” to the ceremonial aspects of the law.

Legalism or Law-loving?

It is nearly impossible these days even to mention the word “law” without being accused of legalism. Certainly, any promotion of actually, you know, keeping the law is out of bounds (sports pun intentional here). Of course, that means that we have to shove many biblical passages under the rug, most notably the entirety of Psalm 119. How can David say that he loves the law?

The essence of the law is love. If more people got this through their thick skulls, there might be a good deal less antinomianism. We love love, but we hate law (and therefore we wind up not doing very much loving, either, because we have a completely wrong view of what love is!). This is a contradiction, my friends. How did Jesus summarize the law? Love the Lord your God, and love your neighbor as yourself. Traditionally, that passage has been interpreted as Jesus’ summary of the entire moral law. What we cannot escape, biblically speaking, is the plain old fact that the law reveals God’s own character. Hate the law, hate the Lawgiver. Antinomians hate God when they hate His law.

I very much enjoy watching sports…on Saturday. I have no animus against sports per se, although I agree with Mark Jones entirely that there are some very big, fat sports idolatries going on in America right now. If you are contemplating watching the Super Bowl this coming Sunday, please, please read Mark Jones’s article on the matter first. You’ll be glad you did.

Douglas Bond hit it out of the park in Grace Works!

Posted by Bob Mattes

Bottom line up front: Take a little of your Christmas cash and buy this book, then read it cover to cover. The gospel is under attack on many fronts, even from those with advanced degrees who claim to be Reformed. Mr. Bond sets record straight in the modern battle over the gospel of grace.

I have to admit my skepticism when I first received a copy of Douglas Bond‘s Grace Works! (And Ways We Think It Doesn’t). In this day and age, we see the free use of euphemisms like the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which is anything but democratic or accountable to the people. The history of the Church records power and sovereignty of God in preserving Christ’s bride, but it also contains the record of heretics and their heresies that claimed to be true to the Scriptures whilst gutting the gospel of grace.

Douglas Bond’s book, though, remains true to its title and will prove to be a great blessing to the modern Reformed church if widely read. Mr. Bond serves as a ruling elder (RE) in the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), and writes as one with first-hand experience with the errors that he corrects in his book. Given the presbytery in which he serves, I have no doubt of what he sees on a regular basis. Overall, RE Bond displays an excellent knowledge of both church history and current controversies over the gospel.

Grace Works! provides an easy read. RE Bond broke the book into seven parts, each with several short chapters that end with discussion questions. Thus, the book would make an excellent Sunday school or small group resource. RE Bond wrote Grace Works! for real people in real pews, easily digestible yet powerful in its defense of the gospel of grace. You won’t find any clever, human “cutting-edge” theology here, just the matchless gospel of Jesus Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

RE Bond starts the book by appealing to history to show that any church can lose the gospel, and very quickly. He cites Calvin and Screwtape, C.S. Lewis’ demon from The Screwtape Letters, to illustrate Satan’s scheme for undermining the gospel down through the ages and even today. The strategy never changes because people never change. RE Bond doesn’t speculate or pontificate, he cites specific examples from church history of the slide into apostasy, of which there are no shortages. The worst of it lies in the fact that when a denomination slides into apostasy, it puts the orthodox on trial, not the heretics.

RE Bond hits the nail on the head on page 30 early in the book:

In our hatred of strife and controversy and in our love of peace and unity, we Christians sometimes play the ostrich. We hope controversy and gospel attack will just go away; we bury our heads in the sand and pretend that it won’t happen to us.

Those of us in the PCA have seen this time and again. I saw a popular teaching elder who started a secret political party in the PCA turn around and publicly declare as “cowards” 29 ordained church officers who together took a public stand against serious gospel error. The sizeable audience apparently missed the blatant hypocrisy displayed, but then it wouldn’t be polite to question a popular teaching elder, would it? The orthodox make easy targets because they just won’t change or compromise the gospel of Christ. How intolerant are the orthodox!

RE Bond goes on to lay the groundwork by clearly explaining the gospel from Scripture and the Reformed confessions. The gospel presents the matchless grace of God freely given to all those who will trust in Christ alone for their salvation. Salvation by grace alone through faith alone because of Christ alone – how simple! Yet, sinful human beings prefer to obtain their salvation the way Smith Barney claimed they made their money, the old fashioned way – by earning it.

Then in creeps the mixing of works into justification, replacing  or “augmenting” grace with some form of legalism. RE Bond does a great job of tackling the errors and consequences of legalism. He adroitly covers the order of salvation (ordo salutis), the confusing of justification and sanctification, the Scriptural use of law and gospel, the proper place of faith and works, and the correct rules for Biblical interpretation – the analogy of faith.

In Part 6 of Grace Works!, RE Bond then deals with current errors creeping into the conservative Reformed denominations, including the mythical “objective covenant”, confusion on the sacraments, and final justification. He does so without naming names, although anyone who has been paying attention to the last 20 years or so can easily fill in the blanks. RE Bond clearly demonstrates the corrosiveness of those who take an oath that the Confessions contain the doctrines taught in Holy Scripture, yet write and teach against those same Confessions and doctrines. He also cautions against the “fine print,” where officers espouse orthodoxy but then caveat with fine print that guts the orthodox statement. I’ve seen this myself during Internet debates and even in church trials. As RE Bond quotes from various sources on page 222:

The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.

RE Bond encourages us, citing the apostle Paul, to be Bereans. Don’t accept the clever words or “cutting-edge” theology of PhD holding teaching elders at face value. Dig into the Scriptures and the Confessions to see if they are right. Paul commands us to do no less. We’ve seen several prominent examples in the PCA of officers denying errors at trial that they later lead and teach openly in seminary-like settings after their acquittal. The Enemy stands proud of such tolerance.

Grace Works! closes by encouraging readers to catechize their children, to actively teach them what Scripture teaches about the gospel of grace. If we don’t, apostasy is just a generation away. RE Bond lastly encourages us to stand in unity on the gospel and the law of Christ, the means of grace rightly understood and administered, and in our Reformed Confessions without small-print caveats. Only then will our denominations remain orthodox for the next generation and those to come.

Your church officers need to read Grace Works! Your congregation needs to read it. And not just read it, but stand for the gospel of grace and teach it to your congregations, your children, and you children’s children.

Full disclosure: Bob received a courtesy copy of this book from P&R for review.

Dr. Ligon Duncan’s Seminar on the Marrow Controversy

In today’s theological climate, antinomianism and the Sonship theology are rife within Reformed circles. The Marrow Controversy therefore has much to teach us about the relationship of grace and law.

Dr. Duncan started by sketching a short history of the Marrow Controversy, emphasizing Boston’s role in recommending the Marrow of Modern Divinity. The book, of course, caused waves in the Scottish Presbyterian church. There had been a professor at Glasgow who had showed affinity for Socinianism and Arminianism. This man was tried by the church and basically given a slap on the wrist. So those heterodox doctrines would find a refuge in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, but the evangelical Calvinism was not found congenial. The Auchterarter Presbytery had a question that they asked candidates about the relationship of coming to Christ and forsaking sin. Understood properly, the question was designed to make clear that a person does not forsake sin in order to come to Christ, but rather comes to Christ in order for sin’s hold on the person to be broken. The General Assembly rebuked the Auchterarter Presbytery for asking the question this way. What would later be called “moderatism” had its beginnings in the General Assembly. Enlightenment thinking took over, to the point where, as one writer puts it, a typical “moderatism” sermon was like a winter day: cold, clear, and brief. The Marrow, on the other hand, was condemned by the General Assembly. The defenders of the Marrow, such as Thomas Boston, and the Erskine brothers appealed the decision, which was rejected. This almost guaranteed that everyone in Scotland would purchase a copy of the book! There’s Scottish contrariness for you.

There are three interpretations of the Marrow controversy. Some argue that it was an internecine dispute of two sides that both held to the Westminster Standards. Those who condemned the Marrow quoted the Westminster standards against the Marrow men, which creates a certain plausibility for this view. This view is wrong in Duncan’s mind, though.

The second view says that the Marrow men represented a revolt against classical Calvinism (this is held by J.B. Torrance). In other words, the Marrow men were trying to liberate the Scottish church from the Westminster Standards. The Marrow men, however, vowed ex animo in strict subscription to the Westminster Standards.

The third view is that the Marrow men were the Westminster theology men. This is the proper view.

Dr. Duncan then shared many of the most important quotations from both Boston and Fisher.


My friend Mark Jones has just written a very important book on antinomianism. The term “antinomianism” means “against the law” etymologically. However, as Jones points out, that may not always be a helpful way of describing the theological positions (which are not always very uniform). Jones carefully delineates the historical positions that were around at the time of the Westminster Assembly. It is very important to note here that antinomianism was one of the most important bogeymen of the Westminster divines. Jones ably shows this through the primary sources of the time (something of which Jones shows quite the mastery). Much of the book is taken up with this historical debate. Rightly so, for that debate in the 17th century has an enormous impact on how we define terms and categorize beliefs today.

Several other things are highly commendable about this book. Jones is an extremely careful, irenic author, always acknowledging where antinomians have said something that is true. I have noticed, and Jones agrees, that most of the time we and they (the antinomians) would agree about much of what they say concerning justification. Sanctification, of course, is where we would disagree.

His insights concerning Christology are worth the price of admission. I had connected antinomianism with a truncated view of grace, but I had not taken it back one further step to Christology, as Jones does. Antinomians do have a truncated view of grace. God’s grace is saving me not only from sin’s guilt in justification (here the antinomians would agree), but also from sin’s power in sanctification, and the latter grace is an enabling grace, unlike the former grace. But Jones takes it back to Christology: what about Christ’s ongoing work as our Mediator in heaven? Does He not view the sinner with great pity and compassion? Jones says that we should never confuse Christ’s procurement of saving benefits (redemption accomplished, also called “impetration”) with the application of those saving benefits.

The distinction Jones makes between the beneficent love of God and the complacent love of God is a vital distinction. The former means basically how God sees us in Christ in justification. The latter is how God sees sanctification progressing in us. The former admits of no degrees, but the latter does. The flip side of the coin is how God sees our sin. God can be displeased with our sin, not as a judge, but as a Father. This displeasure admits of degrees, while never attaining to the level of a judging condemnation for the Christian. The distinction Jones makes here, which is based on the Reformed fathers and, more importantly, Scripture, helps us to make sense of the biblical data.

Only a few very small things would I mention by way of criticism. They are mostly in the category of things that Jones mentions but doesn’t develop, and are therefore things about which I wish he had said more. One of them is something I heard Rick Phillips say at the Gospel Reformation Network conference two years ago, and which really shocked me when I first heard it, but which made a lot of sense after I thought about it for a while. Jones mentions it but doesn’t develop it, and it is this: a Christian is no longer totally depraved. If God has given that person a new heart and mind, giving them new life, then they are not just declared righteous in justification, but have the beginnings of a new way of life in sanctification. There is still indwelling sin, yes. There is still a lifelong battle, yes. But isn’t it such an encouragement to know that the Triune God has taken up residence in us? That place where God dwells in us in no longer totally depraved. Jones mentions it on page 129, but I would have enjoyed some development of that theme, especially in the historical theology.

The other thing that I wish he had done is to engage Westminster West’s theology a bit more directly. Jones has shown that he is very irenic, and is very concerned to be fair. This decision not to engage Westminster West feels like an intentional decision on his part. He talks about Michael Horton a bit. But we need writing on this subject that casts light and not heat on the subject. And when it comes to Westminster West, there has all too often been heat and not much light.

One tiny disagreement I have is with regard to the Horton/Garcia exchange in the Confessional Presbyterian Journal last year. Horton’s article was designed to address the hermeneutical issue of the law/gospel distinction in relation to reading Scripture. It was never designed to address the issues that are but tangentially related vis-a-vis legalism and antinomianism.

All in all, this is an extremely important and helpful book, and one cannot but agree with Carl Trueman’s assessment of this book as timely. In Jones’s effort to be irenic, he did not say that antinomianism is rife in the Reformed and evangelical world right now, but of course it is. This book is a very important corrective, and needs to be read, particularly by pastors. Pastors need to be very careful to avoid antinomianism and legalism. This book helps us to do that.

Mark 7:14-23 and the Dietary Laws of the Old Testament

There is no doubt that Mark 7:14-23 is one of the most important passages in the debates about the dietary laws of the Old Testament and whether they still apply in the same way today.

Here is the passage in Greek: 14 Καὶ προσκαλεσάμενος πάλιν τὸν ὄχλον ἔλεγεν αὐτοῖς, Ἀκούσατέ μου πάντες καὶ σύνετε. 15 οὐδέν ἐστιν ἔξωθεν τοῦ ἀνθρώπου εἰσπορευόμενον εἰς αὐτὸν ὃ δύναται κοινῶσαι αὐτόν: ἀλλὰ τὰ ἐκ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκπορευόμενά ἐστιν τὰ κοινοῦντα τὸν ἄνθρωπον. 16 Καὶ 17 ὅτε εἰσῆλθεν εἰς οἶκον ἀπὸ τοῦ ὄχλου, ἐπηρώτων αὐτὸν οἱ μαθηταὶ αὐτοῦ τὴν παραβολήν. 18 καὶ λέγει αὐτοῖς, Οὕτως καὶ ὑμεῖς ἀσύνετοί ἐστε; οὐ νοεῖτε ὅτι πᾶν τὸ ἔξωθεν εἰσπορευόμενον εἰς τὸν ἄνθρωπον οὐ δύναται αὐτὸν κοινῶσαι, 19 ὅτι οὐκ εἰσπορεύεται αὐτοῦ εἰς τὴν καρδίαν ἀλλ’ εἰς τὴν κοιλίαν, καὶ εἰς τὸν ἀφεδρῶνα ἐκπορεύεται; καθαρίζων πάντα τὰ βρώματα. 20 ἔλεγεν δὲ ὅτι Τὸ ἐκ τοῦ ἀνθρώπου ἐκπορευόμενον ἐκεῖνο κοινοῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον: 21 ἔσωθεν γὰρ ἐκ τῆς καρδίας τῶν ἀνθρώπων οἱ διαλογισμοὶ οἱ κακοὶ ἐκπορεύονται, πορνεῖαι, κλοπαί, φόνοι, 22 μοιχεῖαι, πλεονεξίαι, πονηρίαι, δόλος, ἀσέλγεια, ὀφθαλμὸς πονηρός, βλασφημία, ὑπερηφανία, ἀφροσύνη: 23 πάντα ταῦτα τὰ πονηρὰ ἔσωθεν ἐκπορεύεται καὶ κοινοῖ τὸν ἄνθρωπον.

Here is the HCSB of the same passage: 14 Summoning the crowd again, He told them, “Listen to Me, all of you, and understand: 15 Nothing that goes into a person from outside can defile him, but the things that come out of a person are what defile him. 16 [If anyone has ears to hear, he should listen!]” 17 When He went into the house away from the crowd, the disciples asked Him about the parable. 18 And He said to them, “Are you also as lacking in understanding? Don’t you realize that nothing going into a man from the outside can defile him? 19 For it doesn’t go into his heart but into the stomach and is eliminated.” (As a result, He made all foods clean.) 20 Then He said, “What comes out of a person– that defiles him. 21 For from within, out of people’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immoralities, thefts, murders, 22 adulteries, greed, evil actions, deceit, promiscuity, stinginess, blasphemy, pride, and foolishness. 23 All these evil things come from within and defile a person.”

The context is important. The chapter starts with the issue of unwashed hands. The Pharisees accuse the disciples (and through them, Jesus!) of disobeying the law by eating with unwashed hands. This is part of the tradition of the elders, along with the baptism of couches and other such things. The tradition of the elders is something Jesus emphatically rejects in verses 6-13. The Pharisees, in their traditions, had taught as commandments of God the traditions of men.

Then, in verses 14 and following, Jesus broadens the discussion to talk about what really makes a person clean or unclean. Nothing that goes into a person makes him unclean. It is what comes out of the heart that is evil that makes a person unclean. It is important to notice here the broadening of the discussion. The issue has gone beyond the issue of mere tradition versus the written word. Now it is a question of the heart. Twice Jesus says that nothing that goes into a person can defile him. This is a general statement that has no qualifications attached to it. The form of this argument goes something like this: “You Pharisees think that eating with unwashed hands defiles a person. Your assumption there is that something that goes into a person has the possibility of defiling that person. Unwashed hands can do that, as could other things like the foods forbidden in the dietary laws. On the contrary, I am saying that absolutely nothing can defile a person by going into them. Not even food can defile a person, much less eating with unwashed hands.”

One of the key features is the participle καθαρίζων (cleansing) in verse 19. There is a textual variant here that is important. A very few late manuscripts have the neuter participle of the same verb. The neuter participle could conceivably depend on the previous verb ἐκπορεύεται (going out). The upshot of this construction would be that the process of digestion makes the food clean (this understanding of the verse is reflected in the Geneva, KJV, and NKJV translations). This is quite unlikely as the correct reading, however. The vast majority and strength of the manuscripts favor the masculine participle. On what, then, does the participle depend? The only possibility is Jesus Himself, the implied nominative subject of the verb λέγει (He says) in verse 18. The result of this construction is that the phrase is Mark’s parenthetical comment about the result of what Jesus said, that Jesus’ statement cleansed all foods (this is the understanding of most other translations, as well as that of the native Greek-speaking early church fathers, such as Chrysostom).

The reality is that the difference in translation doesn’t actually affect the overall argument that much. Whether the digestion process makes the food clean, or whether Jesus is declaring all foods clean, the fact is that the foods are clean. What is now clean? πάντα τὰ βρώματα! All foods are clean. Again, nothing (I repeat, nothing!) that goes into a person can defile him.

If this is what Jesus is saying, then how come the other passages that deal with the dietary laws (such as Acts 10, Romans 14-15) don’t quote this statement of Jesus? There are a couple of possible reasons that might help us understand. First of all, the implications of what Jesus said and did were not always well understood by the disciples. Take the nature of the kingdom, for instance. Even after the resurrection, the disciples were still clueless as to how global Jesus’ kingdom was going to be (see Acts 1). Secondly, it is not easy to alter one’s understanding of how the law applies after Christ’s work is accomplished. Jews who became Christians would not want to abandon the dietary laws they had grown up with. There had to be a process of instruction and compromise while that was happening. Thirdly, if Mark felt that he had to spell out the implications of Jesus’ statement for people, then it follows that Mark thought Jesus’ statements to be a tad cryptic. And, of course, since Mark’s own clarifying comment has been understood in several different ways, it follows that Mark 7:19 is not always clearly understood by people. It is certainly with great hesitation that any kind of appeal should be made to a text that is not crystal clear in its implications. This text only becomes clear after the grammatical study, not before it. At any rate, it should not be simply referenced without any kind of explanation and exegesis. This has been done all too often by both critics and proponents of the HRM.

Is the HRM Legalistic?

Is the Hebrew Roots Movement (also known as the Messianic Jewish movement) legalistic? One has to acknowledge that there are a variety of views on particular aspects of the law even within the HRM. It is not a monolithic movement in regard to specific points about the law. Also, it is important to point out that there is more than one definition of legalism. One does not necessarily avoid legalism simply by saying that such and such law is not integral to salvation. For instance, if an HRM proponent claims that circumcision is necessary, but not for salvation, said proponent might still be legalistic, even if not so in the ordinary way. It is my contention that at least some forms of HRM are legalistic.

One would think that if an HRM proponent believes the Gospel, and sees that someone else is preaching the gospel, that great rejoicing on that account would result. For instance, I believe that Jesus Christ crucified, buried, resurrected, ascended into heaven, and in session at the right hand of the Father, is the only Lord and Savior of sinners. The salvation that was accomplished for us by Jesus Christ is applied to us by the Holy Spirit by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of Christ alone, to the praise of the glory of God alone, told to us in Scripture alone. If a person puts their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, repenting of their sin and turning to Jesus (which happens by the power of the Holy Spirit in effectual calling), that person is saved. This is redemption accomplished and applied. If a person believes in Jesus Christ in this way, he will be saved. Let any HRM people reading this blog know that this is what I preach.

Nevertheless, one HRM proponent in particular has accused me of having no light in me whatsoever, because my views on OT law are not HRM. According to this person, if a person is not HRM in their viewpoint, they have no light in them whatsoever. On three occasions in that thread, I asked the person to clarify his quotation of Isaiah 8:20 (here, here, and here). He did not choose to answer that question. Now, I don’t know why he chose not to answer it. However, in the context, the comment means that those who do not have the same view of the OT law as he does have no light in them at all. It doesn’t therefore matter whether I preach the true gospel or not. If I don’t have an HRM view of the OT law, then I am in complete darkness. I say this not out of defensiveness. I am not on defense right now, but most definitely on offense. Would not this view of non-HRM proponents qualify as a legalistic view? I do not believe in the erasure of any OT laws. I believe that the application of them has changed. So the question is NOT whether we both believe the OT is true. We do. The question is NOT whether we both believe the OT is still authoritative. We do. The question has to do with the interpretation of that Old Testament. Does Christ’s person and work change the application of the OT law, and if so, how? That is the question. I would simply argue that if an HRM proponent accuses a critic of having no light in them whatsoever because of a differing view of how the OT law applies, then the HRM proponent is not focused on Jesus Christ and the Gospel, but on the law. He is not preaching Christ crucified. He is preaching feasts, dietary laws, and Saturday Sabbath, which are not changed or affected by Christ’s coming. He is a legalist. He cannot rejoice in another’s preaching of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is de-centralized. I would argue that any view of the Bible that de-centralizes Jesus Christ’s person and work is legalistic. The reasoning for this is simple: anything that is not gospel is law in the Bible. So, if we are not preaching the gospel, we are preaching law. And if we preach law in any way that does not make a beeline straight to Jesus Christ, then we are not preaching the law correctly. We would be preaching the law legalistically.

Preaching law is essential, don’t get me wrong. But it must lead to Christ’s fulfillment of the law, or else we are not believing John 5 and Luke 24. We need to preach the law in its three uses: pedagogical (leading straight to Christ), civil (as a restraint on evil in the world), and normative because of salvation (the third use of the law). Of these three uses, while the second one is present in Scripture, it is not hugely emphasized. The first and third uses are of paramount importance, and both are Christ-centered, since the first use leads us to salvation in Christ, while the third use leads us from salvation in Christ.

Matthew 5:17-20, the Smoking Gun of the HRM?

There is no doubt of the importance of Matthew 5:17-20 in any discussion related to the law and its place in the Christian life. Indeed, there are few passages more important. However, what often happens is that this passage is simply quoted rather than explained. Sometimes, it seems to be treated as a smoking gun, as if people who do not agree with the HRM (Hebrew Roots Movement) have never read this passage before. The fact of the matter is that this passage is a minefield of difficulties, and is hardly as straightforward as the HRM seems to assume by simply throwing it at their adversaries (as has happened to me many times on this blog). The HRM folk have quoted this to me and then asked the double question, “Why do you hate the Torah so much?” Of course, this question makes a rather whopping assumption: that I do in fact hate the Torah, which is false. I love the law, since it is a reflection of who God is, and it teaches me about God, and because the essence of the law is love for God and love for neighbor. A couple of other preliminary questions need to be dealt with before we can address the exegesis of the passage itself.

One issue that needs to be addressed is the big picture of the Old Testament. What is the point of the Old Testament? According to John 5 and Luke 24, Jesus is the point of the Old Testament. Jesus flat out says in John 5 that Moses wrote about Him. What is so fascinating about that claim is Moses never directly talks about Jesus. The name of Jesus is not mentioned except by way of typology in Joshua’s name. And yet Moses wrote about Jesus. That was the content of Moses’ writings. All of Moses’ writings had a direction arrow saying “This way to Jesus.” As we will see from an exposition of Matthew 5:17-20, this includes the law. The law is not ahistorical, timeless and changeless, but has a telos, a goal. The law points forward to Jesus. It is sometimes objected at this point that the character of God forbids any change in the law. This does not follow. God created everything there is. Everything that God created reflects the glory of God in one way or another, and yet it changes, because it is created. Now, God’s character does not change. But time and people on earth do change, and the way God relates to His people does change in some ways over time. The law can therefore change. Hebrews says this explicitly: “For when there is a change of the priesthood, there must be a change of law as well.” The text is Hebrews 7:12, which in context is contrasting the order of Aaron and the order of Melchizedek, portraying Jesus as the great high priest in the order of Melchizedek. The implication is that when Jesus comes as the great high priest in the order of Melchizedek, there is a change of the law to match the change of priesthood. The word for “change” is “metathesis” which means an alteration from one state into another, or a transformation. So, that thing which the HRM says never happens to the law (i.e., change), Hebrews expressly and explicitly states does happen to the law. Verse 18 confirms this interpretation by stating that a former commandment is in fact annulled. The reason it was annulled is because it was weak and unprofitable (for the law perfected nothing) as verse 19 states. This does not mean that the law is bad, of course. It just means that the law cannot perfect people, and that when people think the law can do that, they quickly find that it is weak and unprofitable. The law needs to be used for its proper uses, and not for something it cannot do. The whole issue here in Hebrews 7 is the change of priesthood from Aaronide priesthood to Melchizedekian priesthood. There had to be a change in the law, since the law stated that a priest had to come from the tribe of Levi (this is the point of verses 13-14). This verse (as well as John 5 and Luke 24) has a great impact when we come to Matthew 5.

A second issue is the clarity of Scripture. HRM advocates often quote Scripture as if all Scripture were perfectly clear, and all that is needed is to quote it rather than discuss its meaning. The Reformed church has always believed that everything necessary for salvation is clearly revealed in Scripture in one place or another. But the Reformed church has never believed that because of the clarity of salvation issues, that therefore all Scripture is equally clear. This is proven conclusively by 2 Peter 3:15-16. The irony in those verses is clear. They clearly teach that not all Scripture is clear. Given the interpretive issues that have come up in the exegesis of Matthew 5:17-20, I would say that Jesus’ meaning in those verses is not initially clear, and must be carefully treated in context.

Matthew 5:17-20 seems to be directed against a possible misunderstanding of what Jesus is going to teach. What Jesus teaches about the law could give rise to a misinterpretation of His words that results in Jesus rejecting the law. The issue is not rejection, but fulfillment.

The form of verse 17 has the exact same form as Matthew 10:34 right down to verbal parallels, which are precisely the same. The form is this: “Do not suppose that I came in order to do X. I did not come in order to do X, but rather Y.” This raises the question of whether Matthew 5:17 is absolute or not (this point is raised by Carson in his commentary). No one would suppose that Jesus did not come into this world to bring peace of any kind. Of course He brought certain kinds of peace (most notably peace between God and man: otherwise, Luke 2:14 is meaningless!). Certain other kinds of peace He did not come to bring (such as peace between Christians and non-Christians). These kinds of statements need to be interpreted in their proper context. So, it is at least possible that what Jesus said in Matthew 5 does not have reference to all forms of abrogation. In this regard, Carson is extremely helpful: “The antithesis is not between ‘abolish’ and ‘keep’ but between ‘abolish’ and ‘fulfill.'”

In fact, the meaning of the entire text hinges on the meaning of “fulfill” (Greek “pleroo”). Whatever the word means, it has to mean more than simply “do.” The reason for this is the inclusion of the prophets in Jesus’ purview. It is highly unlikely, incidentally, that the word “pleroo” reflects the Aramaic word “qum,” (which means “establish, validate, or confirm”) since the LXX never uses “pleroo” to translate that word “qum.” The LXX uses the words “histemi” or “bebaioo” to translate “qum.” The verb “pleroo” translates the Hebrew word “male'”. The meaning of the word in this context is therefore almost certainly “fulfill,” and not “establish.” However, even that word “fulfill” can have more than one meaning. Whatever meaning is correct must be able to account for the law and the prophets being in the text. This is where John 5 and Luke 24 help us out. Jesus is saying in those two passages that the entire Old Testament has a direction arrow pointing straight to Him.

An assumption that is gratuitous in the HRM is that change equals annulment. This is certainly not obvious. If a law changes in its application because of some great eschatological change, such as the coming of the person and work of Jesus Christ, that does not mean it is annulled.

This understanding of verse 17 allows verse 18 to have its full force without any equivocation: not the smallest part of the law will pass away. And it hasn’t. The whole law, in its entirety, and in every part, is still there for us, helpfully teaching us about Jesus, helpfully pointing us to Him, and teaching us important spiritual principles that are always valid. The law has a prophetic function. The word “Torah” points in this direction, with its common meaning of “teaching.” Again, notice the difference between “pass away” and “change.” The text does NOT say that no change will ever occur in the way the law is applied. It says that nothing in the law will pass away. That is, nothing in the law will be erased from the law.

Verse 19 must be understood in the light of what has already been said. Verse 19 does not prejudge the question of whether any change has happened to the law. It does rule out a Marcionite rejection of the Old Testament law. The upshot of the passage is that there are aspects of continuity and discontinuity with regard to how the law of God applies after the events surrounding Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension. Jesus will illustrate how that works in the rest of chapter 5. In some cases, that means drawing out the meaning of the law that was already there in the OT, but in certain other cases, it means a modification of the law in its application. An example of the former would be Jesus’ treatment of the sixth and seventh commandments in verses 21-30. The implications of those laws are already present in the Ten Commandments. Any one of the Ten Commandments commands all the lesser virtues of the same kind, and forbids all sins of the same kind. However, examples of modification include the teaching on divorce, the teaching on oaths, and the teaching on the eye for an eye. Jesus offers serious qualifications to the law that were not present in the original setting. These modifications are based on Jesus’ own authority as the law-giver (see 7:28-29). He is the new Moses, giving an authoritative interpretation and modification of the law on the new Mount Sinai. Whatever is new in Jesus’ teaching has to do with what time it is: time for fulfillment, and the kingdom promised in Jeremiah 31.

This passage is fraught with difficulties. The meanings of the words “annul,” “fulfill,” “pass away,” and “accomplished” all have an impact on the meaning of the passage. Furthermore, the interpretation we wind up with must match the rest of Scripture, such as Matthew 10, John 5, Luke 24, and Hebrews 7. Any interpretation of Matthew 5 that states that there is no change that ever happens to the law will bring it into direct contradiction with other passages of Scripture.

« Older entries


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 595 other followers