Thursday, September 18, 2008

Law and Faith

Well, one has to be foolhardy to take this subject on - don't you think?

This is a short essay on the 'therefore' of Romans 8:1. David has asked the usual difficult question. What if someone 'came out' to you...

If David weren't who he seems to be, I would not bother responding. Wait a minute! Is any of us who we seem to be? Why do we judge each other so - whether for good or not? Hear again that verse, Romans 8:1, with which we have ended for the moment a long conversation on the preposition 'in'.

1: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

That there is no condemnation does not mean there is no work to do. But the work is done in a different context from the assumption that we know what is right before we start. The different context is in the 7 chapters that precede the 'therefore' of this verse.

Notice that I have not put law and grace in my title - but law and faith. Note the pattern of 'condemn' throughout the first 8 chapters - with only a brief reminder in the paranetic sections (12-15). [update: this pattern is dubious since I don't do much Greek - but I notice a serious concentration of judge (part of the same word condemn) in chapters 3 and 14.]
Romans 2:1 you condemn yourself
Romans 2:27 they will condemn you
Romans 3:7 why am I still being condemned
Romans 3:8 Their condemnation is just
Romans 5:16 judgment following one trespass brought condemnation
Romans 5:18 one human's trespass led to condemnation
Romans 8:1 There is therefore now no condemnation...
Romans 8:3 he condemned sin in the flesh
Romans 8:33 It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?
Romans 14:23 But the one who has doubts is condemned, if he eats, because one does not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
I have been reading the work of C.H. Dodd on Greek and Hebrew words. I won't cite his chapter and verse, because scholarly authority is not what I am looking for here. I am looking for that authority that I have reflected on before. Do we hear the voice of the Shepherd in our understanding of law? Torah, teaching in Hebrew is a much richer word than the Greek for law implies. The Greek for law, I understand is much richer than the notion of legal and can include custom in its view. Whether these are true statements or not, Paul has set up the fear of law in the first 7 chapters of Romans, because that's how we meet law, teaching, and custom as children and as adults anxious to be acceptable to others. Not because that sort of fear is a wholesome response to reality. Then in chapter 8, Paul uses law in a completely different sense:

2: For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set me free from the law of sin and death.

No one in Christ should consider themselves alive on their own terms. All of us and each of us has died to the flesh - if we are in Christ. This includes homosexual and heterosexual alike. I doubt we have done this well. But if it is done, there will be less doubt about God's ability to deal with our whole selves, whoever we are. And for anyone, the fact of the matter (to read and hear the Shepherd's voice) is that it is done (John 19:30). Whether we did it well or not or even not at all, he did it well and completely, and we are 'in him'.

3: For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and as a sin offering, he condemned sin in the flesh,

It is finished. And we are invited into its completion and the new creation that is at the place where we meet God, where we know God's presence to us in the Spirit, that is, in the Holy Place where Jesus died. We are all invited and encouraged to enter. There are no conditions. In that place, do you think God does not know how to deal with sex? This is after all the Bridegroom we are talking about.

4: in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.

The just requirement of the law is fulfilled in us who belong to Christ, who have put on Christ, who are in Christ. Do we judge who belongs or who has put on Christ by their dishonesty? Do we not accept those who tell us the truth about themselves? In David's words - who 'come out of the closet'.

5: For those according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.

We do judge within limits. What hurts or destroys others is not of the Spirit. We don't do things that way. Not by might nor by power. But we do not judge by what we do not know. Suspend your judgment in case you are judging in the flesh rather than in the Spirit. Suspend your judgment by the power of the cross for you. Say, I cannot judge, for I have died - I cannot do anything. Then you will begin to know because the Spirit who raised our Lord Jesus from the dead will inform you. And he will similarly inform the one who has 'come out'. And that - as Jesus said in the case of the youngster who threw himself in the fire - is a matter for prayer, not for the judgment of condemnation.

6: To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

This verse applies to all in Christ. To set the mind on the condemning view of the law is death. There is no condemnation - that means those of us who think we know better do not condemn and do not judge, and those of use who are weak are not condemned or judged by those who think they are strong.

7: For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God's law, indeed it cannot; 8: and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

Does it come as a surprise that these verses must also apply to the one who judges? It is not the righteous who need salvation. If we already knew the answers then why did Christ die?

So what am I to do for the one who says to me - "I believe what God has done for me in Christ. I am in Christ. I stake my claim. I have been truthful with you. I have revealed the depths of my heart and I am going to live my life according to what I know of myself in Christ."

If I have heard these words - can I still condemn this person? (I admit I have added to David's statement, but those who are not in Christ are not who I am considering here.)

If I want to please God, then I will listen to this verse and I will not condemn this person. I will in the words that follow 'put to death the deeds' of my own body so that I too can live. I will crucify my desire to tell this person that they can't possibly be right and think the way they do.

What have I done to the law? Have I denied the reality of God's condemnation of sin? Not at all! I have established God's teaching in a way I could not imagine outside the work of the Spirit in me. How do I know it is God's Spirit working in me? Because I have done this through the death of Jesus. I have crucified more than this imaginary example. Once I see the work to be done in Christ more clearly, then in my joy, I will know that my earlier understandings were incorrect and incomplete and I can trust that my friend and brother or sister who came out to me will similarly find completeness in him.

So David, do I judge you for your judgment against me or against your friend? No. But I invite you to take the harder path and to restrain your condemnation in case God has more in mind than you think.

(I see I am not alone in responding to David. I may be alone in basing my response on Paul!)


scott gray said...


what a great essay on your part! i hardly know where to begin.

i guess i want to start with ‘judging.’ it seems to me we make judgements about others all the time. i see a fellow in his late teens, spiked green hair, ear buds in, pants hanging half way down the crack of his ass, and i make judgements: ‘he wants to be noticed. he wants to be accepted. he’s willing to spend a fair amount of his income on clothing that gets him noticed. he wants to startle others. if some one acts disapprovingly at his appearance, he wants to feel self-righteous.’ these are the first judgements that go through my thoughts. these judgements may or may not be true. i’d have to engage the fellow in conversation to validate, change, or drop my judgements.

so i think we all begin our encounters with others by making judgements. the question is, what do we do with these judgements?

this is where i think ‘condemnation’ comes in. in my experience, condemnation begins in adverse or negative judgements we make about the choices others make. we don’t or shouldn’t condemn others for things they can’t change. for instance, we don’t or shouldn’t condemn people for skin color or handicaps from birth defects. we don’t or shouldn’t condemn people who grew up poor or abused. (or do we?)

after making the judgement about the choices another has made, the next step in condemnation is how we choose to respond to our judgement. most of the time, we choose to respond by doing nothing. we see the fellow dressed for attention, and we think our disapproval, but we don’t do anything about it, at least not directly. we don’t confront the fellow, we don’t look to have our judgements confirmed or changed in conversation with this fellow, we don’t try to move past our disapproval to find common ground with this fellow.

then condemnation moves to active response. it begins in telling the story to others, in judgemental gossip. or in emails and letters to others. or shunning disapproval, a refusal to engage or interact. or in pronouncing the person unfit, or unacceptable. or restriction of the actions of others. or punishment through fines and incarceration. or insisting they’re in need of rehabilitation.

you can see how so many of our active condemnation responses are rooted in laws. especially laws that protect the stability of one’s society or community by pronouncing unfit, by refusing to engage in relationship, by restricting actions, by fining and incarcerating and punishing.

so i think your focus on the law is appropriate, especially on what voice we hear the law through. you said, ‘de we hear the voice of the shepherd in our understanding of the law?’ while many laws are rooted in condemnation, do we hear them through the voice of the shepherd? do we temper, discard, change the condemnation laws to match the shepherd’s voice?

now i’m not big on the jesus-as-shepherd voice, because i don’t think of myself as a sheep. but there are other voices of jesus that do resonate with me, so i ask myself these questions instead: do we hear the voice of the body of christ in our understanding of the law? do we hear the voice of the herald of the kingdom of god in our understanding of the law? do we hear the voice of the unilateral forgiver in our understanding of the law? do we hear the voice of the unilateral lover in our understanding of the law?

and each of those questions give me pause. one of the first things that it tells me is, most of the things i am tempted to condemn others for, are of no consequence. many of my judgements are about choices people make that i wouldn’t make, but that don’t harm anything. some are about decency. some are about style. some are about resource use.

i know you don’t like the fowler model of faith, but i find it useful when thinking about the law. at lower levels, the law is rooted in fear. the law is responses we make to protect us from fearful situations. think about the fellow dressed strangely, and how this might make some fearful.

at another level, the law is about justice responses, about restoring or maintaining order. think about that fellow dressed strangely, and how this seems disorderly and destabilizing to some.

at another level, laws are about conformity. think about the judgement one makes about the fellow dressed strangely, ‘he doesn’t want to be like me. he doesn’t see the value of dressing like me.’ laws for this person are to enforce conformity.

at another level, laws are about identity. laws can protect one’s search or expression of identity. laws can provide opportunity for searching (laws about access to college, discrimination laws, handicap access, and the like). then a judgement about the fellow dressed strangely moves to ‘i’m glad he has the freedom within our set of laws to express himself. i’m glad the law protects that for him.’

at another level, laws are about engaging other societies, about seeing one’s community in a larger picture. and at yet another level, laws are seen in a sense of enlightenment.

when you die to your old understanding of the law and rise to new life, where the holy spirit influences your interpretation of the law, for me that’s another way of saying you die to a low level of understanding of the law and rise to a higher level of understanding. in the lower levels, the law is rooted in control and condemnation; in the upper levels, its rooted in opportunity and maximizing relationships.

so do we make judgements of others? all the time. actually, each and every time we engage another, and think about the choices they’ve made. do we condemn through gossip, through shunning disapproval, through angry words, through restrictions, through rehabilitation perceptions, through punishment? well, there’s where we have choices of our own to make. and because we are making choices about condemnation, we shouldn’t be surprised when others condemn us in similar ways. the golden rule is about condemnation, too. do we wish to be condemned for our choices?

even the most enlightened participant in a faith community is drawn periodically to a lower level of understanding of the law. and it is the calling of each of us to raise ourselves, and others, to higher understandings, and to remind those who normally function at a higher level to return to it, and not to be seduced by the protective, condemning, conforming, orderly understanding of the law. your call to ask ‘what would jesus do with the law? do we hear the voice of the shepherd in our understanding of the law?’ is exactly right. it’s what prophets in community are constantly called to do.

the good shepherd would respond to a judgement he’d made by first engaging in a relationship with the object of his judgement. and so should we.



Bob MacDonald said...

Scott - that is a great explanation - you have a gift for seeing and explaining - thank you. Your last sentence is an apt summary: the good shepherd would respond to a judgement he’d made by first engaging in a relationship with the object of his judgement. and so should we.

It is a threat to us to enter into a different - non-judging - relationship with those who offend us.

The good shepherd has, I believe, put himself in relationship with me through his death. As well as all your careful explanation, this too is my joy in him. Sometimes therefore, I have the courage to go beyond my fears and enter into relationships with those who are different, or even 'just' to accept those who I am in relationship with, particularly those of the 'household of faith'.

James Pate said...

Hi Bob,

Where does the law's condemnation fit into your shepherd view of the law? Even after Jesus died and was resurrection, there are still New Testament passages that condemn unrepentant sin.

Bob MacDonald said...


Condemnation does not fit. The just requirements of the Law in all its senses from condemnation, to desperate desire to fulfill it, to the joy of knowing God's instruction are all fulfilled in the gift of Christ. So who will ascend to the hill of the Lord? All those who approach and enter through his flesh, which is the door of the sheepfold.

This is clearly what is taught in Romans. The pragmatics of both disbelief and misunderstanding are addressed in Romans through the interlocutor to whom Paul asks his rhetorical questions in the letter. Like shall we sin the more that grace may abound, etc. How will those who approach and enter the Holy of Holies, the presence of God, how will they be led? Will they be led by the rule of men or will they be led by the Spirit?

Now even Paul had to give rules because he observed violence, quarreling, unequal relationships, misunderstanding - in short what is not faith. And so he concludes with his most remarkable pithy statement - whatever is not of faith is sin.

Many ask then - what is this faith? But that is the wrong question. Faith as such is not to be defined as if it were some object that could be bought and sold by our own means - (so Simon in Acts who wanted to buy the ability for the laying on of hands). So to answer I hope, your question. What to do with the apparently condemnatory passages in the Pauline literature, and the apparent rule-making that he engages in? Are these pragmatics apart from faith? If following them will bring salvation, has not Christ died in vain? Such rules and confessions and regulations can no more save than any other law. The teaching from the Spirit for one who enters through Christ's death into the presence of God is like in all respects to the teaching of God in the 'Old' Testament. The old wine is good.

What I do with these passages is read them with care, with cultural sensitivity, with the help of the Spirit, and with a recognition that I could be deceiving myself into forms of disobedience and deafness, and also with a recognition of their pragmatic value even if I cannot 'understand' them.

In other words, I do not assume that my tradition, my culture, my prejudices, or even those of the writers of the NT, are necessarily binding on me or on them. What is binding is the engagement with God through the death of Jesus by the Spirit of Glory that raised him from the dead. Everything else is commentary.