I call upon You, Lord, God of Abraham and God of Isaac and God of Jacob and Israel, You who are the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the God who, through the abundance of your mercy, was well-pleased towards us so that we may know You, who made heaven and earth, who rules over all, You who are the one and the true God, above whom there is no other God; You who, by our Lord Jesus Christ gave us the gift of the Holy Spirit, give to every one who reads this writing to know You, that You alone are God, to be strengthened in You, and to avoid every heretical and godless and impious teaching.

St Irenaeus of Lyons, Against the Heresies 3:6:4

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Gospel First!

Whether it is through an innocently directed question from a small child, who is working through the Q/As in a catechism, or it is the implicitly rebellious  behavior of a teenager, acting as though obedience to the Lord's ways is a trifling matter or wondering why participation in church is so important, or still, we adults are facing an ethical dilemma at work or home, and are struggling with the choice of obedience, we quickly learn that the law simply does not have the power to overcome the flesh. 

However, especially when we are catechizing our young’uns, whether formally or informally, we often communicate to them, whether implicitly or explicitly, that it is law for law's sake.  They should obey, because it is the right thing to do, after all!  In and of itself, however, the law doesn't transform but deforms our spiritual growth.  This gross moralism is rampant in the church's culture, civil American (especially here in the South) religion, and unfortunately our families. 

Of course the law has its proper place in the Christian life.  As the Belgic Confession puts it, "we still use the testimonies taken out of the law and the prophets, to confirm us in the doctrine of the gospel, and to regulate our life in honesty, to the glory of God, according to his will" (Art. 25).  In fact, the Heidelberg Catechism spends questions 92 through 115 expounding the Ten Commandments.  However, by itself, the law only reveals, illuminates, and aggravates our manifold "sins and misery."

Last evening, as Fanny and I were discussing and studying the scriptural basis for catechesis, we of course covered Deuteronomy 4 – 6, the first commands to catechize.  With respect to the law/gospel distinction in Christian praxis, we should ask St. Paul's rhetorical question, "Do you not hear what the law says?" (Gal. 4:21).  Deuteronomy 6:20—25, the law itself, turns our law-for-law's-sake tendency right on its head.  

When your son asks you in time to come, "What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the LORD our God has commanded you?"  then you shall say to your son, "We were Pharaoh's slaves in Egypt. And the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand.  And the LORD showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes.  And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers.  And the LORD commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the LORD our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day.  And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us."

So, when our young disciples ask, or our young people act contrary to the commands of God, or we even ask ourselves whether there is any significant meaning in our obedience in the face of an ethical choice, what are we to say?  Gospel, gospel, gospel!  Gospel first! Moses, the lawgiver, tells us gospel first.  The response to child's hypothetical inquiry in this passage is a detailed summary of Yahweh's mighty deeds in Israel's salvation, their deliverance from the iron furnace of Egyptian bondage...it's gospel first.  Paradoxically, gospel first is obedience to the law! This is likely close to what St. Paul meant when he said, "Do we overthrow the law by this faith?  On the contrary! We uphold it!" (Rom. 3:31).

We too, then, must live gospel first.  When facing these questions of life and practice, we answer: Jesus Christ, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead, and buried; the third day, he arose again from the dead; he ascended into heaven, and sits on the right hand of God the Father Almighty!! We must think and act gospel first!

Theologically speaking, the law here also cut right to the heart of dispensational theology.  Because of its popular level influence, dispensationalism is responsible for causing many to believe that Israel and the Church are completely distinct and discontinuous entities in the history of salvation.  Moreover, that God has two distinct programs for these two peoples.  For the Hebrews, it is law; and the gospel is for the Church.  Balderdash!!  In the passage above, Moses himself refutes such wrongheadedness.  It is and has always been gospel first—to the Jew first under the Old Covenant economy and also to the Gentiles through the operative grace in the New Covenant!  

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