Woe to Moralism

Like the Pharisees of two thousand years ago, we all tend toward legalism – we all want to put rules, systems, and guidelines in our lives that will help us be “good people.”  The concept seems like it makes sense – on the surface. And while rules themselves are good things – heck, we’d have anarchy without rules!  – these rules alone don’t really serve as motivators toward living a good life. The Bible teaches that only the Gospel of grace – an inward change of the heart and mind – can do that. And that power comes from God alone.

Here are my notes on a very powerful and challenging passage of Scripture, Luke 11:37-54.

11:37-38 While Jesus was speaking, a Pharisee asked him to dine with him, so he went in and reclined at table. [38] The Pharisee was astonished to see that he did not first wash before dinner.

As you might recall from previous study, the Pharisees had been demanding a sign – all Jesus was going to give them for a sign was himself – his death burial and resurrection, the sign of Jonah.

There are two main groups of people in the narrative before us, the Pharisees and the Scribes. Philip Ryken gives some helpful background for understanding the difference between these two groups, he says:

What, then, was the difference between these lawyers and the Pharisees? Whereas the term “Pharisee” referred to a religious party – almost like today’s Christian denominations – the term “lawyer” referred to a professional occupation. Some lawyers were Pharisees, but not all of them, because not all lawyers followed the customs of the Pharisees. There were also some Pharisees were lawyers; they were Bible scholars by profession. Yet many Pharisees were involved I some other line of work. In fact, many of them were lay people.[1]

It’s interesting that this discussion took place over dinner – what a dinner! Ryken is right to point out that we should use opportunities like Jesus did to be sociable and take advantage of these times to build relationships. Ryken, “But we must always be sure to point them to God. All too often Christians accept this kind of dinner invitation without using it to full spiritual advantage.”

The Pharisees really did believe that cleanliness is next to Godliness. They didn’t want the hands that they used for everything during the day to ceremonially defile their food, and thus their bodies.

But this wasn’t something in the law code itself; it was a rule that the Pharisees invented for helping them keep the rules. Ryken comments, “It is important to understand that there was nothing morally wrong with what Jesus did. The only thing Jesus violated was a man-made rule for religiously acceptable conduct. The Pharisees had a thousand and one of these extra biblical rules, which they believed God had given to Moses on Mount Sinai, and were subsequently handed down by oral tradition. They further believed that breaking any one of themes a serious breach of holiness.”[2]

11:39-44 And the Lord said to him, “Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. [40] You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? [41] But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. [42] “But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. [43] Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. [44] Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it.”

Woes to the Pharisees

Jesus didn’t hesitate to offend His dinner guests! He did so because His heart hated evil, and He was constantly teaching people the way of God, even over dinner, there was no downtime for Jesus. He was always on mission.

Jesus is going to pronounce “woes” on these men, and because that is not a term we use a lot in our day, I want to explain what it means. It primarily means judgment – it is a pronouncement of judgment on these men. But at the same time there is mixed with this a sense of sorrow.[3] You may have read some Shakespeare play where the character says, “O Woe is me!” – this is an expression of sorrow, not a pronouncement of judgment.

That being said, judgment is primary. You might be familiar with Calvin’s three offices for Jesus: Prophet, Priest, and King. In this instance Jesus is acting as the supreme Prophet come to speak the Word of God.

In the OT many prophets would pronounce “woes” on Israel or the surrounding nations for their ungodliness. One or two examples from Isaiah ought to give you the idea:

For the look on their faces bears witness against them; they proclaim their sin like Sodom; they do not hide it. Woe to them! For they have brought evil on themselves. (Isaiah 3:9)

Woe to the wicked! It shall be ill with him, for what his hands have dealt out shall be done to him. (Isaiah 3:11)

The idea of woe can likely also be tied to the idea of a curse – like the covenant curses under the Old Covenant. For example:

“But if you will not obey the voice of the LORD your God or be careful to do all his commandments and his statutes that I command you today, then all these curses shall come upon you and overtake you. Cursed shall you be in the city, and cursed shall you be in the field. Cursed shall be your basket and your kneading bowl. Cursed shall be the fruit of your womb and the fruit of your ground, the increase of your herds and the young of your flock. Cursed shall you be when you come in, and cursed shall you be when you go out. (Deuteronomy 28:15-19)

Now, there are three woes He pronounces to the Pharisees:[4]

  1. Neglecting God’s justice and love
  2. Loving the best seats
  3. Leading people to death

The first thing Jesus addresses, however, is how the Pharisees are all about cleaning the outside of their bodies, the whole time leaving their hearts a stained and disgusting atrocity.

We know that God desires our hearts and minds – the inside of us – to be just as devoted to him as our bodies and actions and words. It isn’t as though this is just a New Testament teaching either, for David recognized this and said:

“In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.” (Ps 40:6)

And earlier Samuel had said, “And Samuel said, “Has the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22).

Therefore these Pharisees were more concerned about what was going on ceremonially outside, and all the while neglected not only their hearts, but also their interactions with others. They neglected love and justice. When they dealt with man they dealt with that which was of least concern while neglecting that which was of utmost concern.

Secondly, Jesus accuses them of loving the best seats. Ryken draws a parallel with the way parishioners in the Old North Church used to have pews with their names written on them. Anyone daring to sit in those who wasn’t a bearer of that family name was bound to be kicked out of the church. I had a similar experience in Toledo at the First Baptist Church in the Holland area. They had names on the pews, a strange female minister, and frowned on visitors. I had forgotten all about this oddity until this past week while driving past their building. Oddly enough when I looked up their website again, the logo they use is a big heart around their name! The irony, of course, is that when we behave like this church does – like the Pharisees did – we are anything but loving!

We have been called to put others first. Those in leadership ought to especially be models of servant leadership. This is the model Jesus gave us, and its how we are expected to serve.

Paul says, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3-4).

The third woe Jesus pronounces has to do with leading people to death. He calls them “unmarked graves.” But what does that mean, exactly? Well to step on or over an grave during the time of Jesus meant that you would be ceremonially unclean for one week (Numbers 19:6).

What the Jews used to do was whitewash the gravestones in order for them to be clearly marked. That way no one would come near them and be defiled.

Therefore what Jesus is saying is that people come near the Pharisees, listen to their teaching, begin to try and follow their advice, and defile themselves without even knowing it!

You catch the irony here, right? These Pharisees are so concerned with people washing their hands to remain clean, while the whole time they’re the ones defiling people left and right!

In Matthew 23:15 Jesus puts it this way:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel across sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves.

Those are powerful words! They are words or warning, words that ought to be taken seriously.

You know, the whole thing is really absurd. That is the right word for it – it’s the word J.C. Ryle uses to describe these people. But let us also beware to look inside our own lives to see if there be any falsity, any empty religion, any superficial attitudes of self-righteousness. These are things that so easily creep into the hearts and minds of men, and we must be on our guard not to think of ourselves as above or beyond them.

11:45-52 One of the lawyers answered him, “Teacher, in saying these things you insult us also.” [46] And he said, “Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. [47] Woe to you! For you build the tombs of the prophets whom your fathers killed. [48] So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers, for they killed them, and you build their tombs. [49] Therefore also the Wisdom of God said, ‘I will send them prophets and apostles, some of whom they will kill and persecute,’ [50] so that the blood of all the prophets, shed from the foundation of the world, may be charged against this generation, [51] from the blood of Abel to the blood of Zechariah, who perished between the altar and the sanctuary. Yes, I tell you, it will be required of this generation. [52] Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering.”

Background

This particular scribe must have had a sensitive conscience because he picked up the fact that when Jesus pronounced his “woes” to the Pharisees His pronouncements leaked over to the scribes as well – many of which were guilty of the same thing.

Before I get into the Woes themselves, let me point out the historical background here. Jesus says that these men are just as guilty as their forefathers who killed the prophets. He then gives Abel and Zechariah as examples. We all know Abel was killed by Cain in Genesis 4, but which Zechariah Jesus is referring to here is disputed.

Its possible that Zechariah was the man referred to in 2 Chronicles 24:20-25 because in the Hebrew Bible Chronicles was the final book, thus making him the final murder before the close of the OT canon as those in Jesus’ day knew it. Some scholars seem unconvinced because that Zechariah died in the “court” of the temple, and they see an issue between that description and Jesus’ description here as Zechariah perishing “between the altar and the sanctuary.” But Bock does a good job of laying out all the possible options, and it does seem that this Zechariah from 2 Chronicles is the most likely person to whom Jesus is referring.[5]

The point He is making here is that from the beginning there has been a war between the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) and the seed of the serpent. The serpent has continually tried to kill the seed of the woman, for there is enmity between them (see Gen. 3). All those who are of the world and not of God are under the influence of Satan, as Paul says:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. (Ephesians 2:1-3)

Tom Schreiner has some good things to say about this passage and how it fits into the larger redemptive-historical picture:

They (the Pharisees) neglected what is weighty and clear in the law and become preoccupied with what is secondary. On the outside they appeared to be righteous and pure, but inside they were stained by deep corruption, so that they were comparable to whitewashed tombs. Their evil culminated in the execution of God’s messengers, showing that they were not the seed of Abraham at all but were a “brook of vipers” – the seed of the serpent.

What is said about the leaders cannot be restricted to them. By nature the hearts of all people are dull and insensitive to the things of God, nor are people genuinely interested in hearing and seeing what God has to say to them (Matt. 13:15).[6]

Zooming back in on this particular context, Jesus is pointing to these men, His current generation, and naming them as complicit in rejecting the Father’s messengers and His ultimate Messenger: Jesus Himself.

In many ways their judgment would come in such a violent fashion that thousands if not millions of Jews would perish and be dispersed within a generation of Jesus’ speaking. In 70 AD the Romans absolutely destroyed Jerusalem and scattered the Jews. It wasn’t until 1948 that they would be back in the land as a sovereign nation. Such was the judgment that came upon the Jews of Jesus’ day.

Finally, there is also a strong sense that ultimate judgment is being referred to here as well. For the consequences of opposing and rejecting Jesus and His gospel is death and judgment upon His return.

Woe to the Scribes

There are three woes that He pronounces:[7]

  1. Giving burdens to others, but not to self
  2. Building the tombs of the prophets
  3. Taking away the key of knowledge

Now, the first thing Jesus launches at this scribe is that he and the others of his trade have burdened the people unnecessarily. They had added so many rules to the law of God that any hope they had at keeping the law was blown to smithereens.

Interestingly, my first reaction to this was that “well, it’s a good thing we stomped that out in the early church era!” But the fact is that we still do this today – the Catholic Church excels at this. They elevate traditions of the church to parity with Scripture, and in so doing elevate the opinions of man to a level only reserved for the Holy God.

Ryken is right in pointing out that it isn’t just the Catholics who fall into the trap though. Anytime we elevate moralism instead of the Gospel we are basically doing the same thing. He says:

Above all, we must not present the Christian faith as a law to keep rather than a gospel to believe. The obedience we offer is not some desperate attempt to gain God’s favor, but a grateful response to the salvation he has provided through the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

The second thing He said to the scribe was that they were building the tombs of the prophets. This is an odd saying isn’t it? Well what was going on here was the Scribes were busy making monuments to the prophets of old. They would make these big tombs and memorials to them, but in affect Jesus was saying that because their behavior was just as bad as their forefathers, their acts of honor only amounted to finishing the job their forefathers did!

So they were just as guilty as their forefathers who had murdered the prophets. Ryken quotes a scholar who explains, “They killed the prophets: you make sure they are dead.”

This is a brutal excoriation. Jesus then uses the example of Abel and Zechariah that I mentioned above and says that they men have been on the wrong side of history from day one. Now, the Wisdom of God has come from prophets, but never more so than in the very embodiment of wisdom – the Lord Jesus Christ.

Side note: Grahame Goldsworthy talks about how when David and Solomon were on the throne, Israel was at its peak. And the kingdom of God seemed only at the threshold – though it wasn’t to be, sin was still in the land and in the people inhabiting it. Yet during that time wisdom flourished, as we see with the massive amounts of wisdom literature recorded for us in scripture. How much more so when Jesus came did the wisdom of God come from His mouth.

Finally, the third woe He pronounces is that they have taken away the key of knowledge. In other words, they have blocked people from knowing their Creator – they have led them astray and they have not entered themselves.

As Ryken says, “The key to saving knowledge is the grace that God offers to guilty sinners through Jesus Christ. The way to be saved – the way to have eternal life – is not by works of our own obedience. Rather, it is to confess our sins and put our trust in Christ along for salvation.”

Woe to Us if We Neglect the Gospel

We’ve now looked at what Jesus meant by these woes, and how these men two thousand years ago were behaving. But this lesson can also be applied to us.

For as the author of Hebrews says, “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?? (Hebrews 2:3a).

“Jesus pointed out three ways in which his gospel reveals our brokenness and sin – ways in which we may be no different than the Pharisees: having an outward appearance of cleanness but being full of greed on the inside; sacrificing a portion of our possessions while neglecting justice for others and love for God; and doing good out of a love for the honor that it brings us.”[8]

Ryken brilliantly devised questions for examining our hypocrisy. When I read these, and truly examined my heart, I found myself under great scrutiny by the Holy Spirit.

He asks the question “When am I a hypocrite?” and the answer is as follows:

  • I am a hypocrite when I am more concerned with outward appearances than inward godliness.
  • I am a hypocrite when I am more concerned about my own little rules than about the big things that matter more to God.
  • I am a hypocrite when I crave for people to recognize my spiritual accomplishments.
  • I am a hypocrite when I am spiritually dead inside, and no one knows, maybe not even myself.

The importance of introspection on these matters is extremely important and was highlighted by J.C. Ryle who said:

Let me counsel every true servant of Christ to examine his own heart frequently and carefully before God. This is a practice, which is useful at all times; it is especially desirable at this present day…We ought to watch out hearts with double watchfulness. We ought to give more time to meditation, self-examination and reflection. It is a hurrying, bustling age; if we would keep from falling, we must take time to being frequently alone with God.[9]

11:53-54 As he went away from there, the scribes and the Pharisees began to press him hard and to provoke him to speak about many things, [54] lying in wait for him, to catch him in something he might say.

Nothing Changes Unless that Change is Wrought by God

This is the description of an evil and hard hearted people. Lying in wait for someone to catch them in what they say – that is the epitome of someone not convicted of sin. Even after Jesus had exposed their sin to them, they still didn’t get it. Remember: This is the Son of God pronouncing woe upon them.

This shows both the radical depravity of mankind, and the sovereignty of God in salvation. Man is so fallen that unless God be actively at work in his fallen heart, he will not be saved.

Steven Lawson points out that the term “radical depravity” does not mean “that fallen men are a wicked as they can be, but that the sin affects every aspect of their beings. From the crown of his head to the soles of his feet, man is radically corrupt…Depravity causes all unconverted people to be defiant and disregard God’s supreme rule.”[10]

What must be done, then, for mankind to be saved? God must change his heart in a divine way. Lawson comments, “…when God chooses some to be saved, He sends the Holy Spirit in irresistible power, and the Spirit calls God’s elect to Himself. The Spirit suddenly changes them from being God-haters to God-lovers.”[11]

Praise God He has changed many such men and women who are Pharisees at heart, loving hypocrisy and moralism, to bowing before the gracious throne of the Lord Jesus. We must understand that it is only be the grace of God that we are saved, and only be the grace of God that we are sanctified.

Had it not been for this grace, we would yet be hyprocrites, walking dead men, shut up inside our own sinfulness judging others and hating others. For as Paul says:

For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. [4] But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, [5] he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, [6] whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, [7] so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. (Titus 3:3-7)

Therefore the point in what we are saying here is that the gospel has defeated all men’s attempts at moralism.

J.C. Ryle says the following:

There are thousands at the present day who make a great ado about daily services, and keeping Lent, and frequent communion, and turning to the east in churches, and a gorgeous ceremonial, and intoning public prayers, – but never gat any further. They know little or nothing of the great practical duties of humility, charity, meekness, spiritual-mindedness, Bible reading, private devotion, and separate from the world.[12]

Now remember what Jesus said when the people approached Him asking for instruction on how to do the works of God:

Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give to you. For on him God the Father has set his seal.” Then they said to him, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?” Jesus answered them, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” (John 6:27-29)

These people got the order wrong. They didn’t understand the way in which God works, and the same can be said in our day – all of this is baffling to me because in both the OT and the NT it is plain that God wants first a heart that is dedicated to Him, and then works which match it. But the inside must be dealt with first and foremost. That is why I want to admonish you to check the inside, look intently at your mind and hearts and see if there be any hypocrisy that needs rooted out. That is the challenge of this passage, and one we must all take seriously.

Let me close with a thought from Ryle:

Whatever we are as Christians, let us be real, thorough, genuine, and sincere. Let us abhor all canting and affectation, and part-acting in the things of God, as that which is utterly loathsome in Christ’s eyes. We may be weak, and erring, and frail, and come far short of our aims and desires. But at any rate, if we profess to believe in Christ, let us be true.[13]

 

Footnotes

[1] Ryken, Pg. 632-633.

[2] Ryken, Pg. 620.

[3] William Hendriksen, Pg. 636.

[4] As summarized by Darrell Bock, Commentary on Luke Volume II, Pg. 1109.

[5] Bock, Pg.’s 1122-1124.

[6] Tom Schreiner, New Testament Biblical Theology, Pg. 512.

[7] Bock, Pg. 1109.

[8] Gospel Transformation Bible notes on Luke 11:37-44, Pg. 1378.

[9] Ryle, ‘Churches Beware!’, Pg.’s 76-77, as quoted from Ryken, Pg. 621.

[10] Steven Lawson, Foundations of Faith, Pg. 139.

[11] Lawson, Foundations of Faith, Pg. 121.

[12] J.C. Ryle, Commentary on Luke, Volume 2, Pg. 45.

[13] Ryle, Volume 2, Pg. 47.

Obedience

Last week our church did a week long study on Obedience as part of a larger church-wide study on “revival.”  As I mentioned in the lesson on Sunday morning, the way the lesson was laid out was problematic and it was my hope to correct theological misconceptions and legalistic tendencies that the lesson book veered off into.

First and foremost is that our relationship with God is not based in any way whatsoever on OUR obedience.  Rather it is based on the obedience of Jesus Christ.  So, the lesson plan that states our “obedience is foundational” to our relationship with God, it simply incorrect.

It is only because of the life, death, and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ that we have any ability to stand before God’s throne or His people.  Paul tells us this much in Romans 5:

But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. [16] And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. [17] For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. [18] Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all men. [19] For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. (Romans 5:15-19 ESV)

Our service to God in obedience is a biproduct of our love for Him and His work on our behalf.  However, even the love itself is not of us, but rather of and from Him who took the initiative and gave us the example of love in His Son, and imparted His Holy Spirit to empower us to love.  Here’s what John had to say about the matter:

Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. [8] Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. [9] In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. [10] In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. [11] Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. [12] No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. [13] By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. [14] And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. [15] Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. [16] So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. (1 John 4:7-16 ESV)

Because of this love, we are compelled to stop sinning.  Paul says this:

Do not present your members to sin as instruments for unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life, and your members to God as instruments for righteousness. [14] For sin will have no dominion over you, since you are not under law but under grace.
(Romans 6:13-14 ESV)

Therefore, the key to obedience is not a checklist – as the book provides us – of items that we need to ensure we do each week, but rather the key to obedience is love for God and others.  We love and obey because of His work within us.

In very practical ways, we can do this by the power of the Holy Spirit by reading our Bibles and praying for God’s help.  The renewing of our minds (Rom. 12:1-2) goes hand in hand with our presenting of ourselves as living sacrifices.  We need to be in the Word and we need to be in prayer if we’re to have any hope at all of even wanting to obey!

Once we have been in the Word and in prayer the Holy Spirit will prompt our obedience – now is the time to take action! Be a doer of the Word and show your fruit.  Listen to what James says:

What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? [15] If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, [16] and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? [17] So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead. [18] But someone will say, “You have faith and I have works.” Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works. (James 2:14-18 ESV)

Therefore, our actions in obedience to Christ’s commands will prove our faith and show forth his work in us.  This is not a matter of legalism, its a heart issue.  Listen to what Jerry Bridges says about this:

We have loaded down the Gospel of grace of God in Christ with a lot of “oughts” – “I ought to do this” and “I ought to do that.” “I ought to be more committed, more disciplined, more obedient.” When we think or teach this way, we are substituting duty and obligation for a loving response to God’s grace.

Finally, when God helps you obey, and you live in His will you will want to give Him glory.  Check out this passage from Paul’s letter to the Philippians:

Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, [13] for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure. [14] Do all things without grumbling or disputing, [15] that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, [16] holding fast to the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I may be proud that I did not run in vain or labor in vain. [17] Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. [18] Likewise you also should be glad and rejoice with me. (Philippians 2:12-18 ESV)

Indeed it is God who is working in us for His good pleasure.  It is Christ’s obedience that is the foundation for our relationship with God the Father, for He is the Cornerstone of the church upon which our faith is built.

No lists; just grace!

Peace be with you all,

PJW

Enslaved to Merit or Enslaved to Christ?

This past Sunday, I briefly mentioned near the end of the lesson that we ought not to think about earning any merit or grace with God.  I stressed that we need to get out of this cycle of thinking that as Christians we need to strive to “be good” as a way to earn something in heaven. For all of our reward has been purchased by Christ, and given by grace. Now, I realize, and as humans we sometimes have difficulty balancing the role of grace and merit, and understanding the purpose of Christian works here on earth.

Though we are prone to either excessive legalism, or sinful liberty, what I want to stress is that the principles of living holy lives, and understanding God’s grace in our lives are not mutually exclusive.  We need to be seeking holiness while also seeking to please God and love others through our actions. In order to do this, we must understand why we are to love others, and where our “merit” in heaven ultimately comes from.  Our motivation for loving others and doing good works is gratitude and enjoyment of God.  Likewise, any merit we have before God, ultimately, has already been won by Christ.

Let me explore these two co-existing principles further with some perspective from those who are wiser than myself.

First, we are called to holiness. JC Ryle said this about seeking holiness as it relates to our relationship to reward and closeness with Chrirst:

Above all, grieve not the Spirit. Quench not the Spirit. Vex not the Spirit. . . . Little jarrings between husbands and wives make unhappy homes; and petty inconsistencies, known and allowed, will bring in strangeness between you and the Spirit. . . . The man who walks with God in Christ most closely, will generally be kept in the greatest peace. The believer who follows the Lord most fully and aims at the highest degree of holiness will ordinarily enjoy the most assured hope, and have the clearest persuasion of his own salvation

And commenting on this passage from Ryle, John Piper says:

Can you really “drive [God] to a distance, by tampering with small bad habits”? Do “petty inconsistencies bring strangeness between you and the Spirit”? Is the greatest peace really enjoyed by those who “walk with God most closely”? Is the greatest assurance known by those who “aim at the highest degree of holiness”?  Yes. This is clearly taught in Scripture. “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8).

This means that there is a precious experience of peace and assurance and harmony and intimacy that is not unconditional. It depends on our not grieving the Spirit. It depends on our putting away bad habits. It depends on forsaking the petty inconsistencies of our Christian lives. It depends on our walking closely with God and aiming at the highest degree of holiness. If this is true, I fear that the unguarded reassurances today that God’s love is unconditional may stop people from doing the very things the Bible says they need to do in order to have the peace that they so desperately crave. In trying to give peace through “unconditionality” we may be cutting people off from the very remedy the Bible prescribes. Let us declare untiringly the good news that our justification is based on the worth of Christ’s obedience and sacrifice, not ours (Romans 5:19, “as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the One the many will be made righteous”).

But let us also declare the biblical truth that the enjoyment of that justification in its effect on our joy and confidence and power to grow in likeness to Jesus is conditioned on our actively forsaking sins and forsaking bad habits and mortifying lusts and pursuing intimacy with Christ, and not grieving the Spirit.

To give an even fuller perspective on the merit of Christ in all of this, Jerry Bridges labors how it is by God’s grace that we are what we are.  In his book ‘Transforming Grace’, Bridges has some great remarks on the matter.  Here are a few of them:

  • We believe God’s blessings are at least partially earned by our obedience and our spiritual disciplines. We know we are saved by grace, but we think we must live by our spiritual “sweat.”
  • If you are trusting to any degree in your own morality or religious attainments, or if you believe God will somehow recognize any of your good works as merit toward your salvation, you need to seriously consider if you are truly a Christian.
  • The generosity and the magnanimity of God are so great that he accepts nothing from us without rewarding it beyond all computation…. The vast disproportion existing between our work and God’s reward of it already displays his boundless grace, to say nothing of the gift of salvation which made before we have even begun to do any work.’
  • That is what Peter experienced. His failures and his sins abounded. There is no question about that. But however much his sin increased, God’s grace increased all the more. It superabounded. God blessed Peter, not in spite of his sins, but without regard to his sins. That’s the way His grace operates. It looks not to our sins or even to our good deeds but only to the merit of Christ.

In conclusion, let us strive toward holiness and intimacy with Christ, drawing near the throne of grace with confidence, while also realizing that we deserve not this grace, nor do our feeble works merit further blessing. The blessings we received were already purchased for us by Jesus Christ. His merit has earned our blessings, and even in our state of continual sin He is anxious to restore us, to bless us, and to conform us to His image – by His own power, not ours.  What a relief this is! How comforting! Let me close with the words of Paul in Romans 6:

What then? Are we to sin because we are not under law but under grace? By no means! [16] Do you not know that if you present yourselves to anyone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one whom you obey, either of sin, which leads to death, or of obedience, which leads to righteousness? [17] But thanks be to God, that you who were once slaves of sin have become obedient from the heart to the standard of teaching to which you were committed, [18] and, having been set free from sin, have become slaves of righteousness. (Romans 6:15-18 ESV)

Soli Deo Gloria

Study Notes 4-29-12 covering John 4:16-24

John 4:16-24

4:16 Jesus said to her, “Go, call your husband, and come here.”

  • D.A. Carson remarks, “The change of subject, though abrupt, is not artificial. The Samaritan woman has already failed to grasp who Jesus is, and misconstrued the nature of the living water he was promising. By this turn in the dialogue, Jesus is indicating that she has also misunderstood the true dimensions of her own need, the real nature of her self-confessed thirst.”

4:17-19 The woman answered him, “I have no husband.” Jesus said to her, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband’; [18] for you have had five husbands, and the one you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” [19] The woman said to him, “Sir, I perceive that you are a prophet.

  • Only a prophet, a man of God, could know these details of her life, thus, the woman immediately perceives that Jesus is more than just a wise man with a claim to “living water.”  This is a man who knows the very details of her life.  At this point in the discussion, the intensity must be so thick that it could be cut with a knife.  The woman has just had her life details (and sin) laid out before her from a total stranger! Carson says, “by displaying his knowledge of her morally messy past Jesus is exhibiting his own more-than-human knowledge  – a point the woman understands. Nevertheless, his remark is not designed to be merely self-reveling: rather it is designed to help the woman come to terms with the nature of the gift he is offering.”
  • The deity and humanity of Christ is clearly revealed in this chapter in such a splendid way that we can really come to no other conclusion than that this man was both fully God and fully man.  He’s tired from His journey, yet He planned the journey in advance and knew exactly when to leave. He’s offering the woman eternal life and knows her life details, and yet he appear to be communicating with her as just a man – there is no angelic radiance or voice from heaven telling her that He is more than just a man from an auditory or visual perspective.
  • One thing that Carson points out that must be examined is the way in which Jesus interacts with people.  He says, “Jesus commonly drives to the individual’s greatest sin, hopelessness, guilt, despair, need…Jesus exposes the whole truth, but in the gentlest possible way; he commends her for her formal truthfulness, while pointing out that she has had five husbands and the man with whom she is now sleeping is not her legal husband at all.”
  • Paul says that the entire world is a prisoner to sin (Galatians 3:22) and Jesus came to set these prisoners free (Luke 4:18)) – that is why He makes it such a priority to get to the heart of sin in these people’s lives.  He does the same with all those whom He calls to Himself.  As Ryle says, “We should mark…the absolute necessity of conviction of sin before a soul can be converted to God.”

4:20 Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you say that in Jerusalem is the place where people ought to worship.”

  • Even though the Samaritans had built a temple in 400 BC on Mt. Gerizim, the Jews, led by John Hyrcanus, destroyed it around 120 BC.  So knowing this, its easy to see why there was a rift between the Jews and the Samaritans!
  • Amazing how she changes the topic here.  It is so “irrational” to do so (Piper).  It’s like she’s saying, “while we’re on the topic of my adulterous lifestyle, what do you think about the worship issue we’ve been dealing with here?”  It makes no sense.  She’s running away from the light (cf. 3:18-21) of the gospel.  Thomas Aquinas is right to say that no man seeks after God, we all seek after the benefits only God can give us while simultaneously running as fast as we can from Him.  And as Sproul notes, “we are, by nature, fugitives.”

4:21 Jesus said to her, “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father.

  • This verse tells us a great deal about worship and the nature of how people had been thinking about worship up until this point in human history.  Paul articulates this shift in thinking when he said, “Yet the Most High does not dwell in houses made by hands” (Acts 7:48).  It is an amazing truth that we don’t have to go to a central location to worship God.  In fact, we are commanded to pray to God without ceasing (1 Thes. 5:17) and as Spurgeon points out, this command is immediately proceeded by a commanded to rejoice in the Lord.  We’ve talked about this in past weeks and I’ll come back to it again I’m sure.  It is the truth at the very heart of John Piper’s ministry and the at the heart of what drove the Westminster Divines to state that our entire time here on earth out to be “glorifying God and enjoying Him forever.”  Jesus is showing us that we can worship God and enjoy God anywhere in the world.  Like breathing and eating, for the Christian enjoying God is a normal part of life.  How are we to enjoy Him?  By praying without ceasing.  But entering into His presence as often as possible.  We ought to long to be in fellowship with God.
  • The point is that Jesus Christ was ushering in a shift in not only how people were to worship, but where they could worship.  It used to be that the presence of God would dwell in the temple in Jerusalem and a cloud of glory would emanate out from the holy of holies (2 Chron. 5:14).  It was an awesome spectacle to behold.  Jesus was ushering in a time when the temple of God would be our very bodies (1 Cor. 6:19) and that we could worship God wherever we are and that geography no longer plays a role in our worship. Perhaps no where is this more evident than in Acts 16:25 when we’re told that “About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God.”
  • When we think about how people came to the temple before in the Old Testament, they had to be ceremonially clean and ready to come before the Lord.  Today I often hear legalistically minded Christians tell me that we need to dress up before we come to church so that we show God the respect due Him.  However, this statement both goes too far, and not far enough.  As we have seen above, we are not bound by any special place and dress code for God does not dwell in temples made by human hands, and so thinking that somehow dressing up gives him glory, we miss the point of just about every Biblical passage on this point since God told Samuel that “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The LORD does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart” (1Sam.16:7).  As Ryle says, “Our Lord tells her (the Samaritan Woman) that true and acceptable worship depends not on the place in which it is offered, but on the state of the worshiper’s heart.”
  • But on the flip-side, we don’t go far enough by not realizing that our very bodies are temples of the Living God.  If this is true, how much more are we to respect the fact that He, the very God of God, the Holy One, dwells in this sanctuary?!   Therefore, let us leave behind any notion of legalism and ungodly thinking and realize that true consecration comes 7 days a week, not simply from 9-12 on a Sunday morning.

4:22 You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews.

  • In case there was any confusion as to whether or not Jesus condoned the syncretistic religion of the Samaritans, those questions are put promptly to bed here.  Jesus claims a kind of exclusivity that drives the secular world to anger.

4:23-24 But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. [24] God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.”

  • It is hard not to say too much about these two verses, for I can’t emphasize their importance enough.  One thing that stands out to me immediately is the nature and person of God.  In these verses we learn a little of His character, and His person.  For instance, we learn that God is a spirit.  This is crucial for our understanding of who God is – and Jesus uses His teaching of who God is, to make a rhetorical play on words to say that we must worship Him in spirit and in truth. And though there is a play on words, there is much more substance here than that.  What Jesus seems to be saying here, is that we can’t affectively worship the Father without first having the Spirit of God and having a right idea of who He is, and that is what He means by the Spirit and “truth.”
  • But this verse builds on what was mentioned earlier about where we can worship God.  Now we learn more about who can worship God, and it is closely tied to who can really enjoy God.  The unbeliever might well count their rosary over and over again, but they will never by that ritual, be entering into the presence of God.  They are not worshiping God in Spirit. And enjoying God is the farthest thing from their minds. In fact, prayer is a chore, a duty, a ritual, a habit; it’s a crutch to count those beads.  Its borderline superstition!  Contrast this with the believer who enters into worship in prayer with God because they are commanded to enjoy Him, and because they want the fellowship. It is as necessary to them as eating and breathing as I mentioned above.
  • Though, it must be said that for many believers we don’t understand or take full advantage of this joy.  J.C. Ryle says, “The Lord Jesus sis far more ready to hear than we are to pray, and far more ready to give favors than we are to ask them.”  Not only that, but even the Christian mind is given to outward empty forms, “We are all naturally included to make religion a mere matter of outward forms and ceremonies and to attach an excessive importance to our own particular manner of worshipping God.  We must beware of this spirit, and especially when we first begin to think seriously about our souls. The heart is the principal thing in all our approaches to God.  The most gorgeous cathedral service is offensive in God’s sight, if all is gone through coldly, heartlessly, and without grace.”
  • It is the privilege of believers and no others to enter into this communion with God because only they can enter into this communion.  Why?  Notice the two descriptive terms in Jesus’ statement.  He says we worship God in “spirit” and in “truth.”  Only the believer has the “Spirit” of God so only the believer can enter into worship in spirit.  Only the believer knows the “truth” about God and can worship Him without any polluting ideas of idolatry clouding their mind.  This point in crucial because the unbeliever may think they know something of God.  But like this woman at the well, they have no idea of who God really is.  Their worship would simply be idolatry.  This is why it is absolutely critical that we rid our minds of all false notions of who God is.  We must study His character, learn His ways, and learn to love what He loves and to hate what He hates.  If we enter into worship with a false understanding of who God is, we will ask for wrong things, we will not have the mind of Christ: we will be worshiping an idol created in our minds!