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Not Under Law

In Paul’s letters to the churches he tells followers of Jesus that they are no longer “under law.” What does this mean?

In the New Testament, “the law” is usually a reference to the Ten Commandments and their related rules and regulations (recorded mostly in Exodus and Leviticus). This code was given by God through Moses to the Hebrews after they were freed from slavery in Egypt.

The law was not given to the Hebrew slaves as a pathway to freedom from bondage in Egypt. God did not send Moses to the Hebrew slaves with the law, telling them that he would deliver them from bondage if they kept the law. God delivered the Hebrew slaves from cruel bondage to Pharaoh in Egypt because they were willing simply to trust the Lord and to follow God’s chosen leader: Moses.

Once free of Egyptian servitude, God brought the Hebrew people to Mt. Sinai where he made a covenant with them, which was expressed in writing through the Ten Commandments and their related regulations, the law.

The law described a life that reflected God’s holiness, a life that was pleasing to God, a life that was distinct from the surrounding nations. The Mosaic law included details that were especially related to the ancient agricultural society that Israel (the emancipated Hebrew slaves living in the Promised Land) inhabited four thousand years ago. Nevertheless, the vast majority of the statutes and regulations in the law are applicable to any and all cultural environments at all times.

In giving the law to the Hebrews, God offered them a choice. He said that they would be his people if they agreed to follow the law (Exodus 19:5-6). They agreed, so they were “under” the law.

God did not give the Hebrew people the choice of returning to Egypt. In fact, once they were in the wilderness and realized the challenges of living a nomadic lifestyle on their way to the Promised Land, they began to grumble and complain. Their homes, food and plentiful water back in Egypt began to look better when compared to the trek through the desert. They were tempted to return to slavery in Egypt. But God would not allow it. They had made a covenant with him. The only two choices were to die in the desert or move on toward the Promised Land.

This was not the only example of the people’s resistance toward God. Only weeks after agreeing to the covenant, they set up an idol, the golden calf, and worshiped it. They discovered the painful results of being God’s people and not acting like God’s people. To be “under the law” came with blessings and with curses.

The law always recognized the need for God’s mercy. The presentation of the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20 is immediately followed with instructions to build an altar. In other words, the commandments came with a built-in avenue of restoration for the times when God’s people would fall short of the commandments. God knew they would fall short from the beginning, but he loved them and provided a way of forgiveness and reconciliation.

Much of the Old Testament records the long slow spiritual decline of God’s people Israel. Once they were in the Promised Land, they wanted to be like the surrounding nations. Despite God’s warnings, they followed the idolatrous and sinful ways of their neighbors, bringing God’s discipline time after time. God repeatedly showed mercy, but the people consistently returned to their disobedience and rebellion.

After generations of failure (with occasional bright spots), God sent a prophet named Jeremiah. Jeremiah warned God’s people that their persistent idolatry was about to bring terrible judgment on them. The Babylonians would destroy Jerusalem, the Temple, and many of the people. Those who survived would be carried away to Babylon, expelled from the Promised Land, exiled to a foreign nation.

The people refused to listen to Jeremiah, accusing him of being a traitor to Israel. They believed that the Temple guaranteed them protection. In other words, their position as God’s chosen people, “under the law,” left them free to sin without any worry of God’s punishment. They were wrong. Nebuchadnezzar’s armies destroyed Jerusalem, the Temple, many of the people, and carried the survivors into exile.

Through the Prophet Jeremiah, God promised that the people of Israel would return to the Promised Land after seventy years. He also promised a New Covenant. Through the prophet Jeremiah, God told the people that the Old Covenant, the one made at Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, had failed. Not because the covenant was faulty, but because the people were unwilling to obey.

The New Covenant would not be written on tablets of stone (like the Ten Commandments). The New Covenant would be written on the hearts of God’s people. In other words, they would not be “under the law” as an external code of conduct, but they would be subject to a work of God from the inside, in their hearts.

Many of God’s people remained in Babylon when the seventy years were finished. Some returned and struggled to rebuild Jerusalem and the Temple. Hundreds of years went by without any clear sign of the New Covenant which God promised through Jeremiah.

Then the resounding and authoritative voice of John the Baptist broke the silence. And on his heels came Jesus. Jesus’ teaching was so revolutionary that he found it necessary to assure his listeners that he was not abolishing the law or the prophets (the Old Testament). He was fulfilling it.

What did Jesus mean by saying that he was fulfilling the law and the prophets? He fulfilled the law by living a sinless life. He never broke a single command in the law. Jesus fulfilled the prophets by coming as the promised Messiah, eternal Savior and King of God’s people.

Jesus also fulfilled the law and prophets by becoming the ultimate and final sacrifice, thus rendering the Old Testament sacrificial system completed, unnecessary for New Testament/Covenant believers. The sacrificial system was part of the law, but once fulfilled by Jesus, it was no longer needed to provide forgiveness for the people’s sins. Faith in Jesus’ death on the cross has now become the avenue for repentance and restoration.

What about the ethical commands of the law? New Testament believers no longer follow the animal sacrifice in the Old Testament law, but what about the commandments related to righteous living (morality)? Jesus clearly affirmed Old Testament instruction about how to live in a way that is pleasing to God. He offered a memorable summary of the law in two commands: love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength; and love your neighbor as yourself.

In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus used a formula to introduce his teachings about the ethical demands of the law: “You have heard that it was said . . . but I say to you,” etc. At times he was referring to established commands from the Old Testament law, like the commandments forbidding adultery and murder. In these cases, he broadened the scope of the commands. For example, when teaching about murder, he expanded the command to a prohibition against anger. “You have heard that is was said, ‘You are not to commit murder and anyone who murders will face judgment,’ but I say to you that anyone who is angry with his brother will face judgement” and so forth. When teaching about adultery, he expanded the command to a prohibition against lust. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You are not to commit adultery,’ but I say to you that anyone who looks at a woman to lust after her has committed adultery in his heart.”

At other times Jesus seems to be reversing the Old Testament law. Instead of keeping one’s vows (as called for by the law), his followers were not to swear at all. Instead of exacting an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth (as defined in the law), his followers were to turn the other cheek. If these examples seem arguable, his declaration that all foods are clean comes without a hint of ambiguity.

In addition, Jesus also seems to address erroneous interpretations and applications of the Old Testament laws, usually advanced by the Pharisees and Sadducees. For example, he refused to follow their version of Sabbath-keeping, resulting in their accusation that he was breaking the law. Jesus also revealed a hierarchy of importance in the law, noting that divorce was a concession, not a command, thus making the design for marriage a priority over the ‘command’ for divorce.

Clearly, Jesus had a complex and nuanced understanding of the law. He fulfilled it with his life. He affirmed it with his teaching, including corrections of improper interpretations. But he also made at least one dramatic change: cancelling the prohibitions against ritually unclean foods.

One might try to reconcile these various attitudes about the Old Testament law by saying that Jesus affirmed the moral law but altered the ceremonial law. But this distinction is difficult to maintain. A serious difficulty with this approach is the fact that it is not advanced by the writers of the New Testament.

A better distinction might be between laws for holy living (moral law) and laws for restoration and forgiveness (animal sacrifices and the related rituals). In this case, we can say that Jesus fulfilled all the regulations addressing sacrifices with his sacrificial death on the cross. As a result, the commands related to sacrifices, including the division of food between clean and unclean, would no longer be applicable. But what about freewill and fellowship offerings?

Attempts to systematize Jesus’ relationship with the Old Testament law usually seek a reasonable and consistent dividing line between those laws still applicable to New Testament believers and those laws no longer in force. But when the Apostle Paul wrote about the law, he made the sweeping statement that New Covenant/Testament believers are not under law. He made no distinction between sections or divisions in the law.

Like Jesus, the Apostle Paul seems to have a complex understanding of the law. He affirms the law generally and even instructs Christians to follow many specific commands from the law, such as, honoring father and mother, not committing adultery, not murdering, and so forth. Paul wrote that the law is holy, spiritual, and good, high praise that reflects the Psalmist who expressed love and delight in God’s commands.

At Jesus’ baptism, when John hesitated to baptize him, Jesus insisted, saying that it would in some way fulfill all righteousness. Students of the Bible disagree about the exact meaning of Jesus’ statement, but one thing is clear, Jesus says nothing about following the law to fulfill all righteousness. And there was nothing in the law that was equivalent to the baptism of repentance that John was teaching.

Jesus also predicted the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem, the most visible and popular representation of the law. The system of worship overseen by the Jewish religious leaders was corrupted and unacceptable to God, so it would be brushed aside, just as it was in Jeremiah’s day. Without the temple, sacrifices for sin could not be offered. How would God’s people find forgiveness if they could no longer offer animal sacrifices (since they were forbidden to offer them anywhere but the temple)? Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross took the place (fulfilled) of the temple. He challenged his enemies to destroy “this temple” and he would rebuild it in three days. They thought he was referring only to the Herod’s temple in which they stood, but Jesus’ followers later realized that the three days was a reference to his resurrection. Jesus himself took the place of the temple. Jesus’ ‘body,’ the church, is now the temple, constructed with living stones, which God inhabits by his Spirit.

Jesus’ teaching placed him under hostile suspicion by the Jewish religious leaders. They were afraid that Jesus would tear down the system of beliefs and practices they had built on the Mosaic law. At his trial, they tried twist his statements about tearing down the temple, implying that he was a threat to the established laws given by God through Moses. After Jesus, Paul was also accused by the Jewish religious leaders of teaching against Moses and the law.

Upon closer examination, Paul’s teaching is closely aligned with Jesus’ teaching. In fact, Paul develops Jesus’ teaching about many aspects of God’s unfolding revelation.

Both Jesus and Paul recognized the struggle that followers of Jesus experience in this world. Jesus asked three of his disciples to keep watch with him while he prayed in Gethsemane, just hours before his crucifixion. When they fell asleep, he exhorted them to be more diligent, saying, “the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

Some English Bibles (1984 NIV and New Living Translation) render Jesus’ words as “the body is weak” instead of “the flesh is weak.” The 2011 NIV changed this rendering to “flesh” in order to more accurately reflect the underlying Greek term: sarx (as opposed to soma, which is often rendered as “body” in English versions). Why is this important? Because sarx, “flesh,” becomes a sort of technical term for Paul. The apostle’s use of this term is highly specialized.

In Paul’s writings, ‘flesh’ is not synonymous with “body.” He is not saying that all physical reality is evil. God made the heavens and the earth and all that is in them, including people, and proclaimed them good. The gospel does not promise that we will be saved from our bodies. Jesus was raised with a glorified body. We will share in his resurrection, having glorified bodies and living in a new heaven and earth, a creation free of sin and suffering and crying and dying.

The book of Genesis tells us that God’s good creation is broken because of sin. People are broken, not because we are born into physical bodies, but because we are born with a broken human nature that is prone to disobey God. This state of being broken is what Paul means when he uses the term ‘flesh.’

Like Jesus, Paul describes the believer’s life in this age as a conflict between ‘flesh’ and spirit. In Paul, however, spirit becomes Spirit, that is, the Holy Spirit, God’s invisible, personal, powerful presence in the world today and in the lives of Christians in a more intimate way. In fact, since first-century Greek was written in all capital letters (which means that all decisions about using lower- and upper-case letters are editorial in modern versions of the New Testament), then we might wonder if Jesus’ statement should be rendered, “the Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” Either way, Jesus is setting up a struggle between his followers and ‘the flesh.’

Paul’s solution for dealing with the ‘flesh’ is to realize that it is ‘crucified,’ passing away. He wrote that those who belong to Jesus have crucified the ‘flesh’ with its passions and desires. Believers are buried with Jesus through baptism, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead, they too may live a new life. This reflects Jesus’ charge to his followers to deny self, take up a cross, and follow him. A cross, of course, was the Roman instrument of execution that was used to kill Jesus. To take up a cross and follow seems like a contradiction. Cross stands for death and follow reflects life. Jesus’ compact statement made more sense after his resurrection. What does it mean? The old life, the broken human nature, the ‘flesh,’ is passing away and the new life in Christ, eternal life, will remain forever. For this reason, believers must “count” or “consider” the ‘flesh’ to be ‘crucified,’ ‘dead,’ and live by the power of God’s Spirit instead of by the passions and desires of the ‘flesh.’

The Early Church obviously took these words figuratively. There is no record in the book of Acts of church members rushing out to find a Roman to crucify their physical bodies (the physical body is not the culprit). The practical expression of this truth is one’s daily ‘walk,’ or lifestyle. Does it reflect rebellion against God (unrighteousness), or does it reveal love for God (a life of holiness and obedience, bearing spiritual fruit)?

These realities in the lives of believers raised questions about the relationship between Jesus’ followers and the Old Testament law, for it was in the context of teaching these truths that Paul wrote, “If you are led by the Spirit, then you are not under law.”

It is helpful to consider the historical context in which Paul wrote these provocative words. Both Jesus and Paul insisted that God invites people from all nations and walks of life to participate in his kingdom. Jesus said that many will come from the east and west and take their places with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven, a reference to the nations (Gentiles). Jesus irritated the religious leaders from Jerusalem by reaching out to tax collectors and sinners. On another occasion he shocked even his followers by reaching out to a Samaritan woman. Jews considered the Samaritans to be hopelessly ‘unclean.’

Paul reflected this aspect of Jesus’ teaching by preaching the gospel to Gentiles and planting churches throughout the Roman Empire, churches that included both Jews and non-Jews (the nations). In addition, Paul insisted that in Christ, there is no Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. These three contrasts represented a belief that Christianity welcomed all classes of people, requiring only faith in Christ, not conversion to Judaism.

Paul traveled from city to city in the first-century Roman world preaching the good news about salvation through faith in Jesus. His routine was to begin his work in each city by first teaching in the local Synagogue. Typically, many Jews and Gentiles would joyfully receive the good news and put saving faith in Christ.

After a while, however, some of the Gentiles would distort the grace of God into a license to live in unrestrained sin. If God will forgive every sin in Christ, then why not ‘enjoy’ sin to the fullest? The Jews were horrified. They knew God’s Old Testament law about living holy lives as God’s people. They mistakenly concluded that Paul’s message about God’s grace was flawed. The Jews stepped in to ‘correct’ Paul’s message, insisting that the Gentiles become full-fledged Jews, under the law, to truly be God’s people and live in a way that is pleasing with God.

Of course, one of the key features of the law was circumcision. Jews circumcised all their males as an outward sign of membership in the people of God. Paul refused to back down and mix law and grace (a cancellation of grace, he asserted). In his letter to the Galatians he insisted that circumcision was no longer necessary to be a member of God’s household and even said that Gentiles who agreed to circumcision were falling from God’s grace in Christ and bringing upon themselves the curse of the law!

Paul agreed with the Jews that commitment to God should lead to a life of righteousness, not sin. This is another point of continuity between Jesus and Paul. Jesus insisted that authentic followers of God will live in a way that produces spiritual fruit. Paul agreed, writing that the Spirit-led life will be obvious from the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and other such things. And he adds, there is no law for these types of things.

Paul came into sharp dispute with the Jews when they promoted imposing the law in order to control the ‘flesh.’ Paul’s goal was not control, but crucifixion. The ‘flesh’ was not to be subdued; it was to be ignored entirely. To return to the law was to return to the failed Old Covenant and to retreat from the glorious New Covenant.

The ‘flesh,’ Paul asserts, cannot be controlled by law. In fact, the ‘flesh’ insures that people will resist and rebel against God’s law. All who break the law are condemned by the law, cursed. Since Jesus died to free God’s people from the curse of the law, Paul is adamant that a return to the law is foolishness. Why give up one’s freedom in Christ to return to certain death?

Paul also realized that the ‘flesh’ in religious people can produce an ugly spiritual pride. Some people mistakenly think that God’s law is a sort of check list that they can present for his approval. God, they imagine, will ignore the commands they break, grading on a curve, treating the law like a test in high school: nine out of ten is a passing grade. James assures us that stumbling at one point in the law is breaking all of it because it is disobedience to God, the author of the entire law.

Paul is certainly not saying that the law is a curse. He is saying that the law condemns all who cannot follow it. This is precisely why the sacrificial system was given with the law. Without it, the law would have left God’s people condemned because of their disobedience, their inability to obey completely.

In addition, we must note that Paul is not equating the law with God’s word. Paul did not write that Spirit-led believers are not under God’s word. God’s word includes the law but it is much more. Primarily, God’s word is the account of his marvelous work of redemption in this age. So, God’s word is more than the law.

Both Jesus and Paul insisted that the relationship between God’s people and the law was somehow altered. Jesus proclaimed all foods clean, even though the Old Testament law was filled with prohibitions about food. Paul insisted that the Galatians not be circumcised, even though the Old Testament law (and before that, God’s instruction to Abraham) imposed circumcision as a sign of the covenant between God and his people.

On one occasion, a wealthy young man asked Jesus what he must do to get eternal life. He claimed to have kept the law. Jesus assured him that strict adherence to the law was insufficient. Instead, Jesus urged him to sell everything, give to the poor, and come follow him. Jesus did not say that the law was wrong. He did say that it was insufficient. The law addressed giving to the poor, but never required such a radical move. Jesus was calling his followers to something both like and unlike the Old Testament law.

Both Paul and Jesus insist that God’s people turn away from sin and produce spiritual fruit. They agree that God’s grace does not free God’s people to sin, but to live in a manner that is pleasing to God, brings glory to God, and advances his kingdom. Jesus and Paul do not hesitate to use the commands in the law to define a righteous lifestyle, but not to produce it.

Paul also included a perspective on the law that develops Jesus’ statement about fulfilling the law. The apostle wrote that the law was a sort of slave master, a kind of ‘nanny’ that exerts control over a person until Christ comes. God sent Jesus to be born under law in order deliver/redeem those under law. Jesus Christ is the culmination of the law and all those who are “in Christ” or “under grace” instead of “under law” share this culmination of the law.

So, on the positive side, the law can serve as a ‘nanny’ or ‘supervisor’ that brings us to Christ. On the negative side, those who remain under the law have missed the highest purpose of the law. Instead, they remain in the bondage of the law, never freed by Christ to live the new life, led by the Spirit.

What conclusions can we draw about this important subject?

First, the transition from Old Testament to New Testament did not erase or remove the helpfulness of the commands and instructions included in the Old Testament law. They still provide insight into the person of God. Holiness is not redefined. Righteousness reflects the unchanging character of God.

Second, the move from Old to New Testament did not remove the need for sinners to be forgiven. It did not remove the need for God’s grace, but this is precisely where the differences between Old and New arise. In the Old Testament, God’s forgiveness was available through animal sacrifices. In the New Covenant, Jesus has become the final and complete sacrifice for all the sins of God’s people. The animal sacrifices in the Old Testament were a foreshadowing of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. Now, the personal sacrifices made by Jesus’ followers are a reflection of Jesus’ sacrifice. The law pointed toward this fulfillment in Christ.

Another continuity between the two testaments is the condition of the human heart, the ‘flesh.’ In the Old Testament, people abused the law and the sacrificial system, mistakenly concluding that God’s covenant guaranteed them protection from painful discipline when they insisted on disobeying.

Our hearts are still corrupted by the ‘flesh.’ Though condemned and doomed, the flesh still exerts an influence in the lives of believers to the extent that we allow it. The flesh is crafty and creative in justifying sin. Believers are imperfect, a work in process, and as such often need objective standards to assist in growth and accountability. God’s descriptions of holy living, whether recorded in Old or New Testament, still provide guidance in holy living. These descriptions, however, do not justify us before God. Only faith in Jesus can bring redemption.

Perhaps the easiest way to think about the relationship between Old and New Testaments is expressed by Jeremiah. The Old Covenant was external, written on stones. The New Covenant is internal, put in our minds and written on our hearts. The one writing is God’s Holy Spirit. Believers are sealed with the Spirit, called upon to be filled by the Spirit and to walk by the Spirit, led by the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit. The indwelling Spirit is the expression of God’s grace, which was purchased by Jesus. Why go back to an external written code when we have the Author’s presence and power in our hearts?

The Old Testament Prophet Ezekiel prophesied to God’s people during that terrible time when Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed by Nebuchadnezzar and his Babylonian armies, deporting the Jewish survivors to a pagan nation far from their homes. At the end of his book of prophecy, Ezekiel records a vision of an ideal relationship between God and Israel.

In Ezekiel’s description of the sacrificial system, like the earlier Mosaic law, he gives exact commands and instructions about worship and offerings in the temple, even dictating the exact amount of grain for each different offering. Three times, however, the instruction deviates from such fine detail, instead saying that that grain offering is to be “as much as he pleases”! Instead of a predetermined amount carefully defined by a law, the worshiper was free to express his reverence for God according to his heart.

This obscure passage from an Old Testament prophet raises the question about how God’s people will approach him. Given the freedom to choose, would the worshiper’s heart demand that he be selfish and withhold a generous offering, giving God the leftovers, or even less? Or would his heart inspire him to give sacrificially out of a burning love for the Lord? Here, in the pages of the Old Testament is a shaft of light, hinting at another way of living in relationship with the Lord, a way that includes unprecedented freedom, a heart inclined toward the Lord.

Marriage illustrates this well. A husband can fulfill the law by merely avoiding adultery. His marriage may be without love and affection for his wife, but technically he can claim to have fulfilled the law for marriage. Love inspires so much more. A healthy marriage has holy boundaries, yes, but it is far more. A healthy marriage includes positive actions that express love. A healthy marriage is not merely “under law,” but guided by love. God’s New Covenant in Christ soars beyond all minimum requirements.

John’s Gospel says that the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. God is calling us to move on from being under law and enjoy a life under grace. Grace is no pretext for sin, but freedom to love, just as God loved us in Christ. The daily question for a Christian is certainly not, “What can I get away with today and still be saved?” Nor should the question be, “What is the minimum standard necessary for being right with God?” The question for the Spirit-led follower of Jesus is this, “How can I express the Lord’s love to the fullest?”

May God’s Holy Spirit enable us to live free and love freely,

Brother Richard

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A New Christian Cult?

Some proponents of the LGBT movement insist that it is compatible with Christianity. Is that true? Christianity is defined by the Bible. Does the Bible allow for a new or evolving Christian sexual ethic?

Early in the Bible God established his design for human sexuality. Immediately following the account of God presenting Eve to Adam in Genesis 2, God’s word says, “For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh.”

More than a thousand years later Jesus was questioned about marriage and divorce by the Jewish religious leaders. In his response, in Matthew 19, he affirmed God’s original design for marriage. Jesus asked the religious leaders, “Have you not read? ‘In the beginning he created them male and female,’ and ‘for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and will be joined to his wife and the two will become one flesh’?” The joining of male and female is fundamental to God’s creation.

After Adam and Eve disobeyed God they were cut off from God’s presence and blessing. They began to suffer under the curse that comes from rebellion against God’s word. In the generations that followed, disobedience to God became a sad but predictable trait of humanity.

God was not finished with humanity. In Moses’ day the Lord established a covenant with the Hebrew people, his chosen nation (Israel). That covenant included a body of law that is summarized in the Ten Commandments. The details of God’s law forbade sexual relationships that departed from his established design, which was revealed early in Scripture and subsequently affirmed by Jesus.

The prohibited sexual relationships in God’s law included premarital sex, adultery, incest, bestiality, and same-sex relationships (Leviticus 18). Only the original design for marriage and family was endorsed: One man and one woman freely committed to one another for a lifetime. The prohibitions from Leviticus are affirmed by the New Testament. Regarding same-sex relationships, the letter to the Romans affirms God’s prohibition (chapter 1). We are warned that those who persist in participating and promoting such sinful behavior will be “given over.”

Jesus acknowledged that his appearance and ministry fulfilled certain aspects of the Old Testament law, thus relieving God’s people of their need to observe them. For instance, in an argument with the Jewish religious leaders, Jesus proclaimed all foods clean (Mark 7). Prior to this, certain foods were considered ritually unclean by the Mosaic Law.

Jesus never advanced any deviation or alteration in God’s design for human sexuality. Indeed, he never acknowledged any change in God’s prohibitions against murder, adultery, lying, and many other commandments. In other words, Jesus himself revealed certain changes in the relationship of God’s people to Mosaic legislation, but not regarding human sexuality. There is no positive statement about same-sex relationships anywhere in Scripture.

Any attempt to use Old Testament legislation about trimming hair, making clothes or planting crops as a comparison with human sexuality fails to recognize the special position of marriage and family in God’s plan and his word.

The Bible treats sexual relationships as unique. Although it is true that all sin is alike because all sin separates us from the love and blessing of God, Scripture notes the special status of sexual union. The letter to the Corinthian church warned believers that all other sins are outside one’s body, but sexual sin defiles one’s inner self, a serious matter for any Christian since all believers are living stones in the single structure of God’s temple, his church (1 Corinthians 6; 1 Peter 2).

Why should human sexuality be treated differently from all other sins? God’s gift of sexuality is meant to do more than provide for procreation and pleasure. The marriage relationship is designed by God to reflect his love for his people (Ephesians 5). A Christian marriage is meant to be a living parable of the love relationship between Christ and his church. The church is the Bride of Christ (not any one believer, but the church in total). The Christian wife submits to her husband as the church submits to Christ. The Christian husband loves his wife as Christ loves the church and gave himself for her, a love willing to sacrifice self.

Are faithful, loving, monogamous same-sex relationships true to the intent of Scripture? The “B” in LGBT creates problems with this proposal. To be active bisexually requires more than one partner, thus raising serious questions about fidelity. Since the L and the G stand in solidarity with the B, they apparently express approval of polyamory against the clear design of Scripture.

It is true that the Bible reports times when God’s people engaged in polygamy, but never with approval. In fact, God’s word always highlights the inevitable failures of alternative designs of marriage and family (see Jacob and his wives in Genesis).

Are same-sex relationships in modern times different from those in Bible times? If that were so, it would be logically possible that God did not address modern relationships in the Bible. This would be either a terrible omission by God (creating conflict among us unnecessarily) or evidence that God cannot see the future (discrediting his sovereignty). Neither option is true to the claims made for God in Scripture. God is sovereign and he made no mistakes in his word. His design for human sexuality stands, just as his prohibitions against murder and adultery stand.

Another possibility would be that God has only recently decided to reveal this new view about same-sex relationships. This would put proponents of the New Sex Ethic into the same category as Joseph Smith, who assured his wife that God told him he could have other wives in addition to her. Smith tried to make the case that Christian churches had been wrong for more than a thousand years about human relationships (among other things). He claimed a new revelation directly from God, one which apparently undermined centuries of Christianity.

Proponents of forcing LGBT on God’s church are in the unfortunate position of being another pseudo Christian cult, like Joseph Smith’s group (Mormons), or Charles Taze Russell’s (Jehovah’s Witnesses), or Mary Baker Eddy’s (Christian Science), or one of countless others. Each of these false teachers also claimed special revelation from God that disagreed with the clear word of the Bible.

Those who question the clear word of God are risking association with the Father of all lies (John 8). He was the first to utter the words, “Did God really say. . .?” (Genesis 3). In fact, the biblical prohibitions about human sexuality are stated in clear language. Circumventing them requires twisted and strained logic which serves to justify sinful human desires and passions.

The LGBT community insists on defining personal identity by sexual orientation. Followers of Jesus find their identity in Christ. Jesus calls on anyone who would follow him to deny himself, take up his cross, and follow him (Matthew 16). Jesus will not take second place to any human ideology, desire, or philosophy. His followers must renounce all idols, including sinful notions of human sexuality.

When responding to skeptics about the resurrection, Jesus surprised his listeners by revealing that marriage will be absent in heaven (Matthew 22). We may conclude from this that sexual orientation is a matter for this age only. At best, sexual orientation is a temporary part of our identity. Our eternal identity will not depend on our sexuality. For those who have taken the blessing of sex and perverted it into the ultimate goal of life and the cornerstone of their identity, Jesus’ heaven may sound more like hell.

The great missionary Apostle Paul, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, wrote to the believers in Rome, “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God; this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the ways of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds” (Romans 12).

“Living sacrifices” is a reminder of Jesus’ exhortation to “deny self.” The follower of Jesus is not pulled through life by the ebb and flow of human desire. Jesus’ people find their pathway in life from him, from his example. Jesus was willing to deny himself of his very life in order to complete his mission. These are the footprints he has left for all who wish to be his disciples (1 Peter 2).

So what about the one who is attracted to the same sex? What is he or she to do? Predictably, the Bible’s answers have already been attacked, mocked, and deemed to be completely unacceptable by pop-culture proponents of LGBT. Nevertheless, like God’s design for sex, his word to those with same-sex attractions stands.

First, God’s word to the one with same-sex attraction is the same as it is to all people: Seek him in prayer. Don’t misquote me. I am not saying “Pray away the gay.” Despite the derogatory tone of this phrase, I know from first-hand experience that God has the power to change our desires. But God works according to his time table and his agenda. We must patiently endure. Prayer is not merely about persuading God to do something now. Prayer is communion with God which includes listening for his Spirit and gaining wisdom from our experiences in life (see the Book of Job).

Second, God sometimes calls people to celibacy. It is no surprise that worldly minds reject this option without any serious consideration. The world says, “Indulge yourself!” Jesus says, “Deny yourself.” Jesus recognized celibacy as a special calling in God’s kingdom (Matthew 19). The Bible envisions a church where most are married but some are freed from the commitments of an intimate physical relationship in order to invest more time and energy in kingdom pursuits (1 Corinthians 7).

Same-sex relationships undoubtedly include authentic human desire and affection. But human emotions are notoriously prone to manipulation and to unpredictable fluctuations. Human affection is not a dependable moral compass. In fact, the power of sexual attraction has shipwrecked many a life and family. Any who choose to “follow their heart” instead of submitting to God’s word should beware the consequences.

The ways of this world have always pulled God’s people away from his truth. Pop-culture in the West has embraced LGBT in a rapid and unprecedented way, sweeping away established cultural norms and laws about marriage and family while threatening to ruin any who stand in the way. To disagree with this New Ethic is to risk being charged with hate speech, a circumstance that reveals the intolerance of the LGBT movement. But we must choose between God’s word and those who claim that God’s word doesn’t mean what it clearly says.

Any attempts to promote prohibited sexual relationships as acceptable expressions of human sexuality misunderstand and misrepresent God’s word. Unfaithful relationships do not reflect the pure and faithful love that God has for his people and that his people are to aspire to for him. Same-sex relationships do not reflect the joining of what is different yet compatible, God and his church, husband and wife.

The writer of this article is sympathetic with those who find themselves attracted to people of the same sex. Human affections are strong. God made us passionate people. He is a passionate God and we are made in his image. But our passions are wounded by sin and subject to manipulation, temptation and deception.

If you are struggling with same-sex attractions, please do not despair. The story of your life is yet to be finished. We all struggle with sin. Sinners are not the enemy of the church. Sinners are the intended targets of God’s grace and mercy! God’s word assures us that he opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (James 4).

If you are promoting the erroneous idea that same-sex relationships are endorsed by God and working to persuade others to agree with you, I urge you to reconsider. Jesus warns that anyone who breaks the least of God’s commands and teaches others to do likewise will be called least in the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5).

Christ Jesus assures us that heaven and earth will pass away, but his words will never pass away (Matthew 24). How many popular movements that questioned God’s word have come and gone in the past two millennia since he made that promise? Every generation sees its challenges to God’s truth, but the challengers have always eventually faded away and they always will. Each of us should decide to build on the rock of God’s faithful and unwavering truth, not the sand of the world’s shifting desires and ideas.

Brother Richard Foster

Please note: Bible references above give only book and chapter. This is by design. Too often debates about the Bible’s message employ verses and even smaller sections of Scripture without due consideration of their context, thus misrepresenting God’s intended meaning. I invite the reader to examine carefully the context of my biblical quotations, testing their applications for faithfulness to God’s word.

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Moses’ Advice for Twenty-First Century Christians

Every follower of Jesus faces three powerful enemies. First, Satan prowls around like a lion looking for those he can devour. Second, the world is filled with sin that entangles and destroys. And third, our own sinful desires draw us away from the Lord.

When the people of Israel were ready to go in and take possession of the Promised Land, their leader Moses knew that they would face these spiritual enemies. So he gave them instructions on living in God’s victory and blessing (see Deuteronomy 6).

Moses said, “Hear, O Israel, the LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all you heart, soul and strength. These commandments that I am giving you today are to be on your hearts.”

The commandments Moses speaks of are primarily the Ten Commandments, but also the many applications of those commandments in their daily lives. These words of God were to be on the hearts of God’s people.

Moses continued speaking about God’s commandments, “Impress them on your children. Speak about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the way, when you lie down and when you get up.”

In addition to having God’s word on their hearts, they were to have God’s word in their homes, obeying it in their daily lives and speaking about it with their children. In this way they would pass God’s word on to the next generation.

Then Moses said about the commandments, “Tie them on your hands as symbols and bind them to your foreheads. Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.”

The “gate” of an ancient city was the place of official business, much like the courthouses in towns and cities today. Moses is telling the people that private faith is insufficient. They had to take God’s word into their communities, into the public square.

So, in addition to having God’s word on their hearts and in their homes, they were to have God’s word in their communities. Only with the word of God’s truth would God’s people be victorious over their enemies.

The same dynamics are in play now. As God’s people, we face powerful resistance to God’s eternal truth. We need to carry God’s word into the public square, into our communities. This is our only hope for pushing back the darkness that presses in from every side.

Please notice, however, that we will not have God’s word in our communities until we have it in our homes, impressing it on our children. And we will not have God’s word in our homes if we do not have it on our hearts.

Victory in the public square begins in the heart of each and every believer. Every man and woman of faith must diligently read, passionately believe, and faithfully obey the Bible. Without the sure foundation of God’s word, we can build nothing of lasting importance. With it we will overcome!

May God’s empowering Presence inspire and enable us to carry his word into our communities,

Brother Richard

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Coming Home to God’s Truth About Marriage

Jesus was questioned about marriage and divorce by hostile Jewish religious leaders. They hoped to trick him into saying something that would cause him trouble.

Jesus quoted from Genesis, reminding them that God established a design for marriage when he created Adam and Eve. He made them male and female, and for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife and they will become one flesh.

Jesus emphasized the permanent nature of marriage by adding these words: “They are no longer two but one flesh, so what God has joined together let no one separate.” God’s design for marriage is one man and one woman freely and fully committed to each other for life.

The religious leaders thought they had trapped Jesus into contradicting Scripture. They said, “Why, then, did Moses command to give her a certificate of divorce and send her away?”

Jesus corrected them. Moses allowed divorce; he did not command it. And he allowed divorce, Jesus said, because of people’s hard hearts. It was not God’s design or desire. In fact, God sees unwarranted divorce and remarriage as adultery.

But God also knows that hearts sometimes become so hard that broken relationships are the inevitable result. So he makes concessions, but he does not change his design. The goal is still a faithful union between one man and one woman. A divorce in the past need not keep us from succeeding at God’s design for marriage now.

Jesus is saying that some parts of the Bible are weightier, or more fundamental, than other parts. God’s original design for marriage is more fundamental than his allowance for failed marriages. The concession does not cancel the design.

Jesus’ disciples were listening carefully to this discussion. They were surprised by Jesus’ strict view of marriage. Perhaps it would be better not to marry at all, they suggested.

Jesus agreed that some people are called to live single, but not so they can engage in open and temporary physical relationships. God’s call to live single is a call to live celibate, and to devote oneself to God’s kingdom work in a special way.

Jesus’ words are helpful for Christians today. Our culture is rejecting God’s design for marriage. As a result, many people have suffered broken homes and strained relationships.

If we reject everyone who has deviated from God’s design for marriage, then we are raising unnecessary barriers to the life-changing experience of God’s transforming grace. On the other hand, if we follow the world in redefining marriage and sexual morals, then we are misrepresenting God and his truth.

We should model our lives after Jesus. He unapologetically exalts God’s unchanging design for marriage, but he also extends God’s mercy and grace for hearts that were once hard but are now open and willing to come home to God’s truth.

May we be faithful agents of God’s holiness and his grace,

Brother Richard Foster

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What Does Spiritual Maturity Really Look Like?

Moses started out by telling God, “No.” He did not want to go. He wanted nothing to do with helping the Hebrew people break free from their cruel bondage under the oppressive rule of Pharaoh in Egypt. But God has a way of persuading people.

In Egypt, circumstances reinforced Moses’ first instinct about this mission. Not only did Pharaoh oppose him, but the very people that he went to save wanted nothing to do with him. His plea for Pharaoh to let the people go made their lives even more difficult. Moses complained to God but he did not quit his mission.

As events unfolded, Moses began to trust God more and more. Eventually he saw the Lord rescue the Hebrew people with astonishing miracles. God’s deliverance took time and required patience from Moses and the Hebrew people, but his methods left no doubt about his power and authority.

Once they were out of Egypt, the people began to test Moses’ patience, perhaps even more than Pharaoh’s stubborn behavior had. They complained about the lack of food and water. They even talked about going back to Egypt. . . .

Then the people sinned against God by making an idol and worshiping it, at the very place where they agreed to worship the Lord only! The anger of God was stirred and he threatened to do away with the people and start over with Moses.

Moses now demonstrates striking spiritual maturity and insight. Instead of stepping aside and allowing God to destroy the people, Moses intercedes. He offers to have his own name blotted out from God’s Book of Life as a substitute sacrifice for them. Very Christ-like behavior! Of course, only Jesus can do such a thing, but Moses’ action displays amazing spiritual growth since his refusal to obey God’s call at the burning bush.

The Hebrew people, however, are slow in their spiritual development. They continue to gripe, grumble and complain. Then, in a breath-taking act of disobedience, they refuse to go up and take the Promised Land, which prompts God to condemn an entire generation to nomadic wandering in the desert. The next generation will enjoy the fruits of the Promised Land.

Now, after 40 years, the time has come for that next generation to answer God’s call, to carry out his plan, and to enjoy his blessing: a land flowing with milk and honey. Moses is now 120 years old. He gives his farewell address to the Hebrews, the people he has devoted his life to serving.

In his last message (the Book of Deuteronomy), Moses seems to have a bone to pick with the people. He says to them, “because of you,” the Lord was angry and refused to allow him entrance into the land.

He is referring to one of the many times during the years in the desert when the people grumbled against Moses and against God. On this occasion it was because water was scarce. Moses prayed and the Lord instructed him to speak to the rock. God would provide.

But this time Moses could no longer contain his frustration with the people. He scolded them harshly and then struck the rock with his staff in anger not once, but twice. As a result of disobeying the Lord’s instructions, God would deny Moses entrance into the Promised Land.

Now, in his farewell address, Moses tells the people that he pleaded with God to let him enter the Promised Land. But God refused to listen, telling him to stop asking. Moses would die east of the Jordan.

As Moses recounts this episode in his farewell address, his disappointment is evident. He blames the Hebrew people for his failure, not once, but three times (Deuteronomy 1:37; 3:26; 4:21).

His resentment is understandable. Moses’ life has been devoted to leading God’s people into the Promised Land. How many times in their wilderness wanderings when the people grew weary and wanted to give up did Moses inspire them to carry on by reminding them about the land flowing with milk and honey that awaited them in the future? And now, at the climax of his life’s work, he is being refused the opportunity to experience the blessed land which they had waited for all their lives.

Moses may complain, but he does not give in to the temptation to walk away and give up on the people. He does not say, “If I can’t go in, then I don’t care what happens to these people!” He does not stomp away and sulk.

Instead, Moses recognizes God’s authority in the matter and works to prepare the people for the next step in God’s plan. He gives his farewell address, readying the people for their lives in the Promised Land. And he encourages their new leader: Joshua.

At first blush, Moses’ struggle with resentment and bitterness indicates that he may not be as spiritually mature as he appears. If he were really mature, would he even be struggling with such ugly emotions?

On further reflection, however, we should take note that Moses’ continued commitment to God’s plan and God’s people reveals a remarkable level of spiritual maturity. Moses is somehow able to act right when he feels wrong!

The world says, “Follow your heart.” But doing only what we feel like doing, only when we feel like doing it is a great definition of adolescence, not maturity. God’s word reminds us that our hearts are deceitful. People often do what they know is wrong or even dangerous. Why? Because they want to.

We need a more dependable source of guidance. Moses followed God’s direction in his life, even when it was painful and disappointing. He valued God’s judgment above his own. When his own heart was not in harmony with God’s, Moses chose to trust God’s heart.

The Lord gave Moses a consolation. From the height of Mt. Pisgah on the east side of the Jordan River, God showed his faithful servant the blessed land which his people were about to inherit. Was Moses given a vision that surpasses what natural eyes can perceive?

That short time with the Lord on the summit of the mountain, viewing the prize, was precious for Moses. It was worth far more to him than many days or years of bowing to his disappointment and walking away in defiance to God’s word.

Moses’ experience with the Lord on Mt. Pisgah has become a powerful symbol in Christian thought. In fact, the entire Exodus has been used by believers for generations to give expression to the Christian experience.

Egypt symbolizes our former life in bondage to sin. Crossing the Red Sea is a powerful picture of salvation through faith. The wilderness wanderings often epitomize our struggles to obey God in a world full of temptations. The Jordan represents death and the Promised Land is heaven.

In this theologically rich vision of the Christian life, Mt. Pisgah occupies an inspiring place in the minds of Jesus’ followers. It has come to picture a vision of heaven enjoyed by the faithful when they draw close to physical death, an encouraging foretaste of glory provided by the gracious hand of a loving Father.

This beautiful idea appears in hymns. “Sweet hour of prayer, sweet hour of prayer; May I thy consolation share, Till from Mt. Pisgah’s lofty height, I view my home and take my flight.” What a view! And what a flight!

Moses really was a man of great spiritual maturity. He knew that whatever God withholds is worth nothing compared to what God grants. Better to be in fellowship with the Lord on Mt. Pisgah than to be in defiance of him in the Jordan valley. What God shows us is always better than what we can see for ourselves.

May God’s Spirit transform us into the image of Christ from grace to grace and glory to glory,

Richard Foster

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Impressing the Faith On Children

When it was time to go in and take the Promised Land, Moses reminded God’s people of how they should live in order to enjoy God’s blessing. He reminded them of the agreement God had made with them, the covenant. He was to be their God and they were to be his people. He would give them his truth and they would live according to that truth.

God’s blessing was designed to last for generations. As a result, each generation of God’s people was responsible to make sure that their children and grandchildren knew about God’s ways. Moses reminded the people that they were to impress God’s words on their children (Deuteronomy 6:7). Moses was not talking to professional teachers but to parents and grandparents. Faith begins at home.

God’s people still have the great responsibility and the wonderful joy of impressing God’s truth on our children. It is pleasing to God and profitable to our kids to make sure that they know God’s Word. When we tell our children about God’s ways, we stir the fires of faith in our own lives, too.

Impressing God’s commands on our children is an ongoing task that must be done in our homes every day and in our church every week. The Christian faith is not merely information, but a way of life. Children must see the faith in the lives of their parents in order to understand and embrace Christianity.

As our culture becomes more hostile toward Bible-believing Christianity, parents who strive to pass on the faith to their children will be harshly criticized. The organizations and institutions in our society will put pressure on Christian parents in order to pull them and their children away from the Bible and from the local church. Schedule conflicts will abound.

In this new environment of aggressive secularism, sadly, many parents will compromise. They will try to balance the recreational, academic, and athletic pursuits of this age with their commitments to Christ and his kingdom work. Their children are watching and they understand the inconsistency of claiming Christ as Lord but setting up idols in his place.

Other families will see the temptations of this godless world for what they really are. They will be ready to make personal sacrifices for the faith, knowing that Jesus calls his followers to deny self, take up a cross, and follow him. These parents will model Christ for their children. They will impress upon their children the Christian faith.

May God’s Spirit empower us to keep the faith alive in our own hearts and in the hearts of our children,

Brother Richard Foster

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