Law and Gospel

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And God spoke all these words, saying, 

I am the LORD your God, who brought you 

out of the land of Egypt, 

out of the house of slavery. 

(Exod 20:1-2)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The giving of the law occurred in the context of divine disclosure and covenant articulation, which makes the law itself an important extension of the divine image and community identity. Which God? The God who brought you initially out of Egyptian slavery, but ultimately brought you out of slavery to sin. Which you? The people of Israel initially but ultimately the people who honor the covenant.

The law itself offers concrete boundaries to the covenant community and, by inference, boundaries to the freedom offered in Gospel. In this sense, I often refer to the law as to what healthy spiritual boundaries look like from God’s perspective. Outside the faith community the Ten Commandments appear as a list of dos and don’t, while inside the community the Commandments simply define who we are (we are the people that honor the commandments). 

When Jesus offers the double love command (love God, love neighbor), the Ten Commandments loom in the background (Matt 22:36-40). The dichotomy often made between law and Gospel simply disappears. Jesus becomes the more important extension of the divine image.

Law as Image Writ Large

When God identifies himself as the God that freed the Israelites of Egyptian slavery, he introduces the  primary reason that the people of Israel should sign off on the Mosaic covenant.  In other words, I freed you so you owe me and here is how you can repay your debt: obey the Ten Commandments. The dramatic destruction of the Egyptian army as they crossed the Red Sea was fresh on their minds (Exod 14) so this reasoning makes sense. Concrete salvation; concrete law.

The  Israelite people quickly forgot their obligations under the covenant, as evidenced in the Golden Calf incident (Exod 32:19). The second giving of the covenant and God’s appearance to Moses in Exodus 34:6 therefore lends credence to the view that God views the law as an extension of his divine image. One way to view the law and the disclose of the divine attributes as mirror images of one another; one for the left brain people and the other for the right brain people, recognizing that different people learn differently.

Defining Identity and Community

The Exodus remains a defining event in Jewish history and religion. The Old Testament makes repeated references to it (e.g. Isa 43) and the celebration of Passover continues to this day. Jesus underscores the importance of the law for his followers in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” (Matt 5:17) 

The law is so fundament to our identity as Christians and the defining of the community of faith that it goes without saying.

Healthy Spiritual Boundaries

Because the law is often discussed in opposition to grace, the role of the Ten Commandments in answering the question of what to do is sometimes confusing. Jesus said that love of neighbor and God summarized the Law and the Prophets (Matt 22:36-40). Why then do I need law? Aren’t I free from law under grace?

The Apostle Paul gives the most direct answer to this question. Our freedom in Christ is the freedom to love our neighbors as ourselves (Gal 5:13-14). If we take Paul’s statement seriously, do you think that your neighbor will notice? If time and money are involved, do you think that your spouse and kids will notice?

The Ten Commandments remind us what love looks like from God’s perspective, not ours. God created a community of individuals—not just you or me—in his image. If God created and loves my neighbor, perhaps I too can learn to love them. God’s love means honor our parents; love means do not murder . . .We need reminders; we need clear boundaries.

Uses of the Law

Reformer John Calvin said that the law had three chief purposes: to teach us about God’s will, to aid civil authorities, and to guide our daily lives (Haas 2006, 100).

Our rebellion against God is called sin. Sin takes at least three forms: falling short of expectations (sin), breaking a law (transgression), and not doing something we should do (iniquity). I sin when I try to love God with all my heart, soul, and mind, but fail to do so consistently. I transgress the law when I murder someone. I commit iniquity when I ignore (dishonor) my parents in their old age, leaving their care to my siblings when I am able to help but refuse to. Although these three words are used interchangeably, these distinctions remain helpful.

Law and Gospel

The dichotomy often made between law and Gospel is a false dichotomy. One way to reconcile this interpretation is to think of law as a rules-based approach and the Gospel as a principle-based approach to offering the same guidance.

One reason that people make the distinction between law and Gospel is that the Pharisees worked to narrow the law so that it could be accomplished while Jesus sought to widen the law by considering the origins of sin in the heart. Jesus disputes the Pharisaic view repeatedly in the Sermon on the Mount when, for example, he equates anger with murder (Matt 5:21-22) and lust with adultery (Matt 5:27-28).

We see the Apostle Paul contending with the Pharisaic view explicitly when he writes:

“If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.” (Phil 3:4-6)

The motivator for this interpretation is to be proved righteous and blameless under the law. Paul goes on to discard this interpretation in the next verse: “But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.” (Phil 3:7) 

You hear a variation on this pharisaic argument today when people deny the applicably of original sin and argue that people are basically good. The implication is that we have no reason to ask for forgiveness and, by inference, we have no need for Jesus to have died for our sins.

The New Covenant in Christ

When we talk about the divine image, we should not stop with the Old Testament because Jesus Christ becomes the more tangible expression of the divine image in the New Testament. I often refer to Jesus as my denominator, the measure of all things in life. If God is my first priority and Jesus is my denominator, then the law becomes less important as a extension of the divine image.

References

Haas, Guenther H. 2004. “Calvin’s Ethics.” In The Cambridge Companion to John Calvin, 93–105. Edited by Donald K. McKim. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Law and Gospel

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com


 

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Image: Monday Monologues (podcast), November 22, 2021

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 By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on Divine Image. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Image: Monday Monologues (podcast), November 22, 2021

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net,

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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Imaging Prayer

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heavenly Father,

We praise you for being present in our lives, available when we are in need, and call us into relationship.

Forgive us when we remain distant from those around us, hide when others need us, and forgo healthy relationship. Forgive our unwarranted anxieties and fear that keep us from loving those around us.

Thank you for your example of a holy life in Jesus Christ, who loved us enough to sacrifice himself on a cross.

In the power of your Holy Spirit, grant us the courage and strength to be good stewards of the love, life, and resources that you have given us. May we mirror the mercy, grace, patience, love, and faithfulness that we first saw in you.

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

Imaging Prayer

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com


 

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Divine Image

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And the angel of the LORD appeared to him

 in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. 

He looked, and behold, the bush was burning, 

yet it was not consumed. (Exod 3:2)

By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The Old Testament offers several glimpses of the Divine image. Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush suggests a natural Rorschach test. The image of God’s trinitarian nature underscores the importance of relationship and community. His later  encounter with God on Mount Sinai provided even more insight into what it means to be created in the image of God.

The Burning Bush

A Rorschach test, or inkblot test,  provides the psychiatrist insight into a patient’s default assumptions about life because the patient is asked to talk about what is seen in random inkblots. An optimistic, happy person might see sunshine and flowers while a fearful, anxious person might see darkness and monsters. A fire poses a naturally random set of patterns suggesting an analogy to inkblots.

In Moses’ account in Exodus, we learn is that God is present, available, and calling Moses into relationship and Moses responds to God’s call (Exod 3:4). Where God is, is holy ground (Exod 3:5). When God identifies himself, Moses responds in fear (Exod 3:6). God reads Moses’ deepest desire of his heart and acknowledges the suffering of his people in Egypt (Exod 3:7). God commissions Moses to deliver the people from Pharaoh (Exod 3:10). Moses again responds with fear (Exod 3:11).

God first created in Moses a desire to free his people and then God called on Moses to step up and honor his own desire. While the burning bush served as a Rorschach test, it did not project Moses’ attributes on God. Rather, God used the burning bush to teach Moses about himself, making plain his own desires. For Moses, this encounter with the burning bush served to call him into leadership of the people of Israel, which resulted in the Exodus from Egypt out of slavery and the latter establishment of the Nation of Israel.

The Trinity

When Moses encounters God in the burning bush, God’s trinitarian nature is already established and understood. Moses is the author of the Books of the Law, also called the Pentateuch (five books), so we have a glimpse of Moses’ understanding in Genesis in the creation accounts. The concept of the trinity is not a late development, as some have alleged who object, for example, to the Great Commission: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 28:19)

In the creation accounts God the Father shows up in the first verse: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Gen 1:1) The Holy Spirit shows up in verse two: “And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” (Gen 1:2) Later, in chapter three, we meet a personal God, who walks with us in the Garden (e.g. Gen 3:9). This is the early image of Christ. Reinforcing the idea of trinity, the primary Hebrew name of God in these accounts, Elohim, appears in the plural.

Being created with our spouse in the image of a Triune God, who is in relationship even within himself, suggests that our own identity is revealed in relationship. In ourselves, we are incomplete and we require community to be whole persons.

The Second Giving of the Law

Moses’ burning bush encounter with God is interesting because it helps us interpret how creation in the divine image affects us together with our spouses. The divine image is, however, more than an encounter with a mirror because creation has both physical and moral implications. Another important encounter that Moses has with God occurs after the second giving of the Ten Commandments.

Moses had an anger management problem that led him to destroy the first set of stone tablets when he descended from Mount Sinai and found the people of Israel worshipping a Golden Calf (Exod 32:19). Later, God gave Moses a second set of tablets and when Moses asked to see God’s glory (Exod 33:18): “The LORD passed before him and proclaimed, the LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exod 34:6). 

In describing his attributes, God effectively gave an interpretative guide to the Ten Commandments. When Congress passes significant legislation, the authorizing committee will in like manner publish a conference report to give attorneys an interpretative guide, should questions arise about the legislation itself. In this case, God uses his attributes to guide interpreting the Ten Commandments. For us, these moral attributes suggest what it means to be created in God’s image.

Exodus as Cautionary Tale

The Exodus from Egypt outlines the temptations and limits of freedom. Release from the tyranny of Pharaoh started with the crossing of the Red Sea, a kind of communal baptism, but it led to the need to survive in the wilderness and to respect for God and his servant, Moses. 

Self-reliance under God proved challenging for the people of Israel, as the Gold Calf incident suggests. Freedom did not mean living with abandon worshipping idols of our own making. The idols today are alive and well, as the popularity of the Wall Street Bull and the Fearless Girl attest. The biblical Golden Calf incident underscored the need for law, which had to be instituted by the sword (Exod 32:27-28). 

As Christians, we live under grace, but those resisting God remain under law. Even for Christians, the temptations of secular society are real, ever-present, and hard to resist. But we have the image of Christ given in scripture to guide us.

Divine Image

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com


 

Continue Reading

Who: Monday Monologues (podcast), November 15, 2021

Stephen_HIemstra_20210809

 By Stephen W. Hiemstra

This morning I will share a prayer and reflect on The Who Question. After listening, please click here to take a brief listener survey (10 questions).

To listen, click on this link.

Hear the words; Walk the steps; Experience the joy!

Who: Monday Monologues (podcast), November 15, 2021

Also see:

Monday Monologue On March 26, 2018 

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net,

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com.

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The Who Prayer

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

Heavenly Father,

I believe in Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, who died for our sins and was raised from the dead. Witness to me in my daily life.

Come into my life, help me to renounce and grieve the sin in my life that separates me from you. Define me.

Cleanse me of this sin, renew your Holy Spirit within me so that I will not sin any further. Make me holy.

Bring saints and a faithful church into my life to keep me honest with myself and draw me closer to you. Break any chains that bind me to the past—be they pains or sorrows or grievous temptations, that I might freely welcome God, the Father, into my life, who through Christ Jesus can bridge any gap and heal any affliction, now and always. Guide me.

Through the power of your Holy Spirit, grant me the strength, grace, and peace to share the Gospel with those around me so your kingdom would come and all might share in its glory together. 

In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.

The Who Prayer

Also see:

The Who Question

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/Priorities_2021

   
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The Who Question

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By Stephen W. Hiemstra

The who question is surprisingly important.

When René Descartes (1596 –1650) wrote—I think therefore I am—he neglected to talk about the preconditions for his statement, which must have annoyed his parents. Why did he have time to consider the question? Where did he get the words to express the thought? Why did anyone else pay attention? Who is this guy anyway? 

While we might neglect to consider who Descartes was, his role in modern philosophy is undeniably critical in the development of the modern era and, by inference, the postmodern era. The who question is all about identity, something we obsess about. 

For the Christian, the who question is doubly important. Probably the most inconvenient verse in the Bible is this: “So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.” (Gen 1:27) We only participate in God’s eternal nature and reflect God’s image when we are joined with our spouses. Alone, we sin and perish. In ourselves, we are broken and quickly obsolete. What could be more inconvenient in this narcissistic age that we live in?

This inconvenient verse implies that we cannot answer the who question without considering the family. Because Descartes’ social position—who he was—is a precondition for all that followed, likewise Christian exploration of epistemology and ethics hangs on who God is and who we are together in his image. If Descartes had been an orphaned, penniless drunk in the sixteenth century and thought the same deep thoughts, the modern and postmodern eras may have been nipped in the bud.

Human Rights

For the Christian, the implication of being created in God’ image, setting aside our joint creation for a minute, imparts immense value to the lowest human being. 

Back in the Obama years, I used to ask my kids: How would your life change if the President of the United States set aside the affairs of state every Saturday morning just to play basketball with you? Would you tell your friends? How would they respond? How much more would your life change knowing that the creator of the universe, God makes himself available to you in prayer, anytime,  anywhere because he created and loves you?

This immense value of the human being arises precisely from God’s immense power. The observation that God created the heavens and the earth means that they belong to him by creative right. God’s social position is second to none. Because God values human beings, their life has intrinsic value—value that does not change with circumstances—and that value is enormous. The concept of human rights arises from the intrinsic value of being created in the image of God—a tiny fraction of infinity is still infinite.

Equality

Our joint creation with our spouses in the image of God is the root of gender equality. We cannot participate in God’s eternal nature without our spouses. The blessing that follows—“Be fruitful and multiply” (Gen 1:28)—is not a random act of kindness. It allows human beings to participate jointly in God’s eternal nature. This blessing is lost if we remain alone or pair up with anyone other than our spouse or try to compete with our spouses as if equality were equated with sameness.

Illumination

Being created in the image of God implies that we want to be like God. What is God first act of creation after creating the heavens and the earth?  The Bible reads: “And God said, a Let there be light, and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) Then, God declares the light to be good.  Goodness and light are equated as God begins by creating a moral universe. Imitating God implies that we should want to be moral, just like God. 

Being created in the image of God accordingly implies a moral mandate even before human beings are created. The who question and the primacy of relationships dominates the discussion even before the advent of sin, the introduction of community, and the giving of the law, but morality itself requires thinking and volition—you have to want to be good. God does not discount feelings and relationships, but feelings and thinking are inseparable. 

Heart and Mind

Hebrew anthropology (the theory of human beings) refuses to separate feelings and thinking. Heart and mind are inseparable. Greek anthropology separates the two, vacillating between giving priority to one or the other. Because Greek anthropology dominates the modern era (think about the division of labor among professionals), it is hard for modern people to understand Biblical writing—when Jesus talks about the heart, he means the whole person, not just the organ pumping blood or mere feelings. 

Sin and the Sacred History

Sin is hardwired into the human psyche. Original sin arises whenever you have two babies sharing one toy. No one is innocent, which is why Christ was unique.

Moses anticipated the course of human development in Deuteronomy 30:1-3. You (plural) will sin; be enslaved; and cry out to the Lord. God will send you a deliverer and restore your fortunes (Brueggemann 2016, 59). This framework outlines biblical history and with it the rise and fall of nations. The implication for postmoderns is that cultural progress—however defined—is temporary.

The question posed by scripture when we witness sin and societal decay, are we in the community of faith going to pray for sinners like Abraham witnessing Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen 18) or run away from our prophet duty like the Prophet Jonah (Jon 1)? Like Abraham and Jonah, we have been told in the Book of Revelation (Rev 20) that destruction of sinners is coming. How will we respond?

Return to Christian Spirituality

Anthropology is an important component of Christian spirituality. A complete spirituality addresses each of the four questions typically posed in philosophy:

1.Metaphysics—who is God?

2.Anthropology—who are we?

3.Epistemology—how do we know?

4.Ethics—what do we do about it? (Kreeft 2007, 6)

My first two books—A Christian Guide to Spirituality and Life in Tension—address the metaphysical question. My third book—Called Along the Way—explores the anthropological question in the first person. My fourth book, Simple Faith, examined the epistemological question. My fifth book, Living in Christ, explored the ethics question. Here in Image and Illumination I return to Christian anthropology from a community perspective.

I thought that I was done with Christian spirituality as a writer, but anthropology is at the heart of many of today’s deepest divisions and I have been repeatedly nudged for the past two years to write about it. It affects the other three components of our spirituality—metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics—so profoundly that skipping over a formal treatment leaves the other components wounded. So here we sit wounded as individuals and as a church.

Again, I take up a subject, not out of expertise, but out of obligation. Each of us must answer the who question, whether thoughtfully or not so thoughtfully. Please accept my reflections on Christian anthropology with ample grace.

Soli Deo Gloria.

References

Brueggemann, Walter. 2016. Money and Possessions. Interpretation series. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press.

Kreeft, Peter. 2007. The Philosophy of Jesus. South Bend, IN: Saint Augustine Press.

The Who Question

Also see:

Preface to a Life in Tension

Other ways to engage online:

Author site: http://www.StephenWHiemstra.net

Publisher site: http://www.T2Pneuma.com

Newsletter: https://bit.ly/Priorities_2021

 

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