Friday, April 20, 2012

"Changed from glory to glory" (Part III): The Letter that Kills

In the past two entries (part one & part two), I have sufficiently presented from the testimony of Scripture that (1) God demands practical holiness to all His children as necessary outward evidence of their saving relationship with Him and that (2) even after being regenerated and justified we still do not possess the full ability to walk in His righteousness apart from the inner working of His Spirit in our lives. This special influence of the Holy Spirit on the Christian will be further discussed in the next post, but for the meantime, let's briefly examine the role of God's law in our pursuit of being more Christ-like day after day.

III. The Letter that Kills

"When, indeed, [God] by the law discovers to a man
his weakness, it is in order that by faith he may refuge
to His mercy, and be healed" ~ St. Augustine of Hippo
It is basic that every Christian preacher and pastor should be highly ardent in exhorting God's children to "walk in all his ways, and to love him, and to serve the LORD thy God with all thy heart and with all thy soul" (Deut. 10:12). This is why every Sunday's preaching and sermon are full of lectures concerning what we should and we shouldn't do in conformity to God's precepts. Do this, do that. Stop doing this, abstain from that. This is law. And in so far as these moral principles were taken from the Word of God, it is God's law.

Now the law is in itself good because it reflects God's holiness and justice. Yet however, it is in itself insufficient to lead us to transformation and holiness. Note I'm not saying that the law is unnecessary for achieving holiness. What I'm trying to say is that the law alone wouldn't effect our Sanctification. In fact, left in our sinful flesh the law wouldn't bring us anything good but only disaster. Paul wrote:
"For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death." (Rom. 7:5)
For some reason, as observed by Paul, whenever the law is presented to us our flesh becomes even more aggravated to do exactly what it says we shouldn't do. When we are prohibited to lust, that's when we lust all the more. Why is that? Is Paul now implying that God's law wasn't somehow really holy and good since it apparently arouses our sinful passions whenever we are exposed to its admonitions? Paul gives us an answer:
"What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, "You shall not covet." But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me." (Rom. 7:7-11)
For sure Paul didn't intend to double-talk when he asserted that the same good law that prohibits covetousness actually "produced in me all kinds of covetousness," (v. 8) and that through it "sin came alive and I died" (v. 9). What he meant is this: The law is spiritual and intrinsically good having God as its direct souce. Strictly speaking, the law has absolutely nothing to do with our being sinful. The problem of Sin is in our sinful flesh, which is in its very nature "hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot" (Rom. 8:7). So the heart of the problem lies not in the law itself, but on our sinful nature which is unable to delight in the spiritual commandments of the law. Paul wrote:
"So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measureFor we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin." (Rom. 7:12-14)
Therefore, the law plus our flesh will not effectuate genuine moral transformation in us. Mere presentation of law, the preaching of God's moral precepts, rebuke against sinful activities, and all kinds of appeal unto godliness will not profit us anything towards Sanctification unless by the aid of another influence powerful enough to overcome the hostility of our flesh. 

Now the reason why many preachers fail to effectively lead Christians to grow more in holiness, though their sermons are filled with invitations to live godly lives and all, is that they focus on law without also emphasizing our inability to fulfill them with our own will-power and might, and that we should be totally dependent on God's power in pursuit of holiness (1 Cor. 2:14; Php. 2:13). Without these essential elements, a preaching or sermon would be simply law - the letter that kills - which would make its hearers to trust in their own strivings and harden their own hearts all the more (Jer. 17:5). Of course they may for a time, out of fear or sense of obligation, do what the law says, but the quality of their labor is superficial and not long-term in the final analysis. There can't be any genuine transformation inside out.

The proper use of God's law

Unlike the popular opinion that God's giving us His commandments indicates that we have the ability to fulfill its righteous demands (or in Pelagius' own words, "If I ought, I can"), the Bible actually states the contrary:
"Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." (Rom. 3:20)
God's law doesn't tell us, "You can make it! You are able! You are strong!" On the contrary, it actually mirrors how frail we are as sinners and that every efforts of our flesh won't make us win God's favor. This exposition of sin is the prime purpose of God's law, for by it, we discover how utterly weak we are, in order that by faith we may run to God for mercy and be healed (Gal. 3:24). St. Augustine beautifully states it this way:
"The law was therefore given, in order that grace might be sought; grace was given, in order that the law might be fulfilled. Now it was not through any fault of its own that the law was not fulfilled, but by the fault of the carnal mind; and this fault was to be demonstrated by the law, and healed by grace." (On the Spirit and the Letter, Ch. 34)
We are no longer under the law of works but under grace; the law of faith. In other words, our motivation for walking in righteousness should not be compulsion or legalism, but total dependence and gratitude to the grace of God in Christ which works in us. This "grace" through which we are healed and enticed to fulfill the law refers to none other than the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit without whose influence the law is but "the letter that kills." 
"Now the Lord is that Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. But we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory, even as by the Spirit of the Lord." (2 Cor. 3:17-18, KJV)
In the next entry, we will discuss how the Holy Spirit, the third person of the Holy Triune God, works our transformation into being more like Christ day after day. God bless and stay tuned.

To God be the glory! Amen!

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