Recently in my daily Bible reading I came upon Luke 5:36-39. This text involves two parables which I had never studied before: the parables of the new garment and of the new wine. The concluding verse provides an explanation for both metaphors:
“And no one, having drunk old wine, immediately desires new; for he says, ‘The old is better.'”
I came across a very provocative explanation of these parables in an old commentary by Charles Erdman. Like many Bible commentators, he sees the parables, rightly I believe, as addressed to Pharisaism. The Pharisees and other legalists in Israel took great delight in the rituals of the Law. Unfortunately, this led them to reject Jesus’ message, because they felt His teaching was new and that it destroyed their system of religion. They misunderstood the purpose of the Law of Moses, and as a result they rejected the Messiah.
After briefly explaining this, Erdman wrote these words:
“Christianity cannot be comprehended by any system of rites and ceremonies. It must not be interpreted as a set of rules and requirements; it must not be confused with any ritual. It controls men, not by rules, but by motives. Its symbol is not a fast but a feast, for its pervasive spirit is joy” (The Gospel of Luke Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, p. 73).
Christianity Isn’t a Set of Rules
In my estimation, Erdman was correct when he said that Christianity must not be interpreted as a set of rules and requirements. This is true in terms of both eternal salvation and progressive sanctification.
Eternal salvation “is not of works, lest anyone should boast” (Eph 2:9). Paul put it this way, “Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness” (Rom 4:4-5).
Progressive sanctification, while different from eternal salvation, is also not essentially understood in terms of rules and regulations. Paul found in his Christian experience that when he focused intently on the rules, he failed (Rom 7:13-25). He found that in order to please God, he had to focus on Christ and His love, rather than on the commandments.
Christians Are Controlled by Motives, Not Rules
Once again, I think Erdman was correct on this point. Nowhere in Scripture do we find calls for mindless obedience. Obedience is always linked with motives. “We love Him because He first loved us” (1 John 4:19). “Lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven…for where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matt 6:20-21). “And now, little children, abide in Him, that when He appears, we may have confidence and not be ashamed before Him at His coming” (1 John 2:28). “If anyone’s work is burned, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire” (1 Cor 3:15).
Our motives for obeying God include love and gratitude, desire to avoid His discipline and obtain His blessings, and the prospect of the Judgment Seat of Christ and eternal rewards.
Yet There Are Rules for the Christian
There’s the rub. Some Christians go too far in their discussion of the relationship between believers and commandments. I once sat under a pastor who taught that for the Christian there are no rules or commands. None! He said that Christians are led by the Holy Spirit, not by any rules.
Recently I visited with a pastor friend whose church was deeply hurt by people who came in promoting this doctrine. They said that Christians shouldn’t be told to obey God. They felt that was legalistic. They criticized my friend, a solid Free Grace pastor, because he suggested that believers need to be exhorted to turn from sin and towards holiness. Interestingly, one of the men promoting the no-rules doctrine was a former pastor who had recently been fired when it was discovered that he had been involved in immorality for over a decade.
There are rules. The New Testament does speak of commands and of laws. “If you love Me, keep my commandments” (John 14:15). “Keeping the commandments of God is what matters” (1 Cor 7:19b). “And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight.” “Blessed are those who do His commandments” (Rev 22:14a). “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). “If you really fulfill the royal law according to the Scripture, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself,’ you do well” (Jas 2:8).
While Christianity is not essentially the keeping of rules, there are rules. The key to obeying the rules is to fall in love with the One who gives them.
Dangers of Christianity Divorced from Rules
I find it disturbing that real antinomianism is creeping into a few Free Grace churches. The net effect of this doctrine promises to be very destructive for several reasons.
First, it undercuts normal biblical motivations for obeying God.
Eternal rewards are eliminated (or weakened) under such a system. Rewards can’t be proclaimed because then you are calling for people to do something, and that is thought to be inherently legalistic.
So, too, the idea that God disciplines His children is rejected. A popular teaching in this regard is that God never causes bad things to happen to believers. The reason bad things sometimes happen to believers after they sin is because of natural consequences which God established and over which God exerts no control. Thus it is random chance that determines who gets what disease, if any, as a result of immorality, who gets arrested for the crimes they commit, who loses their job due to theft, etc.
Even the idea that God blesses us when we obey Him is rejected. All blessings which we receive, it is argued, are undeserved. Hence God blesses us in spite of ourselves, not because we obey Him.
Second, it insidiously undercuts assurance of salvation. According to this view the Holy Spirit effectually works in the lives of all believers. If you are a believer, you don’t need rules, because the Holy Spirit internally causes you to do the right things. Any thinking person can see, however, that if he or she is living in sin, that the Holy Spirit is not in control. Then they logically conclude that they must not be saved. In fact, my above-mentioned pastor friend told me that the people who infiltrated his church actually said that if your life doesn’t give evidence of the Spirit’s control, then you probably aren’t saved.
Third, it undercuts the authority of the Word of God. In order to hold these views, many passages (and even whole books!) of Scripture must be ignored. It must be difficult for a person under this teaching to read the Bible from cover to cover because so much of it won’t fit the doctrine he has been taught. This could lead many to do very little personal Bible reading.
Balancing the Christian Life
As Dr. Charles Ryrie suggested in his book by this title, the Christian life requires balance. That is especially true when it comes to Christianity and commandments. True, Christianity does not essentially consist of rules. It is in essence a loving relationship with our Risen Lord. However, there still are rules. God is grieved when we sin. He does discipline us when we sin and bless us when we obey. Someday He will judge us for the deeds which we have done as Christians (2 Cor 5:10).
It’s not legalistic to exhort believers to obey God. In fact, it’s wrong not to. Yet at the heart of our exhortation must be a loving personal relationship, not an impersonal instruction manual. Keep it in balance. Loving the Lord is the key.