October 28, 2020

Paul’s New Law—Or Our Identity In Christ?

Note from JD: In anticipation of many, um, interesting comments that will follow this post, I am donning my Simul Iustus et Peccator (At Once Justified and Sinner) t-shirt sent to me by our friends at New Reformation Press. I highly recommend you get one for yourself before you find me guilty of treason, blasphemy, or just annoyance…

Ok, I am going to pre-empt Chaplain Mike for once because a) as publisher, I can, and b) as publisher, I can. Some of you have taken exception to his post from this morning dealing with works-righteousness. Some of you like to quote Paul in order to prove that we had better straighten up and fly right if we want to get into heaven. And then there is Jesus himself telling the woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.”

Paul speaks often of our salvation by faith alone.  The first eight chapters of Romans drips with this. Every one of his epistles, or letters, to the churches he was wanting to speak to deal with sola fide, by faith alone. But he says it no more clearly and succinctly than in Galatians:

Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has cast an evil spell on you? For the meaning of Jesus Christ’s death was made as clear to you as if you had seen a picture of his death on the cross.  Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ.  How foolish can you be? After starting your Christian lives in the Spirit, why are you now trying to become perfect by your own human effort? (Galatians 3: 1-3, NLT)

From this we see very clearly that Paul thinks anyone who tries to continue their walk of faith by their own works is a fool. We start the journey by faith, and we must continue it by the same faith. Yet still, we have these passages from Paul in nearly all of his epistles that seem to make it our responsibility to “live right.” What are we to make of verses like:

Or do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor men who have sex with men nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6: 9, 10 NIV).

It is obvious what kind of life develops out of trying to get your own way all the time: repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community. I could go on. This isn’t the first time I have warned you, you know. If you use your freedom this way, you will not inherit God’s kingdom  (Galatians 5: 19-21, The Message).

For this you know with certainty, that no immoral or impure person or covetous man, who is an idolater, has an inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God  (Ephesians 5:5, NASB).

How can Paul tell us in one verse that we are fools if we are trying to walk out our faith with any reliance at all on our own good works, but then tell us a few verses later that if we don’t have good works in abundance, we ain’t going to heaven? Is Paul coming up with a new law for us to follow? I don’t think that is what Paul is saying at all. I see him as being very consistant. We are saved—now, continually, forever—by faith alone. The lists of sins that keep us from heaven? To explain that, I am going to have to shift from Paul to Jesus.

Everybody must get stoned

We have a passage of Scripture in John 8 that is as difficult to deal with as Paul’s teachings. For one thing, it does not appear in the earliest manuscripts. Let me say that I am not a Bible historian or scholar, so you can toss this out the window if you like. But my two cents worth is this: John 8:1-11 was probably not written by the Apostle John (if you accept that he is the author of this Gospel, which I do). It was most likely added by a later scribe. And—get ready with those rocks—it most likely didn’t even happen, at least not in this way. But—grip that rock tight; don’t let it slip and hit you in the foot—I believe it accurately reflects Jesus’ intentions and teachings. So, with that made clear as mud, let’s look at the passage in question.

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives,  but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them.  As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger.  They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.  Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

“No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”  (John 8: 1-11, NLT)

If you can humor me, let’s look at this as a parable taught by Jesus rather than a report of an actual scene.  And if we see it as a parable, we need to do as Robert Capon suggests: Find the God character in this story. “Oh, that’s easy,” you say. “The person playing Jesus is Jesus himself, right there, writing in the dirt.” I want to disagree with you—at least at first. Or rather, I will grant you that Jesus is there, but in this case Jesus writing in the dirt is playing the role of God the Father. Who is Jesus then? He is the woman caught in adultery. He is the guilty one. He is hauled before the court, tried and convicted. The judge, jury, prosecutor and, for all we know, the defense attorney all pick up rocks. After all, they clearly read in Leviticus 20:10, If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death (NIV). That is the law. There is no fudging with the law, right?

Jesus came and paid the penalty for our breaking the law. The wages of sin is death, we’re told (by Paul). But when payday came, who was hanging on the cross? It was Jesus, the perfect one, taking our place as sinners due death. So here we have a sinner, a woman caught in flagrante delicto–in blazing offense. (Like many Latin phrases, this one has trouble making its way into English. The closest literal translation is “with the offense blazing,” where blazing means “vigorous.” I will let you supply your own word pictures here.) There is no rationalizing, no defense possible for what she has done. She is guilty as, well, as sin and must pay. Her penalty is death. So when she is standing there, surrounded by those with rocks ready to be hurled at her, she is dead. There is no appeal process, no second chances. She’s dead. Thus, this is Jesus, the one who was dead because of sin—our sin.

Yet we see Jesus clearly off to one side, scribbling in the sand. (Don’t let this aspect distract you. Many preachers have tried to come up with what Jesus was writing. It doesn’t matter. He could have been playing Tic Tac Toe for all that. If he had wanted us to know what he was writing, he would have let us know. He didn’t. Move on, citizens—there is nothing to see here.) Why do I say this is God the Father? Because of the role he plays here. The adulteress, we just said, is dead. But the Father, looking at the dead girl, just as he looked at Jesus hanging on the cross, ignores her until her sentence is pronounced. We can imagine this girl saw Jesus. We can imagine she knew who he was, at least by reputation. With her life at stake, do you think she was silent? Or can you hear her calling out for Jesus to speak up in her defense?

Yet Jesus stays silent, making marks in the dirt, until it’s too late. Just like when Lazarus was sick and Jesus stayed where he was. He could have come and healed Lazarus, but he waited until Lazarus was good and dead. Why? Why didn’t Jesus heal Lazarus? Why didn’t Jesus speak up on this girl’s behalf? And why didn’t God answer Jesus’ cries the night he was betrayed? In all three situations, it was because he had a much greater purpose in mind than just to patch things up once again.

God had been patching things up for a long time. Each time Israel would sin, God would put them through some form of prophet–conquering army–prophet way to get their attention. Now he was going to deal with sin once and for all. But it could only be done one way—through death.

So we see Jesus standing in the circle of the court, condemned and already as good as dead. And the Father, played by Jesus, doing nothing but doodling. Then the people cry out to Jesus/God, “Sin brings about death. Wrong actions must be punished. You agree, don’t you, God?”

And here is where God stands the universe on its head.

God, the righteous God who demands righteousness from his people, says in effect, “I have dealt with this myself. I have died for adultery, murder, theft, gossip, gluttony, homosexuality, pedophilia, and cheating on your taxes. I myself have died to all of this. There is no more condemnation. You are free to go.”  Who is free to go? Well, not only the one caught in sin, but those who are doing the accusing. They can now drop their rocks and go have some fun. Throw batting practice or a football. Do something with those rocks, like skip them on a pond. God no longer needs their—our—help in condemning anyone for anything. And that includes ourselves.

Let me try to bring this plane in for a landing with Jesus’ final recorded words to this woman: Go and sin no more. And let’s relate those words back to what we read from Paul: No immoral person, idolator, Cubs fan, etc. is going to make it into heaven. Don’t these words make it clear that we have a role to play in maintaining right behavior? Not only no, hell no. The cruelest thing in the world Jesus could have done was to spare this woman’s life—resurrect her, for that is what follows death: resurrection—only to load sin management on her. “I have spared you this time, but don’t ever let me catch you sinning again.” He might as well have let the court stone her right then. She didn’t get five minutes down the street without sinning somehow. (Remember, the Jews had so many laws and traditions to keep, it was basically impossible to breathe without sinning.) So what are Paul and Jesus saying here?

This is what I think it is: We are forgiven. Jesus died for our sins, and was resurrected. The life we now live in the flesh we live by the faith the Son of God puts in us. He lives through us. That is our identity now: dead to sin, alive to God. If we insist on clinging to our old identity as immoral persons, greedy, homosexuals, drunkards or anything else on those lists, then we will be refusing the forgiveness that is ours freely in Jesus. If we continue to see ourselves as adulterers when Jesus says we are not, then we will be refusing his death and resurrection. And it is then that the kingdom of heaven is closed to us. Not because of our behaviors, but in spite of them we might be shut out from heaven. If you insist that you must do your best to be good, you are denying Jesus. If you insist that your behavior simply doesn’t matter because you are dead, then Jesus’ life is in you and you are living in the kingdom already.

So take those lists by Paul as him saying, “You want to be recognized as one of these kinds of people? You are not going to be welcome in heaven. You can’t try anywhere near hard enough to erase your debts on your own. But if you, in spite of any and all sin in your life, identify yourself as dead, buried and risen again in Christ, and make that your one and only identity, then you are already seated in heaven with Jesus.”

We are not called to behavior modification. We are not called to participate in sin management. We are called to die. Not develop a cough or a limp, but die. For only what is dead can be resurrected.

Next time you come across a post from Chaplain Mike or Lisa or Damaris or Joe or me that says, “Preaching on how you need to work hard to live a good life is not only a waste of time, it is misleading and dangerous,” then remember that Jesus would say, “You’re right. Drop the rocks. It’s bad form to stone a corpse.” And when you are the one holding a rock and looking in the mirror saying, “I screwed up. I must now face the court and the consequences,” remember that Jesus already did all that. You can drop your rock now.

Go, sin no more. No more finding your identity as a sinner. Instead, find your identity, no matter what sins you committed yesterday, are committing today, or will commit tomorrow, as one who is dead and resurrected. That is the only way God looked at the woman as she walked away from him. “Go, and no more find your identity as a sinner. No longer live in shame. You were dead but now you are alive because of me. Sin is no longer your ID. Life is. Live. Enjoy. Taste and see that I am Good.”

Go now and live as one forgiven.


  1. I won’t stone you! Please do some more follow-up on the implications on this… before I go outside and play football – – how then would you preach on these passages for example:
    1 Cor. 5:13 “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves.”
    Heb 6:1 ff “Therefore leaving the elementary teaching about the Christ, let us press on to maturity… for the ground that drinks of the rain… yields thorns and thistles, it is worthless and close to a curse, and its end is for burning.”

  2. Paul never says faith alone…. Luther did…. Paul says faith versus works of the Law…. his focus was on faith versus adherence to Mosaic law.

    What I am hearing is that once you are saved, you have assurance no matter what you do, unless of course you didn’t really believe it in your heart….

    But then… I’m Catholic so we won’t see eve to eye on this, and that’s OK because if you believe you are assured and you are still trying to avoid sin our means are different but the end is the same (my same view concerning faith and works of love compared to faith alone).

    I look forward to reading the thought provoking comments to follow (with all sincerity).

    • “Paul never says faith alone.”

      I’m curious how you square that with Eph. 2:8-9.

      • Simply the use of the word “alone,” Chris. Correct me if I’m wrong, Chaplain Mike, but I believe it was here that Martin Luther added the word “alone” to emphasize his own understanding of the text. He later removed it.

  3. I agree with most or indeed nearly all of this. I’d only add a murmur of caveat to the effect that we tend to forget that these Epistles are pastoral letters as well; that is, that St. Paul was addressing real congregations in real places really screwing-up and needing a box on the ears 🙂

    So I think that maybe the Galatians were trying to go on in the old way, which was, they were so accustomed to keeping the law they fell into the rut of living like that in their Christian new lives. That meant St. Paul had to remind them “Let me ask you this one question: Did you receive the Holy Spirit by obeying the law of Moses? Of course not! You received the Spirit because you believed the message you heard about Christ.”

    And then, because human nature is like that, he had to address the opposite flaw in the Ephesians. Hey, Ephesians! Yes, you have all been saved by grace and set free from the law, but before you start laughing at your brothers the Galatians and those like them who are rigidly rule-bound, let me remind you of a few little points. Being set free does not mean that you get to cosy up with the world. Running off and enslaving yourself by being lax, by accommodating to the pressures of ‘what the neighbours think’, is just as much a bondage as tying yourself up in legalistic knots. You are newly born so act like it!

    • Steve Newell says

      In Ephesians 2:1-10, Paul clearly states what happens in our salvation:
      1. We are all dead in our sin.
      2. God, in his mercy made us alive in Christ
      3. It is God’s grace what we are saved.
      4. We have been given the incomparable riches of his grace
      5. We have been saved through faith
      6. Faith is a gift of God and not a result of anything that we do obtain it.
      7. As the result of our salvation, we are now created for good works in Christ

      In this passage, we can see that it is God’s grace alone that saves us, that it is faith alone is how we are saved and it is by Christ alone through whom we are saved.

      • and it’s for the purpose of doing good works THAT we are saved

      • AnglicanDave says


        And then from Eph 4:17 to the end of the book he goes on to discuss how we should then live including telling us that that the sexually immoral have no inheritance in the Kingdom of God.

        Like the author says it’s in every Epistle.

  4. Just posted a longer response in The Face of the Gracious God article. Not going to repeat it here.

    Yeah, I do sense that we ‘stand’ in grace, but ‘walk’ by faith however that converts to real rubber-meets-the-road Christianity.

    I also believe that Jesus’ caveat: “Go and sin no more” was not so theologically theoretical as to be misunderstood by those within earshot. It simply meant do not be an adulteress any longer. That type of behavior well within the ability of the woman to do. And it actually ‘fulfilled’ the Law just as those wanting to stone her referenced. The Law simply addressed the external issues of compliance, not the heart issue that Jesus repeatedly addressed in other discourses. All those men in that circle with rock in hand looking lustfully at the wayward woman in their midst. They too committed adultery. Those religious leaders trying to trap Jesus? Already committed murder by their hate. Where was the adulterer? What Jesus did was far more scandalous. He forgave her. Was it a one shot deal? Her adultery so compulsive she just couldn’t help herself? A marriage so unloving, abusive, demeaning she went right back into the loving arms of her paramour??? No ‘grace’ at all nestled within those words to help her make right choices?

    That stretch of the story a thought-provoking consideration, but more of a stretch than what Jesus was writing in the dust. At least we have that small detail in the account. And Jesus didn’t care where she went after the dust settled (pun intentional)? Really? No tears from the Almighty over divorce, severe family dysfunction, bat-shit crazy stuff that happens to be the symptom of what He came to address? Escape the bad situation with His blessing/indifference? No accountability to setting things right?

    I don’t believe that is what can be a ‘grace laden extrapolation’ from the story. I do understand the emphasis of grace triumphing over sin. Mercy does indeed triumph over justice. Thank God love does cover over a multitude of sin. But if there is not at least some faint reference to the book of Hosea in this story, I will make this my last comment on the subject…

  5. Jonathanblake says

    Thank you for shifting the conversation to our identity instead of our actions. We are very much doers to the point that even our faith and not just our works are doing actions. It is about who we are and who we are becoming by the grace of God. I am handicapped coming from a culture that emphatically emphasizes doing and minimizes being; I need to be rewired so I can BE a child of God first and let works flow from that faith and new identity. I agree with you in that this is the Scriptural relationship of faith and works- that I am becoming by faith in Jesus and through the grace of His Spirit a child of God and out of that new character and identity naturally flow works of mercy, peace-making, humility, service and love.

    • Jonathanblake says

      Though I’m definitely Simul Iustus et Peccator because I do lack consistency often enough in who I am. I guess I’ll just have to hold tighter to my death and dying and to Jesus resurrection and life

  6. david carlson says

    Are we sinners or saints?
    How you see yourself greatly impacts how you live out your life. fyi – the bible makes it pretty clear that as believers we are saints who sometimes sin

    May I suggest Dan Stone and Greg Smith’s book –
    The Rest of the Gospel: When the Partial Gospel Has Worn You Out


    Most important book I have ever read

    • Gail McNeeley says

      That book has been such a relief to me! As a PK/MK, I was brought up “in the ministry” where life was one big exhaustive, depressing journey.

    • Dan Stone.
      Union Life.
      Was in a Union Life group for a year or more in the mid-1980’s, saw/heard Dan Stone speak at a conference I think in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, with Bill Volkman back then.

      Union Life has some aberrant theology, though. Its founder, the late Norman Grubb (author of Rees Howells: Intercessor, and C. T. Studd’s autobiography – Grubb married Studd’s daughter, IIRC), toward the end of his ministry declared himself in print to be a monist: All is God. As for the “believer” according to Union Life teaching, there is no independent self; you’re indwelt by and/or in union with either the Spirit of Truth (Christ) or the Spirit of Error (Satan). You have no individual identity, but as a believer you are the Chaplain Mike/EricW/David Carlson form of Jesus Christ. Sinning is forgetting who you are and identifying with the wrong Spirit. Etc.

  7. Wow. How many stones am I holding? And as you say, what’s the point stoning a corpse? I think I’ll try to drop all my stones and use them instead to build an altar in remembrance of what God has done for me.

    Thank you, Jeff.

  8. http://www.amazon.com/Paul-Beginners-Guide-Guides/dp/1851685642/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1294089920&sr=8-2

    All of Morna Hooker’s books are incredibly excellent as she goes straight to Paul’s mouth, so to speak, and looks neither to the East nor to the West for interpretations of his theology. But this book is the best place to start. We are finishing up the Adult Wednesday Morning Book Discussion at my church with this book, and whilst it wasn’t easy by any means, it certainly led to some good discussion and a lot of thinking about what we assume Paul means by what he writes. You may be surprised at her scholarly conclusions…

    Maybe one needs to understand text and context before one tries to understand Paul and his seeming contradictions.

  9. Randy Thompson says

    It seems to me that we often have a rather low-rent view of faith. Too often faith is a matter of having an opinion about a particular theological line. Faith, in this setting, is less something life-changing than it is a matter of having religious opinions (as important as they may be).
    What we’re meant to believe is that God loved us so much that He condemned us, executed us, forgave us and raised us up in and through Jesus, all at the same time (cf. Romans 6). The love of God in Christ is what liberates us from sin, selfishness and self-absorption and does so by being poured into our hearts (Romans 5:5). Through Christ, we “walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4), which consists of living a life as one loved by a holy God, letting that love overflow out of our grateful hearts so that it splashes, refreshes and washes those around us. The Christian life consists of presenting ourselves daily to the God who loved, loves, and will love us in Christ (Romans 6:13). In short, faith is trusting God’s holy love and then living as adopted children in the gracious hospitality of the household of the Trinity.

  10. Jonathanblake says

    I just read this and thought it was relevant to the last two posts here at iMonk.

    “When it comes to faith, what a living, creative, active, powerful thing it is. It cannot do other than good at all times. It never waits to ask whether there is some good work to do, rather, before the question is raised, it has done the deed, and keeps on doing it.” -Martin Luther

    Anyways thought it highlighted the being power of faith in our identity so that good works flow from that. Brings my mind to another understated fact- the Gospel is about the restoration of the broken Imago Dei within man. Wouldn’t good works naturally flow from that restored identity and nature since it is a good God that we are fashioned in the image of?

    • Jonathanblake says

      But of course our salvation isn’t in the business of making us act good but into restoring and redeeming that which is broken inside of each of us.

  11. I have a question. How often are the calls to be holy directed at individuals and how often are those admonitions directed at groups/communities?

    I may be reading more into this than I should, but it seems to me that one of the difficulties we have is placing too great an emphasis on individual or personal holiness and not enough on the holiness or set-apartness of the community. Israel was called to be distinct as a nation, among other reasons, so that the other nations could see that their God is the true God. It is not a withdrawing from the world, because they are to be a blessing to the nations and besides, the other nations can’t see God if they can’t see God working through his people. Nations don’t see individuals, they see other nations. This has always seemed to me as God making himself known on the largest stage, which seems quite reasonable.

    Granted, communities are comprised of individuals, and we ought have some concern for our own attitudes and behaviors, but I have seen in the churches I’ve been a part of that the emphasis becomes so great that we become almost solipsistic at times.

    Paul reminds us in a wonderful passage in Gal 6, given the language, that any of us can be “caught” in a transgressions. We must then have a ministry of reconciliation, not judgment. It seems to me that when we can as communities practice the kind of love that we are commanded to live, we become that city on a hill we have been called to be, which draws those in the darkness to our God. Of course we take sins seriously, but we must fit this stuff into the context of community somehow.

    It is an oversimplification (but so is most of my post–I know there’s more to it), but in reading Works of Love years ago, I found myself in agreement with SK that the law defines what it means to love– first God and then our neighbor. The emphasis isn’t so much on how do we check off all the right things and avoid the wrong things, but rather how do we love? (and thus fulfill the greatest command–Jesus’ words) We lead with love and grace and reconciliation, not judgment and condemnation.

    When we do that in community (because how can we love in isolation), we then take up the call to make God known to the nations. Forgive the oversimplifications.

  12. I loved this piece. I don’t know it (yet) but I hope to one day. Been church-less for years. Yup, big story, big hurts. Lost my faith for awhile. Long boring story. FYI, I loved the art of the woman praising God so much that i just ordered a print!

    Scandalous Sinner
    Staggering Grace,
    The two intersect
    and meet in one place.
    Such radical truths
    rolled up in ONE,
    the Father embracing
    me as His prodigal son.

  13. If what I do determines who I am, than there IS no good news. That is why I am not a sinner, even though I sin. I am a beloved Son of God because of the perfect life of Christ which is in me, and that is my identity. I am not a sinner-saint, but a sinning saint. Not semantics, but a fundamental question of identity.

    But is there any distinction between trying to obey the law of God and following Christ as a disciple? What role does the law of God play in our lives as believers? Go and live as one who is forgiven… what exactly does that mean? Is it entirely subjective, or do the written words of moral exhortation found in scripture (from Moses to Jesus to Paul) have any implications on the Christian life?

    I hold to Calvin’s third use of the law: not works-righteousness, but a pattern of thankful living.

  14. I’m just pondering the implications of God’s grace.

    Either Jesus’s death paid for all sin, or it didn’t. I’ve never read anything about a post-salvation upper sin limit. So the implication is that I could confess faith in the resurrection of Jesus, get up off my knees, and spend my remaining time on earth raping and pillaging, and the blood of Christ would still cover those sins. Because of His mercy and grace, I would stand before God blameless. That’s how much freedom comes with the grace of Christ.

    But…just because I have that freedom doesn’t mean I WANT to abuse it that way. I still know the law God had given, and I still know that because of even the little sins, I deserve death. Knowing the vast chasm between the punishment I deserve and the freedom that I have been given, I am overcome by gratitude so that I do not WANT to do what I know is displeasing to God. When Paul talks about being a new creation in Christ, and having the spirit of Christ living in us, this is what I think it means.

    • M.B., you and I are singing from the same hymnal. I will go so far as to say (and I know Chaplain Mike and Joe Spann, at the least, agree with this) that one who sees himself/herself as dead in Christ and risen in His resurrection CANNOT desire a wrong thing. But that is another essay for another day.

      (But before you throw things at me, read the end of The Silver Chair in The Chronicle of Narnia series.)

    • Well worded and perfectly summarized.

  15. I find it interesting to observe the ways people shape texts through their interpretation. It illustrates the point that no text really has a meaning independent of interpretation, so the question becomes one of deciding which interpretation you prefer. Personally, I’ve looked for those interpretations widely held “by all churches in all places” as Irenaeus wrote than novel interpretations that can be traced to specific individuals.

    First I’ll state the obvious. There is no mainstream Christian group I’ve encountered that does not hold that we are saved by grace through faith in Jesus — Christ and Lord. (That statement begs the question, of course, of what you mean by salvation, grace, and faith, but that’s a larger question than can be answered here.) That certainly includes the Orthodox (including the churches often called “Oriental Orthodox), the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran Church, and most other smaller Protestant denominations. My childhood formation included practice of and exposure to a number of non-Christian religions, but it also included exposure to a lot of different Christian traditions. Since I turned to Christianity as an adult, I’ve also explored a lot of them personally and more in depth in my efforts to understand what this faith which I found drawing me ever farther in actually was. I won’t say the differences are unimportant. There are major and significant differences. But that is the basic and fundamental proclamation of Christianity. Most of the “fight” is over what it means, not the proclamation itself.

    Another obvious point – Scripture actually only mentions “faith alone” or “faith by itself” in one place and that’s in James. Luther disliked this “epistle of straw” because it directly contradicts his “sola fide” proposition. Yes, I’ve read and heard some of the efforts at interpreting James to say the opposite of what he actually say, but coming into Christian faith without a real bias, I find them tortured at best. Moreover, I can’t find anyone considered vaguely “orthodox” in the first 1500 years of Christianity who supports those interpretations. They are not only novel, they directly contradict three-quarters of church history of interpretation. I find them unconvincing, though I perceive that others do find them convincing. Throwing texts back and forth accomplishes nothing since each person is interpreting those texts through the lens of their assumptions. I do the same thing. I don’t think it’s possible for a human being to do any differently. It’s why try to check my assumptions against the ongoing thread of interpretation across all cultures and through time. I do make one basic assumption. If the church has not maintained the apostolic tradition continuously somewhere — if it has indeed been lost — then there’s no way to recover it from the text alone. We are just too subject to our presuppositions, unconscious desires, cultural formation, and bias.

    I’ll also note there is no place in Scripture (including Romans 1-8) where the final judgment is discussed in any other way than encompassing the totality of lives.

    I also detect a subtler problem in the narrative of the post. It places the Father and the Son in separate and in some sense opposing roles. While they are distinct person, they are of one essence and undivided. It seems to me like a lot of the narratives I hear today go so far as to having the Son paying the Father a debt. I think that’s a real problem. (I agree there with St. Gregory the Theologian among others. But I thought it was a problem before I even read him.)

    I think the real problem is in the way the question is often framed: What can we do to merit salvation? However you answer the question when it is framed that way you have problems. And that’s because it’s not really a question of merit — either our merit or Christ’s merit. Salvation is not about, as far as I can tell, whether or not you can get into heaven or whether or not you are “good” enough (either through your own works or because God doesn’t see you, but sees Jesus instead when he looks at you) for God.

    The only way I could summarize salvation is to draw from Scripture. Salvation is union with Christ. But that simply begs the question of why that is salvation. And here I think it matters deeply how you view the whole of the work of the Incarnation of the Word. (Not just the Cross, or just any other aspect. Everything from the conception, to the Cross, to the Resurrection, and the Ascension.) The work of Jesus was God’s great rescue of humanity and all creation. The sense from most of the Fathers is that even if it were possible to imagine a humanity who would not have turned from God — who would not have sinned — the Son still would have had to become flesh because it was always beyond our capacity to be one with God. God is supremely other to the extent that he can’t even be said to exist if by “exist” we mean anything at all like the way that we or anything else in creation “exists.” In such a reality, Jesus would not have had to die because we would not have been subject to death. But he would have had to become man. That was God’s great condescension. He became one with us so that we could be one with him. In the Incarnation of the Word, God has accomplished everything — including the defeat of death and sin for all humanity and indeed all creation. God has done everything that needed to be done. It is no longer the nature of man to die. God is love and loves his creation. All of it. All of us. In this sense, God’s work through Christ was universal and cosmic.

    However, without making creation less than it is — less than he created it to be, God cannot make us love him. And therein lies the rub. The question is not whether we are “good” enough or whether God looks favorably on us or loves us. The answer to the former is we could never be “good” enough. Salvation is a gift of love. We didn’t deserve and in no sense did humanity — individually or collectively — merit the kenosis of Christ. The question is do we love God? Do we want God? Will we experience the fire of his unveiled love — that is Himself — as warmth and comfort? Or will we experience it as the torment of a consuming fire? Ultimately we will all experience the same fundamental reality, though the way we perceive and sense that reality may be vastly different. And that’s a question that can only ultimately be answered by a life lived.

    I would be very hesitant to claim that I love God today. I do think that I want to love him — at least as I am beginning to understand him. However, there was a time when I thought very negatively of what I understood at the time to be the Christian God. And I see how very different my perception and orientation are today from what they were then. I don’t know what the future holds. If two decades from now I hate God, in what sense would the presence of a God I don’t want be considered salvation? We love God by loving others. And sense love, at least in some sense, means willfully acting for the good of the other, there is a sense in which it is a moment by moment thing for we can only truly act in the present moment.

    Sigh. I wrote too much and still didn’t say nearly enough or at all well. If I understood it better myself, I could probably say more in fewer words. I’m not even sure how much sense the things I wrote actually made. But for what they might be worth, such are my thoughts as I read the post.


  16. ‘A little bit of us, and a lot of God’.

    Usually that formula turns into a little bit of God and a lot of me.

    Here is the correct formula:

    100% God…0% me.

    Will we do good works? Yes we will. Can anyone put their finger on “Christian good works”? No they can’t (outside of preaching and teaching about Christ Jesus).

    God is a real God. he really is capable of giving to us our complete justification AND our complete sanctification.


  17. I have found that most of the “Ill communications” we have going back & forth with works & grace is because we try to look at it through a judicial court. We try to figure out if you are guilty or innocent of current & future sin.
    CS Lewis helped me understand works & grace by looking at it as ‘your soul as a body’. Sin hurts your soul. Sin can kill your soul. Jesus is our remedy – he will heal us of any cancer or sickness of the soul.
    If we stop taking our remedy, (or stop seeing our identity in Jesus), sin can kill you. We may still have small cuts, & common colds in life (in our souls) but they will heal with Jesus. But I believe we can take a path of sin that if unchecked can kill us. If we ignore the Doctor & the remedy death could be the outcome. Jesus our great healer is with us. Thanks be to God. Peace.

  18. Thanks, Jeff. I agree with what you have written here, except I have a “quibble” with your statement : “If you insist that your behavior simply doesn’t matter because you are dead, then Jesus’ life is in you and you are living in the kingdom already.”

    I am not saying that we can EARN our salvation by our good behavior, but our behavior DOES matter. The way some Christians have acted abusively has driven people away from Christianity, away from God. Now, we could say that the person is being driven TOWARD God if they leave these abusive people and that is also true. But, in the meantime, while the abused person is finding his or her way, he or she could be very hurt. They may even kill themselves. So, the behavior of those people mattered. Someone may say that it mattered to the person who was hurt, but didn’t really matter in terms of their living in the kingdom already, but I just cannot be 100% with that. Perhaps, in the end, even the abusive people WILL be with God, but perhaps they also will suffer as all that is not of God in them is “purged.” I don’t know. But I also know that most of us are, at times, abusive, in one way or another.

    In a reply to someone above, you also wrote, “one who sees himself/herself as dead in Christ and risen in His resurrection CANNOT desire a wrong thing.” Perhaps I am not seeing myself as dead in Christ and risen in His resurrection, because I am sure that at times I desire the wrong thing. It seems that this kind of statement could make people fearful about whether they are really “saved.” I believe that Jesus saved me, is saving me, will save me and while I am walking this earth, every moment I have to make choices that can hurt or help people. Until I am totally renewed by the mind of Jesus and naturally will NOT make a mistake, I must use the “golden rule” understanding of how God wants me to behave to make the right choices. What I do matters…to me, to the people around me, to God.

    I hope you do not mind this “pushing back” by me. It is also possible that I just don’t understand. I am open to learning.

  19. So what if the Galatians reply letter to Paul went something like this:

    “Dear Paul, thanks so much for the kind rebuke. It is really good to know that we are saved by our faith. As for the circumcising and all the rules… well, we kind of like them. We may be forever known as ‘those foolish Galatians’ because we like all the rules and force them on the converts, but it’s good to know that we are still saved. So we are going to ignore much of what you wrote… because what the heck, we are still saved. By the way, we have a new pastor.”

  20. I see the comments for Chaplain Mike’s thread on Mike Bickle are already at 160, so mine would get lost there, but I didn’t have to read much of Chaplain Mike’s column to recognize that it was “Classic Mike” – as in, “Classic Mike Bickle.”

    This kind of thing began in 1983 with his “Blow the Trumpet in Zion” message – http://www.archive.org/details/BlowTheTrumpetInZion-mikeBickle-April141983 – which we heard in person because we were attending South Kansas City Fellowship (what he called his church when he first started it in Kansas) at the time, beginning shortly after Mike came to town to start his new church. Listen to it and you’ll hear the beginning of a pattern that repeated itself over the years.

    We were there off and on attending his church as well as Ernie Gruen’s Full Faith Church of Love – the church/pastor that publicly rebuked Mike Bickle and his church as being a “Charismatic Heresy” in a sermon/message entitled “Do We Keep Smiling and Say Nothing?” (it can be heard at the same site as Mike Bickle’s sermon – just click on the Keywords link there for “ernie gruen”) and in a 233-page document detailing the things Bickle and Co. (Bob Jones, et al.) were doing to the churches and believers in town when the “Kansas City Prophets” affair was happening. We were there when John Wimber came to town to take authority over the mess.


    This whole “visions” thing is a mess. Bob Jones is tied in with Rick Joyner and Morningstar Ministries. There are some really bizarre videos online of things they say about their “visions.” In the late 1990’s at a friend’s “encouragement” I posted on the Internet what turned out to be the first public critical/negative review of Rick Joyner’s book The Final Quest. I couldn’t believe the hate email I got for doing that. Few of my attackers argued with or rebutted the points I made; they just kept telling me how wrong I was to criticize Joyner and his prophetic trances.

    Whatever…. :rolleyes:

    I haven’t read the 160 comments, so I don’t know if Chaplain Mike got attacked for criticizing Bickle or just for criticizing the teaching. But as one who has been there, done that, he has my sympathy – and unflagging support!

    • EricW: here in this posting universe, there seems (from my limited experience) substantial leeway stating concerns, pointing out differences, even ‘sounding the alarm!’ statements from whatever position of safety the crier maintains.

      There are some of the more, well, ‘crazy uncle’ types in the greater Body of Christ that have decided to make certain claims or narrowly focus on some pet theme/topic/teaching. Heck, there are some very sincere Christians that I think are quite silly with their way of championing their pet theological rock…

      Hambone creationists come to mind. Holy Ghost tokers another. Supra-spiritual warfare types. Messianic ‘if-it’s-Jewish-it-must-be-good’ types. Sabbath only keepers. And it isn’t so much their viewpoints, but the posturing & elitism associated with their brand of snake oil. They are the remnant. They are the saints-that-are-mostly-right or say “Ni!” The super elect. The really ‘in’ inner circle. The best kept secret since Jesus Himself walked upon the earth…

      Attitude is a very serious thing to Jesus. How your delivery is done just as critical as the substance one is presenting. The desire to be ‘right’ as in most correct & truthful a very subtle trap since it feeds the human ego so effectively. If one decides to erect a soapbox/podium to talk down to the pedestrians of differing viewpoints, that alone is enough to disqualify you from being anything but a very obnoxious ‘gong’. I hate being pigeon-holed by others of differing theological conviction for their convenience & sense of self-righteousness. I simply pay them no heed. Nestled within their rhetoric may be a nugget of worthwhile consideration, but they are so full of themselves & their ‘teaching’ it has become idolatrous. Their self-appointed superiority, specialness, spirituality, etc. does not endear me to them or their message. It is how the individual saint/disciple must keep looking to Jesus, remain humble & sensitive to the Holy Spirit. I think we should simply call out what we see as kooky Christianity, but how we do it makes it either another noisy gong or a thought-proving critique.

      Bickle is controversial. So is Ham. Bentley. Hinn. Crowder/Dunn. Joyner. Wimbur. Heck, even Piper MacArthur & I am sure Jack Hayford will be mentioned somewhere sometime. I have not found one writer I totally agree with. Okay, maybe Dallas Willard. And Brennan Manning although his divorce a problem with me personally, not theologically (I am the child or divorced parents & recently divorced myself). Anyway, sometimes you will be shouting to the choir here or even shouting in the gale. Pooh. Even I get fired up without any Christian charity at those pet peeves of mine I truly believe are religious BS to the nth degree! However, I am not the standard all others must be measured against. Only One Golden Standard has been revealed & He will not let anyone else claim they are absolutely accurate presenting Him to others. Only He can do that for us. I hope I can represent Him to the best of my ability as the divine process of transformation continues. That most amazing change I cannot do myself. So, it really is about Jesus. Anyway, I have taken a tangent here…

      • Well, now that I’ve read through the comments to Chaplain Mike’s post about Mike Bickle’s message, I see that the responses weren’t so much for or against Bickle as they were about Chaplain Mike’s criticisms of Bickle’s message – though I don’t think the two can be completely separated, hence my post above (i.e., it’s not surprising that such a message would come from Mr. Bickle, as there is a history that is documented in hundreds of audios of sermons, etc.). So maybe relegate the above to another comment thread on another blog.

        • As someone with extensive contact with Bickle’s ministry, I thought I might get to read a response from you.
          Keep me in your prayers, my folks, whom I see just about weekly, are in the south KC area, so I’m in amongst the forerunners and Mr. B quite often. If he keeps playing the “church at large MUST BE……” , and combining it with his brand of eschatology, this thing might not blow over any time soon.


          • We left Missouri in 1990 and I’ve pretty much ignored him since then. But I was in Israel in 2009 and there’s an IHOP-connected 24/7 prayer congregation there I visited. Same stuff, it seems.

  21. Jeff, I am thinking again about your “If you insist that your behavior simply doesn’t matter because you are dead, then Jesus’ life is in you and you are living in the kingdom already” statement. If by that you mean it doesn’t matter if we marry or don’t marry, have no children or have ten children, have much money or no money, become a monk or don’t become a monk and so forth, then I don’t have a problem with it. But if that is NOT what you mean, then I still have the issues I mentioned in my previous post.

    It also seems that this statement goes against one of the other statements that you made which was, “If we insist on clinging to our old identity as immoral persons, greedy, homosexuals, drunkards or anything else on those lists, then we will be refusing the forgiveness that is ours freely in Jesus.” So, in this case, it sounds like our behavior DOES matter. But I guess that is because you are saying these people do not have Jesus’ life in them and therefore, they would be in a different situation.

    • Joanie, do you see why I struggled so much with this essay? I started it at 1:30 in the morning, and finished it around 2 this afternoon. It is not easy to say what I tried to say, and I’m sure I did not say it all the way I wanted to say it. There is so much more than our religious world views allow us to see. There is so much more to it than we can understand as we are restricted by time and space whereas Jesus is not.

      Here is what I am trying to say: If you form your identity in the death and resurrection of Jesus, you will not want wrong things. You will do good works and you will produce fruit. But none of this is because you willed it to be or worked at it or read a good book and applied seven principles. If that is all it took, then we would have a fighting chance at being good people. No—will only be through our identity in Christ that we bear fruit. If we are not identified with the vine, then we will not bear fruit. Does that make sense?

      If you are seeking after God for who He is, not what He can do for you, you will only desire what He wants.

      And Joanie, you are perhaps the nicest person on the entire internet. You can push back all you want!

      • “If you are seeking after God for who He is, not what He can do for you, you will only desire what He wants.”

        Yes, that makes sense to me, Jeff. I also like to think of God looking for us. God is where God always is, but it is we who get lost. He waits for us like the father in the prodigal son parable. He seeks for us like the woman who searched for her lost coin or the shepherd searched for his lost lamb.

        It is a lot easier to be nice on the internet than it is in “real” world. I often have little patience with people or don’t want to be around people. I am not very generous with my time, money, or other things. But at least that knowledge about myself drives me to pray, with the hope that my mind and very soul will someday be formed more and more in the image of Jesus.

        Thank you, Jeff, for working on your essay in the hopes that people will come to understand the magnificent grace and love offered to us by God!

  22. Maybe we’re all just looking at this wrong. Consider: the “works” people like Mark are right – faith without works is dead, and if you don’t show fruit, he’ll prune you. But maybe our definition of “fruit” is wrong.
    Most of us like apples, and a good apple is a pretty thing to behold, even in a still-life painting. So, when we think “fruit”, we picture a juicy red apple.
    The thing is, some of us don’t produce apples. Some produce apples, but they’re green. Some produce persimmons, or mustang grapes, or kiwis. So when someone produces kiwis, we say they’re barren. Or we focus on the rest of the plant, cursing the thorns and ignoring the rose.
    Take Jerry Falwell. Liberals on this site probably despise him, consider him a hypocrite. Yet stories of his private, personal generosity are legion. Yet some choose to banish him from the produce section.
    Or take me. If you met me, many of you might think me an asshole. Arrogant, brusque. I often browse internet porn after reading Internet Monk. So let’s think of me as a cactus. Spiny, harsh, uninviting. Once a year or so I’ll bloom with a gorgeous flower, and then I grow a prickly pear. Darn it, even the fruit is thorny. What a joke. Of course, the flower is pretty. And the purple color of the fruit is nice. AND if you’re hungry and thirsty in a parched region, you’ll even appreciate my fruit.
    Yeah, I’m probably literally the least of His disciples, unlike my wife. But I bet there’s still fruit from my fervent bedtime prayers. Maybe you’d think it was the fact that my office staff loves working for me. Or maybe it’s the time I paid off the car of my daughter’s friend because I knew she and her family couldn’t possibly afford it without disrupting her studies. Whatever.
    So, I say that we should look past the ugly plant or the thorns, and search for the fruit. You may be surprised. Maybe it’s just a gourd growing from those ugly vines, but a gourd can be useful, too.

  23. it seems like the last 2 posts about works-righteousness & Identity in Christ have gotten some push back. Most of the responses to questions seem to be “you know at the Imonk we support Spiritual Formation” or something about Christians cannot desire to do wrong things.
    Do we need clarification on Good works,worship, & sin? not being mean or judgmental, just curious. peace

  24. Buks van Ellewee says

    Go and sin no more. => “Go, and no more find your identity as a sinner…”, Wow – interesting hermeneutic! Sound to me as if He just tells her to stop doing what she almost (rightly) got stoned for? But then I’m probably not sufficiently theologically trained 🙂

    • If all we needed was a religious Dr. Phil to encourage us in the right and moral things to do, perhaps God would have done that. I am not saying Jesus’ death was payment for our sins. I am saying that Jesus’ death and resurrection makes it possible for us to no longer be slaves to sin. We can truly “go and sin no more” when we acknowledge that we can’t do this on our own. Paradox city, I know.

      If she could have stopped sinning so easily on her own, she is a better (wo)man than I am. I need to live out of Jesus’ death and resurrection, not my efforts at living a sinless life…

  25. Excellent post Jeff. We should all read Lewis’ “Weight of Glory” sermon again. He has some marvelous analogies that help me give some context to this issue. I do believe that Jesus came to FULFILL the law and not abolish it. He came to do what the Law could not. Christ changes our identity where the law could only change our behavior. If we go back to behavior as our focus, we attempt to undo what Christ did.

    I have heard sin described, and I agree, as an improper response to a normal desire. Lewis uses the analogy of a schoolboy skipping Greek homework to read easier texts which satisfy his need for adventure or romance. But as he does the homework, he finds that slowly the drudgery gets replaced by enjoyment and even preference for Greek poetry. Suddenly, it fills the same desires for adventure and romance even more deeply than his previous texts. The problem with focusing on behavior is that we’re not saying, do your Greek homework, we’re saying DON’T do those other things. The fact is, we are trying to invalidate the desire altogether and in so doing are alienating adulterers and Cubs fans alike.

    In reality, our desires are too weak, too sickly to understand their real nature in the first place. The behaviors that Paul describes DO NOT invalidate God’s grace or undo anything that Christ worked for us. They are lazy responses to the desires that Christ came to fulfill. They obfuscate the work Christ is trying to complete in us. His desire for us is not a suppressed life, but an abundant one. Once we understand that actual relationship with Christ, instead of abolishing our desire for a passionate tryst, actually strengthens, transforms, and then satisfies that very desire. Christ’s transformation is wholly complete. I will say though, that the transformation doesn’t happen overnight. It’s not magic. It is a relationship, and like my marriage, sometimes feels like Greek homework. But in the end, it reveals and satisfies deeper desires than I had even known before.

    Often we use behavior to define which ones of us is “in the club” as far as Christianity goes. It betrays our lack of confidence in the ongoing internal work of Christ in our souls.

    • Sorry about the incomplete sentence in the middle of that comment. That will really bother some of you, and it bothers me. THAT is worthy of casting stones about.

    • Excellent, JS. I really like what you have to say.

    • ah, yes…”adulterers and Cubs fans…..” truly the lowest, the lost, the least…… great post.

  26. Maybe there is no one answer to this faith and works conflict – maybe it is not meant to be cut and dry. Like Justice and Mercy, it sounds like a dialectic of two true forces.

    Faith without works is dead- that’s the Word of God. Jesus said that unless we forgive, we will not be forgiven. Real faith involves SOME real transformation. If there is no transformation (what ever that is) then the faith is not real. How much change, how much love, how much forgiving? Maybe it is God’s standard measure of: “a Mustard Seed.”

  27. John From Down Under says

    Thought provoking article Jeff but not much of an answer to questions like:

    What if ‘sin no more’ doesn’t work and one keeps on sinning?
    What do you say to a Christian who is struggling with a porn addiction, or is involved in an adulterous affair, or clutches on to unforgiveness against someone who hurt them and can’t let go?
    Are we to assure these people that they will cruise into heaven unrepentant?
    I’m also a little lost on the ‘We are not called to participate in sin management’ Who exactly is responsible for OUR sinful practices then? Are we incapable of saying NO to sin? Why the multitude of warnings in the NT? Is freedom to repent a license to sin? I hope the lights haven’t gone out on this post, but we’re a little preoccupied down here with our floods.

    • John From Down Under says

      Some afterthoughts Jeff.

      Firstly, sorry but the bullet point HTML code didn’t work. More to the subject at hand: I know the answer to an adulterer or porn addict is ‘repent (at the risk of stating the obvious)and sin no more’. The adulterer can probably do that easier than the porn addict and the unforgiver who may ‘want to’ but finding it hard to overcome the addiction or the bitterness.

      Also I know that YOU know that ‘freedom to repent’ is not ‘license to sin’, so my question is more rhetorical than anything.

      I guess what I’m trying to articulate is that by telling Christians that are not responsible for their own ‘sin management’, you may be confusing them about the mandate to be obedient. If you’re not responsible for managing your own sins, why obey? Does it not introduce an abandonment theology in the sense of ‘why try since I always fall short?’ And how do you reconcile ‘not called to sin management’ with 2 Corinthians 7:1? ‘Since we have these promises, beloved, let US cleanse ourselves from every defilement of body and spirit, bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God’

      Unless you mean (I’m trying to understand you), ‘I am grateful for what Christ has done for me and I obey out of gratitude, though I know full well that I’m never going to get it right all the time’ in a Titus 2:11-14 kind of way. So the motivation for obedience then is not the performance based paranoia of ‘trying harder’, but gratitude for what Christ has ALREADY done. While God does not grade us on our own obedience but on the finished work of Christ, he nevertheless demands and expects it, does he not?

      I’m no stellar exegete but Titus 2:11-14 places obedience (‘training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives’) in a gospel framework. We are urged to obey in the PRESENT (‘the present age’) as a result of what Christ has done in the PAST (‘the grace of God has appeared’) and while waiting for Him to re-appear in the FUTURE (‘waiting for our blessed hope’). Both of what was done in the past and what will be done in the future are GOOD NEWS (gospel) and we are encouraged to treat them as our motives for living right.

      It seems therefore that obedience is not a works-based effort, but an outworking of the already manifested grace of God while we’re waiting for Christ to return. Finally, back to 2 Corinthians 7:1, we obey BECAUSE we have received such wonderful promises not IN ORDER TO receive them.

  28. Scott Vaughan says

    I enjoy this website. I have a question that’s not as serious as the others here. Can someone tell me who painted the art of Jesus writing in the dirt that used in this post? I’d like to have a print of that for my church. Thank you.