New Wine, Wineskins (Part 2)

Frances Williams

hen we stand before the holy God to face His judgment, what will be our defense? Does God hold Christians accountable to His unchanging moral law? If a Christian sins, must she confess her sin in order to be forgiven? Can a Christian ever sin so as to be lost (fall from grace)?

A Sick Joke?

At Mt. Sinai, Israel promised to keep all of God's commandments (Ex. 24:7). The ten commandments were the terms of the covenant God made with them (Ex. 34:28; Deut. 4:13). God knew that Israel would not live up to the moral demands of the ten commandments. No one, except Jesus, has ever loved God and their neighbor perfectly. We all stand condemned by God's unchanging moral law (Rom. 3:9). Was God playing some kind of a sick joke giving Israel a covenant which He knew they could not keep, and then punishing them for their disobedience?

Of course not! The old covenant was never intended to be a possible, or even potential way to eternal life. The Law was given to reveal sin in its fullness (Rom. 7:7), and to show Israel (and us) our desperate need for God's forgiveness. The Jews who were saved in the Mosiac era were saved under the new covenant, first hinted at in the Garden (Gen. 3:15), and given in embryonic form to Abraham (Gen. 12:3). The Law, added 430 years later, could not annul the Abrahamic covenant of promise (Gal. 3:17). The new covenant is not so much new in time, as it is new in terms of its fulfillment in Christ Jesus. The new covenant is forgiveness, and not a new, higher law. This forgiveness was promised in the Old Testament animal sacrifices (Lev. 4:31) which looked forward to the ultimate sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

At Mt. Sinai, God was not demanding perfect obedience to His unchanging moral law. Rather, God was demanding a heart-felt response based on His promises to Abraham, and His demonstrated love in the Exodus event. It is for this reason that the old covenant begins with this statement: "I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage" (Ex. 20:2).

In the same way today, God demands a heart-felt response to His ultimate demonstration of love. God has sacrificed His own beloved Son to pay for our sins. God calls us into relationship with Him, having embodied His moral law in the Person of Christ Jesus. As Jesus said, "Love each other as I have loved you" (John 15:12).

Only believers are under the new covenant made in Jesus' blood (Heb. 8:11); only believers can begin to know just how much Jesus has loved us. The Law of Moses had enforced only an outward obedience to God's unchanging moral law. The new covenant of forgiveness compels the Christian to an inward (as well as an outward) obedience.

With Fear and Trembling

The new covenant of forgiveness is not a license to sin, nor does it free Christians from the external standard of God's unchanging moral law. We have not been freed from slavery to sin and death in order that we may determine for ourselves what is moral and loving. On the contrary, we have been freed from condemnation "in order that the righteous requirements of the Law (of Moses) might be fully met in us" (Rom. 8:4). Jesus embodied the moral demands of the Law of Moses.

If the Spirit rules our lives, we will submit to God's law (Rom. 8:5). "For if you live according to the sinful nature, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live, because those who are led by the Spirit are children of God" (Rom. 8:13).

So then, God's free gift of forgiveness is conditional. We can forfeit the gift if we "live according to the sinful nature". We must "fear God and keep His commandments" (Ecc. 12:13). "Submit to one another in the fear of God" (Eph. 5:21). "Since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and godly fear, for our God is a consuming fire" (Heb. 12:28).

It is the constant demand of both the Old and New Testament scriptures that we regard our God with reverence and awe. This is what the term "fear" means in these verses. We must recognize our Lord as holy, a consuming fire that will not allow evil to go unpunished. Christ Jesus took our punishment upon Himself, but we must have our minds set on what the Spirit desires (Rom. 8:5) if we are to benefit from His sacrifice. It is only when we trust (have faith) in the love, power, and wisdom of God that we can remain in His favor.

Paul exhorts, "Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12). We must never take God's free gift of forgiveness lightly, but rather use it as the power to conquer sin (Rom. 6:14). We must never give up the good fight of faith. We must strive day by day to love God and our neighbor, as God has loved us in the perfection of His nature. If we abandon our struggle against the sin in our lives, we will be lost. We will forfeit our participation in the new covenant of forgiveness. We will fall from grace.

With Love

We have only been looking at one half of Paul's statement in Phil. 2:12. Paul also tells us why we should not give up the struggle against sin in our lives: "For it is God who works in you to will and to act according to His good purpose" (Phil. 2:13). We are not alone in our struggle against sin. As we continue the good fight of faith God will help us every step of the way. He will forgive us, not three times, but as many times as it takes.

We never live up to the demands of God's moral law. We never work out our salvation in the sense of living up to God's requirements. God knows that we never will. Jesus died to pay the penalty for our sins. God wants us to respond to His love by dedicating our hearts and lives to Him. Through forgiveness God accomplishes what the old covenant could not: the believer has an inward compulsion "to will and to act according to His good purpose."

It is not fear of punishment that must motivate our obedience, but love of God reverence and awe for our holy God. Jesus said, "If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). John tells us, "This is love for God, to obey His commands" (I John 5:3). "There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The man who fears is not made perfect in love" (1 John 4:10). Our obedience to God is crippled to the extent that we depend upon our own works for justification, rather than upon the sacrifice of Jesus. "Put to death the misdeeds of the body.., for you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption ... we are God's children" (Rom. 8:13-16).

Confession

The Christian does sin, although his heart-felt desire is to love God and his neighbor. However, as John said, "If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7). Confession is not a condition of salvation, it is the dedicated heart's response to God (1 John 1:8-9). Confession is an expression of our love for God, as we recognize His holiness, and our own sinfulness.

Some have argued that we must confess even our "hidden sins", as though the act of confession itself could satisfy the requirements of God's law. Others have supposed that a Christian pops in and out of the light depending on whether she has sinned, or confessed the sin. Both these views are based on the idea that the new covenant has a Law of Confession which a Christian must keep in order to be forgiven of her sins.

However, forgiveness can never be a provision of God's law. Forgiveness is possible only because Jesus died to pay for our transgressions of God's unchanging moral law. Law always demands justice. Let us look at an example taken from daily life: A drunken man steals a car and smashes into a house, causing much damage to both the car and the house.

When he goes to court he argues that he should go unpunished since he has repented of his deed, confessed his error and asked for forgiveness from the pre-trial judge. What do you think the judge will answer this man?

"Law brings wrath ... the promise comes by faith" (Rom. 4:15, 16). Confession does not free the Christian from the penalty of God's moral law.

Christians are saved because Jesus paid the penalty for us. We are justified by the blood of Christ, by faith through grace, or not at all. However, as Christians we must respond to the demonstrated love of Christ. We must pray without ceasing, acknowledging the sins we find in our lives, confessing to God, asking for the strength to right the wrongs we have done. All this should be done, not out of fear of punishment, but because we have the assurance that "the blood of Jesus ... cleanses us from sin".

Falling from Grace

A Christian can fall from grace. Grace means "unmerited favor" or "free gift". Falling from grace is not the same as falling from God's law. We have all fallen short of God's moral demands, but Christians have been justified by a free gift of forgiveness in Christ. One way that a Christian can fall from grace is if she gives up the fight against sin in her life. We have looked at this earlier.

Another way that a Christian can fall from grace is if he depends upon his own obedience to God's law, rather than upon the sacrifices of Christ Jesus.

In Gal. 5:4, Paul warned some Christian Jews: "You who are trying to be justified by law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace". In seeking to bind the ceremonial ordinances of the Law of Moses, the Jews were indebting themselves to the whole Law. The problem in Paul's view was that they were trying to be justified (i.e., declared not guilty) by their obedience to God's law, rather than by the sacrifice of Christ. They were falling back into the old Rabbinic way of thought, majoring in minors, emphasizing the external acts of worship, while virtually ignoring the moral demands of God to love Him and one another. Obedience to the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament could not save anyone, for all the ceremonial laws had pointed to the Person and Work of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the old covenant and Law could only enforce an outward obedience (because of our sinful nature). The only way God could compel an inward obedience to His moral law was through the new covenant of forgiveness. No wonder Paul says that to seek to be justified by law was to fall from grace!

We can fall from grace if we no longer appreciate the sacrifice of Christ, or if we use grace as a license to sin (Heb. 10:26, 29). We can fall from grace if we fail to respond to the love of God by showing mercy and forgiveness to others (James 2:13; Matt. 25:45-46; Matt 18:33).

Conclusion

The grace of God is conditional. However, the condition for receiving or remaining in God's favor is not our obedience to a few external laws. The condition is faith, that is, our trust in God and His promises (Heb. 11:6). God accepts us on the basis of our heart's response, despite our imperfect understanding and imperfect obedience to His moral law. We must respond from the heart to the sacrifice of Christ, revere God, fight against the sin in our lives, and show mercy and love to others.

When we stand before the holy God to face His judgment, what will be our defense? We all stand condemned by God's moral law. No one, except Jesus, has ever loved God and his neighbor as God demands. Will we dare to argue that we should go unpunished because we were baptized in the right way, partook of the Lord's Supper every Sunday, and confessed our sins? Will we dare to say that at least we loved God and our neighbor better than some other folks? Surely not! Our only plea will be the work that God has done for us, in giving His beloved Son to die for our sins, in our place.

In Part 3, we will consider the question: Since the old covenant fully encompassed God's unchanging moral will, why did the Law of Moses command and/or permit such morally offensive conduct as slavery?