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Faith Works

March 24, 2002
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Greetings in our Messiah. We had been saying that now is the time for Christians to be more Jewish: not in our festal celebrations but in our orientation, our thinking, our tilt, our way of seeing. The work of the Reformation has been stymied by our stubborn retention of Greek categories.

Faith Works

Messiah's Updates are sent monthly via snail-mail to our family of supporters. It is usually a few months before they make it to the website -- often we do not post these writings at all. After all, family membership has its privileges! But the urgency of the controversy surrounding our Ancaster Address compels us to make at least this exception. The January Messiah's Update-- FAITH WORKS-- appears here in its entirety.

Please note that a video of the Ancaster Address is available for $12 US from Messiah's TapeRack (1-800-288-6202). We'd encourage you to get the video because we think that after you listen to it, you'll share our bewilderwent that such a plain vanilla, Biblical message could so rankle any Reformed person. We will continue to post relevant interchanges on the subject until exhaustion overtakes us, or until we all agree that obedience to God is not, never has been, an option.

January, 2002

Dear Friends,

Greetings in our Messiah. We had been saying that now is the time for Christians to be more Jewish: not in our festal celebrations but in our orientation, our thinking, our tilt, our way of seeing. The work of the Reformation has been stymied by our stubborn retention of Greek categories. We’ve forced the marathon story of Scripture off its course, confining its movement to a field where it is compelled to jump, and that through Hellenic hoops. We have sought to tame God’s Word, insisting that it answer our questions, rather than taming ourselves to abide by its answers. We have reduced its message to “spiritual laws” and propositions.

We have been taught to read the Word as individuals merely (“my personal promise book”), rather than receiving it as the collective inheritance of God’s people (to us has been entrusted the oracles of God!). We have measured orthodoxy by our definition of the Bible, rather than conformity to the Bible’s definition of us. And when we divided the Word into chapters and verses, we went beyond the convenience such organization can afford: we fell victim to the technology of verses, coming to think of the whole as little more than a collection of parts.

All this has led to a contentedness with abstractions. Christianity is no longer passed on as a way—The Way, as it had been known from the beginning—but as a set of ideas. Divorcing the truth from the way and the life yields a “faith” far different from that which is described as “living” in the Scriptures. The Westminster Shorter Catechism tried to remind us of the inseparability of doctrine and life (“The Scriptures principally teach what man is to believe concerning God, and what duty God requires of man”), but partisans abound today who see Christianity as consisting in little more than assent to the right propositions.

Beginning with the wrong categories, we end with the wrong lives. Certainly, having the right ideas is vitally important. But the idea that you can have the right idea and the wrong behavior, is wrong. It is built upon a Greek notion of ideas. Biblical ideas don’t float; they breathe. Restricting ideas to the “Upper Story” has covenantal consequences. The ethical and epistemological antithesis, upon which the covenant in this fallen world is built, has been compromised by Hellenism in the church. The antithesis is no longer a stone wall guarding our integrity, but a vapor. We pose no threat and offer no healing to the world: we just blend or hide.

Abstractions, even Christian abstractions, are no substitute for Christ. The unbelieving Jews of the first century wanted God’s Law without God’s Messiah. They ended up with neither, or rather, they ended up cursed by both. We’ll fare little better in imagining we can have God’s Messiah without God’s Law. To trust in believing without doing is every bit as vain as trusting in doing without believing.

But to imagine that God’s requirements are satisfied by mere assent to the right ideas about God’s Messiah and God’s Law is the very picture of vanity.

We can further the work of the Reformation only if we reject Hellenic categories and recapture a Hebrew mindset, the manner of thinking which takes its cue from, and conforms to, the Bible, the Word of God. It was in the hope of making a contribution toward this goal that I gave an address on October 26, 2001 in Ancaster, Ontario. More than a thousand Reformed believers, gathered in the auditorium of Redeemer University, were urged to consider how the twin threats of Humanism and Islam made a recovery of covenant-consciousness more urgent than ever. (A rough transcription of that speech can be found at our website, An audio cassette can be purchased from Messiah’s for $6 US; a videotape for $12.)

Following a report on the speech in the Christian Renewal, some controversy has ensued. A nearly hysterical e-mail from a faculty member of Westminster Seminary in California declared that Schlissel had “publicly repudiated the Reformation.” No one who was there that evening thought so! But responsible criticism came from others, including an elder from a United Reformed Church in Calgary, AB, and a professor from Mid-America Reformed Seminary near Chicago. The following is a brief reply to these brothers, written for Christian Renewal. (A much fuller understanding of the issues can be garnered from the 12-tape set of messages recently delivered by four Reformed ministers at Auburn Avenue Presbyterian Church in Monroe, LA.)

A Briefly Reply to Elder David Linden and Dr. Cornel Venema

Unlike most readers of the Christian Renewal, I was born and raised a Jew. As a person who has lived in “both worlds,” I can assure you that the difference between Jews and Christians is not the doctrine of justification: the difference is Christ. To this all Scripture, history and experience bear witness.

In my early twenties, as I sought earnestly for the meaning of life, I became convinced that the answer depended in large measure upon knowing, somehow, what happened at death. If death was the end in every sense, if we were merely material beings, destined to become nothing more than dust, then it made sense to live for maximum pleasure. Eat, drink, don’t worry, be happy. On the other hand, if something of us survived death, and we had to give an account, I thought I’d better find out to whom that account would be given and what His standards were.

It was this pursuit which led me first to philosophers, ancient and modern. They taught me to ask many of the right questions. Death, one of them said, is the first business of the philosopher. Nevertheless, I found that ultimately they weren’t very good at their business. At speculation concerning death they were quite good; at knowledge, not so hot. This failure of philosophy led me to consider various religious answers to the important questions. It was in that context that I read the Bible.

Having obtained a concordance I engaged in a study of Scripture, looking up every reference to death, dead, dying, etc. My Gideon Bible, which I had long ago lifted from a Massachusetts hotel (thank you, Gideons!), contained center-column cross references. And I checked those cross references, checked them all, Old and New Testaments.

In reading the New Testament, I became utterly enthralled by Christ. He was not at all like I had thought. I was raised to think of Him as, well, a Gentile-at least, as the God of the Gentiles. But when I read the New Testament, I was stunned to find the terrain entirely familiar, and comfortable. Comfortable, that is, until I came upon the words of Jesus recorded in Matthew 7: 21-29:

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Therefore whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them, I will liken him unto a wise man, which built his house upon a rock: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell not: for it was founded upon a rock. And every one that heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them not, shall be likened unto a foolish man, which built his house upon the sand: And the rain descended, and the floods came, and the winds blew, and beat upon that house; and it fell: and great was the fall of it. And it came to pass, when Jesus had ended these sayings, the people were astonished at his doctrine: For he taught them as one having authority, and not as the scribes.

This was quite the existential crisis for me. This Jesus whom I was getting to know was not just another philosopher. My eternal destiny, in some way or another, was dependent upon my response to His words. He said so, as plainly as it could be said. His words were not just pretty ideas to be filed in my memory cabinet. His words were things to be done. “Whosoever heareth these sayings of mine, and doeth them…” In the vernacular of the day, those were heavy words.

And they weighed upon me. I had heard the truth. Jesus would not be just another teacher. He would be my Master-or my Judge. This was not a mere proposition calling for my assent. This was not a trick to make me seek justification by works, then later to seek it by faith. This was a divine arrest warrant, a call to come-lock, stock, barrel-to Jesus. There was nowhere to run. I wanted to be a follower of Jesus the Messiah, to respond to His words as He said I must.

About half my life ago, I made an entry in my journal: “Dear Jesus, Be my Lord and Saviour. Please.” A week later I made another entry: “Any good I do is from God through His agents or His will. Any evil I do is from me. Blessed Lord, deliver me from evil and let me do your will. Amen.” A budding Calvinist, eh? Or was I just a simple Christian?

The Gospel I found in the New Testament was not one of propositions, four spiritual laws, or abstractions. It was Messiah in the flesh, Messiah dying for my sins, Messiah rising from the dead. This was, to me, Jewish news. As St. Paul said, “We tell you the good news: What God promised our fathers he has fulfilled for us, their children, by raising up Jesus.”

Yet now, preaching the very truths which our Lord and His apostles taught creates controversy! Thanks to a dogged Hellenic scholasticism, we’ve come to the point where any proposition, whether from God or man, which cannot accommodate itself to our system, must be modified, deleted or ignored. But I did not become a Christian by means of abstractions, nor did I sign on to be Luther’s disciple when I became Reformed.

For my Bible knows nothing of a Law from God without Gospel, nor a Gospel from God without Law. Yet I am now told that these two things are in every way antithetical. I do not, cannot, will not see it that way, nor should anyone who calls himself by Christ’s name, Martin Luther notwithstanding. He says, “Now the first…doctrine, is the law of God. The second is the gospel. These two sermons are not the same. Therefore we must have a good grasp of the matter in order to know how to differentiate between them. We must know what the law is, and what the gospel is. The law commands and requires us to do certain things. The law is thus directed solely to our behavior and consists in making requirements. For God speaks through the law, saying, ‘Do this, avoid that, this is what I expect of you.’ The gospel, however, does not preach what we are to do or to avoid. It sets up no requirements but reverses the approach of the law, does the very opposite, and says, ‘This is what God has done for you…’“

Is the Law, as given by God, really our problem? It is only if we seek to be justified by it apart from Christ. But such a Law was never given by God. The fundamental problem of covenant man has been his love of abstraction: the unbelieving Jews of Jesus’ day sought to abstract the Law from the Christ therein revealed. Luther and his sons seek to abstract, and set in opposition, the Christ from the Law He came to establish.

The solas are no less capable of being instruments of death in the hands of unbelief than is the Law, than is the Gospel. Many professing friends of the Reformation today feel perfectly justified-if I may use the word-to suggest that a person is made right with God, not by faith in Christ, but by faith in propositions about Christ. This error is structurally and functionally indistinguishable from that of the unbelieving Jews in their misuse of the Law, or that of the formalists so roundly condemned by the prophets. “Does the LORD delight in the solas as much as in obeying the voice of the LORD? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the systems of men.” “Do not trust in deceptive words and say, ‘The solas of the Reformation, The solas of the Reformation, The solas of the Reformation.’“ Rather, God says, “change your ways and your actions and deal with each other justly” (cf. Jeremiah 7). The Philippian jailer notwithstanding, the question we must learn to ask is “What does God require?” because it is the most comprehensive question that a right reading of the Bible provokes. It includes the question, “What must I do to be saved?,” but goes on to consider the glory and pleasure of God as man’s chief end, not an optional byproduct.

The Law as given by God is not and never was our problem. “The law of the LORD is perfect, converting the soul: the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple. The statutes of the LORD are right, rejoicing the heart: the commandment of the LORD is pure, enlightening the eyes.”

Making the Law and the Gospel antithetical is not merely an error, it is an abomination. Do you say, “But the Law condemns.” I reply, “So does the Gospel.” When Paul preached Christ’s gospel, according to his own testimony in 2 Corinthians 2, that Gospel was “unto God a sweet savour of Christ, in them that are saved, and in them that perish: To the one we are the savour of death unto death; and to the other the savour of life unto life.” Christ’s Gospel was the savour of death to those who rejected it.

This is Peter’s testimony as well: “Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,’ and, ‘A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the message-which is also what they were destined for.”

The writer of Hebrews tells us the same, and explains to all who would hear, that the difference is not Law vs. Gospel, but Faith vs. Unbelief. “For we also have had the gospel preached to us, just as they [in the Old Testament!] did; but the message they heard was of no value to them, because those who heard did not combine it with faith.”

The requirement to respond in faith is a demand. It is law. God says, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” And the faith that saves is one that obeys. Jesus said, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” The Proverbs teach, “To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.”

Did not John herald our Lord by demanding that Israel “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance”? Has this demand evaporated? It has not. Do not think you can say to yourselves, “We have Luther as our father.” I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Luther.

Thus also our catechism. Q87: Can they, then, be saved who do not turn to God from their unthankful, impenitent life? A87: By no means, for, as Scripture says, no unchaste person, idolater, adulterer, thief, covetous man, drunkard, slanderer, robber, or the like shall inherit the kingdom of God.

Those who do not turn are cursed, not blessed. If this is not part of the Gospel, nothing is.

Further, according to the Psalmist, it was the proclamation of the Law that would teach covenant children to “put their trust in God” -- then they “would not forget his deeds but would keep his commands” (Psalm 78).

It is no cause for stumbling when we read of the ruler asking Jesus, “What must I do to inherit eternal life?,” and we find Jesus replying: “You know the commandments.” Rather than being offended by Jesus’ implication that the Law indeed revealed the path of life, we should be offended by those who impugn our Lord’s integrity, suggesting He was anything but sincere and plain in pointing this man, whom He loved (Mark 10:21), to the commandments.

The problem of the Jews, our Lord Jesus tells us, is not that they kept the Law, but that they didn’t. “Has not Moses given you the law? Yet not one of you keeps the law” (John 7:19). The problem of the Jews was not that they believed Moses, but that they did not believe Moses. “If you believed Moses, you would believe Me,” said our Master (John 5:46). Stephen testifies in the same way: You...have received the law that was put into effect through angels but have not obeyed it” (Acts 7:53).

To keep the Law as given by God is to believe Moses is to believe Jesus. Law-keepers are not hypothetical in Scripture: they really exist and they are the exact equivalent of believers.

Who, O Lord, with Thee abiding, In Thy house shall be Thy guest? Who, his feet to Zion turning, in Thy holy hill shall rest? He that ever walks uprightly, Does the right without a fear, When he speaks, he speaks not lightly, But with truth and love sincere.

-Psalter Hymnal #20

Does not the Holy Spirit testify that Zacharias and Elizabeth “were both righteous before God, walking in all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord blameless”? (Luke 1:6). But some find Scripture’s clear teaching uncomfortable, preferring to sacrifice it on the altar of contrived systems.

Let us be clear: this is not to aver that there is no system in Scripture, nor is it an assertion that the Bible’s teachings cannot be systematically and truly arranged. But it is to insist that the Word is Divine and the systematizers are human, and the Word itself demands that we humans honor our epistemological limits. It is not without significance that the sin of our first parents involved a demand for knowledge they were to have by faith alone.

Similarly, Paul allows the challenge against God’s “fairness” to go only so far: “You will say to me, then, ‘Why does He still find fault? For who has resisted His will?’“ His answer is, “Silence! Who do you think you are to put God in the dock?” Let all the world be silent before Him! Who can stay His hand or say to Him, “What doest Thou?” The secret things belong to Jehovah. But the things revealed-for what purpose are they revealed? That we may speculate, pontificate, theorize? No. The revelation of God belongs to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of” His Law.

Luther noticed that James (his actual name, by the way, was Jacob) “calls the law a ‘law of liberty’.” James’ teaching greatly offended Brother Martin. This was a large problem because James was no lone voice: he was speaking in the line, as we’ve seen, of Moses, the Psalmist, the Prophets, Paul, Peter and our Lord Jesus Himself. Luther’s response, rather than to yield to God’s testimony, was to put the Word through his manufactured, systematic sieve. He divided the Bible and catalogued every “proposition” as either the condemnation of Law (bad!) or the promise of the Gospel (good). This horrendous artifice continues to oppress us to this day.

But what would Luther do with an inspired letter which flatly contradicted his contrivance? I’ll tell you: He’d demote the entire letter. Nothing must be allowed to subvert the system! For the only place in Scripture which speaks of justification by faith alone is found in James, and it is there rejected: “Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.” This was simply too much for Luther to accept. His scholasticism would have none of it, yet there it was in black and white. What to do? Luther’s way out of his self-created dilemma was your basic Procrustean hatchet job. If the doctrine of James won’t fit in Luther’s bed, chop it off. The “fault” in James’ theology, measured by Luther’s as the standard, “proves that this epistle is not the work of any apostle” (Preface to the Epistle of St. James, 1546).

Well, there ya go! Talk about convenient! Poor James is to be pitied, according to Luther: “He wanted to guard against those who relied on faith without works, but was unequal to the task.” He was “chaotic,” “teaches nothing about Christ,” an otherwise good guy who “took a few sayings from the disciples of the apostles and tossed them off on paper.” He may have started out with good intentions but all he did was “harp on the law.” Obviously, this could only be because James, according to Luther, had not the Spirit, that is to say, James was not inspired.

Calvinists are more moderate: they just say James isn’t Reformed. Ahem. Has it ever occurred to anyone that it is we who may not be fully Reformed? Our system has become like a shoe that’s been outgrown. It pinches. Some just chant “The shoe is fine; it’s always been fine, it’ll always be fine.” True: the shoe has served you well. It is a good shoe. But it is no shame to admit you’ve grown. It is no disaster to stretch the shoe to accommodate your growth. It is no departure from the faith to progress in it, as revealed in all the Bible.

What price Luther? I ain’t payin’. It requires dispensational spectacles. It makes Moses “a problem,” not to mention Abraham, David, Isaiah, Manasseh, and all the Old Testament saints. Salvation has always been by grace. The Law as it has come from God has always been gracious. Grace as it has come from God has always required the obedience of faith. Luther had a problem with this. I won’t make Luther’s problem mine. The Messiah won’t let me. Remember his words: “Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.”

Luther and those who insist on the correctness of his system put the antithesis between Gospel and Law, but God puts it between faith and unbelief, obedience and rebellion, righteousness and wickedness. To posit a hostility between the Law as given by God and the Gospel is to abandon the words of Scripture in favor of human invention. The lust for system must eventually lead theorists to lop off all that disturbs their system. Thus Luther, for all the greatness of the man, exalted himself over the Word because it refused to yield to his demands.

In our Ancaster address we identified the “shema,” the Greatest Commandment, with the Gospel. To be more precise, we said, “That’s what God requires: to love Him with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself. That is the gospel that Gentiles have been incorporated into through Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Some seem to be offended by this. Yet it is a sentiment in strict accord not simply with the Lord Jesus and His Bible, but with the most ancient Christian tradition. The Didache (also known as the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles) is an anonymous work which Lightfoot and Harmer suggest was composed at “a time closer to that of Paul (who died in the mid-60s) than Ignatius (who died sometime after 110).” Listen carefully to its opening testimony:

The teaching of the Lord to the Gentiles by the Twelve Apostles:

1. There are two Ways, one of life and one of death, and the difference between these two Ways is great.
2. Now this is the Way of life: first, “you shall love God, who made you”; second, “your neighbor as thyself”; and “whatever you do not wish to happen to you, do not do to another.”

It may not sound like Luther, but it sounds a lot like Jesus. Whom shall we trust and obey?

Quick items: 1) The terms of the matching grant were met, by the grace of God! 2) Two photos enclosed. One is yours truly with our foster-daughter, Phuong, and our granddaughter, Karen. Beautiful, eh? The other is of the Three Covenanteers: Steve Schlissel, Doug Wilson & Steve Wilkins. 3) Urban Nations going to intensified schedule. Meantime doing much good. More to follow. Let us all follow Jesus, in word & deed.

Yours and His,

sms THANK YOU for the January 2002 Messiah's Update. THANK YOU for putting into words what the church of Christ needs so desperately to hear. I pray your counsel is taken.

ML, Michigan

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