The New Testament church was released from the jurisdiction of the rule of law by the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. Ignorant of its release, however, the well-intentioned church often chooses to return to its rule. To the flesh, it can appear familiar, comfortable, and at times, even empowering. However, any apparent benefit is short-lived.
Return to Law?
There are a number of important truths that must be ignored for the church to subject itself once again to the rule of law. For example, it must ignore the foundational teaching of the Bible, the historic testimony of Scripture, the biblical purpose of law, the need for intimacy with God, and the personal testimony of the indwelling Spirit. Further, the church that chooses to again subject itself to the rule of law must be uninformed regarding the schemes of the devil, theological presupposition, and the failures of its own history.
First, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law has ignored the foundational teaching of the Bible. Among other things, it has demonstrated a fundamental ignorance of the gospel of grace.
Second, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law has ignored the historic testimony of Scripture. It clearly reveals mankind’s inability to obey the rule of law.
Third, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law has ignored the biblical purpose of the law, its strict requirement of perfect obedience, and the powerlessness of its sin weakened flesh. Instead, despite its sin-weakened flesh, it has chosen to believe that it can obey the rule of law in cooperation with the Spirit.
Fourth, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law has failed to recognize the fundamental character of law. By nature, it is cold and impersonal. Law is not conducive to nurturing intimacy. Therefore, the law-based church is not characterized by the warmth of living (zoe) fellowship. Rather than inviting, hospitable, gracious, loving, and spiritually edifying, its fellowship is typically legalistic, impersonal, inflexible, and formal.
Fifth, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law must ignore the personal testimony of the indwelling Spirit. (Romans 8:2, 16) He provides testimony that the church is not comprised of employees forced to work for God. Instead, it is an assembly of the children of God. They are privileged to cooperate with Him according to the gracious, intimate rule of His indwelling life (zoe). (Romans 8:3-16)
Sixth, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law has ignored one of the most common schemes of the devil. It has believed the lie that the righteousness of Christ has not been imputed. Therefore, the church remains in need of righteousness. Theoretically, it must be achieved by obedience to divine law. As a result, the church is characterized by the deadness of legalistic, religious devotion and therefore, lifeless (zoe).
Seventh, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law has valued theological presupposition over Scriptural truth. Consequently, it does not depend on the Spirit of God for biblical interpretation but its own personal understanding (John 7:37-39; 14:16-17; 26; 15:26; Romans 8:26; 1 John 2:27)
Eighth, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law must ignore its own personal history. It provides a clear record of the transgression of law before and after redemption. Therefore, the church has a clear understanding that it cannot attain the standard of perfect righteousness through works of self-effort.
“And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28)
Regardless of why the church chooses to return to the rule of law, it is predestined to fail. However, its failure is not without purpose in the plan of God. Some have referred to the failure of the law-based church and how God can use it for good as “law school.”
The Apostle Paul provided his own personal insight into the privilege and pain of “law school.” (Romans 7:14-25) As previously indicated, Paul’s early Christian life was characterized by an attempt to fulfill the righteous requirement of the rule of law. Ignorant that Christ had already fulfilled its requirement, he continually subjected himself to the rule of law from which he had been graciously released. (Romans 7:1-25)
Although Paul believed that the rule of law (law of sin and of death) would allow him to “bear fruit for God,” he soon discovered that it would only allow him to bear “fruit for death.” (Romans 7:4-5) He explained, “…this commandment, which [I thought] was to result in life (zoe), proved to result in death for me (revealed the condition and powerlessness of his flesh).” (Romans 7:10)
Paul’s legalistic fruitlessness was not related to a lack of willingness. He was indeed willing to obey the rule of law. However, Paul discovered that the presence of his sin-weakened flesh served to compromise his effort. “For we know that the [rule of] law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to [my fallen nature]. For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the [rule of] law, confessing that the [rule of] law is good. So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but [my fallen nature] which dwells in me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but [my fallen nature] which dwells in me. I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good.” (Romans 7:14-21) Concerning his return to the rule of law and his subsequent failure of obedience, the Apostle Paul concluded, “Wretched (miserable) man that I am!” (Romans 7:24)
God did not allow Paul to “graduate” from “law school” until it had served its purpose. It was intended to reveal the impossibility of fulfilling the righteous requirement of the law by human effort.
Weakened by his sinful flesh, Paul’s unsuccessful attempts to obey the rule of law led only to the wretchedness or misery of condemnation. (cf. Romans 8:1) It was caused by an unending cycle of dead works and the consequent guilt of failure to perform according to the divine standard of perfection.
Through his “law school” experience, Paul was privileged to understand the grace of God more fully. As a result, he joyfully proclaimed, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)
Duty, Debt and Death
Relative to the purpose for which it was originated, the “law of sin and of death” is a ministry of duty, debt, and death. (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9) Consequently, the church that chooses to subject itself to the rule of law is “wretched” or miserable.
The rule of law demands performance. It condemns poor performance and rewards good performance. Therefore, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law emphasizes performance or duty. (cf. Romans 7:14-25) It is consumed with how to please God through personal effort rather than resting in its perfect acceptance in Christ. Instead of enjoying the glorious intimacy and fruitfulness of walking with God through the gracious rule of His indwelling life (zoe), the church that chooses subjection to law is characterized by performance for God.
In addition, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law emphasizes debt. It lives as though the debt of transgression has not been paid in full by Jesus Christ. (John 19:30; Colossians 2:14) Mistakenly thinking that the church must pay what Christ apparently left unpaid, the legalistic church is consumed with working for God.
Moreover, the church that chooses to return to the rule of law emphasizes death. According to the Apostle Paul, the rule of law is a ministry of death and condemnation. (2 Corinthians 3:7, 9) It was designed to reveal the sinful, fallen nature of man that is dead to God, “hostile” toward Him,” and not pleasing to Him. (Romans 8:7-8) Consequently, the church under law is practicing without life (zoe). Thus, it is effectively dead.
In practice, the legalistic church emphasizes the religion of duty, debt, and death. Although gloriously chosen before the foundation of the world to be representational of divine life (zoe) it serves as little more than a failed representative of divine law.
Confession of Sins
The church that chooses to subject itself to the rule of law does not understand the biblical remedy for sin (the transgression of divine law). Too often, it simply attempts to assuage the misery of duty, debt, and death through the nonbiblical confession of sins.
The confession of sins as a remedy for the transgression of law is a widespread practice derived almost exclusively from the writing of the Apostle John. He stated, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
First, it is important to note that John’s statement was not prescriptive for the church. Therefore, its practice by the church is typically founded on theological presupposition.
The Apostle John did not prescribe the confession of sins as a remedy for legal failure but to warn his Christian brethren about the false teaching of the Gnostics. (1 John 1:5-10) Like most other unbelievers, the Gnostics believed that they were without sin. (1 John 1:8) Thus, John’s correction to confess sins in verse 9 was prescriptive for the unbelieving Gnostics.
Like every other group of unbelievers, the Gnostics were sinful. Consequently, their immediate need was not to confess their sins to restore intimacy of fellowship with God. Instead, John exhorted the Gnostics to confess their sins unto salvation. As a result, he promised that God would forgive their sins and cleanse them from all unrighteousness.
Contrary to their assertion of sinlessness, the Gnostics needed to be cleansed from unrighteousness caused by their obvious transgression of the rule of law. John clarified, “If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.” (1 John 1:10)
Not until 1 John chapter 2 did the Apostle John move beyond his warning about the sinful practice of Gnostics to discuss the believer’s walk with God. He said in 2:1-2, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.” John taught the brethren that they should not commit acts of sin. However, if they did, he explained that God had a specific remedy, and it was not inclusive of the confession of sins.
The Apostle John wanted the brethren (“My little children”) to understand that Jesus Christ is the remedy of God for the transgression of His law. Therefore, he explained to them that they had an “advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”
Only by the redemptive work of Christ are believers made righteous according to divine law. Therefore, the believer's righteousness is not achieved by the confession of sins but faith in the person and gracious work of God in Christ alone.
The forgiveness of sins committed by the believer is not received through confession of sins (emphasis on the plural) but by faith alone in the unfailing advocacy of Christ. While the believer cannot trust in the uncertainty of personal confession, he can confidently trust in Jesus as his unconditional “Advocate with the Father.” The imputation of His perfect righteousness and its continued advocacy is the church’s only remedy for sin.
It is important to note that the writings of the Apostle Paul never mention the confession of sins as a remedy for the church that chooses to return to the rule of law. Instead, his “law school” experience was designed to lead him to faith in the advocacy of the Savior. Thus, the rule of law (law of sin and of death) fulfilled the purpose for which it was intended. It served as a “schoolmaster” to lead Paul to dependence on Christ.
Jesus Christ is the only remedy for sin. He alone provided for its forgiveness; past, present, and future. Therefore, rather than the confession of sins, the obligation of the church is to demonstrate faith in Christ and His advocacy.
Law or Life
The rule of law can only accomplish the purpose for which it was created. Fundamentally, it was made to reveal the transgression of law (sin).
When willingly subjected to law, the church is representative of the divine rule of law. Consequently, it does not reveal the “obedience of faith” on earth. Instead, the “ministry” of the legalistic church entails little more than unveiling the transgression of law (sin). Characterized by duty, debt, and death, it is effectively lifeless (zoe).
The rule of life (zoe) also accomplishes its purpose. It consistently reveals the Savior and mediator of the redemptive Eternal Covenant, Jesus Christ.
When willingly subjected to divine life (zoe) and its gracious rule, the church is not merely representative of divine law but also representational of divine life (zoe) on earth. Therefore, the ministry of the living (zoe) church is characterized by grace, freedom, and fullness of life (zoe).
“You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life (zoe); it is these that testify about Me; and you are unwilling to come to Me so that you may have life (zoe).” (John 5:39-40)
Confession or Christ
In ignorance, the legalistic church often leans on the confession of sins rather than faith in Christ. However, it fails to understand that the confession of sins cannot cleanse from unrighteousness.
Scripturally, the New Testament church was fully cleansed from all unrighteousness when it was justified from all transgression of divine law (sin); past, present, and future. Satisfied by grace through faith alone, there is no unrighteousness left to be cleansed.
The redemptive work of Jesus Christ was sufficient to accomplish its purpose. Therefore, it did not merely cleanse the New Testament church of some its unrighteousness. Instead, the redemptive work of Jesus Christ cleansed the ecclesia of God from all its unrighteousness. As a result, He was fully qualified to serve as its eternal advocate with the Father.
© 2023 James Hiatt