Do Christians have any obligation at all to be obedient to any of God’s specific commands? This is the question we must answer in order to discern whether commandments about not adorning oneself outwardly, head coverings, lawsuits between believers, submission of wives to husbands, male spiritual headship in the Church, sexual morality, or any others hold sway.
I have been realizing two things. First, whenever someone thinks we should actually take seriously what God commands, often through the Apostle Paul, that person is accused of “legalism.” Second, at least in my case, the issue is not legalism but rather, an assertion of what is more pleasing in God’s sight and what is not.
Be patient with me and let me run though three statements. You get to guess which one is the “most correct.”
Statement #1: God doesn’t care what we do, we can have orgies, take drugs, steal from people, and do whatever we want because God has the capacity to forgive all our sins.
Statement #2: God does care what we do, in fact God gives us a lot of good principles and commands in the Scripture to show us what He finds pleasing. Being obedient to these is the response of a faithful and thankful heart.
Statement #3: God cares what we do, in fact God tells us specifically how we are to please Him. Christians are compelled to be obedient to these, or they displease God and cannot be saved.
Obviously, the correct statement is number 2.
Number 1 is antinomianism, which in of itself is not bad, but Paul makes clear in Rom 6:1-7 that Christians have died to sin and CANNOT still live in it. A Christian’s new nature, given by God like a heart of flesh (Ezek 36:26), will not permit it.
Number 2 is what I would like to call “Christian antinomianism.” The Christian understands he is not bound by moral principles and commands as a matter of justification and certainly not to the Law as that requires a total misunderstanding of covenants. However, the Christian cannot in good conscience continue in sin for he is dead to it. Further, he understands that what is sinful and righteous in the eyes of God never changes. Therefore, he freely desires to live as much as possible in a fashion that is most in line with what God finds pleasing, out of gratitude for Christ’s sacrifice.
Number 3 is legalism. Jewish Legalism took the shape of following the rules in the Old Covenant to merit right standing before God. Christian Legalism can easily be the same, but taking New Testament rules such as never looking at a woman lustfully, turning the other cheek, wearing head coverings, not divorcing, and etcetera meriting justification before God. If “all our righteous deeds are like filthy rags” (Is 64:6) then such an understanding is impossible and it does away with the necessity for Christ’s sacrifice. Christ didn’t die for us so then we can start on square one and finally live pleasing lives for God. Christ died for us because even at our most righteous, we are too wicked in the eyes of God, that only through perpetual intercession (Heb 7:25) can we be made right.
Very few self-described Christians are fully is agreement with number 1 or number 3. Instead, they usually operate with a mixture of the above understandings, which I find obscures the Gospel.
For example, take the mainstream opinion that Christians don’t have to listen to the Law anymore, but 9 out of the 10 commandments are the exception. We teach our children the 10 Commandments (outside of the Sabbath regulation for no particular reason) like they are more special than any other set of rules in the Bible and we fight to have them up at our courthouses because of “America’s Christian heritage.” Interestingly enough, nowhere does Jesus or anyone in the New Testament affirm this understanding.
I don’t think Christ could have spoken any stronger that He came “to fulfill the Law” (Matt 5:17). Paul elaborates that “by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified” (Gal 2:16). So, Christ fulfills the Law for us, the Law points us to our need for grace, and therefore we are not to follow that which Paul “died to … so that I might live to God” (Gal 2:19). Hence, the mainstream opinion in reality is an inconsistent legalism, the Christian is not compelled to obey the 10 Commandments any more than any other Law.
Now, it often goes the other way. Let’s take divorce. Many self-described Christians will console others whose marriages are failing for reasons not pertaining to adultery that God tells us it is not good to divorce, but it is not “the end of the world.” God “understands” and loves you anyway, after all, God sent His one and only Son to die for murderers, prostitutes, tax collectors, and etcetera, why can’t He forgive you for divorce? You have a good reason after all…
Now, the problem with this is that Christ Himself and Paul take the time to reiterate that “He must not divorce her” (1 Cor 7:12). It is intellectually dishonest to pretend that God finds divorcing equally pleasing to not divorcing. Obviously, it is more pleasing in God’s eyes not to divorce.
And that begs the question: Shouldn’t the Christian desire to please God? Of course. Does God tell you what He likes and does not like? ALL THE TIME!
For this reason alone, we have every reason to take very seriously what God says is good and what He says is bad, especially if they are not covenantal obligations but rather moral and practical admonitions. It could be possible God gave moral and practical admonitions for the same reason as the Law (so we would be aware of our sin and that the righteousness required of it would be fulfilled by Christ.) However, this understanding does not make sense with what we know in the Scripture. Why would someone like Paul, who demolishes the arguments behind the saving efficacy of the Law, fight so strongly in favor of sexual morality, head coverings, and women not being allowed to teach men in church? Was he trying to set up a new Law? Obviously not. Did he expect people to pick and choose which moral and practical admonitions they found useful? No way! If this be the case, then how can any of us criticize the “Gay Christian” who believes that Paul’s moral admonition against sexual perversion does not apply to monogamous homosexual relationships? We couldn’t if we took the position we can pick and choose which Scriptural admonitions to follow.
Obviously, Paul would have none of this. He wanted to kick someone out of the church of Corinth for having a consensual sexual relationship with his step-mother (1 Cor 5:1). Was Paul being a legalist? Of course not. The obvious presumption is that we are supposed to follow these moral and practical injunctions as a matter of Godly obedience and not justification.
So, do Christians have to follow any rules at all? No! Christ followed the rules for us and has paid our penalty for every time we broke them. Should Christians want to follow the rules? Of course, when we feel that following moral and practical injunctions show obedience to God.
Now, when Christ commands us to “pluck out” an eye that causes us to stumble (Mark 9:47) our first response should not be, “Wow, that’s over the top.” Rather, being that none of us are plucking out our eyes, we need to ask ourselves seriously, “Why am I disobeying Jesus? My eyes cause me to stumble all the time.”
Your answer better not be, “Well, that hurts too much” or “if Jesus really meant that He is not God and I refuse to listen.” Both of those responses center around making ourselves the great deciders of right and wrong, and depriving God of that function. Rather, the better reason is, “I don’t think the most obedient thing I can do in that situation is tear my eyes out, God would find it more pleasing if I repent and use my eyes for good.”
Therefore, we should not be looking for reasons to purposely not do what God commands, but rather, be asking ourselves all the time how we can be increasingly obedient.
So, is there a good reason to do away with the Lord’s Supper? I honestly can’t think of any, though I don’t partake of the bread because I am allergic to it and the Scripture smiles upon good health. Is there a good reason to separate or divorce from a physically abusive spouse? There could be if one’s own life or children are in danger, and not protecting one’s own household abrogates other Biblical responsibilities God gives to us. Is there a good reason to blatantly ignore head covering regulations? Does messing up one’s hair count?
We need to be honestly asking ourselves these things all the time as Christians. This, to me, is the heart of Christian antinomianism. On the flip-side, Christian antinomianism is the heart of what is the day-to-day Christian life. Christ is always the righteousness of the believer by virtue of His union with us, and out of our hearts of flesh we will freely seek to fulfill God’s commands and do His will. As we struggle to know and seek God’s will not every decision will be the best one. But, if God had in mind perfect rules for us to follow, He would have made us justified by doing them and have given us the strength to do so. Instead, His will is that we work out our salvation in fear and trembling (Phil 2:12), always seeking what is right and always needing His grace.