Tuesday, October 5, 2010

What Does The New Testament Teach About Law and Grace?

In my last post, I went over the idea that "When we are repentant we are then baptised, have hands laid on us, and the Holy Spirit is granted to us from the Father." I focused on how sin and repentance and law relate, and how faith is de-emphasized in Armstrongism. What I'm attempting to do in this series of posts is talk about the actual way things were in practice. I'm cutting through all of the double talk from the sermons and literature, and I'm trying to get to how it really is to be a practicing Armstrongist.
This time I would like to move forward and hit on forgiveness and grace from the Armstrongist perspective.

"At this point in time all our sins past are forgiving us, we are now covered by grace so that when we do sin we are forgiven."

As in the last post, taken alone this statement is pretty much spot on. When we accept Jesus, we are forgiven and we are covered by His undeserved grace. Once again we see how similar that this quote is to mainstream Christian understanding. Forgiveness is forgiveness. Grace is grace. Everyone seems to agree. Once again, however, what was left unsaid is the important part.


It's not just that forgiveness is followed by grace. No no! What is left unsaid is that forgiveness only enters in at all if we take up law-keeping, and grace only follows forgiveness at all if the law continues to be kept. It's all conditional! Problem is, if there is a prerequisite or a quid pro quo, then by definition it cannot be a free gift!

But what's even more than that is, if this is true, then the rest of the world is unforgiven, and without grace. The point of this series of articles is to compare and contrast what is said from what is actually practiced, so if what I just said is confusing then I ask you to bear with me here, but please think about it. If forgiveness only enters in after one takes up law-keeping, then the law-keepers are the only ones meriting forgiveness. Therefore they must be the "one true church." But if the law-keepers are the "one true church" then all others are unavoidably "false churches". Therefore, if grace is conditional upon law-keeping, and the rest of the world does not keep the law, then the rest of the world is without grace.
A frightening thing to be left unsaid, no? But these sorts of things are said in Armstrongist circles all the time. In fact I mean to quote such a thing here in a short while.
  But for now let's push ahead.

"Having endured and overcome means that one has 'qualified.' It also means that one can disqualify himself by failing to endure or overcome."
-The Restored Church of God, "What Does The New Testament Teach About Law and Grace?"
This is the flimsy grace. You get it only if you keep the law, and you keep it only if you keep the law. Do you see how what is left unsaid is more important than what is said?

But what if we find the law isn't kept in the first place? All of this over a cherry-picked subset of the law which isn't being kept.

In the last post we saw plainly (and it has been pointed out several times here on ABD) how Armstrongism doesn't meet its own standard for repentance. How did any of us "qualify" then?
We set a condition; we didn't meet our condition. Ergo, by our own standard, none of us should have been forgiven.
Herbert Armstrong never for one minute of his life taught the whole law. And to reiterate, I'm not referring to all 613 laws of the Torah. HWA never taught, and therefore none of us ever kept, the whole law regarding Sabbath observance, nor Holy Day observance, nor tithing, or meats, nor any of the things that we said were mandatory for continuing forgiveness and grace. How then did we "qualify"? There is not one area of the "mandatory" law where Armstrongists are keeping the whole law pertaining to that area. Not one. Yet these are precisely the laws that Armstrongism teaches must be observed or there is neither forgiveness nor ongoing grace.
How then did any of us "qualify"? What were we supposed to overcome? Our failure to keep the law? None of us ever did! How then did we "qualify"?


Were we to become more "righteous" from our partial law-keeping?
Righteousness is not of the law (ROM. 3: 21; 4: 13; 10: 4; GAL. 2: 21; PHP. 3: 9), so how was that even factor in? "For if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain" (GAL. 2: 21b). So, not only did we not meet our own standard of "qualification" we had the entire qualifying standard wrong anyway!
The standard is faith in Christ, not law (GAL. 3: 24). But we pushed faith out, and made Christ's death in vain. If we would only have sought to be led by the Holy Spirit by faith, trusting that God will do what God says He will do, then we would have achieved what we sought so desperately (GAL. 5: 16-25). "But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law" (v. 18). Notice, the phrase "penalty of the law" does not come from the Bible.

Try to understand - you can read all sorts and forms of things on various splinter groups' websites (even though the whole truth was supposedly delivered to Herbert Armstrong by God Himself over 70 years ago). Some splinter groups try to be more "liberal" than other blatantly fundamentalist splinter groups (and I applaud this). One group might not appear to fit what I'm describing as well as another. But the system always ends up in the same predicament.
Oh, they'll talk up forgiveness and grace like an Evangelical! In theory the doctrine might sound interesting, even acceptable, but it's in the practical application where it falls short. Setting conditions based upon our own law-keeping efforts throws a wrench into the entire works. The entire Old Covenant was created to prove this. It just seems that some never got the point.


If it were just that the Churches of God decided to keep the weekly Sabbath, that would be one thing. There is freedom in Christ!
It's that law-keeping is then made mandatory for all people, in direct contradiction to the decision of the Holy Spirit in Acts 15, and such an overwhelming premium is placed on law-keeping to the point of making themselves the "one true church" over it. And that inevitably leads to a hefty amount of condemnation for all who do not follow the same doctrine.

In the vilest and most misleading terms all else are condemned. These are massive problems. Here are a few words I have heard the ministry use regarding those who disagree with them: deceived, demonic, treacherous, pagan, worldly, lascivious, idolatrous, Great Whore, prostitute, Satanic, etc. This attitude inevitable trickles down into the congregation.

Grace conditional upon law-keeping might be bad enough, but it's not just over law-keeping. Other conditions need to be met as well.
The "true church" needs the right name. The "true church" needs the right leaders. The "true church" needs so many other conditions that it goes way beyond law.
Why? Simple. If it were just the 10 Commandments, then all of the Adventist groups, the Messianic Jews, and even the Seventh Day Baptists would be saved (among others). There must be condemnation for them as well because there is only room for one "one true church." So we see politics also factors in. But thanks in large part to Alexander Hyslop, the greatest condemnation is reserved for the Catholics and Protestants.
If just anyone can accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior by faith, and by faith believe and be baptized, and by faith fall under grace and have their sins forgiven, and by faith be led by the Holy Spirit into a life of good works and purification from dead works, then there is nothing to set Armstrong's doctrine above any other. (And nothing to set his coffers above any other. $$)

Here is a quote to make an example of the condemnation:
"The meaning of grace in the New Testament has nothing to do with abolishing God’s laws [grace has nothing to do with the Old covenant law, period]. False teachers [accusation number 1] who promote 'grace' over obedience are unaware [in other words, ignorant because God is not with them] that the New Testament was written for those whom God calls to assume roles of great responsibility in His kingdom [in other words, people who do not keep the law will not be in God's Kingdom]. These false teachers [accusation number 2] misunderstand because God has neither opened their minds nor given them His Holy Spirit [God is not with those who don't keep the law], which is necessary to comprehend His truth."
-The Restored Church of God, "What Does The New Testament Teach About Law and Grace?"
...Except they're not keeping the law either. So what does that say?

Now let's notice something.
According to that article, it is a "false teacher" who promotes grace over obedience. "Obedience" is another term for law-keeping. So, we are to believe that it is a "true teacher" who promotes our own efforts at law-keeping over God's own grace? That's exactly what we are supposed to believe (but not say plainly)!

How can such a claim be made while not meeting that standard? Do you see how plainly Romans 2: 1 applies here: "Therefore you are inexcusable, O man, whoever you are who judge, for in whatever you judge another you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things"?

HWA attempted to tell the world that a system, which in all reality leads to self-condemnation, is the "one true church." Armstrongism condemns the rest of the world for what it is also doing. But ABD is, to borrow a phrase, the "no spin zone" and the spin is stopping right here. We at ABD agree with the Apostle Paul that this sort of thing is "inexcusable." And we at ABD agree with the New Covenant that, no, forgiveness is not handed out by God as a reward for our effort, and no, grace is not ongoing because of our efforts at law-keeping.


Now here's the real kicker, and in my view this stems from the unspoken perspective on grace -

All Armstrongists will admit that they are sinners, but then they will excuse themselves and say they were forgiven. (So far so good.) Forgiven for what, though? For not keeping the same law that the rest of the world doesn't keep? Or for the intermittent times when they do keep the portion of the law taught by Armstrongism? No.
"We are forgiven," we would claim, "because at least we TRY to keep the law!" And there we have it, don't we? Grace is earned. It all comes back to our own efforts. And, to be completely honest, this whole system is only one small step away from the idea of indulgences. How far can it be from doing works to earn grace now, and doing works to earn grace later? Not far, I'd say.

The proof is in the pudding, as it were. There is a quid pro quo. Grace is earned under this system, regardless of all the talk about grace being a free gift.

What happens when we request that anyone outside of Armstrongism - faithful people who follow Jesus as best as they know how - be afforded the same forgiveness for the same set of sins? We are all sinners after all.
This is also where the words "repent" (into law-keeping) and "overcome" (to better law-keeping) become the crux of the matter, and we see why our effort has replaced faith.

You see, in Armstrongism it is the repentant that will be forgiven, and since "repentance" is the intent to keep the law, those who don't try to keep the law can't be repenting, so they won't be forgiven. Both see their sin. Both see their need for forgiveness. Both ask for forgiveness. But only one receives forgiveness because only one tries to keep the law. In other words, only one has earned it.
So the attempt warrants forgiveness. Thus proving grace is not a free gift.

Grace by definition is a free gift. So "grace" in this system isn't grace at all.
In this system, the best you can say is "Perhaps grace was free the first time, but from now on you're going to have to pay for it."
This is fee-grace, not free grace.


But how unjust is this? The foremost claim of Armstrongism is that only they have the Holy Spirit so only they can understand that the law must be kept in the first place, and only they were called by God in this age to receive His "truth." Don't you see that this means everyone else is in fact completely ignorant that they are sinning at all?
According to Armstrongism the only people that know they shouldn't sin and yet sin anyway are Armstrongists themselves. Even so, according to Armstrongism, those who sin in ignorance will be punished horribly, while those who don't even begin to meet their own standard will become Gods.
So, the only ones sinning willfully are the only ones being forgiven?

This is not the way most Armstrongists think about the issue, but it is a perfectly accurate description. Unfortunately, it does not match the New Covenant's description of salvation by faith; rather it matches the description of the belligerent group "of the circumcision" that troubled Paul continually and it matches the error into which Peter fell in Galatians 2. It also doesn't mesh with how God treats the sinner who sins in ignorance (NUM. 15: 22-29) versus the sinner who sins willfully (NUM. 15: 30-31).


(ROM. 10: 9-13) 9 that if you confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation. 11 For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes on Him will not be put to shame.” 12 For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek, for the same Lord over all is rich to all who call upon Him. 13 For “whoever calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved.”
(MAR. 5: 36b) ...Do not be afraid; only believe.

Grace is a difficult concept for any legalist. The legalist focus is on God being pleased by what we do, not on God being pleased by what God does. Grace seems foreign and confusing; too good to be true.
The unfortunate result of Armstrong's teaching was that we could never accept that all of our sins are covered by grace. Too easy! Ergo, all of HWA's grace-talk was double-talk. It was always works-based. It was always conditional. It always had prerequisites. It always depended upon performance. It is always uncertain. If we had genuinely believed that our sins were covered by grace, we would never have used such words as "if" and "qualify" the way they are used in Armstrongism.
Here, read this quote:
"To be under grace does not mean that we have already achieved salvation. [The author confuses justification, sanctification, and glorification. Trust is undone.] It means we have been given unmerited pardon [justification] and are in the process of overcoming and enduring [sanctification]. [They say it is unmerited, but the next sentence will undo this.] Those who endure to the end of this physical existence are saved—saved from eternal death [glorification]. [It supposedly started unmerited, but then we see that it continues only conditionally upon your own effort. Grace is undone.] No one can boast [in other words, no one can know] that he has achieved salvation in this life. [Enter the fear. You will never have unconditional confidence in Christ! Faith is now undone as well.]"
-The Restored Church of God, "What Does The New Testament Teach About Law and Grace?"
Do you see the holistic absence of trust? No one can know in this life if they are saved. Preposterous!


While all of the sermons and literature plainly say that grace is unmerited, they immediately turn right around and undo that grace by setting up prerequisites and conditions based upon our own effort (as opposed to God's effort in us). If it were truly unmerited, then it would be absolutely sure, because it comes by God's doing. Only if it were not truly unmerited, by somehow being dependent on our own effort (or failure), would it be unsure.

Here is an axiomatic statement: the moment you put a condition of our own effort before the equation, it is no longer grace; grace is destroyed.

The only condition God puts before the equation is, "Am I loving?" And the answer is, "Yes, God is love."

It cannot be both dependent on our effort, and not dependent on our effort at the same time. It cannot be an undeserved gift if it depends on anything at all. It cannot be both merited and unmerited at the same time. It is simple to prove the point; just look at how it really worked --

We would all start out plenty confident that we had received forgiveness by grace for our past sins (notice how again and again forgiveness is paired with the word "past"), but then we all came to understand quickly that grace is lost so very easily through our next sin.
Uh oh! Generally within a week we would have a huge problem. "I've sinned again. Forgiveness is for past sins. Now what do I do?" Then we would feel rotten with guilt, pray for forgiveness, hope that we actually received it (because one can never know), and then resolve to double our efforts. The mind redoubles the effort because it knows, despite all the talk, that grace is conditional upon effort.

And that's how it goes. This is a cycle. Sometimes we are up, sometimes we are down. Sometimes we were very proud of ourselves, and sometimes we were maddeningly frustrated with ourselves. These are the two inevitable results of all legalism: false pride and frustrated failure. But we were never confident in Christ Jesus who died for our sins and said "it is finished."

Here is another axiomatic statement: if you're actually keeping the law, then you don't need grace or forgiveness.

If it were humanly possible to keep the law perfectly, forgiveness would have no point, it's simply not needed. Jesus didn't need to be forgiven. But we are the ones who need the grace, right? It is precisely because no man can be perfect that we needed God Himself to save us (ROM. 8: 3). Grace is only useful to the person who sins. God does not forgive those whom He sees being perfect, He forgives those who have sinned and see their need.
Who did Jesus associate with? The tax collectors and sinners and drunks. Who did Jesus come to heal? Not the well but the sick. The Pharisees kept the law. Kept it zealously, in fact! But it wasn't the law-keeping Pharisee who was forgiven in Luke 18: 9-14, rather the sinful tax collector.
Armstrongists don't like the Pharisees any more than the mainstream Christians. We accused mainstream Christians of having no law at all (which is absolutely untrue) while we accused the Pharisees of having too much law. (So keep the law, but don't over-keep the law.) Let's not forget to whom the parable was spoken: "He spoke this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and despised others" (v. 9).


As a related aside, I want to share with you a series of statements that a practicing Armstrongist made towards a friend of mine.
I don't do this to paint anyone or group in a bad light. Each person is responsible for their own selves. But I thought this would help illustrate something.

My friend was trying to point out a factual flaw in some comments made by an anonymous Armstrongist. My friend truly - and I mean this honestly - tried to remain calm, present facts, quote scripture, and emphasize how Jesus loves them. The following are the comments made in reply, and are not typical of what I see here in the comments at ABD, but they are indeed typical of things spoken all too often from Armstrongists. And, to my deep shame, I myself used to use language like this:
"I will cast no further pearls before you to trample on, you all have lost understanding of the scriptures, for it is the Holy Spirit that gives that knowledge . I do not answer you because you have no grasp on the basic understanding even of the milk of the word. I will not talk with you any more but will see you in one of the resurrections! ... You have put yourself in the most dangerous group of all, those who knew the truth but went back into Baal worship and pagan customes of the worlds religions. Repent and turn to the truth before it is too late, how can you prefer the the filth of this world religions compared to the written scripture of our Creator. ... AS I SAID BEFORE YOU AND ALL WHO HAVE WALKED AWAY FROM THE TRUTH AND RETURNED TO BAAL AND HAVE PUT YOUR SELVES IN A DANGEROUS CATEGORY.NOW YOU ARE BACK WITH MAMA ROME AND HER FALSE DAUGHTERS! ... We are told to answer a fool according to his foolish ideas I refuse to waste my time any longer, I will pray you will turn back to the truth but as far as I can tell you have been given over to strong delusion. There is no point for me to speak with you. ... So off you go to your Babylonian church on SUNday. Enough of this nonsense! As the dog returns to the vomit so are those who leave the written scriptures to follow man's traditions.The must be busy getting ready for Halloween soon and the other abominations you have returned to! Get away from us now please! ... These must be a few of your ancestors! Ish:66:17. 'They will come to an end at the same time,' declares the LORD."
Does that sound loving? Does that sound like grace is undeserved? Pride drips from these epithets. They remember to avoid pork, but miss the weightier law. (Do people from other churches also speak like this? Yes. All too often. It is a terrible thing!)

But I promise you, dear reader, these comments come from fear and uncertainty more than anything. I pity this person. How these words expose a heart longing for relief. How that heart labors to exhaustion under the heavy yoke of a system of law-keeping. Oh, how those who laid this burden on this person's shoulders cannot or will not lift their burden (LUKE 11: 46). This person deeply needs the reassurance that comes from the Gospel of certain grace through faith in the unshakable foundation of our Lord Jesus Christ! How light His burden is, how easy His yoke (MAT. 11: 30). His commandments of love and faith are not burdensome (I JON. 5: 3).


We can conclude, dear reader, that neither forgiveness nor grace are dependent on Old Covenant law-keeping, but rather trust in Jesus' victory on the cross and His life as our Lord and Savior. It comes by promise, not by law. The overcoming isn't a lifetime of growing better at Old Covenant law-keeping, but rather a life of being led by the Holy Spirit through faith. The endurance isn't to endure a lifetime of failure to keep the Old Covenant law and proving to God that we will do what He says we should do, but to endure a lifetime of faithfulness and eventually come to trust implicitly that God will do what God says He will do. The command of Jesus is faith and love. And the effort is His.

An Armstrongist might say they have faith, and yes they do believe in Jesus Christ, but they don't really trust Him. An Armstrongist might say grace is undeserved, but it is clearly earned in that system. We can see that with repentance, forgiveness, grace, etc, the delimiter is always the attempt at Old Covenant law-keeping. But if law-keeping is so important then we must ask, "Then why don't you keep the law?"

Perhaps we can see that what the New Testament teaches about law and grace is not what Armstrongism teaches about law and grace.

Next time I plan to continue this line of reasoning and look at the Armstrongist view of "If you love Me, keep My commandments."

Also, I suggest for people who read this post that you also read this other post: Common Legalist Arguments Part 1.

It is important that you understand; Everything on this blog is based on the current understanding of each author. Never take anyone's word for it, always prove it for yourself, it is your responsibility. You cannot ride someone else's coattail into the Kingdom. ; )
Acts 17:11


xHWA said...

Sorry to everyone who already read this post, and now see it this morning a second time as a new post. I was changing some spelling errors this morning when I accidentally deleted the entire post. So, I had to put it up here again.

Mike said...

Appreciated this post. It is nice to hear someone explain the confusion that my brain has been wrangling with for years. I wish I was through the wrangling part, but I am glad to be getting closer to understanding the truth. It is a relief to have someone validity what I have been understanding them to be saying! Thanks!