2 Corinthians 3:4-6 “Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God. Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves, but our competence comes from God. He has made us competent ministers of a new covenant – not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”
The apostle Paul was a very confident man, but his was not the confidence of the world. There are people who are so confident that they will open and shut train windows without asking anyone’s permission. There are strangers who will watch you working and then will give you unsolicited advice as to how you should be doing the job. There is the misplaced confidence of the abortionist who will assure a pregnant woman that a foetus is not an unborn child. There are congregations who will sing a chorus loudly and then applaud themselves for their rendition. There is the incredible confidence of a particular man who lives in the south of Italy who believes that he is God’s personal representative in the world and the head of the church.
Unbelievers are confident people. A man once came to hear the Nazarene preacher called Bud Robinson who was born in 1860 and who had something heavenly about his ministry and personality. The visitor was highly irritated by what he heard and he came to talk to Bud Robinson after the message, saying, “I don’t believe in the Bible. I don’t believe God created man. In fact, I don’t believe in God himself. I am an evolutionist. Man came from nothing into something. This is the teaching of science, which I believe, and I have no use for the Bible.” That is the confidence of the world.
Bud Robinson said to him, “You are the most brilliant and best informed man I’ve ever met. You know more about science and philosophy in a minute than I could learn in a lifetime. But there is one thing I know, Doctor, that you don’t. I was once a sinner, a real slave to drink and to tobacco. I was physically a sick man having had both arms out of joint many times from violent epileptic convulsions. One day Jesus Christ found me. He forgave my sins and he even healed my body. My epileptic spells disappeared. Jesus has been my constant companion for many years. He has never deserted me.” The man was touched by what he heard Bud say, because his was the confidence of a Christian.
That was the apostle Paul’s also: “Such confidence as this is ours,” he says. In the context of those words he is referring to the fact that as a result of his ministry in Corinth Jesus Christ had written a letter across the whole city in the form of the new Christian lives of many of its citizens. Husbands and children and siblings and neighbours were all reading messages from the throne of the universe at Corinth’s wells, in its markets, in the kitchens of the rich, in all the daily behaviour of people they knew about whose lives had been radically changed for good since they had received Paul’s ministry. The life of the church of the Lord Jesus in that city was the single great proof that the apostle was indeed a minister of Christ. He did not need letters of recommendation from people inside or outside of Corinth. The Spirit of the living God had written the redemption of Christ on the hearts of hundreds, if not thousands of people in that city in marks of indelible grace. So Paul did not need to commend himself, and he refused to do so. He had his own grounds for confidence and every Christian can share in them.
1. The Christian is Someone with a Limitless Confidence in God.
“Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God” (v.4). The word ‘confidence’ in the New Testament is used exclusively by the apostle Paul, and he does so on six occasions, four times in this letter. Here it is referring to the trust that Paul had in God. I can illustrate it like this: a father is down in the darkness of the cellar, and his little daughter is standing on the pavement above peering down through the opened cover into the gloom beneath. She can’t see him, but he can see her. “Jump down!” he cries to her, “I will catch you. Come on!” She cannot see him but she knows he is there, and she trusts him and she launches out into the darkness to be caught in his safe loving arms. That is the biblical sense of a Christian’s confidence in God.
The apostle had met the glorified and ascended Christ on the road to Damascus. He had commissioned this Saul of Tarsus, and during some early years of solitude the Lord made his truth clear to Paul. He had repeatedly encouraged Paul to go on preaching the word of God. The apostle no longer physically saw the one he had met on the Damascus road, but that same Jesus had made many promises to Paul, every single one of which was continually being fulfilled. Those same words from the Lord are also the ground of our confidence. When we speak of our trust in God we are not speaking of a leap into the dark. That little girl we spoke of knew her father and so trusted in him. She was flying into the arms of someone who had given her endless proofs of his love that he would never let her down. Any time he told her to jump to him he could guarantee that she wouldn’t fall and she had that confidence in him because of her experience of him.
To you, the congregation of Jesus Christ, the Lord makes such promises as these:- that he will never leave you nor forsake you – then have confidence in God; that the peace of God which transcends all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus – then have confidence in God; that God will supply all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus – then have confidence in God; that in all things God works for the good of those who love him – then have confidence in God; that nothing will be able to separate you from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord – then have confidence in God, that God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that in all things, at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work – then have confidence in God.
There are hundreds of such promises that God makes to every single one of his children. Each one tells us that he loves us and he intends to bestow some temporal good or some spiritual good upon us. So we are to keep his promises in our minds and bring them into our daily lives. There is a fascinating word which the prophet Isaiah has. He describes a certain believer walking through life, and he has a particular dilemma. What should he do? Turn to the right or to the left? This is what Isaiah says, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it'” (Isa.30:21). In other words, we have certain principles and then we meet challenges; we are under pressure. What should we do? Take this job? Go out with this person? Join a certain church? Turn to the right or to the left? So often the issue we face is not a choice between right and wrong but between left and right – that is, both choices are good choices. So we bring to the question all the promises that we can think of and they help us make a godly decision – “This is the way; walk in it.”
That is how our confidence in God is built up. He puts us in circumstances where all we can do is trust his promises. When Paul was chained in prison all he had to cling to was the promise of God. There is a widespread error to the effect that living on the promises is something for beginners. New Christians, it is thought, will get some hope from the promises, not those who have been trusting God for many years. They have passed that stage. They ‘possess’ the promises, it is said. It is the little ones in the flock who are pleading them. That is a great mistake. The mature Christian does not live on what he possesses. He lives on what Almighty God possesses and what he promises in his Word. The whole church of Jesus Christ can only be a confident church as it embraces God’s promises. I mean by that, we believe them, and we receive them into our lives in their comfort as they perhaps focus on specific anguish, and we put all our trust in them.
It is the mark of someone who has left his first love that his confidence in God has gone. The promises of the gospel to that person have become dead capital. They do not stir him. He sits under the preaching unexcited. He is as cold as an iceberg when the sweetest promises are pronounced and the most blessed invitations are made.
The apostle says that he has such confidence before God. Consider it! Confidence before the One before whom the seraphim hide their eyes and cry holy, holy, holy. Confidence before the One who judged the world with the flood at the time of Noah. Confidence before the One who did not spare his only begotten Son. Confidence before the One whom no man can see and live. Confidence before the God who is light in whom is no darkness at all.
How is it possible? It is here in the words of Paul: “Such confidence as this is ours through Christ before God.” It is all through Christ, of course. The Lamb of God has come and has taken away the sin of the world. God has made his beloved Christ sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. What manner of love has the Father then bestowed on us that we should be called the sons of God?
So near, so very near to God,
I cannot nearer be;
For in the Person of His Son
I am as near as He.
So dear, so very dear to God,
More dear I cannot be;
The love wherewith he loves the Son –
Such is his love to me
It is in Christ that our confidence is rooted and grounded. Confidence that full atonement has been made, our God has been reconciled and all his promises are ours in Christ. That is the heart of Christianity.
‘What think ye of Christ?’ is the test
To try both your state and your scheme;
You cannot be right in the rest
Unless you think rightly of Him.
As Jesus appears in your view,
As he is beloved or not,
So God is disposed to you,
And mercy or wrath is your lot.
A preacher visited a dying man, and he read to him a chapter about heaven, and then he sang two verses of the hymn, ‘There is a land of pure delight’. But then the dying man stopped him: “Sing to me, ‘There is a fountain filled with blood,'” he asked. Christ was all his hope. If Christ is beloved by you then no other stance but confidence in Father, Son and Holy Spirit is a fitting response. It is an insult to what Christ has done and what God has said for the Christian to disbelieve.
The practical importance of this to the Christian is enormous. How can we pray if we are not confident God hears and loves us? How can we witness to others if we are uncertain whether God is our reconciled loving father? How can we counsel if we are hesitant, uncertain and doubting? People have enough questions and they hardly need their counselor’s too. As Jay Adams says, “the Christian counselor is the only one who has good reason to have confidence at all. Both Rogers and Skinner at the conclusion of their lives gave up hope in their systems; they had failed to achieve what they claimed they would. Others have reached the same conclusion. Paul, in contrast, ‘kept the faith’ till the end” (Jay E. Adams, The Christian Counselor’s Commentary, I & II Corinthians, Timeless Texts, 1994, p.126). So the Christian is a person with limitless confidence in God, through Christ.
2. The Christian is a Person Aware that He is Utterly Incompetent of Thinking Anything Aright From Himself.
“Not that we are competent in ourselves to claim anything for ourselves” (v.5). Paul is saying that from within himself he had no resources to claim any conclusions about the great issues of life. Who is God? What must I do to be saved? What is the meaning of life? Paul knew as a mere man he lacked the capability to claim any answers to such questions. “My message didn’t come from within me. I don’t claim that,” says Paul. We never conceived of the plan of redemption. We never thought of how the benefits of the death of Jesus Christ on Golgotha could reach us 2000 years later. We did not conceive within ourselves of the living God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the one true God in three persons. We have laid no claim to that. A salvation in which God’s eternal Son becomes incarnate, born of a virgin and lives the life of a true yet perfect man in this world – we were not competent to give birth to that truth. It all came from God.
Or consider the mystery of suffering, and why in God’s providence, some men and women experience such anguish. On Saturday December 30, 2000, 69 year-old Ronnie Hill was buried in County Down in Ulster. An evangelical Christian, he had been a headmaster, in fact he and his wife had worked with a missionary society teaching in South America. Then they returned home to Enniskillen, and thirteen years ago on a Sunday morning Ronnie was attending the Remembrance Day services in Enniskillen when a bomb planted by the Irish Republican Army blew up without any warning. Eleven people were killed. Ronnie Hill was buried by a falling wall, and though alive, he never regained consciousness during the remaining 13 years of his life. Noreen Hill remained devoted to him. She visited him every day in hospital for the first four years, and when the doctors said he ought to leave there to have proper medical treatment she brought Ronnie home and ran her own nursing home to care for him.
Noreen believed her husband could understand what she was saying, though for how long and how much she could not say. So she read the Scriptures to him. She played cassettes of his favourite music and some of the talking book classics he enjoyed such as the works of Dickens. Four years ago she said, “I keep praying that some day he will sit up and speak. Until then I’ll sit with him, reading the newspapers, tuning in to the cricket commentary on the radio and praying with him.” She prays for the men who planted the bomb who have never been caught, and she offers them her forgiveness, but she does not ask that they escape justice. But Noreen has not allowed herself to be consumed with bitterness towards those men. That would have used precious energy which had to be focused on loving her husband as herself. Her Presbyterian pastor speaks so highly of her trust in God, but he makes no attempt at explaining why it happened to her Ronnie.
Who would dare claim that in themselves they possess the reason why this happened? What powers in any human being could give any answer why such fearful providences take place? There are secret things that belong to God, and he has promised that some things will be made plain to us in that great day when we stand before him. Of course there will be matters which will be eternally mysterious to us because we are dealing with the infinite mind of an omniscient God. But such things in heaven will never perplex us. But no man is competent to claim that he has the answer to such sadnesses.
Or consider the lamentable history of the falls of Christian preachers during the last years. It has been a horrible and almost unending saga of some of the most well-known men succumbing to temptation and bringing disgrace on themselves, heart-ache to their families and numbness to their congregations. “Can you suggest some reason God is allowing this to happen to us?” a pastor recently asked. We are, alas, incompetent to explain this sadness other than that we must be a very proud group of people, and “God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6).
Or again consider the simple nature of New Testament worship. How basic it all is. There are the meetings on the first day of the week for instruction in the teaching of the Bible, the breaking of bread, prayer, the gathering of an offering, the singing of some hymns. They were meetings for understanding and encouragement, most of all by reminding one another of the all-sufficiency of Christ. Who is competent from within himself to add to that? No one is remotely competent to do so. For example, to erect altars and ordain a new caste of priests offering a sacrifice of the body of Christ? Who is competent to determine that most of the time should be spent singing? Does one get that impression from the book of Acts? The only reference there to music in the early church is Paul and Silas singing in prison. Who is competent in themselves to claim that God desires more music? Yet when many people gather together they spend much of their time singing and swaying.
In this week’s Spectator a reporter goes along to a well-known congregation called Peniel Pentecostal Church in Brentwood near London. The church has its own day school and a Bible school. Several hundred people were there on a recent Friday night, and a reporter called Ross Clark attended. This is what he witnessed: “As the songs and prayers begin, everyone starts swinging, clapping, nudging each other. The 100-strong choir, in their purple and yellow cassock, start a Mexican wave, and giggling follows … It is not so much like entering a church service as the finals of the world karaoke championships. One by one, wannabe pop stars take the microphone and do their piece: the words – pretty much ordinary pop music with the word ‘babe’ replaced by ‘Jesus’ – are relayed via television monitors suspended at regular intervals above the congregation. A middle-aged man in glasses croons like Val Doonican, then a twentysomething with a crew-cut takes the microphone, flickers his eyelids and sings about wanting Jesus. There’s a deafening racket as the congregation rises to dance along and 500 plastic seats snap shut in unison. The whole performance is recorded on video and close-ups of the choir are relayed via the television monitors. The karaoke doesn’t leave long for a very extensive sermon, so to understand the church’s beliefs I’m led to the nearest equivalent to a manifesto; the many books …” (The Spectator, 30 December 2000, p.18).
Some people do enjoy that sort of thing. Such a church as the one visited thinks that visitors are bound to be impressed by the sense of the divine in their services. Clearly it was the sense of the banal that impressed that reporter, as it would most of us here. But the question is not what your own tastes in music and lyrics might or might not be, but do we have any encouragement from the New Testament to believe that bringing music into our worship services is what pleases God, or that that is what God wants us to do? There are scriptural principles that tell us ‘No!’ This is unacceptable New Testament worship and it should not characterise any gospel church in any culture anywhere in the world, simply because the New Testament gives us no warrant for karaoke to be called worship. Call karaoke by the name ‘karaoke’. Isn’t this a classic example of people thinking that they are competent in themselves and for themselves to claim that they are in the know about something as crucial as what is ‘real’ worship?
Paul is saying, “I can’t judge such things as to what is right and what is best. I can’t even think properly about such things. I lack any competence.” The teaching from the Bible was his competence. That women should not become elders and preachers in a church, that there is a place of woe and eternal punishment for the wicked after death, that God made the first man Adam out of the dust of the earth and Eve from his side, that the whole world was drowned by a flood at the time of Noah, that God will raise our bodies after they have returned to dust and been scattered in ashes and in the seas – such things might have been difficult for Paul to accept. But he was not competent in himself to claim any special insight for himself as to whether they were true or false. One thing he could never deny, that the Son of God had met with him and that meeting had revolutionised his life. So when he quickly reached the end of his own competence he knew Jesus Christ was a competent prophet and priest and king. Can you pass judgment on a preacher and his message? Do you have the wit to declare that he is wrong, that what he is saying is false, and that you can ignore it? By what standard do you come to such conclusions? Is it coming out of your own wise head? Christianity says that neither you nor any natural man is competent to claim anything for yourselves.
3. Every Christian’s Competence Comes from God.
“our competence comes from God” (v.5). Paul is now answering this question which he raised in the previous chapter, “who is competent for these things?” (2:16). The word ‘competence’ means the capability of performing a task that demands some expertise. You wouldn’t describe a child’s ability to rub chocolate sauce over its face as ‘competent’, or a man’s ability to get drunk with another bottle of whisky as ‘competent’, or a man losing his temper, swearing at someone and striking out at him as ‘competent.’ You don’t need expertise to behave like an animal. But to act as God requires his creatures to act you need the grace of divine competence. It’s a gift that comes from Jehovah himself: “our competence comes from God.”
God has revealed himself as ‘El Shaddai’, that is the God who is all sufficient. The childless patriarch Abraham discovered this, and so did Naomi when she had lost her husband and two sons, and so did Job in his enormous grief. The God who came to them was the all-sufficient one, El Shaddai, and they were instructed, warned, encouraged and delivered from despair by him. God makes us competent.
That is how it is for every single Christian, without exception, that whatever God requires of us his grace provides and so he makes his people competent: to be poor in spirit, to be meek, to hunger and thirst after righteousness, to be merciful, to be pure in heart, to be a peacemaker, to bless those who insult you, to love your enemies, to resist temptation, to turn the other cheek and go the second mile, to forgive seventy times seven, to pray, to fast, to serve one master, to resist worry, seek first God’s kingdom and righteousness, to keep going on the narrow path, to build your life on the rock of Christ’s word. In other words, to do whatever the Lord Jesus asks of us in the Sermon on the Mount. Your competence to do these things comes from God. You cannot say, “But my personality prevents me from living like that.” You cannot plead the inadequacies of your upbringing or your education. You cannot say, “But I am not baptized in the Spirit. If I were, then I could live like that.” God will say to you, “But your sufficiency comes from me. I have made you competent.” You cannot plead, “But I am a member of a dead church. I sit under boring sermons week by week.” Your competence comes from God not from the preacher. You cannot excuse your sub-Christian living by the fact that these are not revival days. Your competence comes from God.
So you are competent to be the sort of husband or father that God requires. You can become the sort of wife and mother that God demands. You can become the sort of manager or worker that God insists upon. I cannot believe that God has put impossible standards in the New Testament, or that they have been written merely to tantalise and frustrate us. They are part of Scripture in order to tell us how we are to behave day by day, and our competence to live that precise way is as much from God as the demands themselves. So there is no burden too heavy for us to bear, no temptation to powerful to resist. A woman may not plead her personality and sing, “I’m just a girl who can’t say no.” The competency that comes from God enables us to resist temptation. We can climb any mountain; we can ford any river; we can accomplish any task God gives us because our competence comes from him. How many of our excuses are simply a cover for our laziness, or because of our lack of love for Jesus Christ and his people, or come from our love of self and sin. We are blaming others but the real problem is our own selfishness. God’s gift is competent enough for you to mortify that too.
There was in the Times last week (December 19, 2000) the obituary of a remarkable medical doctor called Leigh Ashton. At 26 years of age he went to Kenya and set up a hospital at Kapsowar and a church in Eldoret. He returned home in 1964, but in 1970 at the age of 62 with the full support of his wife they went to central Thailand and worked at the hospital in Manorom for many years. He came home to Bedford and there he was involved in his local church for the rest of his life. He and his wife both died this year after 65 years of marriage. His three daughters and son are all involved in their local churches. What explains such a life? There are thousands of such Christians who are living lives as sacrificially as Dr and Mrs Ashton’s. Their competence comes from God. They can each say, “I can do all things through the Christ who strengthens me.”
4. God Makes Ministers of the New Covenant Competent.
“He has made us competent as ministers of the new covenant” (v.6). Paul does not use the word for ‘apostle’ but he uses the general word for a servant, or a deacon, or a church officer. He is absolutely obsessed with the wonder of the divine prov ision. He uses this word ‘competent’ yet again, the third time in a couple of sentences. All the ministers and servants who have been called and gifted by Christ are made competent for their callings by God. It is an insult to the provision of God to refuse to take up a ministry that the church asks of you. What God promises us in any new testament ministry should make us chuckle with glee because it is so superior to anything else that the world can offer. We could state this fact, that God adequately supplies our needs. But we must go further: he abundantly supplies our needs. But we must go further: he super-abundantly provides for us. He fits us for any and every challenge that can meet us in this new millennium, in instruction and knowledge, in wisdom and know-how. He does not only tell us what we must do, but he also tells us how to do it. But there is more, he enables us to perform all he tells us to do. God’s grace never places us where his power cannot help us. God thoroughly equips us for ministering to our fellow believers. God has given us the Bible. God has given us the ministries of other Christians. But, most of all, God has given us God the Holy Spirit.
We have spoken about the Nazarene preacher, Bud Robinson. He describes himself, in a little biography which we have just read, in these words, “I was born the first time on the 27th day of January, 1860, in the mountains of Tennessee, but I was born the second time on the 11th day of August, 1880, on the beautiful prairies of dear old Texas.” He was twenty years of age and illiterate, but at the new birth he became joined to all the resources of God. He was no longer the same man he once was. You could not measure him by the sum of his educational and parental influences or the little money he had earned. Henceforth the measure of his competence was the God who indwelt him. Bud started to go to church and he listened eagerly to the reading of the Bible. A young Sunday School teacher gave him a copy of the New Testament and from that he learned to read, beginning with the first chapter of Matthew, and using his Testament as a copy book. So he also learned to write; it took three days’ effort to write his name, ‘Bud Robinson,’ but he persisted until he could set out his thoughts in a hand that he himself could understand. His new desire and his stickability were gifts from God. Then he wanted to tell other people what had happened to him and who Jesus Christ was. A preacher encouraged him to believe that if God were calling him he would also help him to become a competent preacher. His growth was coming from God. So he would get on his pony and ride out to little communities where he preached the Word to the people who gathered there to hear him. They were blessed years, and God assisted him and many professed salvation under him, principally because Bud knew he had no competence in himself so as to claim anything for himself, so he cast himself upon the competence of God.
It is by God we count the cost, and by his initiative our personal relationship with him develops, our mind is cultivated, our poise and manners mature, how we work with people, our man-management, our friendship with children, our ability to speak to them, our family life, the stewardship of our weekly income, our generosity, our hospitality, our ability to equip others, our delegating, our leading a congregational meeting, our preaching and pastoring, our evangelism, personal and pulpit, our encouragement of missionaries – all the things that test any man who becomes a preacher, but which are required of him – our entire competence flows from God. Of his fulness we receive and grace for grace. There is no other way you can understand a young pastor who displays such maturity other than by this fact that God is strengthening him day by day.
But the apostle says that it is “as ministers of a new covenant” that we are made competent. Now you might think that this phrase ‘new covenant’ is very common in the New Testament. But Paul uses the phrase just twice. It is used by Jesus at the first Lord’s Supper when he takes the cup and he says that this is the new covenant in his blood which is shed for many for the remission of sins. Those are the New Testament references, but the prophet Jeremiah had used the term centuries before the coming of Christ. We read, “The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah” (Jer. 31:31). Paul is reminding his readers that we Christians are ministers of that new covenant that was prophesied by Jeremiah and inaugurated by the Lord Jesus at his death.
Paul went everywhere telling people that the time of God’s favour and the day of salvation had come. God was dealing with the world through a new covenant. His relationship could no longer be confined within the restrictions of one people – the children of Israel living in one special land at the eastern end of the Mediterranean – now the new covenant was with all who repented of their sins and trusted in his Son from every nation in the world. The old covenant was the one that had come through Moses which said “Do this and that.” The new covenant was the one which came through Christ which said, “I have done everything God requires. Hide in me. Come from your sinfulness and entrust yourself to me.”
Paul had been taught that message by the Lord. He had lived under the old covenant and it had virtually killed him, but the new covenant had given him life and peace. He was a competent minister of the new covenant because he understood and preached it. He was a competent minister of the new covenant because he did not abuse the grace of God by failing to battle with sin. He was a competent minister of the new covenant because he utterly opposed any half-way covenant with the old. That was the cause of his battle with the false teachers of Galatia who wanted to take bits of the new covenant and bits of the old and cobble them together and trust in that amalgam. The new covenant is totally gone if you say that it is not enough to trust in the crucified Christ but that also you have to keep a Sabbath on the seventh day of the week, and must get circumcised, and have to keep feasts and food laws. If you insist on those pluses then Christ has died in vain. There is no new covenant at all but simply an upgrading of the old covenant. Paul saw this and fought for it, and pronounced the most fearful judgements upon any who did not declare the new covenant without compromise: “But if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let him be eternally condemned” (Gal. 1:8). God had made Paul a competent minister of the new covenant – and all who preach Paul’s gospel. But those only are God’s competent ministers.
5. God Has Made the Life-giving Spirit the Heart of the New Covenant.
“- not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (v.6). Now it is possible to take these words and claim that:-
i] this contrast is between the written Scriptures and the living Holy Spirit who inspired them. But that is never a dichotomy in the Bible. The Scriptures are God-breathed by the Spirit Himself. What the written Scriptures say the Spirit says. They are the Spirit’s gift and the Spirit’s sword. They are both good, word and Spirit, but they are different. The word is not the Spirit and the Spirit is not the word. The Lord Jesus said often, “It is written.” So that is not the contrast here – between the Book and the Spirit.
ii] Then it is possible to take these words and say that letter means the written will of God in his laws and precepts, contrasted with the free life of the Spirit. But again in Scripture the law of God is not limited to having an exclusively killing ministry. The law is not a revolver. Paul says that the law is “holy, righteous and good” (Rom. 7:12), but more than that, he even says that it is “spiritual” (Rom.7:14), in other words, he is saying that the law itself is of the Holy Spirit. Law and Spirit are not opposites. Sin and Spirit are the opposites. The law of Christ is the Spirit’s eyes. Losing the law of Christ would be for the Spirit not to see aright – if that were possible. We new covenant Christians have certainly been released from the bondage of formally keeping the law without the Spirit, but now we serve God by keeping the law of Christ in the energies of the Spirit.
There is no Christian these days who does not have a growing distaste for laws. In the western world we are facing the cult of Caesar as never before. Caesar hurls an unprecedented barrage of rules against individuals. He tries to stop parents bringing up children as they wish, or to prevent Christian parents adopting orphans of another race. Caesar would rather keep those children in one of his homes without parents at all. The great threat to liberty no longer comes from war, poverty or disease but from ever more intrusive organs of state, and the more insidious because they have settled into place so silently. The extension of the power of Caesar continues unabated. The presses thunder out ever more laws, filling prisons with those who break them. Caesar now takes 40% of a man’s earnings. God asks for a mere tenth. Caesar’s greed knows no bounds and to refuse means to come under his law and find one’s liberty taken away. Caesar has no ideology except fudged buzzwords – “Compassionate Conservatism” or “One Nation” or “Third Way” or “Value Politics.” Our leaders have lost touch with ideology itself. They have lost faith in ideas as a guide to action, and so the ground is ceded to yet bigger government. When the most recent government took power and one of its leaders took power to imprison citizens for freeing budgerigars into the wild or for building steps to their front door we realised that we were entering new territory in the debate over the rights of individuals versus the State. A Renaissance prince would not have presumed such authority, not any government before the 20th century.
The new authoritarians must be challenged. Christian epistemologists must reveal politicians’ speech codes as devoid of meaning. Oh blessed Spirit! Can’t we see that in such an age as ours, where Christians feel increasingly alarmed about the intrusiveness of state powers, how attractive is the notion that the Christian is not under the law but under the Spirit? How we need the Spirit to declare God’s Word to our age. The preacher should once more be what Nietzsche called the “terrible explosive, in the presence of which everything is in danger.” The preacher today should long that the earth move.
iii] Then it is possible to take these words to mean that true new covenant Christians don’t make the mistake of an outward show of honouring and keeping the law in its every letter while in our hearts and souls we are ignoring God’s will. We are not in the business of polishing letters – however divine their origin. When the Holy Spirit comes into our lives at regeneration and subdues our proud defiance of God we then begin to obey the law of Christ from the heart. What does the law require? It tells us how we may love God with all our being, and love our neighbours as ourselves. Then the Spirit gives us the living energy to serve both God and man in keeping the law of Christ. Isn’t this what Paul tells the Romans? “The one who is not circumcised physically and yet obeys the law [a typical Gentile Christian in Rome] will condemn you [an old testament man] who, even though you have the written code and circumcision, are a lawbreaker. A man is not a Jew if he is only one outwardly, nor is circumcision merely outward and physical. No, a man is a Jew if he is one inwardly; and circumcision is circumcision of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the written code. Such a man’s praise is not from men, but from God” (Rom. 2:27-29).
Paul saw his fellow Jews living under the strict terms of old covenant law, that is, having their children circumcised, learning the Talmudic traditions, doing nothing on the seventh day of the week, keep the kosher food laws, going to Jerusalem for the feasts and a hundred other trivial details touching every aspect of their lives. That was the sum of their religion. It was letter religion. There was nothing inward about it. No divine empowering of the Spirit entered into their lives at all. It was external conformity to the law (the letter), rather than inward delight and service (the Spirit). It is the Gentile Christian who “yet obeys the law” (Roms. 2:27) not the circumcised keeper of the written code..
Think of the scene on Sinai when the old covenant was established. Moses was receiving the ten commandments on the top of the mountain as God wrote them on tablets of stone. The people were at the bottom of the mountain making a golden calf. Three thousand of them had been circumcised as children. Three thousand of them would have told you that they were in a covenant with God. But three thousand of them died under God’s judgment because their profession was by word and letter and not by Spirit and life. Caleb, on the other hand, was blessed with long life and a great inheritance because from his heart he loved and served the Lord. Moses said to him, “you have followed the Lord my God wholeheartedly” (Joshua 14:9). The commitment to the letter ended in the deaths of three thousand; but true service that comes from within a man by the energy of the Spirit displays life.
Old covenant religion was not all legalism. The Spirit was there. Why is Abraham brought before us as an example to all who believe if he were doing everything by the energies of the flesh? But neither is new covenant religion all Spirit. There are the written letters of the New Testament which tell us what God requires of us. There is the law of Christ in Romans 12 and Ephesians 5 and 6 and the letter of James. The Spirit gives me strength not to flinch at the highest demands of the law of Christ. “You can do it,” he says, “You can do all things by me.” I can face Matthew 5, and love what the Saviour says there about the inwardness of the ten commandments. I can ransack Dr Lloyd-Jones’s famous “Studies in the Sermon on the Mount” (IVP) to learn more of the implications of the law for New Covenant life, and the Spirit of God gives me joy in the ethic and also desire and strength to keep it.
iv] While all that is true we can be and need to be more radical yet and say that the essence of the old Mosaic covenant was that it was letter and killed, while the essence of the new covenant in Jesus’ blood is that it gives life. How does the writer to the Hebrew describe the old covenant? “It was weak and useless,” he says (Hebs.7:18). He says “what is obsolete and aging will soon disappear” (Hebs. 8:13). They are “external regulations” he says (Hebs. 9:10). He says, “the law is only a shadow of the good things to come” (Hebs.10:1). The sacrifices could never take away sins and they were not able to clear the conscience of the worshiper. Weak, useless, obsolete, aging disappearing, external regulations that were unable to take away sins or wash the conscience clean A killing religion!
So there are radical differences between the old covenant and the new covenant which, when they are all put together, merit our judging that the comparison here between killing and giving life are between the essence of the old covenant and the new. Think of it – Moses the mediator of the old gives way to Christ the mediator of the new. The law of Moses gives way to the law of Christ. The ministry of death gives way to the ministry of life. The ministry of the letter gives way to the ministry of the Spirit. The writing on stones gives way to writing on hearts. Fading glory gives way to abiding glory. A ministry of condemnation gives way to a ministry of righteousness. What is weak and useless gives way to what is mighty to save. What is obsolete and aging gives way to what is permanent. The shadow gives way to the reality. Does not all that merit Paul’s decisive contrast, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life”?
That phrase, “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” could be the title of Paul’s biography. He had been a ‘letter’ man, a Pharisee born and bred, loving the law with its imperatives and human embellishments and all its inability to give anyone a good conscience or grace to attain the righteousness of God. He had become a killer, agreeing with the death of Stephen and dragging many away to prison and death. The letter surely kills. It killed compassion and wisdom in the life of this man. The proof of this axiom is Saul of Tarsus. Who loved the letter more? Yet who was more dead? But then the Lord met him, and announced forgiveness to him, and indwelt Paul by the Spirit. God the Spirit made him alive, and gave him gifts, inspiration, office, power, unction and fruit. Paul preached in the Spirit, and prayed in the Spirit, and wrote in the Spirit, and worked in the Spirit. It was the Spirit, and he alone, who makes men competent ministers of the new covenant.
31 December 2000 GEOFF THOMAS