The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

The Shameful and Powerless Death of the Messiah

HaysThis fall, I am taking a graduate school class on the New Testament books of 1 and 2 Corinthians. I am getting to do a significant amount of reading related to those two books, and am really enjoying some of the commentaries which have been picked out for us to read, particularly, the volume on 1 Corinthians by Richard B. Hays.

What follows is the first of what I expect will be many quotations from my reading that I want to share:

“God has chosen to save the world through the cross, through the shameful and powerless death of the crucified Messiah. If that shocking event is the revelation of the deepest truth about the character of God, then our whole way of seeing the world is turned upside down. Everything has to be reevaluated in light of the cross.”

Richard B. Hays, 1 Corinthians, p. 27

Grace, Law, and Salvation: What “Legalism” Does Not Mean

Grace, Law, and Salvation

I confess that I write this post with a little bit of an axe to grind, so I’ll state it up front: it bothers me the way that people cavalierly toss around the word legalism and its variations (legalist, legalistic, etc.) in religious or theological discussions. This is a great example of a word that has been used so imprecisely that it has largely been divorced from its actual meaning.

I don’t know how many times I have heard someone who is very strict on a certain issue—whether or not it is permissible for a Christian to drink alcohol, what the corporate worship of the church should look like, whether or not it is okay to celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday*—be written off as a legalist by someone who is less strict. But that is not what the word means. It is nothing more than an ad hominem attack, and a lazy refusal to actually engage the person’s views on the issue at hand.

I think it is important that we be more careful with our words in this case, because as we will see, the idea of legalism is directly tied to salvation. And that makes it a big deal.

The Definition of Legalism

Put simply, in theology, legalism is works righteousness: it is the idea that we can somehow earn our salvation by the things that we do. To be clear, that idea is heresy. It is false doctrine. It is not what the Bible teaches.

It’s also not something that very many Christians believe. Now, I’m sure that if you look hard enough, there are Christians out there who feel like they earn salvation by their good deeds, whether by abstaining from liquor, worshiping correctly, feeding the poor, reading their Bibles, or whatever else. Really though, this idea is more of a perversion of Christianity as understood by the culture at large (i.e. “Good people go to heaven when they die”), than it is an actual belief of most Christians. The vast majority of Christians are absolutely aware that they are sinners who are incapable of saving themselves, and are saved by God’s grace through faith. This is what the Bible teaches.

Thus, a legalist is someone who believes he or she can earn their salvation through their good behavior; it is not someone who has very strict or rigid views on a particular doctrinal or moral issue.

So, for example, unless the person who strictly believes that it is wrong to eat in a church building actually believes that avoiding that practice saves them, you cannot accurately call that person a legalist. You can disagree with their viewpoint and believe that it is biblically or theologically unsound, but you can’t dismiss it as “legalistic” because that simply is not what the word means. 

Terms Related to Legalism

If you were to imagine a spectrum charting different ideas on grace, keeping God’s law, and salvation (see below), at the opposite end from legalism you would find antinomianism. Antinomianism is the idea that we are saved by grace through faith to the extent that our works have nothing to do with salvation at all: we are not bound to try to keep God’s moral laws (nomos is the Greek word for law, so the word really just refers to the rejection of law-keeping).

This view, the opposite extreme of legalism, is also heresy. It is not what the Bible teaches. Just think of all the passages in the New Testament that provide lists of sinful behaviors that are not in keeping with God’s law and will exclude those who practice them from God’s kingdom (Romans 1.18-31, 1 Corinthians 6.9-10, Galatians 5.19-21, Ephesians 4.17-32, Ephesians 5.3-5, 1 Timothy 1.8-11, and Revelation 21.8, to name a few). Clearly, the things we do matter to God and thus, are related to our salvation as well!

Thankfully, not many Christians are antinomians either (although, extreme proponents of the “Once Saved Always Saved” perspective come pretty close to this, in my opinion).

In between the two extremes of legalism and antinomianism is what the Bible actually teaches, and hopefully what you believe, even if you aren’t familiar with the theological term: covenantal nomism. Covenantal nomism suggests that we enter into God’s covenant and are covered by His grace through faith in Christ, but that we “stay in” that covenant by trying to do God’s will and obey His commands. Grace, Keeping God's Law, and Salvation

Now, certainly we don’t do this perfectly—all of us sin and fall short from time to time. And covenantal nomism does not hold that our attempts to obey God’s commands somehow earn our salvation; salvation is by grace through faith. But covenantal nomism does hold that as Christians who have been saved by God’s grace, we should do our very best to obey His commands and live our lives as He desires. In the words of Dallas Willard, “Grace is opposed to earning, it is not opposed to effort” (emphasis mine).


So what’s the big deal? Why does this even matter, and why would someone spend time writing about it?

First, I think it is good general practice to use words appropriately. We live in a world where texts, tweets, and twenty second sound bites dominate communication, and where people are not particularly inclined to give people with whom they disagree a fair hearing. In that context, I think it is important that we speak with precision, and do our best to be clear and accurate in our communication. That cannot happen when we assume that words mean something other than what they actually mean.

Second, there really is a theological issue here. When you call someone a legalist, you are saying that they believe they can earn their salvation through good works. You are, in essence, calling them a heretic. That is not something to do lightly.

So the next time you encounter someone who seems overly scrupulous about a particular issue, or, from your perspective, makes a mountain of doctrine out of a molehill of opinion, take a moment to get them to explain their viewpoint, and maybe even take some time to study Scripture together on that issue. But whatever you do, please don’t dismissively call them a legalist.

*Throughout this post, I reference as examples different issues which I have heard people associate with legalism. Please understand that in this article, I am making no argument one way or the other about any of these particular issues.

Refusing Offense

Refusing Offense

I would not be the first person to take note of the fact that a trend seems to have developed in our culture where almost everyone is offended by something. Maybe it’s a Confederate flag, maybe it’s a rainbow flag, maybe it’s the notion that some else is offended by a Confederate flag or a rainbow flag, but a lot of people seem to be offended a lot of the time, and in the end, we seem to be a nation of people who are all offended about something. And that’s too bad, because usually offended people struggle with things like treating one another with respect and discussing difficult topics in a civil way (think back to most of the dozens of social media debates you have likely witnessed over the last couple of weeks).

Reflecting on all of this has led me to a conclusion about how I want to live my life as a Christian living in 21st century America: I refuse to allow other people to offend me. Of course there will likely be exceptions to this rule in which I will still take offense at something extraordinary, but as a general principle, I am determined to choose to not be offended in potentially offensive situations. Let me explain that a bit.

(1) When you allow other people to offend you, in a sense, you grant them power over you. People who are prone to taking offense live their lives in reactionary fashion, subject to having their attitude and outlook for the day ruined based on the words of someone else. So in one sense, being prone to offense essentially causes you to become powerless, and I choose instead to exert more control over my reactions.

(2) Being offended is not a pleasant feeling. As quick as some people are to get offended, you would think that it was a fun or pleasurable experience. Maybe I just don’t know how to be offended properly, but it has never been enjoyable for me. Life is too short and there are too many meaningful things to focus on for me to waste time being constantly offended.

(3) Taking offense frequently involves judging the motives of others. A lot of times we get offended when the offending party didn’t even mean to offend us; we simply misread the situation or the other person’s intentions. Judging the intentions of others puts us in dangerous spiritual territory.

(4) I think refusing to be offended is an important part of the admonitions of Scripture. Paul says in Romans 12.18 (cf. Hebrews 12.14):

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

I used to think that this meant that we shouldn’t be jerks to other people, and certainly, I think that is a huge part of it. Put in the terms of this discussion, we should try to avoid needlessly offending other people with what we say or do. But I think you could plausibly argue that it goes beyond that: be at peace with others by not being so critical of what they say and do to you and taking offense at those things. And even in those (rare) circumstances when people intentionally try to offend us, I think refusing offense is an act of grace, where we deny the urge to harbor negative feelings toward the other person and instead free ourselves to treat them with good will.

So, there you have it: moving forward, I will not allow others to easily offend me (But by all means, don’t feel like you have to try!).

Bruce Jenner and the Multi-Faceted Transgender Discussion

Bruce JennerA lot of (digital) ink has been spilled the last few days concerning the story of Bruce Jenner and his decision to undergo treatments and surgeries in an effort to live life as a woman, and a lot of discussion has been generated.

With so many different voices competing for time and space, it can be a chore to sift through it all. It is also worth mentioning that this is a multi-faceted discussion, and what I mean by that is that it spills over into the arenas of politics, culture, medicine, psychiatry, religion, theology, pastoral care, and probably others which I am not thinking about.

Generally speaking, I don’t like to write a lot about topics of which I am relatively ignorant, and so it is not my intention to try and compose a comprehensive thought essay on this topic. What I would like to do is share some articles I have read which I think shed some light on the issue or should cause some pause for reflection.

From a medical and psychiatric perspective, I thought this was a very helpful piece. Written over ten years ago, it is remarkably relevant, and is written by someone whose training and experience makes him far more qualified to weigh in than many people who have rushed to do so.

From a political and cultural perspective, this article’s discussion on the contradictory messages on gender norms from the political/cultural left was, I thought, enlightening. There really is a point of contention here that a lot of people are ignorantly missing or intentionally blurring: either “gender” matters or it doesn’t; you cannot have it both ways.

And from a pastoral perspective, this very personal (anonymous) article was worth reading. There are people in our churches who are struggling with feelings like this, and they need more than immediate condemnation and more than a hearty approval for them to indulge those feelings. From the author:

As someone who has spent his life wrestling with these feelings, what happens when you chase them and they don’t fill the void? What happens when they don’t take the brokenness away? As followers of Jesus we are supposed to know better, that the solution for the brokenness comes from only one place. It doesn’t come from marriage or children or being able to love whomever we want to love or identify in the way that fits you best. The only hope for our brokenness is Jesus Christ.

I am still looking for an article that I think really nails the issue from a theological perspective, but in the meantime, I recently came across a particular church whose motto was very appropriate to this situation (and many others as well):

“Always the truth. Always in love.”

May we doggedly hold to both standards in this, and every, discussion.

Strife and Contention: A Message from Habakkuk

Strife and Contention

O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?

Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?

Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you idly look at wrong?

Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise.

So the law is paralyzed, and justice never goes forth.

For the wicked surround the righteous; so justice goes forth perverted.”

(Habakkuk 1.2-4, ESV)

Tucked away near the end of the Old Testament is the Book of Habakkuk. Habakkuk appears as a prophet who speaks to God for the people, rather than a prophet who speaks for God to the people. Habakkuk voices his lament—his call of frustration and despair—to God, on behalf of his people.

We don’t know much about Habakkuk. We know he lived and worked during the reign of the wicked King Jehoiakim in the last days of the kingdom of Judah. Judah had prospered during the reign of the righteous King Josiah, but Josiah was killed in battle, and his son Jehoiakim did not follow in his footsteps.

Instead, Jehoiakim was one of the most godless, selfish, and tyrannical kings ever to rule over Judah. We can actually learn quite a bit about Jehoiakim’s reign from the Book of Jeremiah, as Jeremiah also prophesied in Judah at this time. From that book, we know that Jehoiakim’s reign was characterized by violence and injustice (Jeremiah 22.13-17). People were not treated fairly and the wealthy took advantage of those who were less fortunate. We also know that Jehoiakim was antagonistic toward God’s prophets who tried to direct him to a better path. Jehoiakim ordered the death of the prophet Uriah (Jeremiah 20.20-24) and refused to listen to the warnings of Jeremiah, even burning one of his scrolls (Jeremiah 36).

The Book of Habakkuk dates to approximately 610-605 B.C. Around this time, Nebuchadnezzar had defeated the combined forces of Egypt and Assyria at the Battle of Carchemesh and asserted Babylon as the dominant world power. The threat of Babylon lay like a shadow over the land of Palestine.

And it is in this context that the prophet Habakkuk speaks out. In agony, Habakkuk looked around at a struggling and imperfect world filled with heartbreak and suffering and violence and injustice and he cried out, “Don’t you care, Lord? Why do You let this go on?”

Yahweh was the God who made a covenant with Abraham and his descendants and who taught them what justice and righteousness was, and it is to Him who Habakkuk cries out because of the injustice and unrighteousness he saw surrounding him. As he struggled to make sense of it all, he lamented to God.

• • •

With a little reflection, I think we can see how Habakkuk’s ancient questions are also modern questions which are very relevant to us.

The stories on the news unsettle us. They remind us not of how far we have come, but of how far we still have to go. They remind us of a great racial divide that exists in our country between black and white.

The stories are not the same, but they have similarities: black men dying at the hands of white police officers following some sort of run-in with the law. Sometimes those officers are not indicted for their actions, and unhappy citizens take to the streets and protests and riots occur. We have heard the names of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, and Freddie Gray. We have seen the footage of protests in places like New York City and South Carolina, and riots in Ferguson and Baltimore.

I claim neither the knowledge of the facts of these specific cases nor the sufficient wisdom to know whose fault it was in each case, or where or how much blame should be placed. It is hard for me to know if justice has been served or not.

It is a delicate situation:

  • I don’t want to condemn police officers. Law enforcement officials fulfill a vital role in our society, and the vast majority of them selflessly do a good job. That doesn’t change the fact, however, that we clearly have some officers who exercise very poor judgment with tragic results.
  • I don’t want to excuse the behavior of those who, when confronted by an officer, resist arrest or run away or attempt to fight back. Neither do I believe, though, that such behavior should merit an immediate death sentence.
  • I don’t want to excuse violent protests and rioting in the streets. Neither do I want to suggest that there is nothing to protest and be upset about.

Regardless of whether or not justice was served in these individual cases, I do know that injustice exists in our country. I know that African Americans are incarcerated in this country at a much higher rate than Caucasians. I know that African Americans are more likely to experience poverty, and that there is a high correlation between poverty and crime. Thus, African Americans are also more likely to be involved in and to be victims of violent crime than are their white counterparts. That is unjust.

Further, I know that many black people have no trust in this nation’s justice system, nor in the officers who are supposed to uphold the laws of this country and protect its citizens. The statistics suggest that there is some reason to be concerned about this, and yet, I also know that there are many white people who refuse to even consider that there might be some validity to these concerns and conclusions.

And I know that in many environments, whether on talk shows, or social media, or in churches, or amongst friends, we are unable to even discuss these issues in a productive fashion because the divide is so great.

And in the midst of it all, I don’t know what to do other than to cry out to God, with language similar to Habakkuk’s…

Violence abounds in our society, in our world. It seems that destruction and violence are ever before us. When we cry “Violence!”, God, why do you not save?

The very systems we put in place to uphold order and limit violence seem to fail us. At times, it seems that the law is, in fact, paralyzed, and that justice never goes forth. Instead, justice is perverted.

• • •

God responds to Habbakuk. He doesn’t rebuke Habakkuk for his questions or frustrations. God is bigger than our emotions or our questions; He desires that we bring these before Him.

But God does respond (Habakkuk 1.5-11). Indeed, God is aware of all that is going on. He has seen the injustice and oppression, and He is going to act: He will use the Babylonians to punish Judah for their wickedness.

This revelation prompts additional lament from Habakkuk, who doesn’t understand why God would punish evil Judah with the even-more-evil Babylonians (Habakkuk 1.12-2.1). Those who were to be punished were more righteous than the ones who were to do the punishing!

God assures Habakkuk that He is in control of these events, and that the Babylonians will also be punished in time (Habakkuk 2.2-20).

The Book of Habakkuk concludes with a prayer of Habakkuk’s confident trust in God (Habakkuk 3.1-19). He has unburdened his heart and turned his doubts and fears over to God, he has heard God’s response, and now he expresses confidence that God will act, and bring about what is best.

• • •

While there are no easy answers, the Book of Habakkuk helps us to think more clearly about the problems and injustices in our own society.

(1) As we look around and see these heartbreaking tragedies and we are reminded of the inequities of our society, we cannot claim specific knowledge for why God allows these things to continue. But Habakkuk reminds us that God sees these things, and that He is sovereign over them. As people of faith, we trust in that sovereignty. We know that God is in control of the world, and that He works in all situations—even terrible ones—to bring about His good purposes.

(2) Also, Habakkuk and the other Old Testament prophets remind us to consider our own place in society: If destruction and violence are all around us, to what degree do we allow those things to continue? If the law is paralyzed and justice never goes forth, to what degree are we responsible for that paralysis and injustice? In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Silence in the face of evil is itself evil: God will not hold us guiltless. Not to speak is to speak. Not to act is to act.” If the evidence suggests that an entire subset of our population is suffering injustice and we, in our privilege, refuse to work to address the problem or even acknowledge that there is a problem, we become complicit in it.

(3) And finally, Habakkuk reminds us of the appropriateness of lament. It is right for us to be distressed, and to bring that distress before God. In His sovereignty, He is the one who can do something about it. And while we lament, we yearn for a day when justice will roll down like waters, righteousness like an ever-flowing stream, and when God shall wipe every tear from our eyes.

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