Excerpts from "Misconceptions Concerning the Law"

Marcion, the Source of Much Confusion Concerning the Law

Marcion, who lived during the second century A.D., rejected the Old Testament completely. Having been greatly influenced by the Gnostics, he taught a demiurgic notion that the God of the Old Testament was cruel and totally different God from the one revealed in the New Testament. He was so consumed with the belief that Paul's message of God's grace opposed God's Law that he kept only an edited portion of Paul's writings that agreed with his theology. Marcion's view was so contrary to God's Word that Polycarp, who was a student of John, called him "the firstborn of Satan."

Marcion went to Rome sometime around A.D. 139 and made a generous gift to the church. After examining his views, the congregation gave back his money and excommunicated him. Marcion subsequently founded his own church, which merged Gnosticism with orthodox Christianity, creating a theology that was sharply dualistic, violently antagonistic toward Judaism, strictly ascetic and celibate, and wielded a wide and destructive influence throughout Christendom. Unfortunately, some modern Christians have unknowingly endorsed his ideas.

Later, the Roman Catholic monk Augustine championed Marcion's ideas about grace opposing God's Law, and made them a significant part of his theology. At the time of the Reformation, men such as John Wycliff, the first to translate the Bible into English, and Miles Coverdale, the translator of the first printed English Bible, were heavily influenced by Augustine. In 1514 Coverdale was ordained a priest and later entered the Augustine Monastery at Cambridge. The notion that grace was in opposition to Law was strengthened when the French Reformer John Calvin endorsed this position in his Institutes of Christian Religion, which became the guide for the reformed churches of Protestantism. Although these reformers did a great work in the area of faith, their mistake idea of replacing the Law with grace has been the source of much confusion, even to the present.

In the New Testament, what appears to be the substitution of grace for Law is nothing more than a difference in the way God's eternal principles of Law are manifested. In the Old Testament, the principle of sacrifice was portrayed through animals, but in the New Testament Christ is ever-fulfilling that dimension of the Law as the Lamb of God. Each time a life is redeemed, the spirit of the Law, with its principles of the sacrifice and priesthood of Messiah, becomes ever more evident than before.

 

The Law Was Only "Until John"

It is common to hear people point to the misunderstood phrase form Luke 16:16 and ask, "Doesn't the New Testament say that the Law and the Prophets were only until John?" This question is usually followed by, "Aren't we under the Age of Grace today?" But these questions only serve to demonstrate the shallowness and distorted understanding of many modern-day believers regarding the Law. Luke 16:16 is simply stating that the Law and the Prophets were the only Scripture in existence up to the time that John came on the scene. The implication is that God was soon to add more.

The New Testament, as we know it today, was not canonized until some one hundred and fifty years after Christ. Luke's statement could not possibly mean that the Law of God had become obsolete, since it was used by the Church long after John the Baptizer had passed on. In fact, it is quoted from at least 185 times in the New Testament. This is not to suggest that the writings of Luke were not inspired, only that it was not until approximately A.D. 200 that the New Testament was collected into a body of writings that were widely held to be authoritative and divinely inspired.

It is clear that Paul, like Jesus, never intended to be understood as replacing God's eternal Law (see Matthew 5:17-20 and Romans 3:31). It is equally clear that Paul had strong feelings about his Gentile converts not having to live by, nor attain salvation through, the Law, which God had given as a covenant to the Jews (see 1 Corinthians 7:17-20).

 

The Letter of the Law

Jesus often instructed his disciples in the spirit of the Law, which actually goes beyond the mere letter of the Law. Examples of this can be seen in his warnings that when a married man lusts after a woman in his heart, he is already guilty of adultery, and if anyone calls a brother a fool, he places himself in danger of hell fire (see Matthew 5:19-30). These teachings go far beyond anything the Law ever stated.

Some may ask, "What was Paul's intent when he taught that the letter of the Law kills?" (see 2 Corinthians 3:6). First, he did not mean that the Law of God is evil and will put people in bondage, as some have suggested. Paul kept the Law of God and encouraged Jews everywhere to do the same (see 1 Corinthians 7:18). We should remember, however, that this statement was written to the Gentiles at Corinth, not to Jewish believers. Even the best qualities of the Law of God have always been referred to as a "ministration of death" to those in sin, the purpose being that the very intent of the Law is to expose and define sin. For the Gentile converts to try to keep the Jewish life-style, without the godly and disciplined background, would have placed them under a burden that was neither necessary nor desirable.

In this context, Paul wrote "the letter of the Law kills," but he went on to point out that "the spirit of the Law gives life." He was addressing salvation to the Gentiles, and concerning this issue, the letter of the Law is death, for only through the Spirit can life come. The summary of Paul's view is found in his statement to the Romans, "For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus hath made me free from the law of sin and death....That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." (Romans 8:2, 4).

 

Great Christian Leaders and the Law

Was Martin Luther, the great reformer, against the Law? Not at all. In fact, he said, "The first duty of the gospel preacher is to declare God's Law and show the nature of sin, because it will act as a schoolmaster and bring him to everlasting life which is in Jesus Christ." John Wesley said, "Before I preach love, mercy, and grace, I must preach sin, Law, and judgment." Wesley later advised a friend, "Preach 90 percent Law and 10 percent grace." Charles Spurgeon, who is known as the Prince of Preachers, said, "They will never accept grace until they tremble before a just and holy Law." Charles Finney, who is purported to have had an 80 percent success rate in his ministry, said, "Evermore the Law must prepare the way for the gospel; to overlook this in instructing souls is almost certain to result in false hope, the introduction of a false standard Christian experience, and to fill the church with false converts." John Wycliffe, the Morning Star of the Reformation, said, "The highest service to which a man may attain on earth is to preach the Law of God." D. L. Moody, who is credited with make making more than a million disciples for the Lord, put it in perspective, when he said, "God, being a perfect God, had to give a perfect Law, and the Law was given not to save men, but to measure them."

Clearly, then, these great Gospel preachers understood a primary purpose of the Law. Paul believed this, but he also saw other purposes in the Law.

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