It would seem that a lot of controversy in the Christian life could be solved if God would have given us more specifics for Christian living in the New Testament. In many ways the Mosaic Law was easier and more convenient. Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego may have struggled with (though it seems doubtful) the willingness to die for their convictions, but they didn’t have to struggle with what was right and wrong for a believer to do. The king’s meat and drink were a plain violation of the Law, as was bowing down before a statue. We could be almost envious of the ease of knowing God’s will in Old Testament Israel compared to today’s age of grace. It seems strange, therefore, that Israel went on to develop a mountain of tradition to further explain almost every atom of an Israelite’s existence. But unbelief in religion can never be satisfied with anything but rote legalism.
As a fundamentalist pastor and teetotaler in most life-style choices, I hesitate to put it in these terms. I feel comfortably firm in my convictions even though I see so many others (even in my own circles) coming to different conclusions. One of the most common reasons given for a different life-style is that someone does not see a chapter and verse command to do or not do a particular thing. This is for the most part true. Christians must make more application from their faith than their law-abiding ancestors. Yet, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego knew an idol when they saw one but twenty-first century Christians can’t seem to see one even if thousands of people are waving their arms and pledging their devotion to it. To them, if it’s not specifically described in a New Testament verse (and in great detail), it can’t be idolatry. What such Christians really want, I guess, is a formatted list of biblical answers that can be stored and downloaded to give instantaneous, even thoughtless, life-style decisions when necessary. Otherwise, they would like to be left alone, thank you very much!
Legalism had it so easy! Israelites knew what to eat and not eat; what style of clothes to wear and not to wear; when to worship and when not to; what offering to bring and what not to bring; how far to walk on the Sabbath and exactly where they must stop. But Grace doesn’t always spell it out like we would like. Oh sure, we can spot the unequivocal commandments about adultery, murder, stealing and lying, but those don’t really go very far in the average Christian life. What about what is permitted to drink and not to drink; or when dancing is suggestive; or when crude language goes too far; or when song lyrics are unchristian; or when I can miss church without penalty; or when a television has become an idol in the living room? Rather than convenient and specific rules, I am left with those pesky biblical principles and all that disagreement.
Reading through 1 Thessalonians, for example, finds nebulous statements like “not pleasing men, but God” (2:4), “walk worthy of God” (2:12), “stand fast in the Lord” (3:8), “this is the will of God, even your sanctification” (4:4), “for God hath not called us unto uncleanness, but unto holiness” (4:7). This is so typical of New Testament epistles. But I find that almost all Christians read the same verses and yet apply them differently (sometimes very differently) than I. Maybe I should also praise the Lord for how much unity there is in the faith among believers who have read these same statements! Yet I think there are good reasons why the New Testament doesn’t read like the Old, and why it is grace rather than law.
The New Testament does give us a divinely revealed pattern for living. Two thousand years of Christian testimony speak to that. Yet we find in our day a growing disparity over what is proper application from the New Testament to the Christian life and what is not. The following are some reasons I think we must make application of Christian doctrine to our lives in whatever time and place we happen to live. In other words, why doesn’t our New Testament give us more specifics for Christian living?
It would be “legalistic”
I must first include this caveat. I believe that the term “legalism” ought to be reserved for a system of belief where one earns or keeps salvation by works. If that is true, I don’t know of any fundamentalist who is legalistic. However, that is not how the term is used today. Today it means anyone who has rules that are too harsh. But this was my point about the comparison of the Old Testament and the New. Living under the Mosaic economy was, in this sense, very legalistic, not only because its rules were often harsh, but because it took little thought. All one had to know is the list of rules. Keep it and you won’t get stoned.
There are many believers in the age of grace who won’t take the time to extract principles for living from the New Testament. They are only looking for black and white statements. When they appeal to “chapter and verse” they think they are being deeply biblical but in actuality it’s a cop out. If it is on their list, fine, but if it is not, no amount of reasoning from principles will convince them otherwise. So for all their accusing of others, this form of dealing with the New Testament is legalism by today’s definition.
It would be without faith
Paul wrote, “For we walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor. 5:7). In the context of that chapter, faith is the ability to see truth (specifically about life after death) which the carnal eye cannot see. In fact, this faith causes us to labor to be acceptable to Him (vs. 9) because we must all stand at the Bema Seat one day and be rewarded for things done or not done in our body (vs. 10). To walk only by sight (things that pertain to this life) rather than by faith (things that pertain to the next life) is to glory in appearance but not in heart (vs. 12).
The desire of my heart ought to be to live this life in the light of that Bema appearance that I will some day make before The Lord Jesus Christ. That desire drives me to err on the side of caution when it comes to questionable things. Indeed, “all things are not expedient” (1 Cor. 6:12) precisely for this reason. In that context Paul was arguing for going the extra mile in avoiding anything that resembled idolatry.
It would be without the Holy Spirit
Being filled with the Spirit is one of those things we talk about easily but live out in great difficulty. A believer (who therefore possesses the Holy Spirit) should know the difference between being filled and not being filled, between having victory in the Christian life and not, between displaying wisdom from above and that which is “earthly, sensual, devilish” (Jas. 3:15). This leading of the Holy Spirit is conditioned by a constant reading of the New Testament. He brings verses to our mind that describe something from two thousand years ago and applies it right to our situation. Jesus said, “when he, the Spirit of truth, is come, he will guide you into all truth” (Jn. 16:13). John would later write that the anointing of the Holy Spirit “teacheth you of all things, and is truth, and is no lie” (1 Jn. 2:27).
It would be academic
If the New Testament were merely a list of do’s and don’ts, it could be figured out and lived by a mathematical formula rather than by discernment. This is the problem with numerology and typology. All you need is a good calculator to be a good theologian. Remember The Bible Code by Michael Drosnin which printed out the whole Hebrew Bible like a giant Scrabble board and then, by computer, found a string of letters connected vertically or horizontally thus showing any modern subject in the Bible? The Koran is nothing but a list of sayings and commands (arranged from the longest to the shortest) with no other story line. It takes no faith to read it and do it, just rote memory.
If the New Testament were given in such an arrangement, just a list of commands, we would be no better than a cult. But Christianity takes the wisdom of years and the meekness of wisdom to live. Those that are “unlearned and unstable” wrestle the Scriptures “to their own destruction” (2 Pet. 3:16) rather than applying them to their own salvation.
It would be without instructors
What is the process of discipleship and learning if not imparting principles from one who is learned to one who is unlearned? “Let him that is [being] taught in the word communicate unto him that [is] teaching in all good things” (Gal. 6:6). Paul wrote, “I write not these things to shame you, but as my beloved sons I warn you. For though ye have ten thousand instructors in Christ, yet have ye not many fathers” (1 Cor. 4:14-15). Anyone can be “shamed” into learning by memorizing lists, but it takes a fatherly figure to “warn” one of latent truth. The process of education, of teaching, is to build a mechanism for discovering truth that at one time was not so obvious. It takes line upon line and precept upon precept, here a little and there a little (Isa. 28:13).
How many of us learned Biblical principles from a Sunday School teacher or a youth pastor or just a Christian friend who spent time with us inculcating things into our minds and answering questions about what appeared to be contradictions? Our Lord’s commission is for us to be “teaching them to observe” the things that are not easily observed.
It would be without covenant
In fact, it would be without doctrinal statement at all! If we did not have to interpret and apply the Scriptures, if they were already spelled out in organized statements, no believers would have seen the need to formulate a confession of faith. Church covenants have been those things which contain applications for Christian living which the local body of Christ feels convicted it must live by. This is an honest way of letting newcomers know how that church has applied the Scriptures to questionable things. Perhaps the lack of church covenants in our day is a tell-tale sign of our unwillingness to make applications from Scripture about specific things.
When young William Carey first went to Moulton to accept the pastorate of the small congregation of around twenty people, he was appalled at the slack attitude toward the church services and the non-use of the church covenant. Rather than ignoring it he proposed a more pointed covenant that asked the members for greater commitment, not less. This helped the church form the mind of the great missionary.
And So . . .
No matter how much we want to “live and let live” as brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot stop our own quest for Biblical truth in living. The Bible is meant to be read, thought about, meditated on, and applied to every situation of life. Of course it cannot contain a list of every possible sin of every age of man, but it does contain what we need to meet every circumstance of our lives. “According as his divine power hath given unto us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that hath called us to glory and virtue” (2 Pet. 1:3). It can only do this if it is possible to apply this timeless Book to every human situation, not just giving us a list to memorize, but a story, a history, so factual and true that it is current at all times and in all ways.
“So teach us to number our days, that we may apply our hearts unto wisdom” (Psa. 90:12).
Lord, I esteem thy judgments right,
And all thy statutes just;
Thence I maintain a constant fight
With every flat’ring lust.
Thy precepts often I survey;
I keep thy law in sight,
Through all the business of the day,
To form my actions right.
My heart in midnight silence cries,
“How sweet thy comforts be!”
My thoughts in holy wonder rise,
And bring their thanks to thee.
And when my spirit drinks her fill
At some good word of thine,
Not mighty men that share the spoil
Have joys compar’d to mine.
(Isaac Watts, Psalm 119 part 6)