Do Jeremiah and Ezekiel teach that God causes us to obey?

Ezekiel 36:25-28 is a powerful message of the changes that were to come in the New Covenant. One of the biggest changes that is communicated is the presence of the Holy Spirit inside of all believers, something that only the anointed experienced in the Old (Numbers 11:29). But what would be the Spirit’s role in the life of New Covenant believers? The position that many evangelicals take based on these passages is that the Holy Spirit is solely responsible for believers’ obedience. As John MacArthur puts it, “The New Covenant also carries an internal power to cause obedience to the Law of God.”1 In a similar vein, John Piper says, “Unless God enables our obedience, we work and serve in vain. All true obedience flows from the strength he supplies.”2 Phrases like ‘all you have to do is believe’ or using John 3:16 as an entire gospel presentation are the natural result of such thinking. If this is indeed, however, how the Holy Spirit functions in the lives of believers under the New Covenant, we would expect to find significant support for this in the New Testament (NT) when examining passages that speak to the Holy Spirit’s role and what obedience in the lives of believers looks like. What we actually find is just the opposite.

Let us look first to Hebrews 10:22 where we have a clear allusion to Ezekiel 36:25, yet, just 4 verses later, in 26-39, the author launches into a warning about the consequences of disobedience and the eternal and fearful punishment that awaits those who continue in it. If the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant brings obedience without the believer having to do anything, would not a warning about the dangers of disobedience be one of the last things you would expect to find in a book that is celebrating the superiority of that covenant now being realized?

This theme of obedience being tied to the Holy Spirit, but not in the way you would expect if the evangelical position is the correct one, is not exclusive to Hebrews. In Philippians 2:12-14 we have the famous quote from 13, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and work for his good pleasure”, which provides a brief glimmer of hope for this position. That is until you read the verses on either side where imperatives to obedience are directed at the believer. Consider also the choice of words, ‘God working in you’, not ‘working for you’. Next, consider 1 John 3:23-24 where John talks about how we can be assured of our salvation. This assurance comes when we are being obedient – and only when we are being obedient – will the Holy Spirit continue to dwell within us. Perhaps the most convincing evidence comes from Acts 5:32, where we find something even more explicit. Peter and the apostles state that the Holy Spirit is “given to those who obey”, not as the means to obey.

That being said, one cannot deny the relationship that exists between the Holy Spirit and obedience. The question is, what is that relationship?  Let us look to where Jesus gives the promise of the Spirit. In John 14:15-26, Jesus first tells His disciples that if they love Him, they will be obedient. He then launches into the promise and role of the Holy Spirit as a Helper. Since Jesus talks about obedience and then moves immediately into the promise of a coming Helper, it should be clear that the Holy Spirit’s role is that of helping believers to be obedient. Consider the major departure this represents from the evangelical line of thinking. The Holy Spirit is the Helper in our obedience, not the author of our obedience. We see something similar from Paul in Romans 8:12-13:

“So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

Notice the Spirit’s role in our fleshly mortification is not that of author, but instrument. “By the Spirit” we are helped in our endeavor to “put to death the deeds” of the flesh.

Though this should be sufficient to understand the role of the Holy Spirit in the New Covenant, let’s take it a step further and consider a couple implications created if it were true that the Holy Spirit is the author of our obedience. The first one is that no one in the Old Testament (OT), except for the few that were blessed with the Spirit, could have been obedient. Yet, Deuteronomy 30:11-14 warns against this exact line of thinking and carries all the more weight when considering that it follows closely on the heels of 54 verses dedicated to various curses promised to those who are disobedient (Deuteronomy 28:15-68). If it is only through the Holy Spirit that “God enables our obedience”, He set up generation after generation of Israelites to fail for thousands of years and added insult to injury by punishing and killing them for their failures. We also have a myriad of examples of OT saints who were faithfully obedient without the Holy Spirit’s help (Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, Isaac and Rachel, Jacob and Rebekah, Joseph, Job, Rahab, Ruth, Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, Saul/Paul). Consider also Jesus’ Apostles, are we to believe they were never obedient until after His death and ascension, since they did not receive the Spirit until Acts 2?

This leads into the second, similar, consideration we have under the NT. If the Holy Spirit is the one that is responsible for our obedience and we have no control over it, He is the one that should be held accountable for any failure, not us. In other words, whenever we are disobedient, it is only because the Holy Spirit failed to cause us to be obedient. What we see in Scripture, however, is us, as fully capable, freewill individuals, who are given imperatives to be obedient (2 Peter 3:14, 17; 1 Peter 3:10-12; 1 Thessalonians 4:7-8; 5:19-22; Philippians 1:27; Ephesians 1:13 w/4:25-30; Romans 8:12), warned about disobedience (Hebrews 6:1-6; 10:25-32; 2 Peter 2:20-22), and told the coming judgment will be according to our deeds (Romans 2:6-8; 2 Peter 1:5-11; Revelation 20:11-15; 21:8; Jude 1:21). If we bear no responsibility (or ability) to be obedient, why are we the object of these imperatives and warnings instead of the Spirit? These passages become nonsensical or pointless unless we actually have the ability to do it. Jesus will condemn to hell many Christians because of their disobedience (Matthew 7:23) – what kind of unrighteous, unjust monster is created if He sends to eternal torture those who were never able to do what He asked of them?

With all this in mind we can now bring it full circle to how we must understand what is being said by Ezekiel. First, let us look at another passage in Ezekiel where similar words are spoken about the promise of the coming Spirit and His tie to obedience (11:19-21). This passage has an additional piece though – a warning to those who choose to be disobedient that God will “bring their deeds upon their own heads”. No doubt Ezekiel intends us to have this warning in mind when reading about the same promise of the Spirit in chapter 36. As we have seen from the NT, the Spirit’s role is not that of author of our obedience, but helping us in performing our obligation to be obedient. That is not to say that the Holy Spirit is not a cause of obedience, it is simply saying that He is not the sole or primary cause of obedience. That is why Ezekiel can say He will cause obedience and simultaneously warn us about disobedience since we, who do have the primary role in our obedience, continue to bear the consequences for any failure to be obedient. Though this helps us to understand what Ezekiel is saying, to make it even clearer, we can consider the translation of the text. The word that is used in Hebrew (עשה) which the translators chose to interpret as “to cause” has a semantic range that can also mean ‘to prepare’ or ‘to equip’, which we see in Exodus 12:16 and Jeremiah 3:16. With that information and given what we have learned about the fulfillment of this prophecy in the NT, the way we should understand Ezekiel 36:27 is this:

“And I will put my Spirit within you, to equip you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules”.

Martin Luther: The True Modern Pharisee

The sola fide, or “faith alone” gospel, teaches that all that is required of Christians to enter into and remain in a salvific relationship with God is faith. This gospel as we know it originated not with Christ but in 16th-century Germany, nearly 1500 years after Christ’s death. Since its invention, this gospel has spread to infect every continent on earth and is now touted by the vast majority of professing Christians in the United States1. Though popular, this ideology is far from biblical and represents a grave and heretical rejection of what the Bible teaches. The inventor of the lethal sola fide gospel, German reformer Martin Luther, not only violated inspired Scripture by modifying God’s Word with his own, but also found it necessary to undermine God’s holy Law and even reject several New Testament books to support his beliefs. The result: a heretical and flimsy gospel with little to no true biblical support, created by a man who lived to regret his antinomianism the closer he drew to his last days on earth.

Bolstered by the power of Germany’s princes, Gutenberg’s printing press, and the skill of crafty speech, Luther was able to intoxicate the western world with the dangerous idea that faith alone was all that was truly necessary to be saved. As a former monk in the Roman Catholic Church, Luther had come to believe that the Bible taught a works-based salvation – that people must earn their way to heaven through meritorious acts or obedience to God’s Law. Bound by this faulty understanding – and the conviction that nothing other than perfection would be acceptable before a Holy God, Luther created what he believed to be the solution: a view of Christ as not only our atoning sacrifice for sin but also our perfect Law-keeper, or “merit-maid” before God. Therefore, by putting faith in Christ, a person not only receives the blessing of forgiveness but also the works necessary to earn their way to heaven. This then became the only essential in Luther’s system of salvation. In a letter to Philip Melanchthon, Luther wrote,

“Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your faith in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. This life is not a place where righteousness can exist. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery a thousand times each day.”

In his treatise, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, Luther expresses similar sentiments,

“The Christian or baptized man cannot, even if he would lose his soul by any sins however great unless he refuses to believe; for no sins whatever can condemn him, but unbelief alone.”

As would be expected, this faith-alone view of salvation also affected Luther’s hermeneutic. The Bible was to be split into two parts or messages: one gospel, the other law. In his mind, Gospel represented any portion of Scripture that speaks to what God does for us through Christ. The other, Law, are those portions which speak to what we must, but cannot do, and consequently are condemned for2. According to Luther then, our obligation to obey the Law, was something outside, or opposed to, the idea of the Gospel. The Law served the Gospel (in bringing people to see their own sin), but the Gospel could never serve the Law3

For Luther, this included not only initial justification but after a person became a Christian as well. Faith alone would remain the only essential. The Law was viewed as neither binding nor applicable to Christians,

“[The Law of Moses] is no longer binding on us because it was given only to the people of Israel…Moses has nothing to do with us [New Testament saints]. If I were to accept Moses in one commandment, I would have to accept the entire Moses…Moses is dead. His rule ended when Christ came. He is of no further service…Exodus 20:1…Makes it clear that even the Ten Commandments do not pertain to us…We will regard Moses as a teacher, but we will not regard him as our lawgiver – unless he agrees with both the NT and the natural law…not one little period of Moses pertains to us.”

(Luther’s Works 35:164-166)

“This shall serve you as a true rule, that whenever the Scriptures order and command good works, you must so understand it that the Scriptures forbid good works. If you should not sin against the gospel, then be on your guard against good works; avoid them as one avoids a pest.”

(A Treatise on Good Works, 1520)

As such, what the Reformers referred to as the third use of the law, Luther viewed as a threat.

In the words of James Payton Jr.,

“Indeed, it would not be too much to state that Luther detected a threat to justification by faith alone behind every blade of grass and under every rock in the landscape…It is worth noting though, that it introduced a particular limitation in the way he allowed that believers should be directed as they sought to live before God.  Luther considered it a corruption of the Christian message to teach that the law directs believers in this regard. Luther allowed for two uses of the law but repudiated the third.  The first use of the law was its general one to structure society and declare what must be done if society is to continue to flourish; this was the law as it related human beings to each other. The second use of the law was to condemn sinners and bring them to an awareness of their sin before God; this was the law as it related human beings to God. Luther repudiated what came to be called the third use of the law, which some (alleged) showed believers how God wants them to live for Him. Luther bristled at this notion. He had learned by brutal experience that the law offered no comfort to human beings and only drove them to despair before God. To reintroduce the law as a guideline for Christian living must eventually lead, according to Luther, to a reversion to works-righteousness.”4

Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings

Therefore, to discuss obedience to God’s Law – or anything else for that matter, as also essential to salvation, was in Luther’s eyes neither the gospel nor a proper understanding of the Scriptures. This included even the Scripture itself. Those portions that disagreed with his personal interpretation, he sought to modify or remove. For example, Luther added the word “alone” to his German translation of Romans 3:28 (“we maintain that a person is justified by faith alone, apart from the works of the law”), though the original text does not contain the word.5 Ironically, the only place in the Bible that the words “faith” and “alone” occur together is in the negative, directly refuting the idea Luther was attempting to promote by vandalizing the text.

24 “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.

James 2:24

In response to criticism of this addition, Luther said,

“You tell me what a great fuss the Papists are making because the word ‘alone’ in not in the text of Paul…say right out to him: ‘Dr. Martin Luther will have it so,’…I will have it so, and I order it to be so, and my will is reason enough. I know very well that the word ‘alone’ is not in the Latin or the Greek text”.

As a result of this verse and many others within the book of James, Luther referred to the book as, “the epistle of straw”6, and attempted to remove it from the New Testament. Similar to the 2nd century heretic Marcion7, Luther sought to reject and destroy all New Testament books that could not be reconciled with his personal interpretation and gospel message8. In addition to James, this included the books of Hebrews, Jude, and Revelation. In regard to the epistle of James, Luther wrote,

“Let us banish this epistle from the university, for it is worthless. It has no syllable about Christ, not even naming him except once at the beginning. I think it was written by some Jew who had heard of the Christians but not joined them… The epistle of James gives us much trouble, for the Papists embrace it alone and leave out all the rest…Accordingly, if they will not admit my interpretations, then I shall make rubble also of it. I almost feel like throwing Jimmy into the stove.”

In response to Luther’s heretical practices, Paul Rainbow writes

“[These facts] ought to unsettle any for whom sola fide has become a shibboleth. It is reason enough to re-examine the biblical grounds.”

While evidence exists that Luther may have begun to reconsider some of his views in his latter years, the damage was already done. The sola fide gospel had become the entrenched mindset of many within the western world and was beginning to bear its ugly fruit.  Which leads to what may prove to be his most ironic connection to the sola fide gospel, the terms evangelical and antinomian9. Though both terms were coined by Luther to distinguish respectively between orthodox Christians and those he considered heretics, the fruit of his soteriological system had inevitably made them one and the same. To be evangelical in America today, is to be antinomian. Once more from Paul Rainbow,

“With regard to [the sola fide gospel’s] effects in history, the doctrine is dangerous. Since the [time of Luther], it has proven powerless to check repeated outbreaks of antinomianism in churches… resulting in large fringes of congregants today imbued with the heresy that without mortifying sins they can nevertheless rest assured of reaching heaven. One prominent Lutheran theologian has dubbed antinomianism ‘the heresy of the [evangelical] American church.’”10

The fruit of Luther’s theology was, of course, a Christianity filled with debauchery. Luther later became so disillusioned by what his lax gospel had produced that he wrote, “since the downfall of…cessations of excommunications and spiritual penalties, the people have learned to despise the word of God. They no longer care for the churches; they have ceased to fear and honor God. After throwing off the yoke of the pope, everyone wishes to live as he pleases. They say, ‘we will spend the day like Lutherans.’ Drunkenness has come upon us like a deluge. If God had not closed my eyes, and if I had foreseen these scandals, I would never have begun to teach the gospel.” In a rare moment of humility, Luther seems to have realized and lamented the lawlessness that flourishes as a result of his gospel.

The faith-alone gospel is one created by a human mind, made possible only by modifying and denying Scripture, propped up on the wicked idea God’s holy Law is somehow lacking or even abusive. It promotes the idea that the fundamental issue in Creation is the Creator’s unfair expectations, rather than human sin and corruption. It is one that does not have biblical origins, as the true gospel undoubtedly should. Sola fide is certainly not the gospel that our Lord preached in His time here on earth. Unfortunately, despite its colossal pitfalls and heretical origins, it remains the cornerstone of the largest Christian denomination in the United States. Even this gospel’s inventor and primary champion, Martin Luther, saw its gaping cracks. Perhaps it is time for the modern world to face those fatal flaws and return to the biblical gospel as it was taught by our Lord Jesus Christ, not a cynical German monk.

Will God “Remain Faithful” to Save the Disobedient?

If we are faithless, he remains faithful.

2 Timothy 2:13

This verse is sometimes used to communicate that God will be faithful to save Christians despite any faithlessness or unfaithfulness on the Christian’s part. In the words of Brad McCoy (Grace Evangelical Society), “Verse 13 is a remarkable (re)affirmation of the absolute security of every believer.”1 Or in the words of Zane Hodges, “If we Christians were ‘faithless,’ this in no way affected His loyalty to us. Every guarantee that had been made to us in grace would still be ours, regardless of our lack of faith or fidelity.”2Grace in Eclipse: A Study on Eternal Rewards, p. 973 In both cases, verse 13 is being used to support the idea that our salvation is not in question despite faithless or unfaithful lives.

These interpretations are both great examples of forcing one’s interpretation onto the text instead of going where the text leads. To understand what the statement in verse 13 is actually communicating, we must look to the immediate context, starting in verse 10,

Therefore I endure everything for the sake of the elect, that they also may obtain the salvation that is in Christ Jesus with eternal glory.

v.10

Paul sets the stage by telling Timothy why he is willing to undergo the suffering and trials he has faced. It’s for the sake of the “elect”. Paul’s next phrase, “that they also may obtain the salvation” is an interesting one. Notice Paul’s use of the word “may”. This word expresses that the elect obtaining salvation is a possibility, not a certainty. Paul is communicating that his reason for enduring what he is facing is to give them the best chance at obtaining salvation. Paul then gives his endorsement to what follows:

The saying is trustworthy

v.11a

In Paul’s time, this “saying” must have been a commonly known set of statements. The body is broken into two distinct couplets, the first is clearly positive:

If we have died with him, we will also live with him;

if we endure, we will also reign with him;

vv.11b-12a

The second couplet, however, changes to the negative:

if we deny him, he also will deny us;

if we are faithless, he remains faithful-for he cannot deny himself.

vv.12b-13

The first couplet of this “statement” points to the promises made to those who are faithful to Christ, faithful to die and to endure. Those individuals will live and reign with Him. The second couplet then, must equally point to the promises made to those who are not faithful to Christ, those that deny him and are faithless (or unfaithful) to him. This is apparent from the first piece “if we deny him, he also will deny us”. A clear allusion to Jesus’ own warning in Matthew 10:33. Equally so, the second piece communicates Christ’s commitment to His promises in relation to the unfaithful. Notice, “he remains faithful–for he cannot deny himself.” The point of this statement is in relation to Christ’s faithfulness to Himself, not His faithfulness to us. The point of Paul’s words is that Christ is trustworthy, He remains faithful to His promises because He cannot lie, cannot misrepresent Himself, and cannot deny Himself (Num 23:19; Tit 1:2). Put another way, Christ is no less faithful to keep His Word just because we don’t believe or teach that He will (i.e., if we are faithless). The emphasis missed entirely by Hodges and McCoy, however, is that the promises Christ makes to the faithful (e.g. Mat 11:28-29, 25:20-23, 34-40, Joh 3:16-21 w/3:36) are altogether different from those made to the unfaithful (e.g. Mat 13:41-42, 49-50, 22:11-14, 24:48-51, 25:29-30, 41-46; Luk 13:24-27; John 3:19-20 w/3:36). To the unfaithful, or the “faithless”, Jesus promises that they will be denied before the Father and sent into eternal punishment. Ironically, the idea that verse 13 communicates a believer’s “absolute security” or that Christ will always be loyal to us is the very thing being struck down in the words “for he cannot deny himself.” For Christ to depart from the promises and words He made while on earth would be just that, a denial of Himself. For Christ to treat someone as faithful who is faithless, or to not deny someone who has denied Him, would be a violation of His own promises and words.

It’s no surprise that Paul drops this sober warning and reminder in the middle of chapter two. The first part of chapter two consists of Paul instructing Timothy to train up men who can be entrusted with God’s Word and “teach others” (v. 2). Paul then gives the “saying” (vv. 11-13) and tells Timothy he should remind these men of it (v. 14a). Then in the second portion of the chapter, Paul shows what happens when teachers depart from the “trustworthy saying”. Paul specifically brings up Hymenaeus and Philetus, two men spreading the gangrenous doctrine (v. 17) that the resurrection “has already happened” (v.18) (i.e., there would be no future resurrection). The connection between Paul’s condemnation of their belief and its propagation of the kind of unfaithfulness he warns against in verses 12 and 13 cannot be overlooked. Preaching no resurrection is the same as preaching there will be no punishment for disobedient believers (cf., 1Co 15:32). Paul therefore concludes the chapter by calling Timothy to “correct his opponents” in the hopes that “God may perhaps grant them repentance,” and that they might, “escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured to do his will” (v. 26).

So, on which side of the “trustworthy saying” do Hymenaeus and Philetus fall? Are they the faithful and enduring? Or are they the deniers and faithless ones? There is no question they are the unfaithful that Paul is referring to in verse 12. On the other hand, if verse 13 is speaking about Christ’s faithfulness to save us regardless of our faithlessness, are we really to believe that we’ll see Hymenaeus and Philetus, men doing the devil’s will, in Heaven if they continued to live how they’re described here? This is a ridiculous conclusion. Christ will most assuredly be faithful to follow through on His promises to the unfaithful when He judges men like Hymenaeus and Philetus.

Clearly then, 2 Timothy 2:13 is not a “(re)affirmation of the absolute security of every believer” irrespective of their behavior. It is a grave mistake to use this verse in this way. This new understanding, however, offers great encouragement to those with the right interpretation. One cannot trust anyone who fails to keep their word, good or bad. Our trust in His promises to the faithful is entirely contingent on God keeping all of His promises, even to the unfaithful. We can have no true confidence that God will fulfill His promises of blessings and eternal life to the faithful if He fails to keep His promises of punishment and denial to the unfaithful. For God to fail to punish or hold people accountable for being unfaithful would be an act of corruption, not grace.

Not one word has failed of all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you. All have come to pass for you; not one of them has failed. But just as all the good things that the LORD your God promised concerning you have been fulfilled for you, so the LORD will bring upon you all the evil things, until he has destroyed you from off this good land that the LORD your God has given you, if you transgress the covenant of the LORD your God…

Joshua 23:14-16

Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations, and repays to their face those who hate him, by destroying them. He will not be slack with one who hates him. He will repay him to his face.

Deuteronomy 7:9-10

Were the Pharisees condemned for their obedience to God’s Law?

The Pharisees were the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, responsible for teaching the people the commands of God (John 3:10). Throughout Jesus’ lifetime, the Pharisees were His most vocal adversaries, and Jesus spent much of His ministry refuting and preaching against the teachings of the Pharisees, beginning with His first public sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. Even before Christ’s ministry, the Pharisees were a primary target for Jesus’ herald, John the Baptist. John dedicated part of his sermon on repentance in Matthew 3 to explicitly calling out the Pharisees as a “brood of vipers”. (v.7) Both John and Jesus warned the Jews, using the Pharisees as an example, of the “wrath to come”. To avoid becoming modern-day Pharisees, we need to understand what they believed about salvation.

Christianity is predominantly evangelical, and the majority of Christianity’s theology comes from the Reformation in the 16th century. To understand what Christians commonly believe about the Pharisees, it makes logical sense to consider the teachings of the ‘Father of the Reformation’, Martin Luther. Luther discusses the Pharisees in his commentary of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5. He states:

Here you see how [Christ] plunges in and antagonizes not ordinary people, but the very best in the whole nation, who were the true kernel and quintessence, and shone before the rest like the sun, so that there was no more highly esteemed class nor more honorable name among the people than that of the Pharisees and Scribes; and if one wanted to name a holy man, he would have to name a Pharisee.

Martin Luther (Commentary on the Sermon on the Mount, emphasis mine)

And,

“[Christ] rebukes also not certain evil practices or sins, but their righteousness and holy living; so completely, indeed, that he denies and closes the kingdom of heaven against them, and condemns them at once to hell fire.”

ibid (emphasis mine)

And,

That is now one thing that he acknowledges, that they have a righteousness, and lead a correct, honorable life; and yet [Christ] so completely rejects it, that if it be not better than that, it is already condemned, and all is lost that one can accomplish by it.

ibid (emphasis mine)

Evangelicals view the Pharisees very similarly. They claim that the “Pharisees were the ultimate religious people among the Jews”, intent “not to break any of God’s laws” but rather viewed “the Scriptures of the Old Testament as a set of rules that must be kept at all costs.”1. Additionally, they believe that “as a general rule, the Pharisees were self-righteous and smug in their delusion that they were pleasing to God because they kept the Law—or parts of it, at least.”2

What is clear from the teaching of Luther and modern-day Christians is that they believe that the Pharisees were condemned to hell for “their righteousness and holy living” and not because of their “certain evil practices or sins”.3 So, is the evangelical understanding of what the Pharisees believed true and Biblical? Were the Pharisees condemned for trying to obey God’s law?

Let’s look at this question from the perspective of the “founder” (Heb 12:2) of the Christian faith, Jesus. Though Jesus says in Matthew 5:20 that the only way to enter the kingdom of heaven is by having a “righteousness that exceeds the scribes and Pharisees”, what else Jesus says about the Pharisees makes this less of an obstacle than one might think.

Jesus taught the Jewish people that the Pharisees were hypocrites. They were the classic example of someone who preaches one thing yet practices another. Hence the reason in Matthew 23, Jesus tells the crowds to “do and observe whatever [the Pharisees] tell you, but not the works they do. For they preach, but do not practice.” (vv. 2-3). Six times in chapter 23, Jesus refers to them as “hypocrites” (vv. 13, 15, 23, 25, 27, and 29), claiming also that they are “full of hypocrisy” (v. 28). Hardly were they the “true kernel and quintessence” of God’s people or holiness. Neither were they characterized by trying to obey God’s law. This becomes abundantly clear from Jesus’s condemnation in verse 23:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others.

Matthew 23:23

And again, in verses 27 and 28,

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.

Matthew 23:27-28

According to Jesus, the Pharisees were condemned not because they kept the law, but rather the antithesis. The Pharisees were condemned because they did not obey God’s Law. Though preaching to the crowds comprehensive obedience, they themselves were selective and secretly disobedient to those portions most weighty (v. 4).4

In addition, the Pharisees were also known at times to preach against the law. Loopholes in God’s commands were created. Traditions and the doctrines of man replaced God’s commands when it served them. This is most especially true when money was involved (Mat 15:1-9; Mar 7:6-12; Luke 16:14-15).

So were the Pharisees what we see commonly preached in Evangelical pulpits today? Were they just a bunch of self-righteous, smug individuals, puffed up by their meticulous efforts to obey God’s law?

Not according to Jesus. Jesus exposed the Pharisees as hypocritical antinomians. The Pharisees were in it for show and excuses. They cared nothing about being truly obedient to God. Although they posed as law-keeping sons of Abraham, the Devil was their daddy (Joh 8:44). The Pharisees, therefore, pose no problem to Jesus’ requirement of righteousness in Matthew 5 or the obligation of obedience required by the gospel. The problem exists only in the false teaching of Martin Luther and the Evangelical Church.

Does Galatians 3 teach that Christ was punished for our sins?

For all those who rely on works of the law are under a curse, for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all the things written in the book of the law and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith”. But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them”. Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us – for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree” – so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Galatians 3:10-14

Before we begin to analyze Galatians 3:10-14, let’s first consider the logical outcome of the assertion that Christ suffered the punishment for our sins. In Ezekiel 18, God responds to His people’s belief that the sons of sinful men would be punished for their fathers’ sins. He says this in verse 4: “Behold, all souls are mine; the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die”. He continues, beginning in verse 20: “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not suffer for the iniquity of the father, nor the father suffer for the iniquity of the son. The righteousness of the righteous
shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself.”
Through these words, God strongly condemns as illegal the idea that one person could ever be punished for the sins of another. Are we to believe that though such unrighteous punishment was illegal under His law, He (who magnifies His word even above His own name, according to Psa 138:2) punished His perfect son for an unfathomable degree of sins which He did not commit? If that were the case, it would mean that God had broken His own law and therefore had sinned. Since we know that this cannot be true, we can rightfully conclude that whatever Galatians 3:10-14 is teaching, it is not that Christ took the punishment for our sins. What then are these verses teaching?

Throughout scripture, the only persons hanged on trees were those who had forfeited their ability to atone for their sins by their refusal to obey God’s laws. This included not only those in pagan nations, but also those formerly in the covenant community. Anyone refusing to follow God’s precepts or prescriptions – i.e., the apostate, were considered the “cursed”, those eligible for hanging. Perhaps the best example of this is Judas, who hangs himself on a tree after betraying Christ and is called “The Son of Perdition” in Scripture (the Greek word ἀπωλείας, translated “perdition” literally means “curse”). Other examples include the multiple pagan kings who were killed by Joshua at God’s command (Jos 8:29, Jos 10:26). In contrast, hanging is never prescribed where atonement is possible. In cases where the sin is capital in nature and requires death, the prescription is limited to stoning. Take for example the Israelite Achan: though he stole from Jericho after God explicitly prohibited His people from doing such a thing, he nonetheless was eligible for forgiveness from God. Hence the reason he is told to “give glory to God” before receiving his punishment. Achan was a condemned man, but not a cursed one: God was still willing to forgive him once justice had been served (Jos 7:19-26). For those in covenant with God, atonement for sin is possible through faithful obedience to serve justice as the law requires (Pro 16:6). This is a privilege unique to the people of God, one that was inaccessible to those who placed themselves under the curse through their disobedience and rebellion.

This understanding of the function of hanging sheds light on what Paul is communicating in Galatians 3:10-14. The Jews to whom he wrote understood that according to the law, a curse would abide on anyone who declared themselves apostate by their refusal to obey God’s precepts (Deu 27:26, Jer 11:3-4). In essence, they would deserve to be hanged. Yet this is the very thing Paul is encouraging the Galatians to do. Paul calls for the cancellation of the Old Covenant clean laws of circumcision (Gen 17:10-14, Lev 12:3), sacrifice (e.g. Lev 1:1-4), ceremonial separation (e.g. Lev 11:39, Lev 12:1-5, Lev 13:43-56), and observance of seasons and holidays (Gal 4:10) in favor of their new covenant faith-based applications. How then are we to make sense of this? How can such new applications replace the old without invoking the curse upon all who are guilty? The answer, according to Paul, is found in how Christ died. In being hanged on a tree He fulfilled this technicality of the law. He became the “curse” promised to those who disregarded any portion of God’s prescribed Old Covenant applications. In doing so, Jesus ensured that the application of Old Covenant clean laws could be changed without legal violation. God ordained Christ’s death down to the specific mechanism of execution in order to fulfill His law (a law concerned with every “jot and tittle”, Mat 5:18). Theoretically, Christ could have been executed in any number of ways: He could have been stoned, stabbed, drowned, shot with arrows, etc. But if He had died in any other way, His death would not have addressed this small (but essential) portion of the law: the curse levied against those who failed to obey the Old Covenant clean laws in accordance with their original applications. We may not think much of the specific manner of Christ’s death, but Paul shows us that how He died is extremely important, as it allowed for new applications to legally be given to the Old Covenant laws.

Given this understanding of Paul’s message in Galatians 3:10-14, we can see that penal substitution is not a part of the picture he is painting. Rather, he is illustrating an additional significant aspect of the crucifixion, an aspect integral to the Christian faith. Without the fulfillment of this technicality, no applications to God’s law could be changed. To do so would invoke violence upon oneself, to place oneself irrevocably in the path of God’s covenant curse.

Is Apostasy Real?

“For it is impossible in the case of those who have once been enlightened, who have tasted the heavenly gift, and have shared in the Holy Spirit, and have tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come, and then have fallen away, to restore them again to repentance, since they are crucifying once again the son of God to their own harm and holding him up to contempt…Though we speak in this way, yet in your case, beloved, we feel sure of better things – things that belong to salvation.”

Hebrews 6:4-6, 9

The doctrine of eternal security for all true believers has been a pillar of evangelical christianity since the reformation. Hebrews 6 is a text that, when taken at face value, stands very opposed to this doctrine and, as such, is often one that must be explained away in defense of it. John MacArthur in his commentary states, “…the writer of Hebrews is speaking to the unsaved who have heard the truth and acknowledged it, but who have hesitated to embrace Christ… The believer need never fear he will lose his salvation. He cannot. The Bible is absolutely clear about that.”1Similarly, John Piper commenting on verse 9 says, “they really are ‘saved’ and that therefore they will not commit apostasy… the writer really believes that they have salvation and therefore will have the things that always accompany salvation.”2 Martin Luther took it leaps further, going so far as to deny the authority of Hebrews as inspired Scripture, part of which was taking issue specifically with the warning passages in Hebrews.3

How then are we to understand what is being spoken of in Hebrews 6? Let us first establish whether the passage is speaking of true Christians or unbelievers by examining the markers used to identify who the writer is addressing. The first phrase, “Once been enlightened” is speaking of those who were saved from the “domain of darkness” (Colossians 1:13-14) and brought into the light. When compared with how it is used again in 10:32 – “after you were enlightened” ‘you endured severe persecution for your faith’ – it’s even more clear this is speaking of someone who is saved. Next, “Tasted the heavenly gift” when compared to John 4:10 or Ephesians 2:8 show that this is speaking of salvation itself. The third phrase, “Shared in the Holy Spirit” follows a similar suit. Acts 2:38 or Galatians 3:2 make it clear that sharing in the Holy Spirit indicates salvation. Likewise, the last phrase, “Tasted the goodness of the word of God and the powers of the age to come” also speaks with reference to the Holy Spirit or salvation (Romans 8:2, 26; John 14:16, 26; Luke 11:13; Acts 1:8; Galatians 5:16;) and the good promises that are given to God’s obedient children (Psalm 1:1-3; 19:11; Proverbs 15:5-6; Luke 12:22-34; 18:29-30; Ephesians 1:3; 2:6; Philippians 4:19; 1 Peter 2:3).

Next, a brief consideration of the immediate context is appropriate. This set of verses is a continuation of the conversation started in chapter 5 where the author tells his audience they should be teachers by now instead of needing to be taught again the “elementary doctrine[s]” of repentance, baptism, and coming judgment – 5:11-6:2. First, how could the author make such an assertion if he’s speaking to unbelievers? Second, it makes logical sense that his argument would flow from this concern into a warning about apostasy given the stagnancy and immaturity mentioned in the previous verses. Like the second soil in Jesus’ parable of the soils (Mat 13:18-23) these believers possess shallow roots and stand in grave danger of abandoning Christ the moment tribulation and persecution arrive.

That being said, the strongest support is found in verse 6. According to the author, if anyone has “fallen away”, you cannot “restore them again” because that would be “crucifying once again the Son”. How can an unbeliever do any of these things? What is an unbeliever ‘falling away’ from or being ’restored’ back to if they were never a Christian? How has an unbeliever become a partaker in Christ’s death (Romans 6:3-4)? To take the position this warning is directed toward unbelievers is completely nonsensical and ignores the author’s clear intent. After closely examining this passage, zero doubt should remain of who it is speaking to – fully saved individuals!

That Hebrews 6:4-6 is indeed speaking of true believers is further confirmed when we examine the familial and salvific language used by the author throughout Hebrews. In several places he speaks of his audience as “brothers” (2:11-13; 3:1; 10:19). He also calls them “children” or “sons”, including a reference to how to rightly receive the discipline of God as their Father (2:11-13; 12:5-11). His warnings in other sections of the book are also equally clear that it’s written to believers because of the explicit salvific language used – “how shall we escape if we neglect such a great salvation?” (2:3), “Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart” (3:12), or warning not to “[profane] the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified” (10:22-32). Finally, in chapter 13 the author asks them for prayer, which is only possible for believers. Knowing this warning is to true believers should not come as a surprise when considering other passages such as 1 Corinthians 5:12 that make it clear God and the authors of Scripture are concerned first and foremost about the conduct of His people.

Now that we have confirmed the audience to be believers, we are now ready to consider the assertion that this warning of apostasy is being softened by verse 9 into a hypothetical. Reading just a few verses later we can see this is not the author’s intent at all. In verse 11, the author says that the only way for them to retain their assurance of salvation is to continue to perform the same “work and love” spoken of in verse 10 “until the end.” The author is not softening the warning from the earlier verses into a hypothetical, but rather providing his readers with the answer to the natural question that would arise from such a warning, “How do I not become guilty of this?”, and encouraging them that their current obedient lives are evidence they’re on the right track. It is interesting to note that the author says he is confident about their salvation because of their obedience (10). If saving faith is the sole basis for assurance, why does the author not mention faith at all? Consider also the, at best, futility, and, at worst, outright manipulation the author (ultimately God) would be guilty of if this were a hypothetical. Either the author has negated his previous argument (futility) or he is using the warning of serious punishment, that’ll never actually be possible, to scare his readers into compliance (manipulation).

Looking at the example the author quotes in chapter 3:7-18 regarding Old Covenant Israel is further evidence this warning is not hypothetical. Jesus’ Old Covenant people, who were continuously disobedient, had very serious and very real judgment executed against them. The author uses this example to explicitly warn his readers not to be like them. This warning too falls flat or is manipulation if it’s not something that can actually happen to the New Covenant Christian. Given what the author says about Jesus being “the same yesterday and today and forever” (13:8) should we expect He will treat His New covenant people any differently?

Contrary to what Luther believed, this understanding of Hebrews is consistent with the remainder of the New Testament. Every major New Testament preacher has warnings about those who refuse to be obedient:
Jesus – Matthew 7:21-23; 10:33, 38; 12:31-32; 13:41-42; 18:9, 35; 22:11-14; 25:31-46;
Paul – Colossians 1:21-23; Romans 11:20-23; Philippians 3:12-15;
Peter – 1 Peter 1:13-17; 4:17-18; 2 Peter 1:9-11; 2:17-22;
John – 1 John 5:2-3 w/ 13; 2 John 1:9; Revelation 2:5-7, 10, 16, 26; 3:3, 11, 21; 21:7-8;
Jude – Jude 1:12, 20-21;
James – James 1:12, 22-25; 2:14-24; 3:4-5;

As we’ve seen, Hebrews 6, along with the New Testament, teaches that apostasy is a very real possibility for, and serious warning to, true believers. From Genesis, with Adam and Eve, who were permitted to remain in the Eden only while they remained obedient, to Revelation, where Christ warns His churches over and over ‘to endure to the end’, God’s saving relationships with man have always existed where their salvific position is fully obtained in the present, yet still at risk of being forfeited through disobedience. Any Christian who continues in willful disobedience, ignoring these grave warnings, will be guilty of apostasy and all too quickly experience the awe inspiring, terrifying, eternal wrath of an incredibly righteous and angry God.

“See that you do not refuse him who is speaking. For if they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, much less will we escape if we reject him who warns from heaven…for our God is a consuming fire”

Hebrews 12:25, 29

“How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know him who said, ‘Vengeance is mine; I will repay’. And again, ‘The Lord will judge his people’. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

Hebrews 10:30

The Thief on the Cross

The thief on the cross is perhaps one of the most frequently used examples to support the doctrine of Sola Fide (Faith Alone). Many believe he is perfect to show how someone can do nothing besides make a profession of faith in Christ to seal their eternal destiny. To quote John MacArthur,

“No doctrine is more important to evangelical theology than the doctrine of justification by faith alone… the church stands or falls on this one doctrine… The thief on the cross is the classic example. On the most meager evidence of his faith, Jesus told him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise” (Luke 23:43). No sacrament or work was required for him to procure salvation.”

John MacArthur, Jesus’ Perspective on Sola Fide

However, is that what is actually being communicated by Luke in his account of the thief on the cross? Was faith the only thing present for the thief’s salvation? Let us dive into Luke 23 and examine the whole picture.1

“One of the criminals who were hanged railed at him, saying ‘Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!’ But the other rebuked him, saying, ‘Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong.’ And he said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ And he said to him, ‘Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in paradise.’”

Luke 23:39-42

The first exchange we see taking place is between the two thieves, the first ‘railing’ at Christ and asking for deliverance from their current situation.2 He is then rebuked by the second thief, but it is critical to note what he is rebuked for: appealing for deliverance from the justice he deserves – “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly…” The second thief acknowledges and embraces justice and recognizes the injustice being done to Christ Who is receiving the same treatment as they are, though He had done nothing wrong. Only after affirming that they are receiving the “due reward of our deeds”, does the second thief appeal to Christ for mercy, but again, it is critical to note where that appeal of mercy is: mercy from judgment in the next life, not this one. He recognized that it is only through serving justice in this life that he could appeal for mercy in the life to come. Only after this takes place does Jesus affirm the thief’s salvation. How ironic that this “classic example” used by evangelicals to support that justice isn’t needed to obtain mercy, actually teaches that very thing.

We see the same order of commitment to justice before salvation earlier in Luke’s gospel with Zaccheus, where Jesus proclaims “salvation has come to this house” only after Zaccheus makes his commitment to repay those he had defrauded (Luke 19:1-10). This account is also incredibly similar to that of Joshua and Achan, where Joshua instructs Achan to “give glory to God” just before they stone him (Joshua 7:10-26). In other words, acknowledge and embrace the justice you deserve now so that you can receive mercy in the next life. In short, justice always precedes mercy.

Next, we examine the idea that the thief had no acts of obedience or partaking of the sacraments. Let us consider what repentance is, a commitment to stop sinning, make your wrongs right, and change going forward (Matthew 3:1-8; Luke 3:3-14). Since following Christ is not optional and repentance is the first step in following Christ (Mark 1:15; 6:12; Acts 2:38; 3:19; 19:4), this means repentance is itself an act of obedience. This ties in closely with the thief’s baptism. At first glance, it seems like an obvious argument that the thief was not baptized, however, considering what baptism is and what it represents tells a different story. Romans 6:3-6 teaches that baptism represents us being united with Christ in His death, our old self being crucified with Him, and being “raised… to the newness of life.” So while we are baptized in order to join Christ in His death symbolically, the thief was joined with Christ in His death literally. The thief’s was the truest form of a baptism, whereas ours, though not any less powerful, is a symbolic baptism. This is further supported by Jesus Himself who spoke of His death in this way – as a “baptism to be baptized with” – Luke 12:50 (see also Mark 10:38). We also know that baptism is where we are saved (1 Peter 3:21) and receive our initial washing from all sin in our previous life (John 13:1-30; Matthew 26:26-29). This understanding allows us to make sense of Jesus’ confident assertion that the thief would be with Him in Paradise. The thief was in the midst of his baptism, so long as he remained obedient in his repentance, any sin in this life would be cleansed upon his death as his baptism was completed and ushered him directly into Paradise. This is also why the thief did not (and had no need to) partake of the Lord’s Table. The Lord’s Table is provided for our continued cleansing from sin in our lives after we have received the initial washing from baptism. Since the thief was in the midst of receiving his initial baptism and cleansing from sin as he died with Christ, there was no new sin that he was required to have cleansed through partaking of the Table.

If the account of the thief was not recorded to communicate that salvation is through faith alone, what is being taught by this account? It is demonstrating what needs to be present for a deathbed conversion to be legitimate. The thief’s proclamation about Jesus – “this man has done nothing wrong” – and appeal to Him for salvation in the next life is clear evidence the thief knew Who it was that Jesus claimed to be and had intimate knowledge of His teachings. Similarly, his understanding and embracing of the justice he was serving and the defending of Jesus against those mocking Him show his love, loyalty, and obedience to Christ. This account, similar to the one in James 5:14-15, shows that someone must have an existing knowledge of Christianity and relationship with those who are responsible for dispensing salvation (in this case Christ, in the case of James 5, “the elders”). This teaching dispels the widespread idea that one can use Christ as their fire insurance policy: having no real interest or desire to follow Him, they simply make a profession of faith and go to heaven. Anyone thinking this is taught in Scripture will be badly (and eternally) burned.

After a very brief examination, the “classic example” of Sola Fide, on which “the [evangelical] church stands or falls”, has gone the way of Humpty Dumpty. How then should we understand the story of the thief on the cross? As we have seen, the thief did far more than have faith alone. He embraced the justice he deserved, responded in obedient repentance during the life he had left, and was baptized into Christ’s death. Much more took place than a simple profession of faith that so many Evangelicals today rely on. The point not to miss, like the thief on the cross, embrace the true gospel and recognize the real Jesus who only brings with Him into paradise those who practice both faith and faithfulness, or join the many who will go to Hell for embracing the false gospel of Sola Fide.

Have Christians been forgiven of all past, present, and future sins?

In talking about forgiveness of sins, a popular way of referring to a believer is that their past, present, and future sins are all forgiven at the time of their conversion. For example “Before the judgment throne of God, the sins of believers are forgiven even before they are committed and even if they are never confessed…”1This belief manifests itself in a variety of views. The logical conclusion, however, is the same across the spectrum. If all future sins have already been forgiven, then our future sins have no effect on our salvation.

A verse that comes up often in this context is Hebrews 10:10-12:

We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins…

Hebrews 10:10-12

Notice, the primary contrast is that the priests used to offer sacrifices over and over for sin. Jesus’ death on the cross is instead, a “single sacrifice” and His sacrifice can take away sins where the former sacrifices could not. Notice also the author says that we have been sanctified through Jesus’ sacrifice. Clearly Jesus does not have to repeatedly come back and die to sanctify subsequent generations, but there’s nothing here that explicitly says that future sins are already forgiven. If we continue on in the same context and move down to verses 26-29 we find these words:

26 For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. 28 Anyone who has set aside the law of Moses dies without mercy on the evidence of two or three witnesses. 29 How much worse punishment, do you think, will be deserved by the one who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has outraged the Spirit of grace?

Hebrews 10:26-29

Herein a problem is presented with saying our future sins are already forgiven. To start, the author isn’t talking about unbelievers. This is the same “we” that he’s already said have been sanctified up in verse 10. The author says if believers go on sinning deliberately, there is no more sacrifice for sins (v. 26). The author isn’t saying there never was a sacrifice for sins, he’s saying there no longer is a sacrifice for sins. The author says that instead of having a sacrifice for sins, individuals in this category are guaranteed “a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire…” (v. 27). After all, he says, those who rejected the Law in the Old Covenant received death, so those who have been sanctified through Christ’s blood should expect even worse punishment should they go on “sinning deliberately” (v. 28-29). The author makes it clear that saved believers who have been sanctified from their past and present sins but choose to go on “sinning deliberately” will be cut off from Jesus’ sacrifice and guaranteed judgment, fire, and a punishment worse than death.

Consider the ridiculous conclusion that comes from this section if Jesus’ sacrifice guarantees that future sins are forgiven at conversion. If this is true, and yet there is still a possibility of no longer having a sacrifice for sins, it must be an issue with the sacrifice. Like an insurance policy, there is a limit to coverage. Exceed the given amount and you are no longer covered. Jesus’ sacrifice is sufficient so long as you don’t exceed the policy’s limit. In essence, the author of Hebrews would be communicating that Jesus’ sacrifice is insufficient in some cases. All of this is ludicrous. Clearly, the author of Hebrews is not communicating a lack of sufficiency in Jesus’ sacrifice. But equally so, the author is not communicating that Jesus’ sacrifice has already counted toward future sin. Hebrews 10:26-29 is not talking about future sins being “unforgiven” but instead losing the ability to have those sins forgiven in the first place. The author of Hebrews is saying there’s a point at which someone can exhibit the kind of rebellion and unrepentance that Jesus finally says, “You are trampling me underfoot, and profaning the blood that I sanctified you with. You are cut off from the sacrifice.” The issue is not Jesus’ sacrifice running out, but rather being cut off from accessing it. Jesus’ sacrifice has provided an inexhaustible source of blood to cover sins for all time. The issue is continued access to the source. It is simply untenable to say that someone’s future sins are already forgiven.

This conclusion is hardly surprising. Moving beyond Hebrews, John makes future forgiveness and cleansing contingent on our confession of sin when he says, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1Jo 1:9). In the Lord’s prayer, Jesus tells us we are to ask the Father to “forgive us our sins” (Luk 11:4). In yet another example, Peter tells Simon to “Repent…and pray to the Lord that, if possible, the intent of your heart may be forgiven you.” (Act 8:22; emphasis mine). The point not to miss, Christ’s sacrifice has made a way for past, present, and future sins to be forgiven, but future sins are not already forgiven. Our continued faithfulness, confession, and repentance are what determine if we have access to this inexhaustible resource.

Romans 1:5 – What is “the obedience of faith”?

In the first few verses of Paul’s now-famous epistle to the Romans, we find the following statement,

5 [Jesus Christ our Lord], through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ. (Rom 1:5-6)

Here, the apostle identifies “bring[ing] about the obedience of faith” not only as his objective in writing to the Romans, but even as the reason for which he was set apart and granted apostleship by Christ (v5). To him, it was nothing less than his God-given mission.

But what, exactly, is this mission? What is this “obedience of faith” that Paul had been divinely tasked with bringing about? Some evangelicals suggest that this phrase refers to the fact that Christians must obey only one command in order to be saved: the command to put faith in Christ, and that obedience to the Law is, therefore, unnecessary. Others claim that Paul is instead speaking of obedience as the inevitable result of possessing genuine faith. These two interpretations both stem from the evangelical idea that salvation is secured by faith alone (and that works, therefore, contribute nothing to salvation except evidence that it has occurred), and both are equally inconsistent with the testimony of Scripture.

Later in the same chapter, Paul writes that the “wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (v18). If he believed that faith was the sole condition of salvation, this would have been a perfect opportunity to warn the Roman Christians that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all unbelief of man and subsequently encourage them to be strong in their faith so as to avoid incurring this wrath and attain instead to salvation. But instead, Paul chooses to focus on warning against disobedience, going on to enumerate over a dozen sins, including idolatry, homosexuality, covetousness, malice, gossip, slander, and disobedience to authority (see Rom 1:29-2:11). If his view of what constitutes obedience were limited to putting faith in Christ, then it would be quite a waste of breath to delve into warnings against lawlessness and disobedience as he does. Why bother cautioning Christians to obey the Law (and warn them of the fire and brimstone that awaits the disobedient) if such obedience were unnecessary or inevitable? Such reminders would be, at best, unneeded and, at worst, abusive.[1]

Moreover, the same Paul who writes the above warnings soon after demonstrates how the broader Law can be summed up in the commandment to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Rom 13:8-10). According to him, it is through our obedience to the Law that we love others. In other words, love is defined by and based upon God’s Law. Hardly could Paul have made such a statement if he had earlier declared obedience to the Law unnecessary (to do so would be flatly inconsistent), and hardly would he have bothered to do so if he had declared such obedience inevitable.

Surely, Paul cannot be guilty of either inconsistency or abuse while he writes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Neither of the aforementioned evangelical interpretations, then, can possibly be correct—Paul did not view obedience to the Law as entirely fulfilled in the command to have faith in Christ, nor did he believe obedience would be inevitably produced as a result of genuine faith. Instead, he viewed it as a choice that had to be freely made, one that came with blessings for the obedient and consequences for the disobedient. He writes to each of his respective audiences knowing that it was in their power to choose either submission to God or rebellion against him. Hence why, he warns his Christian audiences (those who had already put faith in Christ, who he considered genuinely saved individuals, see Rom 1:7-8, 12-13) that God will condemn both those who practice and those who approve of sin (Rom 1:32). His warnings were no trick or abuse—he wrote with full knowledge that even the Christians he wrote to would incur such punishment if they chose to live in disobedience.

Paul wrote to the Romans not to exhort them to put faith in Christ, though he recognized faith as crucial). He wrote to them because they had already put faith in Jesus as their Savior and thereby gained salvation, and now needed only to maintain that salvation by obeying Him as their Lord. Given that the apostle thus identifies obedience as a second condition of salvation (in addition to faith), we can biblically understand his mission to “bring about the obedience of faith” as an intention to ensure that those who already possessed faith would be careful to add to it the faithful obedience also necessary in order to inherit eternal life.

[1] Abusive because in such a case, Paul would be guilty of using his apostolic authority to propagate false doctrine and, therefore, of abusing his God-given power to the detriment of the Christian souls he was tasked with shepherding. The same is true of similar warnings found in other New Testament texts—they are pointless if obedience is unnecessary or inevitable for their audience (see, for example, Galatians 5:19-21).

Might Does Not Make Right: Identifying Jesus’s Righteous Remnant in the Modern Christian Landscape

In the landscape of modern Christianity, evangelicalism consistently towers among the largest denominations worldwide, currently accounting for an estimated 386 million of the more than 2.2 billion professing Christians on the globe.[1] It is particularly popular in the United States, where evangelicals represent at least a quarter of the population, making evangelicalism the largest denomination in the country.[2] Many mistakenly interpret evangelicalism’s magnitude as evidence of its legitimacy; they figure that if such a large proportion of the population would subscribe to a certain belief system, then that system must be bona fide. To such people, it seems unlikely (or even impossible) that so many independent minds could be simultaneously deluded by a false doctrine (“Why would so many people believe this if it’s wrong?). Some will even go so far as to suggest that the relatively smaller size of other denominations or groups constitutes evidence that they must be in error (“No one else believes what they believe, they must be wrong”). As we will see in this article, the mere fact that many endorse a certain fact or adhere to a certain belief system in no way constitutes proof that it is true. Might does not make right. In fact, the Scriptural evidence makes clear that legitimate Christians will most likely not be found in the majority but, instead, in the minority.

Argumentum Ad Populum

This lemming mentality that ails so many is a form of logical fallacy known as argumentum ad populum (or “appeal to the people), in which a claim is supported as true on the grounds that many think it is true. This pattern of thinking, while not exclusive to evangelicals, is particularly common within their circles.[3] Regardless of its causes, this bias is patently illogical and leads many into heresy. Though superficially, it may seem plausible to find strength in numbers, in reality, a large group can err just as easily, if not more easily, than an individual.[4] A given position is not necessarily true simply because it is held by many, nor necessarily false simply because it is held by few.[5] Thus, popularity is not adequate evidence to substantiate claims or prove the truth. As your mother might ask, “Would you jump off a bridge just because all your friends were doing it?”. Only a malleable fool accepts something as truth simply because it’s the popular thing to do.

Conversely, one mark of an intelligent mind is its resistance to the bandwagon effect—its ability to consider information objectively and arrive at an accurate conclusion based on the evidence. In Acts 17, Luke praises this “noble” scientific quality in the Berean Jews, who scrutinized Paul’s preaching and continually measured his words against Scripture “to see if these things were true” (Act 17:10—11). Such intellectual honesty is vital for Christians. Those who fail to be Berean become instead like the unmoored individuals in Ephesians 4:14 who are “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes.” It is paramount, then, that we determine truth not based on popularity, emotion, or appearances but only according to objective fact.

The consequences of bandwagon thinking are self-evident. If biblical truth is, in fact, determined by majority rule, then whatever is in vogue at the moment can be accepted as what God truly desires. This is an obviously absurd strategy for determining truth. Truth belongs to God, and it is determined by Him and Him alone (not by popular vote). He has created the objective reality we live in, and that objective reality is not subject to our whims and delusions. So, instead of jumping on the bandwagon, let’s throw out the ad populum fallacy and instead consider the objective biblical evidence.

The Righteous Remnant Pattern of Redemptive History

The Bible’s pattern of salvation, from the Old Testament to the New, directly contradicts the idea that truth is found in the majority. Instead, we see exactly the opposite: since Genesis, saints embracing and enacting sound doctrine have always belonged to a very small minority. For example, Noah’s family, the sole righteous group spared in the Genesis deluge, represented eight people out of an estimated 750 million, or 0.0000012% of the global population at the time.[6] Similarly, Abraham’s family of twenty-five stood alone among an estimated 5 million, making them 0.0005% of the population.[7] Even the entire nation of Israel only amounted to about 2.5% (at most) of the global population in its day.[8] This pattern is not unique to the Old Testament—the early church, established by Christ Himself, constituted less than 0.002% of those on earth at its inception and remained a minority for hundreds of years to come.[9]Throughout Scripture, then, God’s true people, those considered righteous in His eyes, are always a small remnant and never the majority.

As the prophet Isaiah says of Israel, “For though your people Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will return” (Isa 10:22a). This prophecy originally foresaw that only a splinter of the already relatively small nation of Israel would be saved. The same prophecy is later applied in a new inspired context by the apostle Paul, who uses it asexplanation for the small numbers of Jews converting to Christianity in his day.

27 And Isaiah cries out concerning Israel: “Though the number of the sons of Israel be as the sand of the sea, only a remnant of them will be saved, 28 for the Lord will carry out his sentence upon the earth fully and without delay.” (Rom 9:27-28)

To Paul, it is no surprise that only a minority of Jews would accept and follow Christ. He views the unpopularity of Christianity in his day as another application of Isaiah’s prophecy, a continuation of the “remnant” pattern seen throughout redemptive history.[10]

The idea that majority rule can serve as a determiner, or even a reliable indicator, of truth, runs counter to the divinely ordained pattern of redemptive history. Not only is it inconsistent with the past, but it is also contradictory to the future we are promised in Scripture. Consider Christ’s words regarding the kingdom of heaven to come.

21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” 22 On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ 23 And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’” (Mat 7:21—23)

23 And someone said to him, “Lord, will those who are saved be few?” And he said to them, 24 “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.” (Luk 13:23—24)

Jesus views the biblical, saving truth as something that only a small number will grasp. Only a remnant of Christians (i.e., those who call Him “Lord, Lord”) will successfully attain eternal salvation and enter into heaven. Moreover, the criterion for their salvation will not be their alignment with popular opinion, but rather their faithful obedience to God’s Law (see again Mat 7:21—23; cf. Heb 4:4—13; Rom 2:13; 13:8—14; Mat 5:17—19; 19:16—17; Luk 10:25—28; 1Co 7:19). Our Lord does not view truth as something that can be determined based on majority rule. Just the opposite—He is certain that the righteous, those legitimate Christians who adhere to and enact the true saving gospel, will be found among the unpopular remnant.

It shouldn’t surprise us that Jesus does not highly value popularity; He Himself was incredibly unpopular during His lifetime, so unpopular that He was ultimately murdered by an angry mob. He requires that His followers earnestly seek and readily align themselves with objective truth, regardless of its popularity (Joh 18:37-38). His Word tells us that as long as they are on earth, legitimate followers will always be “small and despised”—unpopular, disliked, and persecuted by those who represent the religious majority, just as Jesus was (Joh 15:18-25; 2Ti 3:12-14). We are warned that as human history approaches its end, the faithful’s numbers will dwindle even further as the world becomes increasingly debased until those who have endured are surrounded on all sides by wickedness and persecution (2Ti 3:1-7, 2Pe 3:1-10, Rev 20:7-10). Given these teachings, we should consider popularity a warning sign, not a mark of legitimacy. Not only should we expect to find the world’s legitimate Christians in the minority, but we should also expect to see their numbers decrease as the lawlessness of our world increases.

Simply belonging to a minority group, however, is not in itself proof of legitimacy. Being unpopular does not necessarily a true Christian make. How, then, should we distinguish the legitimate from the legitimate, the true Christians from the false? To answer this question, we must look not to the mere fact that a certain group is a minority but instead to what makes them a minority. The defining characteristic of the righteous remnant, the thing that distinguishes its members from the surrounding world, is one thing: obedience.[11] The true followers of God have always been those willing to submit to and obey His Law—this is true throughout Scripture without exception. God’s people are known by their fruit: their faithful obedience and loyalty to their King (1Jo 3:7-10, Rev 17:14, 19:7-8, Mat 7:17-20). Their staunch insistence on this obedience and their unwillingness to defy their Lord is the very thing that makes them unpopular.

It is indisputable, then, that of the over two billion people currently professing to be Christians, only a vanishingly small sliver can be the genuine article. That sliver is home only to those who believe in the necessity of obedience unto salvation and faithfully practice such obedience. These true Christians are a rare breed, just as their spiritual ancestors before them, and they will become increasingly rare as we approach the end of human history. We can identify them not by their popularity, nor even by their words, but by their faithful obedience to their God’s Law, the attribute which has distinguished the legitimate and saved from the illegitimate and condemned since Genesis.

 

[1] Todd M. Johnson, “Evangelicals Worldwide,” Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary, March 25, 2020. Accessed March 26, 2024. https://www.gordonconwell.edu/blog/evangelicals-worldwide/.; “The Global Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, December 18, 2012, 9.  https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2012/12/18/global-religious-landscape-exec/#:~:text=The%20demographic%20study%20–%20based%20on,the%20world%20as%20of%202010.

[2] “America’s Changing Religious Landscape,” Pew Research Center, May 12, 2015, 3-5. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/. Some estimates place it higher, at over 40% of the country’s total population; see Frank Newport, “5 Things to Know About Evangelicals in America,” Gallup, May 31, 2018. Accessed March 26, 2024, https://news.gallup.com/opinion/polling-matters/235208/things-know-evangelicals-america.aspx.

[3] This is highly ironic when we consider that the same evangelicals who are quick to arm the ad populum defense against their opponents were themselves born a minority. The Reformation began with a single man and remained very small for some years. It wasn’t until long after the sixteenth-century that Protestant teachings gained significant traction and ballooned into the massive global religion that it is now. Thus, the ad populum argument that evangelicals are prone to using, if applied to their own religion, renders it false. If it is true that might makes right, and the popular school of thought at the time of the Reformation was Catholicism, then Protestantism was heretical from the very start. But since Protestantism has now become the majority view (or at least, a widely popular view), then it has become valid because of its popularity. So, if ad populum logic is to be believed, then what was once heretical and false suddenly becomes legitimate simply because it has gained a sufficient following. In other words, objective reality changes as a result of subjective views. This is clearly nonsensical.

[4] Groups are notoriously bad at making sound, objective decisions. They are prone to psychological stumbling blocks like groupthink, group polarization, and illogical conformity. Consider, for example, the famous Asch conformity experiments, wherein a significant proportion of participants conformed to an incorrect majority opinion, even when they knew it was objectively wrong. S.E. Asch, “Studies of Independence and Conformity: I. A Minority of One Against a Unanimous Majority,” Psychological Monographs: General and Applied 70, no. 9 (1956): 1-70, https://doi.org/10.1037/h0093718.

[5] It is estimated that as many as 3 million Americans believe that the earth is flat. Are we to believe that as well, simply because millions of others do? Lawrence Hamilton, “Conspiracy vs. Science: A Survey of U.S. Public Beliefs,” University of New Hampshire Carsey School of Public Policy, April 25, 2022. Accessed March 26, 2024, https://carsey.unh.edu/publication/conspiracy-vs-science-a-survey-of-us-public-beliefs.

[6] This figure is based upon relatively conservative estimates of the world’s antediluvian population. Some estimates put the number as high as four million, in which case Noah’s family would have been an even smaller minority.

[7] This, too, is a conservative estimate. Other estimates of the global population at the time reach as high as 100 million.

[8] Calculation based off the estimated peak population of the nation of Israel prior to the destruction of the second temple as well as a conservative estimate of the global population at the time. Amiram Barkat, “Study Traces Worldwide Jewish Population From Exodus to Modern Age,” Haaretz Daily Newspaper, April 29, 2005, https://www.haaretz.com/2005-04-29/ty-article/study-traces-worldwide-jewish-population-from-exodus-to-modern-age/0000017f-e7d1-d97e-a37f-f7f53ba50000?v=1711492144007; “Historical Estimates of World Population,” United States Census Bureau, last modified December 5, 2022. Accessed March 26, 2024, https://www.census.gov/data/tables/time-series/demo/international-programs/historical-est-worldpop.html.

[9] This estimate was calculated using the five hundred brothers Christ appeared to after His resurrection (1Co 15). Again, this is a conservative estimate, given that the technical beginning of the early church was earlier and with a much smaller group (we can mark the beginning of the early church as the moment when Christ empowered His apostles with the authority to bind and loose, given that this was the beginning of the church’s earthly reign (Joh 20:22 w Mat 16:18-19, 18:15-18). The global population estimate used for this calculation can be found in Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity: A Sociologist Reconsiders History (Germany: Princeton University Press, 2020), 7.

[10] In fact, Paul himself was a devout Jew who chose to convert to Christianity at a time when it was exceedingly unpopular, especially for Jews. He clearly did not put much stock in the idea that truth is found among the masses.

[11] While it is important to have faith, we know that faith cannot be the distinguishing factor given texts like Mat 7 and Luk 13 above (the unsaved groups in these texts were people that had faith—they believed in Jesus and trusted in His ability to save them).

Is Christ the End of the Law?

One controversial question in Christianity is what obligations Christians have to the Old Testament (OT) Law. One objection brought up is that Christ’s death removed our obligation to the OT Law. Paul is often cited in support of such thinking due to statements that sound as though he’s either speaking negatively about the Law or speaking in ways that sound as though we no longer need to follow the Law. His statement in Romans 10:4 is one such example of this:

For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes.

Romans 10:4

Interpreting Paul’s words here, however, to mean that the OT Law is “no longer binding on Christians in any way” fails to capture Paul’s true intention. Earlier in the book, Paul has established certain truths that prove essential to understanding Paul’s words and the key phrase, “for righteousness”. In Romans 3, Paul explains that God’s righteousness has now been revealed apart from the law (3:21). God’s righteousness is shown in the fact that He has provided a way to be truly justified by having faith in Jesus Christ (3:22, 24). Paul then makes the famous statement “we hold that one is justified by faith apart from the works of the law” (3:28). The point not to miss here is that Paul’s use of the phrase “the righteousness of God” refers to what God did in creating a new way to be truly justified, and that the manner in which people receive that justification is through faith “apart from the works of the law”. Paul goes on in Romans 5 to show that being justified and becoming righteous are synonymous, in other words both refer to having a right standing with God (5:18 w/19). Just before Paul’s words in Romans 10, Paul reveals that he is not only dealing with the same question, but the Jews’ stubborn attempt to go back to the Law (9:30-33). Though the Jews had “a zeal for God” (10:2), they refused to submit to “God’s righteousness” (10:3). As we saw in Romans 3, God’s righteousness refers to God’s new way of becoming righteous: faith in Christ. It is in this sense that “Christ is the end of the law”, He is the “end” of the Law only for righteousness. Neither Jew nor Christian can be made righteous through the old “law for righteousness”, they now enter into a righteous standing through faith in Christ, the new “law for righteousness”.

The context of Romans 10 shows that Paul’s intention was to answer a limited question. From Romans 10:4, it’s just a short three chapters later where Paul commands his audience to live out their lives in accordance with the Law’s commands as the means to fulfilling our “debt” to love our neighbor (Rom 13:8-10 w/Ex 20:13-17 & Lev 19:18). Among other examples, Paul even uses the OT Law to tell the Corinthians that he has a right to get paid for his pastoral services (1Co 9:6-12). Paul cannot use the Law authoritatively unless the Law is still authoritative. To say otherwise puts Paul in the rather morally compromising position of extorting money from Christians using something that has no authority. Such a thing, surely, would be unconscionable for Paul. It is clear then that Paul’s reverence for the Law went beyond just its place in history, he instead was preoccupied with ensuring it was properly upheld, fulfilled, and obeyed in the lives of the New Covenant Christians (e.g. Rom 3:31; Act 21:20-26, 23:1-5). This is not to say that Paul believed Christians are under the Mosaic Covenant, or even that the Christian carrying out the Law looks exactly the same. But to say that Paul didn’t believe in the Law’s authority for the Christian entirely misses the concern Paul has in Romans 10:4. Paul’s purpose in Romans 10:4 is not to provide a sweeping rejection of the OT Law, but to communicate the end of the Law as the means to justification.