I’ve been listening to Tom Chantry’s recent series through Deuteronomy (only completed through Deut. 4, and apparently on break at least for the summer): a good series with many interesting points regarding the first few chapters of Deuteronomy.
Deuteronomy 2:8-23 is one of those seemingly dry narrative texts in which Moses provides detail about various races of giants, historical data of events that had already taken place in which one people group had replaced another. We tend to ask, why is this in the Bible and what has it to do with us?
The lesson on this text (“There Be Giants”) first considers the issue of “giants,” with some interesting facts concerning the average heights of different people groups throughout history. The “giants” were people of relative height compared to other groups of people. Historical evidence such as uniforms on display at museums indicates that even at the time of the U.S. Civil War (150 years ago), people were overall shorter than today; medieval armor indicates the same regarding Europeans of a few hundred years ago. Throughout history there have been very tall people, those close to 7 feet up to perhaps 8 feet; today we often see them as NFL football players, and Americans today on average are, compared to historical norms, at the higher end. Because of the relative length of the ancient measurement, the cubit, we don’t know exactly how tall some of these ancient people were. The bed (or possibly coffin) of Og the king of Bashan describes the largest recorded size, of a ‘giant’ who was not a ‘freak’ (such as Goliath in relation to the Philistines) but an actual ruler.
The more important lesson from this chapter, though, is that of God’s sovereignty over the nations. Though the book of Daniel is more well known for directly addressing this, in God’s word we find the same truths taught in multiple places, the same teaching that affirms the unity of all scripture. The Deuteronomy text especially points out that even nations of giants, those people especially gifted with physical strength, were defeated and no longer around. The people of Israel needed to not fear the inhabitants of Canaan (as their parents of 40 years earlier, at Kadesh Barnea). We likewise can learn from this: nations which appear as very strong and powerful, will yet topple. It is God who raises up nations, and God who brings them down to ruin.
As Chantry well observed, as application for us, especially in reference to politics and government, in this (once again) U.S. election year:
The strength of men is meaningless in the face of divine sovereignty. Why did all of these nations fall? Because God said that it was time for them to do so…nations, just like men, live under the decree of God. We do NOT create our own future. Now that’s an important thing for us to contemplate in an election year, is it not? Because every candidate of every political stripe is going to sell that message one way or another. ‘We are going to create our future’, and they’re going to ask you, as a voter, ‘what sort of a future are we going to create?’ It’s a helpful thing for the Christian to sit back and say, no, no, we do not rule the future. God rules the future. God determines. Governments retain their power only so long as God permits. That’s not intended as a rabble-rousing statement. I’m not indicating that we or any other Christian ought to take up arms against the government. I’m merely observing a reality. It is a reality of scripture and a reality of history, that governments retain their power only so far as God permits. And when that power ends, it ends; and sometimes it ends with startling speed. We cannot put confidence in history. … We live under the decree of God, and God does with nations as He does with men. He does whatsoever He wills.
An interesting point brought out in Tom Chantry’s Ten Commandments series, which I recently finished: when people reject the moral law of God – that which is summarized in the Ten Commandments – they actually end up being legalists. Anarchy doesn’t work; people naturally want some type of system and order in their lives – so if that system of order is not God’s moral law, something else must take its place. An obvious example cited by Chantry: why is it that the fundamentalism movement of the early 20th century went astray, putting emphasis on so many trivial and unimportant “rules” that became the dominant focus? Another interesting and somewhat humorous story he told, was of listening to a church conference speaker some years before (and Chantry was speaking in 2009), a man who was very anti-law. Throughout the course of his conference messages, this speaker kept saying how we’re not under law, to disregard God’s moral law, and that instead we have “the counsels of the Holy Spirit.” People listening began asking “well, what are the counsels of the Holy Spirit.” In the very last message, the speaker finally answered that question, by declaring that “there are thousands of them (counsels of the Holy Spirit).”
This tendency will come out in different ways with different people: for some, classic fundamentalism. With others I know, morality (“the law of Christ”) is primarily focused on the exhortations in the New Testament epistles, and quickly becomes an external emphasis on our acts and deeds of charity: being nice and kind to others, giving to the church, and providing food for those in need, especially within the church family. Such things are indeed proper to do, as fitting under the general category of application of the 8th commandment — yet God’s moral law encompasses so much more and is not limited to merely what we find in the New Testament epistles, but to all of God’s word.
Online conversations about the 2016 Presidential campaign (debacle) provide yet another example of those who set up some type of legalism in place of God’s moral law. I have observed (and sadly I’m not alone) people claiming that how we vote in the U.S. presidential race is a moral issue. The claim put forth is that not voting for either of the two parties is a “wasted vote” and “a vote for Hillary,” and further that to waste that vote by not voting for either of these two, is a moral issue. As Tom Chantry well described it in a blog post this spring:
Every four years, American Christians are told that we have a moral obligation to vote. It appears that this year one nominee for President will be a professional bandit with the ego of President Obama, the fidelity of President Clinton, and the honesty of President Nixon. His opponent will most likely be an unindicted traitor who has already gotten U.S. security and intelligence personnel killed by setting politics over duty. Will someone please explain to me which commandment requires me to participate in this choice?
Indeed, a study through the Decalogue and the full extent of each of the greater issues addressed in each commandment, provides a helpful guide to understanding which issues really are moral — and which ones are not moral but merely part of a nation’s civil law. A republic form of government that provides every citizen with “their vote,” with two main choices provided, such that every citizen “must” vote for one of these two, is NOT a moral issue that falls within the scope of any of the commandments of God.
This insistence upon such voting as a moral obligation, actually classifies as legalism for two reasons. The first one has already been noted: the legalism of putting another law in the place of God’s moral law.
As noted by Chantry, and in the 1689 Baptist Confession study, legalism also occurs when someone takes his or her own application of a moral precept and sets that up as a standard that everyone else ought to follow. Reference this recent post from Tim Challies, which relates the case of a Christian who came up with his own “rule” for spending time in reading God’s word, of “no Bible, no breakfast” – and others later came along, declaring that all believers ought to follow this same practice. The same has occurred with this issue (voting for a U.S. presidential candidate): those who object to other believers not voting for Trump, are the legalists: taking their idea of a “moral” issue (which is actually not part of God’s moral law, but merely civil U.S. law) and making an “application” that everyone else is expected to abide by.
I recently came across an online discussion that revealed some people’s misunderstandings about the law and another term, preparationism. For consideration was the following quote from Spurgeon. (The full quote is available in this sermon, from January of 1886. The conversation included only the bolded parts of the full quote — but the excerpt still makes Spurgeon’s point well enough):
I do not believe that any man can preach the gospel who does not preach the law. The book of Leviticus and all the other typical books are valuable as gospel-teaching to us, because there is always in them most clearly the law of God. The law is the needle, and you cannot draw the silken thread of the gospel through a man’s heart, unless you first send the needle of the law through the center thereof, to make way for it. If men do not understand the law, they will not feel that they are sinners; and if they are not consciously sinners, they will never value the sin offering. If the Ten Commandments are never read in their hearing, they will not know wherein they are guilty, and how shall they make confession? If they are not assured that the law is holy, and just, and good, and that God has never demanded of any man more than He has a right to demand, how shall they feel the filthiness of sin, or see the need of flying to Christ for cleansing? There is no healing a man till the law has wounded him, no making him alive till the law has slain him.
Clearly, Spurgeon is here referencing the “second use” of the law (the pedagogical use): to point out to sinners what God’s holy standard is, to show that they are sinners and that they cannot keep God’s law on their own and they need a savior. Yet the people in this conversation instead concluded (incorrectly) that this is an example of preparationism — which they defined as, that a certain “work” of preparation needs to be done in a person’s heart, or else the Holy Spirit is not able to bring conviction of sin to that person.
Such reasoning shows two problems: first, an incorrect definition of what preparationism is; and second, attributing that error (preparationism) to Charles Spurgeon. As explained in this lesson in the 1689 Baptist Confession exposition series, as well as in this previous post about one of Spurgeon’s sermons, preparationism is the idea that a sinner must show a certain amount of repentance, a certain level of sorrow for his sin such as some of the “great saints” experienced, before he can come to Christ — an error that amounts to “justification by repentance” rather than “justification by faith.”
Quoting Spurgeon again on the error of preparationism:
In our day the evil has taken another, and that a most extraordinary shape. Men have aimed at being self-righteous after quite an amazing fashion; they think they must feel worse, and have a deeper conviction of sin before they may trust in Christ. Many hundreds do I meet with who say they dare not come to Christ, and trust Him with their souls, because they do not feel their need of Him enough; they have not sufficient contrition for their sins; they have not repented as fully as they have rebelled! Brothers and Sisters, it is the same evil, from the same old germ of self-righteousness, but it has taken another and I think a more crafty shape. Satan has wormed himself into many hearts under the garb of an angel of light, and he has whispered to the sinner, “Repentance is a necessary virtue. Stop until you have repented, and when you have sufficiently mortified yourself on account of sin, then you will be fit to come to Christ, and qualified to trust and rely on Him
The post about Spurgeon, linked above, includes additional quotes from Spurgeon in which he “named names” of specific Puritan authors who taught preparationism. So it is established that Spurgeon did not teach preparationism; the original Spurgeon quote above is instead in reference to the second use of the moral law, that which is clearly taught in the New Testament – the law as our teacher, to teach us the knowledge of sin.
For some reason, many evangelicals today, especially of the New Calvinist group, dislike any mention of “law,” as though the gospel is all and only about grace; to suggest anything about “the law” gets a response of “legalism!” and rhetoric about how we’re saved by grace and “not under law.” Much of this attitude, directed at those in the Reformed Covenant Theology camp, comes from failing to distinguish and to understand the difference between the second and third use of the law; an article from a couple years back well notes this problem as seen in actual posts from the Gospel Coalition blog (Tullian Tchividjian’s misunderstanding).
As seen with the above example conversation, some within New Calvinism are taking their anti-law idea even further, going to the extreme of rejecting not merely the third use of the law, but even the second use of the law – and equating it with the unrelated error of preparationism. To reject both the second use and the third use is to take a position outside of the Christian Protestant tradition. For all evangelical groups – Reformed/Calvinist, Reformed/Lutheran, and even classic, revised and progressive dispensational Calvinists – have affirmed at least the second use of the law. To reject the second use, and misunderstand what Spurgeon was saying as legalistic error, is to join company with the early Protestant-era antinomians and their leader John Agricola, a position described in this article about the 16th century antinomian controversy:
This Lutheran confessional consensus concerning mandata dei as guides for sanctified living nearly crumbled in the mid sixteenth century amid the Antinomian Controversy. Antinomianism, or a rejection of any use of the Law for Christians, found a prominent spokesperson in John Agricola. While serving as an instructor in Eisleben during the 1520s, Agricola taught that the mercy of God revealed in the Gospel alone suffices to cause a person to repent of his sins. In addition to rejecting the second use of the Law, he also discarded the third. Agricola, who had trouble accepting that Melancthon, rather than he, received an appointment to the new theology post at Wittenberg in 1526, criticized the distinction that Melanththon made on these points between Law and Gospel. “Agricola took an extremely antinomian position, virtually rejecting out of hand the whole Old Testament, as well as injunctions of the Law in the lives of the regenerate.” Confusion compounded the controversy when Melancthon’s followers noted that their teacher had, at times, ascribed a Law function to the “Gospel,” using that term in its broader sense to include both the Law and the narrow definition of the Gospel. “But Melancthon’s followers did not make this distinction. They insisted that the Gospel in its narrow, proper sense worked contrition and rebuked sin.” Luther and Agricola argued back and forth in print during the late 1530s. After Luther’s death, Agricola took major part in drafting the Augsburg Interim (1548), which forged a compromise between Rome and the Lutheran theologians by equivocating on the distinction between Law and Gospel.