The World in the Church 4: Lawless World: Lawless Church?

Garry Williams
This is the fourth and final article in Garry Williams' series on the Church & the World. To read the first, please find the first here, the second here and the third here ~ the Editor

My first article began with the observation that Satan ambitiously aims to attack the church at the very points that are intended by God for its defence. He seeks to bring the world into the church through its elders, and at the heart of its public worship. Having considered the problems of distractedness, the desire to appear normal, and hostility to religion, in this final article I turn to reflect on how a worldly lawlessness may have infected the church.

We live in a lawless age. The modern and post-modern turn inward that I mentioned in my last article is also a turn away from external moral responsibility and any kind of external moral regulation of the self's desires. The self has become the moral arbiter. It has taken the place of God. Like God, it is autopistos, self-authenticating. And so the desires of the self become unquestionable. What the self wants is right. And the self is narrowly defined. My self is not, for example, my body, since I may redefine my gender against my biological identity. Self is at heart Will. In a chilling parody of the divine name of Exodus 3:14 the voluntaristic self cries: 'I will be what I will be'. The only conceivable law constraining the self is that it must not do anything to harm another self, selves being untouchably sacred, unless they are harmed by their own consent.

What does this look like in the church? Is it not the explanation of why we are so often lazy, indifferent, and uncommitted? Of why many fall into immorality and seem totally blind to it? Why does a woman who has been involved in the church for years have an affair that appears to everyone else to be so obviously self-destructive and insane, let alone immoral? Why does a man put on the tightening noose of pornography that leads him to prostitutes and breaks his beautiful family? Why does a successful man drift heedlessly into unabashed materialism? 

There are no doubt several reasons. Largely, it is because sin has a terrible blinding effect. But might it also be because we have preached and believed a lawless gospel that fosters lawlessness? 

In one specific sense, the gospel is utterly, wonderfully lawless. When we consider our justification, as far as any meritorious contribution from our own works is concerned, the gospel is lawless. None of our works of the law can provide any moral basis for our justification. The covenant of grace has conditions, but they are the non-meritorious conditions of repentance and faith. There is no law-keeping by us that can contribute an iota to our justification. 

Paul's searing critique of works of the law excludes all our works of all types from any role as the moral ground of our justification. It is not just ceremonial works that are excluded (as argued by sixteenth-century Roman Catholic apologists, and as the 'works of the law' texts are read by New Perspective authors), nor is it just pre-conversion moral works (another Roman Catholic reading). The possibility of Gentiles keeping the law in Romans 2 shows conclusively that the 'work of the law' in verse 15 cannot be ceremonial, and the examples of the believers Abraham and David in chapter 4 demonstrate the exclusion of post-conversion works. 

In that precise sense, in the sphere of our works and our justification, the gospel is lawless. For Christ, the opposite is true. Because our works can contribute nothing, we depend on his work and works for our justification. 

But should we therefore proclaim in an unqualified manner that Jesus calls us to do nothing? This is hardly what he said: 'If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me' (Mark 8:34). Jesus calls us to live our whole lives for him, to give them for him. He invites us to trust in the mercy of God alone for our justification, as the parable of the Pharisee and tax collector shows, but he calls us to die for him, every day. 

None of this obedience earns justification, but the justified believer is united to Christ, and as Calvin says we cannot be united to Christ for justification and not expect to be united to him in his suffering and death. The gospel is lawless for us in the sphere of justification, but not in the sphere of Christian living. The energy of sanctification does not come from the law itself apart from the Spirit. This is why the law was a ministry of death to unregenerate Israel (2 Cor. 3:7-18). But even with the law written on his heart, the Spirit empowered Christian still needs the law in its written form to know how to obey the Lord. Otherwise Paul would not need to quote from the ten commandments to instruct the Ephesians (Eph. 6:1-3). 

So if I preach 'What does God call us to? Nothing.' then I am not preaching what Jesus preached. And if I tell my congregation that they are fine no matter what then I am leading them into grave danger. If they are snared by sin and it blinds them and they refuse to repent despite the discipline of the church, then they are not safe no matter what, they are most likely lost. They are safe so long as they persevere. God will keep his elect, but those snared by grave sin without repentance reveal that they were never among them (Heb. 3:14; 1 John 2:19).

Do you believe or preach a lawless gospel? Here is a test: How do you understand the warnings of Scripture? Do you preach that Jesus has borne the curse for us in our place, so the punishments threatened cannot come upon us? Take a specific example. How do you read Hosea's children? What do 'Lo-ruhama' (No Mercy) and 'Lo-ammi' (Not my people) say to Christians today? Do they only say: 'Rejoice! This cannot happen to us as Christian people. God will always have mercy on us. He will never cast us off as his people.' We must rightly preach that Christ has borne our curse for us, but is that their only significance?

That is not how the New Testament reads Hosea. The Lord Jesus himself takes Ephraim's boast from 12:8 ('Ah, but I am rich; I have found wealth for myself') and puts it on the lips of the Laodicean church: 'For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing' (Rev. 3:17). When he references the language of Hosea, Jesus does not say: 'You rested in your wealth, but do not worry because I have borne the curse for your false confidence'. Instead he introduces the allusion to Hosea with this warning: 'because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth' (3:16).

Do we warn like that? There are still Luthers out there, men with highly sensitive consciences who need incredibly gentle handling. But our context is very different from Luther's. Knowledge of the law was strong then, and warnings of hell were clear (think of the horrific depictions by Hieronymus Bosch). Now they are not. Most likely, we are dealing with a majority who have hardened and not sensitized consciences. We need to challenge the lawlessness of the world by exhorting Christians to obey the Lord Jesus, no less than he did. 

My suspicion is that many readers will agree with much of what I have said in these four articles, though perhaps none will agree with all of it. Yes, you will say, I feel the distraction. I see the danger of being afraid to be offensive. I see the problem with people avoiding the externals of true religion and resisting God's law.

But the question is not 'Do you hear and agree?', it is 'What will you do?'. If these are true concerns and dangers, then our consideration of them needs to work itself out in our ministry, and that means first and foremost in public corporate worship. 

So what will change? Here is my list of questions for myself; I will leave you to weigh it and form one of your own. Will I practice and model sustained meditation on the biblical text? Will I expect the offense of the gospel to extend beyond my preaching, allowing the strangeness of the crucified God to permeate everything? Will I be more truly religious, and teach people to be more truly religious? And will I be clear that while Jesus demands nothing of us for our justification, he demands everything of us in our sanctification?

Dr Garry Williams is Director of the John Owen Centre at London Theological Seminary, and Visiting Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary (Philadelphia). His new book is His Love Endures For Ever: Reflections on the Love of God (IVP in the UK, and forthcoming with Crossway in the USA), in which he tries to put into practice the idea of theological meditation. These four articles are developed from a talk originally given at a Proclamation Trust conference