Some may be offended by this post. But that is not my intention. However, I believe this is quite serious and needs to be addressed.

What kind of God do you worship?

The Psalms have reshaped my view of God. They have helped me see Jesus of Nazareth as he really is. The psalms lead God’s people into the worship of God in Spirit and Truth. The last five psalms of the book form a cascading literary conclusion to the whole book of Psalms, doxology upon doxology till it shatters the universe in Ps 150.

The praise of the Psalms is a direct response to the kind of God Yahweh is. You see, in the Bible, God’s people are not merely theists, as opposed to atheists. It is not enough to merely believe that a god exists. Biblical faith begins and ends with faith in a certain kind of god. The biblical God is alone, God.

Idolatry is not primarily bowing to stones. It is fashioning a false god that is unlike Yahweh. What kind of God do you, and I, believe in? This is the crux. Lots of folks believe in “god,” but it seems to me some have a false god.

Psalm 145 quotes Israel’s God Creed. It was pronounced first by Yahweh, in the hearing of Moses. It was in the midst of tremendous failure, the Fall of Israel. Every bit as much a fall as that of Adam in the Garden. The Golden Calf. Yahweh proved his love, and who Yahweh is, by forgiving. The Psalms exclaim, near the end of the Psalter, we have come this far and sang 144 songs together, this is who we confess,

Yahweh is gracious and merciful
slow to anger

and abounding in HESED/steadfast love.
Yahweh is good to all
and his compassion is over all that
he made
” (145.8-9)

Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord. Grab the trumpet, grab the lyre, grab the cymbals, grab anything and Praise the Lord. Dance and praise the Lord. Men, women, young and old, praise the Lord.

Why praise?
Because Yahweh is good.
Why, praise in music and dance?
Because Yahweh is infinite Hesed.
Why worship?
Because Yahweh remembers widows, orphans, aliens (146.7-9).

Even the creepy crawlies praise the Lord (148.9-10). Why? Because Yahweh is good to them.

Yahweh is compassionate.
Yahweh forgives.
Yahweh is hesed.
Praise the Lord.

The Psalter ends with pure praise. The Psalter ends with exuberant, over the top, praise. This praise can only be done by people who truly know what kind of God Yahweh is.

The other morning, when Casper and I finished reading the Psalms, I checked the fifty or so notifications I had on Facebook. I should not have. When I read, and sometimes comment, on posts in various “Church of Christ” groups, I ask “what kind of god do these people believe in?”

That morning I asked that literally out loud.

It does not matter the day. You will find in the CofC groups two constant themes in any of these groups:

– Instrumental music
– Is wine a sin

These are always filled with so much (literally) made up stuff, it is shocking. There is no Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness that twists scripture or makes false statements – and could care less – as on these threads. Sometimes we imagine we know the Bible, and I do not say this out of some self-righteousness but rather a genuine sense of lament, but we do not.

But this morning I saw one that I was unprepared for what I read.

“If someone is in a coma or other ailment, will this cost him his salvation because he forsakes the assembly?”

There was a long thread. It was shocking how many affirmed YES! and it is shocking that the person posting was asking a serious question!

What kind of god do they believe in? It is not the God of Psalms. It is not the God of Exodus. It is not the God of Jesus. It is not the God Yahweh.

I wept for these people. My heart was broken. I asked God to deliver us from the false preachers who have convinced these, his people, of this kind of skubala. May the Lord have mercy upon us all.

What kind of God is the God of Israel? The one who elicits such praise (those answering the thread would likely leave the service described in Pss 145-150). This is the biblical answer,

Where is another God like you,
who pardons the guilt of the remnant,
overlooking the sins of his special people?
You will not stay angry with your people forever,
because you DELIGHT in showing unfailing love (HESED).
Once again you will have compassion on us.
You will trample our sins under your feet
and throw them into the depths of the ocean!
You will show us your faithfulness and unfailing love
as you promised to our ancestors
Abraham and Jacob long ago
(Micah 7.18-20, NLT)

The biblical narrative reveals a God of infinite, passionate and costly love – hesed. The teachers of these misguided brothers and sisters make Jonah seem wise by far. At least Jonah had no doubt as to the mercy and grace of Yahweh, it was God’s gracious hesed that Jonah was running away in order to keep the Assyrians from being saved. He knew what kind of God Yahweh was.

But this was very distasteful to Jonah and he became angry [Heb, evil]. He prayed to Yahweh, ‘O Yahweh! Is not this what I said while I was still at home? Is this not why I ran away to Tarshish at the beginning. Because I KNEW that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in HESED, and ready to relent from punishing” (Jonah 4.1-2)

Behold the God of the Cross. Behold the God who would rather let Jesus die than be God without us. Behold the Biblical God. I am so glad I read the Psalms and worshiped the King of Glory, the King of Love this morning.

This is the God that I worship … the Father of Glory, who has given us the Son and embraced us in the Holy Spirit.

Praise the LORD!
Praise God in his sanctuary …
Praise him for his mighty deeds (works of salvation).
(Ps 150)

P. S. I disavow the technical god of Precision Obedience.

28 Sep 2019

Hesed: The Gospel of Ruth

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Discipleship, Exegesis, Grace, Hebrew Bible, Love, Mission, Proverbs, Ruth, Women

I love doing seminars on the Five Megillot (Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes, Esther). I’ve spent many days reading and praying through them. It does not take long to read any of them. These books, both intimately connected to the worship of the biblical calendar (Passover and Pentecost) are profoundly rich. Sadly they are often fairly ignored books in the Bible.

A Dystopian World

Ruth is probably the most popular of the Five. Ruth is set in a time of political chaos, the Philistines were rampaging through the land, while national leadership was a joke. Samson was a perpetual teenager seeking selfish sexual gratification and Jephthah was a Conan the Barbarian type. The one bright light, nationally, was when God raised up the prophet like Moses – Deborah! This is the setting of Ruth, the time of the “Judges.” Watching Conan with Casper last night reminded me of the “days of the Judges.” Ruth lives in a dystopian world.

Into this time of chaos and fear we have the scroll of Ruth. Ruth is, in my opinion, a counter voice to the mess of Judges. God does not work only or perhaps primarily through the “great men of history” to bring about God’s kingdom. God works through women and even the aliens!

The Story of Ruth also take place during the barley harvest (1.22; 2.23) and is associated with the Festival of Weeks (Shavuot) or Pentecost. It is read during that festival to this day.

A Pagan Woman Models the Heart of the Matter

In fact Ruth is a marvelous commentary on the central theological value in the Hebrew Bible, Hesed. Hesed is the heart of God, as Yahweh declares in Exodus 34.6. The concept is sprinkled across the Hebrew Bible and saturates the Psalms (the term occurs over 150x in the Psalms). See Reflecting on God’s Hesed: The Heart of God.

Preachers in Evangelical/Restoration circles do not talk nearly enough about hesed, sometimes so infrequently that disciples do not even know the word nor what it means. Yet it is the central character trait of Yahweh and it is the primary virtue in human relationships. It is the vertical and horizontal dimensions of the “Jesus Creed.” See God Creed, Jesus Creed: Center and Circumference of Christian Faith.

In Ruth 1.8 we encounter some radical teaching on hesed. Naomi says to her widowed daughter in laws, Orpah and Ruth,

Go on. Go on back, both of you to her own mother’s house, and may Yahweh do HESED with you, AS YOU HAVE DONE with the dead and with me.” (my translation)

Do you see that? Ruth, the Moabite – a pagan, has imitated the God of Israel. “She has practiced hesed. She may not even have known that Yahweh claims this as God’s own. But the scroll, through Naomi, declares Ruth acts like Israel’s God. May Yahweh do for her what she has already done. She did hesed.

Moses speaks of hesed a lot. Yahweh claims hesed is the beginning and the end of God’s identity (Ex 34.6). The Psalms refer to Hesed well over a hundred fifty times. In the days of the Judges hesed was hard to come by. It was not in Samson. It was not in Jephthah.

Where could hesed be observed?

The scroll of Ruth’s divinely inspired answer to that question is: hesed was seen in Israel’s archenemy, the female widowed pagan … Ruth!

The book of Ruth does not merely teach hesed through a command. Ruth shows us what hesed “looks like” in 3D.

The alien from Moab practiced the central characteristic of the God of Israel in her relationships, her husband and her Israelite mother in law. She practiced the second greatest command of the law of God and in doing so she imitated Yahweh.

Meanwhile the heart of God was missing from the people of God … has this ever changed? (See Jonah!)

When the Holy Spirit wanted to teach God’s People what it meant to faithfully love [hesed is faithful, committed, costly love] our neighbor as ourselves, that Spirit told the story of an alien. A foreigner.

It dawned on me as I was reading Ruth over lunch that Ruth is the “Old Testament” Samaritan. When Jesus wanted to tell a deeply committed Bible student the real meaning of hesed for our neighbor, he also chose a foreigner, an enemy, one that was thought to be theological trash. He confronted the Bible student with the Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Parable of Hesed.

A Note on Canonical Order

One more Ruth nugget for today. There is more than a slight chance that some intentional arrangement has occurred in the Hebrew Bible. The book of Ruth follows the book of Proverbs in the Hebrew order not Judges. This is fascinating.

First, Proverbs ends with the personification of Lady Wisdom and describes her as a “worthy woman” (lamely) or a woman of noble character (better) or perhaps a woman of great value/abilities or a woman of valor. This is in Proverbs 31.10. This Hebrew phrase only occurs one more time in the whole Bible. Where? In the very next book in the Hebrew Bible, Ruth. This is what Boaz calls Ruth on the threshing floor in Ruth 3.11. Boaz address Ruth the Moabite with the exact epitaph that describes the great woman in Proverbs.

Second, Lady Wisdom, the woman of ability and valor, is a teacher. In fact she teaches the central truth of God, hesed.

English translations completely obscure this. They read, as the NIV,

faithful instruction is on her tongue.” (31.26)

The NRSV has “the teaching of kindness is on her tongue.” This is better because it recognizes she is a teacher.

But the text says, “she opens her mouth and the teaching of hesed is on her tongue/fill her mouth.”

A woman preaches the central claim about Israel’s God.

These are among the last words in Proverbs. The next person we see is the story of Ruth! Proverbs ends with a woman preaching God’s heart (hesed) and the next book shows a pagan woman, Ruth, practicing God’s heart (hesed) Ruth is the very embodiment of hesed. This is quite intentional.

Final Words on Ruth

Our world today is much like the time of the Judges. Not merely that everyone does what is right in their own eyes. But that we are in a world devoid of hesed. It seems that hesed is not only devoid in the world but it is scarce among God’s own people.

I wonder if the Spirit want’s us to hear – maybe for the fist time – that Ruth is not the story of a Disney Princess. Ruth is the story of shocking hesed from directions we automatically discount, the alien. Sometimes it is the outsider who looks the most like God.


Have you ever heard of the “Covenant of Shalom/Peace”?

Covenants. I grew up on the language of “old” covenant and “new” covenant. In my world the “Old Covenant” was synonymous with the 39 books of the Protestant Old Testament. Much of my education regarding covenants was by way of contrast: negative for the old and more positive for the new.

That “old” covenant was a colossal legalistic mistake and thankfully “nailed to the cross” as the old saw says.

But I did not know the Bible very well, honestly. I didn’t. I knew the standard topics that were important to my little band of non-sectarian sectarians. But I did not know that the Bible bears stunning witness to the truth that:

1) the Bible does not reduce itself into “old” covenant vs. “new” covenant;
2) there are numerous covenants in the Bible;
3) except for God’s covenant with creation in Genesis 9, all covenants are have Israel, or a person within Israel, as the object of the covenant;
4) what the NT calls the “old” covenant is not a synonym with Genesis to Malachi;
5) All of God’s covenants are of Hesed/steadfast love and grace.

Covenant of Shalom

Have you heard of God’s covenant of shalom/peace? We find this stunning covenant buried in Isaiah 54. It is a beautiful text spoken to the people of Israel who are “dead.” That is they are in exile. They are in exile because they have grievously sinned. Their sin is characterized throughout the Hebrew Bible as adultery (idolatry). Israel is in the tomb of exile by a self-inflicted wound.

The people of God, Zion, are addressed as a barren woman and a woman that has been caste off in divorce. These are powerful and graphic images both in there historical setting and still gripping in our own. But this woman is commanded by Yahweh, of all things, to sing.

Singing is associated with joy but this woman has no apparent reason for joy. Or does she.

God, not Israel, has acted in tomb shattering grace. God is calling her out of death and into life. She has a grace alone given status! She will forget her shame … her self-inflicted shame. This why she is told to rejoice in song.

Do not be afraid; you will not be put to shame.
Do not fear disgrace; you will not be humiliated.
You will forget the shame of your youth
and remember no more the reproach of your widowhood.
For your Maker is your husband—
the Lord Almighty is his name—
the Holy One of Israel is your Redeemer

She is no longer barren, she is no longer a divorcee. She has a “husband” who is non-other than the Creator God, Yahweh of Israel. The divorcee is married by God!

Indeed, Yahweh says that it was only for a short time that Israel endured God’s wrath (i.e. spurned love). Israel had been faithless for centuries on end. Yahweh has truly been “sloooooooooooow to anger.” Israel’s wound was self-inflicted.

But Yahweh will not let the story end in her ultimate death. God refused to allow the story end in either divorce or death.

It was in a “surge of anger” that for ” brief moment” God let the chips fall where they may in exile. “But with everlasting love I will have compassion on you” and bring Israel back.

Yahweh then says that the history of Israel had reached a “Noah’s flood” type moment. Human bloodshed had vandalized the good creation and the flood was unleashed. But then God swore to never again strike the earth in such a fashion. So now Yahweh makes the astounding promise, based on nothing but God’s own integrity, “ I have sworn that I will not be angry with you and will not rebuke you.

So astonishing is this promise of God that the Lord seals it in a covenant just as in the days of Noah.

my steadfast love shall not depart from you,
and my COVENANT OF SHALOM shall not be removed,
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

God’s hesed, declared to be God’s name in Exodus 34.6 in the face of the Golden Calf, and shalom will never be removed from the pulled out of the grave people of God.

What a powerful, indeed revolutionary, word of the Lord. God has entered into a “covenant of shalom/peace” with even those who were dead in their trespasses, buried in the Babylonian exile, who were where they were by their own hand. Yahweh refused to let the Story end there.

Have you heard of the Covenant of Peace? For many years I never did. It is another one of those texts that I had no engagement with. But Paul the apostle knew of the covenant of peace and its gracious language lies behind those epic words in Romans 5.1-11.

Isaiah 54, God’s Covenant of Shalom, has been for many years now been one of my favorite passages of the Bible. It preaches God’s grace as loudly as Augustine or Luther ever did.

May God’s Shalom surround you on this day

Nanos volume contains some extremely helpful essays on reading Galatians as a first century Jewish document.

Galatians is a book that will tax a readers reading. It is a swirling vortex of Pauline applied theology. The letter was written to a very specific place, in space and time dealing, with a very specific issue. As readers of this letter two thousand years later it demands we check our assumptions at the door. We may find that they are quite alien to AD 49.

In my life this examination of assumptions has not happened with the scrutiny that Paul may need. Many of the presuppositions we bring, I am convinced, can have serious repercussions on how we hear the letter. Many of the assumptions we have historically read this letter through have to do with Judaism and the Hebrew Bible. So in an effort to read the Galatian letter more faithfully in its first half of the first century context, I offer these Sunday evening reflections.

First. Perhaps the foundational assumption of all assumptions, grounded in centuries of caricature, is that the “Old Testament” and Judaism is legalistic and exclusivistic. This assumption, compounded by F. C. Baur’s thesis that this legalistic Judaism was in dire conflict with Paul’s grace approach to faith has seriously colored Protestant interpretation of Galatians. These two intertwined assumptions have been shown to be historically false however. The Law of Moses does not prohibit Jews from eating with, much less associating with Gentiles. In the Second Temple period there are numerous texts that indicate Jews (who had various opinions btw on the matter) had table fellowship with Gentiles under a wide array of circumstances. We think of Letter of Aristeas, Judith, Philo and others. Jews regarded Abraham as the model of hospitality for being a gracious host and an “ideal guest.” It just is historically incorrect that Jews, as a matter of course, would refuse to eat with Gentiles. When this fact hits us we are then forced to deal with the text in Galatians in its actual historical context.

Second. Whoever the “men from James” were, we know at least two things about them. 1) These men were in Antioch, not Galatia. Paul never says, nor implies, the troublers in Galatia are from Jerusalem or the folks who came to Antioch. 2) These men do not actually represent James’s or the Jerusalem church’s views. This is confirmed by Paul himself because he notes that Titus, a Gentile, was not “compelled to be circumcised” even in the presence of James. Since Titus was not told to be circumcised the question arises, did James and the Jerusalem church make Titus eat by himself while in Jerusalem? I honestly do not believe that to be the case. Some how Titus enjoyed table fellowship even while in Jerusalem itself.

Third. What is most interesting is that Paul never mentions food, kosher or otherwise, in Galatians. Peter did withdraw table fellowship in Antioch, but Paul does not say it was because of food. Protestants have in fact, though, read the text as if it does mention food. Perhaps it was but the text does not state that. And in light of the previous two facts, we are confronted with the likelihood that it was not merely non-kosher food (and again we do not know it was non-kosher or table with both) that offended the men who came from Jerusalem to Antioch (but recall they are not in Galatia). I have come to the position that when Peter withdrew out of fear, that the “Jews” are non-messianic Jews in Judea probably with some connection with the Zealots. Remembering the extremely volatile situation in Judea during the late AD 40’s and 50’s that culminate in the outbreak of war at least makes a plausible case that something beside food spooked Peter. Thus I agree with F. F. Bruce’s observation in his Commentary on Galatians that Peter’s move would be a pastoral move which is why Paul does not say he was guilty of apostasy but hypocrisy.

Fourth. It seems upon historical investigation extremely likely that the troublers in Galatia, not the men from Jerusalem in Antioch, are Gentiles who have converted to Judaism at some earlier point. They are not ethnic Jews. This seems to be what Paul actually says. Note the following renderings of 6.13

For not even they who RECEIVE circumcision do themselves keep the law” (ASV)

those who LET THEMSELVES BE CIRCUMCISED do not observe the law” (Goodspeed’s New Testament)

the ones who ACCEPT circumcision …” (New American Bible)

even those who RECIEVE circumcision …” (New English Bible)

deSilva’s is the most complete Evangelical commentary on Galatians. Though he takes a different view than Nanos on some matters, this is a must for any study of Galatians

This language makes absolutely no sense of a Jew like Paul, Peter, and James who was circumcised on the eighth day of life. Paul states clearly what “we Jews know by birth know” in 2.15-16,

We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners, yet we know that a person is justified not by works of the law by but through faith.”

In Romans, Paul makes the same point by quoting the Psalms “Do not enter judgement with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you” (Ps 145.2, quoted in Romans 3.20)

But it is “those” who have allowed themselves to be circumcised who are troubling the congregations of Galatia. These are Gentile proselytes, who have a vested interest in getting Gentiles to go through the same initiation rites they themselves have done to become “full fledged Jews.” Paul is adamant that this is not in line with the truth of the gospel.

For Abraham to be the father of many nations Gentiles did not, eschatologically, become Jews. The Gospel is not about making Gentiles into Jews. Nor is it, btw, about making Jews into Gentiles. Abraham is the father of Jews as Jews and Gentiles as Gentiles through the Gospel. The Gospel as the fulfillment of the promises to Abraham is that now the nations, as the nations, have left idolatry and join with Jews in worship of the One True God.

There are many other assumptions that need critical examination when reading Galatians. But when the assumption that Jews, as a matter of course, refused table fellowship with Gentiles is rejected as false (because it is) things suddenly change and Galatians sounds quite different. And when we realize that Jerusalem and Paul are actually on the same page and the men “from” James are not in Galatia, that impacts the reading of the letter. And when we realize that the agitators are almost certainly Gentile converts to Judaism and not ethnic Jews this too greatly impacts understanding the letter. And finally when we notice that food is actually never once mentioned in the letter it is almost breathtaking.

But with each assumption falling by the wayside we come closer to hearing the actual meaning of Paul’s letter. Galatians is about how Gentiles as Gentiles can be citizens in the commonwealth of Israel. It is not some timeless expression of Paul’s view on the “Old Testament” as such or the “law” in particular.

P. S. You may be interested it this:

Romans is not Galatians! Welcome to the Most Jewish Letter in the NT: Assumptions and Surprises

People use the language of “love” for almost everything in our world. But it is my observation that the genuine article, unfiltered, unvarnished love is unsettling for many people. It is safe to love ice cream, love movies, love cars, love Harleys, and the like.

It is safe because it costs nothing whatsoever to “love” these things.

On the other hand, we want to quantify, regulate, parcel, and restrict the flow of love, precisely because we live in fear.

Genuine love makes life unpredictable. Love makes life uncontrollable. Love makes life vulnerable. Love makes us not in charge. Love makes us not powerful. Love in fact puts us at risk … and I believe that is precisely why we decide to love things rather than people.

But in the real, genuine, unfiltered and unvarnished love … we do not care. Listen to John. We know the text but it is usually not as much part of our “doctrine” as it should be. Indeed it is amazing how often Christians make a distinction between “love” and “doctrine.”

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is NO FEAR IN LOVE, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers and sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also” (1 John 4.16b-21)

Love is the greatest of all doctrines.

John makes obedience to the Greatest Commandment dependent upon the exercise of the Second. How often, and it is often, do we find brothers and sisters, under the pretense of loyalty to God avoid their brothers and sisters. John says, not me, it is a “lie!”

See, we turn love for God into the same thing as loving our Harley or ice cream. Such love costs nothing. But John will have none of it (and the rest of the Bible says ‘Amen’). Such love is bogus, fake news, a lie. We meet the icon of God in our sister and our brother and our reaction to the icon, the photograph, the holograph of God is how our respond to God. Every human being we meet is God’s personalized iconography. As C. S. Lewis once noted, we have never met a mere mortal every person is the holy image of God.

As politically incorrect as it may be to say with some Christians, the truth is we do not “abide with our brothers and sisters” because we do not love them.

First John addresses this from the first verse to the last. The heretics in 1 John are not just anti-Christs because they are incorrect, they are heretics because they disfellowshipped, and left, their sisters and brothers (1 Jn 2.18-20).

Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.

Love does not fear our sisters.
Love does not fear our brothers.
Love does not fear aliens.
Love does not fear socialists.
Love does not fear capitalists.
Love does not fear Mexicans.
Love does not fear poor people.
Love does not fear aliens.
Love does not fear those with a different opinion than my own.

We love because God loves us. If you and I are “in” him then that love that is in God will be in us. This why John points to the Cross when he speaks of loving one another,

We know that we have passed from death to life [i.e. that is we know we are a Christian] because we love one another … We know love by this, that he laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another” (1 Jn 3.14-16).

Love cost God something.

The reconciliation of us not just to God, but of us to one another, cost God the death of Jesus (Ephesians 2.11-22). John puts it like this,

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us” (1 John 4.10-12)

Love. It is the deepest, it is the hardest, it is the greatest Christian doctrine to practice. Perhaps that is why it plays such a minor role for the promoters of Precision Obedience. But he practice of genuine love reveals how close or far away we are from God.

Unfiltered, unvarnished, sacrificial Love, is the imitation of God. If we loved each other enough to die for one another, John says, we would have far less division. John challenges us to stop pretending we love God when we so freely walk away from the gathering of icons of God.

Stop living in fear. Live in love. But we live in fear …

Love casts out fear. Love has no fear of our sisters and brothers. Any of them.


This evening I have thought about the famous Psalm 51. The heading of this psalm is what contributes to its fame for it associates the text with David’s brutal attack upon Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. You may wish to read all of Psalm 51 but my comments are focused on verses 10 to 12.

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
Do not cast me from your presence
or take your Holy Spirit from me.
Restore to me the joy of your salvation
and grant me a willing spirit, to sustain me
” (NIV)

The word “spirit” is the word ruah in Hebrew. Ruah occurs approximately 400x in the Hebrew Bible, that is a lot. About fifty of those times it is clear in the context that ruah means air or wind (in the sense of the substance of Earth’s atmosphere). That leaves about three hundred and fifty times when it is associated with God. This basic fact often surprises many because they have trouble remembering any texts about the Spirit in the Hebrew Bible.

Typical of Hebraic theology is Psalm 51. Prayer is, itself, a request for divine aid even when such is not explicitly stated. The whole presupposition of prayer is that appeal is made to God because God can and will do something. But our text is an appeal for God to work through God’s Spirit.

Psalm 51 is a text that belongs to all Israelites that come to the temple to worship, not just David. Even if the psalm is literally from David’s own pen, the fact that it was preserved and prayed by thousands and thousands of Israelites for centuries on end show that it expresses the faith of all the faithful. Psalm 51 by was preserved because it was prayed in worship by thousands upon thousands of Israelites for a thousand years before the coming of Jesus (and since).

We need to remember what the Psalter itself is. It is the glorious window into the faith of typical Israelites who loved Yahweh. So it is the Israelite in 800 BC, 500 BC, 300 BC, 100 BC and AD 33 that utters the words within the congregation in the temple. Historical context matters. Hear the plea.

Create in me a clean heart, O God” (Ps 51.10)

The context of the psalm is that of gross sin (the Israelite long after David found the Spirit’s words to be their own though their sin may be radically different. Our sin does not have to be exactly David’s sin to pray for God to create a clean heart in us). Sin, of such a nature, the psalmist believes is beyond his/her ability to conqueror. That is he/she does not have the power to overcome it through human willpower. The Israelite who prays these words denies “the will to power.” This is not some mere ceremonial uncleanness (and Israelites understood the radical distinction between mere uncleanness and sin).

The editors of the Psalter thought it was a fitting Psalm to illustrate the horrific fall of David when he raped Bathsheba and murdered Uriah to cover his crime against her. It is not our will to power but divine power that is plead for to bring about the change the heart. The power of sin (or Sin) is greater than the power of David or any Israelite (or you and me) to overcome it.

Clearly the psalm bears witness to the desire to overcome the sin but the prayer itself confess our inability to master it.

Isn’t this the desire that Moses commanded Israelites in Deuteronomy? The Prophet Moses commanded them to “circumcise your hearts” and not be “stiff necked” (10.16)? But did not the same Moses note that Israel, like David and the thousands praying Psalm 51, would fail in this?

So Moses promises that Yahweh, in an astounding act of grace, would,

The LORD your God will circumcise your hearts
and the hearts of your descendants,
SO THAT you may love him with all your heart
and with all your soul, and live
” (Deut 30.6).

This is the prayer of Psalm 51.

Significantly, this Psalm also uses the word bara (create). This is not the word “make” but “create.” This is evocative of the creation account in Genesis 1. Only God can bara in the Hebrew Bible. Of no other person is the word used of in the Bible. “In the beginning God created (bara) …”

The ancient Israelite encountered the creation stories the same way they did the psalms, in communal worship. In Genesis, God’s creation of the pristine and good world is accompanied by the “Spirit of God” filling the useless chaotic void with life and goodness.

So the psalmist pairs his/her own prayer with creation and the Spirit

… do to me what you did “in the beginning”
… make me new, fresh, and “very good”
… such an act of grace is nothing an Israelite could do by his/her strength, work, precision obedience or sheer will to power.

A new creation must ensue. It must be a new creation of God through God’s own ruah. God must work on the Israelite through the Holy Spirit to bring about the prayed for change. God’s empowerment is recognized as a necessity by the psalmist. This is a powerful conception of grace.

Psalm 51 is the prayer that thousands upon thousands of Israelites confessed and prayed in the context of their own struggles for God to do to them what Moses promised God would do. We need God to operate on our heart, we need God to do what we have proven miserable failures at.

Each pilgrim prays for Yahweh to create a clean heart, a circumcised heart, made new by the same Spirit that created the world, to make it “very good” as it was “in the beginning.” The Jew knows this is not done by their own initiative or boot straps. There is no illusion of self-sufficiency. No amount of Precision Obedience can bara a clean heart. This comes only through the act of God’s Ruah.

That Spirit binds the Israelite to God in fellowship. Thus the prayer warrior continues.

Do not cast me away from you Presence
and do not take your Holy Spirit from me
” (Ps 51.11)

John Goldingay suggests this as the proper translation of Ps 51.11-12

Cast me not away from your presence
and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again
and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit

This is a nonsensical plea, if the average faithful Israelite had zero conception of personal fellowship with God through God’s Spirit. Further the person praying this prayer in worship recognizes that Yahweh sustains him/her through the instrumentality of the Spirit and with the parallelism makes it abundantly clear that the saving help is from the ruah.

The saving help of Psalm 51 is God’s ruah, God’s Holy Spirit. Not only is the Spirit the instrument of help in overcoming sin and the creation of the clean heart but the Spirit functions as the means of fellowship with God. Communion with God was therefore in and through the Holy ruah of God.

The psalmist hungers for a clean heart. But the psalmist wants God even more. The Holy Spirit was the means to the clean heart in order to bring communion with the God of Israel. Jesus, the Master Rabbi of the Psalms, knew from this and many other psalm texts, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Mt. 5.8).

Psalm 51 takes on even more significance for disciples of King Jesus. The Psalm is deeper and more powerful in the light of Christ and Pentecost, not less! We know the heinous depth of Sin in our hearts because of the Cross and we know the joy of the gift of the Holy Spirit. So we stand alongside David, Hezekiah, Huldah, John the Baptist, Mary, James, Peter, Paul and all the Cloud of Witnesses and make this prayer our own.

Thank you God for dwelling with, and empowering, your People through your Holy Spirit. Amen.

You have probably heard the old saw “study to show thyself approved.” Over the years I have discovered this does not appear to mean what it suggests for many. What this admonition meant according to the hidden power players in “non-denomination denominations” is “read approved literature and agree with our unwritten creed.

Study is actually dangerous stuff.

To engage in research, more than likely, means you will learn something “new.” The discovery is not really “new” just “new to me.”

Pluto had been there since the beginning of time but human beings never knew it existed until 1930. It was discovered through research, a quest for learning.

Radioactivity has been there since the beginning of time, but it never occurred to anyone that something was “there” unseen until 1896. Many other examples can be given.

Thus it is with God’s Word, any “new” light we perceive has been there since God gave it. We often simply do not have “eyes to see” as Jesus bemoaned. It seems to me that the more one takes with utmost seriousness the connected and integral nature of Scripture the more one learns and questions certain things … like the so called traditional role of women.

Today, marks the anniversary of the certification of the 19th Amendment by U.S. Secretary of State Bainbridge Colby on August 26, 1920, recognizing women as full citizens in the political process.

This was the end product of a very long battle that began in the days of the abolition movement (most will point to the “beginning” in 1848 but some quibble). In fact a large number made the link between abolition of slavery and the extension of the right to vote to women (Frederick Douglass did so and was present in 1848 in NY at the call for women to organize) and so abolition was opposed because of the “slippery slope” by many.

Opponents to abolition had many names for abolitionists. A favorite caricature was that they were enemies of God’s design and denied the authority of the Bible.

Many in the Stone-Campbell Movement were vocal opponents to granting women the right to vote, they said the same thing about proponents of suffrage as they had earlier of abolitionists – they had an “agenda.” They did not believe the Bible. The ministry of Selina Holman among the Churches of Christ is a classic example, see my Selina Moore Holman: New Woman & the Exegetical Conscience of the Churches of Christ.

The Southern States, the old “Bible Belt,” had rejected the 19th Amendment already: Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Mississippi, South Carolina and Virginia. In fact Mississippi never actually ratified the 19th Amendment until March 22, 1984!

Thankfully, a young 23 year old Republican named Harry T. Burn, from McMinn County, believed a new day had arrived. And on August 18, 1920, Burn cast the deciding vote in Tennessee that gave women in the USA the right to vote. I can say I am happy and think this was the right and just decision to be made.

One wonders how opponents of women serving communion, praying or reading Scripture in and with God’s people differ from the opponents of women’s suffrage? and opponents of abolition? I am often shocked by some who are unwilling to say that slavery is a “sin.”

They themselves are deniers of biblical authority, according to the the old argument. What changed? You see the texts that were used to combat granting women the right to vote were 1 Timothy 2.12 and 1 Cor 14.34-35. These very passages used today today to say a woman can neither read, pass a communion try while standing, or pray in public. How has their reading of these passages changed so they no longer hold to what ministers said of these passages before 1920?

Today, if I affirm that women can pray (as they actually did in Corinth) or share the word (as they actually did in Corinth). It is claimed that I am part of a “feminist agenda” or do not believe the Bible in the Churches of Christ. That was the charge made against abolitionists before the Civil War and supporters of suffrage for women before 1920 too.

But the abolitionists were right and the right to vote was just. The opponents were horrible Bible students.

What about those texts? Well, first I do not believe those texts affirm what the naysayers claim. Some of the naysayers never deal with texts in their historical context or literary context. However, I affirm that women can participate in the corporate life of God’s People on the basis of the story of the Bible itself … and those “ignored” texts.

Let me illustrate it this way. Have you ever noticed that the Bible never once condemns having multiple wives. Mormons, and other groups, affirm polygamy and they have plenty of Bible that reflects that view. But every one of the opponents of women praying in the assembly would say that polygamy was a “sin” even while there is not one verse in the NT that says that even as some would refuse to say slavery is a “sin.” Irony if there ever was irony!

But polygamy is wrong. Not because of a book, chapter and verse but because it is counter to the intent of creation and the goal of new creation. The equality of women in Christ is true for the same reason polygamy is wrong. They are equals and co-heirs (not sub-heirs) of the kingdom of God.

Creation – New Creation is the hermeneutic Jesus used on the Pharisees in a debate over biblical interpretation (Deut 24). Creation and New Creation are not feminist agendas, rather they are justice and righteousness and reading from intent and goal. As much as some want to disregard Galatians 3.28 it is in fact very relevant to how we view humans within God’s creation. See Galatians 3.28, Baptism & the Gathering.

Creation and New Creation are God’s own “agenda” that conflicted with the notion that women were property to be bartered over (the essence of the ancient divorce debate) … it also conflicts with those who think women are better “seen” than “heard” in prayer and worship.

Ladies, I am delighted that justice was served in the abolition movement that birthed the suffrage movement for you. In both cases redemption was at work in the structures of our world. Something the church should have instinctively known but sadly the church often – like Jonah – has to be dragged by God to see what he is doing in the world.

Elizabeth Cady Stanton defended her work on behalf of women’s right to vote by appealing to the biblical story in the face of ministerial critics. In particular Huldah. In her mind Huldah was one of the greatest of all God‘s servants:

The greatest character among the women thus far mentioned (in the OT) is Huldah the prophetess, residing in the college in Jerusalem . . . Her wisdom and insight were well known to Josiah the king; and when the wise men came to him with the ‘Book of the Law,’ to learn what was written therein, Josiah ordered them to take it to Huldah, as neither the wise men nor Josiah himself could interpret its contents . . . We should not have had such a struggle in our day to open the college doors (to women) had the clergy read of the dignity accorded to Huldah. People who talk the most of what the Bible teaches often know the least about its contents.” (quoted in Phipps, p. 15).

Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of the disciples a yoke that neither we nor our fathers have been able to bear?” (Peter in Acts 15.10, NIV)

I thought about calling this “Context and Context” like K. C. Moser’s old column in the Gospel Advocate in the 1930s. Historical context is as essential to the correct interpretation of a passage in the Bible as literary context.

We need to recall something quite basic here. Peter did not live in, and Luke did not write with, the 21st century USA in mind. Peter had a very specific history that was shared by others present at the Jerusalem Council. And that history was known to them even if it is not to most today. This is extremely important for Acts and most texts in the Bible. We call it historical context.

Typical Interpretation of Acts 15.10

Acts 15.10 reads, “why are you putting God to the test by placing on the neck of the disciples a yoke that neither our ancestors nor we have been able to bear?”

This passage demands careful reading in its literary and historical milieu, but these rules are often neglected. Readers who come to this text with an already negative disposition towards the Hebrew Bible and Judaism, in particular, naturally think Peter is simply talking about the Law of Moses itself. In fact in most cases this is simply assumed to be the case without any attempt to establish it as so. J. W. McGarvey is fairly typical of the old line Protestant interpretation of Acts 15.10.

“[T]o put on the necks of these Gentile converts the yoke of the law, which no generation of Jews had been able to bear, would be, in the light of the preceding fact, tempting God; that is, trying his forbearance by their own presumption … In affirming that the law was a yoke that the Jews had not been able to bear, he meant they had not been able so to keep it as to be saved by the perfection of their obedience to it” (J. W. McGarvey, New Commentary on Acts, vol 2, pp. 63-64).

For McGarvey, Peter was clearly talking about the burden of the Law of Moses, which he supposedly found intolerable.

Such an interpretation has serious historical difficulties however. There is little evidence that Israelites, much less biblical writers, imagined the Torah was an unbearable burden. It is a Protestant caricature of the Hebrew Scriptures and Judaism, when we imagine Jews as supposedly running off 613 commandments in their minds as they go through the day. The vast majority of “laws” applied only under certain, and very specific, circumstances, and many of those were for priests and Levites not “ordinary” Israelites.

Moses and the prophetic tradition clearly never dreamed that 613 commandments were tagged on individual people.

And now, O Israel, what does the LORD your God demand of you:
Worship the LORD and do all he commands.
Love him,
serve him with all your heart,
observe the LORD’s commands

What commands does Moses then explicitly mention?

Circumcise your hearts, and do not be stiff necked
You are to love the alien, for you yourselves were aliens in Egypt

This is Deuteronomy 10.12-22. The exact words do not appear there be the substance appears throughout the Hebrew Bible as Micah states

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God
” (Micah 6.8; See also Psalm 15 and 24)

The Bible declares God’s torah to be like honey and joyful.

The law of the LORD is perfect,
reviving the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes
” (Psalm 19.7ff)

I shall walk at/in LIBERTY,
for I have sought your precepts …
How sweet are your words to my taste,
sweeter than the honey to my mouth …
Your words are a lamp to my feet
and a light to my path …

(Psalm 119.45, 103, 105, etc)

This language is difficult to construe as a “burden.” Psalm 1 and all of 119 and many other texts can be added to this citation. The apostle Paul himself calls the Law … a gift of grace (Romans 9.4)!

What if Peter was NOT Talking about the Law of Moses?

But there are good historical grounds for seriously doubting that Peter is referring to the “Old Testament” in general or the Law of Moses in particular. Rather Peter is referring to historical events regarding the Pharisees in the aftermath of the Maccabean revolution.

Peter is explicitly responding to the “party of the Pharisees” (15.5, 7, 10). It was not the Jerusalem church that had attempted to bind on the Gentiles certain requirements of the Torah. After Cornelius had responded to the good news of the Jewish King, he was not told to get circumcised. There was controversy as Acts 10-11 demonstrate but after Peter’s “defense” there is no record in Acts of the Jerusalem church seeking to impose circumcision and additional requirements on people like Cornelius. It is the “party of the Pharisees” who are putting God to the test. When Peter says “why do you try to test God …” the “you” is the Pharisees, not Jewish believers as a body.

Knowing that Peter is talking to the Pharisees is of monumental importance. There is precedence for the Pharisees action here, not on Gentiles but upon “our fathers.”

The Pharisees had, once before, imposed their halakah (oral interpretation of the law) on the populace of Judea. F. F. Bruce in his Commentary on Acts hints that 15.10 may be “the details of legal tradition” (p. 291) but sadly does not pursue the exegesis. But it is precisely the tradition OF THE PHARISEES, the halakah, that Peter is indeed protesting in the face of the Pharisees themselves.

Josephus, who was himself a Pharisee, tells us that that the Pharisees received civil power to impose their interpretations on the people (see Antiquities of the Jews 13.408-409; Jewish Wars 1.108-12; 2.262). This was regarded as a heavy burden by the general population and drew considerable ire. In fact there was considerable backlash against the Pharisees. This was very “recent memory” for Jews in the first century. Salome Alexandra was Queen from 67 to 63 BC. So we read in Josephus,

So Alexandra [Salome], when she had taken the fortress, acted as her husband had suggested to her, and spoke to the Pharisees, and put all things into their power, both as to the dead body and as to the affairs of the kingdom

So she … permitted the Pharisees to do everything; to whom also she ordered the multitude to be obedient ...” (Antiquities of the Jews 13.16, p. 267, Whiston edition)

And now the Pharisees joined themselves to assist her in the government. These are a certain sect of the Jews that appear more religious than others … They banished and reduced whom they pleased; they bound and loosed people at their pleasure; and, to say all at once they had the enjoyment of the royal authority … While she [Salome Alexandra] governed other people, and the Pharisees governed her.” (Wars of the Jews, 1.5, p.434, Whiston edition).


In fact the Pharisees exacted retribution on many of their enemies during Alexandra’s short reign. Pharisaic halakah (interpretation) became the law of the land in Judea. Schaper notes “Salome gave the Pharisees a free hand in reshaping their role under her reign and ordered the populace to heed their instructions” (See Cambridge History of Judaism vol 3).

The “burden” that “yoked” Jews, it seems to me, in the Luke-Acts context, refers to just those Pharisaic rules that both Peter, and everyone else present at the Council, knew had been rejected by their “ancestors.” Peter does not believe the Gentiles can bear the Pharisaic halakah any more than his grandfather.

This understanding is supported, I believe, by the actual direction of the Council takes. Acts 15 envisions that Jewish believers will continue to observe the Law of Moses itself (as opposed to the Pharisees “yoke” or interpretation). Second, the requirements for Gentile behavior are based upon the Law of Moses itself, and James says “gar [for/because] Moses is preached” as the basis for the Gentiles behavior. In the rest of Luke-Acts observance of the law (as opposed to Pharisaic tradition) is portrayed in a very positive light (cf. Acts 22.12, etc see the whole discussion in Jacob Jervell’s works on the Law in Luke-Acts). I will just quote Jervell here,

Commentaries speak of the Gentiles’ liberation from the law. This is not the whole truth. Luke knows about a Gentile mission without circumcision, not without law. The apostolic decree enjoins Gentiles to keep the law, and they keep that part of the law required for them to live together with Jews. It is not lawful to impose upon Gentiles more than Moses himself demanded. It is false to speak of Gentiles free from the law … Luke does not champion any justification by law … but this is never contrasted with adherence to the law” (Luke and the People of God, p. 144).

The “unbearable burden” was human religious tradition that Pharisees demanded adherence to in order to be right with God.

My understanding of Acts 15.10 is Peter is objecting to the Pharisees doing what they had already done ninety years ago. And the Jews nearly revolted against them … in fact the Pharisees paid a heavy price as they lost political power (many ended up being crucified in fact!).

For genuinely biblical views on torah see Psalm 1; Psalm 19.7-14; and all of Psalm 119.

Specific Resources in addition to those in the text

Markus Bockmuehl, Jewish Law in Gentile Churches (Baker 2000), pp. 49-83, 152-153, 164-167.

David J. Rudolph, A Jew to The Jews: Jewish Contours of Pauline Flexibility in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23, 2nd Edition (Pickwick, 2016), pp. 198-201

Samuel Robert Cassius

Back in the late 1990s I was working on a thesis in graduate school. This required spending hours and hours in a room that I came to call “The Cave of Microfilm.” My thesis was on R. L. Whiteside. I had to wade through years of microfilm of the Gospel Advocate, Firm Foundation and journals that have long been forgotten like the Christian Monitor.

One forgotten journal was the Christian Leader. In the Christian Leader, I discovered a person who signed his articles by the name of S. R. Cassius. I was blown away by this man. Up to that point in life, I had never heard of him. Most of the history books do not mention him even once. I ended up making notations of his interesting articles and then spending the money to have copies of articles I found. Later I discovered that Edward Robinson was doing research for a PhD on Cassius. I shared everything I had with him (Robinson was kind enough to mention me in the acknowledgments of his published bio by the University of Alabama Press).

In the Lost Cause mythology, Lincoln is presented as a hater of black folks and was worse than any slaver in the South. This agenda is designed to exonerate Jefferson Davis and especially Robert E. Lee. Lincoln was, of course, a child of his times in many ways but it is probably no exaggeration to claim that no person in government wrestled with the “race issue” as much as Lincoln did … ever. Perhaps one of the finest studies on Lincoln in these matters is a look at his relationship with another of Cassius’s heroes, Frederick Douglass. See James Oakes, The Radical and the Republican: Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln and the Triumph of Antislavery Politics.

I mention Lincoln because he was revered by Samuel Robert Cassius and because of some misinformed comments in a recent discussion on my wall. Cassius was born a slave in 1853. His father was white. His mother “unfortunately” was pretty. His “father” exercised what was called “the white man’s privilege,” that is of using female slaves as sex toys. His father raped her on numerous occasions. His father was his slave “master.”

In 1903, in an article called “The Race Problem,” Cassisus laments the inconsistency of white Christians regarding people of color. If he keeps to himself then he is “sulking.” If he stands up for himself like a “man” then he is “getting too smart.” If he minds his own business then “he is studying devilment.” There was no way to win. The specific occasion of Cassius’s piece is that Theodore Roosevelt held a reception at the White House in which a Mr. Darcy, his wife and daughter (all black) were invited … and the uproar that came with it.

To defend “Mr. Roosevelt” and his course of action, Cassius goes down memory lane to the habit of Abraham Lincoln …

“Mr. Lincoln opened his receptions to the ex-slaves, and I can well remember my mother taking me by the hand [about 11-12 yrs old] and going to the White House to see the negroes Moses. I shook hands with Mr. Lincoln, and remember the scene as though it was yesterday. I saw old, grey-headed men and women not only shake hands with President Lincoln, and weep with tears as they kissed his hand … [he] made no distinction in color, and the only comment ever made on it was one of commendation.” (S. R. Cassius, “The Race Problem,” Christian Leader 17 [10 March 1903], 9).

A number of startling facts come out of this small vignette. First and foremost is that Abraham Lincoln not only welcomed blacks to and interacted with blacks at the White House but that he would discourse and shake hands with (if you do not think this was radical then you simply do not comprehend the history of white/black relations in America). But he welcomed slaves, of freshly freed, or escaped whatever you want to call them, into the White House. It reveals something of how Lincoln was viewed by four million people who regarded him almost as a Messiah.

Cassius ended up naming his son in honor of Lincoln, Amos Lincoln Cassius who would become a well known preachers in the 1920s and 30s among black churches in Southern California.

Cassius minces no words about the South, the church and racism. To this day, I remember being completely taken aback by his forthrightness … and that it was published in the CL … which was based in Cincinnati which may be one reason it COULD be published in a ‘brotherhood’ paper of the day.

Maybe one day we can talk about his comments on the brutal murder of Sam Hose after being questioned about it. The brother had said “the good people of Georgia” had taken care of him. The brutality of the Hose affair was instrumental in turning W. E. B. DuBois from an academic to a social activist.

It is a wonder what primary sources will do for you when we take the time to absorb them. We might learn that Lincoln was viewed by African Americans in the same light as Moses …

Many people use words in a very slippery way. We will call a person a “liberal” as a way of dismissing what she has presented. No real discussion or examination need be taken because we can simply dismiss the individual. Many people also use the word “legalist” and there is not much content to the word.

I was called a “liberal” so I think it is proper to think about “liberalism” and “legalism.” I think there is something that is legitimately “Liberalism” and there is something called “Legalism.” Defining theological “liberalism” is far easier than “legalism.” Neither of these words or the ideas they represent can properly be used as a way to shut down conversation, nor thrown at some one simply because he or she disagrees with “me” or “you.”

Real Liberalism is a position that rejects certain fundamental Christian beliefs. These include: the deity of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the reality of miracles. Liberalism is essentially Rationalism applied to Christianity. A person that accepts the deity of Jesus, the bodily resurrection, the virgin birth, the miracles as real can never be honestly and legitimately called a theological liberal. If you accept the Bible you are not a liberal. It is that simple and there are virtually zero genuine Liberals within the fellowship of Churches of Christ.

Legalism is real and a far greater danger to folks within Churches of Christ than theological liberalism. Jesus was in a discussion with a “legalist” once. The discussion was not about legalism per se but about love. The legalist actually correctly defined what Scripture said and was even able to say what he knew was “most important” and said love God and love neighbor. But he wanted to justify his lack of love and said to Jesus “well who is my neighbor.” (Lk 10.25-37). Jesus actually wrestles with legalism frequently in the Gospels.

Today, we often say with the Pharisee, “but what is legalism” (seeking to justify ourselves as well).

Legalism is tough animal to define in a single sentence. How do you define “beautiful?” or more appropriately how is “life” defined? How do you describe colors like “red” and “blue?” It is pretty tough to do.

However, we know beauty when we see it; we recognize life when we encounter it; we know love when it is shown and we know colors when we behold them.

But defining these basic and fundamental realities is exceedingly difficult. We know beauty by the response it elicits from us. We know life by its fruits. Paul even says we know the presence of the Holy Spirit by his Fruit.

Perhaps “legalism” is like that … we know it by its fruit. Yet the difficulty in defining beauty or life in no way suggests these are imaginary concepts.

But I am not going to leave it there. Legalism is an orientation that views the human walk with God as something that is primarily generated, and rooted, in human action rather than divine. Legalism is a worldview.

Legalism is not about obedience vs disobedience to the King. Legalism is the framework in which such obedience is understood. Legalism conceives the central issue of Christianity as what I do, what I know, what I think. It is about humans getting it right or else.

Let me unpack the previous paragraph with some concrete “identity” markers for “Legalism” flowing from the definition I have given.

1) Legalism conceives of Scripture as primarily a record of divine commands given to the human race that we are to fulfill precisely. The heart of the Bible is a call to exacting, even precision, obedience to those commands. Scripture is about what humans must do.

According to legalism, Scripture is not primarily the inspired Story of the God’s love, of God’s gracious move to make space in the divine life for something as alien as matter, of God’s sacrificing Godself so that matter can continue to dwell and indeed become partaker in the divine nature! No Legalism says Scripture is fundamentally the commands of God directed to us so we by our own precision obedience can be right with God. The ground of acceptance is not God’s work but human response.

2) Legalism regards the New Testament (the Hebrew Bible is not even on the radar screen of legalism except as a caricature in most cases) as a large number of commands, examples, inferences … all of which are equally important. Exact obedience to each is necessary to salvation. Missing even one damns as much as any other. This is the very essence of the “rebaptism” debate among us.

Legalism will, btw, often use the word “grace.” Legalism says that God in God’s grace revealed the legal code to us, or that Jesus died to give us the code or pattern (the Pharisee could talk about God’s love and knew the command to love was divine!). However, we are bound to these commands for our own good. The code/plan/pattern provides the means by which we can do something sufficiently well enough to be with God. Grace, in legalism, is the revelation of the command that we have to obey with precision. Failure to precisely perform each of these commands will result in our damnation. So grace, in the worldview of legalism, is not God’s gift to save us but rather commands so we can ultimately save ourselves provided we meet the exact requirements with precision. I cringe at the very notion.

When the chips are down, there are no secondary matters in legalism, in fact the secondary matters are likely the most important matters. Here #2 simply puts a fine point on #1 above.

3) Legalism is known by its trinity: Anxiety, Fear, and Arrogance. The slightest infraction of the “code” or “pattern” breaks the bond between God and humanity therefore legalism never knows if it has been good enough (thus the fear and anxiety). The mangled body of Christ is the fruit of legalism.

Ironically sin is so externalized in legalism, and thus made “manageable,” that we can affirm our precision obedience and arrogantly look down our noses on anyone not quite as perfect as we imagine ourselves to be on those measurable items (even as we live in fear of damnation ourselves). People’s failure to arrive precisely at our understanding means they are either dumb or willfully disobedient to God.

Legalism does not feel the need for grace. The words “have mercy on me, a sinner” are hard to utter within a legalistic framework. We don’t need mercy, we simply need propositions and get on with it.

Legalism is human centered religion, it is “me-ism” religion. Christianity, however, is a God centered faith. Legalism is more focused on positions on issues than relationships with God and his people.

Conservative, by the way, is not a synonym for “legalism.” But neither is Progressive a synonym for “liberalism.” There are liberal legalists. Conservative is not a synonym for faithful or truthful. Conservative is not a synonym for love of anything, much less God and neighbor. Why people equate these is a mystery. Some one will say “I take the conservative position” as if that is by default the correct position. But it is not now and never has been.

If we find that we have to qualify God’s grace when we hear it or say it, then our orientation may be human one rather than a God centered. Scripture certainly does not feel obligated to qualify God’s grace but magnifies it.

In Scripture it is the divine indicative that is always the ground for response and obedience. It is the divine indicative that enables obedience. This is why K. C. Moser used to quip that “legalism is the father of the denial of the indwelling Spirit.” Legalism had no need of the Holy Spirit.

The essential and basic issue of legalism is God oriented or human oriented. The chasm between biblical faith, in both Testaments, and Legalism is as wide as the canyon between Abraham’s bosom and the place of torment.

I will have nothing to do with legalism. First Corinthians 1.1-9, written to the most messed up church of God in history could never have been penned by a legalist.