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Privately Reforming from Inside
"New Testament Legalism"
December 29, 1994 Letter to Joseph Tkach, Sr.
Dear Mr. Tkach:
Praise God for your faith, courage and humility in boldly preaching the gospel. I thanked God and gave him the glory for the Pastor General's Report and your 21 page letter to the ministry. You mentioned a verse about liberating people from bondage. Truly, God is using you in just that way to open eyes that have been blinded, to free captives from prison, and to release from the dungeon those who sit in darkness. I know that it is Jesus Christ who does these things, but how beautiful are the feet of those who bring and preach the gospel. I gave God the thanks when I heard you were also giving the message in Big Sandy, and, now, also that we will be playing the video in all churches on January 7.
I know that the potential for attrition among the membership weighs heavily upon you. Maybe several ministers will leave. Maybe a few members. And maybe more. But we should never underestimate the power of the Spirit in the lives of his people. Preach the gospel and things happen. People change. Jesus begins to work in the lives of people. You are doing what is right, what Jesus would have you do, what is best for the members. That is a mighty powerful side to be on! Our regional pastor wrote us a note encouraging us to express our "concerns" to Pasadena. He said, "The last chapter hasn't been written, and it will be Jesus that writes it. A comforting thought." Well, I am comforted by the fact that you are boldly preaching the gospel from the many chapters Jesus has already written. This is not new truth. It was in the NT all along. It is the gift of healing.
During the last six months I have personally had a lot of confusion in my head over the gospel and my persistent legalistic cobwebs. I have possessed some thoughts that could not be reconciled with other thoughts I was having at the very same time, cognitive dissonance, if you will. But the Spirit has gently led me to the gospel. I truly believe that you are embracing the gospel. However, there is one thing I would like to bring up for consideration from the Pastor General's Report. I believe it will help you in your approach as you attempt to convince the ministers who do not want to preach Jesus.
You mentioned on page 10 that "we are not under the old covenant laws - except, of course, those that are also part of the new covenant." This is such a wonderful statement to hear that I almost dare not comment. I realize you added the part about "being under" new covenant laws to emphasize the importance of the spiritual law, loving one another, loving God, etc. However, I believe that strictly speaking "if we are led of the Spirit, we are not under law" (Galatians 5:18). Again, Romans 6:14-15 state that we are not under law but under grace. Yes, we are in the New Covenant, but we are not "under" any law.
The reason I believe this is an important distinction is that Christ has truly given us freedom. You mentioned time and again in the personal that we are saved by grace, and grace alone, not law keeping. Christ has given us the freedom to choose to live a responsible, moral life. Now, it is true that one may misuse that freedom and walk according to the flesh. When we do that we will suffer as a result. Even those around us will suffer.
But that is not our salvation. We are saved by grace. We cannot be forced or compelled to walk according to the Spirit. We are free. We can be encouraged, entreated, exhorted, strengthened, comforted, spurred on, hoped and prayed for, expected to, reminded of our calling, and urged to live a holy life. And we do find words such as these sprinkled all throughout the NT. I have also seen you use a generous helping of these same phrases in your latest Pastor General's Report: voluntary, freedom, as loving children, faith and love lead us, I encourage you, done out of love and allegiance, and I hope, etc.
But no one can ever obligate, demand or require us into living a holy life and walking according to the Spirit. It will never work. The Spirit does not work in that way. God does not work that way. There are a number of ministers who do not want to teach about grace and Jesus. You will never be able to compel them to do so. You simply cannot arm-twist them into agreement. It must come from within. That is true for everyone. The new covenant works from the "inside out" as you have put it. You can, however, and God does, entreat them and encourage them and allow God's Spirit to do its work.
However, while I have seen many "freedom in Christ" phrases, I have also seen references in the recent Pastor General's Reports and Co-worker Letter that give the impression that we are under law. I believe this is doctrinally incorrect, but more than that, I do not believe this approach will truly change anybody. In fact, I believe it will only serve to further divide the church and drive both the "conservatives" and "liberals," as you have called them, away from supporting you. Here are some examples: "the demands of true faith," "the demands involved in the message of Jesus," "the requirements of the new covenant," "we still have obligations to the denomination," "We have obligations to serve... we have obligations toward one another," "Jesus made many demands on our time, hearts and money," "Paul explains we have to be obedient," "the grace of God requires the obedience," "Jesus reaffirmed many laws, made them more demanding, since they must be kept."
"Obligation" only appears in the NT twice. Rom. 8:12 says we have an obligation to live according to the Spirit. There are a few references to a "duty." A husband should fulfill his marital duty to his wife (1 Cor. 7:3). We have a duty to proclaim the gospel (Rom. 15:16). And, Luke 17:10 does say that we are unworthy servants if we have only done our duty.
The words "demand" or "demands" appear about 16 times in the NT, but the vast majority have nothing to do with "all the demands of the New Covenant," as you wrote. In Matthew 18:28 the unforgiving servant demands that his fellow servant pay back what he owed. Christ said we should not demand back what someone takes away from us in Luke 6:30. There were lots of demands that Christ be crucified. The old covenant had lots of demands. Psalm 25:10 says, "All the ways of the Lord are loving and faithful for those who keep the demands of his covenant." But not the new. It just doesn't say that.
What about "requirements?" There are over 20 references in the NT. Some of them refer to the efforts of the Judaizing Christians to require the Gentiles to obey the law (Acts 15:5). Others to the fact that if we look to the law we are required to obey it in its entirety (Galatians 5:3). Some would point out Luke 12:48, which says much will be required of one to whom much has been given. But that verse must be taken in the context of John 6:28: "What must we do to do the works God requires? Believe on him whom he has sent."
"Must's" and "have to's" are prevalent in the NT. However, they do not negate the fact we still must choose to walk according to the Spirit, according to new covenant principles. We must obey God rather than men (Acts 5:29). We must love others as Jesus has loved us (John 13:34). Deacons and ministers must do several things to be ordained (Tit. 1, 2 Tim. 2). Husbands must love their wives, and wives must respect their husbands (Ephesians 5:33). All these references to "must" should be taken in the context of Christian freedom.
All of these words, "obligation," "demands," "requirements," "have to's" and "musts," when used for the gospel seem to imply to me an old covenant, under the law approach when God clearly gives us unconditional love and forgiveness and Christian freedom as sons and daughters in the new covenant. We are free to choose. I believe that is made amply clear by the many different ways the ministry is responding right now.
I don't believe we will obtain results by alluding to obligations, demands, and requirements. These are guilt and condemnation based. Rom. 8:1, as you quoted, says there is now no condemnation for those in Christ. What alternative do we then have if we cannot compel?
The words "encouragement" and "encourage" appear twice as many times in the shorter NT as the OT, 38 to 19. I am not going to attempt to list all the meaningful verses where we are encouraged to live a godly life. 1 Thess. 5:14 says, "And we urge you, brothers, warn those who are idle, encourage the timid, help the weak, be patient with everyone." 1 Thess. 3:2 says, "we sent Timothy to strengthen and encourage you in your faith." Hebrews 3:13 states that we should "encourage one another daily." Hebrews 10:24 says we should consider how to spur one another to love and good deeds.
The book of Acts is replete with examples of the way that the apostles motivated (never manipulated) the brethren to godly living: Acts 4:36 (Barnabbas the son of Encouragement), Acts 9:31 (the church was strengthened and encouraged by the Holy Spirit), Acts 11:23 (Barnabbas encouraged them to remain true to the Lord with all of their hearts), and Acts 15:32 (Judas and Silas said much to encourage the brethren).
There are numerous appeals to live a life worthy of Christ. "If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded..." (Phil. 2:1-2). We are urged. "Finally, we ask and urge you as you learned from us how you ought to live and to please God, you should do more and more (NRSV)" states 1 Thess. 4:1. "Yet we urge you, brothers, to do more and more" (v. 10b).
There are times the apostles expressed their hope and prayer that the brethren grow. They said that they wanted them to be diligent, not become lazy and inherit the promises in Hebrews 6:11-12. The word "willing" appears more frequently in the NT than the OT. 1 Peter 5:12 says that we are to "be shepherds of God's flock that is under our care, not because we must, but because we are willing, as God wants us to be."
There are a number of reminders of who we are in Christ and what kind of people we ought to be. In 2 Peter 1:12 the apostle says that he will remind us of these things though we know them. In Titus 3:1 Paul instructs this minister to remind the brethren of specific needs for doing good. Paul reminds us of the gospel in 1 Cor. 15:1. There are reminders of our high calling. "For God did not call us to be impure, but to live a holy life" (1 Thess. 4:7).
Gal. 5:18 says if we are led by the Spirit, we are not under the law. And, again, the Spirit never compels or forces us. It leads and guides. Rom. 8:14 also says the Spirit leads us. We are taught, instructed, encouraged, built up, reminded of our calling, but we just are not required, demanded or obligated. I encourage you to look at this, not for my sake, but for yours and the brethrens. I want desperately for people to be healed by the gospel of Jesus Christ, but they must be encouraged and reminded of their calling. No one can be compelled to change from the inside. But they can be encouraged out of our sincere love for them.
I am certainly not implying that there are not commands in the New Covenant. The NT continually appeals for righteous, holy living. But the references are not legal, as in the old covenant. They are relational. Instead of guilt/control/condemnation, there is an appeal to a personal grace/love relationship. This is the basis Jesus gave for commandment keeping in John 14:15. In this way, a person's freedom to choose is never compromised.
Neil Anderson puts it this way in Victory Over Darkness:
Paul said walking by the Spirit is not license: an excessive or undisciplined freedom constituting an abuse of privilege. As a Christian you may see the phrase "You are not under the Law" and exclaim, "Wow, I'm free! Walking in the Spirit means I can do anything I want!" Not at all. In the previous verse Paul wrote, "You may not do the things you please." Being led by the Spirit doesn't mean you are free to do anything you want. It means you're finally free to live a responsible, moral life - something you were incapable of doing when you were a prisoner of your flesh.
Once [after a speech on] Protestant Christianity [a student] asked me, "Do you have a lot of don'ts in your church?" Sensing he had a deeper motive, I answered, "What you really want to ask is if we have any freedom, right?" He nodded. "Sure, I'm free to do whatever I want." His face mirrored disbelief. "Get serious," he said.
"Sure, man," I said. "I'm free to rob a bank. But I'm mature enough to realize I'd be in bondage to that act for the rest of my life. I'd have to cover up my crime, go into hiding or eventually pay for what I did. I'm also free to tell a lie. But if I do, I have to keep telling it, and have to remember who I told it to and how I told it or I will get caught. I'm free to do drugs, abuse alcohol and live a sexually immoral life-style. All of those `freedoms' lead to bondage. I'm free to make choices, but considering the consequences, would I really be free?"... God's laws are not restrictive, but protective. Your real freedom is your ability to choose to live responsibly within the context of the protective guidelines God established for our lives...
Walking by the Spirit is also not legalism, the opposite extreme from license. Paul said: "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law" (Gal. 5:18). Stringently striving to obey rules and regulations doesn't enable the Spirit-filled walk; it often kills it (2 Cor. 3:6). We're told in Gal. 3:13 that the law is really a curse, and in 3:21 that it is impotent, powerless to give life....
Freedom in Christ is one of our most precious commodities received from God. Because the Spirit is in you, you are a free moral agent. You are no longer compelled to walk according to the flesh as you were before conversion. And now you are not even compelled to walk according to the Spirit. You are completely free to choose to walk according to the Spirit or according to the flesh (pp. 99-101).
I believe it comes down to understanding the born again analogy you have articulated for several years. We are sons and daughters of God through faith in Jesus Christ. I am God's son by faith and nothing I do will change that relationship. God loves me simply because I am his son. He loves me because of who I am, not for what I do. He loves me as a son, not as a servant. Instead of anxiety and worry, I rest in the secure love of my Father. My Father accepts me because of our relationship, not my workmanship. My Father esteems me highly because of my position as a person, not my religious performance. And, yet, I believe that in the Worldwide Church of God we have taught more the religion of a servant than the love of a father for a son or daughter.
Neil Anderson expands on this point:
But, is there anything I could do which would affect the harmony of our relationship as father and son? Yes, indeed-and by the time I was five years old I had discovered almost every way! My relationship with my father was never in jeopardy, but the harmony of our relationship was interrupted countless times by my behavior. What was the key issue to harmony with my father? Obedience. The relationship issue was settled... when I was born into Dad's family as his son (pp. 60-61).
There is just no doubt that we are free in the new covenant. The Spirit is there to guide us. There are numerous broad guidelines in the new covenant. Yet, we are free to choose, because we are saved by grace. If I choose to do something that is harmful for me, it is to my hurt, but that is not a salvation issue. In 1 Cor. 10:23 Paul says, "`Everything is permissible' - but not everything is beneficial. `Everything is permissible' - but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others." And, again, in Galatians 5:13, "You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love." And, the freedom God gives me is the firm foundation to go forward and do just that: love God and others. Oswald Chambers writes about how God never compels us in this way:
"If you love Me, keep My commandments" (John 14:15). Our Lord never insists on our obedience. He stresses very definitely what we ought to do, but he never forces us to do it. We have to obey Him out of a oneness of spirit with Him. That is why whenever our Lord talked about discipleship, He prefaced it with an "If," meaning, "You do not need to do this unless you desire to do so." "If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself..." (Luke 9:23). In other words, "To be My disciple, let him give up his right to himself to Me." Our Lord is not talking about our eternal position, but about our being of value to Him in this life here and now... The Lord does not give me rules, though He makes his standard very clear. If my relationship to Him is that of love, I will do what He says without hesitation. If I hesitate, it is because I love someone I have placed in competition with Him, namely, myself. Jesus Christ will not force me to obey Him, but I must. And as soon as I obey Him, I fulfill my spiritual destiny. My personal life may be crowded with small, petty happenings, altogether insignificant. But if I obey Jesus Christ in the seemingly random circumstances of my life, they become pinholes through which I see the face of God. Then, when I stand face to face with God, I will discover that through my obedience thousands were blessed, "Obedience or Independence, November 2," My Utmost for His Highest.
The other problem that I see with compelling people instead of regarding their freedom to choose is the potential in such a legalistic approach for a minister or organization to compel faithful and loyal members into an abusive situation. I am mindful of our three tithes, seven offerings, that have been required, obligated and demanded by a ministry that was paid more than the vast majority of church households but neither paid second or third tithe, did not pay social security, received substantial tax benefits, fleet cars, expectations of free labor from members, etc., etc. And, yet to this day, the majority of members do not know that. There are other ways we have "lorded it over" our members. Ken Blue writes about this subject:
Someone might say, "What about 1 Thessalonians 5:12-13?"... Someone else might say, "Hebrews 13:17?" Here the writer tells us, "Obey your leaders and submit to their authority. They keep watch over you as men who must give an account." To begin with, this verse does not apply to any leader who does not function first of all as a servant "watching over" the followers. Second, the NT word here for "obey" (peithomai) does not refer to the obedience that may be <<demanded>> [emphasis mine] by right or imposed by decree. Rather, this kind of trust is given <<voluntarily>> [emphasis mine] to leaders in response to their character and power of persuasion. Commenting on Hebrews 13:17, "Ray Peacock says, "Such obedience does not demolish the will of an individual demanding blind adherence to whatever is commanded, but invites that person to consider thoughtfully, allowing his conscience to be the final arbiter before God. Robert Clinton says,... "Persuasive power gains compliance of the follower yet protects the freedom of the follower to exercise moral responsibility."
The NT makes clear to spiritual leaders they have no official or ecclesiastical power by which to lead. They may only appeal to their followers and persuade them to cooperate. By reading the NT, followers should understand that they cannot be coerced or shamed into submitting to any leader. They are free to cooperate or not....
Over the years I have seen many Christian wives wrongly submit to violently abusive husbands because of their intense (although misguided) desire to submit to God's authority. Others have conscientiously stayed in abusive churches for the same wrong reasons. Healing Spiritual Abuse, pp. 34-35.
God loves me unconditionally. I am saved by grace. He now works in us through his Spirit and convicts us of sin. He teaches us and leads us. He encourages us. But he never compels or forces us. It is truly our choice.
The primary truth you need to know about God in order for your faith to remain strong is that His love and acceptance is unconditional. When your walk is strong, God loves you. When your walk is weak, God loves you. When you're strong one moment and weak the next, God loves you. God's love for you is the great eternal constant in the midst of the inconsistencies of your daily walk (p. 118).
Now that I understand the gospel my life and my ministry can never be the same. I can never again lay burdens and legalistic requirements on members. I can and will exhort and encourage them to live up to their identity in Christ and walk the Christian walk. You have given me great hope that God is doing something mighty in you. Mark Cardona gave the Bible Study last evening on the fact that the old covenant is obsolete and we are in the new covenant. There are four local elders here who agree with your 21 page personal and are excited about the gospel. The brethren are growing. We are with you 100% as you follow Jesus.
Please convey to the members the doctrinal correctness of these changes. But do not be ashamed to let them know how much you care about them and how these changes are for their good. You are committed to not laying burdens on loyal and faithful members that we ministers have not been willing to bear ourselves! Let the members know that. They are energetically devoted to God. When we said Christianity was about unclean meats, they gave it their all. Now they will focus that energy on the gospel. Encourage them. Entreat them. As you do I believe we will all be amazed at the way they respond as God's Spirit works in them. With love,
(Name Withheld), Associate Pastor
There was no response from headquarters to this particular letter. However, I did see Joseph Tkach, Jr. at a conference in Atlanta, Georgia about two weeks later. In passing he told me that they appreciated the letters I was sending them, though he seemed to me somewhat embarrassed or reluctant to say so.
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