How to Understand Scripture – Part 2

This is part two of a series aimed at helping folks understand Scripture better, even folks who think they understand it just fine.  If you haven’t read part one yet click HERE.  In the last post, we were just getting ready to look at Rule #1, so let’s get started…

CompassRule #1      

G.U.A.R.D.   God’s Law – know it!

Proper understanding of the Law of God

For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.   Romans 3:20

 Law?!? Compass rule number one is about the law of God?? Well…yes! If one carefully studies the New Testament books of Galatians and Romans[1] and, it will be clear that there are two major categories of Scriptural teaching, Law and Gospel. It is incredibly important to understand these categories! The failure to understand these categories is by far and away the most common error made when reading (or preaching) the Word of God. To ignore these categories would be like assigning your own directions to the letters on the compass. Maybe “E” means East today, or maybe it means West…no big difference, right? Obviously it is a huge difference and one that, if misunderstood, can send us in the exact opposite direction of where we are supposed to be headed.

So, according to Romans 3, what is the purpose of God’s law in relation to salvation? The answer is clear, “the law simply shows us how sinful we are.”  Following the law of God (which can be generally summarized in the Ten Commandments)[2] is not intended as a way that we can be made right with God.  In other words, obedience will never save us. Galatians 3:11 tells us, “…it is clear that no one can be made right with God by trying to keep the law. For the Scriptures say, ‘It is through faith that a righteous person has life.’ This way of faith is very different from the way of law, which says, “It is through obeying the law that a person has life.” So when you read that you are to love God with your whole heart, help the poor, clean up your life, and control your tongue, please understand that these commands are all based on the law. So obeying them now will not make you right with God – this isn’t what makes you a Christian.

This doesn’t mean that these law passages are of no value or that we can ignore the rules and live however we like. Far from it! The law has an important job, and part of it is to show us our failure and guilt.[3] By teaching us exactly what is sin, we become aware of how guilty we really are. Take a moment to measure yourself against the Ten Commandment by considering a few questions: Have you ever lied? Have you taken the Lord’s name in vain? Have you ever committed adultery (or even looked upon another with lust, which Jesus taught as being the same crime)? When you think about just those three commandments, I’m guessing most readers will realize that they’ve broken them at least once (and probably a whole lot more than that)! We are all guilty of many, many sins and every one of them is considered to be wicked rebellion against a Holy God. We deserve a death sentence for each and every one of them! Do you see now how the law of God exposes sin? It shows us why we need a savior. It shows us our crimes.

Another purpose of the law is that it tells a Christian how they are to live once they’ve been redeemed. It teaches us what a Christian’s life looks like after salvation.[4] It points us to the Cross by showing us our guilt, and then tells us what to mold ourselves into after we have been cleansed at that Cross but it does not save us. This is a fundamental mistake in many of the modern evangelical Christian sermons and teachings. Understanding that obedience doesn’t save you will help you understand a lot of passages much, much better.  Why? Because, unfortunately, most of us tend to read the idea of “obedience for reward” into biblical passages pertaining to salvation. Allow me to give you an example using a commonly misunderstood passage:

Matthew 25:31-46

 “But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. 34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. 36 I was naked, and you gave me clothing.

I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

37 “Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? 39 When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

41 “Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons.

42 For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink.43 I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’44 “Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’45 “And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’46 “And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

 At first glance, this passage would seem to indicate that the sheep had earned salvation by “loving God and loving others” or obeying the law, wouldn’t it? I myself have heard it preached this way more than once. But if that were true, then this passage would be contradicting the passages we read earlier from the third chapters of both Romans and Galatians.

We cannot choose which passage to put more faith in, because they are all from the mouth of God and so both must be true (this is the choose/lose rule which we will discuss in just a few minutes). One very important thing we must be careful to do is let Scripture interpret Scripture. Or in other words, we must always use clear Scripture passages on a subject to help clarify vague passages dealing with the same subject. Since Paul’s teachings makes it extremely clear that good works will not save us on Judgment Day, we must have the diligence to come back to this text here in Matthew and take another look…

Re-read v31 thru v33. Our Lord is on His throne, that being the throne of judgment, and the sheep and goats are separated by species upon entry to the great courtroom. This is very important! They are separated by what they are before what they have done is even discussed! Look at the order of how the events occur:

1) They enter the great courtroom

2) They are separated by what they are

3) Judgment is handed down

4) Deeds are then given as evidence the judgment is just

In other words, the sheep were welcomed in because they were sheep, and the fact that they did good deeds was simply given as evidence of what they are. Their obedience to the law didn’t save them, they obeyed because they were saved. Likewise, the goats failed to do good deeds because they weren’t saved. Goats do goat things, sheep do sheepy things. Their behavior is what identified their nature, not what created it.

A proper understanding of the function of God’s law has forced us into carefully re-examining a passage that normally brings confusion or false doctrine.  Once properly understood, we are freed from the guilt and pressure of trying to live in such a way as to earn salvation, which as we all should know, is an impossible task. Instead, we are enriched by yet another proof of the sufficiency[5] of Christ’s saving work on the Cross, knowing that it is He that transformed us into sheep, with obedience being the fruit of our conversion, not what converted us in the first place. We can also now nod in agreement when elsewhere we read statements such as, “we can be sure that we know him if we obey his commandments” or “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” (1st John 2:3 & John 14:15)

Understanding this part of the Biblical compass has given us a sense of direction and kept us from getting lost in a passage that normally brings guilt. Instead, we are now led into an appreciation of grace which spurs us on to performing good works out of love and gratitude. As a side note, keep the proper place of the law in mind as you listen to sermons and read Christian books as well.

Misuse of the law is the most common form of error and false teaching. When taking in a teaching, you must ask yourself, “Is this simply telling me what I must go do for God (law), or is it including the good news of what Jesus has done (gospel), and thereby stirring me up to good works?

Summary:

When reading law type passages (commands & rules) keep in mind that obedience for salvation isn’t what’s being taught. The Law leads us to the Cross, and guides us after it. Obeying the law doesn’t save us!

Footnotes:

[1] See Romans 6:20 and Galatians 2:21, 3:18, 5:4

[2] Exodus 20

[3] Romans 3:20

[4] 1 John 2:3-6

[5] Definition: Adequate to meet one’s need, or the full amount required

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