Paul is quite clear when it comes to justification by faith not by works. Pentecostal and Evangelical Christians of all hues (and most Protestant denominations) are usually not divided over this. We are generally agreed that we will never get to Heaven by trying to keep the Old Testament Laws. Christ’s death on the cross is the only thing that justifies us so we can be confident that God will bring us there when we leave this mortal flesh.
nevertheless knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus, even we have believed in Christ Jesus, so that we may be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the Law; since by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified. Galatians 2:16
because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight; for through the Law comes the knowledge of sin. Romans 3:20
2 For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” Romans 4:2,3
However we are not so united when it comes to understanding how to live as a disciple in this world. There are two extreme viewpoints on how we should live in relation to God and His Law which we have come across among those we fellowship with. These are difficult to reconcile.
The Two Trees
The first viewpoint is that taken by many Charismatic and Pentecostal movements. A good description of how they view the relationship with the Law and a relationship with God can be found in this video. I would recommend you watch it all if you want to understand this viewpoint fully. I have reproduced some of the main points below:
But now we have been released from the Law, having died to that by which we were bound, so that we serve in newness of the Spirit and not in oldness of the letter. Romans 7:6
Such confidence we have through Christ toward God. 5 Not that we are adequate in ourselves to consider anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God, 6 who also made us adequate as servants of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. 2 Corinthians 3:4-6
The two trees in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2-3) are used as an illustration of the difference between walking in the Spirit and walking under the Law:
The Tree of Life is a picture of Jesus and is God’s gift to us. Its fruit is all that God is: Love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (c.f. Gal. 5:22-23).
Jesus came “that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” John 10:10b
Jesus *said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me. John 14:6.
The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil is a picture of the law and its focus on behaviour and correctness. Its fruits are perfectionism, legalism, judgmentalism, criticism, condemnation, self-loathing, shame, blame, control, manipulation and a victim mentality.
The law was never meant to create intimacy. Its purpose is to expose selfishness, self-sufficiency, self-provision, self-protection, etc. It can only establish relationship based on performance! In short, its purpose was to condemn you, not to give you life in any form!
You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? Galatians 3:1-3
[The above paragraphs are taken from notes by Keith Schaad (c) Tree of Life 2016 that come with the video, used by permission. Scripture verses are from the NASB.]
Hebrew Roots Movement
The Hebrew Roots movement has been gaining traction over the last decade particularly in more fundamentalist parts of the Bible belt in the US. There are some variations in what people who belong to this movement teach (as there are also among those who consider themselves affiliated with Charismatic / Pentecostal denominations). On the subject of Paul’s teachings about the law this is probably the best summary I have come across (thanks to Niel De Villiers):
“It is my genuine belief that all the debate about Paul’s letters concerning the law – is that he wanted to explain a new policy regarding justification , which is grace – as seen in the above verse [Titus 3:7]. This does not mean that we are no longer under God’s law and guidelines, for righteousness sake.”
Some of the main bases of the Hebrews Roots movement can be found in this video. Again it is worth watching this video if you want to understand this point of view. (Jim Staley who preaches this sermon in 2014 was subsequently put in jail for 5 years. His testimony about what God did with him during that time is also worth listening to.)
People with this viewpoint see the front of the book, i.e. the OT, as being at least as important as the New Testament. They would also use the Law/ Torah as a guide for how to live life, trying to implement as many of the commandments in there as they find applicable to their daily lives. In particular this has ramifications concerning the Sabbath (observed from Friday evening sundown to Saturday evening sundown), the observance of feasts (Christmas and Easter are rejected, Passover and Tabernacles, etc. observed) and other practices, especially if you are a farmer.
The brothers & sisters I know who follow this way of thinking are clear that they don’t get to heaven this way. However, they do view their relationship with God as being primarily through observance of the Law as they read it in the OT (and the New).
Can these seemingly opposite views be reconciled?
Anyone who has had any dealings with Charismatic/ Pentecostal meetings will be aware of the emphasis that is placed in these meetings on encounters and experiences. The idea of relationship with Jesus in these meetings emphasises the experiential. Evangelists from this background will encourage you to experience more of God by being baptised in the Spirit -something you experience. God is known by the fact that you feel His love, joy, peace etc. You hear comforting words and music, you see visions and others in ecstasy, you taste (literally) honey, you smell fragrances, (the odour of the Lord (2 Cor. 2:15-16)), you feel angelic presences and, above all, you feel and are guided by the presence of the Lord. A lot of these churches place emphasis also on the Scriptures but it isn’t the only source of revelation – or way of knowing God- in these churches. By definition, these churches believe that the gifts of the Spirit are being manifested today. To people with this mindset the idea that the Law is no longer relevant is likely to receive a welcome. Their idea of a relationship with God is one in which He is talking to them all the time through all sorts of means including visions, dreams, creation, sunsets, artistic drawings and paintings, a scent in the air, tingly feelings, impressions, etc. and, of course, the bible as well.
By contrast, those who have spent their time mainly in Baptist, Methodist or brethren churches will have been taught not to put their trust in their feelings, to walk by faith not by sight and to be wary, generally, of any experiences especially if accompanied by imaginative dreams and visions. They will also have been encouraged to study the Scriptures (New Testament mainly, but also the Old Testament), immerse themselves in the Scriptures and to do what it says and to treat extra Scriptural “revelations” with a lot of caution. Usually, these churches do not believe that the gifts of the Spirit are for today. To people with this mindset the idea that the Law still applies and can be worked out in daily life is likely to be received more willingly. Their idea of a relationship with God is that He has spoken all that needs to be said in the Bible and we just need to read and do what it says. It is not that He can’t speak in other ways, it is just that He doesn’t. They are generally not looking for, or expecting, God to manifest Himself through His presence or anything else based on feelings.
It is also true that a lot of people fall between these two extremes and there are things to be learnt from everyone.
Jesus’ comments on the Law are to be found in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7). First of all He says this:
17 “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. 18 For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. 19 Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:17-20.
This seems straight forward enough – the Law is obviously still in place then isn’t it? But then He goes on and adds His own elaborations of what the Law really means:
“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ 22 But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.” Matthew 5:21-22.
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’28 But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” Matthew 5:27-28.
As Peter said at the Council of Jerusalem in Acts 15:10, the Law is hard enough to bear as it stands without being added to in this way. In the end, Jesus makes the standard so high it would seem to be completely impossible to reach it: “48 Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Matthew 5:48
I think we do need to be clear about the Sermon on the Mount – it was addressed to Jesus’ disciples not to everyone (see Matt. 5:2). However, it hardly seems right or logical to think that Jesus would give His disciples commands to carry out that are impossible to do.
Jesus perfectly fulfilled the Law to this high standard during His time on earth. He explains how in John 5:19-20:
19 Therefore Jesus answered and was saying to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in the same way. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows Him all things that He Himself is doing;
And again in v.30:
30 “I can do nothing on My own. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will but the will of Him who sent Me.”
As disciples I believe we are called to be like Jesus including in this way of keeping our relationship with God and therefore fulfilling the high standard of the Law as described by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount. He encourages us about how to do this in Matthew 11:28-30:
28 “Come to Me, all who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is comfortable, and My burden is light.”
In other words if we want to do what the Father shows us like Jesus then we need to align ourselves with everything Jesus says and does.
So far, probably, no controversy.
The tricky part comes when we look deeper into how people approach what it means to be yoked to Jesus. And then we come full circle and are back looking at a spiritual experience (hearing Jesus in various ways and doing what we believe He is telling us) or applying the Scriptures by reading them, interpreting them and just doing what it says in the Old and New Testament without overly worrying whether we are “hearing” from God. Of these the first emphasises intimacy with God over (Law compliant) righteousness, the second inverts these priorities.
After all this thinking and reasoning Jesus makes this statement:
“I praise You, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that You have hidden these things from the wise and intelligent, and have revealed them to infants. 26 Yes, Father, for this way was well pleasing in Your sight.” Matthew 11:25
Whatever approach we take, let’s just make sure the fruit of the Spirit is present. Jesus (and Paul and the OT) makes it clear that it is not the outward observance that matters most but the heart attitude in the observance.
After all, David -the murderer and the adulterer – was a man after God’s own heart (1 Samuel 13:14). Thank God that justification is by grace working through faith and not based on keeping the Law.