In my 13 years of preaching, I’ve seen a lot of different arguments made about the Bible, some that I think are valid, some that I think aren’t. In the latter category, I have to put the arguments that try to pit the Bible against itself. When this happens, somebody tries to deny Scripture A or Concept A by pointing to an apparently contradictory Scripture B or Concept B. Their conclusion is that because B is true, they get to ignore A.
I have problems with that. The Bible is, of course, the word of God. It is inspired and inerrant. As a result, it’s impossible for the Scripture to truly contradict itself. Any contradictions that we think we run into, then, or any two Biblical concepts that we think are opposed to each other, are only that way in our own heads and not in reality. This morning, then, I want to sort out some of the confusion. I want to look at some supposed Biblical opposites that aren’t.
The first set of non-opposites that I want to consider is an oldie but a goodie, FAITH VERSUS OBEDIENCE. This one has been a problem since Martin Luther and probably before. The argument goes that because we seek salvation by faith in Jesus, if we try to do anything in connection with our salvation, we are seeking to be saved by works, not by faith, and are going to fail. The conclusion, then, is that we don’t have to be baptized to be forgiven of our sins.
The problem with the argument is that it has almost nothing to do with what Paul actually meant. Look at one particularly telling passage, Romans 3:28. There are two extremely important concepts here, the concept of justification and the concept of the works of the Law.
Let’s start with the second one first. When Paul talks about “works” in a negative sense, he is always talking about the works of the Law of Moses. This text merely makes that explicit.
Second, let’s consider justification. As he frequently does, Paul here is writing to rebut the claims of Judaizing false teachers, men who are saying that Gentile converts have to keep all of the ceremonial requirements of the Law, especially circumcision. They said that unless you accepted circumcision, you could not be in a right relationship with God. Paul’s point, though, is that circumcision only helps if you keep the Law perfectly. An uncircumcised but obedient Gentile is better off than a circumcised but disobedient Jew.
The tension here, then, isn’t between faith in Christ versus doing anything. It’s between looking to Jesus to save us versus trying to save ourselves by perfectly keeping the Law. In that scheme, baptism doesn’t fit under the “works” category. It fits under the “faith” category, because baptism is an admission that we haven’t perfectly kept God’s law!
Instead, faith and obedience go together. Look at Hebrews 11:6. According to this text, faith consists of a belief in two things: that God is, and that He rewards those who seek Him. Logically speaking, then, we simply can’t separate obedience from faith.
Let me put it this way. Let’s say that I get up in the pulpit and announce that there is a bomb in the auditorium, it’s going to go off in five minutes, and everybody needs to leave right now. In five minutes, it is going to be obvious who believes me and who doesn’t, because the people who believe me will have left the auditorium! True faith always translates into action.
The same is true with respect to us and God. If we truly believe that God rewards those who seek him, we’re going to do what He tells us to do. If, on the other hand, we claim to believe in God but we refuse to seek Him according to His word, that only casts the genuineness of our faith into doubt. Faith and obedience aren’t opposed. Instead, they always come together.
Our next pairing is LOVE VERSUS DOCTRINE. This is something that you hear brethren saying sometimes, especially online: “There’s too much preaching on doctrine! We need preaching on the important stuff, like love!”
Let me say first of all, though, that there is a point here. Look, for instance, at 1 Corinthians 13:1-3. Paul, of course, is not talking about himself or any other real person here. Instead, he is painting an exaggerated portrait of somebody with the most exaggerated spiritual accomplishments possible.
This wasn’t just somebody who could speak in foreign languages, which Paul could do. This is somebody who could speak in the tongues of angels, even though no angel needs to hear the gospel. This isn’t just somebody who has some insight into the mystery. This is somebody who understands all mysteries and all knowledge, even though the hidden things belong to God. This isn’t just somebody who makes sacrifices for God. This is somebody who gives away everything he has and even his body over to a painful death. And yet, Paul says that without love, everything that this man can do, everything that he knows, everything that he has surrendered is meaningless.
The same thing is true today, friends. Any version of Christianity that does not depend on love isn’t actually Christianity. Without love, the entire moral system of the Bible collapses and becomes a mockery of itself. We end up like the Pharisees, who got so caught up in tithing even the herbs out of their gardens that they forgot justice, mercy, and faithfulness. If we ever separate love from the teaching of God’s word, we have destroyed the very thing we are attempting to promote.
However, just as doctrine without love is pointless, so too is love without doctrine. Consider John’s comments in 1 John 3:16-18. John says that love isn’t about talk. Love is about knowledge and truth and action. In other words, love depends on doctrinal understanding to show it how to express itself.
Our society is filled with examples that show how necessary that is. Take, for instance, gay marriage. There are tens of millions of people in our country who believe that it’s a beautiful expression of love for two men or two women to be intimate with one another and get married. I guarantee you, friends, they are 100 percent sincere in this. The religious ones will even argue that because it is loving, it must be pleasing to God.
That right there is the problem with love without doctrine. If all you’ve got is warm fuzzy feelings, you have no better guide than your own heart, and as the Scripture reports, the heart is desperately deceitful. All those people who believe that gay marriage is loving are completely sincere, but they are also completely deceived, because they haven’t listened to the doctrine of the Bible. Anytime love is not guided by doctrine, the same problem will inevitably come up because the devil simply isn’t going to miss that opportunity.
Really, then, love is not some kind of opposite to doctrine. It is doctrine’s inseparable partner. If our teaching on doctrine doesn’t involve love, that’s a problem. However, if our teaching on love doesn’t involve doctrine, especially on issues that are difficult and divisive, that’s a problem too. Being true disciples of Jesus requires both from us.
We encounter a similar problem in the supposed clash between AUTHORITY AND THE CROSS. There are brethren who say, “We hear too much about authority, and we don’t hear enough about the cross.” Once again, I think there’s a point here. After all, in a year’s worth of assemblies, we only have time for about 90 sermons, and if we spend 89 of those sermons talking about authority, or indeed any other Biblical topic, we have failed to declare the whole counsel of God. We didn’t leave time for anything else but that topic.
It’s possible to preach too frequently on authority. It’s also possible to preach on authority in a way that obscures its connection to the greatest themes of Scripture. If we do that, if we fail to connect authority to the cross, we do a disservice to both.
For an example of their intersection, look at Philippians 2:8-10. Here, first of all, we see the depths of the humility of Jesus. He was so unconcerned with Himself and His own status that He was willing even to submit to the death of a robber or a rebellious slave. How amazing it is that Jesus loved God and loved us that much!
However, Paul goes on to identify four consequences of the death of Jesus on the cross. First, God highly exalted Him. Second, God gave Him the name that is above every name. As a result of these things, every knee will bow at His name and every tongue will confess that He is Lord. Every one of those four things is about the authority of Jesus, and when we put them together, they emphasize that authority as strongly as it could be emphasized. Paul starts with the cross, but he ends with this.
Here, then, is what trying to separate the authority of Christ from the cross is like. It’s like if Zoë took a heavy book, held it above her brother’s head, let it go, and then protested that she didn’t mean to bonk him with it. That’s failing to connect the action with the inevitable consequences of the action.
In the same way, friends, if we start with the cross and don’t end up with Jesus as Lord of our lives and our church, we are failing to appreciate the inevitable consequences of the cross. Once Jesus died for the sins of mankind, His exaltation over everything else was just as certain as that book ending up on Marky’s head.
We see what this means for us in Galatians 2:20. When we understand what Jesus did for us when He loved us and gave Himself for us, it is as though our old selves were crucified and died with Him. Forever after, it won’t be us living anymore. It will be Him living in us.
This should be profoundly important to all of us, and it certainly is to me. If my mother were still alive, she would gladly testify that I am the most stubborn human being she ever met. I have a defiant streak a mile wide, which means that I go willingly or not at all. If all God offered was, “Obey me, or I’ll roast you,” I can see myself baring my teeth and saying, “Absolutely not!”
However, that is not what God offers. God offers me the cross. God offers me the spectacle of a perfect man bleeding and dying for my sin, and before that, I am helpless. It is the cross that drives me to my knees. It is the cross that has me saying, “Jesus, whatever You want me to do, I’ll do it.” It is the cross that compels me into absolute submission to Jesus as my King.
Once again, we find two supposed opposites that actually depend on each other. Authority without Jesus is nothing more than a bunch of rules and checklists. Who cares? Not I. However, claiming devotion to the cross while denying the authority of the Crucified runs us smack into Luke 6, where He asks, “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” We can’t get by with one or the other. We need both.