Yesterday, I posted a piece concerning Christian attitudes regarding Jewish believers who keep God’s Commandments and I evidenced the anti-Torah/antisemitic bias by quoting a number of commentaries. Leading the evidence was The IVP New Testament Commentary Series volume on the Book of Acts, by William J. Larkin, Jr., Ph.D., because I happen to have it on my shelf… Dr. Larkin was a professor of mine in seminary and published this commentary in 1995, a couple of years before my time (class of ’02, M. Div. Pastoral) at Columbia Biblical Seminary and Graduate School of Missions.
As I mentioned in the article, early in my coming to a fuller understanding of what it means to walk in righteousness and the ways of our Father, I pulled this book off my shelf to compare what I was seeing in Acts and what a former mentor had seen… I ended up making copious notes in the margins of numerous pages where I saw bias against the larger scope of Scripture in favor of this new religion, Christianity. Now, more than a year later, I am better prepared to interact with some of the book. Even better, I discovered yesterday that the book is available online through Biblegateway.com, without downloading! Here’s a link! So, I can copy abbreviated passages while linking to the larger context so you can see for yourself.
We begin with the question, “Is the Gospel ‘Law-free?'” Granted, this is an age-old debate, but a critical one if we are to rightly understand Scripture and even understand grace. Larkin, in his commentary refers to a ‘law-free gospel’ at least four times. Here they are:
Therefore Paul’s mission and message—the law-free gospel of grace—has the same divine legitimacy as Peter’s. Here we again encounter a focused function for signs and wonders: confirmation to Jews of God’s approval of the Gentile mission (see comment at 14:3).
Silas is well suited to the task. He is spiritually gifted, a prophet (15:32). He embodies the church’s commitment to a Gentile mission with the law-free gospel, for he was one of the envoys bearing the council’s letter (15:22, 27).
But the Jews have brought him controversial questions (15:2; 26:3) about words (literally, “a word”—the gospel message, 18:11) and not deeds, about names (messianic titles and Jesus’ identity as the Christ, v. 5) and about [their] own law (a law-free gospel for the Gentiles, vv. 6-8). I will not be a judge of such things.
While it is easy to see how such implications might be drawn from Paul’s teaching of a law-free gospel, there is no evidence that Paul ever instructed Jewish Christians this way (Rom 2:25-30; Gal 5:6; 6:15). In fact, Paul was most scrupulous not to offend the conscience of the “weaker brother,” the Jewish Christian who maintained ancestral customs, and even went so far as to have Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3; Rom 14:1—15:13).
Surely, Larkin doesn’t mean a lawless Gospel, yet on multiple occasions he refers to Paul’s message as ‘law-free.’ [I do not mean to pick on Larkin, but his viewpoint is pandemic in Christendom, so it is reasonable to interact with his work.]
In order to try to better understand his use of this phrase, we can see how he handles the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15). Here are a few quotes and comments…
To them, to allow Gentiles to be converted and incorporated into the church by faith and baptism is a truncated approach: The Gentiles must be circumcised and required to obey the law of Moses. Before we are too hard on these zealous Jewish Christians, let’s ask ourselves, What cultural dos and don’ts have we appended to the gospel as conditions for church membership?
First, they were not Christians. Larkin imposes a non-existent religious division on a bunch of Messianic Jews. Even Paul, years later self-identifies as being part of a ‘sect’ of Judaism. Second, Larkin rightly acknowledges that the Gentiles are converting to something and being made members of ‘the church’ by faith. Larkin sounds like he may have the Gentiles joining the congregation of Israel, but read his commentary on Stephen’s defense and you see he wants to point to a separation between the congregation inthe wilderness and Judah (which included the Messianic assembly) in Acts.
But Stephen is not finished with his own honoring of Moses. He was in the assembly (ekklesia, pointing to the “day of assembly” when the people gathered to receive the law, Deut 4:10; 9:10; 18:16—though a Christian will hardly miss a possible allusion to the church). He served as a mediator….
His comment on ‘Christian and allusion to the church’ is especially surprising since Larkin is a Greek Professor and is certainly aware of the LXX use of ‘ekklesia’ for the ‘assembly’ in the wilderness.
The third point I would make of his Acts 15 quote is that he equates the Law of Moses with ‘cultural dos and don’ts.’ Once the breathed Word of God can be reduced to ‘cultural dos and don’ts’ it gets pretty easy to justify abrogation.
Larkin continues in Acts 15 with,
Peter draws a negative and positive conclusion from his experience with Cornelius and his household. Negatively, to insist on circumcision and living under the Jewish law is actually to put God to the test. Though secondarily this would be to call “into question [God’s] power to cleanse the hearts of the uncircumcised by His Spirit” (Williams 1985:253), primarily it means tempting God to inflict punishment, even eternal condemnation, by placing the Gentile convert back in the “law performance” way of trying to relate to God. Taking on the yoke of the law and carrying it was a positive image in Judaism (m. Berakot 2:2; m. ‘Abot 3:5). Peter here claims that with respect to obtaining salvation, the responsible keeping of the law is futile (Acts 13:38-39; Gal 3:10-12). Positively, using the Gentiles as the standard, Peter declares that it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that “we believe so as to be saved,” just as they [the Gentiles] are (compare 2:21; 4:12; 14:3; 16:30-31).
Multiple problems with this assessment… First, and most glaring, is that Larkin never stops to consider the context of oral JEWISH law (traditions and mitzvot of the Rabbis) in competition with God’s Law, aka, The Law of Moses. Yeshua and Paul both upheld the Torah while addressing traditions later recorded in the Talmud. <sarcasm> Is it remotely possible that THIS is the yoke Peter speaks of?? </sarcasm> Secondly, ‘law performance,’ according to the Torah is never a bad thing. What is bad is doing it for the wrong reasons. It is to be an outworking of faith and obedience, not a means to salvation as he rightly points out in the next line. Associating ‘lawkeeping’ with ‘futility’ however is rarely wise. Lastly, Gentiles as the standard? Hardly. Peter knew full well that Noah found grace in the eyes of the Lord, that righteousness was credited to Abraham by faith, etc… Actually, the reverse of Larkin’s statement is true. Peter declares that the Gentiles are saved by the same grace that the Jews are saved by.
Larkin’s obvious bias against Torah obedience and Jewish keeping of the Torah is showing. Being a ‘covenantal pastor’ (Presbyterian Church in America), I wonder if he knows what the everlasting covenants are. But, I digress.
So, before getting to the end of the Jerusalem Council and seeing the result, Larkin prejudices the argument by declaring, entirely unsupported, that Paul’s mission is a ‘law-free gospel.’
Therefore Paul’s mission and message—the law-free gospel of grace—has the same divine legitimacy as Peter’s.
For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since [a]he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath.”
Teaching Moses. IN the synagogue. ON the Sabbath. Gentiles are to get clean enough (15:20) to come into fellowship and join the ‘ekklesia’ with the Jews.
That verse, my dear readers, is the third rail!! If Larkin even touches that verse it destroys his idea of a ‘law-free’ gospel. It destroys the idea of some ‘new religion.’ It destroys the idea that the Torah is a yoke! It destroys his thesis of multicultural diversity and differing expectations of God for different people.
So how does this interact with grace??
You will notice in the picture above, a note in a different handwriting. I loaned this book with my notes to a sweet lady who totally loves the Lord. We had some interaction, part of which came from her little note:
Grace, by its very nature has to be law-free, does it not?
How about an illustration: My aunt, on occasion, loans my family her beautiful mountain home. It is a wonderful locations for respite. She does so because she loves us and she loves to share. We do nothing to earn it, though sometimes we leave a gift of some pottery, metalwork or other art she would appreciate. But she needs nothing. Our use is her gift and pleasure. But, you know what is always there at the house and we are reminded each time to review and pay attention to? There is a notebook with some ‘dos and don’ts,’ as well as a list of ‘rules for how the house is to be kept.’ Her grace is unmerited favor, but we dare not trample it by ignoring her ‘house rules.’
Grace from our Father is the same way!! It is free, but comes with expectations of love and loyalty expressed through obedience.
No. ‘Grace by its very nature’ is not necessarily, by definition, ‘law-free.’
Larkin, and most of Christendom, does not understand this.
More coming in this series.
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