The scope of the change from the Old to the New Covenant era has been debated since the first days of the church-even before Jew/Gentile and legalism issues. The apostles had the unenviable task of trying to simultaneously claim continuity and discontinuity with the Old Covenant Scriptures. They had to wrestle with: “How, and to what degree have things changed?” It wasn’t an easy job then. It’s not an easy job now, and to this day, has never been fully resolved to everyone’s satisfaction. My personal conviction (which I hope is agreeable to many) is that the Calvary-Act (i) is the great interpretive filter for all Scripture. However, this hopefully amenable premise does not eliminate debate on various issues.
It has been my church experience (36 years) that most Christians live in varying degrees of mixture of old and new creation beliefs and practices. The sweep of the change from the Old to the New era (pre to post-Pentecost) is neither well understood nor practiced. Most Christians understand our sins are forgiven in Christ. But that is Godward awareness. The mixture normally manifests in the daily mucking and grinding of practical living, what some call sanctification. Some sincerely teach that we are justified by grace, but after that, it is all up to our discipline to live the Christian life.
The Pauline grace of God in the New Covenant is so radical, that scrupulous moralists of his day accused Paul of excusing sin (Rom 6:1-2). That accusation still echoes today in those who want to resist the New Covenant message of undeserved, unmerited, unqualified, raw, grace, effective for both our justification and sanctification. They think that preaching a “grace message” promotes sloppy living and that diligent focusing on our sin, and mastery and overcoming of the same, is the way to please God and obtain his personal favor above others who are not as disciplined as, well . . . our wonderful selves!
Sin awareness and management through the disciplined application of biblical principles is not the new creation life we are promised in Jesus Christ. If we could manage our sin, we would not need a Redeemer. The old creation nature is very disciplined. This is especially true if there is some benefit or gain associated with the mastery of sin such as, esteem, respect, promotion, privilege, promise of leadership position, etc. Like a dancing dog in a circus, the old nature will flawlessly perform to biblical standard for the applause of a crowd. But when the applause stops . . . its still . . . a dog . . . the old nature.
Spiritual maturity is not defined by how well we apply biblical principles to suppress sin. The Scripture plainly tells us that trying to a live a life of commitment to principles is contrary to God’s will and designed to cause us to fail, go backward, be broken, snared, and taken in a trap. (ii) God had a rest and refreshing for Israel, bound up in His Person, relationship, and love, which they refused. So he taught them precept upon precept, line upon line, here a little, there a little, like a bunch of babies! It is not a compliment from heaven! Most of Christianity thinks “line upon line” is the “standard” to be desired and pursued!
Gordon Dalbey (iii) has a unique grasp on the depth of this significance:
Father God will not allow relationship to him to be reduced to a set of principles. Men who live by principles therefore cannot know God, for he is approached and known not by striving after righteousness, but only by confessing brokenness. A man cannot hide the fact that his rigid principles are not signs of integrity, but weapons to shield his own fearful weaknesses. The man who is always right is the most dangerous threat to God’s purposes in the world. It is the man of principle who is always the most ready to reject the gift of God and to hurt, even destroy others whom God has ordained for us to be in relationship, because of adherence to his principles. A person who lives by principles can only receive what he or she has earned through his/her careful adherence to those principles. (iv)
It’s a negotiated deal-Deuteronomy 28-We do our part, God does His. I have heard it taught that way. The only problem is, the terms of the New Covenant have only one party involved . . . Himself (Heb. 6:13-20). Part of the joy of being a participator in the new creation is to be free of a constant awareness of sin (Heb 10:2, 10:22)! Yes, I know this sounds too good to be true, and some are probably already shouting at me: “Yeah, but what about obedience?” I will get to that. The strength of sin is the law. (v) That is, all law living, not just Torah adherence, but striving to live by “laws” . . . Jew or Gentile law, even “good” biblical “laws.” Being “hard on sin” is actually empowering the same. You can bet that if a preacher is harping on a particular sin, that his/her own sin is lurking in the dark somewhere.
The essence of the old order was sin consciousness: God is holy, humanity is in debt to that holiness, Torah demands adherence, and a hope that sins might be forgiven for at least another year after the Day of Atonement. There was no assurance. Rather, through the repeated necessity of offerings, the worshiper was continually reminded of his or her sins. The whole point of the New Covenant is to accomplish something that the Old could never do: provide the believer no more conscience (awareness/self-indictment) of sin.
Instead of Torah as a center of consciousness and as a means of conviction of sin, we have been given the spirit of sonship in the Person of the Holy Spirit, who brings conviction of sin-in filial relationship with the Father, through Christ. The only sin believers should be “focused” on, is the sin the Spirit brings to light as we are in intimate dialog with the Father! Only as we sit on His metaphorical lap, hear His heart beat, and listen to the mercifully severe Voice of transforming love and power, are we to address matters of behavior. We are not called to self-energized, self-analyzed, self-managed, “sintrospection!”
The Psalmist said, that in His light, we would see light. (vi) Our ability to even recognize sin is the direct result of His gift of light to us! Without His light, we will only see what we want to see! We do not possess the faculty necessary for sin inspection! We’re not capable of accurately assessing our own iniquities. Depending on our personality and temperament our self-analysis will result in either excusing ourselves into licentiousness (Oh, its not that bad) or accusing our selves into guilt (Woe is me, I am undone). Neither is appropriate for a new creation believer! There are only two verses in the entire NT that specifically tell us to examine ourselves. One is in the context of the Lord’s Table in 1 Corinthians 11:28, and the other is an exhortation to examining ourselves to see if we are in the faith, (2 Cor. 13:5), not examining our selves for sin deficiency. That’s it.
For believers, we are supposed to have experienced the joy of a sprinkled (washed) conscience, as well as a change in a center of consciousness. My awareness is no longer supposed to be sin-centric, or Torah-centric, but Christ-centric. That is, He in His Person and His work for me, in me, and through me, is the new center of my own self-awareness and understanding. Our faith is made practically effective, not by focusing on sin, but by the acknowledgment (vii) of every good thing in us, in Christ Jesus! (Phm. 6).
Only in the light of His Fatherly embrace should the issue of sin, behavior, or sanctification be even considered. Because there, at the throne of God, seated with Him, I find not only conviction and truth–but transforming grace, the teaching and empowering kind, that enables me to overcome, not through my own disciplines and determinations, but through receipt of the transforming power of a new life . . . the very life of Jesus, living His life through me, as a new creation.
I am crucified with Christ: never the less, I live, yet not I, but Christ lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh, I live by the faith of the son of God who loved me and gave himself for me. Gal. 2:20
But by the grace of God I am what I am; and his grace was bestowed upon me not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. 1 Cor 15:10
i Birth, death, burial, resurrection, ascension, and glorification of our Lord, Spirit out-pouring, and Spirit indwelling.
ii Please read Isaiah 28 in its entirety and in context some time.
iv The preceding paragraph was paraphrased and adapted from Sons of the Father, Gordon Dalbey, 1992.
v 1 Corinthians 15:56.
vi Psalm 36:9
vii Epignosis – experiential knowledge . . . knowledge gained by participation in and with the object of one’s knowledge. This is fundamentally . . . relational.