Posts Tagged ‘Douglas Moo’

Those puzzling verses in Galatians 2

May 8, 2018

Rembrandt’s Paul. He wouldn’t really have been writing in a book.

I’ve been preaching a sermon series on Galatians, and last Sunday I tackled Galatians 2:15-21. It includes Paul’s first use of the verb “to justify” in the letter (four times in vv. 16-17, plus the noun form of the verb in v. 21). Justification by faith alone is the letter’s most important theme. Paul is dealing with false teachers who’ve infiltrated the churches in Galatia and are teaching that Gentile believers have to add circumcision and observance of Jewish dietary laws and festivals in order to be fully acceptable to God. It’s not that they deny that faith in Jesus is necessary for justification—but just add these few additional things.

Paul, by contrast, argues that if Christians add anything to the gospel of free grace through faith in Christ, they lose the gospel entirely. In fact, they do so at the risk of their very souls: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” The stakes for getting the gospel right couldn’t be higher.

But Paul’s opponents in Galatia, the “Judaizers,” were saying that it was Paul, not they, who had the gospel wrong. Paul is, at best, a second-hand apostle, having learned the gospel—or, rather, not learned it properly, or misunderstood it—from the “real” apostles in Jerusalem before “going rogue” and starting churches independently of the Mother Church and apostolic authority.

So Paul spends 1:11-2:21 arguing for his own authority. He is an authentic apostle, every bit the equal of Peter, James, John and the rest (vv. 1:11-24). In fact, when he presented his gospel to the apostles in Jerusalem—after 14 years of preaching and teaching it—they agreed completely with Paul and endorsed his mission to the Gentiles (vv. 2:1-10). On the basis of Paul’s own authority, he even confronted Peter “to his face” for failing to live up to the gospel (vv. 2:11-16).

Which brings us to the very difficult verses 17 and 18. In the ESV, as literal as English translations get, it reads:

But if, in our endeavor to be justified in Christ, we too were found to be sinners, is Christ then a servant of sin? Certainly not! For if I rebuild what I tore down, I prove myself to be a transgressor.

There is no scholarly consensus on the meaning of these verses. One possible interpretation relates to antinomianism: If we misconstrue the doctrine of justification by faith alone, saying “let us continue in sin that grace may abound” (Romans 6:1), that’s on us, not Jesus. Jesus will not be a “servant of sin” (or Christ has not therefore “led us into sin,” NLT). The “rebuilding what I tore down” would represent a reversion to the kind of sinful lifestyle from which Christ came to rescue us; living this way would not only be unbecoming of the gospel, it might even signal the kind of backsliding that, if left unrepented, would lead us back to condemnation.

Nevertheless, I am persuaded by the interpretation that Douglas Moo, among others, favors:

Peter, Paul, and other Jewish Christians are seeking to find ultimate justification in their union with Christ and, in doing so, have recognized the implications that Paul states in verse 16: they have abandoned the law as a means of finding that justification. They therefore “find themselves” to be in the same category as the Gentiles (v. 15): “sinners” who do not live by God’s law. But this does not make Christ the servant of sin (in the ultimate sense of that word). This would be the case only if Jewish Christians would “rebuild” the law as a fundamental authority; they would then truly be “transgressors.”[1]

For me, this interpretation makes far better sense of Paul’s ironic use of the word “sinners” in verse 15. I say “ironic” because his point in verse 16 is that “Jews by birth” who possess the law of Moses and seek to follow it are also sinners in need of redemption through faith in Christ. As John Piper said in a sermon on this text, Paul’s use of the word “sinners” in verse 15 ought to have scare quotes around it, as indeed the CSB, NLT, and GNT have it. Paul’s point is not that Gentiles who disregard Jewish ceremonial law are truly sinful as a result (as Moo says, in the “ultimate sense”), only that they would be considered “sinners” under the old covenant—not the new.

In verse 17, therefore, Paul concedes for the sake of argument that Jewish Christians who’ve abandoned the law as a means of justification may now be considered “sinners” under that law—but not in a way that matters. Why? Because Christ has fulfilled the law on our behalf. We can no longer come under the curse of the law; Christ became a curse for us (Galatians 3:13). Ironically, these Judaizers who attempt to place themselves back under the authority of the law (who “build up what I tore down”) are the ones who are in trouble: because the law can only condemn them: they will be shown to be “transgressors.” Remember James 2:10: “For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” There’s no middle ground: we live by faith in Christ or according to the law. The rest of the letter goes to great lengths to make this point.

The ’70s were awesome!

Let me now say a word of praise for the New Living Translation. Given its dubious heritage—as the successor to the hippie-dippy Living Bible paraphrase (not that this child of the ’70s doesn’t love it)—I’m amazed at how solid the NLT is in its interpretive decisions. (Unlike its predecessor, it isn’t technically a paraphrase; it’s a “dynamic equivalence,” thought-for-thought translation, made by a translation committee rather than one individual.) Note how well the NLT captures the preceding discussion in its (loose) translation of verses 17-18:

But suppose we seek to be made right with God through faith in Christ and then we are found guilty because we have abandoned the law. Would that mean Christ has led us into sin? Absolutely not! Rather, I am a sinner if I rebuild the old system of law I already tore down.

The phrases “because we have abandoned the law” and “the old system of law” are interpretive glosses, but they illuminate the meaning of these verses nicely. In fact, although I wouldn’t recommend the NLT as your first Bible, it’s an excellent second Bible. And I heartily recommend it as a Bible study tool!

1. Douglas J. Moo, Galatians (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2013), 164.

The tongue “reflects and directs” the heart

March 26, 2014

One of the odd things about my sermon text last Sunday, James 3:1-12, is the analogies that James uses for the tongue. He compares it to both a bit in a horse’s mouth and a small rudder on a large ship.

Doesn’t this seem exactly opposite of the truth? How does “the tongue,” by which James means the words that we use, control our thoughts or behavior? Wouldn’t most of us say that the tongue merely reflects rather than directs? There’s a mind behind the tongue, after all, directing or willing it what to say.

It could be that James still has in mind the church “teachers” he’s addressing in verse 1, in which case a teacher’s words can guide or direct an entire congregation, the body of Christ (notice “bodies” in v. 3) for good or ill. This would be true enough, but rather obvious. At least a couple of commentators I respect, Douglas Moo and N.T. Wright, don’t think this is James’s point. As Moo writes:

But our reason for rejecting this interpretation applies just as much here as in v. 2: James has not prepared his readers for any such theological application of the word “body.” Probably, then, it is not so much “control” that James intends to illustrate but “direction”: as the bit determines the direction of the horse, so the tongue can determine the destiny of the individual. Believers who exercise careful control of the tongue are able also to direct their whole life in it is proper, divinely charted course: the are “perfect” (v. 2). But when that tongue is not restrained, small though it is, the rest of the body is likely to be uncontrolled and undisciplined also.[†]

This makes sense: there’s still a rider directing the bit and a pilot turning the rudder—just as there’s a mind willing our words. Our tongue reveal who we truly are, in the same way our “works” in the previous chapter reveal what we truly believe (speech is also a work). Listen to our words and you’ll know the direction in which our life is headed.

Still, I think our first impression of the analogy also holds: the tongue does control us to some extent. When I worked in sales many years ago, I had a colleague who told me that, unlike many of our office mates, he never complained out loud about his customers—even in the “safe” environment of our office, where there was little danger that his words would get back to his customers. He said he was afraid that negative things he said would eventually influence the way he treated them. Our words, he believed, have the power to give life to our thoughts. We can squelch negative thoughts easier than we can the words to which our thoughts give rise.

I thought this was a real insight, and it conforms nicely to James’s warning about the tongue.

In a sermon on this same text, “A Lifestyle of Self-Mastery, Part 1,” pastor Tim Keller agrees that the tongue reveals who we are, but that’s not all:

On the other hand, your words redirect your heart. Your words come from the heart but then your words go to the heart. The words, on the one hand, express the heart, but your words also redirect your heart. If you have an angry, bitter thought, and you clothe it in a word, you give it so much more power over your heart. The thought comes from the heart, but then, when you clothe it with a word, it goes back, and it strengthens itself. So when the Bible says you are cursed and you want to curse back, bless. Why? It changes your heart.

He goes on to say that only by coming to Jesus can we heal our hearts. “It is the worship and adoration and praise of his beauty that will move into your heart and heal your words.”

When I confess my sins in prayer, I rarely give a thought to the careless, malicious, or profane words that I’ve said. In my defense, I feel like I have so many bigger sins to confess! What James teaches me is that sinning with words is also a big sin!

Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 153.

A warning to pastors like me

March 20, 2014

What if I woke up every morning and re-read this paragraph, from Douglas Moo’s commentary on James? Here he’s referring to James 3:1: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness.” God knows I’ve already blown it a thousand times over—for which I will face our Lord’s judgment. By God’s grace, however, I’m getting better all the time!

Teachers, because they bear so much responsibility for the spiritual welfare of those to whom they minister, will be scrutinized by the Lord more carefully than others. Jesus warned: “From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked” (Luke 12:48). God has given to teachers a great gift and entrusted to them “the deposit” of the faith (cf. 2 Tim 1:14). He will expect a careful account of the stewardship. Paul reflects just this sense of responsibility as he addresses the elders of the church at Ephesus. He stressed that he had been faithful to his task as a herald of the gospel: “I declare to you today that I am innocent of the blood of all men. For I have not hesitated to proclaim to you the whole will of God” (Acts 20:26-27)… Those of us who teach God’s word regularly need to follow James’s example and apply the warning of this verse to ourselves. When we undertake to guide others in the faith, we must be especially careful to exhibit the fruit of that faith by the way we live. Our greater knowledge brings with it a greater responsibility to live  according to that knowledge. Of course, James is not trying to talk people who have the appropriate call and the gift out of becoming teachers. But he does want to impress upon us the seriousness of this calling and to warn us about entering into the ministry with insincere or cavalier motivations.[†]

I would only add that we can enter into the ministry sincerely and sober-mindedly. The problem is what happens next: we have an enemy, the devil, who “prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).

I can count on one hand the number of times the topic of spiritual warfare came up either in seminary or throughout the United Methodist ordination process. That, my friends, is a problem!

Douglas Moo, The Letter of James (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 150.