(See here for an update on these thoughts.)
This morning we were having a discussion in our staff meeting about Galatians 2:11-21, the passage we are preaching on this Sunday.
During this conversation, the question arose as to whether we really preach an alternative to either ‘legalism’ or ‘Covenantal Nomism’. As I understand it, ‘Covenantal Nomism’ means that salvation is by grace alone — God’s creation of a Covenant people — but that adherence to the Law (Gk: nomos, hence ‘Nomism’) shows that you are a member of the Covenant community of saved people.
It is sometimes suggested that this is quite different from ‘legalism’, whereby adherence to the law gains merit with God, and finally earns salvation. Despite Tom Wright and the ‘New Perspective’ school, however, I am pretty convinced that most Jews in Paul’s day were like most Muslims today — combining both legalism and Covenantal Nomism in their view of their standing before God: on the one hand, believing that to be a Jew/Muslim already guaranteed a right relationship with God/Allah, irregardless of sinfulness, and on the other hand, aware that Torah/Shariah demands a certain conformity of life and that one’s ability or failure in this regard is a source of praise or condemnation.
The suggestion then arose that this is actually how most Westerners today view their relationship with God, if they think about it at all. On the one hand, they believe God accepts everyone (except paedophiles) — so the prevailing view of themselves is as if they were ‘Covenantal Nomists’, but without the Covenant. On the other hand, they believe that God rewards the good they do, and so they will appeal to their lack of wrongdoing, and the good they have done, as a further justification for their confidence about their acceptability. In other words, they are also legalists.
The question then came up, however, whether we really teach any differently — particularly, whether we are really Covenantal Nomists without realizing it. And the specific example given was that of Michael Reid, the erstwhile bishop of Peniel church, Brentwood, who has resigned after an adulterous affair.
Paul writes in Galatians 2:19-20, “through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.” I take it that v 19 is looking forward to 3:13: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.’” Here, the Law becomes the source of our righteousness — ‘through the Law I died to the Law’ — because Christ dies, and bears the curse of sin, under the Law. And the outcome for us is clearly salvation from sin.
But here’s the question: if, despite this understanding, we cast doubt over the salvation of someone like Michael Reid, aren’t we Covenantal Nomists ourselves? Aren’t we saying that salvation is by grace, but that the sign of being saved by grace is the absence of sin? And aren’t we then also saying that sins can be categorized into ‘little sins’, which you can bring before God in the General Confession, confident that the Absolution applies to you, and ‘big sins’, which throw your salvation into question?
To put it another way, if we were approached by an adulterer, troubled in conscience and looking for an answer, wouldn’t we say to them, “Cast your burdens on him who died for your sins, and receive God’s free forgiveness?” But is it any different if a Christian approaches us with the same problem (of adultery)? I love that line from ‘To God be the Glory’: “The vilest offender, who truly believes, that moment from Jesus a pardon receives.” But if the “pardon” is like the Joker in Jeux sans Frontières — something you can only play once for the “vilest” offences — isn’t it better to save the “moment” until the last minute, as people apparently used to put off baptism until their death-bed in Roman times?
I think the consensus of our meeting was that we must preach the same forgiveness to the adulterous Christian as we do to the adulterous non-Christian — just as unconditional and just as absolute. However, I am very conscious of Hebrews 6 breathing down my neck.
Fortunately, I have until Sunday morning to think it over.
Revd John P Richardson
21 April 2008
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