Sunday, December 30, 2012

Getting Back to Torah

I'm seeing an upward trend where some Christians are identifying with all things Hebrew. Some are beginning to observe the Sabbath, the Jewish feast days and Mosaic dietary laws etc. I can't think of anything intrinsically wrong with this if it's just a personal preference. But in many cases these people have put themselves under "Torah" or "Mosaic Law" as a rule of life because they've been told they're bound by Scripture to do so. Moreover, they're proselytizing other Christians to do the same. Most of these Torah proponents deny preaching "legalism" or salvation by works. What they'll usually say is that, while there's nothing anyone can do in the way of earning salvation, if we love God, we will want to obey Him and keep His Torah commandments.

I believe this trend has been facilitated by a number of pro-Torah prophetic ministries. Mark Biltz (El Shaddai), Brad Scott, Dewey Brunton and Monte Judah come readily to mind. Biltz has been mistaken for a pretribulationist - yet he is neither pretribulational nor dispensational. His Blood Moon theories have been indiscriminately promoted by prophecy websites without any caveat on his pro-Torah teachings. Closely linked to Biltz is 119 Ministries (119M), who are also pro-Torah and anti-dispensational and who derive their name from Psalm 119. Visit the 119M website and you'll be confronted by a slickly produced video accompanied by inspiring music which admonishes the viewer to "Test Everything". In fact, most of 119M's teachings are delivered via videos which one can view onsite and their DVD sales. While they offer some written articles, they are limited in scope. Essentially, what these people teach is that the Mosaic Law (ML) hasn't been abrogated but "enhanced" and that the Christian is grafted into Israel and is therefore under ML rule.

This back-to-Torah trend was more recently impressed upon me by a string of discussions on Amazon where one prolific (and published) reviewer insisted that the church was under ML obligation, and that Christians were automatically grafted into Israel upon conversion. He argued that the New Covenant was made with Israel - not Gentiles - hence Gentile believers had to become "spiritual Israelites" to benefit from the New Covenant.

Typically, these individuals have ready responses to problem passages such as Col 2:16 and Acts 15 etc. They argue that in Col 2:16, Paul was telling his readers to not let anyone judge them when they begin to observe the "Torah" laws. Yet no such innovative example is found anywhere in the NT. We get an understanding of what the real issue was in Acts 15 and a hint of it in Gal 2:12, 14.

...for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision...But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?

In what way was Peter living as a Gentile and how were Gentiles being compelled to live as Jews if it wasn't the Mosaic dietary laws? The following is an example of a Torah-proponent's response to Acts 15 verse 10:

"Some Christians might read into this verse and assume that Peter is referring to the Torah/Law itself as a burdensome yoke. He just stated that the Gentiles are saved by faith in the same way that Jews are – the moment that they heard the Word and believed. Therefore, in keeping with his argument that all men are only saved by faith - not by works - he asks the obvious question (My paraphrase): “How can you be saved by faith, but then add all these extra prerequisites associated with Torah Observance to the Gospel presented to the Gentiles, especially when we Jews couldn’t keep the Law to be saved in the first place?” Such a works-based Salvation doctrine is a “yoke that no one could bear”. The Torah/Law was never designed to save anyone. It’s simply God’s standard of daily living for His people. Salvation is by Grace through Faith alone. This verse can’t be in reference to the Torah/Law itself, because all throughout scripture God’s commandments are called “liberty,” “life,” and a “delight” (e.g. Psalm 119; Romans 7:22). John says that God’s commands are “not burdensome” (1 John 5:3). So there’s either a contradiction in scripture, or, keeping with the context of the chapter, Peter is not referring to the Law itself in verse 10, but rather, a works-based Salvation doctrine that was being pushed upon the Gentiles." 

They key to Wilber's rebuttal is to paraphrase and put words into the mouths of the apostles. He tells his readers that verse 10 cannot refer to the ML because it contradicts 1 John 5:3. A different way that other Torah proponents get around Acts 15 is to state that James, Peter and Paul were only advocating an interim period so that new Gentile believers could get used to the ML. However, the context and intent becomes clear when we read through, minus the paraphrasing.

Acts 15:1) And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, "Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved."

2) And when Paul and Barnabas had great dissension and debate with them, the brethren determined that Paul and Barnabas and certain others of them should go up to Jerusalem to the apostles and elders concerning this issue.

3) Therefore, being sent on their way by the church, they were passing through both Phoenicia and Samaria, describing in detail the conversion of the Gentiles, and were bringing great joy to all the brethren.

4) And when they arrived at Jerusalem, they were received by the church and the apostles and the elders, and they reported all that God had done with them.

5) But certain ones of the sect of the Pharisees who had believed, stood up, saying, "It is necessary to circumcise them, and to direct them to observe the Law of Moses."

6-7) And the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter. And after there had been much debate, Peter stood up and said to them, "Brethren, you know that in the early days God made a choice among you, that by my mouth the Gentiles should hear the word of the gospel and believe.

8-10) "And God, who knows the heart, bore witness to them, giving them the Holy Spirit, just as He also did to us; and He made no distinction between us and them, cleansing their hearts by faith. "Now therefore why do you put God to the test by placing upon the neck of the disciples a yoke which neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear?

19-20) "Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood.

28-29) For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit, and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that you abstain from things offered to idols, from blood, from things strangled, and from sexual immorality. If you keep yourselves from these, you will do well. 

The yoke of v10 relates directly to the ML in v 5 (see also Gal 5:1). Had the issue only been a "works-based Salvation doctrine" and the yoke related to that - then vv 19-20 and 28-29 would have clarified that the ML was still a standard to live by but that salvation was by faith through grace. Yet these new Gentile believers weren't admonished to live by the ML; instead, they were given guidelines designed to foster fellowship with Jewish believers whose identity traditionally lay in the ML. Nowhere in Acts is it suggested that these guidelines are an interim getting-used-to-Torah period. In fact nowhere in the NT is there any admonishment to keep the ML. On the contrary, Torah-proponents have many problem verses to contend with. Steven Ger (Acts - Witnesses to the World p 209) points out that that Yoke "was a common rabbinic designation for the Torah, cited in the Mishnah concerning proselytes taking up the 'yoke of the commandments'".

It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery. Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. Gal 5:1-3

If the ML was meant to be the rule of life, Paul would not have made the logical argument that believers who insist on circumcision are bound to observe the whole of the ML. More importantly, he wouldn't have linked the concepts of freedom with the yoke of slavery and Christ's benefit to the believer, in that same argument. If the problem was that believers thought that ML observance or circumcision was the means to salvation - and Paul wanted to correct that, yet stress that the ML was still a rule of life - he would have framed his answer in an entirely different way.

And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. 1Co 9:20-21

At least 4 times the believer is said to be not "under the Law": Rom 6:14-15; Gal 5:18 & 1 Cor 9:20. "Under the law" can only have two meanings - "under the law" as a way of salvation or "under the law" as a rule of life. Rom 3:20 tells us that "because by the works of the Law no flesh will be justified in His sight." Rom 4 tells us that Abraham and David were not saved by the law, but through faith. Romans 10:4 talks about the end (telos) of the law. Telos there means end, not goal as some would have it. See also Gal 3:23-25 and Eph 2:15. Romans 7:1-6 also teaches that - like the woman whose husband has died - we are no longer bound to the law. If the believer was still bound to the ML as a rule of life, Paul wouldn't have admonished his audience to not give freedom an opportunity to sin (Gal 5:3, 13, 18-26).

Given all this, the logical conclusion should then be that "under the law" refers to a rule of life. That's an awful lot paraphrasing the pro-ML proponent has to do to put all those Scriptural fires out!

In his doctrinal dissertation, Israelology (p 643), Arnold Fruchtenbaum points out that the Mosaic Law cannot be broken down into three parts of moral, civil and ceremonial laws (James 2:10). It is an indivisible unit. In fact, the pro-Torah proponent's own interpretation of Mat 5:17-18 has ramifications for a faithful observance of every "jot and tittle" of the 613 commandments as given in Leviticus. E.g. what do we do about stoning for various sins and what about wearing clothes made of more than one material (Lev 19:19)? Also, it's obvious that there have been changes in God's commandments. ML prohibits marriages between brother and sister but such was not the case in Genesis. It should also be obvious that expressions of God's Law existed prior to the Mosaic Covenant. Hence when Law and God's commandments are mentioned in the NT they should not be automatically thought of as referring to Mosaic Law (see Israelology pp 650-652).

Following is a link to Jim McClarty's website. I won't endorse everything there (I'm not qualified) but he has some helpful articles covering the topic of Mosaic Law and the Christian. In particular, see the articles "Jot and tittle"; "Law Vs Grace"; "New Covenant and Torah" and "Discussing Torah Observance":

J McClarty - Salvation By Grace. 

There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has made me free from the law of sin and death. Rom 8:1-2

But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor. For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. Gal 3:23-26

For the entire law is fulfilled in one statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. Gal 5:14

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Gal 5:18

Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. Gal 6:2

Further reading:


The Law of Moses and the Law of Messiah



Dispensationalism & “Biblical Covenantalism” – What’s in a Name?


Answering the 95 Theses Against Dispensationalism – Theses 90-95

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