Archive for the ‘Agape’ Tag

Eros: The Love that Seeks a Reward   Leave a comment

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. John 13:34

The ancient world was no stranger to the idea of love. Love for friends, women and God were the great themes that inspired the early poets and orators. Particularly the Greeks made much of love, and many regard Plato as the all-time greatest expositor of the love theme.

In the midst of this world Jesus Christ comes along and speaks of the ‘new command’ to love. What on earth could he have meant?

We merely need to compare the love of Plato with the love of Christ to find the answer. Plato chose the Greek word Eros for his definition of love. The word implies sensual love. Eros is the enchanting experience of being drawn to a person or object that holds the promise of fulfilling or satisfying you in some way. Eros is always motivated by reward, and as such always egocentric. It is the desire, urge and impulse to actualise and authenticate the self, and its excitement is derived from the people, instruments and gods who can assist with the journey. Eros is equally at home in worlds as far apart as romance, business, politics and religion. Indeed, it can be said that Eros provides the fuel for the rat race.

Christ chose another Greek word for love: Agape. Agape is the love of God, which means it is a love which seeks nothing, because it already has all things. Agape springs forth from a position of utter contentment, and so it seeks no compensation or reward. It is free and unconditional, and seeks to create value instead of demanding it.

Clearly, only those who find all their satisfaction in Christ can love in this way.

Posted January 12, 2012 by naturalchurch in Bloemnuus Columns, Mimetic Desire

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The Heart of the Pharisee IV   Leave a comment

4 Turning Religion into an Idol

The primary difference between the Pharisee and the Christian is to be found in the area of their motives, we have seen. The Pharisee, as with all depraved humanity, suffers from a terminal disease called covetousness, which could be defined as the primordial desire and drive of humanity to regain what was lost with the spiritual fall of their ancestors. This drive towards self-assertion is well captured by the Greek concept of Eros, and lies at the heart of all idolatry. The New Testament introduces Jesus Christ as the bread of life for a starving world, and as the pearl of great price that makes a person gladly leave all he has in order to gain Christ, with thanksgiving and contentment being the reward and outcome.

Religious Idolatry

In this chapter we shall ask the question: ‘Where does that leave the Pharisee who rejects Christ?’ The answer is not difficult to come by. The Pharisee, like all human beings, is an idolater. Idolatry, as we have seen, originates in the heart and manifests as desire. It is humanly impossible to overcome this inner force of desire through effort or will power, which is why no human being can effect his or her own salvation. To turn from the obvious idols of this world, such as money and sex, is to deal with a symptom and not a cause. A religious conversion is entirely useless if it does not address the state of the covetous heart within. The heart will remain idolatrous even if a man converts to religion. The only conversion in such a case will be the conversion of the idol, not of the individual. Carnal idols will be exchanged with religious ones, and this is where Pharisaism comes in.

The Pharisee’s error is that of confusing the law of God with an end rather than a means. Being blind to its real purpose, the Pharisee does not go beyond the law, but tricks himself into a position where the law becomes his focal point, and so the object of his idolatry. He believes himself to have found the pearl of great price, and this explains why he has no interest in rumours about other pearls. The very religion that was intended as a schoolmaster for a mere season in his life, to guide him to Christ and to maturity and freedom, has ensnared him and made him its slave. The object of his covetousness, which provides him with his reason for being, is his religion.

In this sense the Pharisee is distinct from the sinner. He fornicates not with the world, but with religion. He uses it as an object of desire, to calm the restlessness of his soul and as a substitute for God. This he does in the name of God. The Pharisee loves the law, but he hates the lawgiver. As his greatest interest is that of self, as is the case with all depraved people, every religious deed he does is for the sake of self. His religion is nothing but sophisticated paganism, and the god he confesses a mere projection of his own thinking, suited to his own desires, and created in his own image.

It is significant that Paul, in Romans 2:1, after having discussed the birth of Paganism and idolatry (1:18-32), says to the religious Jews: ‘…you who pass judgment do the same things.’ The statement is a strange one, especially if one considers how religious the Pharisees were. But the riddle is solved in chapter 7, where we see that even the most righteous Pharisee is a lawbreaker as a result of his inability to keep the tenth command. And so the damning statement of chapter 2:1 culminates in chapter 3:9-12: ‘…Jews and Gentiles alike are all under sin…There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no-one who understands, no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one…’

This explains why the Pharisee hates the message preached by Christ. Christ demands a denial of the self, even of the religious self.

The New Testament on Why the Pharisee is Attracted to Religion

The problem of Pharisaism might be described as that of religious Eros. It is a fascination with God, all for the wrong reason. It is the pursuit of spirituality motivated by covetousness. It is, to use Paul’s term, ‘godliness as a means to gain’ (1 Tim. 6:5), and it was pointed out by Christ as the driving force behind Pharisaic religion: ‘Everything they do is for men to see; …they love the place of honour…; they love to…have men call them “Rabbi”.’ (Matt. 23:5-8). The ‘hypocrites’ of Matt. 6 had the same problem: They gave to the needy to be ‘honoured by men’ (v. 2), they prayed to be ‘seen by men’ (v. 5), and they fasted to ‘show men they are fasting’ (v. 16). The point of Matt. 6, of course, is that we should not store up treasures on earth, but in heaven, for ‘where your treasure is, there your heart will be also’ (v. 19-21), and the hypocrites are provided as an example of religious people whose treasure was on earth, as they prefer their reward in the here and now (The words ‘they have received their reward in full’ are repeated in each of the above cases, and each time contrasted with ‘your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.’)

The New Testament authors were aware that it was possible to practice Christianity with ulterior motives. James, for instance, points out that it is quite possible to pray to God for the sake of self (Jas. 4:3), and Paul reminds us that it is equally possible to preach the gospel with impure motives (Phil. 1:15-18). Doing ‘the right deed for the wrong reason’ can therefore indeed be described as treason, as Blake reminds us, and nowhere is this more true than when those right deeds include religious acts.

If we take the above seriously, then we must admit that we are dealing here with two very different species of religious people, and, indeed, two very different religions. ‘Godliness as gain’ and ‘godliness with contentment’ (1 Tim. 6:6) are two bipolar opposites that have nothing in common, and never will have.

Extrinsic vs Intrinsic Religious Orientation

So great and obvious is the difference that it has been identified in the field of psychology of religion, with Gordon Allport’s concepts of intrinsic and extrinsic religious orientations representing the backbone of the research. The difference between the two orientations are defined as follows by Allport and Ross (Cited in Kahoe 985:24 (4) 409):

‘Extrinsic Orientation: Persons with this orientation are disposed to use religion for their own ends… It serves other, more ultimate interests. Extrinsic values are always instrumental and utilitarian. Persons with this orientation may find religion useful in a variety of ways, e.g., to provide security and solace, sociability and distraction, status and self-justification. The embraced creed is lightly held or else selectively shaped to fit more primary needs. In theological terms the extrinsic type turns to God, but without turning away from self.

Intrinsic Orientation: Persons with this orientation find their master motive in religion. Other needs, strong as they may be, are regarded as of less ultimate significance, and they are, insofar as possible, brought into harmony with the religious beliefs and prescriptions. Having embraced a creed, the individual endeavors to internalize it and follow it fully. It is in this sense that he lives his religion.

The well established Allport and Ross Scales have been used in numerous studies focusing on the correlation between religiousness and a variety of personality variables and prejudices. For instance, in a study of 850 volunteers, reported in the Journal of Psychology and Christianity (Watson, Morris, Hood & Biderman 1990, 9 (1): 40-46), it was found that ‘Intrinsics’ were lower than ‘Extrinsics’ in what is called a ‘pathological form of narcissistic exploitativeness’. Extrinsic religious orientation was also shown to be correlated with ethnic prejudice in a 1967 article by Allport and Ross (1967, Vol 5, No 4, 432-443).

By pointing to the above, I am by no means implying that Allport has given us a psychological definition of the difference between Pharisaism and Christianity. His concepts involve much more than this, but they are helpful as a scientific confirmation of the fact that the locus of religious people can generally be defined in one of two ways, and, of course, one cannot help but to notice the resemblance between these definitions and the conclusions drawn thus far in these articles.

The Murder of God

Another helpful perspective from the arena of psychology comes from psychiatrist M. Scott Peck. Peck’s interest in human evil is rather unorthodox for a psychiatrist, especially one as famous as Peck, and comes under scrutiny in his People of the Lie (1983). Peck converted to Christianity after he authored the bestseller The Road Less Travelled, and followed it up with this study on human evil. Peck has been somewhat of a controversial figure in Christian circles, but I quote him here primarily in his capacity as a scholar and student of human behavior.

Frustrated with the lack of a ‘body of scientific knowledge about human evil deserving of being called a psychology’ (43), Peck wrote People of the Lie, drawing, amongst others, from the works of Erich Fromm and Malachi Martin. Peck’s definition of evil is helpful to us, as it touches on the very issues addressed above, albeit with a different focus: In The Road Less Travelled, he defines evil as ‘the exercise of political power – that is, the imposition of one’s will upon others by overt or covert coercion… – in order to avoid…spiritual growth’ (298). In People of the Lie, he says: ‘It would, I believe, be quite appropriate to classify evil people as constituting a specific variant of the narcissistic personality disorder.’ (1983:145). According to Peck, evil is ‘live spelled backward…Evil is in opposition to life. It is that which opposes the life force. It has, in short, to do with killing…I do not mean to restrict myself to corporeal murder. Evil is also that which kills spirit…’ (1983:46).

Peck acknowledges his indebtedness to Fromm in this regard: ‘Erich Fromm…broadened the definition of necrophilia to include the desire of certain people to control others – to make them controllable, to foster their dependency, to discourage their capacity to think for themselves, to diminish their unpredictability and originality, to keep them in line. Distinguishing it from a “biophilic” person, one who appreciates and fosters the variety of life forms and the uniqueness of the individual, he demonstrated a “necrophilic character type”, whose aim it is to avoid the inconvenience of life by transforming others into obedient automatons, robbing them of their humanity.’ (1983:47).

Reading the above, it becomes clear why Peck sees evil as a variant of narcissism. To use our terminology: It is a coveting of the other for the sake of the self. As such it could be described as love gone toxic, parasitical rather than life-giving, a black hole rather than a light. It is a desire for the life energy of another, a type of psychic vampirism, resulting in the murder of his or her spirit. The case studies discussed by Peck in People of the Lie clearly show how this toxic love is fostered by an underlying sick dependence on one or more other people, and even how narcissistic personalities could be attracted to one another with the sole purpose of having their desires gratified in and through such a sick relationship, or ‘incestuous symbiosis’ (1983:133), such as in the case of ‘Hartley and Sarah’ (1983:122).

Evil, therefore, can be described not only as the opposite of ‘life’, but also as the opposite of love, as Peck’s definition of love includes the nurturing of another’s spiritual growth (1978:85). Evil, according to the above definitions, could therefore be seen as an inversion of the second of the two greatest commandments. It is not love for the sake of the other, but love for the sake of self, and therefore the exact opposite of love.

The question that arises at this point is this: Is human evil a phenomenon that is only prevalent in human relationships, or can it also present itself in the relationship between a human and his god? To put it another way: If the inversion of the second commandment is such a real threat, why not also, and even more so, the inversion of the first and greatest commandment? If we can love others for the sake of our selves, why can we not also love God in this way?

What would one call an imposition of the will not only on others, but also on God, and, if I may adjust Peck’s terminology slightly – a desire to make him controllable, to diminish his unpredictability and originality, to keep him in line, to foster his dependency, to discourage his capacity to think for himself? I believe the word is ‘crucifixion’. What happened on Golgotha 2000 years ago is not only a timeless display of the love of God, but also a brilliant analysis of human evil as it boils over the brim of history. Nowhere exists a better and more graphic picture of humanity’s attempt to put God in his place than that of a band of wicked men nailing Christ to a wooden cross.

The sad part of the story is that the murder of God took place in the name of God, as it always does. It is the religious who make it their business to determine the place and the purpose of God, not the sinners, and so it is the religious who get upset with the God that does not fit into their scheme. As Peck put it in What Return Can I Make?: ‘ They [the Pharisees] murdered Jesus. The poor in spirit do not commit evil. Evil is not committed by people who feel uncertain about their righteousness, who question their own motives, who worry about betraying themselves. The evil in this world is committed by the spiritual fat cats, by the Pharisees of our own day, the self-righteous who think they are without sin because they are unwilling to suffer the discomfort of significant self-examination.’ (Cited in Peck 1983:80).

The Enchantment of Religion

It needs to be stated that the phenomenon of Pharisaism is a product of both people and context. We have thus far focused mainly on the human motivators behind Pharisaism, but we dare not ignore the motivators inherent in religion itself. As these articles are about the former and not the latter, a few brief remarks would have to suffice.

There is no place that offers better concealment and disguise for the person with narcissistic tendencies than the religious environment. Keeping in mind that ‘the central defect of the evil is not the sin but the refusal to acknowledge it’ (Peck 1983:77), a great many sick people find solace within the four walls of the church, oftentimes to hide not only from others, but also from themselves. No doubt some of these ‘conversions’ could be described as ‘religiously-colored psychological conversion which brings some unity and harmony to a troubled person’s life’ (Conn 1986:9). Moreover, the church offers great social benefits for the lonely soul, and it is one of the few places in the world where people will politely listen to you if you have something to say, regardless of whether it be a testimony, a word of encouragement, a prophecy or a tongue. Indeed, it is the one place on earth that will still give you acceptance when all other institutions have ceased to do so. If we talk about a platform from where the self can be asserted, actualised and authenticated, then few places offer such an ideal one as the church.

When it comes to the ministry the lure is even stronger. The advantages, both temporary and eternal, of being a mouthpiece for God are great. With the package comes status and influence, and other benefits might range from mystical powers to material wealth, depending on the context of the ministry or denomination. Walter Conn, in his book Christian Conversion: A Developmental Interpretation of Autonomy and Surrender (1986), provides fascinating insight into the psychology of conversion, and shows how people convert to religion for different reasons. No doubt the same can be said about the call to the ministry, and a theological case might even be made out of the life of Judas Iscariot, who clearly had ulterior motives for joining the band of disciples. Perhaps it would be correct to say that the ministry is the one occupation that simultaneously appeals to the two greatest needs of humanity, namely the need for self-actualisation and the need for God. You can, in other words, get the world with heaven thrown into the package. You can eat your cake and still have it. You need both, or the equation won’t work. As one of the world’s top female televangelists said recently, ‘If God’s not going to work for you, then why serve him?’

The Enchantment of Theology

An area that requires a separate treatment, albeit a brief one, is that of theology. Is there any true theologian or student of Scripture that cannot identify with C. S. Lewis’ comments on doctrinal books being often more helpful in devotion than devotional books? As he puts it: ‘I believe that many who find that “nothing happens” when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand.’ (1985:30). Fundamentalists might frown about the pipe, but the principle remains true. Theology has an inherent enchantment that is unlike that of any other discipline, and I can barely imagine a professional life more perfect than one spent studying the thoughts of the great Christian minds of history.

Yet this is exactly what the Dutch theologian G. C. Berkouwer warns against in his Faith and Justification: ‘Theology is not a complex system constructed for their own entertainment by scholars in the quiet retreat of ivory towers. It must have significance for the unquiet times…’ (Cited in Lane 1984:182). Karl Barth, who also had a reputation for clenching a pipe between his teeth, warns against ‘scientific Eros’, namely Eros, as defined in the previous chapter, in intellectual form: ‘It is the soaring movement by which human knowledge lets itself be borne towards its object and hurries toward them in order to unite them with itself and itself with them, to bring them into its possession and power, and to enjoy them in this way…When scientific Eros evolves in the field of theology, it characteristically and continually confuses the object of theology with other objects. So far as Eros is the motive of theological work, God will not be loved and known for God’s sake, nor man for man’s sake. This situation can only explained by the nature of Eros: every attempt to love and know God and man is made in the quite conscious and deepest interests of the theologian himself, in the self-love of the one who produces this theology.’ (1963:198-199)

In a chapter with the telling title The D-minization of the Ministry, David F. Wells makes the following comments: ‘Insecure ministers who are stripped of importance hope to be elevated through professionalization to the same social standing as other professionals, such as physicians and lawyers. And the Doctor of Ministry degree (D. Min) is the principal tool that seminaries offer to achieve this parity.’ (Guinnes & Seel 1992:175-176). He adds: ‘…among those who have graduated with the degree, 78 percent said that they expected to be more respected in the community and 73 percent expected to be paid more. (p 180).

It is clear, therefore, that the study of God can serve as a substitute for God himself, and so as an idol. It is also clear that the Pharisee, especially, is highly vulnerable to the power of this idol. ‘You search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that testify on my behalf. Yet you refuse to come to me to have life’ (John 5:39, 40).

Theology as entertainment, theology as scholarship, theology as status, theology as a motivational tool, theology as a prosperity message; whatever the case may be, theology as anything but service and love unto God and others is toxic theology, and should be discarded like all waste.

The Bottom Line

This, then, is the heart of Pharisaism. It is the coveting of God and his things for the sake of self. It is religious utilitarianism, and it always includes the murder of the true God for the sake of setting up a counterfeit, fashioned to our image and likeness, behaving like we want him to. The basic problem of sin, as expressed in human covetousness, underlies the phenomenon of Pharisaism, and it gives rise to motives and intentions that are much discussed by psychologists but oftentimes ignored by theologians.

The irony of the Pharisee is that his effort to keep the law makes him blind to his impotence to do so. The tragedy of the Pharisee is that he exchanges the idols of the world for religious ones, without knowing it. And so, whilst appearing righteous on the outside, he is unrighteous within:

‘Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup, so that the outside also may become clean. Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness’ (Matt.23:25-28).

‘Well did Isaiah prophesy of you hypocrites, as it is written, “‘This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men …Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him, since it enters not his heart but his stomach, and is expelled?” And he said, “What comes out of a person is what defiles him. For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, sensuality, envy, slander, pride, foolishness. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:6-8, 18-23)

The Heart of the Pharisee III   Leave a comment

3 Covetousness: Roots, Nature and Cure

It is not only in the medical world that diagnosis precedes treatment. When we read the biographies of the saints, we are struck by the similarity between their conversion experiences and the New Testament pattern of conversion discussed in the previous chapter. ‘For the first time I examined myself with a seriously practical purpose. And there I found what appalled me; a zoo of lusts, a bedlam of ambitions, a nursery of fears, a harem of fondled hatreds. My name was Legion.’, writes C. S. Lewis’ in Surprised by Joy, commenting on the experience that drove him to his knees as ‘the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England’. (1955:181-182) I have chosen Lewis for his eloquence, but his testimony is by no means rare. Thousands upon thousands have experienced the overwhelming effects of their own depravity, leading them to call on the name of Christ.

If this Spirit induced self-diagnosis stands so central in the process of true conversion, and if it is so pivotal a distinction between the Pharisee and the Christian, then we dare not treat the subject lightly. The question that addresses itself to us is this: If so powerful a force, if so inherent to all lost souls, if so alien to true righteousness, if so intrinsic to Pharisaism, then what exactly is covetousness?

Covetousness as Compensation for Deprivation

The answer is not as complicated as we might think. It is because of dispossession that we seek to possess. Coveting is the fingerprint of the deprived person. It is compensating for loss. Coveting is taking revenge on a world that has robbed you. It is the fallen creature’s effort to fill the proverbial God-sized vacuum in his soul. As such coveting invariably leads to idolatry, to the breaking of the first commandment, with an idol being nothing but the covetous person’s object of desire – that which he believes can fill the vacuum on the inside; a false or counterfeit god, in other words. This is also how it is defined by Paul in Col. 3:5, where he calls covetousness ‘idolatry’.

The act of coveting is therefore based on a lie, namely that fulfillment is to be found in something other than God himself. As C. S. Lewis put it in Mere Christianity: ‘What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors was the idea that they could…invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God. And out of that hopeless attempt has come nearly all that we call human history – money, poverty, ambition, war, prostitution, classes, empires, slavery – the long terrible story of man trying to find something other than God which will make him happy.’ (Lewis 1952:50).

Contentment in Christ

In the light of the above, it becomes clear that for salvation to be truly salvation, the problem of covetousness must be resolved. If covetousness is the natural response of the person without God, then it should follow naturally that where God is found covetousness disappears. Put in another way: If the tenth commandment was designed by God to drive the sinner and the legalist to Christ, then the sinner and the legalist, once driven to Christ, should have the ability to keep the tenth commandment.

The question, therefore, is whether the man in Romans 8 can fare better in practice than the one in Romans 7. Is there any truth to the old Keswick maxim that we ought to ‘get out’ of chapter 7 and ‘into’ chapter 8, and so escape from the life of defeat? The answer is yes, and it has to do with the nature of the command broken in Romans 7, namely covetousness. As discussed, the morally ‘faultless’ man in Phil 3:4-6 became the spiritually defeated man in Romans 7. Yet, after his conversion and his new life described from verse 7 in Phil. 3, we read that contentment replaces covetousness: ‘I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation…I can do everything through him who gives me strength.’ (4:12).

As pointed out, it is often thought that the belief that Romans 8 presents us with a life free from the defeat of Romans 7, is a pietistic and unrealistic one, tantamount to believing in sinner’s perfection. This, of course, is not the case. To understand this we need to understand that the command not to covet is one never kept by willpower or effort, the way we keep the first nine commandments. If it were, Paul and every sincere Pharisee would have been able to keep it. We can explain it by way of an analogy: Covetousness is an appetite. Like hunger, it cannot be stilled by choice or will. It requires a filling, and once this has happened the pains of emptiness disappears. If we are commanded not to hunger, then implicitly we are commanded to eat, and once we have done so we no longer are hungry, even if we try.

In the same way, contentment is what happens when the filling of God’s Holy Spirit does that which no other idol can do, so much so that covetousness is no longer given further thought. Augustine’s famous sentence captures the essence of this great truth: ‘You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you’, and so do the words of David in Psalm 23: ‘The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.’

Such a filling changes the way a person looks at the world. Commenting on his conversion, Leo Tolstoy said: ‘I ceased to desire what I had previously desired, and began to desire what I formerly did not want. What had previously seemed to me good seemed evil, and what had seemed evil seemed good. It happened to me as it happens to a man who goes out on some business and on the way suddenly decides that the business is unnecessary and returns home. All that was on his right is now on his left, and all that was on his left is now on his right; his former wish to get as far as possible from home has changed into a wish to be as near as possible to it. The direction of my life and my desires became different, and good and evil changed places…’ (Baillie1955:Day 38).

With contentment comes a radical change in desires and motives, therefore, and a careful perusal of Romans 7 and Phil. 3 reveals, indeed, a striking contrast between the motives of Saul the Pharisee and Paul the Christian. In Rom. 7:18 the driving motive is: ‘I have the desire to do what is good…’, and in Phil. 3:10 it is: ‘I want to know Christ…’ The difference between these two wishes exemplifies to us the difference between the Pharisee and the Christian, and should be noted.

Contentment and Agape

It has been pointed out that the tenth commandment is a negative summary of the Old Testament law, intended firstly as an indicator of personal spiritual incapacity, and secondly as a pointer to Christ who does what is impossible for the law and the flesh. As a non-coveting person, therefore, the mark or fingerprint of the saved person becomes contentedness. If we were given a New Testament equivalent summary of the law, stated positively, we would therefore expect it to be: ‘You shall be content’, and we shall now see that it is exactly this, and more.

If covetousness is the desire to possess, then the opposite thereof, namely non-covetousness or contentedness, should not only be the desire not to possess, but a desire to give. Nowhere is this better illustrated than in the previously discussed Matt. 19, where a man under the law is charged to overcome his covetousness by giving all his possessions to the poor. If covetousness is the mark of the unsaved man, then an unconditional giving from a position of utter contentment is the mark of the saved person, and we shall now see how the great commandments of love for God and love for neighbour, contained in and revealed by the Greek term Agape, fulfills this function.

Agape is a concept so foreign to the depraved man that God arranged his whole plan of salvation around a grand display thereof so as to reveal to us what is meant by it. Being the God of utter contentment – the non-covetous God who has no need of anything – he gave from his contentment solely for the sake of the other: Not to possess, not to fulfill unmet desires, not because of any ulterior motives, but gratis and free. And then, after this magnificent display of Agape, he charged us: Go and do likewise.

It is because of contentedness that Christians can love, the reason being that theirs is a love that requires nothing, for it has already gained all things. The love of this world is the love of Eros: A love fueled by desire. It is willing to give because it expects to receive. It is driven by a goal, by a destination, and it can only be kept alive as long as the dream remains. Christian love is different. It dreams of nothing, and that is why it is eternal and unconditional. It cannot be disappointed, for it expects nothing, and it expects nothing because it has all things.

A person who still covets is a person who cannot love as God has loved, for God loves from a position of contentment, not of need. His is a love that is free, not one of compulsion, and he expects us to love in the same manner. True love, therefore, is only to be found on the other side of the cross. Like faith and hope, love is exalted above every single occurrence in this world. It is free, the fruit of choice and not of need. Like faith and hope, love cannot be touched by torture, pain or death. It is free, and like faith and hope it will remain when all other things disappear. The reason for this is simple: Like faith and hope, love is the fruit of contentedness. It reaches down, not up. Like faith and hope, it is an expression of rest, for the work is finished.

Eros as Lack of Contentment

The Eros of Plato’s teaching is the very antithesis of this love. In Barth’s words: ‘Love, as Eros, is, in general terms, the primordially powerful desire, urge, impulse, and endeavor by which a created being seeks his own self-assertion, satisfaction, realization, and fulfillment in his relation to something else. He strives to draw near to this other person or thing, to win it for himself, to take it to himself, and to make it his own as clearly and definitively as possible.’ (1963:197). About Agape he says: ‘In Agape, however, the one who loves never understands the origin of his search as a demand inherent within himself, but always as an entirely new freedom for the other one… And because he is free for him, he does not seek him as though he needed him for himself as a means to his self-assertion and self-fulfillment…. He loves him gratis. That is to say, he desires nothing from him, and he does not wish to be rewarded by him.’ (1963:201).

As such, contentedness expressed in Agape becomes the distinguishing mark of the true Christian. It is this, more than anything else, that separates the believer from the unbeliever, the Christian from the Pharisee. It is the sign that all worldly striving has ceased, and that the chasm between the ninth and tenth commandment has been bridged successfully. It is the only gain promised by the Bible (1 Tim. 6:6), and it is perfectly accessible to all, because it has to do with wanting less, not with having more.

Implicit in the two greatest commandments, therefore, is the command not to covet. Quoting Matt. 22:37 and 39, Francis Schaeffer writes in True Spirituality: ‘Coveting is the negative side of the positive commands…We must see that to love God with all the heart, mind and soul is not to covet against God; and to love man, to love our neighbour as ourselves, is not to covet against man.’ (1982:204).

It requires mere simple mathematics to draw the above insights to their logical conclusion. The covetous religious man in Romans 7, the Pharisee, is someone who cannot fulfill the great commandment of Agape. Of course one can only imagine the kind of protest that such a statement would draw from non-Christian religious quarters, and especially from the Jewish fraternity. After all, they had Lev. 19:18 long before the concept of Christian love was birthed, and as a command it occupied an important position in their faith. It should be noted, however, that Jesus’ strange words in John 13:34 ‘A new command I give you: Love one another.’, does not appear so strange when read with the qualifying ‘As I have loved you, so you must love one another.’ Put another way: The love of Christ is so vastly different and infinitely richer than the love commanded in Lev. 19:18, that it is called a ‘new’, and so a totally different command. This also explains the towering presence in the New Testament of an obscure Greek word that was hardly ever used before then, and devoid of meaning until Christ came and gave content to it. Agape replaced Eros in the New Covenant, and the two are worlds apart. As Barth put it: ‘Agape is related to Eros, as Mozart to Beethoven. How can they possibly be confused?’ (1963:201).

Contentment as an Antidote for Loving the World

If we do not understand the above, we can never understand what is meant by passages such as 1 John 2:15-17: ‘Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For everything in the world – the cravings of sinful man, the lust of his eyes and the boasting of what he has and does – comes not from the Father but from the world. The world and its desires pass away, but the man who does the will of God lives for ever.’ Neither would we understand a number of Jesus’ statements: ‘Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man’s life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions. ‘ (Luk. 12:15); ‘…where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. Luke 12:34); ‘…any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple.’ (Luk. 14:33).

These commands are not intended as the rigorist rules of the monastery, nor as bargaining tools for negotiating salvation, but rather describe the natural outflow of the soul who has found contentment in God, who needs nothing else, and who gives even what he has. The Christian story is that of a hungry man who has been to a great banquet, and, who being thankful and no longer blinded by hunger, desires to invite others to the meal. As such these ‘commands’ of the New Testament are descriptions of the nourished man, rather than road signs pointing to a diner. The Pharisee, on the other hand, is a starving man who is too proud to acknowledge the fact, who imitates the nourished man in a desperate effort to hide his starvation, but who is attracted to every garbage can in the process – driven by the burning emptiness on his stomach. The great pretense of the Pharisee is his pretense of not being starved.

In understanding the above, we also understand what is meant by the statement ‘Christ is the end of the law’ (Rom. 10:4). The law, of course, was not just given to bring the universal problem of covetousness to our attention, but also to temporary curb the devastating effects of covetousness, namely stealing, murder, adultery, and so on, or, to use our analogy: to protect the starving from poisonous scraps. In this sense we were ‘held prisoners by the law, locked up until faith should be revealed.’ (Gal. 3:23). It is obvious then that the law, being designed for the starving man, no longer applies in the same way to the nourished man. He keeps the law all by himself, for reasons already mentioned, and so the law is fulfilled in his life.

Contentment and Motivation

Is Christian Contentment the Opiate of the Church?

A common accusation that is often leveled at Christianity is that of it being a ‘pie in the sky’ religion. Christians’ heavenly mindedness leads to no earthly good, we often hear, and Marx, following Feuerbach, has been more frequently quoted for his ‘opiate of the people’ line than anything else he had said.

The philosophy behind such statements is clear to see: Contentment, when taken too far, becomes dangerous. Where a person is robbed of an earthly goal, a certain fatalism and passivity sets in, replacing former motivation. In a sense it is this philosophy that underlies the argument taken up by Paul in Rom 6:1: ‘What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase?’ In other words, once we are no longer motivated by the prospect of earning God’s favour through the doing of good deeds, why should we do good deeds? It is an important question, and relevant to us as it represents the typical question asked by the Jewish religious person and Pharisee, trying to come to terms with the implications of the covenant of grace, and fearing the implications of letting go of the control of the law.

The question is also relevant as the worldview set out in the previous pages are rejected by many as too idealistic to be practical. Once we turn around like Leo Tolstoy, where do we go, what do we do, and why do we do it? Can a world without Eros survive? If Christianity strips us from ambition, then what remains? Are we doomed to a monastic life? Do we then fit Marx’s description of a drug addict experiencing another world whilst oblivious to this one?

These questions are not addressed often enough, and certainly not always answered as they should be, especially in the culture we live in. As they don’t fall in the main scope of these articles, they cannot be discussed in great depth. Yet a few comments are necessary as they do represent an important difference between the motives of the Pharisee and the motives of the Christian.

Four Post-resurrection Motivators for the Christian

In the first place: Paul’s answer to the question in Romans 6:1 provides us with a startling insight. He points to the cross and our co-death with Christ, and to the power of the new resurrection life in Christ. We are given a new raison d’etre through these events, brought about by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever we now do, whether in word or in deed, we ‘do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.’ (Gal. 3:17), ‘as working for the Lord, not for men…’ (v. 23), and ‘struggling with all his energy, he so powerfully works in us’ (Col. 1:29).

Secondly, thanksgiving is mentioned above as a component of the new life, and, as a motivation, is found and commanded throughout the New Testament (Eph. 5:20, Phil. 4:6, Col. 3:15, 1 Thess. 5:18, etc.), and even prescribed as an antidote to covetousness (Eph. 5:3,4). The reason is clear to see: One does not give thanks except as a response to something received. As the obvious fruit of contentedness, we need not say anything more about thanksgiving.

Thirdly, we are driven and motivated by love, as discussed earlier. The motive of the Christian is love, and every deed done by the Christian is, and should be, done because of love, as pointed out in the classic opening verses of 1 Cor. 13, where we read that all the great religious deeds are done in vain if not because of love.

In the fourth place, we are motivated by the hope of the resurrection and future reward in heaven (Phil. 3:20-21, Rom. 8:17-25, Jas. 1:12, 1 Pet. 1:3-5, etc.). As this is a motivation that appears to be suggestively close to covetousness, and also one that is found in other religions like Islam, questions may be asked about its legitimacy as a spiritual and post-Eros motivation. Also, its apparent lack of spirituality is further enhanced by the fairly general knowledge that humans have a strong psychological need of a future goal; an ‘axial point’ as Karl Jaspers called it, and referred to by Victor Frankl as follows: ‘It is a peculiarity of man that he can only live by looking to the future…And this is his salvation in the most difficult moments of his existence’ (l959:115).

Indeed we are promised reward, and indeed we deal here with an issue that seems to challenge the main thesis of these articles, namely that the contrast between Pharisaism and authentic Christianity is the very contrast between covetousness and contentment, between Eros and Agape, between narcissism and selflessness, between gaining and giving, between being served and serving. Indeed it would appear that here we find evidence that Christianity is just another form of wish fulfillment, an ‘illusion invented to meet personal needs’ as Freud believed, and as such on the same par as all the idols and philosophies of this world.

The problem seems insurmountable when we consider how the gospel is often preached nowadays. Armed with the parables of the treasure in the field and the pearl of great price (Matt. 13:44-46) we incite the masses to swop earthly reward for heavenly treasure, believing that we are guiding them from carnality to spirituality, when in fact we are not. We still appeal to the old covetous nature, preaching godliness as gain, and creating more Pharisees than true believers.

The question we need to ask is this: What exactly is this treasure, if not the ability to become moral, if not the resurrection and ensuing eternal life, if not streets of gold and a mansion in heaven, if not happiness and peace? The answer is not as difficult as it seems. The treasure is Christ. He, and he alone, is the goal of salvation. He is the treasure in the field, he is the pearl of great price. Oftentimes, like foolish children, we ask ‘What will heaven be like, and what will be our reward?’, stubbornly forgetting that he is our reward. To think in terms of a celestial copy of this world is to misunderstand both heaven and the gospel. If we can manage to look past the streets of gold and the mansions, we will see the overriding metaphor employed by God to reveal to us the secret of heaven, is that of a marriage. It is the ultimate union between God and man, with all the romances of history being nothing but prophetic dreams. And, like all true romances, the confession that accompanies it is ‘I don’t care where we live, as long as we can be together.’

Needless to say, the bride who is excited by the marriage prospect because of the fringe benefits thereof, should not be called a bride but a prostitute. The prostitute is often contrasted with the true bride in Scripture, for instance in Rev. 17 and 19, and the difference between them is not hard to figure out: The prostitute is the one who engages in an act of intimacy for the sake of selfish gain, and the true bride is the one who loves because of the lover.

So then, the driving force between the fourth motivator, behind our hope of heaven, is also Agape. It is nothing but the desire to consummate the relationship between us and Christ, and so strong a desire it is that it overrides all human ambition. As a matter of fact, without it we cannot understand the apparent paradox between the words of Christ in Matt. 11:30, where he refers to his yoke as easy and his burden as light, and that of Matt. 7:14, where he calls the road that leads to life narrow, with only a few finding it. The problem is resolved by Agape, which makes the greatest burden seem like nothing. Perhaps nothing describes it quite like the well known confession of love: ‘I will climb the highest mountain, I will swim the deepest river, with a song on my lips and a rose between my teeth…’

Our one and only motivation, then, can be summarised as that of Agape – Agape towards God, flowing over into Agape for our neighbour, and manifesting itself as a powerful driving force from within, an overwhelming sense of contentedness and thanksgiving, and a powerful vision of eternal union with our loved one.

In conclusion, let it be stated that if these motivations appear precariously weak as the driving forces behind both our Christianity and our lives in this world, and also poor as a substitute for the ambitions of this world, then it is only because we are unaccustomed to the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, the power of love, the joy of contentedness, and the reality of the coming age and our union with him.

The Heart of the Pharisee II   1 comment

2 The Pharisee and the Law of God

The Question of Motive

‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: To do the right deed for the wrong reason’, wrote T.S. Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral. If I understand Eliot correctly, then the rightness of a deed is measured first and foremost not by the deed itself, nor by the consequences thereof, but by the motives behind it. In an age of excessive pragmatism not everyone might agree, but this does not change the factual value of the statement. In fact, Eliot is merely echoing a truism that has been recognised and taught through the centuries by sages and holy men alike.

Scripture, especially, is clear on this point: ‘The Lord searches every heart and understands every motive behind the thoughts’, David said to Solomon (1 Chron. 28:9), and in Proverbs we read: ‘All a man’s ways seem innocent to him, but motives are weighed by the Lord.’ (16:2). God, it seems, has a special interest in motives, and according to the apostle Paul even keeps a record of them for the day of judgment: ‘He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of men’s hearts.’ (1 Cor. 4:5).

It is my conviction, and the thesis of these articles, that the fundamental distinction between the Pharisee and the Christian is to be found in the area of motives, and that all other differences are merely symptomatic and secondary. More than a mere inference drawn from observing the Pharisee in history, this conviction is derived from the pages of Scripture itself, both Old and New Testament. The Pharisee, as the archetype of the religious person who rejects Christ, obtains his religious zeal from a source other than God. The ‘why’ of his passion differs from that of the Christian, and it is here that their paths diverge.

What is this ‘why’? What is the driving force behind Pharisaism? What is it that drives a person to embrace the law of God, yet reject the Lawgiver? These are the questions we are faced with in our search to understand the heart and mind of the Pharisee, and we shall now endeavor to answer them.

The Real Purpose of the Law

We shall take, as our point of departure, the law of God as observed by a Pharisee. We shall then proceed to look at the real purpose of the law, and how this insight is either ignored by the Pharisee so as not to threaten the fabric of his Pharisaism, or, on the other hand, understood by the Pharisee, causing him to convert from his Pharisaism to true, authentic Christianity.

To put this another way: There is something in the law of God that challenges the heart of Pharisaism, and, when noted, leads the observer away from the law as a means of salvation, and to Jesus Christ. The difference between the Pharisee and the Christian, therefore, lies in the way they view the law of God, and specifically how they define the ultimate function of the law. If we can isolate this difference, we have come to the heart of Pharisaism.

The Conversion of a Pharisee

In a sense, then, we are interested in the conversion of the Pharisee, and the process that underlies it. It should be noted that the Pharisee is not beyond redemption, nor that God has no desire to save him. Too often we read Christ’s classic discourse on Pharisaism in Matt. 23 with affirming nods of disgust, yet completely ignoring the heart wrenching conclusion of the chapter: ‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.’ (v. 37).

It is also noteworthy, and almost unbelievable, that God chose a Pharisee as the main author of the New Testament. It might be argued that God did so because of Saul’s learning, or perhaps because of his seemingly inborn commitment to orthodoxy and Pharisaical adherence to absolutes. He possessed tools and traits, in other words, that would later prove immensely valuable to Paul the Christian apologetic. Perhaps these factors do come into the equation, but I suspect that God chose the apostle Paul for a greater reason: In Paul we see an incarnation of the transition from law to grace. His testimony is not just one of personal salvation, but of universal salvation. As we see in the person of Christ the perfect union between God and man – one that we would not have been able to grasp without the reality of a man in whose life this truth incarnated itself – so we see in the person of Paul the death of the Old Covenant and the birth of the new. He is the two covenants incarnate. He represents to us both Adam and Christ. Adam, not vile and sinful, but Adam as righteous as any man can hope to be: Adam the religious man, Adam the Pharisee. Yet in spite of this, Adam the transgressor, sentenced to death. In Paul we see the sentence carried out. We see an execution, and we hear Saul the Pharisee, the circumcised Hebrew and Benjamite of Phil. 3, crying out ‘I no longer live’, recognising and admitting that even for the very religious man the wages of his sins are death, and that in Christ the judgment is carried out. Yet we also hear him say ‘Christ lives in me’, as he identifies with Christ in his resurrection, and becomes a new creation in Christ. From this new vantage point, he looks back to his life of Pharisaism, and in what can truly be described as one of the most shocking statements in the Bible, calls it ‘scubilon’; literally ‘excrement’.

In the light of the above, the obvious question that arises is this: ‘What happened between the sixth and seventh verses of Phil. 3? What happened to effect the conversion of such a great and committed Pharisee?’ The answer might seem obvious: ‘Acts 9, of course: The account of Paul’s conversion.’ Yet it is more than that. When we study the account of Paul’s life and conversion, then Acts 9 becomes merely one act of a much greater drama unfolding itself across the pages of the New Testament. To think that Paul was drawn to Christ by an overwhelming experience on the Damascus road is to underestimate the work of God in his life. Rather, we have reason to believe that the Acts 9 experience was a culmination of a long religious history that had prepared him for this event. He was a man ripened and mature, ready to be picked.

To discount his past would be no different to giving the credit for Augustine’s conversion to the voice of the child who cried ‘tolle, lege; tolle, lege’ in a garden in Milan on a summer’s day in 386. These famous words, known and quoted for centuries by Catholics, Orthodox and Protestants alike, would have meant nothing to the great church father were they not uttered against a backdrop of inner restlessness, spiritual hunger and religious disenchantment. Paul, like Augustine, had a long religious history that prepared him for that one fateful event that would become the turning point in his life.

To argue that the historical records provide us with precious little insight into the mind of the unconverted Paul (As opposed to Augustine, for instance), is also incorrect. We are given a striking glimpse of the apostle’s psyche, in his pre-conversion days, by none other than Paul himself, in what is perhaps the most misunderstood and misquoted chapter of the New Testament.

The Man in Romans 7

I am, of course, referring to Romans 7. Even as a young Christian I found it incredulous that seemingly well-meaning Christians glibly quoted Paul as though he had provided the church with the poem of great excuse.

For what I want to do I do not do,
but what I hate I do.
I have the desire to do what is good,
but I cannot carry it out.
For what I do is not the good I want to do;
no, the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing.

If the defeated man who penned these words were sketching God’s best hope for the Christian, then perhaps we should seriously reconsider our use of the term ‘conversion’ as a description of what happens to the sinner who finds Christ. Moreover, we should put a question mark behind verses such as 1 John 3:9 and 5:18, where we read that the one born of God ‘does not continue to sin.’

This does not mean that we follow the 19th century holiness preacher in his quest for sinless perfection or entire sanctification. To draw such a caricature of the theologian who rejects the view that Romans 7 presents us with a picture of the normal Christian life is unfair, to say the least. No, we acknowledge that the believer shall never be completely free from sin in this life, and we have no desire to prove otherwise.

The question, however, is this: Is Paul using Romans 7 to prove this point? And if not, does that mean that the point remains unproven in Pauline theology? In other words, are we not allowed to be weak once we no longer have Romans 7 as an excuse for our weakness?

The answer to the second question is obvious, and not much need to be said in reply. The perfectionist thesis is not espoused by Paul or any of the New Testament authors, and certainly does not stand or fall by any interpretation of Romans 7. Barth’s accusation that those who disagree with him on Romans 7 do so because of the ‘spectacles of their own piety’ (1980:270) is therefore unfounded.

The answer to the first question is less obvious, and it is here that we find the much-discussed difference of opinion amongst theologians and scholars. It is certainly not my aim to try and settle a centuries old theological dispute in the spate of a few paragraphs, yet it should be pointed out that the scale seems to be turning more and more in favor of the view that Paul is not referring to the Christian’s remaining struggle against sin, but rather to the ‘impotence of the ego outside Christ and the power of his Spirit’ (Ridderbos 1975:126).

Law or Spirit?

The real question, of course, is not whether we are faced in Romans 7 with Paul before or after his conversion, but rather whether we are faced with Paul as a man under the law or as a man led by the Spirit. It is important to see the difference. To state that the legalistic person is of necessity a pre-Christian person is anachronistic, and this is nowhere better illustrated than in the letter to the Christians at Galatia. Theirs is the classical post-conversion return to the law, and Paul uses extremely strong language to try and bring them back to their senses, reminding us that Christianity and legalism are not mutually exclusive.

In other words, if Paul were speaking in Romans 7 as a man under the law, then he was indeed speaking about a potential Christian experience, but we need to understand that for the Christian such an experience is an illegitimate and undesirable one. ‘Christ is the end of the law’, Paul points out three chapters later, and so to put oneself back under the law is to go the path of Galatian bewitchment, which he calls ‘a different gospel’ in that epistle.

This means that the ego’s impotence, spoken of by Ridderbos, may indeed be experienced by Christians from time to time, but it is hardly the same as ‘struggling against sin’. The impotence of Romans 7 is then that of a person under the law, and it is portrayed in stark contrast against the life led under the guidance of the Spirit in Romans 8, albeit it an imperfect life. The contrast is especially accentuated by the dark décor of Romans 7. What we find here is not new life in Christ, but fatalism and despair. As Martyn Lloyd Jones points out in his commentary on this passage: ‘The regenerate man, when he falls into sin, has to say that he has done something which he does not believe in doing; he is aware that he is not already perfect; but he does not speak of himself as a man who lives a frustrated, defeated life of failure.’ (1973:199), and ‘He [Paul] is not talking about a tendency to sin, he is talking about a captivity to sin.’ (1973:220). He adds: ‘In the Christian sin is not a master and he its slave. Sin to the Christian is an annoyance, a nuisance; it is something that worries him, and sometimes trips him up; but it never drives him to despair.’ (1973:254).

If the issue is one of law versus Spirit, rather than one of ‘saved’ versus ‘unsaved’, it follows that the wretchedness and despair of Romans 7 belong not only to the legalistic person before his conversion, but to anyone who looks to the law as a means of salvation, and that includes the Christian. Even scholars who are uncomfortable with a simplistic ‘before and after conversion’ interpretation of Romans 7 and 8 tend to acknowledge this: ‘The law speaks not of privilege and achievement, but only of failure and guilt. For sensitive Christians, therefore, who know how God hates sin, to be diagnosed by the law is a miserable and depressing experience.’, writes J.I. Packer in Knowing God (1973:288). The point, of course, is that Christians are not to look at the law, but rather to the gospel, as Packer proceeds to point out.

With the above in mind it would appear that our question has answered itself: The experience of Romans 7 is not possible without the law of God, and the depressing effect of this experience is not to be understood as the normal and daily experience of the Christian who is led by the Spirit. Therefore we can safely assume that Paul is speaking as ‘a man under the law’ who has not yet tasted the liberty of the Spirit (or who, having tasted, has lost focus), and as such as a Pharisee, albeit a Pharisee with a difference, as we shall promptly see.

Do All Those Under The Law Share the Experience of Romans 7?

In stating the above, one problem still remains. The fact that Paul’s despair followed his exposure to the law does not necessarily mean that all people who are under the law reach a point of despair. To put it differently: You cannot have the despair without the law, but you can have the law without the despair. It is the exception, rather than the rule, for the legalist to cry out ‘Wretched man that I am!’, and this fact is well illustrated by the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18.

Two men, both aware of God’s holy standard as it is revealed in his law, pray in the temple. The one believes that he has lived up to the law, and he thanks God for this. The other knows that he has broken God’s law, beats on his chest, crying out: ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner!’, and in the process sounds remarkably like the man in Romans 7. The striking conclusion of the story is that it is this man, the tax collector, who is justified by God, and not the Pharisee.

What is the point of the parable? Surely not that God delights in those who break his law whilst despising those who don’t? No, the point is that the purpose of the law was met in the life of the tax collector and not in the life of the Pharisee. This purpose is clear to see in Rom. 3:20: ‘Therefore no-one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin.’ What God looked for in the temple prayers was consciousness of sin, not observance of the law, and he found it in only one of them.

This is also the point of Romans 7. We would not be far from wrong if we were to say that the law, in its final analysis, was given to be broken rather than kept, for it is in breaking the law that we become conscious of our need of a savior. The force of Paul’s ‘Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord’ would simply not have been the same without his preceding ‘Wretched man that I am. Who shall deliver me from this body of death?’ As a matter of fact, without a knowledge of one’s own wretchedness there is no need of Christ and his Spirit at all, which provides us with the main reason why the tax collectors as a group entered the kingdom of God ahead of the Pharisees (Matt. 21:31).

The person under the law in Romans 7, therefore, does not represent every person under the law. This truth has oftentimes been missed by expositors who ignore the fact that the average law abiding Pharisee knows very little of the despair of Romans 7, and it has also caused many to outright reject the notion that the person in Romans 7 is unregenerate. To quote Martyn Lloyd Jones again: ‘The unregenerate never speaks in that way. Not only so, the unregenerate man never condemns sin in the way this man does who says, “What I do, I do not allow; I do not approve of it.” The unregenerate man never uses such language. Neither does he ever say that he hates sin.’ (1973:198). He is right, of course, and his argument also holds for the person under the law.

The question that remains is this: What kind of a person are we then seeing in Romans 7, if not every person under the law?, and the answer is to be found in the specific command that triggered the experience for Paul, and caused him to go from a self righteous Pharisee to a broken man in despair as a result of his inability to keep this command.

The Problem of Covetousness

In Romans 7 Paul mentions the command by name. As unbelievable as it may sound, many debates over this chapter never allude to the fact that there is only one Old Testament law under discussion here, namely the last of the Ten Commandments: You shall not covet. Note verses 7 and 8: ‘Yet, if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” But sin, seizing an opportunity in the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness.’

The key to understanding Romans 7 lies in the uniqueness of this command. Paul was not condemned by the law as a murderer, blasphemer, adulterer, thieve, idolater, or because he broke any other of the first nine commandments. Neither did he struggle with any of these. On the contrary, in describing his legalistic righteousness as a Pharisee in Phil. 3 he calls himself ‘faultless’. No sincere Pharisee would have dared to do so had he struggled with the obvious requirements of the first nine commandments.

The problem arose with the final command. Defined as ‘eagerly desirous’, covetousness refers to inner compulsion, and the prohibition to covet addresses itself to the inner person, differing from the other commandments in this respect. Whereas the rest of the law prohibits actions, the tenth commandment prohibits an intention. We break it before we break any one of the other, as the doing of a sinful deed is preceded by the motive or desire to do so: ‘…after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin…’ James tells us in his epistle (1:15). The first sin, as an archetype of all sins to follow, also clearly reveals to us covetousness as a precedent of sin: ‘When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it.’ (Gen. 3:6) The real origin of sin, in other words, can be traced back to the problem of covetousness. In fact, as Jesus pointed out in the Sermon on the Mount, where covetousness is present sin has already been committed (Matt. 5:27-28), and the carrying out of covetous intentions is mere coincidence and formality. In this sense we can say that the command not to covet is really a summary of the Ten Commandments, for where coveting is no longer present sin would no longer follow.

The problem of sin, therefore, is an inward one, and it is the purpose of the tenth commandment to illustrate this. To put it another way: The problem of sin is a spiritual problem, and this can only be pointed out by a spiritual commandment. When the tenth commandment confronted Paul, he acknowledged it as ‘spiritual’, but in failing to keep it he had to acknowledge himself as ‘unspiritual, a slave to sin’ (v. 14). While the first nine commandments revealed to Paul his ability to meet the external demands of the law, the tenth commandment revealed to him his inability to live up to the law’s spiritual requirements. In this sense sin was ‘recognised as sin’ in his life (v. 13).

Paul’s despair, culminating in his ‘wretched man that I am’, came about solely as a result of the one commandment that he found impossible to keep. It is this experience, more than anything else, that revealed to him his need of salvation, and that prepared him for the conviction that something needed to be done about his ‘un-spirituality’. It is also here that the distinction is to be found between the regular legalist and the man in Romans 7. The former is blind to the unique spiritual nature of the tenth command, and views it on the same par as the other nine commandments, namely as yet another external requirement to be kept in order to procure salvation. As such the legalist, and that would include the Pharisee, has no knowledge of his own depravity, experiences no despair, and sees no need to call on a savior.

The man in Romans 7, in other words, cannot merely be labeled as regenerate, unregenerate or legalistic. Rather, he is a person who experiences the holiness of God, and in the light thereof, sees the long shadow of his own wretchedness. Perhaps the clearest treatment of this aspect of Romans 7 is that of Martyn Lloyd Jones’ 257 page exposition of the passage, with his findings summarised as follows: ‘What sort of man is Paul describing therefore? He is describing a man who is experiencing an intense conviction of sin, a man who has been given to see, by the Spirit, the holiness of the Law; and he feels utterly condemned. He is aware of his weakness for the first time, and his complete failure. But he does not know any more. He is trying to keep the law in his own strength, and he finds that he cannot. He therefore feels condemned; he is under conviction…This is the experience of a large number of people, sometimes of people who have been reading a book on Revival, or the biography of some great saint. Suddenly they are brought under conviction by the Holy Spirit. They see that the whole of their past is wrong, that it is loss. They see the meaning of the law for the first time. They have lost their self-righteousness, they are “dead”, they are “killed” by the Law; and they then try to put themselves right, but they cannot do so. They may remain like that for days and for weeks, even for years. Then the truth about Christ and His full salvation is revealed to them, and they find peace and joy and happiness and power.’ (1973:255-256).

Lloyd Jones also emphasises the fact that the above experience is brought about not by the first nine commandments, but by the specific command not to covet, noting the following: ‘The Apostle is really saying…”I would not have known that lust was sin in and of itself if the law had not taught me so”. That was undoubtedly true of the Apostle before his conversion as it was true of all the Pharisees. They thought of sin only in terms of external actions [italics mine]. As long as a man did not perform an evil act, he was not guilty of sin.’ (1973:115).

The tenth commandment, then, is the bridge that leads a man from self-righteousness and Pharisaism (‘I thank you that I am not like all other men: I don’t rob or commit adultery…’) to conviction of sin (‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’), and on towards salvation (‘…this man…went home justified’). It is the classical transition from ‘what-I-do’ to ‘who-I-am’, from whitened sepulchre to dead men’s bones, from cleaning the outside of the cup and dish to being overwhelmed by the greed and self-indulgence on the inside.

It is here that the paths of the Pharisee and God’s saints diverge. ‘The ultimate proof of the sinner is that he does not know his own sin.’, Luther said, and the same can be said of the Pharisee. Strangely reminiscent of the attitude displayed by the first sinners in history, the Pharisee is the last to acknowledge the reality of his sin, or to take responsibility for it, and the first to see the sins of others. For the Pharisee ‘Nothing so needs reforming as other people’s habits’, as Mark Twain quipped. When asked ‘What’s wrong with the world?’, the Pharisee never responds with the words of G. K. Chesterton in his well known correspondence stopper to The Times: ‘I am.’ The famous and immortalised sentence from Walt Kelley’s comic strip Pogo, ‘We have met the enemy and he is us’, is a sentence never uttered over the lips of the Pharisee.

Jesus Christ and the Tenth Commandment

If the command not to covet serves as a bridge between the two covenants, between law and grace, and between the Pharisee and the Christian, then it should not come as any surprise that Jesus Christ employed it in exactly this way. In the first teaching of Christ recorded in the New Testament, he says: ‘Do not think I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them, but to fulfil them.’ (Matt. 5:17). Clarifying the statement, which must have sounded rather unorthodox to his audience, for it was not generally felt that the law needed ‘fulfillment’, he added: ‘Unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.’ (v. 20). This statement, too, must have sounded strange, for the Pharisees were as righteous as was humanly possible. Christ’s message was clear: The law was not yet fulfilled, and the party who gained a reputation for keeping the law was not as righteous as they could be; in fact, not even righteous enough to enter heaven.

The riddle is solved in the next few verses, with Christ quoting from the law and the rabbis six times, each time emphasising the obvious external requirement of the law, and each time pointing to a much deeper spiritual principle behind the words. Especially the first two statements confirm the division between the first nine commandments and the tenth commandment: ‘You have heard that it was said…”Do not murder…” (sixth command). But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment.’ Anger, of course, corresponds with covetousness, albeit a negative form thereof, and is well defined in the Oxford dictionary as ‘hot displeasure’ (1964:48). It is a desire for revenge, for payback, and as such the motive that precedes the sin of murder – the very motive forbidden by the tenth command. And then the second statement: ‘You have heard that it was said, “Do not commit adultery” (Seventh command), but I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart’ (Tenth command).

This even corresponds with the way in which the tenth command presents itself in Exodus 20. Coveting your neighbour’s wife (Tenth command) clearly precedes committing adultery with her (Seventh command). Likewise, coveting your neighbour’s possessions (Tenth command) precedes the act of stealing from your neighbour (Eighth command). In fact, every time you break one of the first nine commandments, you end up breaking two commandments: The one in question, as well as the tenth!

It becomes clear then, that the righteousness of the Pharisees was one based on their observance of the first nine commandments, as well as all the other external requirements of the law, and not of the tenth commandment. As such the Pharisees were not righteous enough. Also, it explains what Christ meant when he spoke about fulfilling the law without abolishing it. By enabling people to adhere to the underlying spiritual requirements of the law, the law shall be fulfilled, and by doing so the external commandments shall never be broken, and so the law is not abolished. Of course the fulfillment of the law also refers to the accomplishments of Christ that are imputed to the Christian by faith, but that is not the focus of this study. Suffice it to say that the fulfillment of the law is both legal, in the sense of a ransom or penalty that has been paid on our behalf, and practical, in the sense of the offender being rehabilitated. Our focus here is on the latter, not the former.

The Rich Young Man

If any doubt remains about Christ’s treatment of the Ten Commandments, and whether it corresponds with Paul’s treatment thereof in Romans 7, then such doubt is removed in a story about yet another man who thought he had the ability to keep the law. It is found in Matt. 19, and so overfamiliar to us that we often miss its obvious message. A rich young man comes to Jesus, asking: ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to inherit eternal life?’, and in the process reveals his inadequate understanding of morality and righteousness. Christ responds by pointing to the law, quoting five of the first nine commandments (he stops at number nine!), and adds the command to ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’ from the book of Leviticus. The man answers like a typical law abiding Pharisee would, by claiming that he has kept all these, and then asks if there is anything that he still lacks. Note Christ’s response: ‘This one thing you lack.’

The rest of Christ’s well known response has very little to do with a lesson in giving, and neither is it one reserved for rich, young men. Rather, it is the one reserved for all religious people who believe that they have the ability to keep the law: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven.’ It was, of course, the tenth command drawn to its logical conclusion: You shall covet nothing on this earth, and so you shall be happy to give away even what you have. It was also, as always, the impossible command for the unregenerate legalist and Pharisee, and so the young man went away sad. The message was so clear that even the disciples, in astonishment, asked: ‘Who then can be saved?’ Christ’s answer reveals that his dialogue with the rich man was not an effort to negotiate salvation, but an illustration of the impossibility to find righteousness through the path of legalistic efforts and doing ‘good things’: ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.’

According to Jesus, therefore, nothing less than perfection will get us to heaven. This is clear from both passages discussed above. The last of the six references to the law and its spiritual nature in Matt. 5 concludes with the words: ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (v. 48), and to the rich young man Jesus said: ‘If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions…’ (Matt 19:21). Such perfection can only be attained by Christ himself, of course, and provides the basis for our salvation. But this perfection is more than a mere ‘positional’ reality in heavenly places. It is made manifest in the life of the individual who goes beyond the keeping of the first nine commandments to the tenth commandment. This is indeed impossible for the unregenerate, no matter how legalistic they may be.

Summary and Conclusion

By studying the conversion of the most famous Pharisee in history, we have seen that a certain understanding of the law of God played a vital role in the process. As someone who once believed himself to be ‘faultless’ in obeying the law, the apostle Paul was driven to despair by his inability to keep the tenth command, ultimately recognising himself as ‘unspiritual’, and crying out for a savior as a result of this insight. We saw how Jesus Christ used the law in the same way, proving that the ultimate purpose of the law was not to be obeyed externally, but to reveal a spiritual demand that could not be met by the carnal person, resulting in God himself having to effect such a great and impossible salvation. We also saw, in various passages, that the Pharisee is characterised by a conviction that he has the ability to keep the law and so procure salvation for himself, completely missing the real purpose of the law, namely to make people conscious of sin, especially the sin of covetousness.

With the above in the back of our minds, it would appear indeed that the main difference between the Pharisee and the true Christian is to be found in the realm of motives. The Pharisee does the ‘right deeds for the wrong reasons’, as the inborn covetousness of his heart has not been dealt with, whereas the Christian has been freed from covetousness, and so does right without any ulterior motives. The practical implications of this basic and fundamental distinction between the two are so vast that we shall set aside an entire chapter for the purposes of discussing them in greater detail.


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