"...if anyone makes the assistance of grace depend on the humility or obedience of man and does not agree that it is a gift of grace itself that we are obedient and humble, he contradicts the Apostle who says, "What have you that you did not receive?" (1 Cor. 4:7), and, "But by the grace of God I am what I am" (1 Cor. 15:10). (Council of Orange: Canon 6)


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    Images of the Savior (28 – His Dispute with the Pharisees over Ceremonial Uncleanness)

    And summoning the crowd again, he said unto them, “All of you hear me and understand: there is nothing outside a man which by entering into him is able to defile him; but the things which proceed out of a man are the things which defile the man”. – Mark 7:14-15

    We may observe in this account both the essence of false religion, which the Pharisees displayed in their encounter with the disciples of Jesus, and with Jesus himself; as well as the proper response to this sort of deceptive false teaching. For Jesus, when he had seen their hypocritical indignation over the violation of their man-made regulations, first destroyed the foundations of their religious system, rendering them without an answer or excuse; and second, built in its place the just principles of true religion, on the solid foundation of God's revelation; taking occasion, moreover, to instruct his true followers more thoroughly in these right principles, when they were alone. We ought to learn from this example, first of all, to be certain that our religion is in accordance with God's own will, and not founded upon our own uncertain speculations; and second, how to respond to false doctrine when we or those near us in the Church are confronted with it.

    First, let us examine the nature of this false religion to which the Pharisees adhered. We notice immediately that they suppose themselves to be holier than others because they have enjoined upon themselves regulations and laws that go far beyond the dictates of God's own word; and in fact, they have gone so far as to make those supererogations a binding law upon all those around them, so that anyone who would be pleasing at all to God must likewise submit himself to their grievous yoke. But consider how prideful and evil this is, to usurp the place that God alone should hold, in legislating what is necessary to be acceptable to him. Is this not the oldest tactic of the Serpent, who sought to make God's easy and joyful commandments an intolerable burden, by suggesting to Eve, “Has God said, 'You shall not eat of every tree of the garden'?” (Genesis 3:1)? When others around you seek to make a dictate of their own conscience binding upon you, dear believer, if it has not been commanded by God, no matter how holy they may appear, be assured that they are usurping the place of God, and following in the footsteps of the devil. Flee from all such traditions, and stand fast in the freedom to which you have been freed (see Galatians 5:1), lest you be swallowed up in their lies at last!

    For we must be aware of where such superfluous works lead, and that is, to an utter denial of the works of true religion. These Pharisees, by holding fast to their traditions, had overturned God's just commandment that one should honor his father and mother, and many other true commandments beside. Be certain that this must ever be the case; when the papists bound the souls of men with many necessary acts of penance and commands to abstain from meats and marriage, which God had created to be received with thanksgiving (I Timothy 4:1-5), did they not thereby turn men aside from the reception of free grace, which God had commanded to glorify the sufficiency of his Son's work; and did they not, moreover, impel them the more violently to a life of dissipation and incontinence? And when religious persons of many Protestant denominations today compile their list of regulations and rules which one must follow to be sufficiently godly, although God has not commanded these things, do they not encourage an external sort of Christianity, by the precepts of which one who diligently pursues his check-list sanctification may consider himself pleasing to God, even when he has neglected the weightier matters of heartfelt joy and love, true and sincere worship, and a deep and abiding faith in the merits of Jesus alone? Be very careful, O reader, that you do not thoughtlessly apply this truth to all other religious circles without carefully examining the nature of your own, which is a tendency inherent to us all.

    But now we must observe Jesus' reaction to the Pharisees' false teaching. First, he utterly condemns it, showing it to be what it really is, an arrogant denial of God's true commandments in favor of their own desires which God had never commanded them, neither had it entered his heart (see Jeremiah 19:5). And let us be very careful to observe that he does so solely by means of the Word of God, applying its deep insight with admirable precision to their own case, and thereby exposing the wickedness and insincerity of their own self-deceived souls, showing that their great and notable deeds of religion were but lip-service to the true God, while their hearts were far from him and their thoughts were all the thoughts of men. And then, after having exposed the insincerity of their own deeds, he showed as well the inadequacy of them all, pointing out those true commands of God which they had failed to observe, because of their pursuit of their own regulations. Let us note that, when false religion confronts us, we must be careful to expose it for what it is, first, by demonstrating that its claims are not to be found in the scriptures; and second, by demonstrating that what is found in the scriptures is not to be found in its conception of godliness. By these two means, we may utterly overturn the massive edifice of man-made religion, reducing it to a pile of rubble with the hammer of God's Word. If Jesus himself used the Word of God to confront false religion, how much more necessary is this means for us, who are fallible and slow of heart?

    But not only did Jesus destroy the false precepts of the Pharisees, with the Word of God; he then proceeded to build in its place the edifice of true religion and godliness. Let us note that, when once we have finished exposing the deeds of darkness, our task is only half done; we must then go on to bring to light the true nature of the righteousness which God has commanded us to pursue. And this Jesus does, gathering the crowds together so that he might instruct them in the true meaning of godliness. He informs them that religion is not a matter of external principles; for even those things which God had commanded the Israelites to abstain from, as unclean meats, could not in themselves make a man unclean, but were instructive in the typical sense peculiar to the old dispensation, and spoke of the essential uncleannesses which were in a man's heart. These typological regulations were profitable only as they instructed the true believer of the need to abstain from those things which were unclean indeed, which things all arose in the heart of man, and defiled him in truth. But if even those meats which were declared by Moses to be unclean could not defile the heart of a man, how much less could those man-made traditions of hand-washings and many other devised regulations make a man unclean?

    Let us be sure that Jesus was not contradicting Moses, or abolishing his law, when he thus declared all meats unable to defile a man. He had previously declared before all that he did not come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it (Matthew 5:17-20). And what was this fulfillment, if not the actual accomplishment of all the types and prophecies, the bringing to light of the essential truths which lay at the heart of the commands, and the replacement of the shadows with the body (cf. Colossians 2:16-17)? When Christ came, he fulfilled everything that had been written or foreshadowed in the law, he perfectly obeyed all of its demands, rendering it helpless to condemn anyone who trusts in him, and he taught its essence with great clarity and wisdom. The law not to murder had at its heart the necessity to love man as God loves, and thus to worship the Giver of Life. Therefore, anyone who hated his brother was a transgressor of this law. In the same way, the law against eating unclean meats had at its heart the necessity to flee from all the unclean lusts of the soul, which were symbolized by unclean animals; and Jesus is now replacing the outward form of the commandment with its heart and essence, and so bringing the law to its full intention, and not at all abolishing it. In the same way, we that have been brought to full maturity in Christ, being no longer under the Pedagogue of the Law, must seek the essential principles to which the various ceremonial regulations gave expression, and endeavor to follow these principles in truth. And the only way to assure ourselves what these principles are indeed, is to listen to the wise words of Jesus, as he expounds to us the true meaning of the Law which he came to fulfill. But enough on that point.

    Let us take these truths to heart, as we meditate upon this blessed image of our Savior exposing and denouncing false religion, and replacing its deceptive lies with the substance and truth of the Word of God. If we trust that we may be acceptable to God on the basis of our own list of rules and regulations, or if we attempt to put “walls” of protection around God's commandments, supposing that they will make us safe, and trusting that they will be an effective means of pursuing our sanctification, are we not as the Pharisees? If we dare to make binding upon other believers those principles we have devised in our own hearts, as if they were God's laws, may we not be called “blind leaders of the blind” (Matthew 15:14) even as they? Let us seek the essence of true religion and labor to do those works which are truly pleasing to God; but let us assure ourselves that the only place to find the true principles of religion is in the Word of God; and the only way in which we may pursue those principles in a manner pleasing to God is by abiding in Christ so that his power may flow through us, as sap flows from a vine to its branches (John 15:1-10), and so produce in our hearts the peaceable fruit of righteousness.

    Posted by Nathan on June 15, 2007 08:10 AM

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