"Completed by the Spirit: New Covenant Sanctification in Paul"
By: Jose Francis Martinez
The position this article takes is clearly anti-law, but it claims not to endorse wicked living among Christians (licentiousness).
Mr. Trefzger, the writer explicitly opposed the classic Reformed view of the third use of the Law, as a standard and guide to right living. He does even not want to call the imperatives and exhortations in Paul’s letters as law or as of a category of law. He writes, “while Paul gives us imperatives, commands and exhortations, they are not themselves laws and are not given as laws or in the category of law” (pgs 4 & 5).
Moreover, this writer does not also believe in the second use of the Law when it comes to believers (the Law as a mirror). It appears that he only believes in the second use of the Law when it comes to unbelievers but not believers. This is clear from the fact that he ridicules Joel Beeke’s comments about the convicting use of the law in the sanctification of believers (which the article mistakenly refers as the third use of the law). For the writer, the Law cannot even serve as a mirror to convict believers of wrongdoing and prevent the resurgence of self-righteousness. (See pgs 11-12).
So the issue here is not just the perpetuity of the 10 commandments but it is an aversion against law, any law. This is full blown antinomianism.
But why is there this aversion against law? Even without a thorough knowledge of the doctrine of the covenants as clearly taught in Scripture, many clear statements of the New Testament show the article’s position is totally unbiblical. It is a denial of the apostolic teaching that “the Law is holy, and the commandment is holy, righteous, and good” (Rom 7:12).
It is obvious that Paul regards the fifth commandment, including the promise attached to it, as regulative for the conduct of God’s people under the New Covenant by quoting it in his letter to the church in Ephesus (Eph 6:1-3). Other portions of the NT quote parts of the 10 commandments (examples Mt 5:21; Mt 5:27; Mt 15:4; Mt 19:18-19; Mk 7:10; Mk 10:19; Lk 18:20; Rom 7:7; Rom 13:9; James 2:11).
Also, the New Testament refers to sin as lawlessness, and therefore, indicating the existence of law even under the New Covenant (1 Jn 3:4; Mat 7:22-23). So how can anyone say that there is no more law under the New Covenant? If there were no more law, then there would be no more sin, for sin is lawlessness!
Moreover, James speaks of God as the only Lawgiver and Judge and indicates that that reality continues to impact the conduct of believers under the New Covenant (Jms 4:12). Why not unrighteously speak against or unrighteously judge a brother in Christ under the New Covenant? It would be a violation of God’s law and it would repudiate or deny the law of God. Ultimately, there is only one Lawgiver and Judge – God. No one can invalidate God’s Law and all will be judged by it. Now, if there are no more laws in the New Covenant, then James words would be nonsensical!
In addition, when God promised through the prophet Jeremiah that He will replace the Old Covenant with a New Covenant, He made it clear that the Law that He wrote on tablets of stones He will write on the tablets of the human heart (Jer 31:31-34). And the effect of this is expressed in Ps 40:6, “I delight to do Your will, O my God; Your Law is within my heart.” Even if one were to argue that this Law written in the heart should not be identified with the Ten Commandments (and those who deny it have the burden of proof to provide convincing arguments from Scripture), it is clear that the New Covenant is not without law. One reason why the New Covenant is superior to the Old is not that under the Old there was Law and under the New there is no Law. No. But that the Law that was written on the tablets of stones under the Old Covenant God promised to write on the tablets of human hearts under the New Covenant! So in both covenants there is law.
Moreover, the Lord Jesus categorically denied possible misunderstanding that He came to abolish the Old Testament, including the commandments in them, and asserted that, instead, He came to bring it to its desired end (Mt 5:1-2, 17-20, 21-22, 27-30, etc). The context clearly shows that fulfilling the Old Testament for Jesus does not mean getting rid of many of commandments in the Old Testament because Jesus expounds the real intent of two commandments from the 10 commandments, and even some of the other misunderstood commandments in the Old Testament. Fulfilling them, therefore, does not mean getting rid of them, but bringing them to their desired or intended end. Now, this does not mean that the regulations for worship under the Old Covenant are still in force today because they were shadows of what is to come and the reality has already come in Christ. But many of the commandments of the Old Testament as still valid today!
Furthermore, the writer’s position is that the exhortations, commands, and imperatives in Paul’s letters “are not themselves laws and are not given as laws or in category as law because they are imperatives that can only achieved by the indicative of our reliance upon Christ and our position in Christ” (pgs 4-5). But this is to make a distinction without a difference. Reformed theology never teaches that God’s law can be obeyed without our reliance upon Christ and our position in Christ. Without Christ, we can do nothing. So does this mean that God’s laws are not really laws after all? Moreover, if it is an imperative or a command, it is still obligatory and not just a matter of advice, and in that sense it is still law. Thus, Paul makes a clear distinction between a command from the Lord and his Spirit-inspired advice (1Cor 7:25).
It deserves repetition that although the article’s position is full blown antinomian (anti-law), it claims not to endorse licentiousness, and therefore, love and justice demand that it be not immediately labeled as denying an orthodox distinctive (the necessity of holiness). The Scripture warns us, however, that “a little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (Gal 5:9). If we are a few degrees off the straight path, the farther we walk that way the farther we will stray from the straight path until we will be lost in the dark woods of error, confusion, chaos, and danger.
Another major problem in the article is that the writer misrepresents the position of those who believe in the use of the law in a believer’s sanctification.
The writer keeps referring to the biblical teaching that the Law cannot cope with sin and that it is powerless against sin (pgs 7ff), making it appear as if those who believe in the place of the Law in believer’s sanctification do not strongly hold to the same position. Also he speaks as if those who believe in the place of the Law in a believer’s sanctification regard the law as the agent in a believer’s sanctification (pg 18). But this is a caricature, a misrepresentation. He created a man of straw and then attacked it.
Those who view the law as having a place in a believer’s sanctification strongly believe that the Law is not the agent of sanctification. The law has no power, not only to justify, but also to sanctify (Rom 7). Union with Christ through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit is the powerful agent in a believer’s sanctification. We need Christ’s perfect righteousness for our justification and the sanctifying power of Christ through the indwelling of the Spirit of Christ to deliver us from the bondage of sin and grow in holiness. But this does not mean that the Law does not serve as a standard for our sanctification (Rom 8:3-4).
It is ironic and rather misleading that the writer keeps quoting writers to support his view that the Law cannot be the agent of a believer’s sanctification, and yet those very writers elsewhere in their writings do not deny that the Law is still a standard of a believer’s sanctification! Although not all of them are of the view that the fourth commandment is still valid under New Covenant, they strongly hold to the place of law in the New Covenant. This is true of Thomas Watson (the Puritan, who has an exposition of the 10 commandments), Martyn Lloyd-Jones (his expositions of the book of Romans), Jerry Bridges, Robert Reymond ( his systematic theology book), and D.A. Carson.
Provocking sinful tendencies
Another major problem in the article is that the writer holds to an unbiblical view that the Law can only stir up rebellion in the hearts, not only of unbelievers, but even of believers who are indwelt by the Holy Spirit.
He writes, “The Law bears fruit for death, arouses sinful passions and holds men captive. Is that what we should follow, is that what we should use, is that what we should turn to grow in holiness?” (pg 15). It is clear that, for him, believers are not to have anything to do with the Law for their sanctification. And he quotes Rom 7:7-25 at length to support his view (pgs 15-16).
The writer, however, does not offer any real exegesis of the passage. He does not even point out that Romans 7:7-13 deals with Paul’s condition when he was still unregenerate and unconverted, and that Rom 7:14-25 deals with Paul’s condition when was already regenerate and loves to do what the Law requires but finds no power in him to do it because of sin that remains in him, and therefore, can only look to Christ to tip the scale towards fulfilling what God requires as revealed by His Law (See any standard commentary on the passage).
There is no question that the Law can stir up rebellion in the hearts of the unregenerate but this is not true of the regenerate – and that is because the unregenerate is still is hostile toward God, and therefore, cannot be truly subject to God’s law from the heart. But that is not true of the regenerate as clear from Rom 8:7-9. The regenerate loves God, and therefore, loves the Law of God, although not perfectly because of remaining sin. Moreover, the regenerate are able to subject themselves to the Law of God from the heart by the renewing work and power of the indwelling Spirit of Christ. But since this obedience is never perfect in this life, the regenerate always looks to the righteousness of Christ as the only basis of their justification.
This reality is even true of believers’ experience under the Old Covenant, even though they still did not have the fullness of God’s revelation concerning the law and the gospel.
Ps 1:1-2 reads, “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked, Nor stand in the way of sinners, Nor sit in the seat of scoffers! But his delight is in the law of the Lord, And in His law he meditates day and night.”And this is also true of the whole of Ps 119. Consider a few examples.
Ps 119:34-37, “Give me understanding, that I may observe Your law And keep it with all my heart. Make me walk in the path of Your commandments, For I delight in it. Incline my heart to Your testimonies And not to dishonest gain. Turn away my eyes from looking at vanity, And revive me in Your ways.” Note that the Psalmist is not speaking of self-improvement but looks to God’s renewing and sanctifying grace –enabling him to keep God’s law. But the Psalmist confesses, not that he hates the law, but that he delights in it.
Ps 119:44-48, “So I will keep Your law continually, Forever and ever. And I will walk at liberty, For I seek Your precepts. I will also speak of Your testimonies before kings And shall not be ashamed. I shall delight in Your commandments, Which I love. And I shall lift up my hands to Your commandments, Which I love; And I will meditate on Your statutes.” The Psalmists, because he was regenerate, did not find God’s law to be that which leads to bondage but liberty, and he finds delight in it.
Ps 119:51-56, “The arrogant utterly deride me, Yet I do not turn aside from Your law. I have remembered Your ordinances from of old, O LORD, And comfort myself. Burning indignation has seized me because of the wicked, Who forsake Your law. Your statutes are my songs In the house of my pilgrimage. O LORD, I remember Your name in the night, And keep Your law. This has become mine, That I observe Your precepts.” The Psalmist has such a love for God’s law that burning indignation has seized him because of those who forsake God’s law. If you love God’s law, then you will have a holy hatred towards those who despise and forsake His laws.
Ps 119:69-73, “The arrogant have forged a lie against me; With all my heart I will observe Your precepts. Their heart is covered with fat, But I delight in Your law. It is good for me that I was afflicted, That I may learn Your statutes. The law of Your mouth is better to me Than thousands of gold and silver pieces. Your hands made me and fashioned me; Give me understanding, that I may learn Your commandments.” The Psalmist does not despise the law of God but delights in it. It is better to him that great riches and wealth.
Ps 119:97-102, “O how I love Your law! It is my meditation all the day. Your commandments make me wiser than my enemies, For they are ever mine. I have more insight than all my teachers, For Your testimonies are my meditation. I understand more than the aged, Because I have observed Your precepts. I have restrained my feet from every evil way, That I may keep Your word. I have not turned aside from Your ordinances, For You Yourself have taught me.” The Psalmist was not self-taught. God Himself taught him the Law, and the Psalmist finds great delight in it.
Ps 119:163-167, “I hate and despise falsehood, But I love Your law. Seven times a day I praise You, Because of Your righteous ordinances. Those who love Your law have great peace, And nothing causes them to stumble. I hope for Your salvation, O LORD, And do Your commandments. My soul keeps Your testimonies, And I love them exceedingly.”All these passages are plain and simple and require no scholarly exegesis. The regenerate loves God’s law, even those who were still under the Old Covenant. This does not mean that believers under the Old Covenant looked and trusted in their obedience as the ground of their acceptance with God or their justification. In his prayer, David made it clear that he did not. “And do not enter into judgment with Your servant, For in Your sight no man living is righteous” (Ps 143:1). Nor did they trust in themselves as having the inclination and strength to fulfill what the law of God told them to do. The Psalmist prayed that God will incline his heart to God’s laws and give him the strength to obey them. And yet they understood that the Law, the core of which is the 10 commandments, was the standard (not agent) of their sanctification.
A fourth major problem in the article is that the writer regards the letter of the Law and the ministry of the Spirit as antithetical (diametrically oppose) or as complete opposites.
The writer finds support of his view from Paul’s statement that says, “for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. But if the ministry of death, in letters engraved on stone…” (See 2Cor 3:1-6). And the writer draws from this an antithesis between the Law and the Spirit as if the Law cannot have anything to do with the Spirit and vice-versa.
Now, the writer rightly interprets “the letters engraved on stone” to refer particularly to the 10 commandments. Those 10 commandments were the core covenant obligations of God’s people under the Old Covenant (Deu 4:12), and that is why it was called the tablets of the covenant (Deu 9:11). Moreover, the writer rightly interprets that the Old Covenant, particularly the Ten Commandments, is what Paul is contrasting with the ministry of the Holy Spirit under the New Covenant in 2Cor 3.
But we have to answer carefully the question: But what is the precise nature of the contrast? Is it the Law itself versus the Holy Spirit? No! How can something that is “holy, righteous, and good” be antithetical to the Spirit of God! The precise nature is not that the ministry of the Spirit cannot have anything to do with the Law. The contrast is in the reality that the Law under the Old Covenant was only written on tablets of stone but under the New Covenant it is written on the tablets of human hearts by the Spirit. This is clearly indicated in 2Cor 3:3b “writing not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.” It was because the Law was written only on tablets of stone and not on the tablets of human hearts by the Spirit that the Old Covenant resulted in death and condemnation! But the Law itself and the Spirit are not antithetical!
It bears repetition that the main differences between the Old and the New Covenants is not that the Old Covenant had law but the New Covenant does not. Both covenants have law, as clear from Jeremiah’s prophecy (Jer 31:31-33). The difference is that under the Old Covenant, all, with but a few exception, did not enjoy the renewing and empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit; for that was not a distinctive blessing of members under the Old Covenant. In the New Covenant, however, God promised that that would no longer be true. All the members of the New Covenant will be partakers of the Holy Spirit. The absence of the distinctive blessing of the saving ministry of the Holy Spirit under the Old Covenant was what made that covenant a ministry of death and condemnation. Apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the people under the Old Covenant could not even rightly understand the true use of the Law, and they did not really understand the gospel that was revealed to them in types and shadows in the Old Covenant ordinances. In short, the Law without the Spirit kills. But the Law with the Spirit does not. The Spirit that unites a believer to Christ and all the saving blessings found in Him is what will make the difference, not the absence of law. With the powerful agency of the Holy Spirit, the law becomes the law that leads to liberty, not bondage!
This is something that we have already seen as true even of believers under the Old Covenant from the quotations of the Psalms earlier. The Law was not a ministry of death and condemnation to them. And why is that? Well, because they had the Holy Spirit! They understood the true use of the Law and they understood the gospel preached to them in types and shadows under the Old Covenant. They trusted in God for their justification and even for their sanctification, and not in themselves. Without the enlightening, transforming, and empowering ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Old Covenant would most surely become to them a ministry of death and condemnation!
Another major problem in the article is that the writer apparently believes that love replaces law and misrepresents the view of those who believe that love does not replace law.
For instance, the writer says, “Love is not the result of our obedience to the law. Love is not produced by the works of the Law” (pg 28). This, again, is a man of straw. I never heard of any Reformed or Puritan expositor that holds to that view.
Love is shown by our obedience to the commandments, not the result of it. As the Lord Jesus puts it, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments” (Jn 14:15). Moreover, without love for God and without love for neighbor, it is impossible ever to fulfill the specific requirements of the Law, and it is in that sense that love is the fulfillment of the Law. It is, therefore, not surprising that the Lord Jesus refers to the Old Covenant commands to love God above all and with our all and to love our neighbors as our ourselves as the two great commandments upon which all the other laws and commandments of God under the Old Covenant hang (Mt 22:36-40). Now, in order to have this love, in order to obey the command to love God and to love our neighbor, what do we need? Not the law itself but the transforming and empowering work of the Holy Spirit. We need our hearts to be recreated and energized by Him. This is the classic Reformed and Puritan position that the writer misrepresented.
As to the writer’s position that love replaces law, this is nowhere suggested in Scriptures. Remember that even love is a commandment or a law. When Paul says that “love is the fulfillment of the Law” (Rom 13:10), he does not at all suggest that the law of love replaces all the specifics of God’s law. What Paul means is that the specific requirements of the second tablet of the Law is summed up, but not replaced, in the one command to love our neighbor as ourselves. This is clear in Rom 13:9-10. Note that Paul says not that the commandments are replaced with the command to love, but that the commandments are summed up in the one command to love. Therefore, if you break down the command to love in terms of its specific acts, you will have the other commandments that will serve to define the specifics of how love acts. If the sum of all the money in your pocket is one hundred pesos, the sum does not replace the ones, the fives, the tens, and the twenties! The same is true of love.
Without the specifics of the Law as the core commandments, we would not be sure how love should be expressed in a universal way. In fact, we need all of Scriptures to guide us how best love should act in a way that honors God, first and foremost, and in a way that is beneficial for as many as possible. This is a problem of a school of ethics called as situational ethics, which was principally developed in the 1960’s by Joseph Fletcher, an Episcopalian minister. Fletcher absolutized love as the only rule of morality, and shuns other specific laws of God as a form of legalism. But this led to all sorts of subjectivism and relativism and threw everything into confusion and chaos. Each man will do whatever seems right for as long as he can claim that he is doing it in love!
But by whose strength and power can we fulfill this law to love our neighbors as ourselves, and therefore, all the other specifics of the Law? Not the law itself, nor our own sinful hearts working towards self-improvement. It is only the grace of God and the transforming and empowering work of the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts!
A sixth major problem in the article is that the writer focused only on some Pauline letters and did not even attempt to test his interpretation of some of the Pauline statements with the rest of Scriptures.
This is clear from the title of the article: “Completed by the Spirit: New Covenant Sanctification in Paul [emphasis mine].” The writer also acknowledged this in his postscript that reads, “A longer study that would incorporate all of the NT – not just gospels but particularly the epistles of John, James and Peter – could encompass other rich material that was excluded because of this paper’s Pauline focus… This topic needs such studies from academic, pastoral, personal, counseling and systematic or biblical theology viewpoints” [emphasis mine] (pg 51).
This is an honest but a grievous admission. If only the writer tested his interpretation of some of the Pauline statements with both the OT and the rest of the NT, he would have readily seen that his interpretation of certain statements of Paul is quickly ruled out. This is the most basic and important rule in interpreting Scripture: interpreting Scripture with Scripture. If one portion of Scripture has several possible interpretations, then you do a process of elimination. You rule out possible interpretations that conflicts with other clear passages of Scriptures. In other words, you let the clear and plain passages of Scripture shed light on a passage that is obscure or hard to understand, and you do not let the obscure passage obscure or dictate your interpretation of the clear and plain passages of Scriptures.
The importance of applying this rule is highlighted by what Peter said about some teachings in Paul’s letter. In 2Pet 3:15b-16, Peter wrote, “just as our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given him wrote to you, as also in all his letters, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which the untaught and unstable distort, as they do the rest of Scriptures, to their own destruction.” There are “some things”, not many things, in Paul’s letters that are “hard to understand”, although not impossible to understand. And these are the things that the “untaught and unstable distort...” When we encounter these “hard to understand” statements in Paul’s letters, we have to be particularly careful that we do not distort what they are saying. It is particularly here, therefore, that we should test our interpretation of those statements with the rest of what the Scripture teach to see if our interpretation is not ruled out by other clear passages of Scriptures or if it fits the rest of what the clear passages of Scriptures teach. Ignorance (the untaught) that leads to instability (the unstable) will make us distort Scriptures to our own destruction!
There is one more thing that should be pointed out before bringing this review to a conclusion. The writer honestly admits that his theology is still an “ivory tower” theology that has not been tested in the crucible of the realities of pastoral and counseling experience.
The writer himself has honestly admitted this in his postscript. He admits that “This topic needs such studies from academic, pastoral, personal, counseling and systematic or biblical theology viewpoints [emphasis mine]” (pg 51).
I am not saying that pastoral and counseling experience becomes the standard of reality, only the Scripture is. But if a theology that is supposedly derived from the Bible seems inconsistent with the realities that a Christian faces in the crucible of life’s experiences, then something must be wrong with that theology. That theology must not be an accurate representation of what the Scripture really teaches. A theology faithfully and accurately constructed from the raw material of biblical exegesis cannot be discordant with reality and the actual experiences in life! If you use a map to locate places, then there should be a correspondence between what the map tells you and what you see around you. If what you see around you and what the map says are discordant, then either the map you have is very old and has not been updated, or the map you have is a map of some other place, or you are in not in the very place the map refered to. The same is true of our theology. If our theology supposedly derived from the Scripture is discordant with the reality we see around us, then something is wrong with our theology.
The view by Edwin Trefzger III about the Law is clearly unbiblical and highly dangerous. The writer may not have encouraged Christians to live wicked lives. But his antinomian view throws everything into confusion and chaos, and, in the end, will still eventually lead to licentiousness. As Maurice Roberts puts it, “Part of the mystery of Paul’s modesty is in the high view he has of God’s law and in the serious attitude he has to indwelling sin. We wish all believers had so high a view of the claims of obedience to law upon their lives. Low view of law leads to low views of sin in a believer’s life. The next consequence is that we easily lie with our sinful selves and do not groan to be delivered from our residual depravity, which is nothing short of residual hatred of God in our souls” (Great God of Wonders: pg 55). Besides, it is through the Law that we see not just our sinfulness, but also how much we really need Christ, our Savior! This is true not just at the beginning of the Christian life but all throughout our pilgrimage on earth! It is through the Law’s abiding relevance and demand that Christ becomes even more precious to us.
It is wrong for any to think that doctrine is just doctrine. No. Doctrine affects and shapes lives. What a person really believes affects how he thinks and will determine how he will live. It is because of this that the apostles insist on handling accurately the word of God (2Tim 2:13; 1Tim 4:16), and warn believers of erroneous teachings (Eph 4:11-15; Tit 1:7-11; Rom 16:17-20; Heb 13:9; etc).