Have you noticed lately what tends to make conservative Protestants mad? In public life we see a lot of consternation about abortion, gay marriage, the thievery of the federal government, and outrage over secularists. And letâ€™s not forget a whole lot of anger doled out upon two-kingdom theology and the spirituality of the church. (If you wonder how the critics feel, just look for the word, â€œradical.â€)
But have you ever considered what made the apostle Paul mad? Well, his dealings with the church in Corinth were not pretty. There he found sectarianism, sexual immorality, insubordination, blasphemy, with a theology of glory worked in for good measure. But how does Paul open his letters to these Christians whom today many of the proponents of public righteousness would deem antinomian? In his first epistle he addresses them as â€œthose sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints. . .â€ And he follows that with the apostolic salutation, â€œGrace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.â€ In the second epistle, even though many problems still exist at Corinth, Paul again calls them â€œsaintsâ€ and adds the same salutation as the first letter.
But what about those Galatians, the church that may have been excelling in its zeal for the law? He refers to them as part of the church but not as saints. And while he does also extend an apostolic salutation he does not dally with affirmations of the Galatians piety or the encouragement he takes from them. Instead he cuts to the chase and says he is astonished that they have turned away from the gospel. And within 8 verses of his opening, Paul anathematizes any one who would turn from the gospel he preached. One could well imagine in our times that if a minister were insisting that believers picket at abortion clinics to show the authenticity of their faith, many would fail to object. What damage could be done by such a worthy cause? Granted, you donâ€™t want the picketers to think they are earning merits with God because of their righteous deeds. But that is certainly not a danger in our day and besides, the wickedness of abortion is truly a blight on our nation. So why would it hurt?
But if a pastor was guilty of tolerating incest among his flock, well, the opposition would not be pretty and the minister would likely be out on his ear. But Paulâ€™s reaction was just the reverse. He condemned those who added any works of the law to salvation through Christ. Meanwhile, he was willing to work with the church that had turned a blind eye to all sorts of immorality — even the sexual kind.
J. Gresham Machen detected a similar difference in the way Paul dealt with preachers in Galatia and those in Rome (who were preaching out of envy and strife). Machen observed that Paul was tolerant of bad motives among Roman preachers but intolerant of the Judaizers in Galatia because of the content of the respective evangelistsâ€™ messages. And this was a distinction that Machen believed his contemporaries in the Presbyterian Church were incapable of making. The differences between Paul and the preachers in Galatia, Machen wrote:
would seem to modern â€˜practicalâ€ Christians to be a highly subtle and intangible matter, hardly worthy of consideration at all in view of the large measure of agreement in the practical realm. What a splendid cleaning up of the Gentile cities it would have been if the Judaizers had succeeded in extending to those cities the observance of the Mosaic law, even including the unfortunate ceremonial observances! Surely Paul ought to have made common cause with teachers who were so nearly in agreement with him; surely he ought to have applied to them the great principle of Christian unity.
As a matter of fact, however, Paul did nothing of the kind. . . . Paul saw very clearly that the difference between the Judaizers and himself was the difference between two entirely distinct types of religion; it was the difference between a religion of merit and a religion of grace.
I am no believer in historical laws, but I do see the pattern repeated throughout the history of the church that when Christians begin to make the faith practical by insisting that Christianityâ€™s vitality can only be proved by its effectiveness in changing everyday life, the Christian religion becomes moralistic. At that point, Christians become indignant about urban crime, wayward elites, and national hypocrisy. But when the church is more concerned about the gospel and the forgiveness of sins that only comes through the shed blood of Christ, they may like Paul get indignant about moralism and neo-nomianism. The reason could be that like Paul and Machen, these forensic-centric Christians know that by emphasizing good works in public life the moralizers and neo-nomians implicitly embrace the idea that being good is what makes someone or a society Christian, not faith in Christ.
So hereâ€™s a proposal: if you want truly religious affections, start by letting Pauline indignation be the norm for your anger.