A Catechism on God’s Law (Part 10)

Based on Greg Bahnsen’s “By This Standard,” (1991).

  1. What is the character of holiness?

What is the character of this holiness which the New Testament takes as a pervasive moral theme? By what standard is holiness measured and where is concrete guidance in holiness found? The fact that Christians are to be holy is so often stated in the New Testament that we must certainly assume that the norm or criterion of holiness was already well known; little needs to be said to explain to New Testament readers what this holiness requires. The suggestion is unavoidable that the Old Testament standards of morality already sufficiently defined the holiness which God sought in His people.

Hebrews 12:10 indicates that God chastens us so that we may become “partakers of His holiness,” and thus New Testament holiness is nothing less than a reflection of God’s character on a creaturely level.

How does one who is a sinner in thought, word and deed come to know what God’s holiness requires of him? Peter makes it clear what is implicit in the pervasive New Testament theme of holiness when he writes, “even as he who called you is holy, be yourselves also holy in all manner of living; because it stands written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (I Pet.1:15-16). (p.102).

  1. What is sanctification?

Hebrews 12:14 exhorts us to “follow after…the sanctification without which no man shall see the Lord,” indicating that those who are acceptable to God must be “set apart” (sanctified) unto Him and “separated” from the sinful pollution of the world. This entails cleansing from defilement (II Cor.7:1), leading a spotless life (II Pet.3:14) -language reminiscent of the purity and sacrificial laws of the Old Testament. II Timothy 2:19 summarises the New Testament theme of separation from the world: “Let everyone that names the name of the Lord depart from unrighteousness.”

How is this to be done? What is the nature of such separation from unrighteousness and defilement? By what standard does the New Testament Christian separate himself from “the world”? James instructs us that the word of God- which for James included the Old Testament scriptures of his day- is the key to ethical separation: “…putting away all filthiness and overflowing of wickedness, receive with meekness the implanted word, and not hearers only, deluding your own selves” (James 1:21-22). We can put away worldly vice and corruption by doing what is stipulated in the world of God, including the stipulations of the Old Testament and its law: “…he that looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues, not being a hearer who forgets it but a doer who practices it, this man shall be blessed in his doing” (James 1:25).

Paul’s theology agrees with this. “For the grace of God has appeared to all men, bringing salvation, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age”- looking for the appearance of Christ who “redeemed us from every lawless deed” (Titus 2:11-14) (p.104-105).

  1. What does Christ’s salvation provide?

Salvation provided by Christ enables us, by avoiding lawless behaviour, to deny the unethical direction of worldliness. In his commentary on this passage, Calvin wrote, “The revelation of God’s grace necessarily brings with it exhortations to a godly life… In God’s law there is complete perfection to which nothing else can ever be added” (p.104-105).

  1. What does the concept of “no fellowship” spring from?

Paul exhorts us to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness…” (Eph.5:11), and it is evident that for Paul the Old Testament law directed God’s people as to how they could avoid such evil fellowship. Citing the law at Deuteronomy 22:10, Paul said “Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers, for what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness?” (II Cor.6:14). Further citing the Old Testament regarding the laws of holiness by which Israel was “separated from” the Gentile nations, Paul goes on to write: “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord, and touch no unclean thing; and I will receive you” (v.17) (p.105-106).

  1. What must be the source of man’s standards?

Where do we learn, understand, and become assured of God’s will? The New Testament offers little by way of an explicit answer to such a question. We learn that the will of God stands over against the lusts of men (I Pet.4:2), and in a very few cases we are told what the will of God specifically requires (for example, abstaining from fornication and giving thanks in all things, I Thess. 4:3; 5:18). However, there is no detailed discussion of the requirements of God’s will, and concrete guidance in God’s will as such is not systematically explored. Why not? Especially since the will of God is such a critical ethical theme, we might have expected differently.

The answer lies in recognising that the common conviction of the inspired New Testament writers is that the will of God has already been given a specific and sufficient explication in the Old Testament. It is simply assumed that one can speak of “the will of God” without explanation because it is obvious that God’s will traces back to the revelation of His will in the law previously committed to Scripture (p.108).

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