The Truth About Sin
ne of the most common forms of false
argumentation involves the use of miss-definitions. For example, in
Watchtower literature, Jehovah's Witnesses will often miss-define the
Trinity and then criticize that definition. This is called "the straw man
argument." It works through the process of misrepresenting a teaching -
creating "a straw man" - and is followed by a demolition of that
misrepresented teaching. In the case of the Watchtower, if a reader is not
aware of the correct definition of the Trinity, they will be more likely to
consider the arguments valid and therefore reject the Trinity. In my
conversation with Hank Hanegraaff, one of the main difficulties was with
definitions. In the following I hope to show that Hank's criticisms against
the doctrine being discussed are based on miss defining what obedience
really is. In this case, Hank defines obedience falsely (thereby creating a
straw man), and then proceeds to say that, according to this definition,
consistent obedience is impossible (destroying the straw man). As a result,
when people infected with this idea read various verses exhorting us to
obedience, they assume that it is not possible for them to respond.
Unfortunately, people who want their "ears tickled" cling to this, as it
relieves them from a sense of obligation. In the same way, a homosexual
clings to the idea that he can't change because of a genetic predisposition.
In the same way a counselor tells a man that the reason he beats his wife is
because his upbringing was dysfunctional. Excuses always give a false sense
of relief, since the person considers that he is not really responsible and
therefore not really under obligation to change. This approach is successful
in providing some comfort to the conscience of guilt ridden
souls, but as we will see it is false, and better suited to the instruction of
psychopaths than saints.
In my conversation with Mr. Hanegraaff, I stated that while God requires much of us, it does not necessarily carry the implication that His requirements are impossible to obey. Hank's reply? "Oh, yes it does!".(1) Hank seems to believe that our Lord's commands are so extravagant that it would be outrageous for anyone to think it possible to obey them fully. To prove this point, he quoted Proverbs 3:27 to me, which states:
It should be noted that the very wording of this verse implies that it is only binding insofar as we have the ability to obey, or "the power to act." Hank declared that we can't always obey this teaching. However, if you can't "do it" at any point, obviously you don't have "the power to act". This verse teaches obligation based on ability; it is only for those who can act. If you "can't do it," you're not obligated, meaning Hank's argument is worthless. Clearly, this proverb is in the Bible for our instruction, rather than merely being an exercise in memory dynamics. The disciples as recorded in Acts 4:25 definitely obeyed this injunction - even going beyond what was asked. Look at the poor widow in Luke 21:2 who gave all she had to live on. Does God require more than this? No, In fact, it's obvious that the widow gave even more than what was required by the letter of the law. According to 1 John 3:17-18, James 2, and the book of Proverbs, it is a sin not to help the poor who approach you when you have the power to do so. God does not require that you give to the point that you yourself are needy - you won't be much good to anyone if you're starving. But he does require you to give, and thereby store your treasures in heaven (Matt. 6:2, 1 Cor. 8,9). We should work to supply for our own needs (1Thess. 4:11-12), and the needs of our family (1 Tim. 5:8); then we should do what we can to help others - rather than storing up treasures here on earth (Matt. 6:19).
Not Even a Burden
Hank would say that it is impossible and unreasonable to expect anyone to obey God consistently, but as I touched on before, the Bible does not represent obedience as impossible, nor does it represent God's commands as unreasonable. In fact, the Bible says that they are not even a burden for those who love God "all of his paths are pleasant ways and all of his paths peace." If you believe that God requires more of you than is possible, of course you'll view it as impossible to obey Him. But if He is your strength and requires only what is within your ability to do, then surely in Christ you can obey Him.
If you read 1 Corinthians 4:9-13, all of chapter 9, as well as II Corinthians 6:3-10, you will see that Paul not only did what was required of him, but in some cases more than what was required of him. The Lord is not like an over-demanding parent. He does have high expectations; but all of it is perfectly reasonable. God has given us principles to follow, none of which should be interpreted in a legalistic way as the Pharisees did. The letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
In the CRI perspective on perfection, Hank assumes that we cannot obey the Great Commandment. Indeed, Calvin himself defined the command to love God in such a way as to imply that obedience is impossible. Calvin said:
There are two ways to understand this verse. Calvin understood it as commanding constant exertion, while the alternate view understands it to command constant purpose and consecration. I find Calvin's view on this point to be incorrect for the following reasons:
1) If that is what it means to love God, then it would be a sin to love your neighbor or family.
2) God does not, here or anywhere, command us to love Him with more strength than we possess. He commands us to love Him with the strength that we do have. Clearly, Calvin's misinterpretations of this command requires more strength than we have at our disposal.
3) It would be completely unreasonable; no one could endure it for very long, because we must eat, rest, and sleep. God is infinitely righteous and wise, but such a command would not be wise, just, or rational.
4) Jesus obeyed the Law perfectly, yet he still slept, shed tears, and felt pain. The prophet Isaiah described him as a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief. He exerted energy and strength in being a carpenter. He was even tempted! However, his priority was to please God in everything he did. His heart was devoted to doing the will of the Father. At this point it disgusts me to even have to address this argument. If Calvin's foolish definition of the Great Commandment was correct, even Jesus would have been declared a sinner!
Summing It Up
This command simply does not imply that we constantly have to exert all of our physical, mental, and emotional strength "collected and contracted on this one point". I am very glad that Calvin is wrong in this issue, for if he were correct, it would clearly imply that the highest degree of obedience would be best sought in caves and monasteries! Calvin's interpretation implies that every perception and thought other than those focused exclusively on God are inconsistent with loving God. If this is true, then when the Bible tells me to rebuke those who are in error, it is actually telling me to sin, because that will of course cause me to think of something besides God. If Calvin is right, much of what the Bible tells me to do would cause me to sin, including loving my children! How can one consider a teaching as ridiculous as this without feeling complete revulsion? God's concern is how we respond to desires; the Bible does not tell us to be free "from all desires". (This is authentic Buddhist teaching.) However, it does wisely tell us to abstain from sinful desires which war against our soul (1 Pet. 2:11). It is not wrong to feel the war, but we should stop fraternizing with the enemy. In Luke 4, Jesus has given us the best example of how to respond to tempting thoughts and desires. This whole topic will be addressed in more detail in another section.
1. Hank Hanegraaff, Live program, The Bible Answer man Broadcast, (San Juan Capistrano, CA), 1 March 95.
2. John Calvin, Commentary, "1 Thes 5:23".
"Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires."
" For the
time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to
suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of
teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear."
A Rational Command