The Letter and the Spirit of New Testament Christianity
(Article one of a five part series)
Those individuals wishing to please God will surely notice in their study of the Bible a distinction made between outward service and inner devotion to God. We must be very careful to avoid emphasizing one to the exclusion of the other. God desires that we do His will in His prescribed way, but that we obey out of a pure heart wholly attuned to His will. Our theme for 2020 at Hughes Road emphasizes this, and sermons and articles will expand on this key idea.
With this beginning thought in mind, notice this passage:
“For he is not a Jew who is one outwardly, nor is circumcision that which is outward in the flesh; but he is a Jew who is one inwardly; and circumcision is that of the heart, in the Spirit, not in the letter; whose praise is not from men but from God.” Romans 2:28, 29
Circumcision was a sign of the covenant God had made with His people - Israel, later referred to as “Jews.” Paul’s point is that our new covenant relationship is marked by the presence of a new heart, part of God’s new creature/creation which we become when we put on Christ in baptism – Romans 6:1-11. One must carry two concurrent themes in his mind when studying the early chapters of Romans. There is the old covenant/new covenant contrast; there is also the old creature/new creature contrast. Add to this mix the principle of salvation by faith—Old Testament, New Testament—The “just shall live by faith.” The absolute trust and confidence we have in God will safely guide us in obeying His every command with a heart that is harmonized with His will! This has always been true – Patriarch, Israelite, Christian.
With these beginning thoughts in mind, I wish to explore with you the letter and spirit of New Testament Christianity in a series of five articles. The American Restoration Movement, as well as similar movements in church history, sought to bring followers of Christ back to the actions and attitudes of the disciples of Jesus during the age of the apostles. The Lord’s promise to guide His apostles into all truth provides the motivation for us to go “back to the Bible,” to “speak where the Bible speaks, and be silent where the Bible is silent,” to “do Bible things in Bible ways, and call Bible things by Bible names.” “Restoration” and “primitive,” and “restorationism” and “primitivism” are words we will use. The words of the Lord’s promise for guidance include: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. However, when He, the Spirit of truth, has come, He will guide you into all truth; for He will not speak on His own authority, but whatever He hears He will speak; and He will tell you things to come. He will glorify Me, for He will take of what is Mine and declare it to you. All things that the Father has are Mine. Therefore I said that He will take of Mine and declare it to you.” John 16:12-15
The promise we extend to others is based on this principle: Jesus promised divine guidance into “all truth.” This would include every external practice and every internal spiritual attribute—the “letter” (the practice) and the “spirit” (the heart’s desire)—in order to please God. Each is to be emphasized, but neither to the exclusion of the other. In the condemnation of the Pharisees, Jesus pronounced this woe: “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.” Matthew 23:23
New Testament practices and principles to be included in these articles include: 1) Names (identity) – church and individual, 2) government/organization, 3) work – church and individual, 4) worship – public and private, and 5) entrance into the body of Christ. Corresponding spiritual attributes to be cultivated include 1) a sense of belonging to Him, 2) the acceptance and practice of New Testament simplicity, 3) developing an obedient spirit, 4) the development of trust, love, and joy in expressing worship, and 5) developing an understanding and appreciation for “newness” of spirit, constant renewal, and friendship with Jesus.
I encourage much thought and prayer toward our goal/theme for 2020. In the words of Paul to the church at Philippi: “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication, with thanksgiving, let your requests be made known to God; and the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” Philippians 4:6,7
The kind of thoughts we dwell on will eventually find their way into the actions of our lives. Listen to Paul again: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things. The things which you learned and received and heard and saw in me, these do, and the God of peace will be with you.” Philippians 4:8,9
Jesus is our guide. He wants to be our friend. More than 150 years ago James Small expressed the joy of this friendship in the song “I’ve Found a Friend”:
“I’ve found a friend, oh, such a friend!
He loved me ere I knew Him;
He drew me with the cords of love,
And thus He bound me to Him.
And round my heart still closely twine
Those ties which naught can sever,
For I am His, and He is mine,
Forever and forever.”