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No other subject tends to breed legalism more than sexual purity. So often I see people try to achieve sexual purity mainly by avoiding tempting circumstances. Traveling with a companion of the same sex when on business, asking the hotel staff to block the cable to your room, and refusing to go into stores that prominently display inappropriate material are all wise measures. Why place ourselves in the way of temptation?
But if such actions are the only way we are able to avoid sexual impurity, we have not yet embraced all that God offers us. The hope of the gospel is that God will not only forgive us our sins but actually deliver us from them as well. Our goal for our children should be for them to become the kind of people who will choose purity even when presented with the opportunity to sin. But if the only way we train them to avoid sin is by avoiding its opportunity, this goal will never become a reality. As Paul readily acknowledges, abstinence from evil can never secure holiness. Holiness is more than just the absence of evil; it is the presence of a love for God, which comes only by the Spirit.
Like the Old Testament Law, our rules cannot “impart life.” We can develop an extensive list of prohibitions and commands, but in the end, if our children have not grown into the maturity afforded by the Spirit, our rules have availed nothing. Rules for our children are necessary, just as the Law was necessary for the children of God during the Old Testament age. But relying on an external list of rules can be only temporary. Our real goal as parents is to introduce our children to the transforming power of God’s grace. And it is through their deepening union with Christ that this grace becomes a reality in the lives of our children.
We’ve been discussing the use of rules as a means of leading our children into lives of purity. Establishing firm guardrails without falling into legalism can be a tricky thing sometimes. It my previous post I suggested that we pattern our use of rule after God’s use of rules. So continuing from part 1…
You as a parent may have a list of rules you expect your young children to follow: clean your room; take out the trash; gather your laundry; brush your teeth; don’t cross the street alone; save part of your allowance. You may likely include a system of rewards and punishments as they follow (or don’t follow) the rules you have clearly spelled out.
Without carefully explaining these rules and making sure your children followed them, your children would make themselves miserable. They do not have the inward maturity or strength of character to govern themselves. But if your child at the age of twenty-one cannot decide for himself when it is safe to cross the street or needs to be told to brush his teeth, something has gone wrong!
The rules you set are not to be permanently relied upon but rather are meant to lead your children to the place where they no longer need them. Adults do not brush their teeth because they are compelled by an external source but because of their internal desire. The same principle holds true, I believe, for how Christians relate to the Old Testament Law. As New Testament saints, we no longer rely upon an extensive list of do’s and don’ts, telling us how we should behave toward God and each other. We are under the Law of the Spirit.
Jesus, Paul, and James all explicitly affirm the command to love as the sum total of the revealed Law (Luke 10:25–28; Romans 13:9; James 2:8). Because of the Holy Spirit, we do not need an elaborate list of commands to know how love should be carried out. Rather it is much more intuitive, flowing from who God has made us (and is making us) in regeneration and sanctification. It is the foundational aspect of the fruit of the Spirit, the ability that comes to all who are born of God (1 John 3:14; 4:7).
We are fundamentally different people than the Old Testament believers. The lives of New Testament believers should be marked by a higher level of holiness and love than the lives Old Testament believers, for we possess the salvation they could only see from afar (1 Peter 1:10–12), the salvation the Law itself was leading us toward (Romans 3:21).
This is not to say, however, that even we as New Testament saints have entered into the fullness of our inheritance. Paul tells us that the Holy Spirit is a “deposit,” the firstfruits of the perfection that is to come at the resurrection. Thus we exist in a sort of spiritual dawning. The sun has risen in our lives but has not yet come to its full zenith. In this regard we still need “rules” and “laws” from God, and the New Testament is not devoid of these. But it is clear from even a simple reading of Scripture that God’s call to obedience is much more clearly detailed and formalized under the Old Covenant than the New.
Our final post will pull all of this together regarding sexual purity.
Many in the church today share a common thought that somehow holiness is achieved by avoiding tempting circumstances. Nowhere is this thought seen more readily than in our effort to arrive at sexual purity. Most books and sermons I have read or heard on the subject seem to mistakenly suggest that the secret to sexual purity is to avoid sexual temptation: get rid of the TV; don’t go to the pool; don’t thumb through the Sunday paper.
This concept fosters a rules-centered Christianity whereby the main goal of our faith is to avoid anything that might provoke us toward wickedness. But this is such a shortsighted understanding of biblical righteousness and holiness. Though we should take wise and necessary measures regarding our environment, we must not rely upon such measures as the final solution to sexual purity. If the only way we can arrive at sexual purity is by manipulating our environment, then we have completely missed God’s greatest gift in overcoming sexual temptation: the power of the Holy Spirit. Righteousness is not achieved by avoiding sinful environments but by embracing Christ. It is the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit that births holiness in our hearts.
So as we contemplate the rules we will set regarding our children’s purity, it is important that we understand their proper place in achieving sexual purity. Holiness, the apostle Paul tells us, comes not through rules, but through the justification of the Spirit.
Justified by the Spirit, Not by Law
The apostle Paul dealt extensively with the subject of legalism and rules in the book of Galatians, and this New Testament book is a treatise on the power Christians now have in Christ. In this letter, particularly chapters 3 and 4, Paul instructs his readers about the nature and purpose of the Old Testament Law. This Law (found in the first five books of the Old Testament) provided the moral and religious foundation upon which Jewish believers based their lives. The Law was extensive, dealing with personal and corporate holiness, governmental structure, and ceremonial cleansing, among other things.
But the coming of Christ changed the way in which the people of God related to the Law. No longer, Paul says, are we “kept in custody under the law” (Galatians 3:23, nasb). As we look at Galatians, we discover that with the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, the Law’s usefulness in God’s overall plan had come to a end. Understanding how and why this came about is paramount to a life of Spirit-empowered obedience and will give us an important pattern for our own use of rules. To begin to understand the relationship between Law and holiness, we must understand why God gave the Law in the first place. Paul explains the purpose of the Law in 3:19, where he states that it was “added because of transgressions.” In what way did our transgressions necessitate the addition of the Law?
I believe the Law served as a temporary, external hedge that helped to maintain the purity of God’s people until the coming of Christ and the regeneration that followed.1 Paul describes the Law as a baby-sitter or tutor (3:24), whose job was to protect God’s people from the sinful influences of the surrounding nations. In other words, God’s people required the Law because they were spiritually immature and unable to maintain holiness in the face of temptation. The message of the Old Testament Law was not, “Go into the world and convert it” but rather, “Come out from the world and be separate” (and sometimes, in essence, “Go into the world and slay it, lest it corrupt you”). The Law separated Jewish believers from the world, since as yet God had not provided the means by which they could meaningfully interact with it without becoming tainted by its poison. The Law’s very presence indicated that those in need of it were still in infancy, regardless of how perfectly it was kept.
The Galatians, having at one time understood the sufficiency of Christ alone for salvation, were mistakenly relying upon the external influence of the Law to produce an inward experience of holiness. They thought that by avoiding certain actions and embracing various ceremonial practices, they could achieve true righteousness. “Are you so foolish?” Paul asks in Galatians 3:3. “After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Both they and we often need to be reminded that the way to holiness is not through adhering to a strict legal code that attempts to separate us from evil influences (“Don’t smoke, chew, or go with girls that do!”), but through the new life found in the justification of Christ.
In Galatians Paul teaches us that the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit renders the Law unnecessary. With the spiritual rebirth of the New Covenant, we are no longer spiritual children and thus no longer in need of a baby-sitter. In the Old Testament, the people of God were controlled externally by the Law, but now in the New Testament, we are controlled internally by the Spirit. This is the source of true power and the ability to live a godly life. More than rules and laws, your children will need this power if they are to live purely and righteously in this fallen world.