Scriptures against Lawlessness

We have been dealing with the prevalence and dangers of lawlessness. We noted that lawlessness has been encouraged in the church through the unbiblical teaching that God accepts us unconditionally. That means I can live lawlessly with impunity.

Since the church is the only hope for our society, recovery from lawlessness must begin at the church. In the previous post we noted that the church might return to its scriptural senses in two ways. The preferable alternative resides in learning from Scripture, which warns against lawlessness. If that doesn’t work, the Lord may take us to the school of hard knocks. However, that should not be necessary, especially for a community that claims commitment to Scripture, since Scripture warns against lawlessness in many passages.

Some examples, though from Scripture, run contrary to our theology. It’s especially inconvenient when the Bible contradicts our beliefs, but the following verses do just that.

But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. He will render to each one according to his works: to those who by patience in well-doing seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury. There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and also the Greek. (Romans 2:5-10)

This passage is especially offensive because it was written by Paul, the apostle of grace, at the outset of the ultimate biblical discourse on the gospel of grace. Yet we find Paul saying that God “will render to each one according to his works.” And in case his readers missed the point, he goes on to state specifically what he means, which is essentially what he just said.

Is Paul here teaching salvation by works? It is apparent that this is not the case in light of the following verse: “And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness…. (Romans 4:5 ESV)

How then do we reconcile these passages? I believe the answer is found in the definition of faith. If we see faith as an acknowledgment of and commitment to the spiritual realm and its authority, then those being saved by faith, as described in Romans 4:5, will necessarily produce the works described in Romans 2:5-10.

Though this teaching makes sense, it encompasses some challenging implications. It indicates that Mike, who as a five-year-old boy prayed the prayer but is now living with his girlfriend even though he knows that this is contrary to the teaching of Scripture, is probably not headed for heaven. Beyond that, Paul’s condemnation of those who are self-seeking in the passage above suggests that one need not be living a life of immorality to be lost, but merely a life of selfishness, using his time, money, and other resources for self-gratification rather than ministry.

Jesus conveys similar sentiments as those found in Romans 2:5-10 in the Sermon on the Mount:

Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.’ (Matthew 7:21-23 ESV)

Notice Jesus’ use of the word “lawlessness.”

Passages such as these, and there are numerous others of them, if preached consistently and emphatically would put people on notice that saving faith and lawlessness don’t mix—that lawless people are not citizens of heaven. Imagine how doing so would change the complexion of contemporary evangelical Christianity.

It would be interesting to do a study to see how frequently these and similar verses are addressed from the American evangelical pulpit. Maybe the findings would reveal how evangelicals can claim to be committed to Scripture and still embrace unconditional acceptance.

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