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A Changed Perspective: Robert D. Brinsmead

Robert Brinsmead was raised as a Seventh Day Adventist. In the late 1950s he began to see glimpses of the gospel. By 1962, though still an Adventist, he was barred from fellowship under pressure from the Queensland Conference of Adventists. In 1970 he began to study the Reformation and to embrace its view of justification by faith. He also moved from an Adventist to a Reformation view of the law - views that are not really very far apart. His first edition of Present Truth (later Verdict) appeared in 1972 and brought his understanding of both justification and the law to bear on various theological issues.

A 1979 issue of Verdict reflects his view of Old Covenant law before he gave the matter more thought in light of the gospel. The November 1979 issue dealt with "Lutherans in Crisis over Justification by Faith." His section on the "third use of the law" is relevant here. Brinsmead had become sensitive to the importance of redemptive history, but was still trying to function within the Reformed perspective of law. He wrote,

The prophets had also spoken of a new exodus under a new Moses at the end of the age . . . The book of John presents Jesus as that new Moses of the new exodus. Just as the first Exodus gave birth to the nation of Israel, so the new exodus at Calvary would give birth to the new Israel.268

In his "third use" section, Brinsmead asks, "Is [the law] a norm of Christian conduct and a rule of life?"269 He also has some questions for those who may have problems with this "third use" of the law - questions, however that assume the validity of certain presuppositions in need of re-examination. By facing his questions, we can isolate several areas in need of Biblical light.

1. If the law of God is not seriously accepted as his will for man's life (third use), are not all the teeth removed from the law's accusatory function (second use)? . . . Must not a person hear the law as a rule of life before he is accused of sin?270

These questions assume that law must be preached before gospel. But where in John 16:8-11 does Christ say that the Spirit will use the law to bring men to Christ? Rather, as Leon Morris observes,

it should not be overlooked that all three aspects of the work of the Holy Spirit dealt with in these verses are interpreted Christologically. Sin, righteousness and judgment are all to be understood because of the way they relate to Christ.271

Again, in the preaching found in Acts, where was the law ever preached as the rule of life in order to bring conviction (Acts 2:37)? As F.F. Bruce points out, "there is no evidence that Paul ever used the law in this way."272 Where in Scripture is it revealed that the Holy Spirit must use the "teeth" of the law to accuse of sin? Is not the many-sided demand which is connected with coming to Christ (i.e., Luke 14:25-33), and the teaching of Christ (Matt. 5-7) quite convicting? James Buchanan rightfully states:

It may be safely affirmed that it is by the Spirit's witness to Christ that he is first brought to see the magnitude of his guilt . . . Christ's exaltation . . . is sufficient . . . to carry home conviction of sin . . . Hence we believe that the Gospel of Christ, and especially the doctrine of the cross of Christ, is the most powerful instrument for impressing the conscience of a sinner . . . And this is because the Gospel, and especially the doctrine of the cross, contains in it the spirit and essence of the law.273

We must re-orient our thinking in light of a dogmatism which leaves the impression that the law is the only means of conviction. Obviously when the law comes to sinners, it plays an accusatory role. But even in this, as Buchanan indicates, the gospel has a priority.

2. If we say that the gospel rather than the law informs a Christian how he ought to live, have we not turned the gospel into a new law? Is this not failing to maintain the proper distinction between the law and the gospel?274

The traditional law/gospel distinction is essentially oblivious to the advance of redemptive history. The new exodus does bring a new law code - not Ten Commandments, however, but one comprehensive "New Commandment" that is in total harmony with all that was written in the Law and the Prophets (Matt. 7:12; 22:40). If we are serious about redemptive history - as Brinsmead is - we must boldly assert that the gospel is completely sufficient to inform a Christian how to live. No area of our new life "in Christ" is untouched by the implications of "as I have loved you." Brinsmead acknowledges that Jesus is a new Moses. Should we not also acknowledge that he is therefore our new Lawgiver?

3. If we say that the Holy Spirit guides the Christian apart from using the law, are we not rejecting the old and well-established Lutheran principle of "the means of grace"? . . . And does not the idea of living without an objective rule of life expose us to all types of romanticism about Christian existence?275

The invalid assumption behind these questions is that the only conceivable "objective standard" is the Decalogue. The New Testament has its own "canon" (rule) for Christian ethics. In the "new Israel" the old codes no longer apply. What counts is the "new creation" where love is the all-encompassing standard of conduct (Gal. 6:15-16). This is a very "objective standard," and the only true starting point for gospel obedience. The Holy Spirit does not guide believers by Moses, but "according to Christ" (Rom. 15:5; Phil. 2:5; Eph. 4:20-21). Through the gospel, they are led from "faith to faith," from "glory to glory," and receive "grace upon grace" (Rom. 1:17; 2 Cor. 3:18; John 1:16). It is not that the gospel renders the law worthless, but that in the redemptive-historical unfolding of God's purpose in Christ, the law has become the servant of the gospel - not vice-versa!

4. If Lutherans persist in relaxing the moral imperative, will not the gospel of justification by faith cease to be urgent and eventually fail to be relevant altogether?276

Again, the false assumption is that there is no "moral imperative" outside the Decalogue. There simply is no more persuasive moral imperative than that which issues from the redemptive event at Calvary (John 13:34-35; 15:12-13; 1 John 4:9-11). If we are not moved to change our way of life in response to the cross, all the commandments in the world will not produce holiness in us. If the love of Christ does not compel us, nothing will (2 Cor. 5:14). As Thielicke so well put it, "If I must be commanded by the law, this is a sign that I am not yet 'free' . . . that I do not yet have the spontaneity of the new existence."277 The gospel has moral imperatives, but they are addressed to a people freed by the Spirit to walk in righteousness, not grudgingly, but from the heart (Rom. 6:17-18). Christ's commands are obeyed willingly because God "first loved us" (1 John 4:19). The law demands but cannot empower. The gospel compels and enables, for "God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us" (Rom. 5:5). We serve God "in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code" (Rom. 7:6), "for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life" (2 Cor. 3:6).

Changed Perspective

By 1980 Brinsmead began to reason that if the gospel was central, why should it take a back seat to the law in the area of ethics?278 His continuing studies brought increasing conviction that the gospel brings both salvation and ethics. The fruit of this study was first published in Verdict as "Jesus and the Law." His "Editorial Introduction" summarizes his change in perspective:

Our last two issues of Verdict ("Sabbatarianism Re-Examined" and "Jesus and the Sabbath") raised the entire question of the place of law in the New Testament. Is the law abolished or established by Jesus Christ? . . . How should living in the new eschatological age of the Spirit affect ethics? Is not much that appears to be Christian ethics only a form of Christian Judaism or churchly Pharisaism?

About three years ago Verdict came to a new appreciation of the historical-redemptive framework of the Bible. (The writings of G. Ernest Wright, Oscar Cullmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg and George Eldon Ladd were among those which spurred a new appreciation for the theme of redemptive history.)

Before this, we had viewed theology in a more classical or systematic tradition. In this framework, revelation is regarded more as abstract propositional information which has to be gathered and arranged in an ordered system. Thus, in classical Calvinism the law is treated primarily as a static code of life delivered from heaven for all time to come. Such a "flat Bible" approach does not sufficiently allow for the dynamic interrelation of ethics and the flow of redemptive history.

It has taken us about three years to explore the implications of the historical-redemptive approach for Christian ethics. This issue of Verdict represents a crystallization of our thought in these areas . . .

From the editor's personal perspective, the conclusions presented in this issue of Verdict represent as radical a theological breakthrough as that, which launched this journal ten years ago.279

The central thrust of Brinsmead's change in outlook can be seen in the following representative remarks from "Jesus and the Law."

All that the law was to Judaism, Christ was to the New Testament community. The law was the center of Judaism. The rabbis said that God spent the first three hours of every day studying the Torah. But Christ was the center of the apostolic faith . . .

Whereas Judaism made the law their Christ, the New Testament community made Christ their law. All that the Ten Commandments and the Sabbath were to Judaism, Christ himself became to apostolic faith . . .

Thus, ample textual and typological evidence demonstrates the truth of this one simple thesis: Jesus Christ replaces the Torah. This is how the law is at once abolished and established. It is abolished because Christ becomes the norm and the rule of life for the believer. It is established because the believer stands under the law of God as revealed in the Christ event . . .

We say again that the New Testament does not make its appeal for proper behavior on the basis of Old Testament rules. It makes its appeal on the basis of the superior revelation of the will of God which has come in Jesus Christ. In the New Testament, Christ and his gospel are the standard by which all behavior is measured.

The idea that Christ sends us back to the law of Moses for our rule of life has a long and hallowed tradition. But it needs to be challenged because it rests on tradition and not on any solid New Testament evidence . . .

Just as the law of Moses contained the moral imperatives which flow out of the Exodus-Sinai event, so the law of Christ embodies the moral imperatives which flow out of the death-resurrection event . . .

A New Covenant must have a new law. The command to love is not new, for Moses also commands us to love our neighbor. What is new in Christ's commandment is the command to love "as I have loved you." Love is given a new historical reference point. It is love defined by the cross of Christ. Moses could not command this kind of love, and therefore, his law is totally inadequate now that the new (and final) manifestation of love has been given in the Christ event . . .

Puritan-Reformed theology goes to the Christ event for grace but returns to Moses for ethics. It says that Christ must structure our faith but Moses must structure our ethics. It sunders the dynamic relationship between the historical-redemptive event and the ethic which flows from it. In the classical tradition of Reformed theology the Ten Commandments are said to be the rule of life for the New Testament believer. But the Ten Commandments are the law of Moses or "the words of the [Mosaic] covenant" (Exod. 34:28; Deut. 4:13). Because they flow out of the redemptive history of the Exodus, they are not adequate to express the nature of new-covenant life.280


Footnotes:

268. Robert D. Brinsmead, "Lutherans in Crisis over Justification by Faith," Verdict, November 1979, p. 21.

269. Brinsmead, p. 26.

270. Brinsmead, p. 28.

271. Leon Morris, A Commentary on John's Gospel, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1978, p. 699.

272. F.F. Bruce, p. 192.

273. James Buchanan, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, London: Banner of Truth, 1964, p. 64.

274. Brinsmead, p. 28.

275. Brinsmead, p. 28.

276. Brinsmead, p. 28.

277. Thielicke, p. 56.

278. I met Mr. Brinsmead in August 1979, asked him to consider the centrality of Christ in Christian obedience, and gave him some materials to read. In January 1980, Brinsmead called me and indicated that these redemptive-historical points were worthy of consideration and further study.

279. Robert D. Brinsmead, "Jesus and the Law," Verdict, October 1981, pp. 2-3.

280. Brinsmead, pp. 14, 15, 18, 19, 20.


This is My Beloved Son, Hear Him. Jon Zens. Searching Together. Summer-Winter 1997, Vol. 25:1,2,3. Pages 67-71.