The command of God is only secondarily an address to us. It is first and foremost a statement of how God has acted and how he will act. What we are being told in the command is the only sensible reaction to what God has done and will do. In other words, God’s command is his gracious instruction showing us how he intends for us to move in coordination with his work so that we are not run over but instead redeemed as he sets the world right.
All God’s commands are of this character. We wrongly think of God as seated in heaven, watching human beings and judging their actions as good or evil; humans then earn condemnation or praise accordingly.
This understanding does not in any way accord with the character of God. The character of God is that he initiates all action. He himself is setting the world right. He does not intend for us to move on our own. Moving on our own is, in fact, the very definition of sin. Scripturally, true righteousness means right response to God’s initiatives. Without the Holy Spirit, this is impossible. But when we receive the Holy Spirit in baptism, it is possible.
In fact, it is the nature of the Holy Spirit to lead us into all truth. The Holy Spirit opens the Scripture to us and guides us to where we should be and what we should do in order to stay “in line” with God’s work as he sets the world right. In fact, once we receive the Holy Spirit, failing to respond to God’s initiatives produces conviction of sin. The Holy Spirit lets us know that we are “out of line,” i.e., we are standing in the wrong place, moving in the wrong direction, and thus we will be run over as God sets the world right.
This is why works righteousness is not only repugnant to God; it is nonsensical. When we seek to initiate action, even if that action seems to us to be good or righteous, it is by definition problematic because only God initiates redemptive action. If we are initiating, we are failing to pay attention to him. We are misunderstanding the nature of human action. We are treating human action as if it were able to be complete in itself or able to initiate anything necessary for God’s work. As the Apostle Paul said, “[God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.”
When we initiate action even in an effort to “be good”, this can only result in us and others being in the wrong place, moving in the wrong direction, and getting run over as God does his work. On the other hand, when our actions are responses to God’s initiatives as God intends, we are not “earning” salvation; we are experiencing it. To move in concert with God is to be saved. It is to experience salvation. It is to act as God created human beings to act: always in response to him, mirroring his character into the visible world.
This means that God intends for all human action to be incomprehensible and incomplete in and of itself. It is intended to always point beyond itself to God. It is embedded in God’s own action and thus must be wholly dependent upon God for meaning, power, and completion. The essence of sin is “acting sensibly,” that is, in ways that are comprehensible and complete in and of themselves, wholly dependent on ourselves and those in our sphere of influence for meaning, power, and fulfillment.
In other words, the nature of redeemed human life is that no one observing it should ever be able to understand it without their attention being redirected toward God. Further, the actions of redeemed human beings are always intended to be in concert with each other—not only in the present but across the ages; not only in our neighborhood but around the world. In fact, it is when the church in a given place or time cannot act in concert with the universal church that it must choose to go underground. As we established last chapter, Christ commands his one, singular body as a body, not as discrete autonomous kingdom citizens.
Such a way of acting is impossible for fallen humanity to understand or practice. Even for the redeemed, we must rely on what Jesus shows in his time on earth about how to hear and do the commands of God. Jesus shows how to act always and only in concert with his Father. This is the meaning of John 5:18, where Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does.” Just as the Son’s response to the Father’s commands redirects attention to the Father, our actions redirect the world’s attention to the Triune God.
Christ’s journey to the cross is completely incomprehensible to his disciples. Peter even rebukes him for explaining it. Jesus responds by noting what we have shared here: Peter is seeking actions that make sense in and of themselves to fallen humanity. He cannot imagine undertaking anything that will fail unless God intervenes:
From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life.
Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!”
Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns.”
Christ dies on the cross. His action is incomprehensible and incomplete in and of itself, as the disciples’ reactions to his death attest. But the Father raises Christ from the dead, by the power of the Holy Spirit, and Christ’s work is brought to glorious completion. In this we see how the Triune God intends for our actions to be embedded within and responsive to his. Without his prior action, our action is guaranteed to lead only to sin and death. But because we are assured that he will always honor his word and act according to his character, we are assured that all things—even death—will work together for good, and that nothing we do at his command will be in vain. This is how we are to understand Jesus’ lesson to his disciples after his rebuke of Peter:
Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.
Jesus is saying that when we consider only our own action for Christ’s sake, we see only the loss of our life. But when we consider also the action of God that initiates, accompanies, and completes our own, we find life, even if we have necessarily had to lay our own life down along the way. Conversely, when we consider human action as complete and comprehensible in itself, saving our own life makes sense; however, when we widen the lens to include God’s own action, saving our own lives is revealed as foolish. The incomplete actions of the redeemed will be completed by God; the completed actions of the unredeemed will be undone by God.
So then, how do we act in concert and coordination with God and his people across time and space—the “whole Christ”—as we do the word commanded in a Scripture we are reading?
We must first submit to seeing the world as he tells us it is. We must renounce our sight and become blind men who are wholly reliant on the Holy Spirit for guidance. The Apostle Paul calls this living by faith, not by sight. The mistake we typically make in responding to God’s command is to “triangulate” the command: We try to reconcile God’s word with the world as we understand it and with our lives as we understand them. In doing this we reduce what is possible to what we can understand, or what we believe can be reasonably expected of us, or what we believe other people will tolerate us doing. In this way, we domesticate, or tame, the word of God. We make it fit into our lives and into the world.
In order to prevent us from domesticating God’s commandments, we should instead take every command of Scripture as literally as God’s character permits. In other words, we should resolve to carry out every command we read exactly as written. We should carry it out in such a way that the fullness of God’s character as we are able to presently understand it shows through, i.e., as the Sermon on the Mount shows, our observance starts from the heart and proceeds outward; there can be no mere external observance. When doing a command exactly as written would clearly violate what God has revealed about himself in Scripture overall, we should use the other steps detailed in this book in order to understood more fully what he is asking of us.
For example, when Christ says, “If your right eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away,” we know not to fulfill this command literally. We know this not because we think gouging out our eye is not practical (though that is no doubt true), and not because others would be troubled if we gouged out our eye (though that is certainly true), but because we know that God’s character prevents us from treating our bodies as our own property to mutilate as we wish. His sacrifice for sin is his son, Jesus, not our gouged eyeball; presenting the latter as our atonement insults the former. So we know not to take this command literally but instead to use the Nicene Creed, contextual information about this Scripture, and insights into God’s character and actions in this and other Scriptures to understand what God is commanding us to do. For example, in this case in the immediately preceding verse, Matthew 5:28, Christ tells us that adultery occurs in the heart, not in the bed. Thus, we are to understand that it is not the right eye that causes sin, but the heart. The one who plucks out the right eye and even the left one will still be a slave to sin; the member that must be plucked out is the heart.
The mistake we make at this point is to assume that if Jesus is not speaking literally, he is not speaking seriously. In such cases, we wrongly think that instead of asking for any action, he is using colorful exaggeration to give us a simple moral lesson like, “Be careful what you look at.” But if we follow the principle noted above to take every command as literally as the character of God permits, then we should conclude that Jesus is indeed asking us to pluck out not our eyes but our hearts. This can only happen in baptism. Jesus is not simply urging us to be careful what we look at it. He is urging us to enter the waters of death and rebirth, where he will give us a new heart and a new spirit.
Where there is no barrier to taking God’s commands literally, we should do so even when doing so does not seem practical to us, and even when doing so is likely to draw persecution from others. A somewhat controversial example is found in Matthew 5:33-37, where Jesus commands:
Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, “Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.” But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all: either by heaven, for it is God’s throne; or by the earth, for it is his footstool; or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the Great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make even one hair white or black. All you need to say is simply “Yes” or “No”; anything beyond this comes from the evil one.
The example is controversial because good Christians have disagreed on whether Christians should take oaths. But if we apply the principle given in this chapter (i.e., take God’s commands as literally unless doing so clearly violates God’s character), then the matter is resolved: There is nothing in the character of God that is compromised when we do not take oaths; therefore, Christians should not take oaths. In many cases the refusal to take oaths will indeed draw opposition and even persecution from the world; further, in our own judgment, we may think it impractical for us not to take an oath (e.g., we may worry that people think we are lying if we do not swear an oath). But neither of these reasons outweighs the overarching principle: Take the command as literally as possible without violating God’s character. Therefore, doing the word of Matthew 5:33-37 means swearing no oaths.
In some cases, we will not be certain whether to take a command literally or not; we may not know for sure whether a command even applies to us. A notable example is Jesus’ command to the rich young ruler in Mark 10:21: “Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” Should we do this word, or did Jesus intend it only for the rich young ruler?
Good Christians disagree on the answer to this question, as well as the interpretation of many other biblical commands. When difficulties of interpretation exist, we can use the principles from this chapter in order to determine what course of action is best. In the presence of the Holy Spirit and the church (typically in the form of accountability partners from our local church body, or through learning from faithful Christians across the ages), we can examine our hearts in order to find out the source of our discomfort about taking the command literally. If the source of the discomfort is our own judgment, or our concern about how others will respond, then we should submit to the commandment. If we sense the source of the discomfort is divine, then we should apply the tools in this book in order to situate the command more fully within the broader counsel of God’s word.
Acts 10:9-16 provides an example:
About noon the following day as [the servants of Cornelius] were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles and birds. Then a voice told him, “Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.”
“Surely not, Lord!” Peter replied. “I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.”
The voice spoke to him a second time, “Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.”
This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.
As the Holy Spirit continues to guide Peter, as he reflects further on the broader counsel of God, and as he hears the testimony of Cornelius, Peter comes to a new and deeper understanding of God’s command in the vision:
Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right.”
Peter’s actions illustrate a recurring theme in the Scripture: We should not fail to do the word because we are worried that we may do it incorrectly. Scripture records God discipling us “in motion”—that is, as we are seeking with all of our hearts to act in concert with him in order to sincerely reflect his character by doing the word. We can be encouraged that the Lord disciples even wrong-headed, threat-breathing Saul when he is “in motion” on the way to Damascus to persecute Christians:
Then Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked letters from him to the synagogues of Damascus, so that if he found any who were of the Way, whether men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem.
As he journeyed he came near Damascus, and suddenly a light shone around him from heaven. Then he fell to the ground, and heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting Me?”
And he said, “Who are You, Lord?”
Then the Lord said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting. It is hard for you to kick against the goads.”
So he, trembling and astonished, said, “Lord, what do You want me to do?”
Then the Lord said to him, “Arise and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”
It is not the incorrect that the Lord despises but the proud; it is not the hot or the cold that the Lord spews out of his mouth but the lukewarm. If he disciples us when we are in motion, then the only hopeless ones among us are those who are standing still. When we are standing still out of fear of being wrong, we will certainly be regarded by him as “wicked and slothful,” not cautiously prudent. “For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him,” says the seer. When our hearts are fully committed to him, when we are humbly seeking to coordinate our actions with his own, whether we are hot or cold, when we do the word as literally as God’s character permits, we can do so with the confidence that he himself will graciously guide us into all truth.
 Acts 9:37, NIV.
 Cf. John 16:13.
 Acts 17:25, NIV.
 Cf. E. Foley, 2017. Planting the Underground Church. Seoul: Voice of the Martyrs, pp. 72-77.
 John 5:19, NIV.
 Matthew 16:21-23, NIV.
 Cf. Romans 8:28.
 Matthew 16:24-25, NIV.
 2 Corinthians, 5:7, NIV.
 Cf. Ezekiel 36:26.ve
 Matthew 5:33-37, NIV.
 Mark 10:21, NIV.
 Acts 10:9-16, NIV.
 Acts 10:35, NIV.
 Acts 9:1-6, NIV.
 Cf. James 4:6.
 Cf. Rev. 3:16.
 Cf. Matthew 25:26, ESV.
 2 Chronicles 16:9, NIV.
 Cf. John 16:13.