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Double Deliverance Under the New Covenant

By Jon Zens

The purpose of this article is to put Christian liberty in proper perspective by examining some relevant Scriptures. Perhaps many of you think of Christian liberty in terms of whether or not you may attend a movie. But the focus of liberty in the New Testament is on freedom from sin’s power and on freedom to unselfishly serve others.

To view Christian liberty rightly, it is imperative to understand that believers are the recipients of two deliverances under the new covenant. When we think of Christ’s work, our focus has been on His being delivered up for sins (and rightly so). But there is another (equally important) deliverance in Christ’s work clearly spoken of in the New Testament which, it seems, has received little attention.

And yet, if I am not mistaken, the bulk of problems related to relationships among Christians and of Christians to the world are bound up in a non-comprehension of this second deliverance — deliverance from the “elements of the world” (Colossians 2:20). A proper understanding of our deliverance in Christ from the “principles of the world” will go a long way to promote unity among believers and to liberate us for sacrificial service to others.

Double Deliverance

1.  Deliverance from sin’s power. According to Galatians 1:4 and Matthew 1:21, at the heart of Christ’s redemptive work was the salvation of His people from sin.

This is demonstrated forcefully in Romans 6. Paul states emphatically that because Christians are dead to sin, they cannot continue living in sin under the guise that grace would abound. They are dead to sin because Jesus Christ in His work died to sin (Romans 6:10). By faith we become identified with Christ’s history — His death, burial and resurrection (Romans 6:3-6). Thus, for those in union with Christ and his once-for-all work in history to continue living in sin is an impossibility. Christ’s work not only ensures the forgiveness of sin, but also ensures that sin’s power in a believer’s life is broken (Romans 6:14).

2.  Deliverance from the “elements of the world.  “While Christians generally have an understanding of their deliverance from sin’s power in Christ, many are not sensitive to the fact that Christ’s work also affected their deliverance from the “elements of the world.”  Colossians 2:20 states that believers, “died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world.”

The fact that Paul would bring the work of Christ to bear upon such seemingly trivial things as eating and drinking shows that “they must be more important than one would ordinarily think” [1]. Indeed, comprehending this aspect of our redemption will go a long way to resolving conflicts among brethren. Evil judgments among brethren are often made with reference to matters subsumed under “elementary principles.”

Galatians 4:1-10

In this context, Paul has been dealing with the movement of redemptive history from promise (Abraham) to law (Moses) to fulfillment (Christ). He is showing the Galatians how foolish it is to think that, having begun in the Spirit, they could continue and complete the Christian life “under law.”

Paul then goes on to show that before Christ’s appearance the Israelites were children “under guardians and managers.” The period before the “fullness of time” was one of immaturity. Specifically, it was a time “in bondage under the elemental things of the world” (Galatians 4:3). Hence, the existence of the Israelites “under law” was a period of pre-maturity.

“When we were in our religious ‘infancy,’ he says, we were enslaved under the stoicheia (Strong’s 4747) of the world, they were our controllers or custodians. Whatever else may be said of these stoicheia, they plainly include the law, in the sense of [Galatians] 3:23 (which refers to the same situation). ‘Before faith came, we were guarded hupo nomon [under law]’” [2]

Christ inaugurated an age of maturity, of sonship, and thus a deliverance from the rudimentary, ABC items — both for the Gentiles in bondage to non-gods, and for Jews in bondage “under law.”

“In the immediate context existence hupo ta stoicheia tou kosmou (under the elements of the world) is equated with existence hupo nomon (under law). He speaks of the time during which the people of God lived ‘under law’ as the time spent in the infant class learning the ABC’s — which for them amounted to ‘the rudimentary notions of the world’ . . . But this was not merely a time of elementary education; it was a time of bondage . . . For the present stage of Paul’s argument it suffices to observe that the law ranks as one of the stoicheia . . . it could be said of both groups (Jews and Gentiles) alike that they had lived in bondage to the elemental forces of the world until Christ released them from their bondage and disabled the elemental forces.” [3]

In Galatians 4:8-10, Paul chides the Galatians (primarily Gentile believers) for leaving their past bondage to non-gods, only to substitute it for bondage to the weak and beggarly elements of Judaism. The false teachers were urging the Jewish calendar upon Gentiles converts, no doubt including Sabbath-keeping. [4]

Because of their regression to rudimentary principles, Paul feared for these people (Galatians 4:11).  This graphically illustrates for us that it is possible to move away from the gospel not only by immorality or false doctrine, but also by moving backward “under the elements of the world.“ We rarely conceive of leaving the gospel in these terms, but in the New Testament, this was a great concern.

Colossians 2:8-20

The Christian church at Colossae was threatened by false teachers who combined gnostic/ascetic and Jewish features [5]. Paul combated these things by setting forth the exalted Christ as the Head over all things.

The “philosophy” mentioned in Colossians 2:8 has reference to a perverted “form” of Christianity. The word philosophy “carried a wide range of meanings describing all sorts of groups, tendencies and viewpoints within the Greek and Jewish worlds.” [6]

The main problem with any false religious philosophy is that it is “according to the elements of the world,” and not “according to Christ.” In Colossians 2:9-15, Paul shows the victorious all-sufficiency of Christ’s historical work. Specifically, it was not only a victory over sin, but was also a victory over all the elemental powers of the world.

It is in light of this pervasive victory of Christ that Paul exhorts the Colossian Christians to “let no one act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day.“ These elemental things could not be a norm of judgment among Christians. Christians are to actively resist when such ABC items are made a standard of judgment.

At Colossae, the scrupulous were threatening to impose their rigid principles on the rest of the congregation Christian liberty needed to be asserted in the light of false attempts to undermine it. [7]

In Colossians 2:20, Paul explicitly asserts that Christians, “Have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world.” Thus, they are not to submit to such immature, retrogressive rules. Again, it must be emphasized that Paul views “coming under” such rules as a dangerous movement away from Christ.

The apostle then gives some specific examples of these “elementary principles of the world:” “do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (Colossians 2:21). These rules arise from men, and deny our completeness in Christ. I would suggest that conservative, “Bible-believing” religion is, unfortunately, permeated with “elementary principles” which become “tests” and norms of judgment.

One of the central problems in so-called Christianity everywhere is that well-meaning people are in bondage to the “elements of the world” in one way or another. A spin-off from this is that professing Christians then judge others according to their set of “elementary principles.” Such religion will always censure and persecute others. Such religion makes “tests” out of matters of liberty, and in so doing skips over things that are really important.

“Unless you adopt their reasoning and their observances, you are either no Christian or are a most inferior one.” [8]

A host of illustrations could be given to document various forms of bondage to the elements of the world. However, only one will be given which captures the spirit of such bondage. Tragically, this example is not extreme, but represents a wide-spread attitude among Bible-believers. This particular group has a “Book Rating Code.” First, we will observe their criteria, and then their application of it to a specific book.

Objectionable features … slang, political speeches, voting …

Questionable entertainment: circuses, competitive sports, dancing, … fairs … movies, musical instruments, parades, plays, races, radios, spectator events, TV’s.

Inconsistent Pictures/Illustrations: cut hair, jewelry, unveiled women, romance, kissing …

Worldliness: Christmas decorations, drinking, Easter rabbits and eggs, smoking, worldly celebrations

Others: Miscellaneous items not included above.

An example, The Incredible Journey serves to illustrate how the Book Rating Code should be interpreted. The number “4” alerts the purchaser to doctrinal error, (in this case two sentences in the introductory poem and a usage of the terms “godfather” and “goddaughter”).

The number “6” indicates sub-Christian illustrations (in this case smokers’ pipes pictured …). These features do not color the entire book and could be neatly deleted with an ink eraser. [9]

Coming under such elements of the world can occur in many ways. Various forms of Protestantism have carried over elemental aspects of the Mosaic age — bringing circumcision into the new age (saying that baptism is Christian circumcision), bringing in a by-birth conception of the kingdom (in infant baptism), conceiving of Christ’s kingdom in territorial terms (in state-churches), enforcing Sabbath observance (connecting this shadow with a day instead of with Christ), identifying a building where Christians meet as “the house of God,” viewing Israel as a binding economy (with its case-law particulars) or as an eternal entity (in its alleged earthly purpose) Catholicism, with its emphasis on outward observances, brings people into bondage to elemental things. When you think about it carefully, you can begin to see that it is these “rudimentary principles” that dominate religion in general (in place of the gospel).

Bondage can come when cultural norms are absolutized. When “our American way” of doing things is made into an implicit/explicit rule for others, we are in bondage. In 19th-century Britain, for example, the form of English that was coming to shape in America was viewed as a perversion, full of “barbarisms “[10] People are often in bondage to cultural language forms.

“In 1830 or thereabout, as Mrs. Frances Trollope tells us, ‘a young German gentleman of perfectly good manners offended one of the principal families by having pronounced the word corset before the ladies of it’ … Bartlett, in his Glossary, says that this excessive delicacy was … most marked … in the West. He goes on to say (c. 1847): The essentially English word bull is refined beyond the mountains … into cow-creature, male-cow, and even gentleman cow … [As Captain Fredrick Marragat was] gazing upon the wonders of Niagara Falls with a young woman acquaintance, he was distressed to see her skip and bark her shin. As she limped home he asked, ‘Did you hurt your leg much?’ She turned from him ‘evidently much shocked or much offended’ … and told him gently that leg was never mentioned before ladies: the proper word was limb. Even chickens ceased to have legs and another British traveler ‘was not a little confused on being requested by a lady, at a public dinner-table, to furnish her with the first and second joint’ … To use the word shirt in the presence of a woman was ‘an open insult.‘”[11]

The main point of all of this is that Christians must realize that Christ has set them free from bondage to such ‘‘elements of the world.” How these kinds of things come to play in Christian relationships will be discussed as we deal with Romans 14.

Romans 14:1-6

For Jews and Gentiles to come into one body by grace was a radical social phenomenon. Their backgrounds were very divergent. Some brethren had scruples and convictions about various matters. Paul’s directions concerning brotherly relationships is fairly simple, but the varied applications to life-situations are not always easy [12]

“Weak”/”Strong”

In the opening verses of Romans 14, Paul indicates that brethren have different views concerning things like eating/drinking and observing days. Those who have reservations about some foods are called “weak. “ Several observations can be made concerning Romans 14:1-6.

1.  Here, Paul does not ask any Christian to change his convictions. He does not request that the vegetable eaters eat all things, or that those who eat all things switch to vegetables only.

2.  Instead, Paul deals with their attitudes toward one another He tells the “strong” not to despise the “weak,” and he tells the “weak” not to judge the strong. Both groups must respect each other in Christ, as both hold their convictions before the Lord.

3.  Paul reminds them to have confidence in God’s work in His people. Our tendency is to “fear” for people if they do not have a life-style like ours. But Paul was very confident that God was able and committed to upholding and guiding His people in these areas. “And stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”

4.  Paul stresses that there is a rightful liberty among believers concerning these things. Thus, believers must be “fully convinced in their own mind” in the things they do “for the Lord.”

5.  It is very important to see the difference between Galatians 4:8-10 and Romans 14:5-6. In Romans, Paul has no problem with Christians observing days unto the Lord. But in Galatians he “fears” for them because they “observe days and months and seasons and years.”  What is the difference? The difference is this: in the Galatian situation observances were made mandatory — a must and an ought. Paul would not stand for false teachers imposing rules — “elements of the world”— on believers. But if individual Christians want to observe a day to the Lord, that is their liberty — but they must not impose such observances on others.

The same principle can be seen with circumcision. Under the new covenant circumcision is “nothing” (Galatians 5:6, 15; 1 Corinthians 7:19). Thus, Paul allowed Timothy to be circumcised in order to have a ministry with the Jews (Acts 16:3). But when circumcision was made a “law,” Paul refused to let Titus be circumcised in order to protect Christian liberty (Galatians 2 3-4).

There are many items/issues that in themselves are “nothing.” But when false Bible teachers start making something out of indifferent matters, the gospel and its liberty are at stake. The New Testament teaches that such encroachments of liberty must be resisted (Galatians 2:5; 5:1; Colossians 2:16).

Romans 14:7-23

Paul stresses in this section that Christians must stop judging one another, and they must be very concerned for those who are “weak.”  Paul does not allow the weak or the strong to get off the hook — he had admonitions for them both. We can isolate several points of importance here.

1.  Because all must stand before the Lord and give account to Him, we must put a halt to judging one another or despising others (14:10-13a).

Implicit in all of this is a big caution about how we use our tongues concerning one another. Judging and despising come to expression in actions (Galatians 2:11-14) and in words (James 3:10; 4:11). Embedded in wrangling is obviously a vicious use of the tongue (Galatians 5:15, 26). Brothers and sisters, I plead with you to be extremely careful about how you handle your fellow-brethren with your tongue. Christians are to minister grace with their speech, and are not to tear down others with words (Ephesians 4:29-31).

2.  According to Matthew 7:1-5, judging others prohibits us from ministering to their needs. “Judge not” has been so emphasized (often in a wrong sense) that the point of Jesus is missed: the goal here is to deal first with ourselves so that we can then minister to another in need (Matthew 7:5). The horrible result of judging others — looking down our nose at them, judging them with reference to “elements of the world” — is that the possibility of ministry is crippled.

According to Romans 14:13, we are to “determine this — not to put an obstacle or stumbling block in a brother’s way.“ We are to watch our actions around weak brethren. A weak brother is one who views something as wrong or “unclean,” when in reality it is not (Romans 14:14, 20). Around such people, the “strong” are to walk carefully and not draw them into any action that might bring them to violate their conscience (Romans 14:15, 21, 23).

3.  Our use of the phrase “giving offense” needs to be evaluated carefully in light of how the New Testament unfolds this concept. I am convinced that what most professing Christians conceive of concerning “giving offense” has little, if anything, to do with the New Testament teaching concerning “stumbling blocks.” What does it mean to “offend” a Christian?

First, in Jesus’ ministry we can discern a vast difference in how He handled Himself around (1) Pharisees and (2) needy people. In Matthew 15:8-14, Jesus manifested no concern when the Pharisees “were offended” at His remarks (v. 12). Jesus openly violated the Pharisees’ traditions without hesitation (Matthew 12:1-14).

Yet we also have occasions where Jesus was concerned not to offend (Matthew 17:24-27). From Jesus’ example, it is clear that it is not our responsibility to bow down before, or to be intimidated by, pharisaical rules/traditions. If religious Pharisees are “offended” by our liberty in Christ, that is their problem.

Second, Paul asserts that nothing is more important than a clear conscience (Acts 24:16). The conscience acts on information received. If the Christian’s conscience has been instructed, for example, that wine is evil, then it could not partake “in faith.“ But the information the conscience has acted upon (“wine is evil”) is incorrect. In fact, ‘‘nothing is unclean of itself” (Romans 14:14).

Third, if a person who eats all things is around a weak brother who believes certain foods are unclean, the stronger person is to act in love by not drawing the weaker person into an action that would violate his (misinformed) conscience. The New Testament clearly defines what it means to “give offense” it is to do something (which is perfectly legitimate in itself) in front of a weaker person who has scruples about that action (1 Corinthians 8:7-13). The key issue is this: the actions of the stronger draw the weaker into something he cannot do “in faith,” thus wounding his conscience and causing him to sin (1 Corinthians 8:12, Romans 14:23).

Thus Paul concludes that if eating meat or drinking wine would cause a weaker brother to be drawn into a partaking “not of faith,” he would not do it in that setting (Romans 14:21).

The above is a far cry from how many define “giving offense,”

Fourth, the difference between the weak and the strong lies in growth in the truth. The weak do not yet understand the indifferent character of the “elements of the world,” and along with this their deliverance from bondage to such elementary principles (Romans 14:14, 20; 1 Cor. 8:4-8). The goal, naturally, would be for all brethren to grow to the point where they would “know and be convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14). This implies an ongoing educational process in the churches. And in this process, the strong are to bear with the weaknesses of others, and are not to draw them into actions outside of faith.

It must be stressed that coming into a fuller knowledge of the truth of Romans 14:14 does not mean that brethren must therefore change their convictions. If people wish to continue eating vegetables only, that is fine. But they would understand now that it is not wrong for others to eat all things, and that no food is unclean of itself.

It is at this point that understanding our relationship to the elements of the world helps so much in our relationships with others. We are free to accept one another in the gospel, and not to judge one another by the stoicheia tou kosmou (Romans 15:7, Colossians 2:16, 20).

4.  Romans 14:17 states an important principle. The kingdom of God is not constituted by the elements of the world. Things like “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” are the matters of concern.

It is an axiom observable to all that if the elements of the world are elevated, the matters of importance are slighted. Jesus stated this principle in Matthew 23:23-24 — “you tithe mint and dill and cummin, and have neglected the weightier provisions of the law, justice, mercy and faithfulness … You blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!”

One of the most tragic things about the various forms of so-called Christianity which are dominated by the elements of the world is that they make a big deal out of their distinctive scruples and taboos, lose sight of Christ and His liberating gospel, and thus incapacitate themselves for vital ministry to others. Tragically, it can be documented from history that some of the most inhumane actions against others were carried out in the name of Jesus by movements that made judgments according to the “elements of the world.”

Related to this is the fact that when people are in bondage to the elements, they lose their joy. This is brought out in Paul’s words to the Galatians “what has happened to all your joy?” (4:15) Only a people in liberty can enjoy gospel joy; people in bondage cannot be a happy people.

Galatians 5:1, 13

Paul is most emphatic that our liberty in Christ must be maintained at all costs. First, he indicates that wrapped up in the very work of Christ was the goal of freedom for His people — freedom from sin’s power and freedom from the elements of the world. ”It was for freedom that Christ set us free.” (Galatians 5:1)

Secondly, in light of the work of Christ which obtained our freedom, we must (1) positively, “keep standing firm” in our liberty, and (2) negatively“not be subject again to a yoke of slavery.“ In the context, the Galatians had begun to move away from the gospel by submitting to “elements of the world.” Specifically, they (as predominantly Gentile believers) were being asked to submit to the “elementary principles” of the Mosaic economy. Such action denied the gospel and brought bondage with it.

Paul assumes that our liberty in Christ will be threatened by many alien forces, and we must therefore be on guard to stand in our liberty and actively resist anything that would enslave us. And if we are in bondage (and many are) to elemental forces, we must make every effort to regain and stand in our liberty.

Why? Because liberty in Christ is absolutely necessary as a prerequisite for sacrificial ministry. This is clear in Galatians 5:13. Our very calling to fellowship with Christ involved liberty. But we must not ever use our liberty as an excuse for moral sloppiness — as an opportunity for the flesh. The goal of Christian liberty is“to serve one another in love.” It is impossible to serve others while we ourselves are in bondage!

I believe that this is a dimension of Christian liberty that is rarely reflected upon. We must maintain our liberty in order to be of service to others. This highlights the importance of avoiding slavery to the “elements of the world.“ Our usefulness to others will be stifled to the degree that we are in bondage to “rudimentary principles.“ Such bondage takes our eyes off of Christ and makes us judge others harshly according to our particular stoicheia.

I think you can begin to see what an important issue our deliverance in Christ from the “elements of the world” really is. It is not surprising that the visible church more often than not has been distracted from its calling to sacrificially serve her own and the needy of the world. So often it has been enmeshed in wrangling over and judging according to the various “elements of the world” that people have been more hurt than ministered unto.

The scars of “Christian” prejudice manifested in Christ’s name are visible in the lives of many. How many children have been deeply hurt and thereby turned off to vital Christianity as a result of being raised in homes where the stoicheia were elevated — “handle not, taste not, touch not” — and the vital matters of the gospel were thereby slighted? How often have people in the world seen through a religion that spends its time persecuting others over ridiculous issues and, in the process, skips over remembering the poor and visiting orphans and widows (Galatians. 2:l0, James 1:27)?

Do True Christians Stay in Bondage?

In Galatians 4:11, Paul stated, “I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.” From this we can see that it is very possible for professing Christians to fall back into various forms of bondage. However, Galatians.4:11 must be viewed in the light of Paul’s later remark in 5:10 — “I am confident in the Lord that you will take no other view.” God does not save people by Christ’s work only to leave them in bondage. Christ’s work sets people free to love God and neighbor.

“There was hope — good hope, Paul persuaded himself — that his letter would make them change their minds and rely on free grace as they had done before.” [13]

We must have confidence that God’s people will love the gospel. There is every reason to fear for those who abide in bondage.

The maintenance of our liberty in Christ in order to serve others in love opens the door of credibility before a watching world (John 13:34-35).

The contemporary “visible church” is filled with various forms of bondage to the “elements of the world.” Grasping our double deliverance in Christ’s work — liberty from sin’s power and liberty from elementary principles — is without question a key to recovering vital ministry in the body of Christ.

“Called to liberty …. serve one another through love.”

____________________________________________________________

Notes on “Double Deliverance in the New Covenant:”

[1] Gordon Clark, Colossians: Another Commentary on an Inexhaustible Message (Pres & Ref , 1979), p 93.

[2] F. F. Bruce, New International Greek Testament Commentary: Galatians (Eerdmans, 1982), p.193.

[3] Bruce, pp, 194,203,

[4] Bruce, p. 206. It is interesting that in both relevant passages concerning the elements of the world (Galatians 4:1-10; Colossians 2:16-20), the Sabbath appears to be in view. It is very unlikely that the Jewish calendar could be imposed on others without the center-point of that calendar — the weekly Sabbath — being included.

[5] Colossians 2:16 suggests Jewish elements, while Colossians 2:23 and ideas about the need of Christians to attain a special knowledge (gnosis) suggest gnostic/ascetic elements. Gnostics taught that matter was evil. Ascetics taught that the higher life was attained by denying the body.

[6] Peter T O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary: Colossians and Philemon (Word Books, 1982), p,109

[7]O’Brien, p. 139.

[8] R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of Colossians (Augsburg Pub., 1961), p. 99.

[9] Because this attitude can be found in many church covenants, denominational standards, and in much religious literature, it would be unfair to identify this organization. It is representative of many.

[10] H.L. Mencken, The American Language (Alfred A. Knopf, 1937), “The English Attack” (pp. 12-23), “American Barbarisms” (pp 23-28).

[11] Mencken, pp. 301, 302.

[12] Cf. Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God (Multnomah Press, 1981). His chapters on “Wisdom When Christians Differ” (377-399), and “Weaker Brothers, Pharisees, and Servants” (401-426) are excellent.

[13] Bruce, p.235.

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