To Be or Not to Be . . . the Good Samaritan

Okay, this post is for the 5 or 6 people who actually read my blog, and especially for the 2 or 3 of those who actually care about this issue.  I mean to address the brouhaha that has erupted over some of Tullian Tchividjian’s (I hope I got that right) rather questionable interpretations of Scripture and the charge that his teaching is antinomian.

It seems that both sides on this debate have become entrenched and this is likely to muddy the issues more than they need to be.  Tullian, on his part, seems to be claiming that many reformed people are legalists (who?!), whereas many reformed people (including myself) have claimed that Tullian is an antinomian.  After a bit more reflection, I don’t think either of these charges is probably just.  For my part, I am willing to back off my claim that Tullian has wandered into antinomianism.  On the other hand, there just aren’t scads of legalists in the reformed camp, either.

However, some of Tullian’s takes on several important Biblical passages seem dubious to me, and lend credence to the accusation that, even if he is not an antinomian, his emphasis does seem a bit unbalanced.  He seems to have a penchant to interpret everything in terms of justification, including our sanctification.  But such an emphasis is simply not true to the overall message of the New Testament.  We are not only exhorted to look to Jesus, we are also exhorted (as we look to Jesus) to keep God’s commandments.  This is not legalism; it is just basic New Testament teaching.

Enter the Good Samaritan (what would he think of this whole debate?).  Tullian claims that since the statement of Jesus to “go, and do likewise” (Luke 10:37) is an answer to a question about how to inherit eternal life (verse 25) that our Lord’s exhortation is not meant to serve as an incentive to “be nice” (to use his words) but to see that we fail and need Jesus to pick us up by his saving work.  As Tullian puts it, this is about justification, not sanctification.  And it follows that Jesus is the only Good Samaritan.  

Now I don’t have any problem with Tullian’s claim that the aim of Christ was to show this man his guilt.  And, of course, if this man was convicted of his sin, he would hopefully find forgiveness in the grace of God through faith and repentance.   What I have a problem with is his claim that unless we preach this text in the categories of justification, we are misusing it.  On that score, he is simply wrong.

The way to really understand a parable is to put yourself in the feet of those who were listening to it – those who were Christ’s original audience.  First of all, can it really be seriously believed that our Lord’s interlocutor would have interpreted the Good Samaritan in terms of Christ and justification?  In fact, can we even believe that our Lord’s own disciples would have seen in this parable an exposition of the doctrine of justification by grace through faith alone?  A moment’s reflection shows that it would never have occurred to anyone in that audience – including Peter, James, and John – that our Lord was referring to himself by the Good Samaritan.

It is so easy to import meaning into texts that were not meant to convey them.  The fact of the matter is that even the apostles did not fully understand the meaning of the gospel until after Jesus rose from the dead (and even then, it took a little while!).  When Peter said that Jesus was the Christ, he still understood that title in largely political terms.  So with the other apostles.  It’s not that they were not saved, because we are not saved by faith in the doctrine of justification; we are saved by faith in Christ.  They had that faith, even though their understanding was really weak.

Thus, when telling this parable, our Lord would not have expected his hearers to interpret this in terms of justification by faith alone in Christ alone.  And he certainly would never have expected them to read a cryptic reference to himself in the Good Samaritan.

What then was Jesus trying to do in this parable?  Simply this: he was aiming to show this self-righteous man his sin.  And surely our Lord was aiming at moving this man to repentance as well as faith in the mercy of God.  And is not repentance necessary for inheriting eternal life – not as its basis but as its necessary concomitant?  

The problem I have with Tullian’s take on passages like this one is that he only tells half the story.  Yes, it is gloriously true that we are saved by Christ’s work on the cross and that the basis of my righteousness before God is in Jesus, not myself.  But the New Testament gives absolutely no hope to those who continue in their sins.  None!  Without holiness, no man can see the Lord (Heb. 12:14).  Jesus is the author of eternal life to those who obey him (Heb. 5:9).

There has been a lot of debate about the uses of the law – especially the first and third uses.  But the problem is that we cannot – and this is what Tullian seems to be doing – separate them.  Yes, the law shows us our sin and our need of grace.  But the reason why the law can operate in this way is because you and I are in fact obligated to obey God and to keep his commandments.   Otherwise, there would be no guilt.  However, once we are saved (by grace alone!), the law doesn’t somehow stop obligating me to obey.  I am supposed to be sexually pure before I was justified, and I am still supposed to be sexually pure after I am saved.  And if I’m not – then the Bible has very severe language to describe my plight (cf Eph. 5:3-6).  (It’s called hypocrisy ending in damnation.)

So, when Jesus said, “You go, and do likewise,” he wasn’t suspending the third use of the law.  This man was not supposed to take away from this, “Oh, I’m a huge screw-up, but there’s nothing I can do about it so I’ll let God by his grace work it all out.”  No; rather, the appropriate response would have been something along these lines: “I’ve failed.  Badly.  But I know that God is gracious.  I know that he forgives the sins of those who humble themselves before him.  And, because I know that my actions have displeased God, I am going – by his grace – to turn from them and repent.  I am going to start loving my neighbor as myself.  I am going to ‘go and do likewise.’  I am going to be that Good Samaritan.”

Here I think we can have the cake and eat it too.  This text can be used properly to convict of sin so that people find grace and freedom in Christ.  And, this text can be used to exhort us to be like the Good Samaritan.  The gospel, after all, calls us to repentance as well as faith (cf Acts 20:21).  You are not a legalist if you preach it in the latter sense.  And you are not an antinomian if you preach it in the former sense.  We should actually preach both.  But you are just wrong if you deny either.

Whether Tullian does so in the larger context of his ministry, I do not know.  I’ll take his word when he affirms the third use of the law.  But when he interprets passages like Luke 10:25-37 the way he does, he opens himself up to legitimate criticism.  My hope is that he, and the rest of us who preach God’s word, will continually strive to maintain faithfulness to all of Scripture in the richness of all it teaches us about the grace of God in Jesus Christ.


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