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  • Paul Reich

The Life-Changing Power of God’s Word (Part 7)

Updated: Sep 11, 2022

God's Word is a moral guide training us in the way of righteousness - Part 2: Imparted Righteousness

 
 

Most have heard about the well-known story, Mutiny on the Bounty. It has been immortalized in film on at least five different occasions: 1916, 1933, 1935 starring Clark Gable and James Cagney, 1962 starring Marlon Brando, and most recently 1984 starring Mel Gibson, Anthony Hopkins, and Liam Neeson.[1] The 1932 novel on which the later movies were based is a fictionalized version “of the real-life mutiny led by Fletcher Christian against William Bligh, captain of HMAV Bounty, in 1789.”[2] Many have read the novel or watched one of these movies, but relatively few may have heard how the Bible played a vital role in the true historical account.


The British ship Bounty, commanded by Lieutenant William Bligh, journeyed to the South Pacific in 1787. The idea was that those on board would spend some time among the islands, transplanting fruit-bearing trees, and doing other things to make some of the islands more habitable. Having no second-in-command, Captain Bligh appointed his young friend Fletcher Christian to the post. After ten months voyage, the Bounty arrived safely at its destination, and for six months the officers and crew gave themselves to the duties placed upon them by their government. When the time came for departure, some of the men wanted to stay behind with their island girls. Three men, trying to desert, were flogged. The mood on the ship darkened, and on April 28, 1789, Fletcher Christian staged the most famous mutiny in history. Captain Bligh and a few loyal men were set adrift in an overloaded lifeboat (which they miraculously navigated 3700 miles to Timor). They were rescued and eventually arrived home in London to tell the story.


The mutineers aboard the Bounty immediately began quarreling about what to do next. Christian returned to Tahiti, where he left some of the mutineers, kidnapping some women, took some slaves, and traveled with the remaining crew a thousand miles to uninhabited Pitcairn Island. In the meantime, an expedition was launched from England to punish the mutineers, and in due time fourteen of them in Tahiti were captured and paid the penalty under British law.


Meanwhile the little group on Pitcairn Island group quickly unraveled. They distilled whiskey from a native plant. Drunkenness and fighting marked their colony. Disease and murder eventually took the lives of all the men except Alexander Smith, who found himself the only man on the island, surrounded by an assortment of women and children. Alexander Smith found a Bible among the possessions of a dead sailor. The book was new to him. He had never read it before. He sat down and read it through. He believed it and began to follow its teachings. He wanted others to share in the benefits of this book, so he taught classes to the women and children, as he read to them and taught them to obey the Scriptures.


It was twenty years later in 1808, before the ship Topaz ever found that island, and when it did a miniature utopia was discovered. The message of Christ so transformed their lives that the people were living in decency, prosperity, harmony, and peace. There was nothing of crime, disease, immorality, insanity, or illiteracy. This was the result of reading, believing, and obeying the word of God.


Years later the Bible fell into the hands of a visiting whaler who brought it to America, but in 1950 it was returned to the island. It now resides on display in the church in Pitcairn as a monument to the transforming power of God’s word.[3]


Photo of the Bounty Bible taken from Wikimedia Commons


This true account compellingly demonstrates the life-transforming power of God’s word. The people of Pitcairn Island were radically changed by the convicting and life-altering ability of God’s word as it brought them to Christ and shaped their thinking, behavior, and relationships. Their experience clearly illustrates the theme of this post continuing my treatment of the apostle Paul’s instruction on the usefulness of God’s Word for training in righteousness.


2 Timothy 3:16–17 (NET)

16 Every scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness,

17 that the person dedicated to God may be capable and equipped for every good work.


In my previous post, I stated the importance of understanding two kinds of righteousness that are recurring themes in the Bible and foundational to Christian life. These are commonly called "Imputed Righteousness" and "Imparted Righteousness." Having dealt with imputed righteousness in my last post, I will now focus on imparted righteousness. While imputed righteousness is the righteousness of Christ credited to our account and giving us right standing with God, imparted righteousness is the character of Christ worked out in our lives resulting in an upright walk. I’ve prepared a summary chart below that contrasts these two types of righteousness.


Chart by Paul D. Reich


Understanding the differences between these two types of righteousness helps explain seeming anomalies that we see in the lives of believers. For example, it explains why some believers can experience God’s forgiveness, have assurance of salvation, and enter boldly into God’s presence in worship, and yet still be struggling to overcome various sins. The first is a matter of being born into God’s family and experiencing family privileges. The latter is a matter of growing in Christian maturity and expressing family resemblance. At conversion, we are given right standing with God, the Holy Spirit indwells us, and a new nature is placed within us giving us a desire for righteousness. Then as we grow in our walk with God and cooperate with the Holy Spirit, He empowers us to express this new nature and overcome sinful desires. Believers are all members of God’s family by being born of the Spirit, but they are at various stages of developing God’s character because they are at different levels of spiritual maturity.


As long as we “walk in the light,” honestly confessing our sins to God and humbly seeking His forgiveness, “He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:5-9 NASB). However, God’s goal for us is not just that we be forgiven, but that we don’t sin (1 John 2:1-2). Obeying His commands proves that we know Him, love Him, and abide in Him (1 John 3:3-6). Though even newly reborn Christians are forgiven (1 John 2:12), it takes spiritual maturity to overcome sin and the devil. This happens as we assimilate God Word and grow in spiritual strength - “you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one” (1 John 2:12-14 NASB emphasis added). Those who walk in righteousness and love, prove they are children of God because they reflect His character (1 John 3:4-10). If one doesn’t reflect God’s righteous and loving character, then that person is either not a true believe (1 John 3:10; 4:7-8), or has seriously “grieved the Holy Spirit,” resisting His sanctifying and empowering work (Ephesians 4:30; 5:18 – see context from 4:17-5:21 which emphasizes transformed Christian behavior).


The Word of God is to be wielded as a sword to overcome the evil one’s temptations (Matthew 4:1-11; Ephesians 6:17), but before you can do this effectively, it must first abide in you and make you strong (1 John 2:14). How can you skillful wield what you do not know and what is not a living part of your life? It must first live in you for it to do its life-transforming work before it can be wielded by you against the devil. As with the people of Pitcairn, the Word of God will transform you from the inside out, it will train you in righteousness.

Illustration by Jim Lamb, taken from Discussion Manual for Student Discipleship,

written by Dawson McAllister and Dan Webster, pg. 72.


There are at least three ways that God’s Word trains us in righteousness: 1) by teaching us what is right and wrong, 2) by teaching us how to overcome sin and live righteously, and 3) by teaching us how to grow in our relationship with God. In this post I will look at the first of these, and I will cover the final two in my next post.


The Bible Teaches Us What is Right and Wrong


The first way that the Bible trains us in righteousness is by teaching us right and wrong, that is, it teaches us what is righteous behavior and what is sinful behavior. Both the Old and New Testaments provide this value for our lives, though as Christians, it is important that we interpret and apply the Old Testament through the lens of the New Testament.


Even though the apostle Paul was most likely familiar with some of the New Testament books that were in circulation among the churches during his lifetime (in addition to his own), he did not have the New Testament as we know it today. When he wrote about the value of Scriptures for training in righteousness, he was referring to the Old Testament, thereby asserting that the Old Testament is beneficial for instructing Christians in the ways of righteousness.


Photo by Caleb Jones on Unsplash. Text added.


Today, we also have the recorded life and teaching of Jesus as well as that of the apostles, all of which hold authority for believers. Because covering the moral instruction of the whole Bible in a single blog post would be a formidable task, I will focus my attention primarily on the New Testament and include examples from the gospels and epistles that derive moral guidance from the Old Testament, thereby, showing the relevance of the Old Testament for our lives today.


Every New Testament book provides some form of moral instruction on right and wrong. Among other ways, we can learn what is righteous and what is sinful through four common types of instruction in the New Testament: 1) Commands, 2) Teaching, 3) Modeling, and 4) Virtue and Vice Lists. Let’s briefly look at each of these.


1. New Testament Commands Instruct Us on Right and Wrong


There are more than 1,000 commands in the New Testament. These commands cover a wide range of behaviors touching virtually every area of life including our relationship with God, our relationships with others, our thought life, how we view and handle money, sexual morality, handling conflict, acts of benevolence, forgiveness, handling destructive emotions, our work life, and much, much more. Jesus stated that obedience to His commands demonstrates our love for Him, “If you love Me, you will keep my commandments.” (John 14:15, 21, 23; 1 John 5:3). All of Jesus’ commands as well as the commands of the apostles provide moral guidance on right and wrong.


Moreover, there are times the apostles directly attribute their commands to Jesus, for example, “For you know what commandments we gave you by the authority of the Lord Jesus. For this is the will of God, your sanctification; that is, that you abstain from sexual immorality;” (1 Thessalonians 4:2–3 NASB – emphasis added). Paul clearly states that abstaining from sexual immorality is commanded by Jesus and is God's will for the believer. He further states that to disobey this command is to disobey God, “For God has not called us for the purpose of impurity, but in sanctification. So, he who rejects this is not rejecting man but the God who gives His Holy Spirit to you” (Thessalonians 4:7–8 NASB).


2. New Testament Teaching Instructs Us on Right and Wrong


In addition to commands, much of the New Testament contains teaching on righteousness. Righteousness was one of the common themes in Jesus’ teaching. For example, his expressed purpose for the sermon on the mount was that one’s righteousness must exceed that of the scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 5:20). It must go beyond legalistic externalism, and one's good deeds and spiritual practices must not be done with the prideful motive of being noticed and honored by men (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18). Throughout His sermon, Jesus drives this point home by applying the intent of Old Testament commandments to the core issues of the heart – anger, lust, love, hypocrisy, loyalty, anxiety, and more (Matthew 5, 6, 7).


Jesus’ other moral instruction in Matthew includes teaching on the heart (15:15-20), instruction on forgiveness (18:21-35), discussion on marriage and divorce (19:3-12), exposure of hypocrisy (23:1-36), and his description of the judgment based on our care of those in need (25:31-46). If space permitted, many examples of moral instruction could be summarized from the epistles as well (E.g., Romans 6:1-23; 12:9-21; 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22; 1 John 3:4-18), but select examples will be used to illustrate this point throughout the remainder of this post


3. New Testament Modelling Instructs Us on Right and Wrong


Another way the Bible teaches right and wrong is through modelling. Jesus called the disciples to follow his example of servanthood and love (John 13:12-17, 34-35) and modelled how we should endure unjust suffering (1 Peter 2:21-23). Paul called believers to imitate his example (Philippians 3:17; 2 Thessalonians 3:9) and commended the example of others (1 Thessalonians 1:7). Both Paul and Peter instructed leaders to set an example for those under their charge (1 Timothy 4:12; 1 Peter 5:3). James pointed his readers to the prophets and to Job as examples of patience and steadfastness in suffering (James 5:10-11), and Paul draws four moral lessons from the Old Testament account of the wilderness wandering, which he twice states was written “as an example … for our instruction” (1 Corinthians 10:1-13 – See my blog, The Life-Changing Power of God’s Word: Part 2)



4. New Testament Virtue Lists and Vice Lists Instruct Us on Right and Wrong


Finally, both the gospels and the epistles contain virtue lists and vice lists. Virtue lists delineate righteous character and behavior while vice lists outline sinful character and behavior. Examples of virtue lists would include the nine beatitudes that Jesus taught in His sermon on the mount (Matthew 5:3-12), Paul’s treatment of the nine traits of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), Paul’s list of qualifications for elders and deacons (1 Timothy 3:1-13; Titus 1:5-9, ), the sixteen qualities of love (1 Corinthians 13:4-8), and Peter’s ladder of eight virtues (2 Peter 1:5-9). Other virtue lists are found in Ephesians 4:1-3 and 1 Peter 3:8-12. In addition, there are many shorter lists and individually noted virtues scattered throughout the New Testament.


Vice lists also abound. Jesus’ teaching on the heart itemizes examples of sinful behavior that proceed from the heart (Matthew 15:18-20; Mark 7:20-23), while the apostle Paul enumerates fifteen sinful behaviors that characterize “the flesh” (NIV – “sinful nature”), completing his list with the all-encompassing statement, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:21 NASB – emphasis added).


In fact, Paul is well-known for his vice lists that appear in most of his letters (Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 2 Timothy 3:2-7), and many times he combines lists of virtues and vices, instructing believers to “put off” sinful behaviors and “put on” righteous behaviors (Ephesians 4:25 - 5:21; Philippians 2:1-5; Colossians 3:5-17). Though not as extensive as Paul, Peter also incorporates vice lists in his letters (1 Peter 4:2-4). As with virtues, many shorter lists of vices and individually noted sins are also scattered throughout the New Testament.


For the purposes of this blog post, I will briefly examine one of Paul’s vice lists where he outlines behavioral implications of five of the Ten Commandments, stating that these behaviors are also contrary to the Gospel and to be avoided by all believers.


1 Timothy 1:8–11 (NASB)

8 But we know that the Law is good, if one uses it lawfully,

9 realizing the fact that law is not made for a righteous person, but for those who are lawless and rebellious, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers

10 and immoral men and homosexuals and kidnappers and liars and perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching,

11 according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted.


First, Paul teaches that the law is good when used lawfully. Since the righteous live morally upright lives, the primary purpose of the law is to expose and restrain the behavior of the unrighteous, whom Paul describes using three sets of descriptive pairs:

  • “for those who are lawless and rebellious”

  • “for the ungodly and sinners”

  • “for the unholy and profane”

Paul then applies in correct sequence five of the Ten Commandments to further describe those for whom the law applies.

  • “those who kill their fathers or mothers” – They violate the command “Honor your father and mother” as well as the subsequent command “You shall not murder.”

  • “murderers” – They violate the command “You shall not murder.”

  • “immoral men and homosexuals” – They violate the command “You shall not commit adultery.” Paul hereby showing the broader sexual implications of this commandment. "Immoral men," pornous, is a summary classification for those who violate the sexual prohibitions of Leviticus chapters 18 to 20. Of the list of sinful sexual practices outlined in Leviticus, Paul singles out "homosexuals." The term Paul uses is arsenokoitēs. It is a compound term he specifically coined from two words in the Septuagint Greek translation of Leviticus 18:22 and 20:13 - arsenos (“male”) and koitēs (“to bed, to lie with” – a euphemism for “have sex with” – compare our English word coitus). To support this New Testament understanding that sexual immorality of all kinds violates God's law against adultery, the author of Hebrews also states that the "sexually immoral," pornous, as well as adulterers, moichous, defile the marriage bed and will be judged by God (Hebrews 13:4). The Biblical standard is that all sex outside a monogamous heterosexual marriage, including premarital, incestual, homosexual, adulterous, bestial, polygamous, etc. is considered sinful and defiles the marriage bed.

  • “kidnappers” – They violate the command “You shall not steal,” since kidnapping is the “stealing” of people.

  • “liars and perjurers” – They violate the command “You shall not bear false witness,” showing that this law applies to both those who tell mistruths for personal advantage as well as those who lie in a court of law.


Photo is from the movie, The Ten Commandments, produced by Cecil B. DeMille of Motion Picture Associates.


Scholars have long recognized Paul’s sequential application of these five commandments, all referring to sins against one's fellow man. As in other vice list passages, Paul then concludes with a catch-all phrase to incorporate other behaviors that he did not mention, “and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching.” In other words, sound teaching prohibits these types of sinful activities and other similar activities forbidden in the moral laws of the Old Testament, knowing these laws are good if legitimately used (1:8). Finally, Paul shows that these behaviors are not only contrary to moral law, but also to the sound teaching of the Gospel, “and whatever else is contrary to sound teaching, according to the glorious gospel of the blessed God, with which I have been entrusted” (emphasis added).


The Gospel does not excuse or permit these sins, rather the Gospel is the good news of Jesus Christ redeeming us from these sinful behaviors and enabling us to walk in victory over them. This is evidenced in the words of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more” (John 8:11 KJV) and numerous other passages in the New Testament that demonstrate both the grace of forgiveness and the grace to overcome (E.g., Romans 5 & 6, 1 Corinthians 6:11, 18-20 and Titus 2:11-15).


Sound teaching (or “sound doctrine” in some translations) is a recurring theme in Paul’s writing to Timothy and Titus. The English “sound” is a translation of the Greek hygianō from which our word “hygiene” is derived. It means “to be correct, to be healthy, to be free from infirmity or disease,” here indicating teaching that is free from corruption. In addition to the Gospel (1 Timothy 1:10-11), Paul equates sound teaching with the words “of our Lord Jesus, and with the doctrine conforming to godliness” (1 Timothy 6:3; Titus 1:1; 2:1-15); however, sound teaching rejects unbiblical legalistic restrictions and myths (1 Timothy 4:6 – see context 4:1-8; 2 Timothy 4:3-4; Titus 1:9-14). For more information on the value of God’s Word for teaching sound doctrine see my post “The Life Changing Power of God’s Word (Part 2)."


Closing and Looking Ahead


One of the main ways that the Bible instructs us in righteousness is through teaching what is right and what is wrong. A thorough study of Scripture will help sort out moral essentials from non-essentials, that is, God-given moral absolutes from personal convictions, something I will discuss in a future post. For now, it is important to see that the Bible has much to teach us about righteous attitudes, character, and behavior approved by God and unrighteous attitudes, character, and behavior disapproved by God.


As the people of Pitcairn read, believed and obeyed the Word of God, in just 20 years the island was transformed from a society characterized by drunkenness, fighting, murder, immorality, crime, and disease, to one characterized by decency, prosperity, harmony, and peace. Such is the life-changing power of God’s Word when it is understood, believed, and applied.


The Bible isn’t just a set of moral instructions that we work out in our own strength, rather it leads us to a relationship with the living God who loves us, who sent His Son to pay the penalty for our sins, and who indwells us by His Spirit. We are now His children having His righteous nature deposited in us. God’s plan was never to have a bunch of rigid moralists devoid of life, but a family that loves Him wholeheartedly, loves one another selflessly, and reflects His righteous character in thought, word, and action. This is only possible as we surrender to the sanctifying work of God’s Spirit and Word.


In my next post, we will look at two additional ways that the Bible instructs us in righteousness: 1) By teaching us how to overcome sin and live righteously, and 2) By teaching us how to grow in our relationship with God. Until then, “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts” and “Let the word of Christ richly dwell within you” (Colossians 3:15-16 NASB).



REFERENCES

[3] Numerous summaries of the Pitcairn account are available online. I found this particular articulation many years ago and do not recall the source, so I am unable to give proper credit.

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