His Commandments Are Not Burdensome

If someone looks at [God's commands] in the wrong way and says that they are heavy to bear, he is merely revealing his own weakness.
—Andreas Presbyter, Catena on 1 John 5:3
When I was in college I was required to read G.K. Beale's edited volume, The Right Doctrine from the Wrong Texts? Essays on the Use of the Old Testament in the New (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1994). That title has always stuck with me as a mantra for exegeting Scripture, preaching the Word, and writing books. You can preach and teach the right doctrine, but do so by stretching the language of the wrong text. I don't think it a stretch to say that Tullian Tchividjian has stretched Scripture in such a way in his latest post at the Gospel Coalition: "Unburdened" [Note to the reader: the original links do not work and this has been updated]. He takes as his text 1 John 5:3, "For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome," especially focusing in on the latter half of the verse: "his commandments are not burdensome." After mentioning the 613 mitzvoth of the Old Testament, the Sermon on the Mount, as well as our own pet laws we try to keep, Tchividjian says, "The idea that God’s commandments are not burdensome seems to diametrically oppose our experience: to us, they feel super burdensome." All of us have this experiential problem. He then juxtaposes this with Jesus' promise of rest and a light burden in Matthew 11. Tchividjian asks it this way: "How do the obviously burdensome commandments of life become not burdensome? How is it that Jesus’ yoke is easy when he is the one asking us to be perfect?" Here is Tchividjian's reconciliation of the problem:
The answer, though incredibly profound, is actually quite simple. Though the commandments are indeed burdensome, that burden has been laid on the shoulders of another. Jesus Christ, who demands that we be perfect, achieves perfection in our place. Jesus Christ, the culmination of the Old Testament story, fulfills the Old Testament laws. That same weight that threatens to break our backs actually did crush our savior. God’s commandments are not burdensome because we do not carry them. The weights that we bear every day are simply aftershocks of our human attempts to save ourselves. The weights we feel are a phantom; they’ve already been taken to the cross, carried up the Via Dolorosa on Christ’s back. We are free. We are, in Christ, unburdened. This is true today, and every day.
This is right doctrine, wrong text:
The right doctrine—Christ's vicarious obedience and suffering justifies us from the burdensome curse of the law.
The wrong text—the newborn child of God's has a newfound joy in sanctification.
Notice the context. This line in verse 3 "is not an incidental remark merely; it is of the essence of the apostle's argument" (Candlish). What is that argument? John says that those who believe in Jesus with a "lively, efficacious, unitive, soul-transforming, and obediential faith" (Matthew Poole) have been born again or regenerated by God himself (v. 1). And because we have been made new in Christ we now love God and therefore love our fellow born again believers (v. 1)—"our true love to them supposes our love to him, and is to be evinced by it" (Matthew Poole). Then he gives the evidence of this love for our brothers and sisters in Christ: love of God and obedience to his commands (v. 2). He then defines this divine-ward love of the child of God: "that we keep his commandments" (v. 3). Then the key phrase: "and his commandments are not burdensome" (v. 3). How can John say this? Not only because the "holy and righteous and good" (Rom. 7:12) law of God is contrasted with the "heavy burdens, hard to bear" of the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23:4; Luke 11:46), but "because the new life imparted to members of the family of God carries with it a new desire to do His will and a new power to give effect to that desire" (F.F.Bruce). In the words of Martin Luther, expositing 1 John 5:3: "Such is the power represented by genuine new birth, that therein the devil, the world and all evil are overcome" (Martin Luther, “Sunday after Easter,” in The Complete Sermons of Martin Luther: Volume 4.1, Sermons on Epistle Texts for Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, ed. John Nicholas Lenker, trans. John Nicholas Lenker and Others, 7 vols. [1996; repr., Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 2000], 4.1.237).
Here a question to consider: is there any hint in the text that this is a description of the active and passive obedience of Christ to justify us? No, there is not. On Tchividjian's reading of turning a description of the child of God's relationship to God's commandments into a description of the active and passive of obedience of Christ, the pericope should be read to say:
Everyone who believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God, and everyone who since Jesus loves the Father he loves whoever has been born of him. By this we know that we Jesus love[s] the children of God, when because we he love[d] God and obey[ed] his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we he kept his commandments. And his commandments are not burdensome to us because Jesus took their burden.
Changing all the descriptions above from us to Jesus is silly, isn't it? But in our hyper-sensitive reformed world of being branded a legalist, moralist, neo-nomian, or worse yet, "Puritan," this sort of exegesis passes as rightly dividing the Word (2 Tim. 2:15). As a pastor of a congregation full of young Christians, newly Reformed evangelical Christians, and who has pastored many seminary interns, I know it is attractive to revel in the active and passive obedience for justification and forget all about the new birth, the Holy Spirit, and sanctification. I know it is attractive after hearing law and gospel so muddled in evangelical preaching that it was unpalatable to read every Scripture as either law merely in its pedagogical use or gospel. I know how powerful it is to hear that Christ has removed the curse of the law from me once for all; but Christ has done more and that "more" is often left out: he has also send his Spirit into my heart to renew me after his image. First he rescued me then he began to renovate me. Tchividjian does not offer a responsible reading of Scripture; Tchividjian offers a model of ministering the Word unlike the pattern of our forefathers.
Let me encourage you—especially young seminarians—to read John Calvin's exegetical comments on 1 John 5:3 in light of Tchividjian's and ask yourself: who has the right doctrine and the right text?
Calvin said John added the line in question "his commandments are not burdensome" because of how easy it is for our zeal in serving God to be dampened: "For they who with a cheerful mind and great ardor have pursued a godly and holy life, afterwards grow weary, finding their strength inadequate. Therefore John, in order to rouse our efforts, says that God’s commandments are not grievous." It seems Calvin followed Luther in saying this, for in expositing 1 John 5:4 and linking it with verse 3, Luther said "his chief aim in writing this text was to reprove false Christians who are pleased to hear the doctrine that we are saved through Christ alone, our works and merits not earning our salvation; and who imagine the hearing of this doctrine constitutes them Christians and that there is no necessity for any effort or contention on their part" (Luther, “Sunday after Easter,” 4.1.236).
Calvin then dealt with the seeming contradiction or practical difficulty of the law being described as an unbearable yoke (Acts 15:2) and that it was spiritual while we are carnal. He said this meant "there must be a great discord between us and the law of God." Was Calvin's reconciliation, though, to say 1 John 5:3 is all first use of the law that Christ fulfilled? No. Listen to Calvin: "To this I answer, that this difficulty does not arise from the nature of the law, but from our corrupt flesh; and this is what Paul expressly declares; for after having said that it was impossible for the Law to confer righteousness on us, he immediately throws the blame on our flesh." As born again, justified believers, our enemy is not the law, but our sin nature. He then elaborated with the comparison between David in the Old Testament and Paul in the New, brining it full circle to John's text:
Paul makes the law the master of death, declares that it effects nothing but to bring on us the wrath of God, that it was given to increase sin, that it lives in order to kill us. David, on the other hand, says that it is sweeter than honey, and more desirable than gold; and among other recommendations he mentions the following — that it cheers hearts, converts to the Lord, and quickens. But Paul compares the law with the corrupt nature of man; hence arises the conflict: but David shews how they think and feel whom God by his Spirit has renewed; hence the sweetness and delight of which the flesh knows nothing. And John has not omitted this difference; for he confines to God’s children these words, God’s commandments are not grievous, lest any one should take them literally; and he intimates that, it comes through the power of the Spirit, that it is not grievous nor wearisome to us to obey God.
But Calvin recognized that even this did not fully answer the question since even as those "ruled by the Spirit of God...carry on a hard contest with their own flesh; and how muchsoever they may toil, they yet hardly perform the half of their duty; nay, they almost fail under their burden." Sounds like the "normal" Christian experience, doesn't it? Then Calvin said this:
My reply to this is, that the law is said to be easy, as far as we are endued with heavenly power, and overcome the lusts of the flesh. For however the flesh may resist, yet the faithful find that there is no real enjoyment except in following God.It must further be observed, that John does not speak of the law only, which contains nothing but commands, but connects with it the paternal indulgence of God, by which the rigor of the law is mitigated. As, then, we know that we are graciously forgiven by the Lord, when our works do not come up to the law, this renders us far more prompt to obey, according to what we find in Psalm 130:4, “With thee is propitiation, that thou mayest be feared.
So, are we "unburdened" from the curse of the law by the wonderful work of Jesus Christ? Praise God, yes! This is right doctrine. But in Tullian Tchividjian's post he posits it from the wrong text. That text—1 John 5:3—says that we who are unburdened are also blessed—blessed to be the born again sons of God; blessed that Christ has given us his Holy Spirit to love God's law because it is not a burden but a delight (Ps. 1:1–2; Rom. 7:22); and delighting in that law "with all seriousness of purpose, [we] do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God's commandments" (Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 114)—loving our God and loving his people.
[This was orignially published on the old MTP site on May 16, 2014]
Danny Hyde