‘Tis strange how self righteousness thrives at the foot of the cross. “Tis not surprising where the devil plays.
I am no blog-monger nor tweet afficionado, but it seems there is a web-buzzing about “Gospel” these days. It’s all about justification and sanctification (is there a hole in our holiness?), about law and grace, about gospel motivation, about depravity and regeneration, about feeding on our justification and the danger of self-righteousness.
I read all this and wonder. I wonder if, from my limited perspective, we are experiencing the work of the devil. I wonder if Satan, the master of jiu jitsu of the soul, is not doing what he always does — pushing us to extremes. I wonder if he is not going about stirring up strife between people who are gospel-focused, and pushing them to think they are the most consistent, the most careful, the most grace motivated. I wonder if he is not at work to make us think we are “more gospel centered than thou.” Really.
Let me be clear. I am grateful for the working of God to renew Gospel focus across so many denominations and churches. It was just not so 30 years ago. The Gospel was the entry message for the Christian life, and after that, it was all law. I preached that way for the first ten years of ministry, until God sent a messenger to correct me. Now it seems every day a new book is published applying the Gospel to another area of life!
But, in all this debating about Gospel motivation, have we been drawn into something that is a rat’s nest?
So, let me ask some questions:
First, are we making the Scriptures harder to understand than they are?
The writers of the NT were pastors of churches. They were neck deep in real life with real people. They said what they said as simply as they said it to people just like us. They do not need my help to explain what they really meant.
The God who inspired the authors of Scripture to write the very words he intended, knew exactly what he was doing when he put indicatives AND imperatives in Scripture, when he used words like “fight,” and “strive,” and “put to death” in the New Testament. He knew what “therefore” meant too.
When I read how Scripture is being manhandled, how it is being forced into a system of theology, I think we are dishonoring the God of Scripture. Manhandled? Yes! Strive does not mean strive, “add to” does not mean “add to”, labor is really rest, put to death is really faith?
The strong commands of the NT do not need to die the death of endless qualifications. The apostles knew what they were doing They state the indicatives of God’s riches in Christ and then call people to act upon them. They do not state the indicatives and then restate them and then make sure the reader really got them by asking them if the indicatives are functioning in their hearts . . .
Years ago, when I was caught up in a form of perfectionism known as the Higher Life theology, God set me free with the simplicity and clarity of Scripture, cited by J C Ryle in his introduction to Holiness. I was so caught up with getting my “reckoning myself dead to sin” right that I missed the rest of the New Testament.
Second, I ask, are we confusing the internal function of the Gospel with the objective truth of the Gospel?
I preached Galatians last year. It was a book of rich Gospel application. I focused week after week on the functional Gospel, on the dangers of self righteousness.
Toward the middle of the book I realized Paul is not warring over the function of the Gospel in our hearts. We is warring over a change in the message. He is dealing with objective statements. He says that those who change the message are damned. He does not say that those who fail to have the Gospel function in their lives are accursed.
There is a vast difference between changing the message and applying the message. Those who change the message bring damnation. But applying the message is a work of a lifetime, by the Spirit in us. Galatians is about objective truth. They lost the Gospel. Corinthians is about functional truth. They missed how it changes life. Let’s not mix them.
Third, have we created both a new law and a perfectionism?
What I read on one side of this debate is pretty much advocating an endless monitoring of the state of my heart. Am I resting in Christ’s work for me? Am I feeding on my justification?
This seems to be a new legalism, an internal one. It is getting the functional Gospel right in my heart. I dare not do anything until I do so.
“Oh my, I obeyed, but I did so with a trace of self-righteousness. I need to make sure that does not happen again!”
“Dear me, I sought to please God but there was some self-sufficiency in that obedience, and I must repent and try to get it right next time.”
This paralyzes people. I think it is contrary to the apostolic method.
Paul reminds people of the objective truth of the Gospel. Then he calls them to act upon it. He does not call them to endlessly work on making sure they are getting the function of the Gospel correct before they do anything.
Putting the last two ideas together, I can begin the day with words like these: “I believe my righteousness is in Christ and his work, and his work alone. Nothing can change that. God is at work in me too, to make me like his Son.” Then I go into the day. Perhaps I remind myself of these things along the way. But I live based on objective affirmation of faith, not the quality of my resting in Christ.
Fourth, have we changed the “involuntary” working of God into a voluntary and conscious activity of the believer. Have we allowed our therapeutic, self-aware, constantly-checking-out-the-state-of-our-heart culture to shape our doctrine?
Involuntary functions in the body just happen. They happen because I am alive. While I am alive, my heart beats, I breathe, my kidneys function, and digestive juices are secreted so I am nourished from food. I do not have to think about them.
What a burden it would be if we began to give attention to even a few of these involuntary activities of the body! It would paralyze us.
I think there are “involuntary” works of God in the believer. The fruit of regeneration is a delight in Christ, a desire to please God, and a grief at sin. It is not sinless fruit, but it is fruit. I was dead, and now I am alive. This is the fruit of new life. Isn’t that what Paul says to the Thessalonians?
When I was a new Christian I read my Bible very simply. It told me about my God and Savior. It told me what it looked like to please him. I still have that Bible and can see where I underlined those things.
When I saw a promise of God I rejoiced. When I saw a command of God I was glad to know what it looked like to please him. I sinned and confessed and believed 1 John 1:9 was true.
It was involuntary. I read and rejoiced in those great indicatives. I rejoiced because I was a new creature. Because of the new birth, I fed on my justification.
I saw the commands, the “therefore’s,” and ran to keep them, confessed when i disobeyed them, and ran again. I was alive in Christ.
I do not want to be overly simple, but I do want to accent the profound change that takes place in the new birth. I do not want to minimize the realities of ongoing sin and temptation, nor do I want to minimize the powerful working of God in me.
Sometimes I read stuff on “the Gospel and having it function in our lives” and it makes sense. Sometimes it sounds like exhorting people to make sure their livers are working.
I think there is a simple reason the apostles speak of the indicatives of grace, and move on to imperatives and therefore’s without hesitation. They do so because they are speaking to people recreated in Christ, in whom the Spirit of God is at work. People like that reads the indicatives, rejoices in them, and are ready to respond without delay.
We need reminders of the indicatives. But we also need application of them in obedience. The Spirit is at work in us, whether we are conscious of His work or not. He does his work as we let the clutch out. His work shows up in details. It is his work, and he will complete it.
Let’s remind ourselves of the Gospel and get on with life, one day at a time.