Recently, I shared a message at my church about the way in which we tune out the Gospel message with destructive consequences. (You can listen to the podcast here or watch the video here). This post is the fourth in a series of five, unpacking some concepts I didn’t have time to explore in a 35-minute sermon. You can view all of the posts here.
In my post yesterday, I discussed the importance of discussing statements about what we are to do as followers of Christ in the context of who we are in Christ. Using the work of Michael Horton, I shared that this is the method Paul used in his letters to churches. I believe embracing the truth – what we do as followers of Christ flows from who we are in Christ – is important to developing and maintaining spiritual health.
As I said in my sermon, focusing on what we are to do as followers of Christ exclusive of who we are in Christ leads us to disastrous consequences. Like a car poised at a fork in the road, both options lead us to places that will destroy our souls.
There are two disastrous paths that emerge from this focus.
The first path is the way of “I got this”. This path hears a message about what we should be doing but aren’t doing or what we shouldn’t be doing but are doing, responding with a hopeful, self-sufficient re-dedication of the will. By working harder, focusing more, and digging deeper, we can give it another shot and find success. Walking this path leads to an arrogant, self-righteous, prideful, legalistic hypocrisy. (To see the impact this has on our culture at large, check our David Kinniman’s UnChristian or Dan Kimball’s They Like Jesus But Not the Church.) When we hear or read or see presentations of the moral and ethical commands from Scripture, responding with a confidence that we can live them out apart from a strong vibrant connection to a power and force beyond us, we’re toast. Whether aloud or subconsciously, when we reply “I got this”, we are denying the need for Jesus to come and die that we might be reconciled to God. If we could live a good, moral and ethical life on our own, why did Jesus hang on that cross?
When we forget and abandon our identity in Jesus Christ because of the Gospel, we move back into the moralism that marks our culture at large. This moralism says “God will accept me because I’m basically a good person”. Christianity that focuses on “what we do” without roots in “who we are in Christ” produces a spiritualized version of that same moralism. This common moralism says “I do good things, so God accepts me”. This spiritualized moralism says “I obey (the commands), therefore God accepts me”.
The solution for this first group lies down the path of humility and re-discovery. As Peter reminds us in chapter 5 of his first epistle, we can humble ourselves or God will humble us. Once we are humbled, we can re-discover the Gospel which says, “God accepts me, therefore I obey”. In Christ, we can get this; but not as a means of earning favor. Rather, we begin to embrace these moral and ethical directives as a response to the unmerited favor we’ve received.
The second destructive path is not “I got this”, but rather “I’m never going to get this”. While many respond with overconfidence and hubris to the “what we are to do” statements, others are caught in disappointment, despair, fear and frustration. After many failed attempts, this group has surrendered, resigning themselves to the fact that this “ideal” picture will never be their personal, real experience. This group bounces between boredom and hopelessness – totally checked out or painfully aware of the impossibility represented in the next book, sermon or bible study.
This group has never embraced (or forgot long ago) the conversation Jesus had with his disciples in John 14-16. Jesus spent the final evening before his crucifixion, talking with his disciples about the Spirit He promised to leave them after He was gone. In the middle of this passage, the concept of abiding is presented using the image of a grapevine. John records Jesus’ words in John 15:5. “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I remain in you, you will be bear much fruit. Apart from me, you can do nothing.” This second group knows the “you can do nothing’ in a palpable way, but they have missed the “remaining” and “much fruit” truth.
If you find yourself in the second group, I’d encourage you to check out Francis Chan’s The Forgotten God: Reversing Our Tragic Neglect of the Holy Spirit or Bruce Wilkerson’s classic book, Secrets of the Vine.
When we get the Gospel wrong, when we allow ourselves to move from grace to moralism, and when our the focus of our message shifts from what He has done to what we need to do, we take off down a path that dead ends in destruction. When we get the Gospel right, we find a path that leads to life, abundant life. A life where God’s life in us produces the impossible, the improbable, the beautiful and the wonderful.