Sin’s The Culprit, Not The Law

The free-grace movement doesn’t want to admit that overcoming sin isn’t simply about “thinking more deeply about justification.”  Indicatives always inevitably lead to imperatives.

 

You see, neo-antinomian’s just can’t seem to speak of dealing with sin without eventually saying “read more, pray more, obey more” (ironically, their most despised way of thinking about sanctification).  If you or I teach the commands of Scripture they cry “legalism,” “you’re atoning for yourself,” or “It’s only about what Christ has done for us!”  But when they talk of dealing with some sin, they also exhort others to “Study,” “Don’t love the world,” or “focus on the beauty of Christ,” etc.  Why are the calls to obedience by others considered legalism or moralism, while their exhortations to obedience are not?  Because the free-grace movement is convinced that when they exhort others to obey it’s through love as the driving principle rather than obligation.  They exhort others in the “want to” of obedience rather than the “have to.”  How do they identify the difference?  It’s all in the semantics.  If exhortations are free of terms that obligate the will the call to obey is legitimate.  Words like “submission,” “duty,” and strong warnings of consequences for disobedience reflect Law-keeping.  Thus, calling others to obedience is merely “inviting them” to thoughts of grace and a gratitude that promises to subdue sin wholly apart from active submission of the will.  Here’s how it works: I can strongly admonish someone to obey so long as my terminology encourages motives of affection, relational delight, and grateful love.  As soon as we load admonitions with talk of sin’s consequences, God’s displeasure, Christ’s mastery and our slavery, or the sovereign authority of divine imperatives, obedience is viewed as oppression and drudgery.

 

And this kind of thinking is not altogether surprising.  There has been so much muddled teaching over the past few years on progressive sanctification.  Scores of people today have decided that an emphasis on holy living and obedience are what ultimately led to their failure and weakness in the first place.  Perhaps they grew up chaffing at authority and rules.  Or maybe they simply nurtured a growing contempt for Scripture’s high standards because they loved the world’s passing pleasures.  Whatever the circumstances, they now place the blame for years of guilt and weakness on the oppression of rules—moral obligation itself.  They hold God’s Law responsible for their heart’s tendency to rail against it.

 

Paul was crystal clear on that issue, exonerating the holiness of the Law while indicting the “principle of sin within” himself as the cause of his failures (Romans 7:7-13).  I’m always nervous when someone’s grace-talk is laced with animosity toward God’s holy law.  Paul’s theological understanding of grace was unmatched, yet he always vindicated the Law.  He boldly taught it and frequently warned against its violation.  Yet for countless people caught up in the free-grace movement, they only warm up to the commands of the Bible if they are redefined as “delightful invitations,” ever-couched as the “fruit of grace-contemplation,” and never followed by threats of chastening for disobedience.  They fear an emphasis on duty and obedience, convinced it will lead others away from the joy of knowing that Jesus “paid it all,” and will plunge them back into a ‘false guilt’ caused by striving and failing.

 

Yet, free-gracer’s don’t seem to realize the serious danger of mistaking real guilt for false guilt.  What if their past guilt wasn’t caused by a false threat of judgment at all, but a result of the “heavy hand of the Lord” upon their conscience?  Ignoring the warnings of the conscience is condemned in Scripture.  Granted, true believers need not fear judgment or doubt the sufficiency of Christ’s redemptive work.  Yet we are commanded to maintain a blameless conscience in our walk of faith.  A Christian who is heavy-laden with the guilt of failing to obey the word of God should respond immediately to those pangs of conscience by running to Christ in repentance and faith.  Tragically, the notion of ‘false guilt’ spawned by the pop-psychology movement of the 70’s has resurfaced in the free-grace movement.  People are wrongly being taught that their pangs of guilt are likely if not always the result of a false sense of obligation to obey God.  They’re being taught that having been justified in Christ they should ignore patterns of failing to live up to the commands of Christ.  Any sense of obligation, they claim, is a betrayal of grace—a slide into self-atoning legalism.  Dangerously, some are shouting down their consciences, nurturing contempt for God’s Law, separating from healthy ministries, and flirting with worldly lifestyle choices.

 

But how should we counsel and encourage believers who fear judgment or doubt the sufficiency of the cross?  It depends on what’s causing these burdens.  There are several different causes behind this kind of soul-trouble:

(1)    In some cases, true Christians may fear God’s judgment because they’ve not been clearly taught the freedom of being justified in Christ.  These can be liberated as they study and believe what Scripture teaches about the doctrine of salvation.  I’ve often thought that the free-grace movement probably swells with many genuinely confused and untaught Christians who’ve begun to discover sola gratia for the first time.  Their newfound fervor over grace has become untempered and simply needs its theological pendulum to swing back into balance.

(2)    Others fear God’s judgment because, although they know the doctrine of justification by faith, they struggle to believe it moment-by-moment.  What these dear saints need is to walk by faith and not by sight.  They need less leaning on their own understanding and more acknowledging God’s truth in spite of their own sense of things.  They must exercise their faith muscle by entrusting themselves to the clarity and authority of God’s word rather than craving an earthly, tangible guarantee.

(3)    There are other believers who, though they don’t doubt their justification, are downcast, guilty and fearful because of continual patterns of sin and weakness.  The objective assurance that comes from power over sin has eluded them, so they tend to become fearful, doubtful, and spiritually exhausted.  These weary saints need to plead with God for a repentant heart, and they must consider the chastening of conscience and consequences of sin a gift from the Lord to keep them from further disobedience.

(4)    And still there are others who ignore pangs of guilt, speak often of being “free in Christ,” and yet use their liberty as a covering for sin.  These should be duly warned of the seeds of apostasy, called to genuine repentance, and exhorted to obey the word of God.

 

The Free-Grace movement simply assumes that doubting, depressed and repeatedly failing believers are all universally in category (1) above.  It is assumed that most if not all exhausted Christians are suffering from an overactive conscience that hasn’t understood grace.  While this may be the case for some, merely contemplating sola gratia and waiting for emotional waves of gratitude will be no long term help for those in the other categories.

Gospel-Off-Centered? – Part 5

One thing that’s particularly alarming about the current reformed movement is the haughty attitude with which many often champion their gospel-centeredness.  Defeating our pride is a life-long battle, especially early on in our Christian life when the Spirit’s had little time to crush it.  And unless a newborn Calvinist spends those early years aggressively putting self-importance to death, they will merely transfer worldly boasts to theological ones.  In fact, many ‘gospel-centered’ novices today become overnight reformers with nothing but a domain name, a twitter feed, some Keller and Piper quotes, pithy humor, and a lot of digital moxie.  And the sunniest news of all: there’s no proven spiritual maturity required!  But in truth, this is bad news for the future of the church.  The Bible repeatedly warns against using theological knowledge and giftedness to make ourselves prominent (1 Corinthians 3:3-4; 4:6,19; 8:1-3; 1 Timothy 3:6; 6:4).  Gospel-centeredness, by definition, is Christ-centeredness.  And where Christlikeness is increasing, pride is fleeing.

 

The first fruit of saving faith is genuine brokenness over our sin.  In fact, that precise moment we believed in Christ alone for salvation was a grace-enabled summit of true humility.  Pride was completely shattered the very second we rightly saw our desperate need for a Savior.  God granted us repentance and faith, and in that moment we were truly gospel-centered.  At its core, being “reformed” is not merely aligning with historic confessions or theological camps.  Nor is it simply shedding old Arminian notions and learning to articulate the doctrines of grace.  These may be important steps toward an orthodox understanding but without the death of self they just end up notches on the belt of personal significance.  Why do many young Christians today—humbled by the grace of the cross—seem unaware of their utter lack of either grace or humility?  In a day when godly character is urgently needed most in the pulpit and the pew, so many reformed wannabe’s are preoccupied with self-branding, out-of-school digital rants, and flouting the slightest caution about their lifestyle.  Brutally honest but not unjust, J.I. Packer once wrote:

 

“We are spiritual dwarfs. A much-traveled leader, a native American (be it said), has declared that he finds North American Protestantism, man-centered, manipulative, success-oriented, self-indulgent and sentimental, as it blatantly is, to be 3,000 miles wide and half an inch deep…. Ease and luxury, such as our affluence brings us today, do not make for maturity; hardship and struggle however do.”

 

Penned over twenty years ago, Packer’s analysis is even more impeaching today.  What’s so astonishing is that most current well-known evangelical leaders have sounded no similar warnings at all.  I can’t think of a recent bestseller from a “big name” that expounded the high standards in Scripture for the character of a pastor.  And yet young men—some fresh out of seminary—fearlessly ascend the sacred desk with neither careful study of texts nor transformation of their own heart.  Preaching has become more about theological musing, cleverly devised tales, and comedic-timing.  And if a seasoned ministry-soldier—a spiritual General by all accounts—blogs or tweets a strong caution about our dangerous trajectory, he’s verbally assaulted as “too old school” and a spoiler of exciting ministry innovations.

 

Why does this new generation of believers seem so unconcerned that they are part of a growing subculture of the quick-to-speak-and-slow-to-hear?  I believe there are many culprits, but a summary of two reasons will suffice, both of which eventually put the gospel off-center.

 

Rhetoric without Renewal

 

Pragmatic-driven preaching has conditioned young people to assume that communicating truth is exclusively about style and technique.  Even in many reformed churches there’s lip-service given to content, but a speaker’s captivating manner is typically king.  Rather than stick to the particulars and principles clearly rising from a passage of Scripture, preachers today will extemporaneously muse on a theological theme, almost appearing to make it up as they go.  The ‘authority’ is tied to the talent and wit of the preacher rather than the rightly divided meaning of the inspired text.  Tragically, audiences today are learning to focus on the speaker’s style and tweetable rhetoric.

 

Even in conservative churches, some pastors seem free to teach contradictory and often outlandish things with no biblical pushback from their fans.  Apparently, if it “sounds biblically based” and invites a ton of retweets, no one is allowed to pour water on that flame by asking hard questions about interpretation.  We’ve lost both our discernment and our nerve!  Too many have become teachers, and too few are willing to keep them in line for fear of being reproached.  This trend has only served to embolden the most frequent offenders.  They scoff at theological critiques and work toward the removal of anyone in their church who won’t get in line.  This is not shepherding “the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28).  We can’t be gospel-centered when the Chief Shepherd’s heart is eclipsed in His church by those who “love to have the preeminence” (3 John 9).

 

It is every word of God exclusively that “performs its work you who believe” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).  No one is saved or sanctified apart from Scripture (John 15:5; 17:17).  And don’t imagine that affirming doctrinal statements, reciting confessions, joining coalitions, or ardently defending your pet theological truths equates to spiritual growth either.  Such privileges amount to nothing without knowing what Scripture actually says, grasping what it truly means by what it says, and humbly submitting to the truth in genuine faith.  In the minds of many today, the Bible is a book of theological themes to be declared, pondered and confessed but not a set of implications and demands to take to heart.  Context and details of Bible verses—being minutiae—should be lightly mentioned on the way to the preacher’s inspiring words.

 

Oh, and then there’s the ever-vital “cool factor.”  Evangelicalism has raised a generation of young people who follow what’s popular and culturally acceptable.  Some even speak boldly of the authority of Scripture for ministry, but their lifestyle and choices are patterned after the latest fads.  Tragically, this is the very opposite of gospel-centeredness.  This is nothing but unvarnished love of preeminence and fear of man.  If I have a fear, it’s that many pulpits and ministries today are filled with much self-assured theological rhetoric and very little word-centered clarity or true renewing power.

 

 

Notoriety without Responsibility

 

And if someone’s favorite preacher can become an American ministry-idol by opinionizing, then why, they conclude, can’t they do the same?  Technology is the younger generation’s tool.  They developed it.  They alone have the cutting edge talent to take their notoriety to the next level.  So why not develop a personal brand, gradually cultivate a digital audience, and publish their theological insights to the masses.  It’s fast, easy, and requires no proven character, no theological testing and affirmation, and no public repentance for harmful errors perpetrated on the church.  If you blog something out-of-school, you coolly whisper “Oops,” and move on to your next brilliant essay.  No remedial training or character change required before you go public again.  If you sharply rebuke a stalwart in one of your stellar pieces, your adoring peers will not only cheer but will defend your “right” to wander beyond your theological paygrade.

 

Beloved, this is not anything remotely associated with being gospel-centered.  A gospel-centered life is word-centered, faith-centered, holiness-centered, and humility-centered.

A Humility-Centered Life

 

A life driven by the Sola’s of the gospel is a life completely self-depreciating.  If this new generation of evangelicals were being used to do great things for Christ, we would see them vigorously fleeing the slightest whiff of self-glory.  There would be fear, trembling, and a holy hesitation about shepherding God’s sheep.  We’d observe a reluctance to offer spiritual counsel in areas of stubborn weakness not yet successfully challenged.  And no doubt, there would be more time between blog posts, especially on matters which demand intense study and deep theological reflection.  Instead, today’s generation is always rushing to “weigh in” on what’s currently trending, seemingly afraid that someone else’s post will be linked first and steal their brilliant-author/theologian trophy.  These things ought not be this way!  Truly gospel-centered people hate “even the garment polluted” by pride.

 

We’ve seen the young, restless, and reformed flood into the contemporary church, bringing their emotional fervor, greater interest in theological reading, strategies for outreach, and innovative philosophies of ministry.  These are wonderful advances if authentic—if produced by the Holy Spirit.  But if rooted in a love for preeminence they’re nothing but a mask of pretense.  How do we know the difference?  Here’s how the Apostle Paul answered that question in First Timothy 4:12:

 

“Let no one look down on your youthfulness, but rather in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity, show yourself an example of those who believe.”

 

You see, many young Christians today want the freedom to be heard in theological and ministry forums, but they’ve chosen to demand it rather than earn it.  But Paul tells his young apprentice, Timothy, that speaking ‘beyond your years’ isn’t something you stipulate.  It comes gradually as others observe your conduct.  When the church hears edifying speech from young believers, when they see patterns of exemplary conduct, humble love, robust faith, and moral purity, the church becomes less reluctant to pass the baton.  God makes a person increasingly “useful to the Master” as they “abstain from wickedness” (2 Timothy 2:19-21).  Has today’s younger generation advanced the church in holiness, wisdom, integrity, and stronger faith?  Have there been fewer public scandals of integrity?  Have local assemblies become more separate from the world?  Are today’s aspiring young elders and pastors becoming renown for their humility and submissiveness to authority?  Sadly, for all their passion and theological-sparring, this upcoming generation is at an all-time low on Paul’s list of exemplary qualities.

 

Where are the young, reverent, and reluctant of today?  If you’re going to be greatly used of God, here are some contemporary resolutions for going from restless and proud to reverent and meek:

 

  1. Memorize the second half of 1 Timothy 4:12, and nurture each quality in your heart and conduct before you demand that older believers respect what you have to say or write.
  2. If you have a blog, count the number of issues you’ve addressed and compare that with the number you’ve deeply studied, implemented, and nurtured into maturity.  Also (and this may be hard to face), count the number of principles you’ve touted to others but never been able to victoriously practice in your own life.
  3. If you know (and most do but rarely admit it) that you secretly love the sense of personal significance you get from your number of retweets, blog-hits, and digital “followers,” then wean yourself from the pride of it all.  Stop tweeting and blogging until the idolatry of significance is killed and the preeminence of Christ floods more than your mouth and emotions during Sunday’s music.  Let it flood your heart first.
  4. Never establish and flaunt lifestyle choices of a controversial nature, in the name of “the gospel,” before nurturing a blameless conscience and the sacrificial love enough to control them.  Many young believers are simply unaware that their attitude is in direct defiance of Romans 14:13-23 and Galatians 5:13.  This is merely pride and bondage cloaked as gospel-freedom.
  5. If your talent (writing or speaking) is in demand, remember that with privilege comes massive culpability (James 3:1; 1 Corinthians 4:2).  Just because people retweet your spiritual insights doesn’t mean you’ve mastered them.  Praise from others tests a man.  For most of our Christian lives we’ll be explaining truths we have trouble consistently living.  That reality alone is an astounding grace!  Technology affords greater opportunity.  It has no power to make us godly.
  6. Serve your local assembly in very obvious ways, and humbly submit to your leaders in the ministry (Hebrews 13:17).  Don’t merely spend time with your age group, but find ways to sacrificially minister to needs across the generational spectrum.  Make this a much higher priority than speaking to your digital audience.

 

And above all, remember that being gospel-centered means being humility-centered.  One cannot exist without the other.

Gospel-Off-Centered? – Part 4

At the beginning of this series I explained the core of my concerns with so much of today’s “gospel-centered” talk.  The label has been swiftly adopted and proudly worn by most everyone in the contemporary reformed movement.  And given their strident defense of the gospel’s cardinal tenet—justification by faith alone—it’s no stretch to see why the label is fitting.  But I still maintain that a lot of people talkin’ bout ‘gospel-centered’ ain’t truly gospel-centered.  The gospel—delivered clear-cut in Scripture—has both justifying and sanctifying power!  If today’s grace-wielding enthusiasts were wholly centered on the redemptive work of Christ, there’d be a swing away from worldliness so drastic as to prompt the astonishment of all! 

 

In other words, wherever God’s people get truly lost in the wonder of Christ’s grace their lives become centered on Christ’s holiness.  Honoring the righteousness and purity of the Master becomes our highest love and daily ambition (2 Corinthians 5:9).  And the sinful world around us is caused to both wonder and fear (Acts 5:11,13).  Saving grace never leaves us comfortable in old grave clothes.  It schools us in holiness, teaching us how to “deny ungodliness and worldly desires, and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age” (Titus 2:12).  Gospel-centered people set their minds on things above “where Christ is” (Colossians 3:1).  We begin to manifest the Savior’s heart and character.  We not only love Jesus, but we love holiness and hate sin.  In fact, our passion to honor Him may even wander out of balance into mild pietism from time to time.  What gospel-grace never produces is contempt for Scripture’s commands and indifference toward worldliness.

Dealing With the Menace of Self-Pity

 One of the great struggles in the process of sanctification is learning how to

trouble-shoot the various causes of weak faith and failure in our own lives.

Too often we’re like “hearers of the word” only, who don’t look close

enough at our flaws or what the Scriptures say about them. If we merely

glance at our struggle with a particular sin we will frequently misdiagnose

its cause. The real danger comes when a superficial diagnosis leads to

unbiblical solutions.

There are some today for whom a pattern of failure in their life has spiraled

into debilitating self-pity. Find out how to diagnose and deal with this

menacing problem in the message linked below.

 

Dealing With the Menace of Self-Pity from our series: Free to Pursue Holiness 

Gospel-Off-Centered? – Part 3

So far, I’ve said that a claim to gospel-centeredness is an empty boast if it isn’t marked by an increasing devotion to the word of God. To be gospel-centered is to be word-centered. If you even mildly scoff at Scripture’s precision and authority, you can’t talk of loving the gospel! If you’d rather live in gospel-generalities than explore “all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” revealed in Christ, you’ve totally missed the bull’s eye. You may be truly saved by grace, but God will not rest until He’s taught you to love His instruments and crucibles of grace. Many newly reformed brothers and sisters will parrot books and theologies because the ‘gospel-centered’ verbiage captures their thrilling discovery of grace. What’s sad is how many are swinging hard away from pursuing the fruit which saving grace promises.

 

Conferences on gospel-grace and passion for Christ are standing room only. But conferences on separation from the world (2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1) and obedience to the commands of Christ (Matthew 28:20; John 14:15,23-24;15:10; Rom 2:7): not so much. How can that be the case? If gospel-centeredness is our banner, then shouldn’t Christ’s every word be our most precious treasure? We can’t be selective, seeing only the emphasis we want to see (or ‘feel is right’) in Scripture. And the current trend of defanging the force of Greek imperatives is not healthy. People are trying to redefine biblical commands as “delightful invitations” or “gentle urgings,” and this just won’t do. After all, what are commands but expressions of the will of Christ?! I can assure you, Jesus is in perfect harmony with His divine will. He can do no less than love what He wills. Therefore, do you love the will of Christ? Is He worthy of your ardent submission to it? No one is truly gospel-centered who simultaneously loathes to “observe all that He commanded” (Matthew 28:20).

 

There is a second mark of a truly gospel-centered life: