Sin is bad. There is no denying that. As Christ said, it leads to death. There is a better way to live. A life that is abundant. Jesus came to free us from sin and it's consequences in the world. This is the heart of the gospel.
A big problem arises though, when we move away from the gospel and attempt to save ourselves from sin apart from Christ. We don't ever really recognize this in ourselves unless it is pointed out.
Because of this widespread attempt to self-atone, we see some weird things in the spectrum of Christianity.
Think of some of these things:
- Asceticism (Abstinence from various sorts of 'worldly' pleasures: )
- Penance (Self-torture, self-flagellation, fasting as a result of sin... a type of self-atonement)
- Monasticism (Moving away from all things worldly in order to maintain purity)
- Pietism (Deeming neutral things as inherently evil within themselves - like television, internet, magazines, alcohol, coffee, certain environments like baseball games, pubs, theme parks...etc.)
We have gone through the gauntlet of behavioral correction/modification and moralism, trying to rid ourselves of sin and its effects by both prohibiting anything that could even lead to sin and punishing ourselves after sin has occurred. Is this the abundant life Jesus persuaded us of? Constantly running around fretting and agonizingly trying to manage our morality? The problem with these external motivators is that sin is not just out there, it is in here! Within the heart! Instead of going after the spider, we content ourselves with cleaning up its perpetual mess by dusting the cobwebs out of the corners of our hearts. We denounce every sin with black and white lists, then proceed to add anything else to that list that can lead to sin. Soon God's work of sanctification in our life becomes a list of 'do's' and 'don'ts' - a code on which we base our actions and judge the actions of others - instead of the natural, spirit-lead growth that happens as we surrender our lives to God and allow Him to be the King of our kingdoms.
Those who don't take hold of the gospel, or rather let it take hold of them, suffer from many sorrows. In retrospect, I've seen many young fervent Christians, whose burning flame of passion for the Lord has all but died out, retiring themselves to a meager existence of sitting on Sunday pews among other mundane religious duties. They live from religious gathering to religious gathering, listening with a reticent hopefulness for some word from God to set them on fire again. I've seen them struggling back and forth as worldliness creeps in, trying to get into heaven with as much hell in their lives as they can take with them. I've seen them dying slow deaths wondering what happened, their hope for some renewal and revival slowly turning to despondency... and eventually apathy. It is a Christianity of slow death. It is not the abundant life. It is not the gospel.
This reminds me of a passage of Scripture, when Jesus brought good news to people in similar circumstances:
Matthew 11:28-30 "Are you tired? Worn out? Burned out on religion? Come to me. Get away with me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly."
Jesus' promise here is the final word of hope for the Sunday-sitters and the legal-adherents. It is a call to the spiritual Lazarus to come to life again. To resurrect from the despair of dead, dry religiosity and enter into a new, gospel-centered, grace-filled life... life more abundantly. His word here is a gospel promise of a gracious interpretation of the Word of life.
He reveals this through his ministry as He constantly challenges the meaning of the law and brings the self-righteous pietists of his day back to the heart of holiness. On the Sabbath he heals - his disciples even collect wheat as they walk through fields. He even commands a man to take up his bed and walk on the sabbath. He parties and celebrates when others are mourning. His critics call him a drunkard. He scandalously invites the broken, marginalized people to eat with him at his table. He upsets the economic balance at the temple driving out the priests money-makers with a whip and opening up access to God for those who had always been forced to "pay to play" (the fact that the veil was rent concurrently with his death signifies that his work of inviting everyone in was finally complete).
He made few friends and his teaching offended many, challenging the idols within their hearts, yet, lovingly drawing them nearer to a God of scandalous grace. His teaching moves beyond the external (Do not kill... Do not commit adultery) and journeys deep within the internal realms of the soul. "You have heard it said 'Do not kill,' but I tell you do not be angry at your neighbor without cause... You have heard it said 'Do not commit adultery' but I tell you if you lust within your heart or you have done this already" (Mt 5). He points to the attitude before the action. The cause before the effect. The belief before the behavior. His gospel gets to the heart of every issue.
The gospel is all about belief... belief expressed by action. The action is pointless without the belief, but the belief is incomplete without the action. If someone says they believe people should not be hungry, yet they do not feed someone who is, how is this an authentic belief? So, as James points out, our faith is in vain if it leads to nothing. The pietists and ascetics - those fighting worldliness with "lawfulness" - claim this is what they are doing. They have believed the gospel and have been born again, so now they obey the rules. What they do not ever seem to grasp is that -at best- they walk a fine line between legalism and the gospel, and -at worst- they set their performance up as an idol by which they merit many salvations both in this life's situations and in eternity.
Legalism is choking the abundant life out of the church.
We do not only see this today on the fringes of Christianity, within certain sects and outlying cults. This epidemic is widespread. The back country rivers have been feeding into the ocean for decades and now the whole of mainstream Christianity in danger of being polluted. The threat is only heightened by the apparent emergence of a new liberalism... a lawlessness touting the banner of grace (which is, in fact, a false grace) within Christianity that the Legalists feel they must contend with, in order to secure some false sense of safety - or even some false sense of balance between the two extremes. The problem is that the Gospel is not a balancing act between legalism and lawlessness. It is something different altogether. The gospel actually frees us from this struggle as we dare to trust... if we dare to believe.
But as I look at the number one sellers within the courtyard of mainstream Christianity, I wonder if Jesus would once again begin driving out the money changers. Turning over the tables of the false gospels of prosperity and cheap grace. Driving out the purveyors of 'special prayers' that win favor, and 'special structures' that breed growth. How can these things be bad? How can Bible-based books and teachings just be moralism repackaged? Sometimes it is bold and in your face. Other times it is hidden below the surface... deep within the heart of the teaching. It is woven into the nuances and the slightest movements away from the the good news of God.
For instance, the problem with being purpose-driven is that it can easily become performance-driven. The motivation is based on purposes to be fulfilled and tasks to be performed. Gospel-centered motivation is based upon belief in the atoning work of Christ. That belief will always lead to action.
If I say, "I'm a Christian, so I need to do these things... I need to worship and evangelize and fellowship and serve and learn...etc." then the motivation is off. What we are really saying (often without realizing it) is that I need to do these things to become a Christian. We have a performance based Christianity.
Consider a different approach. "Jesus' atoning sacrifice purchased my salvation along with a new identity for me that is secure in Christ... it is who I am now! Have been adopted into the family of God. My new identity is a disciple (learner) who is continually learning and sharing what I learn with others. I have been called to be a servant who turns the world's economics on their head through loving and sacrificing and blessing others. I am a worshipper who's every word and action are honoring God. I am called an ambassador of His love and gospel-message whose very life is an act of reconciliation, reconciling people to each other and God, and allowing God to redeem the situations around me through my life."
This is my identity. It is who I am. My 'doing' flows from my 'being.' If I look at my life and see areas out of alignment with this God-called identity, it is a matter of belief. My heart is not really believing the truth of my gospel identity in that moment so my actions are off. Instead of correcting the action (I need to serve more or worship more or disciple more), or beating myself over the head, adding all kinds of external motivations (which are seldom gospel-centered and lead to unhealthy fruit like: fear, self-punishment, condemnation, low-grade guilt, anger...etc.)... Instead of these things, now I understand it is a belief issue. I repent for my unbelief and the sin it leads to, ask God to help my unbelief - to help me believe His truth deep within my heart and then walk in alignment with that faith.
This is a walk of faith. It is trusting that what God says about Himself (that He is Good, Glorious, Great & Gracious) is true. That trust will lead to amazing belief in my life (He is Good - so I don't need to look elsewhere for satisfaction / He is Glorious - so I don't need to fear anything or anyone else / He is Great - so I don't need to be in control / He is Gracious - So I don't need to prove myself to myself, to others or even to Him).
Think of all the fruit that will flow out of my life as this amazing faith in God's truth roots itself deep within my heart. As I believe God's truth and apply it to more and more of life's circumstances I'm freed. I'm free from needing to lie to prove myself to others (since He is gracious) or to protect myself (since He is great and in control) or to get what I want (because He is good and will provide) or to avoid rejection (since He is glorious). I'm free from chasing happiness through a million different addictions and bad habits because He is good and His way provides more happiness and abundant living than I could ever imagine. The reason we do get caught up with addictions (substance abuse, pornography, and any number of addictions) is because we believe the lie that He is not good and that we need to look for fulfillment somewhere beyond His plan. I could go on and on here but you get the point.
Belief... Faith in God is what frees us. The action flow from the belief. Sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit who empowers our faith in God's truth. He has reveled His truth to us. He revealed Himself ultimately to us through Jesus Christ. As we live by this faith and it works itself out in our lives we begin living, more and more each day, this abundant life Christ spoke of. This is the good news. Good news enabled by the cross of Christ and the indwelling Spirit who draws us to the Father. Freedom from the bondage of sin. Reconciliation to a holy and gracious God. This is the gospel.
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