“Many areas of the church which contain a great deal of legal thunder and lightening exposing at least the surfaces of sins are full of desperately anxious and bitterly contentious people. Law without grace provokes sin and aggravates it into some of its ugliest expression.” Richard Lovelace
Piggybacking on last week’s post on Biblical Restraints on Spiritual Authority, I have some thoughts on the broader problem among Christians in terms of law and grace. That is the THE issue that every believer has to get in its right order. This week, I have read more articles on spiritual authority operating outside Biblical restraints than I should, along with the comments afterwards. There are many unbelievers interacting, and I have no expectations of grace in their posts. But there are many professing Christians posting, and I have been overwhelmed with the bitter, angry, accusatory vitriol from both sides. It’s not that one side is for the law and the other is for grace. Both sides have their own version of law—some appropriately defined as Scripture defines it, some not. But there is an amazing lack of grace. It reminds me that people don’t like others sin, but rarely are we invested enough to care to facilitate real, gospel-centered change.
I think there is a pretty clear problem and a very simple solution. And wherever we are in our journey in Christ, we could all stand to examine ourselves on this. My hope is that those reading this all agree on 2 major things – that our primary problem is sin and that God’s answer is the good news of Christ’s sacrifice for us on the cross.
Even if we all agree that our primary problem is sin (our sins against others as well as their sins against us), we often do not define sin as Scripture does. This is a foundational problem among highly controlling Christian groups. They do not believe in the SUFFIENCY of Scripture in its definition of sin. They often adamantly believe Scripture is to be literally read, but they don’t practically accept that what they literally read is actually enough. 2 Timothy 3:16-17 says the Word thoroughly equips us for every good work that God has for us. God’s instructions are as specific and detailed as He intended. We need be no more and no less dogmatic than He is. He is dogmatic on the issue of pride and humility (He is firmly set against the proud). He is dogmatic on the issue of love (It is the most important commandment on which all other teachings hang). He is also pretty dogmatic in His definition of love, giving us an entire chapter in I Corinthians 13 that lays it out in very practical, objective terms. He is not so dogmatic on dress, entertainment, hair styles, and so forth. So while we all agree that sin is our primary problem, if we are not content with Scriptures specific statements on what is and is not acceptable to God, we become dogmatic on things that may make sense to us but which Scripture never addresses. And that gets into dangerous territory quickly. Because you and I can’t be trusted, and each step away from Scripture into human reasoning is potentially flawed. Then one day you wake up in a world where it is OK to kick a dating couple out of college their senior year because they were alone in a study room. The 6 degrees of Kevin Bacon between God’s clear command against sex outside of marriage and a fully clothed couple talking in a campus classroom is mind boggling to some. But if you are an authority structure who does not feel constrained by Scripture on what you can and cannot claim as sin and what you can and can not require of those under your authority, it likely makes perfect sense to you. That’s an extreme example, but I too am capable of requirements that are equally exasperating to those under my authority, even if they are more subtle.
But even once we have sin appropriately defined as Scripture does, we still have a problem with what to do about it. The case of the sexual offender who finally got arrested 15 years after the crime is particularly interesting. It’s disturbing at multiple levels. But the thing that keeps me up most at night is the number of conservative Christians who do not seem to have any interest in fostering genuine repentance. It’s like a series of confrontations in which each side is posturing itself to get it’s boot on the neck of it’s opponent. Get the foot on their neck, give them a brief moment to come over to your side, and then crush their windpipe if they don’t.
O foolish Christians! Who has bewitched you?
Wake up, fools. It seems so strong to say that, and yet this is exactly Paul’s response. Someone has bewitched you! IF you want authentic repentance that leads to real change, there is ONE thing that accomplishes that. If you only want your opponent destroyed, well don’t read any further. If you just want to be right, don’t read any further. But if you want honest to goodness CHANGE, listen closely to what Paul says DOES NOT accomplish that.
Galatians 3:2 Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? 3Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Nobody changes by the boot on the neck. We didn’t change that way on the first day we heard of Christ and the gospel. We don’t change that way today. We change by the Spirit applying the gospel to our hearts at every turn. Hearing with faith. Whether it’s you (or me) who needs to change or it’s our opponent, authentic change happens one way, and only one way.
I had been meditating on Galatians 3 over the weekend and then walked into church Sunday morning to hear a message on this very subject by my pastor. If you have 24 minutes, listen to his sermon on Growth. It only happens one way, folks.