As Christians, we struggle with sin. There is no “but”

February 17, 2016

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This little book has been a life-saver to me. Just what I needed at just the right time! Thank you, Jesus! I’m tempted to scan whole chapters and post them on my blog, but I’m sure the good people at Mockingbird Ministries would prefer for me to point you to the Amazon link and have you order it for yourself. (It’s only $10.50. Money well spent!)

Still, I would like to highlight a few ideas in the Appendix entitled, “Distinguishing Between Law and Gospel.” It begins with a Luther quote and some words about it:

“The distinction between law and gospel is the highest art in Christendom.”
– Martin Luther

A strong belief of Luther, and those who follow in his footsteps, is that people should not be enticed to church by the Gospel and then, after believing, turn toward self-improvement. The Law always kills, and the Spirit always gives life. This death and resurrection of the believer is not a one-time event, but must be repeated continually: It is the shape of the Christian life. On Sundays, therefore, some form of the Law is ideally preached to kill, and the Gospel to vivify—”the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor 3:6). But in many situations, the Law is mistakenly preached to give life, on the assumption that the believer, unlike the new Christian, has the moral strength to follow the guidelines. This leads to burnout, often producing agnostics or converts to Eastern Orthodoxy. Words like ‘accountability’ or ‘intentionality,’ for example, are sure signs that the letter, rather than the Spirit, is being looked to for life. To help distinguish this form of misguided Law from the Gospel, here’s a handy guide.[1]

Here are a few points that speak to me:

  1. Listen for a distortion of the commandment: Anytime a hard commandment is softened, such as “Be perfect” (Mt 5:48) to “just do your best,” we’re looking to the Law, not the Gospel, for life.
  2. Discern the balance of agency: If you’re in charge of making it happen, it’s misguided Law. If God’s in charge, it’s Gospel. If it’s a mixture, it’s Law.
  3. Look for honesty: If you or others either seem ‘A-okay’ or ‘struggling, but…,’ then likely it’s because the Old Adam is alive and well (there will also be a horrible scandal in the next three months). If people are open and honest about their problems, such freedom shows the Gospel is at work.[2]

I had to think about this for a moment. If we say we’re spiritually “A-okay,” then we’re lying or in denial. That makes sense. But what’s wrong with saying, “I’m struggling, but…”? The authors’ point is that there should be no “but”: We are struggling. We have problems. We are sinners. There’s no “but.”

The “but” comes from a desire to justify ourselves—to appeal to the Law to prove that we’re A-okay after all, or at least not as bad as we seem. As the authors say elsewhere in the book, “The only genuine way to relate to the Law is to be utterly condemned by it.”[3]

big_but

6. Watch for the view of human nature, or anthropology: If human willpower, strength, or effort are being lauded or appealed to, it’s Law. High anthropology means low Christology, and vice-versa.[4]

1. William McDavid, Ethan Richardson, and David Zahl, Law and Gospel: A Theology for Sinners (and Saints) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird, 2015), 85-6.

2. Ibid., 86

3. Ibid., 91.

4. Ibid., 86.

12 Responses to “As Christians, we struggle with sin. There is no “but””

  1. Grant Essex Says:

    There is one very important “But” in Ephesians 2:

    4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— 6 and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God,

    As Dr. James Montgomery Boice said: “If you understand those two words, ‘But God’, they will save your soul.”

    “To the left of “But God” in Scripture appear some of the worst human atrocities, characterized by disobedience and rebellion. But to its right following, “But God”, readers of Scripture will find hope, light and life. Following God’s intervention, the story of Scripture becomes one of grace, righteousness, and justice”

  2. Tom Harkins Says:

    Well, leave it to the skeptic to offer caveats! 🙂 “Work, for the night is coming, when no one can work,” Jesus says. The parable of the talents: “Well done, thou good and faithful SERVANT.” Paul refers to how he “labored.” Indeed, Brent, you “work” to come up with and then preach your sermons on Sundays–Jesus even used that as an example of “profaning the Sabbath [day of rest] and yet are not guilty.” Thus, God certainly expects us to be “about our Father’s BUSINESS.” And look especially at James: “Faith without works is dead.” “True religion and undefiled is this–to visit the widows and orphans in their distress and keep oneself unspotted from the world.” Paul says we will be given rewards based on how we BUILD on the foundation. Other examples could be given.

    Certainly we are saved by grace and continue to be “accepted” by God by grace, but that does not mean that God does not expect us to “work” or that he does not take that into account at all as to how he “looks” at us. As a probably weak analogy, a coach may decide he won’t kick anyone off the roster once they are on, but that does not mean he will be “indifferent” to how hard they play at the game, including their playing time. “Each man’s WORK will be tried by fire; if any man’s WORK is burned up, HE WILL SUFFER LOSS, but he himself will be saved, yet so as one escaping from the flames.” I hope that I won’t be “singed” when Judgment Day comes!

  3. Tom Harkins Says:

    To clarify my earlier comment a little in light of further review of the above post and Grant’s comment, I recognize that watering down “Be ye perfect” is wrong–perfection is required, and we all don’t reach that. As James intimates, falling short of one commandment is as though all were violated, insofar as falling short of perfection and the need for forgiveness is concerned. However, my point would be, it DOES matter to what extent we are “trying,” and we CAN take some “comfort” in the fact that we are “doing better” than we did the day before. To me that is an encouragement and a motivation, to think that I have overcome one type of temptation even though I am still smarting from failures as to another, for example. I don’t think that constitutes succumbing to a “legalistic” frame of reference to the Christian walk. God’s grace is necessary every day, of course, but grace is obviously no license to sin, as Paul points out in Romans. Instead, being dead to sin, how shall we live therein any longer? There is no question, as I imagine you agree, that we have to “fight” sin on a daily basis–can we not take some comfort in how we are doing in that fight? To use another sports analogy, can’t I be glad that whereas yesterday my team was blown out by 30 points, this time we only lost by 10? That we “improved”?

    • brentwhite Says:

      I’m a Georgia Tech fan, so let me tell you, there’s little comfort in “losing close”! 🙂 As always, Tom, it’s a question of emphasis. Even the authors of this book wouldn’t disagree with most of what you say above. Of course we work. Of course faith without works is dead. Of course we face judgment. But they (and I) would probably say that our comfort doesn’t mostly come from what we do, but what God has done for us in Christ. Because, as you know, we fall short—constantly—even as we are successfully doing good things.

      I wonder if you’re not (ever so slightly) underestimating the power of sin in our lives. Isn’t it extensive? And if so, then the Law utterly condemns us, which motivates us to go back to the cross—and God’s saving grace, without which all of our good works as “as filthy rags.”

  4. Grant Essex Says:

    Well certainly, “Faith without works is dead”. God can see right through that. True faith, well by definition give rise to works. And, “work” means work, effort, determination, faithfulness and all the other human manifestation of man’s labor.

    But, it still starts with the “quickening” by the Holy Spirit, and continues with the constant involvement of the Holy Spirit in each life. Doesn’t it??

  5. Tom Harkins Says:

    Well, I think my point is that Christians can take comfort from the fact that they are “doing better” than they were previously. Obviously all Christians should recognize (as I do) that we are sinners and “fall short of the glory of God.” But that should hardly preclude anyone from recognizing and joying in “progress.” Remember: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant!” Why would God say that if there was nothing we did that warranted any “approval”? I think we are not supposed to completely separate “spiritual truths” from everyday realities. Shouldn’t a boss commend his employee for a “job well done,” regardless that he does not do everything “perfectly”? And can’t the employee “bask in that praise”? Do you think God and we are totally “divorced” from that common experience of life? We are “made in the image of God.”

    (As far as “filthy rags,” I think that verse is frequently taken out of its context. In any event it is a typical scriptural example of “hyperbole,” stated as one who “looks on God” who is eons above us in righteousness and feeling, comparatively, utterly unclean. Somewhat like Paul saying he is the “chief of sinners.”)

  6. Grant Essex Says:

    Were God to say to me, “Well done, good and faithful servant”, I would be reduced to tears of joy, because I know that I should have done so much better.

    And yet, I do have the assurance that he will accept my meager performance based on my putting my faith in His Son. Not on any merit of my own.

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      See, that sounds very good and humble, but don’t you think that puts the burden on God for how good you are, rather than taking responsibility for yourself? And is it not based on how we handle that responsibility that God will judge and either reward and punish? It is nice to say, “I don’t deserve it”–of course God will give us better than we “deserve.” But that does not mean He will do so without regard to one person’s obedience as contrasted with that of another. Otherwise would not God be required to grant everyone “the same,” which scripture makes very clear He won’t?

      • Grant Essex Says:

        And, of course, that brings us full circle to the concept of “rewards in Heaven”, which we discussed in depth recently.

        I get your points, and we may just be splitting hairs, since we both believe that God does/will bestow such rewards. 🙂

  7. Grant Essex Says:

    Tom, I found this sermon by John MacArthur from 1973, on “Believer’s Rewards”, which I think you will like. He agrees with you on the value of “working hard for the Lord” all of your life.

    http://www.gty.org/resources/sermons/1327/believers-rewards#top


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