Reserved Standing – Redefining Faith #6

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Reserved Standing - Redefining Faith #6
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As we continue our series that seeks to redefine Christian doctrines, today we explore whether predestination could mean something different from what we have been told.

Paradise Lost – Redefining Faith #5

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Paradise Lost - Redefining Faith #5
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In this episode we examine a view of sin as a fundamental approach to life which, while demonstrated in transgressions, runs deeper than transgressions. In fact, we see that God orchestrated the transgressions in order to bring about Sin’s demise.

Working for the Weekend – Redefining Faith #4

Faith Recovery Podcast
Faith Recovery Podcast
Working for the Weekend - Redefining Faith #4
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In this episode we examine the literal readings of Genesis 1 and 2 and ask whether these passages actually require us to believe scientifically disproven interpretations, while also seeing that they reveal much about God’s intention for humanity in Christ.  

The Plane Truth – Redefining Faith #2

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The Plane Truth - Redefining Faith #2
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In this episode we revisit the idea of interpreting Scripture literally, arguing that obeying whatever seems to be a “plain sense” reading of Scripture can be harmful, ignoring the context and the literary aspects of the Bible. But the gospel is our guide to reading Scripture the way it was meant to be read.

Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth – Redefining Faith #1

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Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth - Redefining Faith #1
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In a post-Christian world, clarifying the gospel will require the correction of misconceptions. In this episode, we redefine the notion of biblical inerrancy.

Fire That Burns for Good

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Fire That Burns for Good
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Christians might want to extinguish the doctrine of hell, but it’s a fire that burns for good.

This is the first of a two-part conversation about the doctrine of hell. In “Fire that Burns for Good,” Kent and Nathan answer the question, “Why the hell?” What possible reason could there be for a loving God to threaten people with a fiery judgment?


“Fire that Burns for Good” – Episode Notes

Whatever position we take on hell must be demonstrably consistent with the ancient revelation of the gospel. We can’t take a position on any Christian doctrine because it fits cultural sensibilities.

If the gospel does, indeed, save us from cultural conformity, we must be hyper-critical of the unrelenting pressure of inculturation. While human authority is overt, cultural pressure is insidious:

“Obedience and conformity both refer to the abdication of initiative to an external  source.”

“Subjects deny conformity and embrace obedience as the explanation of their behavior.”

Milgram, Stanley. “Obedience to Authority”

Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Christ remains the same but culture continues to shift.

Remember your leaders, who spoke the word of God to you. Consider the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.

(Heb. 13:7-8)

All this I have told you so that you will not fall away. They will put you out of the synagogue; in fact, the time is coming when anyone who kills you will think they are offering a service to God.

(John 16:1-2 NIV)

If we redact scripture, we concede the argument to the skeptics.

We’ve been saying that the gospel is the final revelation of God but that doesn’t mean the scriptures are misleading.

The concept of God’s wrath and his readiness to punish sinners isn’t incidental in scripture. There are 206 mentions of the word, “wrath” in the ESV Bible. Places that describe God as wrathful, punitive, and deadly are critical to the Old Testament narrative.

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Leave this place, you and the people you brought up out of Egypt, and go up to the land I promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, saying, ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ 2 I will send an angel before you and drive out the Canaanites, Amorites, Hittites, Perizzites, Hivites and Jebusites. 3 Go up to the land flowing with milk and honey. But I will not go with you, because you are a stiff-necked people and I might destroy you on the way.”

And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, 7 maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation.”

(Exodus 33:1-3; 34:6-7)

They made me jealous by what is no god and angered me with their worthless idols. I will make them envious by those who are not a people; I will make them angry by a nation that has no understanding. For a fire will be kindled by my wrath, one that burns down to the realm of the dead below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains. “I will heap calamities on them and spend my arrows against them. I will send wasting famine against them, consuming pestilence and deadly plague; I will send against them the fangs of wild beasts, the venom of vipers that glide in the dust. In the street the sword will make them childless; in their homes terror will reign. The young men and young women will perish, the infants and those with gray hair.

(Deut. 32:21-25)

Jesus in the gospels warns repeatedly of God’s judgment.

He said: “A man of noble birth went to a distant country to have himself appointed king and then to return. So he called ten of his servants and gave them ten minas. ‘Put this money to work,’ he said, ‘until I come back.’ “But his subjects hated him and sent a delegation after him to say, ‘We don’t want this man to be our king.’  “He was made king, however, and returned home. Then he sent for the servants to whom he had given the money, in order to find out what they had gained with it. But those enemies of mine who did not want me to be king over them—bring them here and kill them in front of me.’ ”

(Luke 19:12-14; 27)

It’s not out of character for Jesus to kill his enemies. The pre-incarnate Christ appeared to Joshua as the “Commander of the LORD’s armies” in Joshua 5 and in 2Kings 19:35:

“That night the angel of the LORD went out and put to death a hundred and eighty-five thousand in the Assyrian camp. When the people got up the next morning—there were all the dead bodies!”

Of the 13 mentions of “hell” specifically in the New Testament 11 are made by Jesus. Including:

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell? 34  Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town. 35  And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. 36  Truly I tell you, all this will come on this generation.

(Matt. 23:33-36)

Not only will there be an eschatological judgment, but Jesus will be the judge, jury, and executioner according to Paul’s teaching in Acts 17:31; Romans 2:16; 2 Thess. 1:4-10:

Therefore, among God’s churches we boast about your perseverance and faith in all the persecutions and trials you are enduring.

All this is evidence that God’s judgment is right, and as a result you will be counted worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering. God is just: He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels. He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might on the day he comes to be glorified in his holy people and to be marveled at among all those who have believed. This includes you, because you believed our testimony to you.

Attempts at whitewashing the bloodier elements of scripture undermine Christian credibility.

If we say that Bible is time-bound, then we must admit God had no role in its creation or that he engineered a misrepresentation of himself.

If we say certain sections are authoritative while others are not, then we make ourselves or our culture the arbiter of Scripture making it altogether superfluous.

Any suggestion that we revise our understanding of the Bible must come from the Bible or scripture is undermined entirely.

The gospel itself implies lethal judgment.

If Jesus died for our sins, then we must understand that sin is lethal. If God could redeem us from sin apart from Christ’s death, then the crucifixion becomes nothing more than theater.

That it was a violent death suggests a need for retributive justice of some kind.

The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground. Now you are under a curse and driven from the ground, which opened its mouth to receive your brother’s blood from your hand.

(Gen. 4:10-11)

But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, to Jesus the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.

See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven? At that time his voice shook the earth, but now he has promised, “Once more I will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.” The words “once more” indicate the removing of what can be shaken—that is, created things—so that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us be thankful, and so worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, for our “God is a consuming fire.”

(Heb. 12:22-29 NIV)

The very notion that we are saved from the “present evil age” implies a pending judgment.

For of this you can be sure: No immoral, impure or greedy person—such a person is an idolater—has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Therefore do not be partners with them.

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Live as children of light (for the fruit of the light consists in all goodness, righteousness and truth) and find out what pleases the Lord.

(Eph. 5:5-10 NIV)

Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ. Then, whether I come and see you or only hear about you in my absence, I will know that you stand firm in the one Spirit, striving together as one for the faith of the gospel without being frightened in any way by those who oppose you. This is a sign to them that they will be destroyed, but that you will be saved—and that by God. For it has been granted to you on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him, since you are going through the same struggle you saw I had, and now hear that I still have.

(Phil. 1:27-29)

Hell is God’s fire that burns for good because it provides our “will be saved” moment.

One Seat on the Throne

Recovering Faith
Recovering Faith
One Seat on the Throne
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In the kingdom of God, there’s only one seat on the throne.

In “One Seat on the Throne,” Alex, Kent, and Nathan look at God’s plan for leadership under the gospel and conclude that God doesn’t need human control to protect his people.

“One Seat on the Throne” – Episode Notes:

It may sound strange to talk about letting God rule. Is he not sovereign over his creation? Doesn’t he have the wisdom to hand down righteous decrees and the power to enforce them? Won’t he eventually call all people to account?

God rules creation and orchestrates history, but he won’t force anyone under his reign. We won’t experience his rule in our lives until we submit ourselves to him – until we let him rule. Any despot can make people conform but God is no despot. He deserves the job of universal ruler, but he won’t impose his will on the unwilling. This is true of individuals and groups. The gospel invites individuals under God’s reign, but it also grants them the opportunity to reject him. The Holy Spirit has come to guide the church, but we can grieve, quench, and despise his leading.[i]

If it’s up to us to let God rule, how can we ensure that’s what we do?

Since we are realized Israel, let’s look to the history of our nation to learn how God wants to rule his kingdom.

“I will restore your judges.”

Do you remember that time Israel deposed God in a coup?

So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”

But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the LORD. And the LORD told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you.” (1 Samuel 8:4-8 NIV)

Israel’s demand for a king wasn’t just a rejection of Samuel or even of the office of judge which Samuel held, it was a rejection of God as their king. God responded to this insult by agreeing to give them a king. This exchange demonstrates God’s insistence that people obey him willingly.

God told Samuel that Israel had rejected him as king from the day he brought them out of Egypt. God became Israel’s king through the defeat of Pharaoh and his gods. At Mount Sinai he declared them a kingdom of priests and a holy nation, his own treasured possession. He gave them his law. He provided for their needs. His Presence remained among them to guide them and to enforce his law. He put his Spirit on Moses to empower and enable him to serve as a judge among them. When the job got too big for Moses, God took some of the Spirit that was on him and distributed it among seventy(two) elders[1] who then judged Israel with him. This was God’s administration over his own kingdom.

This governmental structure continued in Israel as they entered the land of promise. God’s Presence went ahead of them as the Commander of the LORD’s Army[ii] to conquer the land. His provision changed from manna to the produce of the land. By his Spirit, he enabled Joshua to succeed Moses as leader of the people. Neither Moses nor Joshua took the title of king because God continued to rule as king over Israel. Moses and Joshua served as stewards in God’s kingdom.[iii] They moved under God’s explicit instructions and wielded his power to carry out his will.  

After the death of Joshua, the Messenger of God’s Presence continued to rule as king in Israel. In the book of Judges, we find him walking around in Canaan rebuking the nation from a mountain top, accosting Gideon from under an oak tree, setting stuff on fire, telling a woman how to raise her kid, and hitching a ride on a plume of smoke. He enforced his law directly by raising up the nations in the land to punish Israel. Once the nation learned its lesson, God’s Spirit empowered judges to deliver them from their oppressors. It was a time of miracles and personal freedom, but that freedom proved too much for Israel to bear.

By the end of the book of Judges we find the nation on the brink of total collapse resulting from sin’s corrosive influence. God’s call was to each person to fear him and obey his law. In this way they could live together in peace with no need to be controlled by earthly leaders. But Israel was still made up of fallen people. Through two horrific tales of religious and moral degradation we find the refrain, “There was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” God had set his people free, but their rebellious hearts turned that freedom into anarchy. God gave them a king at their request because each person’s rejection of him as their personal king was destroying the nation.

I think it’s noteworthy that once God gave Israel their king, he stopped appearing bodily in Israel as the Messenger of Yahweh. God had ruled directly as king in Israel from the time of Moses through the era of the judges. All the while Israel had resisted God’s reign, so he gave them a human king according to their request. This wasn’t God’s first choice for them because he knew that power corrupts and that nearly all their kings would mislead the nation. It was to a corrupt kingdom of Israel that Isaiah penned these words:

Your princes are rebels

and companions of thieves.

Everyone loves a bribe

and runs after gifts.

They do not bring justice to the fatherless,

and the widow’s cause does not come to them.

Therefore the Lord declares,

the LORD of hosts,

the Mighty One of Israel:

“Ah, I will get relief from my enemies

and avenge myself on my foes.

I will turn my hand against you

and will smelt away your dross as with lye

and remove all your alloy.

And I will restore your judges as at the first,

and your counselors as at the beginning.

Afterward you shall be called the city of righteousness,

the faithful city.” (Isaiah 1:23-26 ESV)

God would remediate Israel’s corruption by resuming his role as king in a return to the era of the judges. I believe that era has commenced with the exaltation of Christ and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Our God Reigns

Jesus promised that some in his audience would see the kingdom of God come with power.[iv] On the day of Pentecost that promise was fulfilled. In Christ, God has resumed his direct reign over his people. Like in the era of the judges, Christ, the Messenger of Yahweh lives among us. Unlike the era of the judges Christ also lives within us. Like in the era of the judges, God has given his law. Unlike that time, this law is written on our hearts by his own Spirit. As under the Moses, Joshua, and the judges God personally punishes wrongdoers like Ananias and Saphira.[v] And true to his word he has restored Spirit-empowered ad hoc leaders, judges, over his people.

Judges aren’t kings. They have spiritual authority instead of positional authority. Just like Gideon’s leadership was contingent on the power of God or Deborah’s on her ability to prophesy, so Paul based his authority on God’s power at work in him. Consider Paul’s leadership credentials in the following passage:

I have made a fool of myself, but you drove me to it. I ought to have been commended by you, for I am not in the least inferior to the “super-apostles,” even though I am nothing. I persevered in demonstrating among you the marks of a true apostle, including signs, wonders and miracles. (2 Corinthians 12:11-12 NIV)

But what if some despised his authority or what if they were rebellious? How could Paul as God’s regent enforce his word?

I already gave you a warning when I was with you the second time. I now repeat it while absent: On my return I will not spare those who sinned earlier or any of the others, since you are demanding proof that Christ is speaking through me. He is not weak in dealing with you, but is powerful among you.

This is why I write these things when I am absent, that when I come I may not have to be harsh in my use of authority—the authority the Lord gave me for building you up, not for tearing you down. (2 Corinthians 13:2-3, 10 NIV)

Paul didn’t have or need organizational endorsement. His suffering for Christ and the power of the Spirit were his credentials. As Christ’s duly appointed representative, he warned them that if they didn’t repent, he would once again demonstrate Christ’s power to punish their wrongs. He didn’t need a majority vote to carry out church discipline because Christ had given him authority and Christ would do the disciplining.

It’s important that we acknowledge the only legitimate authority in God’s kingdom is that which flows powerfully from Christ. As his Spirit-enabled leaders wield that authority he remains king and they are spared the corruption that comes with office. In the era of the judges a person didn’t need to wonder whether God endorsed the judge. The evident power of God with them was his endorsement. This system is self-regulating as Paul wrote, “For we cannot do anything against the truth, but only for the truth.” (2 Corinthians 13:8 NIV)

Lest we think Paul and the other apostles possessed a unique leadership dispensation, we should consider that Paul expected other would-be leaders to put their power where their mouth is.

Some of you have become arrogant, as if I were not coming to you. But I will come to you very soon, if the Lord is willing, and then I will find out not only how these arrogant people are talking, but what power they have. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of talk but of power. What do you prefer? Shall I come to you with a rod of discipline, or shall I come in love and with a gentle spirit? (1 Corinthians 4:18-21 NIV)

God’s promise through Isaiah to restore the judges was a promise to resume direct reign over his kingdom. Kings command; but judges minister. Paul’s authority came from the power of the Holy Spirit. He didn’t expect other people to defer to him based on his title but on his work. He was an apostle because God had empowered him to perform that role. Leaders in the kingdom of God don’t resort to positional authority to make God’s people obey them. They minister their God-given gifts to feed and protect God’s flock.

The ancient judges were empowered by God to serve their generation and not to build a dynasty. Christ rules his kingdom and will never pass it on to another, so leadership succession has been done away. We have the same Holy Spirit today as Paul or Peter or James did. What possible need could we have for “apostolic succession”? We can certainly benefit from the gifting of those men through reading the New Testament, but we shouldn’t allow their rulings to set timeless precedent while the king continues to reign in our midst. We have the gospel which is the very spirit of prophecy.[vi] Can it not teach us something for today? Might God not raise up Spirit-empowered teachers and prophets to share mighty truths for our generation? We want to borrow authority from the apostles, but the source of their authority belongs to us today.

Let me be very clear. Every hierarchical church, denomination, association, or alliance is an affront to God’s kingdom reign. They arise from the same faithlessness that caused Israel to ask for a king. They traffic in contrived authority which they generate, define, and celebrate according to the rudimentary principles of this world. “Let us build,” they say, “and make a name for ourselves. Lest all our progress die with our generation and our legacy be scattered to the wind.”   

Someone might defend Christian institutions by pointing to the need to defend the church from heresy. That thinking supposes God needs our help to defend his gospel.

A great house with a firm foundation

When the Reformers elevated the Bible to the place of final authority in place of the Catholic hierarchy, the Christian movement immediately began to fracture. Differing interpretations became the bases for various sects. To combat this proliferation of Christian variants they codified their biblical interpretations into creeds and catechisms. Sects trained new leaders in their version of orthodoxy. Those leaders were then ordained to indoctrinate their parishioners in the same. In this system, everyone must be told in detail what to believe. The transition from church authority to biblical authority produced yet another form of ecclesiastical control. Inclusion required conformity. Dissent brought expulsion.

While the authors of the New Testament seem to have been concerned about heresy, their methods indicate a different perspective on protecting orthodoxy. For instance, leaders who took upon themselves to throw doctrinal dissenters out of the Christian community were seen as unorthodox. Diotrephes was such a leader and John censured him for his actions:

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 10-11 NIV)

John certainly took exception to Diotrephes’ slander, but he counted his top-down control of church membership the greater offense. By way of contrast, consider Paul’s response to reports of factions in the Corinthian church:

But in the following instructions I do not commend you, because when you come together it is not for the better but for the worse. For, in the first place, when you come together as a church, I hear that there are divisions among you. And I believe it in part, for there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized. (1 Corinthians 11:17-19 ESV)

Paul never attempted to control the composition of any congregation. In this time before the return of Christ we long for unity and work toward it, but we also know that divisions will persist. Because God is sovereign even factions will come to serve his greater purpose. They will serve as a backdrop to highlight the glory of his gospel. The heretics and hypocrites in the church have job to do as well. Consider how Paul depicts the purpose of even false believers in God’s household:

Avoid godless chatter, because those who indulge in it will become more and more ungodly. Their teaching will spread like gangrene. Among them are Hymenaeus and Philetus, who have departed from the truth. They say that the resurrection has already taken place, and they destroy the faith of some. Nevertheless, God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Everyone who confesses the name of the Lord must turn away from wickedness.”

In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. Those who cleanse themselves from the latter will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work. (2 Timothy 2:16-21 NIV)

Notice that even though Paul doesn’t mince words about the status of these false teachers he also assumes that they and their ilk will be present in the church. Not only will they be present but God has placed them there and has a place for them there. One of the greatest challenges to letting go of biblicism to follow the gospel standard has always been the fear of heresy. Paul could live above a prescriptive, written standard because he didn’t entertain the pretense that he had the power or even the right to extinguish heresy. Paul knew that Christ was on the throne and there was only one seat there. That’s still true today. If we find false teachers among us, we surely can’t believe it’s because Christ needs us to remove them. We must commit to submitting to his kingdom authority over our own lives and over the life of the church.


[1] In Numbers 11:10-30 God called out seventy elders to share the burden of leadership with Moses. When he poured out his Spirit on them, they all prophesied. In addition to those seventy, another two prophesied in the camp.


[i] Verses on don’t grieve or quench the Spirit and not to despise prophecy

[ii] Joshua 5:13-15

[iii] Numbers 12:7

[iv] Mark 9:1

[v] Acts 5:1-9

[vi] Revelation about the gospel is the spirit of prophecy.

Three Tips for Growth

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Three Tips for Growth
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We continue discussing how to retool discipleship with three tips for growth.

In “Three Tips for Growth” Alex, Kent, and Nathan discuss some gospel-based practices for churches to disciple their members.

Three Tips for Growth – Episode Notes:

How do we minister the living experience of the gospel to one another? While an exhaustive list of possible ministry activities would be difficult if not impossible to produce, there seem to be some basic practices mentioned in the New Testament which the church would do well to adopt until it becomes skilled enough in the word to innovate.

Below, I will list and unpack three New Testament ministry practices from a gospel perspective. They are:

  • Corporate Prayer
  • Gospel Rehearsal
  • Loving Confrontation

I’ll survey each practice in turn.

Corporate Prayer

The Christian life consists of obedience to the gospel. We can’t obey it directly, though, since it is simply the announcement about Christ. We obey the gospel when we conduct our lives in response to reality as the gospel reveals it. When Paul wrote, “Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body.” (Ephesians 4:25 NIV) he rooted his truthfulness ethic in the gospel rather than simply saying, “Don’t lie.”

Since the gospel is the message of reconciliation between sinners and God, it calls forth prayer from its very core. A believer can obey the gospel at any time simply by praying confidently to God her Father. Through prayer, we identify with the experience of Christ and we enter our own experience of the Father. Disciples pray and the act of praying disciples.

While any believer can pray powerfully at any time, there seems to be a particular benefit to praying together. Through the book of Acts, the disciples gathered regularly to pray. Indeed, it was the first thing they did together after Christ’s ascension. When they were threatened, they came together to pray. When Peter was imprisoned the church gathered to pray. In the first Gentile church, prayer activated the missionary enterprise:

Now in the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off.

(Acts 13:1-3 NIV)

These were teachers in the church who weren’t too busy teaching to pray. I get the sense that this gathering of five had spent quite a bit of time addressing God together before the Holy Spirit spoke. Then, after his commission, they spent more time in fasting and prayer. These men were called to teach and preach, but prayer was their central focus.

Corporate prayer gets things done, but the practice of corporate prayer also builds disciples. As we pray together, we expand our vision of what God might do through us. That vision, in turn, pulls us to pray for his guidance and supply. As the disciples witness God perform his own will through them, their faith grows exponentially.

Notice the interplay between Christlike love, confidence before God, and effective prayer in this passage from 1 John:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

This is how we know that we belong to the truth and how we set our hearts at rest in his presence: If our hearts condemn us, we know that God is greater than our hearts, and he knows everything. Dear friends, if our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask, because we keep his commands and do what pleases him.

1 John 3:16-22 NIV

Notice how faith and love orbit a life of prayer and increase with every revolution. Think of a believer who has enough material goods for today and tomorrow encountering a sister in Christ who doesn’t have enough for today. He obeys the gospel and gives her what he has for tomorrow. That act of giving causes joy and confidence to flood his heart. From that confidence, he asks God to supply his needs for tomorrow. When that prayer is answered his faith grows, prompting him to do more acts of love and the cycle begins again.

Gospel Rehearsal

Nobody in God’s kingdom needs to be taught, but we often need reminding. The gospel is an alien presence in our hearts and in our midst. Our previous tendencies threaten to reject its graft into our hearts. The surrounding society entices and coerces us to compromise this message that refuses black-and-white norms. In short order, we can begin to convert the gospel rather than allowing it to convert us.

The early church seems to have gathered to rehearse the essence of the gospel by various means. This aspect of church life is depicted in elegant detail in this passage:

Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.

(Colossians 3:16 NIV)

The gospel lives at the center of the faith community as they gather to celebrate it in a spiritual dance with God and one another. We gather to celebrate our salvation, compare notes, and remind each other where to find true north. The Christ hymns which we can find in Paul’s letters seem to have been designed to facilitate gospel rehearsal. Here is one such hymn as an example:

Here is a trustworthy saying:
If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure,
we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
he remains faithful,
for he cannot disown himself.

(2 Timothy 2:11-13 NIV)

This hymn both recites the essence of the gospel and encourages faithfulness to it. The last stanzas strongly suggest a movement under pressure to renounce Christ. Believers in such circumstances would need to gather to remind one another of the truth and their stake in it.

We need to rehearse the gospel to keep it from accommodating culture or serving our sensibilities. The church has been tasked with upholding the gospel but often usurps it instead. Rather than preserve its integrity she’s given birth to twisted perversions like sacramentalism, easy believism, the social gospel, liberation theology, and the prosperity gospel. Should the church become once again subject to the gospel it will again produce powerful disciples as it provides the place to rehearse its simple truth.

Loving confrontation

Sin is insidious. Scripture wastes no time depicting it as a beast waiting to consume the unwary. In Genesis 4:7, God warns Cain:

 “If you do what is right, will you not be accepted? But if you do not do what is right, sin is crouching at your door; it desires to have you, but you must rule over it.”

(NIV)

There’s an enemy at the gate, but it presents itself as a friend. An injustice stirs righteous indignation that hardens into judgment. Compassion becomes control. Relational reciprocity becomes indebtedness and then personal compromise. Workaholism demolishes lives under the banner of a high calling.

Not only does sin operate in secret, but its operation also dulls our awareness of its presence. We, like Cain, must be wary of sin before it has come through the door lest it becomes our welcome guest. We also need others to minister God’s warning to us in real-time. We need proactive accountability.

The church values accountability in theory but fails in execution. Retrospectives of the fall of Ravi Zacharias or Mark Driscoll condemn their opacity. More troubling, their inner circle protected their secrecy. Accountability among the rank and file is more selective. Churches publicly brand someone for adultery while turning a blind eye to the questionable business practices of a major donor. This double standard indicates the core malfunction in church accountability which is a fundamental misunderstanding of sin.

We hesitate to confront others when we define sin as a violation of a written standard. Since a standard has been broken, accountability must come with accusation. As with the secular legal system, we’re slow to prosecute unless the optics of the situation require that we do. We don’t want “to make a federal case” out of gossip when this sin seems so common. Wouldn’t it be more “grace based” to model the right behavior without pointing any fingers? Besides, aren’t we all sinners without legitimate stones to throw? But that’s just the problem, we see confrontation as an injury while the New Testament writers saw it as protection and help.

We can align our view of accountability with that of the first Christians when we return to the gospel standard. Since there is no condemnation in Christ, we have no basis to accuse each other. We no longer ask whether our brother’s actions were lawful because such a question is nonsensical for God’s children. Without prohibitions, the more challenging question emerges, “Is it helpful?” This type of confrontation elicits no shame over the past because it concerns itself with progress toward our shared goal.

Without the trauma and trepidation of prosecution, we’re free to weave confrontation into our ordinary life as a community. While infractions and accusations create upheaval, loving confrontation smooths the road and energizes the recipient. Why wouldn’t we share and receive it liberally?

An American Christian who maintains a basic moral veneer may never experience confrontation today. How different that experience is from the advice of Hebrews:

Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end. As it is said,

“Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.”

(Hebrews 3:12-15 ESV)

We are not under a law of works but a law of faith. Rather than concerning ourselves with prohibitions we attend to one continuous imperative, “Believe.” That’s the law of faith. This law doesn’t require prescribed penalties because it’s self-enforcing. Unbelieving actions produce unbelieving hearts which exclude themselves from eternal life. This hardening can begin in a moment and happen at any time. So, the author of Hebrews calls on believers to warn each other on the day of rebellion – the day called, “today.”

Each disciple needs the church to help them faithfully follow the path marked out by Christ. That’s a practical principle of the gospel.

Obey the Gospel

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We must obey the gospel because it is the final standard in all matters of faith and life.

In “Obey the Gospel,” the Three Failed Pastors discuss the Christian system as guided not by a written text but by an oral announcement.


“Obey the Gospel” Episode Notes:

In saying that the gospel is the final authority for all matters of Christian faith and practice I have intentionally coopted the formula traditionally applied to the Bible.[1] The church must look to the gospel and not to the Bible as the authoritative guide for the individual Christian and as the basis of unity within the Christian movement.

In this section we will:

  • Survey the failings of the Bible as the authoritative guide
  • Outline God’s intent for a scriptural use of Scripture
  • Make a biblical case for the gospel as our standard
  • Explore the practical implications of making the switch.  

The Bible won’t cut it.

Astute readers will instantly recognize the irony of the heading above. It’s common in Christian vernacular to refer to the Bible as a sword. We make the association based on a couple of iconic scriptures:

For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. (Hebrews 4:12 NIV)

Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God. (Ephesians 6:17 NIV)

“Word of God” in the Hebrews verse obviously refers to the Scriptures available to the author since he (or she) had been expounding Psalm 95 just prior. Paul in the Ephesian passage refers to something else since this preliterate Gentile church didn’t have access to a leather-bound volume they could wave around. That should be obvious at least to Bible scholars. As we will see not only does “word of God” refer to something else in Ephesians, none of the instances of its use in Paul’s writings refer to the Bible.
As nearly as we can tell, the passage in Hebrews is the only place in the New Testament where Scripture (not including the New Testament) is specifically called “the word of God.”

If this is the case (and we will prove that it is) why does every Christian everywhere immediately envision a gold-leafed volume whenever “word of God” is uttered? We contend that the association has come down from the Reformers and not from the apostles. Not only is the doctrine of sola scriptura[2] unbiblical (ironically) it’s also destructive.

The letter kills

It has been said that rules were made to be broken. To that maxim I would add, “And it doesn’t matter who made them.” Far from being a sin deterrent, Paul describes God’s law as “the power of sin.”[i] He unpacks that shocking statement in Romans 7 where he describes three different laws weaving us into a web of sinful behavior. The law of sin is an innate rebellious tendency residing within each person. The law of sin becomes activated when it encounters the law of God. The law of God on one hand and the law of sin on the other pull the person in two. The inner self longs to be righteous but fallen physical person craves what is now forbidden. It seems that the writers of the New Testament conceived of death was the separation of body from spirit.[ii] So Paul aptly calls this personal disintegration “the law of death.” At the end of the chapter the tension forces Paul to cry out, “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?”

As Paul repeatedly reminds his readers in Romans 7, there was nothing wrong with God’s law except who it was addressed to. And yet the repeated violation of God’s law was no indication that it had been given in vain. According to Romans 5:20a “The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase.” It doesn’t seem that God has ever been a moralist, but that he will even incite sin for a higher purpose:

But where sin increased, grace increased all the more, so that, just as sin reigned in death, so also grace might reign through righteousness to bring eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20b-21 NIV)

Grace doesn’t mitigate sin; it converts it to more grace. And having in desperation come for grace we find freedom from sin’s grip. Since the law is the power of sin, God’s grace breaks that power through this truth, “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus…” (Romans 8:1 NIV)

These dynamics of sin, law, and death aren’t specific to the Torah. It’s not the content of the law but the nature of law that awakens sin and kills the sinner.[iii] We affirm that Scripture comes from God and is good, but that it can become deadly when used to produce a litany of religious rules.

While Protestant and evangelical traditions insist that salvation is by grace through faith apart from works, they’ve continued to formulate behavioral prescriptions from Bible passages. The church might agree that “There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus,” but not with the basis of that confidence which was:

All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable. All things are lawful, but not all things edify. (1 Corinthians 10:23 NASB95)

The church’s tendency to retain the Bible as a legal standard appears in the way the above verse is rendered in the NIV.[3]

“I have the right to do anything,” you say—but not everything is beneficial. “I have the right to do anything”—but not everything is constructive.

Since nothing in the Greek text indicates a need for quotation marks around any part of this verse and with no Greek analogue to “you say” there must be some other reason why these additions were made to this translation.[iv] It seems obvious that it was to steer readers away from an antinomian reading of Paul. At yet, in so far as law is defined as written rules, Paul was antinomian. The gospel of grace cannot coexist with any written code.

How ironic that the church has turned Paul’s letters into the very thing he abhorred.

I have the right to do anything—but not everything is beneficial. I have the right to do anything—but not everything is constructive.

Much disputing

Nobody fully understands the Bible. We should, and do, suspect anyone who claims to. The church has spent two millennia collecting, rejecting, losing, canonizing, translating, updating, studying, and expositing a collection of writings by various authors we relate to less and less with the passage of time. While various attempts have been made to affirm the utility of Scripture because of divine aid, nobody has called off the interpretive enterprise citing the achievement of complete understanding. We find this dynamic among literary and even legal scholars, but their texts don’t carry the weight of divine authority. If the Bible is God’s standard, we don’t get to get it wrong and yet we’ve yet to get it right.

Since no one understands the Bible, no two people understand it exactly alike. If we really treated the Bible as our sole standard no congregations could exist because each person would find all others out of compliance with his or her interpretation. Unity among Christians only exists where the Bible has come under some other authority whether or not the group admits it. Denominations are built not on the Bible but on Bible interpreters. Historically, the more actual authority a group delegates to Scripture the less cohesive it becomes.[4]

It’s good that the Bible prohibits using the Bible as our standard since it also commands us to be unified.[v] According to Paul, the removal of a legal code was a precondition to unity among God’s redeemed people:

But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. (Ephesians 2:13-15a NIV)

It’s easy for the modern Christian to read this text and casually agree that requirements like circumcision needed to be removed to allow Gentiles to join Israel, but circumcision was no mere tradition or cultural phenomenon. Genesis 17 unequivocally decrees that uncircumcised males must be excluded from God’s people. If Scripture can be set aside for unity in one place, by what rationale do we make Scripture the arbiter of unity in another?

From the time Christians started treating the Bible as their supreme authority it has stood in the way of unity. The Colloquy of Marburg[vi] poignantly demonstrates the Bible’s ability to divide God’s people. Held just 12 years after Luther nailed up his 95 Theses, this meeting aimed at resolving a doctrinal difference over the unity feast of Christ – the eucharist. Martin Luther and Huldrich Zwingli were called together by German nobility to consolidate their respective reform movements. Of the 15 points of doctrine to be discussed at the colloquy, 14 were summarily accepted by both camps. On the 15th issue, the significance of communion, Luther chose “biblical authority” over his brother. With the New Testament as with the Old, the letter still kills, and the law still divides.


“Obey the Gospel” corrections:

In this episode, Nathan made up some statistics on the spot regarding mandatory drug sentencing for crack cocaine vs. cocaine powder. Here are the correct statistics:

The U.S. Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which allocated $1.7 billion to the War on Drugs and established a series of “mandatory minimum” prison sentences for various drug offenses. A notable feature of mandatory minimums was the massive gap between the amounts of crack and of powder cocaine that resulted in the same minimum sentence: possession of five grams of crack led to an automatic five-year sentence while it took the possession of 500 grams of powder cocaine to trigger that sentence. Since approximately 80% of crack users were African American, mandatory minimums led to an unequal increase of incarceration rates for nonviolent Black drug offenders, as well as claims that the War on Drugs was a racist institution.

“War on Drugs,” Encyclopedia Britannica Online

“Obey the Gospel” Footnotes:

[1] Westminster Larger Catechism, Question 3: “What is the Word of God?” Answer: “The holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are the word of God, the only rule of faith and obedience.”

[2] We understand that there are differences in the way various traditions define this doctrine, but we use it to refer to the belief that the Bible is the final authority by which all others must be evaluated.

[3] We don’t mean to pick on the NIV. It’s our preferred translation. But since it is recent and applies a functional equivalence method of translation, it sometimes displays the biases of contemporary biblical scholars.

[4] The “American Restoration Movement” grew out of the proposition that all human authority should be rejected in favor of a simple reading of Scripture. It immediately splintered into over 60 factions.


References:

[i] 1 Corinthians 15:56

[ii] James 2:26

[iii] 2 Corinthians 3:6

[iv] The NIV makes the same modifications in a parallel passage – 1 Corinthians 6:12

[v] Romans 15:5-6; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Philippians 2:1-2

[vi] https://www.britannica.com/event/Colloquy-of-Marburg

Disarmed and Dangerous

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In “Disarmed and Dangerous” we say that living saved is living above rules.

The elementary principles of the world are disarmed and dangerous. Jesus disarmed them by nullifying the law and with it rule-based living. Even though this is so, we must beware of them since we tend to resort to them again.


Episode Notes:

Point: We encounter the elementary principles of the world through rules.

The elementary principles of the world don’t need to be codified to operate, but rules facilitate their reign. Laws define the extent to which authorities can control the actions of the citizens under their purview. Laws facilitate the operation of authority by prescribing governmental power over the citizens. For instance, a person driving over the posted speed limit will have a ready answer for the traffic cop’s, “Do you know why I pulled you over?” Laws governing every detail of this type of interaction reduce the need for force in enforcement. Laws facilitate the operation of authority, but they also limit it. Police officers, judges, representatives, and even the president are all subject to the laws in the United States. We need authority, but it can easily become oppressive, so legal codes attempt to mitigate oppression while retaining the social order. 

Rules also streamline the process of conformity. Institutions produce bylaws and policy guides to prescribe acceptable behavior for their participants. POA covenants detail cultural conformity regarding the appearance of individual property within a neighborhood. Employers produce handbooks and work to produce a corporate culture that reflects their brand. I’ve lived most of my life in the shadow of the Walmart home office and I’ve seen firsthand the impact of insisting that everyone in management refers to employees as “associates.” People naturally conform to unspoken norms but when they do get spoken in the form of rules, it helps everyone conform more quickly.

Religions prescribe taboos and rituals for their adherents. These prescriptions can take the form of laws in theocratic societies, or they can be enforced by social censure in more secular ones. The Hebrew scriptures outline civil and cultic requirements in tedious detail. These instructions informed jurisprudence even under a monarchial rule which helped Israel maintain a level of equality and justice for all its people. Ultimate civil authority resided with the Mosaic code. The cultic elements such as in Leviticus produced a vivid cultural salience among Jewish society. The law, as Paul called it, helped the Jews remain a distinct people even through centuries as a dispersed nation.

Rules are so ubiquitous in human society that we might fail to recognize the elementary principles hiding behind them. In our highly litigious and individualistic society, we might come to assume that we obey the law simply because we don’t want to go to jail. Or we might tell ourselves that we obey the policy manual at work just because we don’t want to get fired. Our relationship with rules could make us miss the fact that we obey laws that we could safely ignore or that we buy in to the company line when the boss isn’t around. If Paul is right that rules serve these elementary principles of the world, then the fact that we continually produce rules is proof positive that we live under the sway of invisible social forces.

Point: Christ has nullified rule-based systems, but the basic principles of the world remain disarmed and dangerous.

If rules merely represent the dominion of the elementary principles of the world and yet we’re supposed to be free of them, then we must be free from rules as well. Remember that in Galatians 4:1-3 Paul called the elementary principles of the world a guardian over humankind until the coming of God’s Son. A few verses earlier, he speaks of the Mosaic law as guardian over the nation of Israel “until faith came.” Later in Galatians 4, he warns these Gentile converts that submitting to the law would be a return to subservience to the elementary principles of the world. In chapter 5, he exhorts them to remain in freedom by not submitting to the requirements written in the Old Testament. In other words, rule-keeping is a reversal of the gospel of Christ.

In Colossians, Paul described religious rules as weapons used by the elementary principles of the world to oppress God’s people:

When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

(Colossians 2:13-15 NIV)

Since Jesus has “disarmed the powers and authorities,” we mustn’t allow them to influence our actions. As Paul went on to write,

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?

(Colossians 2:20-22 NASB)

Point: We must be free of the guardian to become moral adults.

Freedom from external pressures and enticements is mandatory to the Christian because Christ died to set us free from the elementary principles of the world. But if these basic principles are essentially benign and if laws aim at keeping them that way, what need could there be for such radical freedom? Why would God pay such an awful cost to free us from our guardian?

We can’t stay under the guardian because God wants grown children. Rules can be comfortable. Religious people often swing towards legalism because they’re looking for structure. They want to know what they should do without having to go through the pain of decision-making. In other words, they want to be treated like children. Unfortunately, such people never develop an authentic ethic beyond, “Do what you’re told.” That might work for small children, but it surely shouldn’t characterize God’s full-grown image bearers.

The elementary principles of the world and the rules they wield work to keep humankind from facing the self-destructive consequences of their own defiance. Their proper role is to restrain human wickedness. According to Paul:

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers…

(1 Timothy 1:8-9 NIV)

Laws exist to constrain unrighteous people. The application of laws to righteous people is a misuse. It suggests to them that they would do such things if unconstrained and they come to believe it. They become moral infants afraid of their own character. When they encounter the least bit of freedom, they flee to the familiar folds of their nanny’s apron. There, they are once again absolved of tension to make good decisions. This tendency can affect even people we consider very spiritual.

In Galatians 2 Paul recounts a time he had to rebuke the apostle Peter in front of the whole church.[i] It seems that Peter had been eating with Gentiles in Antioch but shunned them after other Jewish believers arrived from Jerusalem. We’re told that Peter’s hypocrisy was due to fear of this Jewish contingent. I assume it regarded the Jewish practice of avoiding ceremonial defilement which would always be present at Gentile feasts. It seems the defilements might have gone beyond ceremonial, though. Paul seems to suggest that Peter may have compromised his morals in some way at one of these Gentile banquets:

“But if, in seeking to be justified in Christ, we Jews find ourselves also among the sinners, doesn’t that mean that Christ promotes sin? Absolutely not! If I rebuild what I destroyed, then I really would be a lawbreaker.

(Galatians 2:17-18 NIV)

As an observant Palestinian Jew, Peter could rest assured in his personal performance of the law. However, that performance owed greatly to living in an observant society. The real test of Peter’s character would come while surrounded entirely by pagans with their raucous indulgence and casual inter-sex interactions. Did Peter get drunk? Was he acting a bit too familiar with one of the female dinner guests? Whatever he’d done, he felt ashamed enough to cease eating with Gentiles when he came under Jewish scrutiny. Maybe he was afraid to scandalize the name of Christ through his own actions. Paul puts that concern to rest by saying, “Hey, if you messed up, that’s on you.” Then he tells Peter that the real transgression is to build again the law-driven religion which kept Jews and Gentiles apart.

I relay all of this to point out that only those who come out from behind authoritarian religion can discover and develop their true moral core. Children need directives and supervision, but the application of those same controls on adults infantilizes them. Attempts to shelter young adults in the home, youth group, and Christian college retard their moral/spiritual development. In many cases, they come to resent the authority over them and rebel (only to find themselves in the custody of conformity). If they don’t rebel, they will become morally hollow puppets of their church. Such religion produces cowardly conformists. We must be free to become truly conformed to the image of Christ through and through.

Point: Religious rules incubate hypocrisy.

Servants of the basic principles not only lack moral fiber, but they grow an immoral alter ego behind the veneer of compliance. Laws and social norms can only address actions. This brings the focus entirely on behaviors and especially the ones which signal insider status with the group. I’ve seen whole churches of people who would never use an instrument on Sunday morning but who were secretly having affairs even with each other.

Jesus called down this curse on the hypocrites of his day:

“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean.  In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”

(Matthew 23:27-28 NIV)

I’ve been around long enough to see this illustration as an immutable spiritual law. Wherever you find a shiny behavioral veneer, you can be assured of moral rot hiding just under the surface.

The best that people will become under the elementary principles of the world is outwardly obedient. The worst they’ll become is moral deviants hiding from public scrutiny. We don’t celebrate “yes men,” or conformists. And every kind of hypocrite is universally disdained. We must be free from external control if we are to have any hope of genuine moral development.

Point: Religious rules dilute pure motives.

Maybe you’re thinking of a good legalist you knew. I’d suggest that you probably didn’t really know them, but let’s pretend you did. Even if a rule-driven person comes to obey from the heart, their morality will always be in question. For instance, suppose they remain faithful to their spouse in thought, word, and deed their entire life. Will that faithfulness be due to a genuine love for their spouse or will it be merely enlightened self-interest for fear of divine retribution? Perhaps they could say that it was both, but wouldn’t that dilute the pure love their spouse would prefer to receive?


References: