Evangelicals have been engaged in a contentious conversation about the nature of sanctification and what role God’s Law has in shaping our spirituality as we become more like Christ.
On the one hand are those who believe the way we grow in holiness is by allowing the Law is to drive us to our knees, show us our continual need for a Savior, so that we renounce all works of self-justification and rest fully in Jesus. This process takes place over time; the wonder of being justified becomes the motivation for obedience.
On the other hand are those who believe growth in holiness includes grace-driven effort. In light of Christ’s finished work on our behalf, we pursue holiness, heed the moral exhortations in Scripture, and seek progress in our obedience. One purpose of the Law is to lead us to renounce our self-sufficiency, but another purpose is to show us what the Spirit-empowered life looks like, a life God expects us to live.
Sometimes, both these perspectives collide in the life of one person.
From the Law-Centered Life…
Consider the woman who grew up in a legalistic environment. It seemed like all she heard was the law, often disconnected from the gospel. The Christian life was reduced to a checklist, a series of do’s and don’ts.
In church, she learned that the gospel is the good news of God’s grace, but the law is “where it’s at.” To put it another way: “Yes, of course, we are saved by grace, but…”
That “but” is deadly. It sucks the life out of our Christianity because it shifts the emphasis away from Christ’s redeeming work and points toward whatever good works we’re supposed to be doing. Christ’s good work for us gets taken for granted and our good work for Christ gets the spotlight. This is disastrous for the Christian life, as many have discovered personally.
To the Gospel-Centered Life
In reaction to the moralistic, rules-centered Christianity, this woman runs to the great truths of the gospel (what Christ has done) and skips by the New Testament’s commands (what we are to do now, in light of what Christ has done).
She thinks: As long as I preach the good news of Christ’s unmerited favor to myself, good deeds will naturally occur. There’s no need to stress what God expects of me as a believer; the key to growth in Christianity is to return again and again to my need for God’s grace, and then bask in the beauty of His justifying work through Jesus.
Over time, however, she begins to have doubts about this strategy. Some biblical texts don’t fit this paradigm. Who is right? she wonders.
The Freedom of Belonging
It’s here that we need to remember what it means to be adopted into Christ’s family.
God is your Father. You belong to His family because of Jesus’ work on your behalf. He tells you that He is making you in the image of Your Savior-Brother who gave Himself for you.
Now imagine that whenever He says to do something, He whispers to you, There will be times you will fail, but I want you to know, you are part of this family. The good news is your Brother has stood in your place, and as you marvel at His sacrifice, your gratitude and love for Me will increase.
There’s a beautiful freedom at work here, a reminder that one’s status as a family member isn’t dependent on one’s own work. You’re there by grace.
And yet, it’s possible for a person to internalize this gospel truth in a way that is constraining rather than freeing. If this is all we ever hear our Father say, we might begin to see the good news of Christ’s work as a ball and chain that reminds us only of our frailty and fallenness, instead of the gospel freeing us for obedience.
The Freedom of “You Can Do It, Son!”
Let’s change the conversation around. Your Father comes to you and issues a command: Love your enemies.
Well aware of your ongoing struggles, you reply, “I don’t think I can.”
He smiles and says: Your Brother has loved His enemies perfectly in your place, but I see you are becoming more like Him. So I say, “love your enemies.”
You look up to your Father: ”You think I can do this?”
He nods: My Spirit is in you. Of course I do.
Suddenly, the seemingly impossible command of God is not constraining but freeing. ”My Father calls me to obey! He thinks I can do it!”
This is no longer a command that drives you to your knees in repentance; it’s a command that surges through your veins and fires you up.
Imagine a baby just learning to walk. The Father doesn’t say, “You’re going to stumble, so I’ll just let your Brother walk for you.” No, your loving Father says, with a gleam in His eyes, “I know you can do it!” And like a jolt of electricity in your toddling legs, you look up at your Father, you see your big Brother walking, and you gather up your courage and totter forward, amazed you are moving.
Imagine the boy on the soccer field whose Father is on the sidelines, saying, “Take a shot, son!” Knowing you have His love no matter what, even if your shot misses, you risk it all and aim for the goal. Your Father believes in you.
Freedom to Obey
Legalism is an ever-present danger to the Christian life. If we view God only as our Judge, we will never understand how God’s commands, how the Bible’s imperatives, could be anything but condemnatory toward us.
But if we see God through the eyes of adoption, as a loving Father who in His grace now calls us to obedience, then we are freed by the commands of love.
So, on we go. We stumble forward in grace, knowing if we fall, we can run to Him for forgiveness, and when we succeed we can run to Him with gratitude. We belong to His family, no matter what.
Sometimes, the most loving thing a Father can say is, “Get up and walk.”