Sometimes I wonder if, with the resurgence of joyous clarity over our justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, apart from all our works, we might be under-emphasizing the urgency of personal holiness. We might be so afraid of legalism that we are diminishing this complementary biblical truth: "Strive for . . . the holiness without which no one will see the Lord" (Hebrews 12:14). Strong language. I see no way around it. I don't want to see any way around it. I want to be a holy man of God by his grace. You want to be graciously holy too. You probably wouldn't be reading this blog if you didn't care.
Moreover, we press toward holiness not only in our personal walk with the Lord but also in our walk together in community -- in real terms, at our church. We're not standing alone. We're in this fight together, on the same side.
Still further, holiness demands definition. If we aren't going to make up our own rules -- please don't oppress me with yours, and I promise not to oppress you with mine -- then we have to open up our Bibles to find out how God defines holiness. That means we embrace biblical commands and duties and "oughts." You might refine your understanding of this as "the third use of the law," or you might not. But if we accept that God defines holiness in the Bible, then we revere the moral law in some sense.
Now, as we pursue biblical holiness together in community, the question I keep asking is this. How do we press toward God's moral law without creating a legal social psychology poisoning our relationships? With all the strife in our churches, churches that affirm both grace and holiness, something is still wrong.
Doctrinal subscription alone, even accompanied by good intentions, is not enough. But when gospel doctrine creates a gospel culture, our churches become safe places for sinners growing into the beauty of holiness. If a social environment -- a family, a church, a small group, a denomination -- isn't a living experience of grace, then the doctrines of grace aren't really there. Well, they're there on paper, as theory. But they aren't the reality setting the tone of the group. Something else is setting the tone. Whatever that is should be identified and repented of.
The gospel doctrine is this. Jesus redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming the curse for us at the cross (Galatians 3:13). The curse of the law, the threat of the law, the "or-else-ness" of the law, has been exhausted. We have peace with God (Romans 5:1). There is no condemnation, no legal threat, looming over us now (Romans 8:1). The spirit of dread has been expelled, and the confident Spirit of adoption is now re-flavoring our relationship with God (Romans 8:15). That is the doctrine, flowing into a culture.
It works this way.
When I look at another believer at my church and think, "Nice guy, but he doesn't measure up to God's law here, here and here," while my doctrine might be New Covenant, my actual relationship with that man is Old Covenant. A mentality of negative scrutiny is Sinaitic. I am not bearing witness to the gospel. I am Moses all over again, as in Dore's graphic at the top of this post. I don't notice what I'm doing, because my doctrine is gospel -- sincerely so. But if "the law" functions in my heart as a standard against which I judge my brother as not measuring up, I am a hypocrite poisoning my church's culture. I need to see that about myself and repent.
By contrast, when I look at the same brother and think, "Wow, that guy is standing, he is being faithful, he is even growing," that's gospel doctrine creating a gospel culture. Even if I do measure him by the law, his glass is half full, not half empty, so to speak. I rejoice over my brother and find in him the inspiration to keep growing myself, because the spirit of the New Covenant has take actual possession of my outlook on others. He is free, I am free, and we can grow in holiness together.
A gospel culture is where humane holiness can flourish for everyone.