What is the biggest threat to Christianity?
This might come as a surprise to some, but the biggest threat to Christianity exists inside the church, not outside the church. According to the Bible, the biggest threat to Christianity is legalism.
Since the fall of man in Genesis 3, the human race has been naturally prone toward works-righteousness, self-salvation projects. Having determined way back then that we could do it better on our own, we've been trying ever since.
There's a common misunderstanding in today's church, which says there are two equal dangers Christians must avoid. On one side of the road is a ditch called "legalism"; on the other is a ditch called "license" or "lawlessness." Legalism, they say, happens when you focus too much on law, on rules. Lawlessness, they say, happens when you focus too much on grace. Therefore, in order to maintain spiritual equilibrium, you have to balance law and grace. If you start getting too much law, you need to balance it with grace. If you start getting too much grace, you need to balance it with law. This dichotomy exposes our failure to understand gospel grace as it really is; it betrays our blindness to all the radical depth and beauty of grace.
It's much more theologically accurate to say that there is one primary enemy of the gospel---legalism---but it comes in two forms. Some people avoid the gospel and try to "save" themselves by keeping the rules, doing what they're told, maintaining the standards, and so on (I call this "front-door legalism"). Other people avoid the gospel and try to "save" themselves by breaking the rules, doing whatever they want, developing their own autonomous standards, and so on ("back-door legalism"). In other words, there are two "laws" we can choose to live by apart from Christ: the law which says, "I can find freedom and fullness of life if I keep the rules," and the law which says, "I can find freedom and fullness of life if I break the rules." Either way, you're trying to "save" yourself, which means both are legalistic because both are self-salvation projects. So what some call "license" is just another form of legalism.
This distinction is super important because the biggest lie about grace that Satan wants the church to buy is the idea that it's dangerous and therefore needs to be kept it in check. The perceived fear is this: if we think too much and talk too much about grace and the radical freedom it brings, we'll go off the deep end with it. We'll abuse it. By believing that lie, we not only prove we don't understand grace, but we violate gospel advancement in our lives and in the church by perpetuating our own slavery. The truth is, disobedience happens not when we think too much of grace, but when we think too little of it.
As a pastor, one of my responsibilities is to disciple people into a deeper understanding of obedience---teaching them to say no to the things God hates and yes to the things God loves. All too often I've wrongly concluded that the only way to keep licentious people in line is to give them more rules---to lay down the law. The fact is, however, the only way licentious people start to obey is when they get a taste of God's radical, unconditional acceptance of sinners. What licentious people need is a greater understanding of grace, not a governor on grace. Grace alone melts hearts and changes us from the inside out. Progress in obedience happens only when our hearts realize that God's love for us does not depend on our progress in obedience.
A "yes, grace---but" disposition is the kind of fearful posture that keeps legalism swirling around in our hearts and in the church.
What is the "now power" of the Gospel and what difference does it make?
I once assumed (along with the vast majority of professing Christians) that the gospel was simply what non- Christians must believe in order to be saved, while afterward we advance to deeper theological waters. But I've come to realize that once God rescues sinners, his plan isn't to steer them beyond the gospel but to move them more deeply into it. We never outgrow our need for the gospel. Because I am a daily sinner, I need God's daily distributions of grace that come my way as a result of the finished work of Christ.
When God's good news met me in my dark place during the summer of 2009, I started to see the many-faceted dimensions of the gospel in a more dazzling way. It's almost as if, for me, the gospel changed from something hazy and monochromatic to something richly multicolored, vivid, and vibrant. I was realizing in a fresh way the now-power of the gospel---that the gospel doesn't simply rescue us from the past and rescue us for the future; it also rescues us in the present from being enslaved to things like fear, insecurity, anger, self-reliance, bitterness, entitlement, and insignificance. Through my pain, I was being convinced all over again that the power of the gospel is just as necessary and relevant after you become a Christian as it is before.
The gospel liberates us to be okay with not being okay. We know we're not okay---though we try very hard to convince ourselves and other people that we're basically fine. But the gospel tells us, "Relax, it is finished. The pressure's off."
Because of the gospel, we have nothing to prove or protect. We can stop pretending. We can take off our masks and be real. The gospel frees us from trying to impress people, appease people, measure up for people, or prove ourselves to people. The gospel frees us from the burden of trying to control what other people think about us. It frees us from the miserable, unquenchable pursuit to make something of ourselves by using others.
The gospel frees us from what one writer calls "the law of capability"---the law, he says, "that judges us wanting if we are not capable, if we cannot handle it all, if we are not competent to balance our diverse commitments without a slip." The gospel grants us the strength to admit we're weak and needy and restless---knowing that Christ's finished work has proven to be all the strength and fulfillment and peace we could ever want, and more. Since Jesus is our strength, our weaknesses don't threaten our sense of worth and value. Now we're free to admit our wrongs and weaknesses without feeling as if our flesh is being ripped off our bones.
That's what I mean in the book when I talk at length about the "now-power" of the gospel.
Why are Christians legalists when it comes to sanctification?
The way many Christians think about sanctification is that it's a step beyond our need for Jesus and his finished work on our behalf. In other words, we tend to think of justification as step one and sanctification as step two. And once we get to step two, we never need to go back to step one. We needed Jesus a lot for justification. We need him less for sanctification. The truth is, though, that sanctification is simply getting used to your justification--it's receiving Christ's words "It is finished" into our rebellious regions of unbelief.
As Luther put it, "To progress is always to begin again"--it's going back to the already secured reality of your justification and hitting the refresh button 1000 times a day. Going forward, in other words, requires a daily going backwards.
Legalism happens when what I need to do, instead of what Christ has already done, becomes the end game of my life. The gospel tells us the determining factor in my relationship with God is Jesus' work for us, not our work for him; his performance for us, not our performance for him; his obedience for us, not our obedience. The Gospel is the good news that God doesn't relate to us based on our feats for Jesus but Jesus feats for us. The gospel tells us that God's acceptance of us is not gained by our successes or forfeited by our failures---because it's not about us!
Martin Luther defined sin as "mankind turned inward." And sadly, the way many of us think about sanctification is terribly narcissistic. We spend too much time thinking about how we're doing, if we're growing, whether we're doing it right or not. We spend too much time pondering our failure and brooding over our spiritual successes. In short, we spend way too much time thinking about ourselves and what we need to do and far too little time thinking about Jesus and what he's already done. And what I've discovered is that the more I focus on my need to get better the worse I actually get--I become neurotic and self-absorbed. Preoccupation with my performance over Christ's performance for me makes me increasingly self-centered and morbidly introspective. This is the opposite of how the Bible describes what it means to be sanctified. Sanctification is forgetting about yourself.
Peter only began to sink when he took his eyes off Jesus and focused on "how he was doing." Anytime our natural fixture on self is rattled, shaken, turned from itself to that Man's blood, to that Man's cross, the devil runs!
When we stop narcissistically focusing on our need to get better that is what it means to get better. When we stop obsessing over our need to improve, that is what it means to improve!