The gospel is the life changing message for Christians. So what about those specific Scripture passages that call the Christian to active obedience?
Please know that I’m not writing this for theologians, pastors or seminarians. There are far better places one could go to pursue this issue. For instance, I would suggest Paul F. M. Zahl’s book, Grace in Practice: A Theology of Everyday Life, and Martin Luther’s The Freedom of a Christian and Commentary on Galatians.
First, you should know that Three Free Sins (and all of my other books, broadcasts, lectures and writings) never suggests that sin is okay and Christians should not pursue righteousness. I do, though, have a major concern that Christians—because they are often not conversant with the “whole counsel of God” in Scripture and the systematic understanding of God’s revelation—find and are drawn to verses that are condemning or seem to suggest that hell is reserved for those who are not obedient. Those verses—if taken out of the context of the text or of the entire revelation of Scripture—engender great guilt and condemnation. Those verses “scare the spit” out of us and seem to destroy the “good” in the “good news of the gospel.”
I’m not going to take the time here to reference the great number of verses in the Bible that are used to destroy God’s clear, pervasive and amazing revelation to us who have been justified by faith and have received (the imputation of) Christ’s righteousness.
For instance, I’m often given 1 John 3:6 (“No one who abides in him keeps on sinning”) or 1 Corinthians 6 where Paul gave a list of sins and said that no one who practices those sins “will inherit the kingdom of God.” Then there are the passages in Hebrews that are often quoted and seem to suggest that our salvation is tenuous. There are a pile of others.
Here’s the problem. Without a clear understanding of God’s entire message to his people, those kinds of verses are used by Satan to confuse and rob Christians of their peace, and used by preachers and teachers (even well intentioned ones) as a weapon to create guilt and condemnation in God’s people.
The truth: there really is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).
Okay, what about those verses?
Let me start from the beginning of God’s plan for the ages. God’s purpose in all creation and in all world history as revealed in a proper understanding of Scripture is this: A holy God is reaching out in love to helpless, needy and disobedient sinners, making them righteous by justification and imputation, and making them his own.
Paul said in 1 Corinthians 3:21-23, “all things are yours…the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are Christ’s…”
The writer of Hebrews said, “Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things….He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power. After making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high…” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
John wrote, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life—the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest to us…” (1 John 1:1-2).
The verses that are often quoted, preached and taught by those who are offended by the radical grace of God can all be put into the category of “law.” In other words, God always calls his people to obedience, holiness, faithfulness and sanctification. That never changes because God is immutable and he is who he is.
There are several aspects of the law of God which are important. The law, as I said, isn’t just found in the Ten Commandments…but revealed throughout Scripture. The law is the will of God revealed to his people and the Psalmist said that the law of God is “perfect.” In every place in Scripture where Christians are called to obedience—in a formal covenant, in the call of prophets, and in the New Testament’s admonitions to specific acts of love, forgiveness, obedience and faithfulness—there is a reflection of God’s holiness, his nature and his mind. It is here that we see the heart of God’s revelation for the people he loves.
That doesn’t change; but, thank God, that isn’t all the Bible says about the law.
When verses call you to obedience and faithfulness, and your heart grows fearful, don’t let those who don’t know what the Bible says rob you of God’s grace and love. They are the very people about whom Paul wrote in Galatians using the harshest of terms: “But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (Galatians 1:8-9).
What is the “gospel” that is “contrary” to the one to which Paul refers?
It’s a “gospel” filled with lies.
It is the lie suggesting that you can be as good and faithful as the law calls to you to be.
It is the lie suggesting that grace is fine…but you have to add to it all kinds of works of obedience and faithfulness, or the grace of God is no longer applicable.
It is the lie suggesting that if you don’t live by the law of God, he will break your legs.
It is the lie suggesting that if your life doesn’t live up to your beliefs, then you are lost.
The law of God (wherever it is found in Scripture) has one purpose for the Christian—to drive him or her to Christ whose mercy, forgiveness and love are without measure and always extant for believers. That is to bring forth praise and worship for his forgiveness when we have failed, and great praise and worship when we have succeeded.
I love the apostle John because he is, above all things, a pastor with a pastor’s heart. (If you aren’t a pastor, you can’t understand his teaching to and love for his people.) John wrote in 1 John 2:1-2:
“My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin…”
Alright, everybody gets that. I’ve never met a true Christian who didn’t want to be better than he or she was. But then John, the pastor, thought of his people and how they were beaten down with guilt, shame and sin. He thought of God’s people and wrote:
“But if anyone does sin [duh!], we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
Again in that letter, John wrote, “…whenever our heart condemns us [i.e. when we take verses out of context, listen to a condemning teacher/brother/sister who tells us that we are sinners and don’t have God’s grace and forgiveness], God is greater than our heart [our feelings, our spurious views, and our guilt and shame]” (1 John 3:20).
Each time a Christian is confronted with a call to obedience and faithfulness, a Christian who understands the covenant of grace will hear the Holy Sprit sending him or her to the heart of God’s love and forgiveness. Paul said that it was a saying “trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners of whom I am the foremost” (1 Timothy 1:15).
The law magnifies and promotes grace. The law teaches us important things about God—his ethical dealings with his people and the world, his purpose for us, the way the world works, why some things are good and others evil, the measurement of what holiness means, the place where God is leading his people—and then the law shows us not only our failure to live by it, but the realization that we can’t live by it. We’re just not good enough.
Let me give you a quote from Martin Luther’s letter to his beloved brother and colleague, George Spalatin, who was depressed over his sin and failure: “Therefore my faithful request and admonition is that you join our company and associate with us, who are real, great, and hard-boiled sinners. You must by no means make Christ to seem paltry and trifling to us, as though He could be our Helper only when we want to be rid from imaginary, nominal, and childish sins. No, no! That would not be good for us. He must rather be a Savior and Redeemer from real, great, grievous and damnable transgressions and iniquities, yea, from the very greatest and most shocking sins; to be brief, from all sins added together in a grand total.” (Taken from Robert Kolb & David A. Lumpp’s Martin Luther: Companion of the Contemporary Christian).
To close, another Martin Luther quote, this one from On the Freedom of a Christian:
“I believe that it has now become clear that it is not enough or in any sense ‘Christian’ to preach the works, life, and words of Christ…as if the knowledge of these would suffice for the conduct of life…Yet, this is the fashion among those who today [1500s] are regarded as our best preachers…and such teaching is childish and effeminate nonsense.
“Rather ought Christ to be preached to the end that faith in Him may be established that He may not only be Christ, but be Christ for you and me, and that which is said of Him and is denoted in His name may be effectual in us. Such faith is produced and preserved in us by preaching why Christ came, what He brought and bestowed, what benefit it is to us to accept Him…What person is there whose heart, upon hearing these things, will not rejoice to its depth and when receiving such comfort will not grow tender so that they will love Christ as they never could by means of any law or work?
“There are some who have no understanding to hear the truth of freedom and insist upon their goodness as means for salvation. These people you must resist, do the very opposite, and offend them boldly lest by their impious views they drag many with them into error. For the sake of liberty of the faith do other things which they regarded as the greatest of sins…use your freedom constantly and consistently in the sight of and despite the tyrants and stubborn so that they may learn that they are impious, that their law and works are of no avail for righteousness, and that they had no right to set them up.”