Duty and Delight

“A perfect man would never act from a sense of duty; he’d always want the right thing more than the wrong one. Duty is only a substitute for love (of God and of other people) like a crutch which is a substitute for a leg. Most of us need the crutch at times; but of course it is idiotic to use the crutch when our own legs (our own loves, tastes, habits, etc.) can do the journey on their own.”

—C.S. Lewis, Letters, 18 July 1957.

“Obedience is its own reward”

On Sunday Covenant Life Church was given a gift of a sermon from Joshua Harris’s father, Gregg Harris, on the topic of parenting. The entire message is worth a listen (as is Joshua’s Mother’s Day message). The following excerpt previewed the topic of parenting and highlights an essential character of the wisdom literature.

Gregg Harris said,

“The thing that we sometimes fail to understand about God’s Word, and the wisdom that it offers us, is that it’s intended to be the light upon our path. Some of us read our Bible’s like a man looking into the glare of his flashlight in a dark cave. He is as blind as if he had no light at all because he is not relating what Scripture says with what he’s doing. It’s intended to be a light upon the path. Sometimes we fall into the mistaken notion that when we obey God’s Word we are putting God in our debt [legalism]. But obedience is its own reward. When you step over something that’s in your way because you are walking in the light of God’s Word, you don’t suddenly turn to God and say, ‘Okay, God, I obeyed now pay me!’ The fact that you did not fall on your face is reward enough. And sometimes we fail to make that connection. Wisdom itself is that ability to see how one thing relates to another in God’s purposes. That this relates to that because of who He is (and He is good and wise). And when we understand this the commandments of the Lord and the wisdom literature of the Bible become a delight to us, not a burden. It is not a distraction from what would have been more enjoyable but rather it’s rescuing from what would have been horrible.”

Gregg Harris, sermon, “Don’t Waste Your Kids,” July 27, 2008 at Covenant Life Church (1:39-3:15 markers).

The excerpt reminded me of a sermon by Jonathan Edwards that connected the goodness of God in giving his wisdom and the happiness of man in obeying that wisdom. He said, “Knowing the terribleness of the misery that we shall bring upon ourselves by our disobedience and our own blindness, folly, and backwardness to obedience, He graciously condescends to urge us, and uses and abundance of arguments with us, to persuade us to obedience.” And later Edwards said, “If God should leave men wholly to themselves, to their own exorbitant and wicked dispositions, without any restraints, men would make a hell for themselves. It is a great part of the misery of hell that sin has there its full and free course, and has no restraints.” [1]

For more on this idea that “obedience is its own reward” read Deuteronomy 6:24, 10:12-13, and Proverbs 9:12. May we see God’s kindness in giving His wisdom and be people who delight in His law (Psalm 1:1-2).


[1] Don Kistler, ed. The Puritan Pulpit American Series: Jonathan Edwards (Soli Deo Gloria, 2004) pp. 236, 240.

A kinder, gentler path to legalism

tsslogo.jpgLast night 60 Minutes aired a segment on popular pastor and author Joel Osteen. Michael Horton, Professor of Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, appeared briefly. Horton has spoken out with concern over Osteen’s message. Here’s one concern that strikes me:

“There is no condemnation in Osteen’s message for failing to fulfill God’s righteous law. On the other hand, there is no justification. Instead of either message, there is an upbeat moralism that is somewhere in the middle: ‘Do your best, follow the instructions I give you, and God will make your life successful.’ …

Instead of accepting God’s just verdict on our own righteousness and fleeing to Christ for justification, Osteen counsels readers simply to reject guilt and condemnation. Yet it is hard to do that successfully when God’s favor and blessing on my life depend entirely on how well I can put his commands to work. ‘If you will simply obey his commands, He will change things in your favor.’ That’s all: ‘…simply obey his commands.’

Everything depends on us, but it’s easy. … Osteen seems to think that we are basically good people and God has a very easy way for us to save ourselves — not from his judgment, but from our lack of success in life — with his help. ‘God is keeping a record of every good deed you’ve ever done,’ he says — as if this is good news. ‘In your time of need, because of your generosity, God will move heaven and earth to make sure you are taken care of.’

It may be ‘Law Lite,’ but make no mistake about it: behind a smiling Boomer Evangelicalism that eschews any talk of God’s wrath, there is a determination to assimilate the gospel to law, an announcement of victory to a call to be victorious, indicatives to imperatives, good news to good advice. The bad news may not be as bad as it used to be, but the good news is just a softer version of the bad news: Do more. But this time, it’s easy! And if you fail, don’t worry. God just wants you to do your best. He’ll take care of the rest.

So who needs Christ? At least, who needs Christ as ‘the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world’ (Jn 1:29)? The sting of the law may be taken out of the message, but that only means that the gospel has become a less demanding, more encouraging law whose exhortations are only meant to make us happy, not to measure us against God’s holiness.

So while many supporters offer testimonials to his kinder, gentler version of Christianity than the legalistic scolding of their youth, the only real difference is that God’s rules or principles are easier and it’s all about happiness here and now, not being reconciled to a holy God who saves us from ourselves. In its therapeutic milieu, sin is failing to live up to our potential, not falling short of God’s glory. We need to believe in ourselves and the wages of such ‘sins’ is missing out on our best life now. But it’s still a constant stream of exhortation, demands, and burdens: follow my steps and I guarantee your life will be blessed.”

– Michael S. Horton article, Joel Osteen and the Glory Story: A Case Study

Horton’s comments are reminiscent of J. Gresham Machen’s view that the theological liberalism of his own day was not a new path of freedom but a “sublimated form of legalism” [see Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 143-156].

Instead of preaching that God “has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places,” the popular trend says, “God blesses you with all physical blessing because you have asked enough and obeyed a certain way to unleash the blessing.”

Horton and Machen both recognize that while contemporary shifts in preaching may seem to liberate the believer, the opposite happens — God’s promised blessing becomes contingent on personal obedience. This is the very bondage to the Law Christ frees us from!

So why has God blessed your life? Why do you have life? A job? Money? Food? Clothes? Are your successes expected because God likes you more than others? Are you blessed because your obedience is superior? The proper answer is that all of God’s blessing comes to us in Christ. We don’t get what we deserve (His wrath), we get what we don’t deserve (grace, forgiveness and blessing from God through the death of Christ).

At the end of the day the prosperity gospel is a radical break from Scripture that tells us we have already received everything necessary from God in Christ.

The Gospel – the message that sinners are justified by faith alone in the perfect life and work of Christ alone – is the true path to eternal blessing and freedom. When this Gospel is clouded (or even forgotten), we no longer get a clear view of God or eternal reality by which we interpret our world, our job, our pain, our successfulness.

In the end, to presume God’s blessing is an award for obedience is bondage to age-old legalism, albeit with a kinder and gentler face.


RELATED POST: A short essay answering the question, What is legalism? (5/22/07)

RELATED POST: “Like pangs of death”: Letting go of legalism (3/19/07)

RELATED POST: Cross-centered obedience (08/16/07)

RELATED POST: Deeper into the Glories of Calvary (09/03/07)

RELATED POST: Sinclair Ferguson on supporting the imperatives to holiness (07/23/07)

RELATED: What constitutes ‘relevant preaching’? … “The Christian is in the midst of a sore battle. And as for the condition of the world at large — nothing but the coldest heartlessness could be satisfied with that. It is certainly true that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. Even in the Christian life there are things that we should like to see removed; there are fears within as well as fightings without; even within the Christian life there are sad evidences of sin. But according to the hope which Christ has given us, there will be final victory, and the struggle of this world will be followed by the glories of heaven. That hope runs all through the Christian life; Christianity is not engrossed by this transitory world, but measures all things by the thought of eternity.” Machen in Christianity and Liberalism (Eerdmans: 1923) pp. 147, 149.

Cross-centered obedience

tsslogo.jpgThe way I see it, the most delicate balance of the Christian life is in maintaining a Cross-centered perspective and pursuing personal obedience. Push a little too hard on the one side, I fall into self-righteousness and legalism, thinking God’s acceptance of me is rooted in personal obedience. This is spiritual suicide. Or I fall on the other side in thinking the Cross demotes personal obedience to the status of “minor importance.” This too is wrong.

In John 15:1-17 Christ gives us a radical alternative. Here He teaches us that the high calling of personal obedience presses us into the Cross-centered life. Let me explain.

Obedience and comfort

I’ll begin with a hypothetical. What if you somehow discovered that your friend was going to endure, over the next week, the most horrible experience of their life? They will learn another close and beloved friend has experienced a ghastly and painful death. What words today would you leave with your friend to prepare them for the coming pain?

My guess is that we would speak only words of comfort. We would weep with those about to weep. God is faithful, we would say. He will be with you. He will not leave you even in the darkest times.

I think we would agree that – on this brink of tragedy – it would be odd and out of place to call our friend to pursue personal obedience.

Yet on the brink of the crucifixion this is exactly what Christ does. As the disciples are about to forsake the Son and see Him crucified, Christ prepares them by calling them to pursue obedience and fruitfulness (John 15:1-17).

‘Abide in my love’

“Abide in my love” Jesus tells the remaining 11 disciples (v. 9). The Cross will forever exhibit the greatest expression of love ever displayed (v. 13). It’s here, on the Cross, that Christ gives His Body to be murdered to bear the wrath of God’s judgement as the Substitute. He will bear our guilt. He will bear our sins. The wrath we deserve will be redirected into the perfect Son. This is the greatest love. So rest, delight, dwell, find your life, “abide” in this love.

This is to say the spiritual life of the Christian is sustained by the Cross. “Abide in my love” is Jesus’ call to live and breathe and find all nourishment and life in the Cross. Paul says it well, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20). The Christian life is now sustained “by faith” in the Cross of Christ!

All my righteousness before God and all my spiritual vibrancy derive from this love, this Cross!

Fruit for the Father

In light of the Cross I think it is natural (though not accurate) to de-value personal obedience. Quite the opposite! By giving us the spiritual life necessary, the Cross actually strengthens the call of Christian obedience.

For the Christian (those with “new life”) only abiding in the life-giving Cross makes fruitfulness possible! Previously, the sinner outside the Christ was nothing more than a dead branch seeking to bear fruit but dehydrated from all spiritual life. Christ is our life.

Tucked in verse 8 we glimpse at the very heart of the Trinitarian motivations behind the Cross. Jesus says His Father is glorified when we bear fruit. The fruitfulness of the saint is a direct growth from the life and nourishment of the Cross. Think of it this way: We bear fruit by abiding in the Cross, the fruit of the branches is plucked by the Son and then carried to the Father in a bushel basket as an offering of glorification from the Son to the Father. Here we see the profound motives of Christ to glorify the Father.

In this cycle of the saints feeding off the Cross and bearing fruit, of the Son plucking the fruit and offering His Father the glory, we see Cross-centered thinking and diligent obedience come together. It’s important that we fight the tendency to emphasize works over the Cross and the tendency to think the Cross makes obedience an optional or secondary pursuit.

The calling to pursue diligent obedience and bear fruit came packaged with a stern warning that fruitless branches are thrown into the fire (v. 6). So why the hard demands of Jesus to bear fruit? How can He get away with such strong words? Here’s why: His Cross can sustain the weight of these high demands.

The point!

Here is what I’m getting at. In light of the coming tragedy, Christ raises the bar of obedience and fruit-bearing expectations for His disciples. This is how Jesus saw fit to comfort His disciples in the coming storm! He knew the higher the bar was raised in personal obedience the deeper He would drive the disciples into Himself.

We cannot miss this: The high calling to pursue personal obedience will (graciously) press the saint into Christ and into the Cross. And this means, at a profound level, the Cross-centered life is compromised by laziness in the pursuit of personal obedience.

Tony’s Book Club pick #4: The Knowledge of the Holy by A.W. Tozer (0060684127, book review)

Weighing in at just 3.4 ounces, Tozer’s Knowledge of the Holy is a tiny book with a heavyweight hook! Of all the great works out there on the attributes of God, this is my favorite.

I was first introduced to Tozer when I led a group of local college students through the book, The Pursuit of God (another excellent, must-read). I was drawn especially to Tozer’s simplicity, biblical depth and straight talk. In articulating the sweet communion the believer enjoys with God, Tozer communicates with a clarity no author (except maybe Martyn Lloyd-Jones) can match. Pound-for-pound, no writer provides the preacher more quotes than Tozer!

The Knowledge of the Holy is a 23-chapter, 120-page study of the attributes of God. It is the perfect size for group studies or to recommend to readers who have trouble with larger books.

Tozer covers the attributes you would expect (immutability, omniscience, transcendence, omnipresence, faithfulness, goodness, justice, mercy, grace, love and sovereignty of God). But he throws in some chapters that often are forgotten in short attribute studies, like the Self-sufficiency and Self-existence of God.

Tozer writes out of a burden that each generation holds tightly to an accurate view of God.

“Before the Christian Church goes into eclipse anywhere there must first be a corrupting of her simple basic theology. She simply gets a wrong answer to the question, ‘What is God like?’ and goes on from there. Though she may continue to cling to a sound nominal creed, her practical working creed has become false. The masses of her adherents come to believe that God is different from what He actually is; and that is heresy of the most insidious and deadly kind” (p. 4). And on the page earlier he wrote, “Low views of God destroy the gospel for all who hold them.”

Tozer’s presentation of the attributes of God is passionate because a wrong understanding of God is (as he writes) ‘deadly.’ Our generation must look beyond the creedal affirmations we inherited and ask the honest question: Who do I believe God is? And since each Christian comprises the Church, this self-examination is necessary for everyone in the church (see p. 114).

Tozer properly shows that an accurate understanding of God flows first from faith in God and the accuracy of His Word. Without faith in the impossible (the resurrection, for example) there will never be a clear understanding of who God is. In the eternal, revelation must precede reason.

The danger for our generation (and every generation) comes when we fashion God into our own golden-calf-image. God is who He is and remains who He is. And, “were every man on earth to become an atheist, it could not affect God in any way. He is what He is in Himself without regard to any other. To believe in Him adds nothing to His perfections; to doubt Him takes nothing away” (p. 33).

It is the Christian’s duty and joy to pursue this God and Tozer proves himself to be a reliable guide in the journey.

Why be Cross-centered?

Near the end of His earthly life, Jesus gave His perplexed disciples the precious words now synonymous with the Lord’s Supper: “And He took bread, and when He had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is My body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of Me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in My blood’” (Luke 22:19-20).

For the disciples, Jesus’ anticipation of an impending Cross was as comprehensible to them as a toddler flipping through a microbiology textbook. For them the importance of the Cross will remain shrouded until after the Resurrection.

In these words, Jesus reveals the prominence of the Cross in His thinking. The disciples may have been confused but Jesus was fully aware that He would soon be forsaken by earth, forsaken by heaven, and hang alone between them both.

In other words, Jesus had a full awareness of the coming Cross. His consciousness included a detailed appreciation of His own death and an expectation of its painful details. His lonely ‘quiet times’ must have certainly been filled with meditations on Isaiah 53, as His own prophetic biography was laid out in the ancient Hebrew words. “Crushed” and “stricken” were in his immediate future.

So let’s pause right here and ask the question: Why are we Cross-centered? Why are the greatest songs we sing filled with the crucifixion event? Why do our sermons drip with the blood of the Lamb who was slain? Why do we exult in the foolishness of God and endure the rebuke of the world? Simply stated, we are Cross-centered because Christ was Cross-centered.

John Stott in his magnum opus The Cross of Christ (IVP: Downers Grove, IL) writes: “Why do we ‘cling to the old rugged cross’ (in the words of a rather sentimental, popular hymn), and insist on its centrality, refusing to let it be pushed to the circumference of our message? Why must we proclaim the scandalous, and glory in the shameful? The answer lies in the single word ‘integrity.’ Christian integrity consists partly in a resolve to unmask the caricatures, but mostly in personal loyalty to Jesus, in Whose mind the saving cross was central” (p. 43).

Living the Cross-centered life is to strike the dart squarely on the bull’s-eye upon which Christ focused His life, ministry and death. Loyalty to Jesus demands that we see the centrality of the Cross in everything because He saw the Cross as central to everything.

This, according to Stott, is the loyalty expected from all Christians and churches whether or not we fully understand the implications right now and whether or not the Cross-centered life is easy or hard. To aim at anything else is to hit a mere caricature of our purpose in life.

So live Cross-centered with confidence:

– Teach the forgiveness and grace of the Cross when disciplining your children.
– Preach the Cross to yourself when condemnation and personal sin haunt your heart.
– Love your wife as Christ loved the church, modeling the sacrifice of the Cross.
– Build friendships with believers and unbelievers with the Cross as the ultimate purpose.
– Boast and rejoice in the Cross as the heartbeat of your life as its lifeblood flows to warm the lukewarm heart.

Whether we can or cannot understand the full plan of God right now, we can rest assured that living a Cross-centered life is the purpose driving the Christian life!

Simply put: Live the Cross-centered life. It’s what Jesus would do.