Before you read today’s post, please scroll down and read part 1.
In my early years as a youth pastor, I watched God do some amazing things. A group of students at Lane Technical High School–my alma mater and Illinois’ largest high school at that time–had launched a Bible Study. Ruth V, Ruth K, Mary S, and a couple of others. They dreamed of reaching their peers for Christ. After a few weeks, they invited me to be their regular Bible teacher. What an experience!
These students packed into a house, eighty strong. No shoes. Smelly feet. But a hunger to hear God. I brought a big box of old Bibles, the lost and found from my church. I didn’t try to be relevant, just biblical, figuring that the Bible was relevant enough on its own, especially when consecutively taught. We worked our way paragraph by paragraph through the book of Colossians. It took us most of the school year.
And dozens of students were radically saved. The original group that launched the Bible study was so faithful in embracing their friends for Jesus. They were a catalyst for God to work throughout the whole school. The captains of the football, soccer, and baseball team all received Jesus, as did scores more.
But that’s not my point in telling the story, though how I would love a Bible study like that again.
I tell this story because of a lesson that first hit me while I was preparing for one of those Wednesday afternoon high school Bible studies. I was completely captivated by this verse:
“To this end I also labor, striving according to His working which works in me mightily.” Colossians 1:29, NKJV.
Last year, I think, I brought a soda can and a hammer to my pulpit. I set the can on a little stool and suggested to our congregation that every time I preach an “ought,” it can feel like I’m bopping them on the head with my hammer. So I tapped the can with a hammer.
- “Pray more.” Tap.
- “Serve more. Give more.” Tap, tap.
- “Love more, sacrifice more, it’s not about you any more.” Tap, tap, tap.
- “Be a better dad, mom, husband, wife, employee, employer.” Tap, tap, tap, tap, tap.
- “Why aren’t you a missionary?” Tapety, tap, tap.
- “Don’t worry… be happy.” Tap, tap.
- “Do what Jesus would do.” TAP, TAP, TAP.
- “Fall in love with Jesus.” TAP, TAP, TAP.
It didn’t take long to crush the can.
And it doesn’t take long to crush the human spirit, especially the spirit of a child of God who desires to honor Jesus.
Am I saying not to preach the “oughts?” Of course not. We ignore the moral imperatives of Scripture at great peril to our nation, churches, families, and selves.
What I am saying is that to PREACH THE MORAL IMPERATIVES WITHOUT COUPLING THEM WITH DIVINE ENABLEMENTS IS LEGALISM.
Legalism as bad as any Pharisee’s. As bad as any old-time pulpit-pounder’s. As bad as the Judaizer’s. May I echo Scripture’s loving sentiment….
“I only wish that those troublemakers who want to mutilate you by circumcision would mutilate themselves.” Galatians 5:12, NLT.
Paul did the labor, but God did the work. Paul never lost sight of that fact. He broke the sweat, but it was according to God’s inner energy (energeia) which energized (energeomai) him powerfully (en dunamis). See how I threw some Greek at you there? Impressive, huh?
So millions of faithful Christians attend their churches week after week to hear, in effect, how they don’t measure up, and that if only they would take steps one, two and three, they would measure up. Indeed, steps one, two, and three work. But only for a while. Not because the steps are wrong, but because the inner power and motivation are absent.
No wonder people are dropping out in droves.
God has once for all coupled our Christlikeness with his divine power. What God has joined together, let no one separate.
It is legalism to uncouple obedience to God from empowerment from God. Christians used to say, God’s commandments are God’s enablements… meaning that He will never command you to do something without giving you the power.
That’s true, but it doesn’t go far enough. It doesn’t tell you HOW he gives you his power.
Yesteday I listed 3 options and promised a 4th:
- Drop out of church altogether.
- Fake it (and feel guilty over your repeated failures, but don’t let anybody see the mess within)…
- I add here that faking it is the duty of your flesh (your Inner Mess), which can imitate the entire Christian life in a carnal, sickly way… working out of obligation, guilt, duty, and shame. Our legalism only stimulates the flesh. No wonder the church is emanating such a stinking odor to the world!
- Get therapy because there’s obviously something way wrong with you.
Here’s the fourth one:
4. Always couple the moral imperatives of Scripture with the indwelling life of Christ.
I love how Vince K (a wonderful friend and pastor) said it in his comment yesterday. He asked are the “ought’s”–the moral imperatives of Scripture–an obligation laid on our shoulders or on God’s?
The only way to protect ourselves and our churches from 21st Century Legalism is by routinely coupling the “oughts” with the supernatural divine reality that I can do NOTHING of myself; I can’t, but HE CAN. The power is God’s or forget about it.
We must teach this from every angle at every opportunity. We must stop sending well-meaning Christians on a moral wild-goose chase. We must stop bopping them on the head with the hammer of our oughts. We must stop deflating their spirits. We must, instead, inflate them with precious promises by which we become partakers of the divine nature (morally speaking, 2 Pet. 1:4).
How have we gotten to this point?
By being practical. Practicality is the greatest mistake to hit preaching in a few centuries. Why? Because our rush to be practical has killed the mystery of “Christ in you.” It has given the church an excuse to put theology on a shelf. And that lack of theology, that lack of understanding the method of grace, is killing us. You can’t live like Christ unless you think like Christ. and you can’t think like Christ without knowing the deep doctrines of Scripture. But who’ll sit still for that these days?
This is why any attempt to separate right living (orthopraxy) from right doctrine (orthodoxy) is doomed… sorry Brian McLaren. I actually had a seminary student–an emerging church pastor– say, “I don’t care what he believes as long as he’s fallen in love with Jesus.”
Yucch. I confess… I swore.
I’m not talking about delivering seminary lectures from the pulpit. I’m talking about the real-life connection between theology and WWJD… being preached and explained and made real from the pulpit.
We must ALWAYS, without fail, couple the “oughts” with a confession and a profession.
- The confession is that I cannot do these things, no matter how hard or sincere my attempts.
- The profession is that Christ in me can do them; he can do all things, and by him so can I. It’s HIS POWER!
- ““I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me.” Galatians 2:20, NKJV.
- ““I do not set aside the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the law, then Christ died in vain.”” Galatians 2:21, NKJV.
- “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and His grace toward me was not in vain; but I labored more abundantly than they all, yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” 1 Corinthians 15:10, NKJV.
- “But Jesus looked at them and said, “With men it is impossible, but not with God; for with God all things are possible.”” Mark 10:27, NKJV.
That high school Bible study holds a special place in my heart for a lot of reasons. One of them is the discovery of Col 1:29. I labor, but it’s his power. That’s the only way to avoid 21st Century Legalism.
Where does the power come from and how do we activate it? It comes from the filling of the Holy Spirit, activating the Indwelling Life of Christ, buttressed by an intact Grace Lineup of the Soul (a.k.a. spiritual maturity)…. switched on by faith.
Hey, maybe I’ll preach out that. Or write a book about it. Or blog it… what do you think?