Small Beginnings of True Obedience - Part 4

Small Beginnings of True Obedience - Part 4

Why This Matters

The first three parts of this series (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3) explored the Bible’s teaching surrounding this concept. In this part we will explore why and how it impacts our Christian life. Does this discussion really make a difference for God’s glory, our joy in him, and our daily living? I believe it does. If we get this wrong, unbelievers will get the wrong idea about Christianity and believers’ growth in Christ will be slowed. God will not be as glorified and his people will not be filled with as much joy in him.

Think of one of the main charges leveled against Christians by our non-Christians: “you all are a bunch of hypocrites,” they regularly say. But we are only hypocrites if we claim to be good people and not good people in reality. God has changed our positional status before him, changed our core identity, and begun real work of practical change in us to make us into better people. But we do not claim to be mostly righteous people. So we are not hypocrites if we sin! We know that even after we become Christians and begin the journey of becoming more like Christ in practice, we still have only a small beginning of right motives, affections, and actions when compared with the character of Jesus Christ. As the Christian asks for his “daily bread” in the Lord’s prayer on a daily basis, he also asks for forgiveness on a daily basis (Matt 6:11-12). As Christians, we continually trust in Jesus alone for the righteousness that comes by faith (Heb 3:6, 14, 4:4, 13:9; 1 Cor 1:18; Acts 20:32; Col 1:6, 23, 2:6-7; 1 Jn 2:24; Gal 3:1-3; 2 Tim 2:1; Tit 2:11-12; 1 Cor 15:1-2; etc). If we are seeing God’s holiness, our sin, and our continual need for Christ’s work of rescue, our conversations with those who are not yet Christians will become less and less about us trying to put on our best behavior in order to show them how great of people we are. Instead, we will humbly speak to others about our brokenness and how far short we (still!) fall of God’s standard, but how Jesus pays the entire debt for those who trust in Him alone for their righteousness.[1] Since the power of sin has been gloriously broken by Jesus Christ, those who are not yet Christians will see some good deeds of ours and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matt 5:16). But we should openly tell them about what we struggle with, and how amazing it is that God has already accepted us because of the gospel, given us a new nature, and enabled us to begin the fight against sin and grow in holiness by the power of the Holy Spirit. Christians are explicitly commanded to confess our sins to one another (Jas 5:16) and to put away hypocrisy (lit: acting; 1 Pet 2:1; Luke 12:1). Seeking to merely appear righteous outwardly to others does no good (Matt 23:28). Our confession of weakness and authenticity before others displays Christ as a glorious Savior. If Christians miss this Biblical concept, we will have many problems.

1.      Most importantly, our love for God and gratitude to him dwindles because we forget how much we have been (and are being) forgiven (Luke 7:41-47; c.f. 1 Jn 1:8; Matt 6:5). A key element of Christian maturity is seeing our sin. It is often true that many Christians end up wallowing in their sin and viewing themselves as still enslaved to sin, unable to ever change. This is a very unhealthy and unbiblical way to live the Christian life. Seeing our sin properly is a means to the goal of seeing the love of God for us in the gospel, rejoicing in our new status as children of God, and enjoying Christ for all that he is. The love of God is displayed in Christ’s wrath-bearing sacrifice on the cross (1 John 4:9-10) to pay for the past, present, and future sins of Christians. When we lose an understanding of the love of God to us in the gospel, our love for him in response stops growing. We lose the power to break free of the idol of self (2 Cor 5:14-15; Eph 3:16-19). God’s delight in us (Zeph 3:17; Isa 62:5, 65:19) becomes less shocking and less beautiful to us, and we start to think we deserve it: why would he not now delight in overall good people like us? We are earning it! We subtly start to think of grace as something we only needed in the past, since we presently see ourselves as overall righteous people in practice. We lose an excitement about the gospel of grace, which kills our joy in Jesus Christ.

2.      We lose an understanding of the grace of God to us in our new status as adopted children. It is wonderful news that our Father in heaven has brought us into his family through Christ and rejoices in us! It is glorious that he is now actually pleased with our obedience. He wants us to rejoice in our new status as his adopted children! But what he wants us to understand from his pleasure in our beginnings of obedience is not for us to think that our obedience is close to perfect. He wants us to continually see his graciousness and love in adopting us into his family as his children (Eph 1:5) and setting his affection on us when we did not deserve it and still do not deserve it. He wants us to see his graciousness in breaking the power of sin and enabling us to begin to obey, so that he can cheer on our mumbling prayers like a good parent cheers on the communication of their 9 month old baby. He has clothed us with Christ’s imputed righteousness. He is now pleased with us as a loving Father is pleased with his children, because he is so kind and loving and merciful, not because we are anywhere close to perfect.

3.      We are stripped of the joy of understanding more of the depths of the love of Christ and what he has done to cover us with his righteousness and bring us to God. When we lose joy in God, we lose strength (Neh 8:10) and true obedience (Deut 28:45-48). Although it may look like we are growing in obedience, much of this will be external conformity. The gospel of grace and remembering the greatness of the sins we are cleansed from is what continually builds up Christians and trains us to be obedient from the heart (Tit 2:11-12; Acts 20:32; 2 Pet 1:5-9). Seeing the glory of Christ in the gospel, and having gratitude to him for his work (Col 1:11-12) is what conforms us into his image (2 Cor 3:18-4:5), killing our deceitful internal desires that lead us to sin (Eph 4:22; Jas 1:14-15, 4:1-2), and building our faith (Rom 8:32).

4.      We stop confessing sin to others, or only confess the respectable sins because we fear people will think that we are strange if we wrestle with something that is perceived to only be an issue for unbelievers. Instead of thinking of each other as those who are covered in the righteousness of Christ but yet who still have many sin issues practically, we think others have it together for the most part, and we are the strange ones because we see our sin more clearly. We therefore cut ourselves off to the benefits of true gospel community, because no one knows what we are truly going through and how to encourage us or pray for us.

5.      We lose a passion for discipleship. If everyone is doing well and only struggling with a few little things, the urgency of discipleship dwindles. We may as well just hang out and talk about sports, shopping, our children’s physical milestones, movies, clothes, and houses. Or, we become practical Pharisees in our discipleship of others, thinking we are stirring others on to holiness by promoting external conformity to rules while we talk about God and theology in a purely intellectual way.

6.      We lose concern for the lost, or we become self-righteous and condescending towards them. Because we have become so accustomed to thinking of ourselves and other believers as the really good people, our self-righteousness causes us to be disgusted at our neighbors and either avoid them because they are the bad ones who will rub off on us somehow, or because we think the reason why they are not as good as us is because they are lazy or we made the better choice (forgetting the humbling implications of the doctrine of election).

7.      We are surprised when we are sinned against and we adopt a self-righteous mindset: “How is this person a Christian and still that messed up? Yes I am not perfect and I sin occasionally, but I have things down for the most part unlike all of these other people.” We regularly question the salvation of professing Christians who have not yet risen to the certain level of holiness that we require of them before we believe their profession (e.g. how quickly they must repent of their sins after conversion, pridefully assuming that we always repent of our sins immediately when we are confronted with them).

8.      We lose an ability to be corrected by others and we are defensive when others bring up our sin (Prov 9:8, 12:1, 13:1; 15:32; 17:10; 2 Tim 3:16-17). We will be prideful and not quick to listen to others and learn (Jas 1:19; Prov 1:7, 4:13, 8:33, 9:9, 10:17, 11:2, 23:23), since we are already good in our overall actions, motivations, and affections.

To my friends who are not yet Christians, please understand that we Christians do not believe we are the really good people and everyone else is far below us. I am sure that you have been sinned against by a Christian, and I am sure it was hurtful. By God’s grace, we do have the beginnings of real love for God and real love for others, but remember that we do not claim to be awesome people. God is slowly changing us and we are becoming better people in practice, but it is a slow process and is often very ugly. The reason why we are Christians is because we know we are (still!) messed up and that Jesus is the good one who paid for our sins on the cross. So we ask you to put your hope in Jesus Christ for your salvation, joy, and happiness. He is the one who will never fail you.

In closing, I pose these questions to myself and my fellow Christians: do we see ourselves as those who only have a small beginning of obedience in practice? If not, we need to grow in our understanding of the holiness of God and an awareness of our sin, so we can increasingly rejoice in Christ, his cross, and his love. Do we see Christianity as a competition with others to become the best, leading us to hypocrisy because we want to come across as godly? We are not fooling God. We are more sinful and wicked than we know, which should lead us to humbly rejoice in God that we are perfectly loved, delighted in, and treasured children of our Father. May the truths of this gospel lead us to abundant humility before God and others and an honest lifestyle of walking in the light, so that we can glorify the slain Lamb by enjoying him more deeply and becoming more like him from the inside out. Timothy Keller sums it all up: “The gospel is this: We are more sinful and flawed in ourselves than we ever dared believe, yet at the very same time we are more loved and accepted in Jesus Christ than we ever dared hope.”[2]

-1689Society Contributor: David T

[1] Consider this excellent example of gospel-centered evangelism written by a Christian to an unbelieving friend: "March 23, 1956 Mr. E, Harrisburg, Pa. Dear Mr E., Thanks for your card concerning the use of the Lord's name, and I feel that I should explain my position about profanity. First, I do not deserve any apologies because taking the Lord's name in vain does not hurt me since I am only a sinner like you. However, this should convince you of one thing and that is what the Bible says about man being at enmity with God, that this is proved by our blaspheming his name...I say the fact that you use profanity could prove to be a blessing, for most men stay away from the Savior because they do not recognize their need. Once a man is convinced that he is a sinner, that he is at enmity with God and that actually he hates God by his very action and life - when these things become real the next step will be obvious, and that is he will flee to the Savior for the forgiveness of sin and the hope of eternal life. I want you to understand that I am just a rotten old drunken sinner who has fled to the cross of Christ with all my sin and shame and cried out for mercy. I am thankful that there I found forgiveness and mercy for my never-dying soul. Enclosed is a little copy of part of my testimony, 'I've Found a Sure Thing', also a businessman's message to the members of his staff which I am sure you will enjoy. I would be happy to talk with you about these things further sometime and I do appreciate your thoughtfulness in sending me the little card. As I said before, it was unnecessary to apologize to me since I am a sinner like you. Sincerely yours, Ernest C. Resinger.” Geoffrey Thomas, Ernest C. Reisinger: A Biography (Carlise, PA: Banner of Truth Trust, 2002).

[2] Timothy J. Keller, The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God (New York: Penguin Group, 2011), 44.

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