How Not to Supercharge your Spiritual Growth
If you put a gun to my head, you have just given me a lot of motivation to do what you say. This is basically the idea in a legalistic community. The logic is all there. Motivation springs forth from what you really love. If you can put what is beloved in jeopardy, then you have touched the source of motivation. If you can do it ultimately, then you have found the ultimate motivation. Make people believe that their relationship with God, both today and forever, depends upon their ability to live up to a standard, and that can give them much motivation. In the logic of man, this should mean that legalism would be the greatest tool for spiritual growth imaginable; it should be like rocket fuel for obedience and discipline. Paradoxically, it isn’t.
Don’t misunderstand though. Legalism does motivate, and it does produce fruit. But its motivation is flawed and the fruit it produces is bad. It must be understood that Legalism has at its very heart a flaw and this flaw makes it an impossible option. Legalism says “be godly, be godly by whatever means possible, and be godly in order to attain or maintain your position with God.” The flaw is thinking that human fallenness can produce divine holiness. It is like squeezing blood from a stone. It can’t be done. The fallenness of the unbeliever cannot produce true godliness, nor can the fallenness of the regenerate believer. The unbeliever is still dead in sin and so cannot produce the smallest fruit of holiness. The believer is alive in Christ, but not perfected in Christ…yet. That unperfected part, what the bible calls our flesh, cannot bring forth spiritual fruit. The bible calls for us to put it to death, not try to leverage it for spiritual growth. Paul told the Colossians:
20 why … do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!”… 22 in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence. Colossians 2:20–23
The fact that believers can bear the fruit of holiness is why legalism gets traction in churches. The legalist threatens everyone that if they don’t live godly they won’t ever be justified or they will lose their justified status. Unbelievers hear this, and they respond by faking it just enough and long enough to be convincing to those who are looking at them. But believers actually can often live godly and do bear some fruit. The tragedy is that the believers are wrongly told that legalism is what did it. If those believers can be convinced that legalism really did produce some fruit of godliness, then legalism gets a degree of validation. To the delight of the devil, there are Christians who believe this lie.
But what happens when legalism get this traction in Christians and churches? Remember the flaw that exists at the heart of legalism: Fallen flesh cannot produce holiness. In John 6:63 Jesus said, “It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing.” So legalism keeps pushing people with this gun to their head. It keeps saying, “Be godly or you lose everything.” And because believers are not pushed to what truly produces holiness, they fall back to the fleshly tactics that they see all around them. But fallen flesh cannot get the job done. And so the faking begins. Hiding sin becomes common practice. Hypocrisy begins to rule and people walk to a new drumbeat - Maintain the rules, condemn the wayward and the weary, create new rules, wave the gun around even more to freshen up the motivation.
But death and the threat of ultimate loss are not the only motivators. There is another source of motivation and that motivation is an infinitely better motivation: Glory. Beholding God's glory, and seeing beauty, life and joy in the gospel are motivators that bear good fruit. This is what the gospel does, it shows us what glory is. The gospel says that God has born all of our sin in Christ, that we are declared righteous in Christ forever, that grace holds us fast and not we ourselves, that God is 100% committed to giving us all we need to preserve forever, and that through faith alone we have God and he will never stop giving himself to us. This is overwhelming good news. This is the pearl of great price and the ultimate treasure for which a man, in his great joy, sold everything to have that treasure (Matthew 13:44).
With the gospel as the rock we stand on, we therefore pursue spiritual growth and good deeds. But it is not to earn life or to keep life. It is effort done through the Spirit, empowered by grace, and done to please and glorify the one who as overwhelmed us by love. This is not a burden and never moves us one step closer to hypocrisy. Why? Because hypocrisy is hiding a beloved sin. Christians don’t love sin, at least not for long, and we don’t hide it. When we sin, when we believe some lie offered up by the world, our flesh, or the devil, we don’t run away from God in fear that we lose our justified status. We confess our sin and bring it to the light because we know our sin has not taken us away from God. We are as secure in Christ as we ever were. The sin certainly is a problem. It is keeping us from enjoying all that God is for us in Christ. But it does not threaten our position in Christ. He is our Father and we are sons and daughters forever. He will discipline us, but it is because that is what loving fathers do (Hebrew 12:7).
So don’t be fooled by legalism. The threat of death and eternal loss is not good news, and the benefits legalism promises can’t be delivered on. Only the gospel frees us from our sin. Only the gospel opens to us the glory our hearts were made for. Only the gospel empowers growth and service that reflects the God who has redeemed us. Only the gospel gives us God.
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