We must be careful not to confuse the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life. The former is a gift of grace through the imputed righteousness of Christ making us right before God, the latter is the fruit or results of one who has been born-again, justified and adopted as God’s child. Paul writes to Titus, “For the grace of God that brings salvation has appeared to all men. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age.” (Titus 2:11-12). While we must avoid the error of legalism, a system of belief that says one is justified (made right with God) by faith plus the merit of our own works which is an obedience-based acceptance, it is equally important that we avoid the error of antinomianism, a system of belief that says one doesn’t need to give any proof of a life of repentance and virtue as evidence of being justified, an obedience-free acceptance. The grace of God does not exclude the Christian from obedience to God’s moral commands. Instead, in the gospel, our new motive is to eagerly desire to live righteously so that obedience becomes the natural expression of our grateful hearts, an acceptance-based obedience. Only in the gospel can we actually give complete loyalty and obedience to Christ and live a life of faith expressing itself through love.
I have recently discovered a theologian who beautifully communicates this careful balance in his classic work, True Christianity. He was often referred to as “the second Luther” by his contemporaries and yet another well-known theologian called him, “the prophet of interior protestantism.” Johann Arndt (1555-1621) was the first Luther scholar to see that “justification by faith alone” does not preclude doing good works but actually unleashes good works in the Christian. He has said,
“Many think that theology is a mere science, or rhetoric, whereas it is a living experience and practice. Everyone now endeavors to be eminent and distinguished in the world, but no one is willing to learn to be devoted. Everyone now seeks out men of great learning, from whom one may learn the arts, languages, and wisdom, but no one is willing to learn, from our only teacher, Jesus Christ, meekness and sincere humility, although his holy, living example is the proper rule and directive for our life…Everyone wishes very much to be a servant of Christ, but no one wishes to be his follower… He who loves Christ will also love the example of his holy life, his humility, meekness, patience, suffering, shame, and contempt, even if the flesh suffers pain…True Christianity consists, not in words or in external show, but in living faith, from which arise righteous fruits, and all manner of Christian virtues, as from Christ himself.”
Arndt is regularly careful to avoid the errors of legalism and antinomianism. Here is an example:
“You must take care that you do not connect your works and the virtues that you have begun, or the gifts of the new life, with your justification before God, for none of man’s works, merit, gifts, or virtue, however lovely these may be, count for anything. Our justification depends on the exalted, perfect merit of Jesus Christ, received by faith…Take great care, therefore, not to confound the righteousness of faith with the righteousness of a Christian life, but make a clear distinction (between them), for here is the whole foundation of our Christian religion.”
What is being a Christian all about? Sometimes even Christians imagine that being a Christian means to have a certain ideology which contains a political or social agenda that would solve the country’s problems. Others consider Christianity the best way to attain Your Best Life Now as if believing certain Christian-like truths will make them more successful, more popular and give them more control over their lives. Some think that being a Christian gives them an intellectual upper-hand that they can enjoy because it makes them feel smarter than everyone else. While others find Christianity as the pathway to financial independence and wealth so that they don’t have to ever rely on anyone else.
But the Scriptures teach a different substance and meaning of the Christian Life that does not consist in a political agenda, an economic solution, nor does it impart a pathway to success, popularity or financial independence. And it certainly is not the way to put you more in control of your life or to give you power over others. So then what does it mean to be a Christian? Being a Christian is about an ongoing intimate encounter with The Risen Savior who will progressively intertwine your heart with His so that you love what He Loves and grieve over what grieves Him. Jesus Christ is about making “little Christs” (Christians) whose hearts are so captured by the grace of the gospel that Christ becomes their who? what? where? when? and why? For Jesus the meaning of being a Christian is that He would become your identity, significance, destination, direction, and motivation. He becomes your Everything.
So if you’re looking for Peace with the Righteous Judge of the Universe, if you want to be washed of your guilt, and given a new identity to replace your shame, if you’re willing to live dependently passing the control of your life to another, and if you want to live forever in the full enjoyment of God for all eternity, then Christianity is for you!
I’ve been thinking a lot about the lack of depth and experience in our personal relationships as well as the lack of experience in our relationship with God. Evangelicals have basically coined the phrase, “personal relationship with God,” but when pressed further about its experiential meaning, the answers merely revolve around the forensic (legal) language of substitution, atonement, imputation and propitiation (all of which I hold firmly). I understand that Christianity has been a battle for ideas, especially in the early years and during the time of the Reformation but we have become polemicists (masters of disputation and debaters of ideas) instead of children of God who deeply experience our Heavenly Father and so there is no one there for our hearts. So, because our leaders and teachers are great at defining the battle over the ideas of the gospel, we have learned and followed but the results have been that we have largely missed the God of the Gospel. Oh how easy it is so easy to accept ideas about God as a replacement for an experience of Him. Even the language of the Scriptures is rich with experiential language calling us to koinonos (an intimate companion, mutual sharer and partaker) and its derivative, koinonia (communion by intimate participation) with Him.
Listen to and experience the intimate language of John’s first epistle,
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— that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship (koinonia) with us; and indeed our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ. And we are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.
This Spring will mark a special occasion in my life when on my physical birthday I will turn 44 and on my spiritual birthday I will turn 22. It might not mean so much to you but it means a lot to me because 22 years ago the Holy Spirit chased me down to execute a plan of grace that was made at a Triune Table before the creation of the world. The occasion is also significant because it marks exactly half of my life in personal communion with Jesus Christ as well as a passage into Christian early adulthood.
I would define my early Christian life as one of ACTIVITY including disciplined scripture memory and initiative personal evangelism while my adolescent years were about IDEAS including the study of systematic theology, Greek and Hebrew, attaining a seminary degree and climbing a rigorous denominational ordination process. Reflecting back to my early years, I saw how easy it was for me to substitute spiritual activity for God in the place of a relationship with God. Now since the collision of middle age in my physical life and early adulthood in my spiritual life I see how easy it was for me to accept ideas about God as substitutes for an experience of Him.
Sadly most of us call ourselves Christians based on our belief system more than our experience. Even the celebrated Gospel Coalition movement in which I have participated and appreciate, speaks primarily of the Christian experience and even the Gospel in the forensic language of ideas and philosophy. I am struck by the words of A.W. Tozer who still speaks to our Reformed and Calvinistic churches today,
“We have substituted theological ideas for an arresting encounter; we are full of religious notions but our great weakness is that for our hearts there is no one there.”
We can even treat God’s love as an IDEA while being void of a personal experience of the heart that encounters His love. God doesn’t just want us to have correct views about him, He wants to make Himself Known to us Personally and Up Close. His heart through the Old and New Testaments was not just to be objectively known ABOUT. His self-revelation to the Israelites was always in the most personal and intimate language (Cf. Exodus 34:5-7). The God of the Bible, can’t be known from a distance which was why He bent down from heaven to send His Son to live among us so we could see Him, hear Him and touch Him (Cf. 1 John 1:1-4).
My heart’s desire for my life and the lives of those who will listen is to help navigate an authentic Christian journey that finds a direct, personal experience of God which results in a deep generosity to others.