On Being Gospel Driven
What are you driven by? What motivates you to get out of bed each morning? What do you look forward to, dream about and hope for? If you were to immerse yourself in the media, in particular television, infomercials, you would see what is driving the culture at large. You would see exercise equipment that would tighten your abs, flatten your stomach, and give you a body too beautiful to be ignored. You might see how you can become real estate rich with no money down. Another tells us how to attain financial security by following their easy steps. While we often make fun of these seductive sirens there is something in them that attracts us. That is because we are “hard wired” for law; tell me what to do and if I get right then I will have my heart’s desire. This is not just cultural pressure but human nature. God’s law is inborn in our conscience and is part of our moral make up. Churches that are the most popular in our time are those who are most practical. They excel in providing practical suggestions, steps, formulas, principles, etc. for successful living. There is a strong affinity for pragmatism. Truth or the right thing to do is what works. The bottom line is how can I use God to be a success.
In terms of general principles, non-Christians have the law down. How else can we explain the popularity of Doctor Laura and Doctor Phil. They provide good, commonsense instruction in daily affairs. When Christians talk law i.e. “how to” we are speaking the non-Christian’s language. Law preaching, however watered down dominates the church today since it is perceived as relevant. Yet, if we encounter law in its full strength it is quite unsettling. A watered-down law gives us the illusion of being in charge, in control, in the driver’s seat. We, like Israel in the Old Testament, on hearing the law say, “All this we will do!” But the purpose of the law is to expose our charade, to pull the rug out from under our best efforts. Its purpose is to kill us. The church is never to be the place where the old Adam is weekly resuscitated and revived for another week. It is the place where the flesh in its religious/law dimension, as well as its irreligious/autonomy dimension is killed and buried, and the new self is created into the likeness of Christ. Christianity is not about propping up and embalming the old Adam, rather it is a new creation.
Even as a Christian the law (in its 3rd use) can guide and direct us, but it cannot drive us. If it drives us we will end up in one ditch or the other, i.e. the ditches of despair or self-righteousness. The ditch of despair is the result of trying, trying harder and trying harder and harder. As a result of a sensitive, informed conscience and repeated failure all hope of the better life fades, we begin to look around and compare. “Why me?” is our mantra, and our bitterness and envy is stoked when others are blessed. It is the resignation of “This just doesn’t work for me.” This person has no joy, no rest, no peace and no hope. The second ditch is self-righteousness. This is the heady illusion of success. Life is working for me and it must be because I am applying the correct principles. I can take some credit for my better life. Like the Pharisee and the publican in the temple, I am thanking God that I am better than others. This is baptizing self-conceit and arrogance. The self-righteous cannot escape arrogance, a lack of compassion and an ethos of superiority. This results in a shrunken, hardened heart. Christians are not to be principle driven or purpose driven, but Gospel driven. Purposes and principles, steps and formulas are at the root all about law. Gospel promises are often dangled as a carrot for fulfilling conditions that have been given. Do this and you shall live is nothing more than legalism. However, there is a subtle therapeutic version of the law that flies under the radar of our legalism detection. It goes like this—the Bible is an instruction manual full of principles for your life that will help you if you apply them, to lead a triumphant life. Principles are commands, imperatives or suggestions that confuse law and Gospel while promising a victorious life. This brand of Christianity eventually leaves resentment of God, not delight in its wake.
Principles and purposes are not wrong in and of themselves. We all need purposes and goals. Yet purposes and goals are always something to be reached, to be achieved and to be attained by us. They involve strategy and tactics. This is fine as long as we realize they are law and not Gospel.
Law tells us what we should do in the face of God’s judgment or by the fear of not reaching our potential. In contrast, God’s promise creates genuine faith, which in turn creates good works (Galatians 5:6). Luther defined sin as “incurvatis in se” that is, we are curved in upon ourselves. Therefore, until that is dealt with even our best efforts of applying principles is at the end of the day self-centered. I obey to avoid punishment (wrath) and to receive reward (blessing). But it is still all about me. Imperatives tend to make us only more curved in upon ourselves (either self-confidence or despair). Only the Gospel can drive us out of ourselves and our strategies for self-justification and acceptance before ourselves, God and others. The Gospel frees us to be people for others rather than pietistically self-absorbed.