CULTIVATING AN ATMOSPHERE THAT IS “FULL OF TRUTH”
Now, we will consider how specifically to encourage an atmosphere that is “full of truth” (John 1:14), to the end that people become convinced over time that there is nothing more wonderful, nothing more exciting, and nothing more life-giving than becoming an obedient follower of Jesus.
As we think about forming environments that are full of truth, we must consider several factors with regard to our use and presentation of the Law of God. As was the case with Paul, our goal is for Christ to be formed in everyone (Galatians 4:19), meaning that personal character gradually becomes like His. But this is tricky, because true obedience to Jesus is obedience from the inside-out. It is the kind of obedience that aims not to use God and put Him in our debt, but to honor Him and taste His loveliness and worth. In short, we must encourage an obedience that responds to the love of Jesus. Any other kind is moralism, not Christianity.
First, we must discern and to reject the three primary misuses of God’s Law.
The three “misuses” that must be resisted are as follows:
The secular misuse. Those who come from this perspective will resist the notion of all people being accountable to a higher power. Secular people may see biblical commands as oppressive and may then replace them with a new law—the law of tolerance. For this person, the sole “absolute” is that there are no absolutes. All people, views, and behaviors should be tolerated, except for those that are not tolerant! The problem with this approach should be obvious—to add to or to take away from the Word of God puts one in great danger (Revelation 22)! It also sets the human community up for systemic and relational chaos. If there is no truth in the world that applies to everybody, then everybody will do what is right in his/her own eyes—acting in personal interest versus in the interest of others.
The religious misuse. Those who come from this perspective tend to view God’s commands primarily in terms of duty. If you keep the commands, you have done your duty. If you don’t, you will be judged and things will not go well for you. Period. Religious people see God’s Law more in legal terms and less in relational terms. For the religious person, there is very little dancing in the heart over the beauty of God’s commands. In some religious circles, one might be tempted to assume that you are in the center of God’s will to the degree that you are grumpy! The Bible gives such a different picture, however. Psalm 1 teaches us that the Law of God is the believer’s delight! The writer of Psalm 119 says, “O how I love Your law!” The Psalmist enjoys God’s commands and in no way sees them as “a burden I must bear” or “a duty around which I must center my life.” While the Law is duty, it is so much more than duty! If people are consistently burdened by our presentation of God’s commands, if they are left feeling weighted down versus liberated, it is likely that we are missing the heart of the Law altogether. 1 John tells us that for the believer, God’s commands are not burdensome!
The antinomian misuse. Antinomians tend to treat God’s commands as optional. Antinomian means “against law”—the thought being that one can receive Jesus as Savior but refuse Jesus as King. The problems with this are obvious. Jesus Himself said, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I say?” James reminds us that “Faith without works is dead.” Martin Luther, the Reformation’s champion of grace, said that we are saved by faith alone, but never by a faith that is alone.
The following chart attempts to distinguish between the various uses (and misuses) of God’s Law. We must labor passionately to present the Law of God, but to do so from a Christ-centered approach and none other.
Secularized “The Law is oppressive.”
The Bible’s commands are primitive and un-enlightened. They take away my freedom. “Tolerance” and “Freedom.” Resistance to all authority except self. Disdain for anyone who challenges my personal “freedom” to think, believe, and do as I please.
Religious “The Law is legal in nature.”
The Bible’s commands are everyone’s duty. If you don’t follow them, you will pay. Treadmill-living. Self-righteousness and condemnation of others (I think I am keeping the law and others are not), Anxiety (I have failed at the law), or Denial (I can’t deal with the fact that I have failed at the law). Lack of inner joy.
Antinomian “The Law is optional.”
The Bible’s commands are fine and good. They are a good ideal but not necessary for me as a Christian. Trust in the sinner’s prayer. Self-deception (I can be a Christian without being a follower of Christ). Self-centered living (proving that I really love sin, not Jesus).
Gospel “God’s Law is relational and lovely.”
The Bible’s commands are a gift, and are the key to enjoying the “abundant life” Jesus came to give! They show me what it is to be truly human! None. Confidence in the finished work of Jesus for my standing with God—I’m not crushed when I fail at obedience, but am driven once again into Jesus’ loving arms. I love God’s commands because I know they are motivated by His deep passion for my well-being!
Second, we must receive and share God’s commands as an expression of His love.
Remember, God’s Law is not merely legal. While it does have a legal component, it is also deeply relational. God gives us His law in order to set us free, not to burden us. Consider the following:
God’s commands, rightly understood, are a gift. The overwhelming testimony of Scripture is that the Law of God is beautiful and good. It is not oppressive and freedom-robbing, but life-giving. It is not merely duty but delight. It is not an option but a blessed treasure. It was the only thing that made sense!
God’s commands provide freedom. It is important to understand the original meaning and context of the word torah (Law). For Jews living in the time of Moses, this was the word used to describe a loving father’s instruction to his children. When considering any command of God, we must start with the question, “What motivates a parent to tell his/her children to stay out of the street, or to eat vegetables, or to get 10 hours of sleep?” The answer to this question, without exception, is that the parent is committed to the child being healthy and happy. This is the purpose of loving, life-giving parental laws! This is but a reflection of God who gives His Law because He intends for His children to flourish. His Law is our pathway to becoming more fully human, the very best version of ourselves.
God’s commands promote human flourishing. God’s Law shows us what it is to be truly human. It tells us how we can pursue our potential, how we can be all we can be! If you take a fish out of water, it becomes anxious and afraid. All sorts of distortions are thrust into the fish’s existence. Only when you put the fish back in its natural habitat will the fish thrive again. It is no different with a human being concerning the Law of God. The Law is humanity’s natural, life-giving habitat! So, when we present the Law of God to our own hearts and to the hearts of others, we must constantly be communicating the following things about it:
- The Law will benefit you! It enhances quality of life and promotes human flourishing.
- The Law will protect you! All distortions in life come from some form of departure from the Creator’s design. Just as ignoring dietary wisdom will damage the body, ignoring biblical wisdom will damage the soul as well as relationships. God’s Law is our protection here.
- The Law is lovely! We must learn to embrace God’s Law as the writers of Scripture did—as beautiful, the only thing that truly makes sense for those who wish to live life to the fullest.
Third, we must emphasize that obedience is motivational, not merely behavioral.
Jesus said it is a good root that makes a good tree bear good fruit. We obey God because of the people we have become on the inside, and for no other reason. We love God because God first loved us. It is only due to a clear vision of the loveliness of Jesus and the Gospel that anyone will obey in a way that will honor God and set the heart free. This has several implications for us:
We must encourage a want-to obedience versus a have-to obedience. True obedience comes from a heart that loves and enjoys the things of God, not from a heart that is duty-bound. So we want obedience to become second-nature for ourselves and others. Think of Michael Jordan as an example. He is known as one of the hardest working athletes ever—spending unparalleled amounts of time and energy honing his skills (just as we as believers must “train ourselves for godliness!”). But when Jordan got to game time, basketball had become so much a part of him that he dominated the game effortlessly.
Take, for example, the methods often used to get Christians to tell others about Jesus. Evangelism courses can be helpful in some instances, but to be honest, very few of them lead to a long-term commitment to tell others about Jesus. Why is this the case? It is because many courses fail to address the why of evangelism. Focusing so much on technique, they can miss the heart! Consider the New Testament on the other hand. The Samaritan woman (John 4) went immediately into Samaria to tell as many as she could about Jesus. The Gerasene demoniac (Mark 5), when told by Jesus to go and tell his family what the Lord had done to heal him, instead goes into the Decapolis (Ten cities!) to tell as many people as he could about the healing he had received! What motivated these people to tell others about Jesus? It was the fact that Jesus had become so irresistible to them that they absolutely had to tell others! When something becomes meaningful to us, our enjoyment of it is not complete until we have shared it with others.
If we present the Law as primarily a means toward modifying behavior, the behavior will happen on the outside but the heart will not change. Obedience will fizzle as soon as the guilt wears off. On the other hand, if we present the Law as a loving expression of God’s care for us, we will begin to see people change at the motivational level, it will produce lasting fruit that is in keeping with repentance. I think it was Steve Brown who once said, “I love to sin, but the reason I choose not to is because I love Jesus more!”
So, our “strategy” for encouraging people to obey God is to show them the beauty of Jesus on a regular basis. When Jesus becomes truly beautiful, truly lovely to people, they cannot help but follow Him. We will always give our lives effortlessly to the things that give our lives the most meaning. We don’t become like Jesus by trying to be like Jesus. We become like Him because we have been with Him, and in this have tasted His irresistible grace, kindness, and love.
This is part 3 of a series of articles by Scott Sauls.
Scott Sauls, a graduate of Furman University and Covenant Seminary, is foremost a son of God and the husband of one beautiful wife (Patti), the father of two fabulous daughters (Abby and Ellie), and the primary source of love and affection for a small dog (Lulu). Professionally, Scott serves as the Senior Pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tennessee. Prior to Nashville, Scott was a Lead and Preaching Pastor, as well as the writer of small group studies, for Redeemer Presbyterian of New York City. Twitter: @scottsauls
Editor’s Note: Scott was a member of our WDA Campus Ministry (Next Generation Ministry) while at Furman University. We are excited to see our alumni continuing to carry a vision for discipleship!