Disappointed Pt. 2: Wandering Toward Holiness

I wrote this a couple of weeks ago but for some reason didn’t get to post it. This is Part 2 of a series of reflections on things that bother me about my generation (and subsequently, about myself).

Part 1 was about how we tend to be overly obsessive about journeying through life’s stages without being too concerned with our destination. Our fascination with newness is a gut-reaction toward previous generations’ focus on oldness. Whereas previous generations emphasized religious tradition or the deification of reason, our emerging generation asks, “Where did that get us?” resulting in a “we don’t care” mentality. And that sort of mentality leads to our seeking the middle ground in all things.

The middle ground is the new standard. It discourages lengthy debates and strong opinions, unless of course these debates and opinions are held against representations of the previous generation. Our generation is united in our rebellion against the older generation’s issues (i.e.,”Where did that get us?”). So the middle ground is the new moral high ground. But it’s not the high ground–it’s mediocrity.

My generation of Christians also seek the middle ground. We see extremes like conservatism and liberalism and say, “It’s not good to be either, so I’ll just be in-between.” So then you’ve got people who don’t cuss (against liberalism) but then also don’t care about spreading the Gospel (against conservatism), or you’ve got people who don’t engage in premarital sex (against liberalism) but enjoy music with tons of sexual content (against conservatism). The Gospel is not the fine line between conservatism and liberalism — it’s the freedom to do what’s right according to one’s Word-informed conscience with Christ-exalting heart motives.

A growing number of Christians find themselves in the tiresome tension between legalism and liberalism. We know conservatism (of the legalistic variety) is wrong, but don’t know any other way to feel like we’re growing in holiness. So either we return to legalism or we fall into liberalism, saying, “Oh well, if God wants to change me he will do it on his own.” I see most young Christians going in this second direction, while the older generation tends toward legalism.

The other option is not a tension between legalism and licentiousness, but it is still a tension. It’s the tension between radical holiness and radical pardon. It’s about knowing God’s holy standards with regard to sin and righteousness, but also God’s holy provision for sin and righteousness in Christ. Jesus says our righteousness must exceed that of the Pharisees. It has to be more radical than the righteousness born of legalism. It has to be born of the Gospel. It has to come from a heart continually being melted by the grace of God in the Gospel.

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4 Responses to Disappointed Pt. 2: Wandering Toward Holiness

  1. julie says:

    I’m not sure if I understand your idea of righteousness…there are only two kinds, self or gift. The gospel is not the freedom to do what’s right, the gospel is the good news that Jesus has done everything that needed to be done in order to give us righteousness as a gift when we believe in him. Our righteousness exceeds the righteousness of the pharisees, not our performance or obedience. That’s because their righteousness was self-righteousness and ours is God’s own righteousness (they worked to attain righteousness under the law but those who did not work have attained it by faith!). We do not go back to working in order to grow in holiness, because that working can only produce sin (Galatians) but when we give up trying to obey the law of moses and instead trust only in Jesus and his righteousness then we bear the fruit of the Spirit, naturally. Or supernaturally!

    • Brian says:

      Julie,

      I could’ve been more clear with my statements when I wrote that. I agree with you completely — our righteousness before God is solely Christ’s righteousness received by faith, apart from works of the law. And rather than saying “The Gospel is the freedom…” I should have said, “The Gospel grants us the freedom to do what’s right from the heart…”

      The term “righteousness” in the New Testament doesn’t always refer to Christ’s righteousness imputed to us. 1 John in particular uses the phrase “practices righteousness” several times (1 Jn 2:28, 3:7, 10) in contrast to sinful conduct. 2 Timothy 3:15 points to Scripture’s profitability for “training in righteousness” so that we may be “equipped for every good work.” This sort of righteousness is usually called “holiness,” referring to our sanctification.

      To my understanding, Jesus’ usage of “righteousness” in Matthew 5:20 seems to be referring to the righteousness that is “practiced” rather than that which is imputed. It takes place in the context of the Sermon on the Mount, which is all about our conduct. It immediately follows Jesus’ statement “let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (v. 16) and precedes his explanation of murder, adultery, divorce, oaths, etc. Throughout the sermon Jesus distinguishes between legalistic obedience (which really isn’t obedience) and Spirit-empowered obedience (the kind you spoke of, bearing the fruit of the Spirit).

      Those of us who come from the Reformed camp emphasize what John Calvin has designated a third use of the law of God: as a means of grace for the Christian to grow in holiness. It’s not a matter of going back to the works of the law. It’s about looking into the law so that we may be further conformed into the image of Christ who is our righteousness.

      Hope this helped to clear things up.

      Blessings,

      Brian

  2. julie says:

    Hi Brian, yes that cleared things up a bit and I am in more agreement with you but not complete agreement still. The Galatians were the first to designate this ‘third’ use of the law, but 1Tim 1 calls this use ‘unlawful’. The law is a ministry of death and condemnation and therefore is not at all useful in the believer’s life according to Scripture (2 Cor. 3). If the law could conform us to the image of Christ, then Christ would have died for nothing.

    “If I rebuild what I destroyed, I prove that I am a lawbreaker. For through the law I died to the law so that I might live for God. I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” Galatians 2

    You are saying there is a type of righteousness that can be gained through the law, this is in complete contradiction to Scripture. In fact, if you do a basic study on the Law especially in Paul’s writing you will find that the purpose of the law was not to make us righteous but to provoke us to sin more, the power of sin is the law! And according to this passage in Galatians if we are to live for God we must DIE to the law! In order to be conformed into the image of Christ we simply fix our eyes of faith on him who is the author and perfector of our salvation. It is not Jesus + the law, Jesus is completely sufficient apart from the law. Do not rebuild what you tore down, that will bring on a revival of the wrong sort, a revival of sin in your life. That’s all the law can produce in anyone, he is the wrong husband (Romans 6).

    • Brian says:

      Julie,

      What I and others (going back to Calvin) call the “third use” of the law is different from the Judaizers the church at Galatia had to fight. The Judaizers taught that one had to be circumcised in order to be a Christian, which was clearly out of line with the gospel. To require circumcision was to require that one keep the whole law, which would bring condemnation since only Christ has kept the whole law. I’m sure you see the difference between the folly of the Judaizers and what I’m prescribing.

      Let me address some of the passages you mentioned:

      – 1 Timothy 1 teaches the law’s primary use — as a pedagogical tool that shows us God’s righteousness and our sinfulness, pointing to our need for Christ in order to be saved — but it does not exclude the third use and call it unlawful. Paul is merely emphasizing the law’s pedagogical use.

      – As for 2 Corinthians 3, you would be hard-pressed to find any theologian who thinks Paul is issuing an indictment upon God’s holy law! The “ministry of death” is describing the law as that which condemns the unrighteous and that which can never regenerate dead hearts. Again, this is a reference to the law’s primary use as a means for showing us our need for Christ’s righteousness. Compare Romans 7:7-12 with 2 Cor 3. You alluded to it earlier. Romans 7 tells us that the law is meant for good, but because of sin it condemned us. But now that we are no longer under sin’s penalty, the law no longer condemns us. This doesn’t mean we get rid of the law. No, we receive the wisdom it offers now that we are no longer under its penalty!

      – With regard to Galatians 2 (“I died to the law”) Paul is speaking about his death to the law as a means of justification which he has died in his union with Christ, by virtue of Christ’s death on the cross. Your quotation of “if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing” is clearly about one gaining a righteous record, and says nothing about sanctification.

      I cannot put this more plainly: The problem is not the law — we are the problem! The whole law expresses and reflects God’s unchanging character. When you begin to look at the law according to its moral use, Old Testament passages begin to make greater sense such as Psalm 119:97ff (“Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. Your commands make me wiser than my enemies, for they are ever with me…”) or Psalm 19:7 (“The law of the LORD is perfect, reviving the soul; the testimony of the LORD is sure, making wise the simple”). Without seeing the third use of the law, you can never truly say those statements and mean them.

      The problem with throwing out God’s law is that our consciences are uninformed as to how we ought to please God. We have the Spirit and thus have an inward desire to please God, but we cannot know how we are to love God apart from knowing his will revealed in his Word. You say you don’t need God’s law anymore since you have the Spirit, but the Holy Spirit is the one who has put God’s law into our minds and has written God’s law on our hearts (see Jeremiah 31:31-34 and Hebrews 8:8-12). The law and the Spirit are not at odds — the Holy Spirit empowers us to understand the law and obey its precepts with gratitude and childlike faith. That’s what “training in righteousness” is all about.

      Brian

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