Obedience has no end…

If you’re a Christian, will you overflow with love for everyone, all the time? If you’re a Christian, will you obey God all the time? If you’re a Christian, do you sin less than other people in the world?

What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to be the church? Right now these are the questions being debated in the North American church. I’m fascinated by the multitude of answers.

Many say the church is at a crossroads. (When isn’t it?) Many claim it’s ceased to be what it was meant to be. However, what it has stopped being, and what it has become, depends on who is talking. The emergent church movement says we need “A new kind of Christianity” (Brian McLaren, 2009). The missional movement says “we have a master who demands radical obedience” (David Platt, 2010). Both say we must have a “Transformational Church” (Thom Rainer and Ed Stetzer, 2010). Obedience is crucial.

Missional guru Francis Chan is also adamant: “We can’t just have thousands of people in a room and we’re not showing that intense love where people walk in and say, ‘Wow, there’s something different about your love for one another!’ That’s just not right when we’re not living like a body, like a family… How can we have rooms of people who claim to have the Holy Spirit of God Almighty inside their bodies? God Almighty inside of you? And your life looks just like everyone else? No wonder they’re shutting down the churches.” http://www.vergenetwork.org/2011/12/28/francis-chan-what-is-wrong-with-the-american-church-video/

Each offers a critique. Each provides a perspective on what Christians have to do to make the church (and themselves) right. At times they do have some thoughtful things to consider. However, I think they’re missing the mark.

With each of them there is a constant return to the demands of what Christians must do, what the church must do, if we are to take the Gospel seriously. But the problem, at least for me, is that all of these demands for a “new kind of Christian,” a “radical obedience,” and a “transformational church,” place impossible and unrealistic demands on fallen and wretched sinners.

No, I’m not looking for an excuse to ignore the lost. No, I’m not looking for an excuse to hang onto my sinfulness. Rather, my point is that the focus of all these demands is on us and not on Christ. Yes, I believe in sanctified living. Yes, I believe in witnessing to the lost. But I think there is a failure by some to be realistic about our sinful condition. And therefore, ironically, there is the failure to understand the fullness and role of the Gospel.

Tullian Tchividjian sums it up well in his book Jesus + Nothing = Everything. (The book title alone is a profound formula for the church to consider.) He writes: “Since the heart of the human problem is the problem of the human heart, rules and regulations are never the solution. Jesus is. Behavior modification cannot change the human heart. You and I need this reminder all the time. And that’s why we turn to the gospel.” (p.119).

So indulge me for a moment. Has there ever been, in all of history, a congregation where all of its members simply swooned over one another “showing that intense love?” How about the first century Christians at Corinth? Nope. They were full of divisions (1 Cor. 11:18) How about the Galatians? Ah-uh. They were too busy biting and devouring one another (Galatians 5:15). The Philippians? Close. But they had to watch out for the “evil doers” among them who “mutilate the flesh” (Phil. 3:2). How about Philemon? Sorry. He was at odds with Onesimus. Can’t we find even one person full of intense love for everyone? Yes. His name is Jesus.

So how about we let Him be the Lord of the church? How about we let Him fulfill every demand? How about we let Jesus be the leader of doing all things impossible? After all, He obeyed the law perfectly. He resisted all temptation. He died as a sacrifice for the whole world. He even rose from the dead! So why not let Him be the solution to all our woes?

Demands for transformation, imperatives for radical obedience, requiring one become a new kind of Christian; they’re all rooted in the law. But the law offers no peace. It provides no solace. It transforms nothing. It simply tethers us to a relentless oppression of impossible demands. The solution to the church’s (and the world’s) woes is nothing new. It can be found in Jesus and only Jesus.

Bo Giertz, in his must read classic novel, The Hammer of God, writes it beautifully:

“The conscience, our own anxiety, and all slaves of the law bid us go the way of obedience to the very end in order to find peace with God. But the way of obedience has no end. It lies endlessly before you, bringing continually severer demands and constantly growing indebtedness. If you seek peace on that road, you will not find peace, but the debt of ten thousands talents instead. But now Christ is the end of the law; the road ends at His feet, and here His righteousness is offered to everyone who believes. It is to that place, to Jesus only, that God has wanted to drive you with all your unrest and anguish of soul.” (p.204).

When Jesus, and only Jesus, is put at the center, the mission of the church becomes clear.

As always, this blog endeavors to thoughtfully and collegially talk about the mission of the Holy Christian Church and what it means to be authentically Lutheran, while “discipling all nations” in the 21st century. For those willing to enter the fray, I welcome your constructive thoughts and reactions.

Yours,

Rev. Woodford

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8 responses to “Obedience has no end…

  1. I think St. Paul had it right. The mission of the Church is to preach the gospel of Christ. When that happens the Holy Spirit works faith when and where it pleases Him.

  2. It’s been the constant struggle to balance the desire to exhibit true love for Christ with the working of the Spirit versus a fleshly/law striving of man to be a better person. In the Hammer of God you see this dichotomy played out again and again with the same results.

    Francis Chan is an interesting study in the new type of Christian coming out of the ashes of post-modernity. I’ve read a few of his books and watched quite a few sermons and studies. Where do we find people who exemplify the fruits of the Spirit? What makes a true Christian who effectively reflects the love of God in their lives? Francis points to an unbridled passion for Jesus, a hungering for the gifts of the Spirit. There is also the continual backdrop of the law in his words “you must”, “you should.”

    We walk a fine line where we are comfortable in our salvation and rest on the finished work of Christ to the exclustion of growing in Him; and the other side of the spectrum is we chase after the fruits applying the law to our daily lives until we are as shown by the farmer in Giertz’s first vignette, grasping for the unreachable with our cold, dead hands. Both wrong, but what does the middle ground look like?

    • Dear Mary,

      Thanks so much for your thoughtfulness. On the whole, I think finding middle ground in the theological climate of the North American church is bit of a dubious task. On the one hand, as you ask, I’m not sure what that would look like i.e. what would that middle ground doctrine look like and how would it be practiced? The big push right now is to be “missional” but each tradition that is embracing this push has not necessarily abandoned their underlying theology. Perhaps your thoughtful approach invites us to consider a measured evaluation of our doctrine, and especially our practice, against those of another tradition, where we might be able to recognize any lapses in our practice on account of the evaluation other theological traditions prompted us to make. Thanks again!

      Yours,

      Rev. Woodford

  3. Re: Both wrong, but what does the middle ground look like?

    Mary, since both you and I are Lutherans, I would say there is no middle ground when it comes to justification: resting in the finished work of Christ. Their is no middle ground where works can ever be mixed with the gospel. If the gospel is column A and works are column B (including love), then you will always lose the gospel if you try to sneak anything from column B into column A. The Roman Catholics are notorious for sneaking works into the gospel (faith formed by love) and thus it becomes semi-pelagian.

    We cannot sanctify ourselves and our sanctification flows from our justification/hearing the gospel – it is always pure gift. I would offer that only God gives the growth. We cannot make ourselves grow. Sure, we can and should do good works in the civil realm/civil righteousness, but it is not the same as God sanctifying us and giving us the growth as we continue in his Word.

    P.S. I have a feeling Francis Chan is throwing you for a curve. His emphasis on the Holy Spirit is charismatic/pentecostal. Stick with Sasse and Giertz.

  4. I’m currently reading David Platt’s ‘Radical’ book, and I do have to say that it is very insightful. Here is what I have so far gleaned from the book:

    We claim Christ as our King with our mouths but not with our hearts. We comfort ourselves with his promises of blessing, but look past his warnings that those who wish to follow him must pick up their cross to do so.

    In other words, we claim Christ is our ultimate Authority, yet we ignore his commands to go into the world to make disciples and baptize and teach. Instead we focus on building programs, oversee bylaw disputes, oh, and once in a while have a door offering to help support some missionary in some far off country.

    Following Christ’s commands to us does not earn us salvation or bonus points. It’s simply the natural response to trusting Christ at His word.

    Personally I’m excited to share the book with others at my LCMS congregation and start carrying out the mission in which Christ has commissioned us!

    Denny

    • Thanks Denny,

      You are right that Platt’s book does make the reader think through their faith. He does have some thoughtful things to say about the Christian life and the American dream. I do not disagree with him there. However, I am careful to balance the demands that Platt says the Gospel makes, with our Lutheran understanding that the Gospel makes no demands. Jesus certainly does “bid a man come and die” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship) but to hinge the legitimacy of one’s faith on obedience to a select few of Jesus word’s can become a dubious business. I think Platt does a nice job of making his readers take some of Jesus word’s seriously. I just find it curious that when he wants us to take Jesus words seriously about “hating our father and mother” and what that means for the Christian life, he does NOT take seriously the words of Jesus that say, “Take and eat this is my body…this is my blood, for the forgiveness of sins” (Matthew 26:26).

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Yours,

      Rev. Woodford

  5. Bo Giertz returns to these themes over and over again in his writings. Another classic in this is:http://www.amazon.com/Knights-Rhodes-Bo-Giertz/dp/1608993337/ref=sr_1_6?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1389827912&sr=1-6&keywords=bo+giertz
    The Kinghts of Rhodes where you see this tension in all the characters at play in the midst of war. If you like Bo Giertz I strongly recommend the other books of his now becoming available in English. It’s great stuff.

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