How Does God Enable Believers to Keep His Moral Law? Part 1

In Hebrews 12:14, the author writes, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”

To be sure, holiness and the pursuit of holiness is an essential part of salvation. Believers are under obligation to obey God’s moral law. God calls His people to holiness (1 Peter 1:14-16). What is a holy life? It is one’s whole life conformed to all of God’s moral law.

The question is how? How does a believer pursue holiness? How does God enable a believer to obey His moral law?

The answer: the Gospel!

There is a right way and a wrong way to pursue holiness.

The Wrong Way: Law-driven Pursuit of Holiness

The law gives its method and order of salvation.

The law makes holiness a means to an end.

The law makes good works (i.e., holiness) the means of salvation. The law says, “Do and live.” The law says, “Keep God’s commands and then you will be holy.” The law promises no life, comfort, peace, favor, blessing, happiness or salvation until one has completely and perfectly kept it (Lk. 18:18-27).

If God’s law were not enough, Evangelicals have come up with their own methods (will worship) and laws for spiritual growth in holiness. As a result, the sharp, cutting edge of God’s law is blunted and the gospel has lost its joyful news.

It has become commonplace (really sacrosanct) for Evangelicals to offer “practical tips” to new believers. Here is a common scenario.

The question is asked, “Now that you are a new believer, what is next? What should you do next as a new Christian?” Without fail, new believers are given spiritual “To Do” lists, which are considered to be “practical, relevant tips” to help get new believers off to a good start for living their new Christian lives.

Here are some examples:

  • go tell someone what has just happened to you and witness
  • have daily “quiet times/spend time alone with God”
  • pray
  • spend time reading your Bible daily
  • make Christian friends
  • find a church
  • be baptized
  • learn to give
  • memorize Scripture
  • get an accountability partner, and the list goes on.

    There is nothing wrong with reading one’s Bible, praying, memorizing Scripture, being baptized (for sure!), etc… However, the problem with these kinds of spiritual “To Do” lists is that it that they lead believers to think that the blessings of the Christian life depend upon their own works (i.e., performance). “You are in. But, if you want to grow you must start obeying so that you can be safe and happy before God.”

    The problem with this kind of approach to Christian growth and discipleship is that it puts the gospel on the shelf.

    Believers are sent forth to try and keep laws/rules without understanding the necessity and centrality of the gospel for their Christian life. Rules, not Christ, become the focus of the believer’s life. Christ’s death is only thought of as applying to the penalty of sin (i.e., what most Evangelicals commonly think of as being “saved,”). The Bible comes to be viewed largely as a rulebook to follow in regards to one’s sanctification.

    Once an unbeliever is inside the kingdom’s door, it is assumed, now as believers, they simply need to hear how to live the Christian life and be challenged to go do it. And so the gospel gets put on the shelf and the Christian life becomes a reflection of the philosophy in the popular Nike slogan, “Just do it.” This common misconception is based on a misunderstanding of both the gospel and of the discipling process.

    It is critical for Evangelicals today to understand that the Bible is more than a set of practical moral principles for learning how to “follow Jesus.”

    For, if the Bible is nothing more than a code of moral principles for Christian living and principles on how to follow Jesus, it is no different than the Koran!

    Rules, practical steps, etc… are law and law only points out one’s duty and condemns. Law has no power to change! The Bible is primarily the message of God’s saving grace through Jesus Christ.

    Newly converted believers (as well as older believers) must not to think that the forgiveness that was conferred upon them for past sin, which they received in the gospel, has no application for them in their present daily life. So that for newly committed sins into which they fall they seek out new remedies of forgiveness in some other way!

    In other words, new believers need to understand that it is not Jesus dying for sins and then the Christian life, “Me trying real hard.” Rather, it is Jesus from start to finish!

    But, tragically, it is not just new believers who are given “practical tips” for Christian growth. “Practical, relevant tips” have become the steady diet for large numbers of believers in Evangelical churches these days.

    Here are some additional examples of man-made blunted laws being taught in the church today:

      Your Best Life Now, the Board Game

    Now you can experience the New York Times #1 besteller, Your Best Life Now, at home. In this game you will learn to climb the mountain so you can live life at your full potential. How? Simply follow the “laws” (i.e., game cards):

      Enlarge your vision
      Develop a healthy self image
      Discover the power of your thoughts and words
      Let go of the past
      Find strength through adversity
      Choose to be happy
      Have faith
      Wonder words
      And of course, My Miracle card…

    “Each new plateau represents a challenge and a chance to open up and experience these steps (laws, J.F.) first hand as you learn to live Your Best Life Now.”

    Here are a few more examples:

  • “Get Out of the Land of Negativity – Stay Camped in a Place of Positive Thinking”
  • “Positive Thinking Tips for a Positive Attitude”
  • “10 Steps to Avoid Backsliding”
  • “4 “Essentials to Spiritual Growth: Step 1: Read your Bible daily; Step 2: Attend church services regularly; Step 3: Get involved in a ministry group; Step 4: Pray daily”
  • “4 Steps to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit”
  • “101 Ways to Simplify Your Life: Practical Steps for Restoring Sanity to Your World”

    Whew! 101 ways! I am exhausted just reading the title! To all of these false and inadequate methods of sanctification, one can hear the apostle Paul asking many Evangelical pastors and churches today, “Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh,” (Gal. 3:3). “You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace,” (Gal. 5:4).

    This is why we point these things out. We don’t want people severed from Christ! It is in Him that we find life (John 1:4; 3:16, 36; 6:35, 63, 68; 10:10, 28; 17:3). The believer’s help is not in law(s) but in laying hold of Christ! Through the gospel we receive faith and through faith, our entire conversion to God, justification, sanctification (this is where obedience/holiness fits) and salvation, for through faith we receive Christ, with all his benefits!

    In comparison to these instructions given today for Christian growth, consider carefully the following words by Walter Marshall,

      “Read through the Scriptures, and you will see, with delight, that this theme runs completely through them: the gospel is what encourages you to obey God…Now, some people might object to this and say, “Look, the apostles said this when they wrote to Christians who already were obeying God. The apostles said this only to them, to help them obey God even more.” My answer is this: if more mature Christians need this kind of encouragement, how much more do new Christians need this kind of encouragement! New Christians find the work of obedience even more difficult, and they need even more encouragement to obey! I want people to lay hold of the comfort of God’s grace right at the beginning of their Christian lives,” (The Gospel Mystery, p. 120).

    The gospel is what encourages you to obey God!

    Oh, that more pastors and churches today would serve their people and teach them like Marshall, “The gospel is what encourages you to obey God!” “We want you to lay hold of the comfort of God’s grace right at the beginning of your Christian life! And we want to serve you by helping you to stand firm in the gospel for the rest of your Christian life!” “It is Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ,” (Col. 1:28)!

    To be sure, believers are to grow and pursue holiness. But, growth in holiness will not come about through legal means.

    What newly converted believers (all believers) need to learn from the start is the gospel, not rules!

    Christians need to be instructed in a deeper understanding of the gospel and how it alone establishes them in every good work (2 Thess. 2:17). Believers need to be taught how to live holy lives because of the great gospel privileges they have received (e.g., Eph. 1-3 and then Eph. 4-6; or Romans 1-11 and then Romans 12-16).

    Believers need to learn and understand that they cannot keep God’s law, no matter how many practical tips they receive. They also need to be taught that they are under no obligation to follow any of man’s self-imposed blunted laws!

    No matter how “practical” or “relevant” tips, advice, steps, etc… may seem, works of any kind do not bring about holiness. All law, whether God’s law or man-made law, becomes a letter that kills. Good works are the fruit of salvation. Obedience, repentance, humility, service, etc… are all fruits of saving faith not the root. To make obedience (i.e., holiness) the root of salvation is to reverse the order of the gospel and to establish a conditional gospel and destroy the true means for authentic holiness.

    To be continued…

  • 8 Responses to How Does God Enable Believers to Keep His Moral Law? Part 1

    1. Richard says:

      I love it! Evangelicals are practical Muslims when it comes to sanctification! What an indictment!

    2. Rick B says:

      How do we communicate the imperatives of Scripture without motivating from them? How do we exhort believers to utilize the means of grace without measuring ourselves with those means? How does one discern between conviction from hearing the imperatives and guilt-driven obedience from hearing the imperatives?

    3. zrim says:

      It might sound odd to say, but I like the fact that my kids can find church to be a turn-off. Our time assumes that a thing’s final value can and should be measured by subjective, personal enjoyment. Witness the church-growth movement. It is really nothing new and classically American in the sense that it is the natural evolution of that very presumption. Ever since Whitefield landed and tore the Gospel from its churchly contours, American Evangelicalism has wanted to “meet the felt needs” of the populace. And American Liberalism declared that “the world sets the church’s agenda.” Little wonder we fret that when Billy and Suzie are bored we have let them down. Instead of patiently expecting them to grow into something they don’t naturally understand, we race to appease them so they won’t end up hating church. Instead of letting them be comfortable with the discomfort of growing up that something like liturgy demands, we are tempted to prolong adolescence by appealing to the least common denominators in entertainment. But since Scripture regards us as aliens it seems there ought to be antithesis between what we experience in our six days and the Sabbath day. However vulnerable to a thousand qualifications, perhaps a good thumbnail test may be that if your kids are bored, something is being done right.

      A question in such a context of discomfort may be, “Why do we go to church?” The inquiry seems inevitable for those of us who are covenantal parents. And, just like the boredom that should be embraced rather than feared and avoided, this direct question should be welcomed and capitalized on. I might do well to back up before I go further.

      I was not formally reared in faith. My parents are baby boomers. And even though Dad was raised by a faithful Episcopalian mother, one famous trait endemic to this generation is how they turned tail on organized religion. At some point and for whatever reasons the boomers got antsy and decided they had gone too far.

      So round about junior high my younger brother and I were yanked from our Sunday morning TV cartoons, forced to wear monogrammed sweaters and trucked across town to the well-established and mainline United Methodist Church.

      The whole awkward foray back into the pew was very short-lived. Suffice it to say that as good as it may seem in the drawing boards of parents’ minds, springing religion on thoroughly un-churched and uninterested pre-pubescent boys is nothing if not packed with learning curves.

      Memories of this are few and sketchy. One clear memory I have is asking my father this very question: “Why are we going to church?” I will readily admit that my question at the time was grounded more in supreme adolescent annoyance than in an honest quest for objective truth. And in looking back, his answer seems to speak volumes with regard to how we understand that counterintuitive thing called the Gospel, the thing “going to church” is supposed to be about. He said, “To learn how to be better people.” While neither one of us would have understood it back then, I have come to see that his answer was grounded firmly in that other more intuitive thing called Law. After all, true religion “makes bad people good and good people better,” right?

      I am not so sure. There are several problems with this Law-laden answer. The first is logic. Just as the world is, in fact, not getting any better or worse as time either progresses or retreats (Ecc. 1:9-14), going to church does not make one essentially any better or worse than anyone else. I have been at it for almost as long as I wasn’t, and I am no better or worse than when I first began. Second, why Christianity? If the point is to improve individuals or society in some way then plenty of religions, organizations, therapies, programs and philosophies will do the trick. Farrakan’s Islam has morally netted plenty of at-risk youth. Third, his answer assumed we were somehow presently not up to snuff, perhaps even bad. But my father himself was a pillar of the community, a good man publicly and even better privately. We were law-abiding and quite functional citizens. And we were such with no direct help from church or any formal religion, thank you very much. What was it exactly we needed to learn that we didn’t already know?

      If God is mysterious then it doesn’t follow that His institution is about the obvious or intuitive. I can agree we go to learn something, but what and why?

      I would suggest that we don’t go to learn Law or, as dad put it, how to be good or better people. Rather—through the rituals of sound liturgy, confession and Creed, Word and sacrament—we actually go to learn the Gospel. Nobody in his right mind makes efforts to go and learn what he already knows. He must learn what is alien to him. Which statement is natural and which is not: “Stay out of debt, be a good spouse, encourage your kids, seek peace, don’t be a racist, love God and man” or “There is a great exchange whereby Christ’s obedience, by faith alone, is applied to us while our sin is applied to Him and we are thereby reconciled to God and owe Him a life of gratitude”? The former makes sense. Christians and non-Christians alike, in their equal access to Law, can do that theology in their sleep. Like fish on bicycles, it’s the latter that is so weird and unnatural. By nature we wake up each day trying to do the right thing well before we wonder how we might be reconciled to God and what that subsequently demands of us.

      If we have answered what then the next question might be how. I think learning the Gospel is revelatory and declarative. Learning Law seems a very academic affair. While not exhaustive, one helpful sign that we may not be properly learning the Gospel is if we find ourselves at church sitting amongst legions of furious note-takers instead of simple yet intent hearers. If so, we are likely writing out our own prescriptions for more Law. If we are more familiar with the conditional language of “steps, principles and challenges” than pronouncement language like “confession, declaration and benediction”; if we are focused on invoking and applying some new idea or exercise to improve ourselves and our world; if something has to be achieved or a lesson to be learned that we could have figured out while sitting at home on Sunday; if there is something to work at either behaviorally or mentally; if we are familiar with hard Law (hellfire and brimstone) or soft Law (biblical principles) or some hybrid of the two, we may have been seriously derailed from the Gospel. But when one sits under a declaration he simply hears it. Little wonder the language of Scripture is one of both proclamation and hearing. In the Christian religion the Gospel is “preached” and we are to “hear the good news” of it. The Reformed tradition speaks of “resting, relying, and receiving.”

      Along these lines, as my children get older and sit in worship I encourage them to exercise the muscle of faith—their ears. Listen to the words sung and prayed and said. And much as I esteem quality preaching, it has never seemed to me that a sermon is so much designed to make students as it is to confirm and compel believers. Ours seems a more organic project than a mechanical one.

      But to those hungry for Law this seems a rather weak image. “Yes, yes, that sounds very good and pious, but aren’t there programs to inaugurate, principles to grasp and behaviors to employ? Isn’t there a self to improve and a world to save?” If we ask such questions, it seems the Gospel has once again been lost on us. The Gospel is excruciatingly alien to us, which is why it seems we must learn it over and over again with our ears and not our hands.

      As I have moved from my secular rearing, into and out of broad Evangelicalism and into Reformation Christianity, I have seen that the Gospel is very hard to come by. I believe the Reformed expression is the superior one in all of the Christian landscape, purely capturing the Gospel. But even where it is formally confessed it can be hard to find. This only seems to prove its perfect alienness. I have also come to be suspect of those who might deny it outright yet imply they have the Gospel easily grasped, imploring us to now move to bigger and better things, as if we could or as if something greater actually existed.

      If we have answered what and how maybe the next question is why. Of course, the best of the confessional Reformed tradition understands there is now a life of gratitude, tutored by the Law, to be led: in light of what has been done for you, go and do what you already know to be right. Our tradition believes strongly that there is most assuredly a place for Law. While Christianity is not a way of life there most certainly is a way of life resident within it. Finding it all over in Scripture, our tradition speaks of an indicative declaration and subsequent imperatives. The latter is married to the former and cannot be divorced. This is what is so glorious about the Heidelberg Catechism. Its structure is that of Scripture: Guilt, Grace, and Gratitude. What more can be said? The pursuit of Law here seems to be the result of something, not the driving force.

      But when Law, instead of Gospel, drives us it seems to characterize us as well. Law seems to characterize most of American culture and cult, from diverse self-improvement gospels to various intensities of cultural-political gospels, left and right. It seems to be in the DNA of American piety and hard to resist. But no voice that presumes to speak on behalf of God earns the right to spur us to any measure of Law if the true Gospel has been one iota circumvented. And it has always seemed to me that if a voice is genuine in this way it ironically seems to become less and less concerned for any measure of mere self or social improvement. There seems to be at once a fine line and wide gap between a piety bent on betterment and one driven by an inglorious yet sincere gratitude. One tends to be boisterous and brash, the other, well, not so much.

      These are likely concepts well beyond the typical covenant child. But I have never been discomforted by the idea of anyone having to grow into something beyond his immediate or complete understanding. Whatever else the sacrament of baptism signs and seals it seems to suggest at least that much. And much as my answer might befuddle them when they ask why we go to church, it is one thing to be temporarily confused by a right answer but another to be eternally mis-lead by a wrong one.


    4. […] distinction to a legal method of salvation, the gospel gives a completely contrary means to holiness. Whereas the law says, “Do and live,” […]

    5. […] unto Jesus Fonville: “In other words, new believers [and old — mm] need to understand that it is not Jesus […]

    6. […] (not skimming) Fonville: “Christians need to be instructed in a deeper understanding of the gospel and how it alone […]

    7. […] Shelved (assumed) Fonville: “Once an unbeliever is inside the kingdom’s door, it is assumed, now as believers, they […]

    8. […] that brings me to this. John Fonville has started a series on how Christ by the Spirit, through the means of grace (word and sacrament), enables his people to keep the law. It’s […]

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