When the Fat Hits the Fire: Why Preaching Obedience is Cancerous to the Soul.

Types of Coal

I am a sinner.  Just ask my wife…or my family…my friends…or my pastor…

I may seem like I have it all together, but I can assure you that I do not.  It’s merely a facade to get through this life as best as I can and if you know me well enough, you’ll see glimpses, if not outright effects, of my own brand of sinfulness. I lust, covet, wish bad things upon people, gossip, get unrighteously angry and the list doesn’t stop there. You name it and I’ve at least thought about it. It was only about  a year ago when I truly began to figure things out. To best explain my discovery, I think it best to start with a little biographical information.

I’ve grown up in various Christian denominations over my 35 years of life.

I was born a Methodist and remained one until age 5.

My dad took a job transfer that moved us to the big city where we spent 8 years in a conservative nondenominational Christian church.

At age 13 my dad was once again transferred and we moved north. I spent the first 5 years, up north, in a Nazarene church before transitioning into a Christian & Missionary Alliance church for the following 16 years.

I guess one could say that I was an American Evangelical Mutt.

Each denomination had varying degrees of legalism, but ultimately all taught that in some sense obedience to the law is where one looks for assurance of continuing salvation for the Christian. The old question of “How’s your walk going?” Throughout my life I was taught to “trust and obey for there’s no other way.” The concept was sure enough easy to grasp. Faith in Jesus’ death and resurrection for my sins gifted me salvation, but continued obedience was what Jesus really wanted and if I obeyed I would not only stay in his good graces but continue to seal my salvation and ultimately end up in heaven.

It seemed legit.

The Gospels are full of lists of sin that should be avoided.  The Apostle Paul was also quite the list maker when it came to sin. This all seemed well and good even though something inside tugged hard in opposition to this idea. I was perplexed because even though I tried really hard to obey my parents, my teachers and Jesus, I always failed. When I was caught in sin I expressed remorse and was typically asked what would Jesus think if he was sitting next to me? I for sure let him down…again. He must really be frustrated with me! I was typically encouraged to just do better. Try harder. Make Jesus proud. The problem was me.  I just needed to let go of the wanton desires of my sinful flesh and really give it a go with Jesus. Next time will be better. Next time I will succeed.

Next time around I usually did succeed, for a time, only to eventually fail again.  A pattern was forming. I was aware of this paradigm at a rather early age. I remember realizing early in my childhood, around age 5 or 6, that obedience was really hard. I remember reasoning that if I try really hard to obey, but keep failing, I might not be good enough to make it to heaven.  That would result in me not only going to hell, but more than likely I’d end up being the lowest on hell’s totem pole (as if there was such a thing).  Human reason kicked in and I contemplated the thought of being really bad. I thought if I tried to be bad instead of good, that would ultimately be easier, and maybe then I could climb hell’s corporate ladder. I mean I didn’t like the thought of hell and any picture of the Devil, no matter how cartoonish, scared the crap out of me, but I was shooting for the best position within grasp; not my ultimate preference. I told myself that maybe, if I was just bad enough, the devil would take kindly to me resulting in better hellish amenities such as cooler flames, flesh eating worms that took work breaks and maybe even getting awarded regional supervisor of sector 6. That sure sounded easier than trying to be fully obedient only to constantly fail. This good versus evil struggle often crossed my mind. The bar of expectations was always so far out of my grasp that I could certainly relate to a rabbit chasing after a carrot on a treadmill. I was plagued with thoughts about whether I’d end up in heaven or hell.  I remember practicing basketball in my driveway as doubting thoughts reeked havoc in my mind. Thoughts like “if you make this next shot, you’ll go to heaven, but if you miss, then who knows?”  I was internally consumed with assurance and instead of church delivering the healing salve of the gospel that my soul so desperately needed, it became the catalyst for what troubled me most. Even though these thoughts attacked me like arrows from the quiver of Olympic archers, I knew that they weren’t rational. I never spoke of my issues to anyone. Maybe it was because they seemed insane. Or perhaps I didn’t want to let my parents down. Or possibly I feared my spiritual superiors and youth leaders might confirm my worst nightmare and condemn me or say that I had a demon or something.  So I kept quiet, continued to play the part of the normal, good kid while a battle raged within.

I continued contemplating these thoughts through my teenage years and into my adult life.  In scripture, I was always drawn to the book of Revelation. It seemed so veiled and mysterious. I also reveled in the fact that my parents nor leaders at church could really explain it with any certainty. I enjoyed the salvivic images and overtones strewn throughout the book and I began to search for assurance there. This indeed would have been a fine plan had the churches that I attended not been premillennial dispensationalists. This led me to always be on guard for the rapture. If my parents were supposed to be home and didn’t answer the phone…maybe the rapture got them and I was left behind. If my mom ran to the store without telling me and I couldn’t find anyone home…maybe the rapture took them. You can see how this supposedly comforting doctrine of the rapture is really anything but. It was even reinforced when my mom would catch me watching something on TV in which she didn’t approve. I remember once while watching the Simpsons, my mom exclaimed “Is that what you want to be watching when Jesus comes back?” Once again, assurance was questioned. The excruciating part was not being able to honestly talk with anyone about these fears. Not because my parents were bad people, they are in fact great parents. Neither was it because my youth leaders, or pastors were especially terrible either, they were generally nice folk who cared for their flock (some much more than others). The issue from my perspective was that if I told them that I feared I didn’t make the rapture cut, then that would spark their curiosity about what kind of sins I was involved in. The microscope of failure would be zooming in on me with its lights on highest magnification. This added a new dimension to lack of assurance because now I only confessed to sins in which I was caught in.  Anything else was left for internal deliberation as to not let anyone down or avoid damnation talk. Therefore, I was constantly looking inward to see if I was meeting the requirements and for the better part of my life I knew that I was triumphantly missing the mark but didn’t really know what to do about it. All of the youth conferences that I attended just tried to answer my questions with endless lists and sermons about detaching from society, being a world changer and a light to those in darkness. This was all well and good, but how do I become a light to others when I know my own heart is as black as coal?

There were several times that I almost hung it up.  I was tired of putting on the mask and playing the role of the prototypical conservative Christian evangelical…Mr. Everyday Goodfellow. But something wouldn’t let me go through with it.  That something was the word of God. There were months upon months that I failed to read my bible and there were also months that I read it every day.  Every time that I tried to give up on Christianity, scripture always reeled me back. Each time that I willingly entered into sin, my conscience would toss scripture my way and leave me with overwhelming guilt. While this was ultimately good, the only tool that I thought I possessed in my spiritual quiver was obedience. Thus, the old try harder next time, read your bible more, pray more, go to church more, volunteer more attitude was the same old snake oil that failed to fix me every time.  I ultimately discovered that I wasn’t fed up with Christianity after all, but was merely tired of the snake oil that obedience was selling me in the name of Christianity.

I was about 30 when things truly started to change. After a couple trying years dealing with financial problems and job loss, I had a new job and thanks to my wife, finances were in much better order. My new job had a 50 minute commute each way. I began to use that time to listen to sermons and podcasts. This lead to a desire to search out theology with a great fervor. Questions began to arise deep within my soul.

What did I truly believe?

Could I defend my faith?

What would I teach my kids (if and when I had kids)?

My prayer life began to change. I stopped asking God for favors and temporal desires and began asking him to strengthen my faith and to help me fight against the sin that was entrenching my life. I asked him to cut away all of the junk-pop-theology and help me figure out what his word truly says as revealed instead of just taking my parents, pastors, and pseudo-Christian teachers word for it. I was beginning to see progress in all areas of my life, but still continued to struggle with obedience and sin. I remember thinking that God is helping me to clean up my life, my prayer life is better, my scripture reading is better, I have a desire to study like never before, but…I still struggle with obedience and sin. Every time that I read Romans or Corinthians, I saw myself in the lists of sin that Paul called out by name. How could I truly be improving if I still identify with the worst of sinners?

As I continued to read my bible alongside many notable theologians I began to realize that while obedience is found in the Christian life, it is not where I was supposed to be looking for assurance. Obedience has an object, which is God’s law. God’s law can be simplified into two commands.  Love God and love people. This was the heart of the problem. In church, Sunday school and small group I was commanded to love God and people as if that was the gospel message.  It was the imperative that supposedly defined the Christian life.  It was the litmus test to determine whether one was truly a Christian or not.

I would often hear the question “Are you loving God and people?”

The answer, more times than not, was an emphatic no. I heard many lessons and sermons throughout my life encouraging me to do more, pray harder, read more, serve more, love more.  The problem is that none of these “actions” are the gospel message. This confusion was at the heart of all of my problems. The gospel message is not an action at all. It is simply good news. One cannot “do” good news. One can only receive good news. This was the message that I desperately needed, not just once at my conversion, but constantly. I needed to hear it not only in my personal study, but on Sunday mornings from the lips of the pastor. Week in and week out I needed to hear the ridiculously good news that “All have sinned (Romans 3:23), and the sin of all has accrued a debt that no mere man could ever pay (Matthew 18:21-35). God, in his great mercy and love, sent his willing Son to take on flesh (John 1:14), live a sinless life in our place (2 Corinthians 5:21), die on the cross and rise again for our justification (Romans 4:24-25) and that all of this is secured by gifted faith alone (Ephesians 2:8 & Romans 3:28). That is the gospel. There is nothing that I must do in any of that. God has even taken care of gifting the faith necessary so that no man may boast. It is totally and exclusively God’s grace apart from my works. The command to Love God and people is merely condensed law that Jesus uses in Luke 10:25-29 to show that we are completely incapable of fulfilling! That is why he fulfilled it in our place. Therefore, since Christ has fulfilled the law, it is no longer a burden to us, but a joy. It allows for order in the world through the rule of law, exposes our sin which produces the fruit of repentance, and gives us a target to shoot for. The great blessing here is that our assurance is not tied to how many times we miss the target or fall short, but to Christ’s objective work on the cross. The best way to remember the three uses of the law is…

Curb – 1st use – The general revelation of rule of law that is written on the hearts of man and dispensed through civil and governing bodies. This is how sin is curbed in the world (Romans 2:15).

Mirror – 2nd use – The law mirrors Christ’s will for each of our lives. It shows us all the places that we each fall short. This is blessing as it leads us to repentance (Romans 1:18-32 & 3:23).

Guide – 3rd use – The law gives us a guide to strive toward in Christian living. The striving is fueled by the gospel message, not by a meritorious method of obedience. This is also a blessing because it shows us what God desires, but deals no condemnation to those in Christ (Romans 8:1).

This means that we can, as King David says, delight in the law (Psalm 1:22).  By it, God gave us a picture of his perfect will and thus we should strive for it solely because of the grace he  has dispensed to us. The spiderweb that often catches us is when we attempt to look to our obedience (or lack there of) for assurance. For those in Christ, meaning those with faith in Christ, the law is a guide alone, not a means to salvation. This can be said confidently because Christ fulfilled the law for us, in our place, and therefore we have been freed from the burden of the law. The law no longer has condemning power for those in Christ Jesus. Therefore the gospel, not the law, gives us the desire to strive forward.

This is where the legalistic majority will retort “So you’re saying that we can do what ever we want and retain salvation!?! You’re an antinomian!” Although logical, this is a false dilemma. The person asking this question isn’t someone who believes the gospel too much, but sadly someone who doesn’t have any grasp on the gospel message at all. Paul is asked the same question in Romans 6 and what was his response? He preached more gospel. He pressed the gospel message in further as the fuel to fire the new gifted desire of obedience. If someone thinks that the gospel gives them a free pass to sin, they really don’t realize the unfathomable debt their sin has charged to their account. They don’t fully understand the weight of the law. They don’t see their sin as really that bad. They don’t understand that every single seemingly microscopic sin was fuel for the arm that pounded the nails into the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. They don’t understand the full ramifications of the sermon on the mount. They don’t truly see their lust as adultery. They refuse to see their anger as murder. They don’t see their parking ticket as damning. They don’t see their A+ as justification for Pharisaical self righteousness and people pleasing or their F as slothful laziness. Until a person comes to grips with the full weight of their motives and sin, they will never understand the magnificence of the grace of God.

The argument can be reduced to a proper understanding of love. Pastor Tullian Tchividjian gets is exactly right when he says “It is forgiveness that motivates and generates love. It is love that begets love.  The law cannot beget love. Nowhere, and I challenge anybody out there to find a place in the bible that actually says the law, in and of itself, has the power to produce love. Preachers and parents make a huge mistake when they assume that simply telling people what to do will change their heart and make them want to do it. Nowhere does the bible say that!” Only the gospel can change the desires of our heart and give us the motivation to strive toward obedience. Pointing out our complete inability to adhere to the imperatives of the New Testament does not imply that the imperatives lack importance or should be ignored – all Christians should be encouraged to good works – but let’s not make the mistake of believing that simply telling someone what to do instills the power for them to do it. Even worse, don’t insinuate that failure to meet the demands reduces ones favor in God’s eyes. The law shows us our sin and gives us a guide to strive after. The gospel is the news of forgiveness that instills both the means to strive and a heart of repentance. I had this backwards for 34 years and it nearly made me walk away from the faith altogether.

There is a dialogue in the third novella of Bo Giertz’s “The Hammer of God” that has been very helpful to me. It’s between young Pastor Torvik who resides in Odesjo, Sweden and old Pastor Bengtsson from Ravelunda, Sweden. Pastor Torvik experiences an intense awakening to his sinful nature through a dream and thus he begins to make amends with those in his congregation whom he has wronged. This realization of sin results in legalistic preaching that is void of the gospel. His church sees a moral revival take place, but soon after everything begins to fall apart. In the midst of trying to discover what went wrong, Torvik receives a visit from Pastor Bengtsson. Pastor Bengtsson questions Torvik on the current condition of his congregation. Torvik honestly replies that things are not going well at all. Pastor Bengtsson’s response is invaluable.

“Let me teach you what you ought to have known long before you stepped into the pulpit. When an individual has been called through the power of the word – in other words, the very thing that has been happening in this congregation of yours – that person is first enlightened by the law. He understands that there is something called sin that he must be careful to avoid. He becomes obedient, you see. That is the first awakening. Thus far it has perhaps come here and there in Odesjo by now. But then comes the second awakening by the law, when one sees the miserable condition of one’s heart. I am going to preach about that tonight. Then one understands that, with all one’s best deeds, one is and remains black as a chimney sweep. Then the danger is really serious. A person will the say, either, ‘If my condition is so terrible, I may as well wallow in the dirt,’ and go away and sin again. Or he will say, ‘I am after all not as black as Karlsson or Lundstrom and their card playing cronies, since I do not sin intentionally, and surely the Lord must make some distinctions on the last day,’ and he goes away and becomes a self righteous Pharisee, and all is lost. Or his eyes are turned from his own miserable condition and he catches sight of the Lord Jesus Christ, who died for such black rascals as himself. And he hears that it is faith that makes righteous, and not works. That is the enlightenment through the gospel. Therefore everything here in Odesjo depends on whether you can rightly preach the gospel and guide souls to the redeemer.

Looking back, I am thankful for God’s protection from apostasy as well as his grace along my path. I’m eternally thankful that I didn’t pursue evil just because because I was clever foolish enough to convince myself of false hope in hell’s corporate ladder. God has always sustained me through both tumultuous and simplistic times. It was never a mystical reading of the tea leaves type journey, but simply a remembrance of scripture when I needed it most. I am ever grateful for the upbringing that my parents gave me and even though we don’t necessarily see eye to eye on all things theological, the biblical foundation they gave me was strong enough to persevere against the rocky seas of life. At age 35 I can certainly relate with Pastor Torvik as he is representative of how much of my life was spent. The counsel that Pastor Bengtsson gave him also pulled at my heart. I had experienced both of the negative paths that my awakening to the law had yielded. I was internally miserable and defeated by sin as I secretly wallowed in the dirt while externally playing the part of the Pharisee as I tried to obey my way into temporal favor as I attempted to secure my standing before a righteous God. The motivation was all wrong. I didn’t try to obey out of love for Christ, but out of fear of the law and a perverse desire for approval. I am eternally grateful that through word and sacrament, God has brought me to the place, through his Son, that I can freely confess…

Most merciful God, I confess that I am by nature sinful and unclean. I have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what I have done and by what I have left undone. I have not loved You with my whole heart; I have not loved my neighbors as myself. I justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment. For the sake of Your Son, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me. Forgive me, renew me, and lead me, so that I may delight in Your will and walk in Your ways to the glory of your Holy Name. Amen.

 Praise be to God!

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9 comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this Jonathan. You are a blessing and your story is an encouragement. May we continually look to Jesus and all He has done for us.

    And, yes I can verify you are a sinner. But not as bad as me! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t believe that I have been at this for my whole life and still don’t get the nuances of it all.

    And now I’m raising young children and unsure about the message they are receiving from me. I have tried to share grace with them – certainly more than I received in my home of origin where I grew up with a performance based mentality – and turn them toward the Lord (encouraging them to pray to Him, read his word, listen to great worship, etc.), but we are in a season of disobedience and lack of repentance that is bringing strife into our home and family relationships. In the rare times that they are obedient, it brings such peace and restoration of relationships! And we all see the difference.

    Can’t we require obedience (and enjoy its benefits) while also communicating love when they can’t bring their selfishness into alignment with God’s law? Isn’t the fact that I’m still here, still loving and providing for them despite their disobedience an example of God’s grace?

    I am disappointed that they don’t seem to have any more than a Sunday School type experience with God (my 9 year old says she doesn’t hear Him when she tries to pray), because I have high hopes for how little ones can experience God and how He can speak to them in sweet ways.

    Why is it so difficult to understand/experience a good God?

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  3. Melanie,

    Thank you for your comment. I appreciate your honesty and concern. I too have been at it my whole life and doubt that I (or anyone for that matter) will ever truly and perfectly understand the vast nuances of the Christian faith. You are not alone. If anyone claims to have it all figured out, run away as fast as you can.

    I am truly sorry to hear about your current family struggles and I won’t begin to try to play psychologist or Christian counselor and give you 5 steps to freedom or whatever. All I can do is point you to Christ and his word. There is nothing wrong at all with teaching obedience to your children. They need the guidelines and discipline and as God shows us love by giving us the law (which is his will), we as parents show our children love by giving them rules and urging them to obedience. What must be avoided at all cost is to point them toward their obedience as efficacious in salvation. Jesus paid 100% of our debt. We don’t chip in anything. Therefore assurance rests in Christ alone. So yes, you are right when you say…

    “Can’t we require obedience (and enjoy its benefits) while also communicating love when they can’t bring their selfishness into alignment with God’s law? Isn’t the fact that I’m still here, still loving and providing for them despite their disobedience an example of God’s grace?

    It’s also necessary for us to repent to our children when we sin against them. I am many times “short tempered” with my son. My patience, too quickly, wears thin. He is often under my feet around the house and I occasionally (accidentally) step on him and knock him over. My usual response is “You gotta watch out, buddy!’ Those times are perfect of examples of when I need to stop, get down on his level and ask my son for forgiveness. Obedience, whether it be parents or children, ultimately finds its object in God’s law. We aren’t on different planes from our children, just different vocational offices.

    My only concern with your comment deals with how you seem to view prayer. In the Bible, prayer is never a conversation. God (whether audibly or mentally) speaking to us is not a normative response. Prayer is simply us talking to God. This is symbolized in the Old Testament by the High Priest burning incense. The smoke from this was representative of the the prayers of the people rising to God. Prayer is simply a one way conversation like the smoke. The only promise that we have of God speaking to us is through his word. He always answers our prayers (yes, no or not yet), but those answers are normatively revealed in time and through his word.

    If you get a chance, check out my other posts and always let me know if you have any questions.

    Thank you so much for taking the time to read my post and commenting.

    Jonathan

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  4. I thought you all might be edified by some additional comments from Luther:

    “Seeing then that sin hath here no place, there can be no anguish of conscience, no fear, no heaviness. Therefore St. John saith (1 John 3:9) “He that is born of God cannot sin.” But if there be any fear or grief of conscience, it is a token that his righteousness is withdrawn; that grace is hidden; and that Christ is darkened and out of sight. But where Christ is truly seen indeed, there must needs be full and perfect joy in the Lord, with peace of conscience, which most certainly thus thinketh: “Although I am a sinner by the law, and under condemnation of the law, yet I despair not, yet I die not, because Christ liveth, who is both my righteousness and my everlasting life.” In that righteousness and light I have no sin, no fear, no sting of conscience, no care of death. I am indeed a sinner as touching this present life and the righteousness thereof, as the child of Adam; where the Law accuseth me, death reigneth over me, and at length would devour me. But I have another righteousness and life above this life, which is Christ the Son of God, who knoweth no sin nor death, but is righteousness and life eternal; by whom this my body, being dead and brought into dust, shall be raised up again, and delivered from the bondage of the law and sin, and shall be sanctified together with the Spirit.”

    “So both these continue whilst we here live. The flesh is accused, exercised with temptations, oppressed with heaviness and sorrow, bruised by this active righteousness of the law; but the spirit reigneth, rejoiceth, and is saved by this passive and Christian righteousness, because it knoweth that it hath a Lord in heaven at the right hand of his Father, who hath abolished the law, sin, death, and hath trodden under his feet all evils, led them captive, and triumphed over them in himself. (Col. ii. 15.)”

    Martin Luther, “Commentary in the Epistle to the Galatians”

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    1. Amen to Luther’s Galatians. I wonder what he would say when 10% of the world go to church as opposed to his day when 80% of his Germans were going even if forced which of course will never do.
      Sandy

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  5. “Seeing then that sin hath here no place, there can be no anguish of conscience, no fear, no heaviness. Therefore St. John saith (1 John 3:9) “He that is born of God cannot sin.” But if there be any fear or grief of conscience, it is a token that his righteousness is withdrawn; that grace is hidden; and that Christ is darkened and out of sight. But where Christ is truly seen indeed, there must needs be full and perfect joy in the Lord, with peace of conscience, which most certainly thus thinketh: “Although I am a sinner by the law, and under condemnation of the law, yet I despair not, yet I die not, because Christ liveth, who is both my righteousness and my everlasting life.” In that righteousness and light I have no sin, no fear, no sting of conscience, no care of death. I am indeed a sinner as touching this present life and the righteousness thereof, as the child of Adam; where the Law accuseth me, death reigneth over me, and at length would devour me. But I have another righteousness and life above this life, which is Christ the Son of God, who knoweth no sin nor death, but is righteousness and life eternal; by whom this my body, being dead and brought into dust, shall be raised up again, and delivered from the bondage of the law and sin, and shall be sanctified together with the Spirit.”

    “So both these continue whilst we here live. The flesh is accused, exercised with temptations, oppressed with heaviness and sorrow, bruised by this active righteousness of the law; but the spirit reigneth, rejoiceth, and is saved by this passive and Christian righteousness, because it knoweth that it hath a Lord in heaven at the right hand of his Father, who hath abolished the law, sin, death, and hath trodden under his feet all evils, led them captive, and triumphed over them in himself. (Col. ii. 15.)”

    Martin Luther, “Commentary in the Epistle to the Galatians”

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