Last Thursday I wrote a post called Gospel Substitutes in which I began to outline the seven ways we falsely live out the gospel, per Lane & Tripp’s excellent book How People Change. I included two of the seven: Formalism (Volunteerism) and Legalism. I had hoped to get to the remaining five sooner, but a garage sale at home sucked up all my time this past Friday and Saturday, so here are the next three of the seven. I’ll post the final two later today.
Christine careens from emotional experience to emotional experience. She is constantly hunting for a spiritual high, a dynamic encounter with God. Because of this, she never stays with one church very long. She is more a consumer of experience than a committed member of the body of Christ. Yet in between the dynamic experiences, Christine’s faith often falls flat. She struggles with discouragement and often finds herself wondering if she is even a believer. Despite the excitement of powerful moments, Christine isn’t growing in faith and character.
Biblical faith is not stoic; true Christianity is dyed with all the colors of human emotion. But you cannot reduce the gospel to dynamic emotional experiences with God. As the Holy Spirit indwells us and the Word of God impacts us, most of the changes in our hearts and lives take place in the little moments of life. The danger of mysticism is that it can become more a pursuit of experience than a pursuit of Christ. It reduces the gospel to dynamic emotional and spiritual experiences.
It can be difficult to differentiate between our spiritual and emotional states. We feel discouraged, and therefore we think we are struggling spiritually. But the reality is that our spiritual state is entirely determined by Christ, and he does not change. We are in Christ by grace through faith. Our emotions change depending on the weather, our circumstances, or even our blood-sugar levels; Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
Shirley stands on the right-to-life picket line wondering why more Christians aren’t there. Of course, Shirley feels the same about the protests at the adult bookstore and her work on the coming local election. These causes define what it means to be a Christian. Her constant refrain is, ‘Stand up for what is right, wherever and whenever it is needed.’ There is something admirable about Shirley’s willingness to devote time, energy, and money to stand up for what is right.
But on closer examination, Shirley’s Christianity is more a defense of what’s right than a joyful pursuit of Christ. The focus of this kind of Christian activism is always on external evil. As a result, it can take on the form of a modern monasticism. The monastics essentially said, ‘There is an evil world out there, and the way to fight evil is to separate from it.’ But monasteries failed because they forgot to focus on the evil inside every monk who entered their walls!
Whenever you believe that the evil outside you is greater than the evil inside you, a heartfelt pursuit of Christ will be replaced by a zealous fighting of the ‘evil’ around you. A celebration of the grace that rescues you from your own sin will be replaced by a crusade to rescue the church from the ills of the surrounding culture. Christian maturity becomes defined as a willingness to defend right from wrong. The gospel is reduced to participation in Christian causes.
The trouble with activism is that we lose sight of the evil in our own hearts. We get so focused on the social evils of abortion or human trafficking that we forget about the sinful patterns of thinking, desiring, and remembering that lie deep within the recesses of our hearts. There are many worthy causes that Christians should get involved in, but participation in Christian causes is not the same thing as participation in the gospel. The gospel of Jesus Christ is first and always a gospel of the heart, setting about to transform you at the level of desire by the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.
John is a biblical and theological expert. His theological library includes rare, antique Christian volumes, and he is always seeking to buy first editions. John frequently uses phrases like ‘biblical worldview’, ‘theologically consistent’, and ‘thinking like a Christian.’ He loves the Bible (which is a very good thing), but there are things in John’s life that don’t seem to fit.
Despite his dedicated study of Christianity, John isn’t known for being like Christ. He has a reputation for being proud, critical, and intolerant of anyone who lacks his fine-grained understanding of the faith. John endlessly critiques his pastor’s sermons and unnerves Sunday school teachers when he enters the room.
In John’s Christianity, communion, dependency, and worship of Christ have been replaced by a drive to master the content of Scripture and systematic theology. John is a theological expert, but he is unable to live by the grace he can define with such technical precision. He has invested a great deal of time and energy mastering the Word, but he does not allow the Word to master him. In Biblicism, the gospel is reduced to a mastery of biblical content and theology.
I see nothing wrong with this one. Let’s just move on. …Okay, fine, this is wrong, too. Many Christians are tempted to master God’s Word and Theology in their minds. Heck, I have a Masters of Divinity degree! It’s one thing to master God’s Word in your mind, but it’s another thing altogether to be mastered by it in your heart. Ultimately, the Bible is a book that reads you. Treating the Scripture as mere information, however holy that information might be, is to sin against the revelation of God. The trajectory of Scripture is the gospel, and the gospel is not merely information or a story; it is a world recreating event that continues to act in and through God’s people today.
I’ll post the last two ways we falsely live out the gospel later today.