Some teach that there are only two options in the Christian – either obedience to God’s law (or the miserable life of continuing to try to keep the law, failing, repenting and trying again, because no honest person will say he can keep the law), or license. They say that if you do not have God’s law you will run off into all kinds of sin.
Many “disciopleship” books will talk about the extremes of legalism (being entirely for the law) and license – being totally without law. They attempt to strike a balance.
“We’re free in Christ“, they say, “we’re forgiven, but we must keep close to the law, or we will just run wild.” This type of teaching ignores some important realities.
I’ve made the point through several entries that we the purpose of the law is to reveal sin. Some people view the law as a list of recommendations of how to live to please God. But what they don’t realize is that the minute the law sounds its voice, you are condemned, because your entire nature is one of law breaking.
It’s important to keep in mind that when we talk about the law, it’s not only the law of Moses that we’re talking about. The law principle is a demand for performance rather than faith. It promises blessings and approval to those who DO and loss of blessing, or approval for those who DON’T .
For example, Romans speaks of the Gentiles who do not have the law (of moses) being a law unto themselves, their conscience excusing or accusing them. (Rom 2:14)
Whether its the law of Moses our just our own sense of right and wrong, we are all condemned. Because of the falleness of our flesh, The law can only reveal sin and expose it.
For that reason we cannot live under law and expect to please God. No flesh shall be justified by the works of the law, because the law brings the knowledge of Sin (Rom 3:28), “works wrath” (Romans 4:15), and those who are of the law are under a curse, because to break one point is to break the whole law. (Gal 3:10).
Many feel that apart from the law they have no other option. They know that they fail miserably to keep the law, but are afraid that without it they will run wild. As I said, they think there are only two options – legalism or license, and believe that they have to strike a balance somehow.
There is another option! We are not limited to either being legalistic on the one hand, or running wild on the other. Nor are we admonished by Paul to strike a balance between the two. For Paul everything came down to one thing: The Spirit.
Paul said in Galatians 5:16, “This I say then, Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.” Those who walk according to the Spirit will not “run wild”. Not only that, but Paul said “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.”
The fruit of the Spriit, Paul says, love, joy, peace gentleness, meekness, patience, kindness, and self control – the law has nothing to say to these things. He says “against these things there is no law.”
Remember, the law is AGAINST our old nature. But the way to deal with the old fallen nature is not to try to restrain it by law keeping. Rather,” if you walk by the Spirit, you won’t fulfill the lust o the flesh“. Its not that you won’t have the lust – its there, but you are not its slave, and if you walk according to the Spirit, you won’t carry it out.
For Paul, the Spirit is everything in the Christian Life. The Spirit is the reality of Christ Himself, dwelling within us. Everything that Christ is has come to dwell in our spirit by the Spirit, and the Christian life is a life of walking by Him, leaning on Him, trusting in Him.
New creation, new realities.
When we were sealed with the Spirit after believing the Gospel, we received the life of Christ at the core of our being, and became a new creation (Gal 6:15, 2 Cor 5:17). That new creation has all the holy desires and inclinations of Christ, because it is of His life.
This new nature loves God’s word. Loves righteousness. Loves holiness. Loves the brethren. A new believer is strong in the new nature he has received, and experiences a tremendous transformation in their life.
This new nature doesn’t want to “run wild”. It wants to run towards God and enjoy Him! It doesn’t do this from a sense of obligation or duty. It spontaneously has a distaste for the sinful lifestyle of the old man. So many things can spontaneously just drop off at this time without even trying.
But over time for most of us, perhaps after a year or 2, we begin to drift and the old things seem to come back and haunt. We are surprised and disillusioned if we have not been taught properly.
We began to assume that the old nature was gone and we were “different” now that we are saved. Now that we’re seeing the old tendencies, does it mean we weren’t saved? Actually, the old nature never went anywhere! It still is with us, unchanged.
Some teach that the old nature was eradicated and is no longer present in the genuine believer’s life. This leads to false expectations and disillusionment.
When we first became saved, (many of us, not all), we had such a strong realization that Christ is real, He is alive, He has forgiven my sins, and this changes everything – that we were spontaneously walking according to the Spirit (without even knowing it!)
In the power of the new birth experience, for many of us, that old man was kept in his place of death – rendered ineffective. After awhile, we began to drift….and the old creation began to increasingly dominate the scene again. This led to many fears about our condition, and questions about the reality our salvation for some of us.
Getting it “right”
There is a baseball story where a batter went to a coach to figure out how to adjust his swing in order to recapture that “one time” he knocked it out the park. After awhile he finally said “coach, you always show me what I’m doing wrong, but you should have looked for what I was doing RIGHT, and told me about that so I could focus on it”.
In the Christian life we often start out “right.” believing in the Lord, walking by the Spirit. We don’t even know that we’re walking by the Spirit, but we know something is different. Old desires are gone, new desire have come. What is this?
At this point it would be very good if someone came along and told us some things about the Christian life and what has happened to us now that we’re regnerated. The problem is, no one comes along at that point and tells us what we are doing right.
There is so little teaching about the new nature, the new creation, the indwelling Spirit, the life of Christ within us. Instead most people who approach us come with a religious agenda.. “Oh! you’re a Christian now. Let me help you! are you reading your bible enough? are you giving enough? how often are you at church? do you see your need to be in community? are you serving the lord? are you preaching the gospel? have you gone on a mission trip? – etc etc etc.”
What is happening? The focus is being taken off the new creation realities – the new facts of the believer’s life that entered in when the Spirit came, and the focus is being set back on the believer and his performance. their eyes are being taken off Christ, and back onto self. This is to be put under the law.
Whether its the law of moses, or just the self made law of a religious system, it doesn’t matter – either way it is a systematic way of thinking about the christian life that is somehow void of the Spirit, void of Christ and empty and has no power. What you’re left with is a struggle to be “perfected in the flesh”.
When this happens, the old nature comes back with strength. This is what Paul was dealing with in the letter to Galatians. The believers had started well. They started by faith in Christ having received the Spirit, and the Spirit was doing all the work. They were just believing the Gospel message, and miracles were happening.
Miracles in their own nature – a whole new nature characterized by love and athe fruit of the Spirit, and miracles in their life – God appointed “coincidences” and outright miracles. Not because they were anything, but because they believed the message of the Gospel and the Spirit was flowing.
But then religious types (judaizers) came along and said “not so fast! you’re christians now and thats great, but now you need to learn to live a life worthy of God, and that is defined by the Law of Moses. Do you really love God with all your heart soul and strength? Have you committed yourself entirely to Him? what about circumcision – where is your sign that you are really his? if you really want to be blessed and know youre in God’s will you need to follow us and do as we are doing”
Paul had to labor to get the Galatians back to the beginning. He said in Chapter 3 “who bewitched you that you should disobey the truth? How did you receive the Spirit – by the works of the Law, or by the hearing of faith? Does He who supplies the Spirit and works miracles among you do so by the works of law or by the hearing of faith? are you so foolish, having begun in the Spirit, are you now going to be perfected in the flesh?“
Paul’s admonition throughout His letters is actually simple – you just need the Spirit. The Spirit is everything. And walking by the Spirit is not a work. It happens as you learn to believe the truths that Paul was commissioned to reveal.
For instance, Paul made a point to teach that the Old Man, the flesh, has been crucified with Christ. God is no longer expecting anything from you in that sense. He’s not trying to get you to clean it up, or perfect it now that you’re His. He wants you to reckon yourself dead with Christ and see that God has condemned that old man to death.
Not only that but you need to see that Christ lives in you. He is the Spirit within You. and He wants to live His life in you. The old man is present with you, but you need to reckon him dead – not only to sin but to the law itself. He has died to everyone’s expectations. He is finished in God’s program.
You need to know that if you don’t learn to walk by the Spirit, the old man will be active and strong and you will have no peace. Further, the walk in the Spirit is merely the walk of faith – believing in the facts.
Paul’s letters are full of the facts: We were crucified with Christ. We were buried with Him in baptism. We were raised together with Him, and have been seated with Him in the heavenlies. We are resting in His finished work, and in God’s eyes we are spotless and holy, and we are accepted in His beloved.
All of the truths in Colossians, Ephesians, Romans, Phillippians – there is so much, and yet its almost entirely ignored in favor of a religious “instruction” that is not intended to show you who you are in Christ, but to get you to focus on your performance in the flesh.
For Paul growth in the Christian life is being more and more strongly established in an acknowledgement and an assurance of what God has revealed that Christ accomplished in His death and resurrection, and has happened to us as a result.
Initially we know that something has “changed” and Jesus is real! We experience a whole new reality. But eventually our mind needs to be trained so that we will continue to come back again and again to that reality.
Our mind needs to be, as paul said, “renewed”, brought back to focus on the gospel truths – how God got it “right” with us. And that is all we need for the Christian life. Nothing else.
The importance of Paul’s unique teaching
On the one hand it sounds like I’m saying something complicated. That there is this whole landscape of new creation knowledge that we need to learn. This is true.
There is a whole frontier of learning to understand what it means that “I have been crucified with Christ, and it is no longer I who live but Christ who lives in me, and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God.” This kind of teaching is almost entirely missing from christian churches today!
Our position in Christ as described especially in Paul’s epistles is what we need to spend our whole christian life saturating ourselves with. Those epistles are where we learn “this is what’s right about your Christian life. This is who you are in Christ, this is what He did for you on the cross. This is what He accomplished in resurrection. This is the new set of realities that entered your life when the Spirit came. This is how the Spirit works in you, and what He’s endeavoring to produce.”
All of this is in Paul’s writing. And really all Christian teaching needs to be measured by whether or not is “Pauline.”
But just because there are all these facts does not mean we need to be overwhelmed. The facts are merely to show us everything that happened when we first believed the Gospel. They are there to convince us that believing the gospel is enough.
We started by believing the gospel, and if we were really clear about how we had been forgiven and accepted by God, we saw a new freedom enter our lives, because the Spirit bears witness to His Gospel. Now we just need to come back to see that believing the Gospel is the only way this thing works. The “why” has to do with the new creation.
Instead of feeding ourselves on all kinds of law oriented teachings about how to “do it”, we should be feeding ourselves on the facts that Paul lays out concerning what Christ did for us on the cross and in His resurreciton. It’s enough for a lifetime, and it’s real food that brings us back again and again to the beginning.