Note: If you’d prefer, you can listen to this sermon here.
What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life (Romans 6:1-4).
At a time of great national distress and doctrinal laissez-faire, a group of Bible believing men entered the scene. These guys weren’t a bunch of elitists, but rather they were middle-class folks, and many worked ordinary jobs in addition to ministry duties. They were hard working and desired spiritual reformation.
Coming out of a time of extreme liberalism, they stepped in with Bible-focused authority. They even helped create guidelines to help ordinary people obey God. Focused on practicality, they helped build special rules for everyday living, and even more importantly they helped build a figurative hedge of protection around the Bible and their practical guidelines. They became the guardians of righteous living and obedience to God’s commands.
Their extraordinary skill was to take Scripture and build daily and practical frameworks around it. Their level of detail was extraordinary and comprehensive. One scholar wrote that their “fundamental goal was a noble one: to maintain of life of purity and obedience to God’s law.”[i]
Often referred to separatists or fundamentalists, these men became the champions of the people of faith and were heralded as the spiritual leaders, like the patriarchs of old. In addition, theologically they held a strong doctrine of eschatology, pouring over Scripture for truth of the end times. They also were keenly observant of the culture in which they lived, not tainting themselves in it, but watching the signs of the times, hoping for the future promises.
Who were these incredible men? They were the Pharisees.
That’s right…the very opponents of Jesus and those for whom Jesus reserved his harshest criticism. In fact, historians tell us that they were the doctrinal champions of their day, and overall helped usher Israel back to a conservative revival, despite Roman occupation. Yet, Jesus surprised His disciples with these words:
“The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so practice and observe whatever they tell you—but not what they do. For they preach, but do not practice. They tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to move them with their finger. They do all their deeds to be seen by others. For they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long, and they love the place of honor at feasts and the best seats in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces and being called rabbi by others (Matthew 23:1-7).
But, Jesus didn’t stop with this critical exposition of the fundamentalists of His day, He furthered confounded His followers with these words: “…you have one instructor, the Christ. The greatest among you shall be your servant. Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:10-12).
As uncomfortable as this made Jesus’ disciples then, it makes his disciples uncomfortable today. For, the message of grace is incredibly uncomfortable. Why? In short, it takes control away. Just as the Pharisees “helped” the people with all the rules of how to apply God’s law in their everyday lives, we like to create our own comfortable world in which we are in control, and to create a world in which we matter. If the truth be told, we are scarred of the grace that Jesus gives. Rather than humble ourselves and exalt him, we spend most of our time focused on self.
The grace of the Gospel message is freeing, yet frightening. It’s controversial, yet a new covenant. It’s counter-intuitive, yet wise. Yes, it is radical. And, so, the Pharisees hated it in Jesus’ day, and modern day Pharisees hated it too. As John Piper points out:
…we have turned the love of God and the gospel of Christ into a divine endorsement of our delight in many lesser things, especially the delight in our being made much of. The acid test of biblical God-centeredness—and faithfulness to the gospel—is this: Do you feel more loved because God makes much of you, or because, at the cost of his Son, he enables you to enjoy making much of him forever? Does your happiness hang on seeing the cross of Christ as a witness to your worth, or as a way to enjoy God’s worth forever? Is God’s glory in Christ the foundation of your gladness?[ii]
Today many Christians relate the word “gospel” with initial salvation or something that is shared in evangelism. Few realize the essential nature of the gospel in our daily lives. The Colossians apparently needed a similar reminder when Paul wrote to them: “Of this you have heard before in the word of the truth, the gospel, which has come to you, as indeed in the whole world it is bearing fruit and growing—as it also does among you, since the day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth”(Colossians 1:5b-6). They had received the gospel, salvation had come, and it was “bearing fruit and growing” in the world and among them. The gospel was at work sanctifying God’s children in the “grace of God in truth.”
But, here is the danger. In my desire to please God, in my desire to obey, it is easy to de-emphasize the “grace of God in truth” and to run after the way of the Pharisees: tips and techniques to please God. The real question is: what motivates my obedience? Is obedience simply obedience or does motive matter? While the answer to this question may be obvious in light of New Testament revelation, if removed from this context it might not be so obvious.
For example, I have a friend who did not come to a saving faith in Jesus Christ until later in life. His early years were characterized by wild parties, wild people, and complete lawlessness. Being a “Type A” personality, he was full-speed ahead into debauchery. He truly believed that if he did whatever he wanted, then he would be happy. Thankfully, confronted with the Gospel, he realized he wasn’t happy, but miserable, because a life without a saving relationship with Christ is misery. Thankfully saved, but still in the same skin, he went full-speed into American Christian culture. Fearful that he would slip back into his old sinful patterns, he found resources at his church to help him with tips and techniques to stay on the right path. In fact, he believed that if he simply found a way to obey, then he would be happy. Sound familiar? Sure, many of know people just like this. What’s going on here?
In this example, while we would celebrate the salvation of a sinner, we can easily see even in our own lives how we can fall prey to setting up ways to obey with no regard for our motives. Insightfully, Tullian Tchividjian[iii] says that this before and after scenario is actually two sides of the same coin, what he calls “front door legalism” and “back door legalism.” In keeping the rules (front door legalism), the emphasis is on what I can do for God by obeying the rules. In breaking the rules (back door legalism), the emphasis is on what I can do to please myself. Hopefully, you see the similarity here. In both forms of legalism, I am seeking self-satisfaction and fulfillment in what I can do. Neither of these are focused on what God has done for me in Christ alone. And, let me be clear: neither of these is the Gospel! As John Piper helps clarify,
In order for the Christian gospel to be good news it must provide an all-satisfying and eternal gift that undeserving sinners can receive and enjoy. For that to be true, the gift must be three things. First, the gift must be purchased by the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. Our sins must be covered, and the wrath of God against us must be removed, and Christ’s righteousness must be imputed to us. Second, the gift must be free and not earned. There would be no good news if we had to merit the gift of the gospel. Third, the gift must be God himself, above all his other gifts.[iv]
Therefore we must cry out with the Isaiah regarding our works that “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is 64:6). In fact, Satan’s lie is to convince us that grace is dangerous and therefore must be controlled. When you and I believe this lie, we are hindering the gospel growth that Paul is referring to in Colossians one. Therefore, we must avoid adding anything to the gospel. Or, as Tullian Tchividjian explains,
Because Jesus was strong for me, I am free to be weak;
Because Jesus won for me, I am free to lose;
Because Jesus was Someone, I am free to be no one;
Because Jesus was extraordinary, I am free to be ordinary;
Because Jesus succeeded for me, I am free to fail.[v]
This is incredibly frightening language for most of us! I am easily trapped into thinking that obedience is obedience. Just make it happen, John, any way you can. But, this is not the Gospel. God cares deeply about what motivates our obedience, not simply our obedience.
As an example, when I grew up in the Baptist church, the big deal then was alcohol (maybe it is today too, but I just don’t seem to hear the same dogmatic rhetoric). All you heard was don’t drink, and good Baptists don’t drink, and so on. In other words, through fear and manipulation, the adults of that era convinced us that part of Christian obedience was not drinking. And, it worked…but only for a while. I can remember going off to college and watching numerous friends from Baptist churches binge-drinking at parties. In fact, sadly, many of my Baptist friends knew more about the rules not to drink and the manipulation of Scripture to make it fit those rules than they did the gospel! The fear and manipulation of legalism is effect for temporary obedience, but it’s not sustainable. And, it’s not sustainable because it is the complete opposite of the freedom of the gospel.
Let me give you two Biblical examples. First, from the Old Testament consider Cain and Abel:
In the course of time Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground, and Abel also brought of the firstborn of his flock and of their fat portions. And the LORD had regard for Abel and his offering, but for Cain and his offering he had no regard. So Cain was very angry, and his face fell. The LORD said to Cain, “Why are you angry, and why has your face fallen? If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it” (Genesis 4:3-7).
When we read this text, it’s easy to focus on the type of offerings that were offered, but to do this is to miss the heart-attitude of Cain and Abel. This is why we learn about Cain’s response, and we hear nothing from Abel. In fact, the rest of this passage in Genesis provides a clear picture of Cain’s motives as he demonstrates resentment and a lack of cooperativeness with God. John picks up on this motif in 1 John 3:12 when he writes: “We should not be like Cain, who was of the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own deeds were evil and his brother’s righteous.” Or, as the writer of Hebrews clarifies, “By faith Abel offered to God a more acceptable sacrifice than Cain, through which he was commended as righteous, God commending him by accepting his gifts. And through his faith, though he died, he still speaks” (Hebrews 11:4).
An obvious example from the New Testament is of course the Pharisees. As I stated earlier, these men really were the reformation champions of their day. They had brought Israel out of a time of liberalism and even cult practices into a new era of obedience to the Law. Keep in mind too that they worked diligently to the people with practical guidance in finite detail on how to keep the Law. In short, they were incredibly obedient. And, yet, Jesus disregarded their outward obedience and went straight to the heart of the matter:
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint and dill and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. You blind guides, straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel!
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and the plate, that the outside also may be clean.
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness (Matthew 23:23-28).
So, the motives behind our obedience are incredibly important to God! As Scottish minister Ralph Erskine[vi] wrote,
“The believer will not serve sin, because he is alive to God, and dead to sin [Rom. 6. 6]. The legalist forsakes sin, not because he is alive, but that he may live. The believer mortifies sin, because God loves him; but the legalist, that God may love him. The believer mortifies, because God is pacified towards him; the legalist mortifies, that he may pacify God by his mortification. He may go a great length, but it is still that he may have whereof to glory, making his own doing all the foundation of his hope and comfort.”[vii]
Interestingly, Paul demonstrates this structurally in each of his epistles: not one of his epistles starts with what we need to do for God. In fact, in various forms, he starts each epistle with what God has already done for us in Jesus Christ. Consider Colossians, for example. It is not until the third chapter that Paul provides instruction, and even then he introduces it with “If then you have been raised with Christ…” (Colossians 3:1a). Or, consider Ephesians. In chapters one through three Paul describes what God has done, then finally in chapter four he commences instruction, but he introduces it with this: “I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called” (Ephesians 4:1). Why does Paul do this? Do you think it is by accident? No, Paul understood this truth: “Imperatives minus indicatives equal impossibilities.”[viii] In other words, obedience grounded in anything other than the gospel is not sustainable. God’s radical grace is the only thing that will sustain obedience.
We must become obsessed with this message! The gospel message is about Jesus’ performance for us, not our performance for Him. As we focus on this, we grow in our sanctification. Here is how this works: As Believers, you and I have the Holy Spirit dwelling with us (Romans 8:9-11) and therefore we have a desire to mature (in fact, this is one the defining marks of an authentic Christian). We mature as we focus on what Jesus Christ has done for us. This is the true irony of the Christian sanctification and most certainly counter-intuitive to what we get trapped into thinking. God’s love for you and me does not get bigger when we obey and smaller when we disobey. And, the irony is that if you realize that God loves you no matter what you do, you will become less enslaved to sin and more grateful to Jesus, and the more grateful you are to Jesus the more you want to live a life that pleases Him!
The opposite of this is to ignore the Savior and focus on sin. But, what does this produce? If you ignore the savior and obsess over your sin, you will become a neurotic narcissist![ix] Obsess over your sin and all you think about is your sin and how you can overcome it. Obsess over your Savior and you will be free! If you become consumed with your work for Jesus, your Christian growth will shrink. If you become consumed with Jesus’ work for you, you will grow by leaps and bounds! Or, as John Piper so eloquently states, “Whatever dulls the eyes of our mind from seeing Christ powerfully and purely is destroying us.”[x]
With this radical exposure to grace and the freedom of the gospel, many of us start to put the mental brakes on. We are uncomfortable with this freedom, and the Pharisee in us in uncomfortable with the freedom it gives others. We begin to wonder if this is not a recipe for disaster, anarchy, a license to sin. Thankfully, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, Paul anticipated this concern when writing the Romans. At the start of chapter six Paul poses a theoretical question: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?” (Romans 6:1). To fully appreciate this question, you may reference chapter five, in which Paul uses key words that concern the Pharisee in all of us. We read words like, “justified,” “faith,” “grace,” “saved,” “free gift,” and so on. And, then, Paul summarizes with this: “Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 5:20-21).
This radical explanation of the gospel scares us, and it would have had the same effect on the original hearers of Paul’s letter. Anticipating this, Paul writes, “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means!” (Romans 6:1-2a). Paul responds strongly that God’s grace is not compatible with sin. But, notice where Paul takes the reader after this denouncement: “How can we who died to sin still live in it? Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were buried therefore with him by baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, we too might walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:2b-4). Instead of responding, “By no means! Now here are some rules to follow to avoid sinning,” he responds with the gospel! Again, do you want to grow in sanctification? Then focus on what Christ has done, not what you can do.
Listen closely, our disobedience does not happen when we think too much of grace. It occurs when we think too little of grace. Disobedience does not occur because you need more tips and techniques to obey the Law, but because you need to grow deeper in grace. When you and I fully realize and live like Jesus paid it all, then we are truly free to obey Him.
The law supposing I have all,
Does ever for perfection call;
The gospel suits my total want,
And all the law can seek does grant.
The law could promise life to me,
If my obedience perfect be;
But grace does promise life upon
My Lord’s obedience alone.
The law says, Do, and life you’ll win;
But grace says, Live, for all is done;
The former cannot ease my grief,
The latter yields me full relief.
The law will not abate a mite,
The gospel all the sum will quit;
There God in thret’nings is array’d
But here in promises display’d.
The law excludes not boasting vain,
But rather feeds it to my bane;
But gospel grace allows no boasts,
Save in the King, the Lord of Hosts.
Lo! in the law Jehovah dwells,
But Jesus is conceal’d;
Whereas the gospel’s nothing else
But Jesus Christ reveal’d.[xi]
[i] Strauss, Mark L. Four Portraits, One Jesus: an Introduction to Jesus and the Gospels (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2007), 133.
[ii] Piper, John. God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 12.
[iii] I am grateful for a sermon Tchividijian gave at Our Fathers & Our Founders Conference in Orlando, FL in early 2011 titled “Evangelical, Missional, Christ-centered.” The general outline of my sermon as well as paraphrases throughout are taken from Tchividijian’s sermon. (http://feeds.theresurgence.com/TheResurgencePodcast)
[iv] Piper, John. God Is the Gospel: Meditations on God’s Love as the Gift of Himself (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2005), 14.
[ix] For those involved in “Accountability Groups” this is something to strongly consider. Keep your group gospel-focused. Spending considerable time obsessing over morbid introspection and graphic details of sin is destructive and can impede your sanctification. Accountability is good, but make sure that you are spending the bulk of your time obsessing over what Jesus Christ has done for you on the cross.