Struggling to be Free or Free to Struggle?

I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. Gal 2:20, NASB

What should the Christian life look like? Should we be trying to prove our worth to God? Are we free to live how ever we want because “grace”? Should we expect to achieve sinless perfection?

When I was in college, our RUF pastor used to ask us, “Are you struggling to be free, or are you free to struggle?” His point was that until we come to faith in Christ we will struggle and fight an impossible battle to make ourselves right with God. We will struggle to be free of our sin and guilt.

The good news of the gospel is that through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection we have been set free from sin’s power. Sin no longer has dominion over us. We are at peace with God. This is our reality right now, and it can’t be taken away from us. But there’s more to the story. We have been set free and given a purpose.

Because we have been united to Christ by the Spirit, we have been crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20) and are dead to sin (Rom 6:11). But we have also been raised with Christ, so that we may “walk in newness of life” (Rom 6:4). What does this mean for us?

Read the rest of this article over at Place for Truth.

Theological Fitness: A Review

Ah, fitness. Such a hot topic these days. It’s everywhere: from exercise routines to the latest diet trends to electronic gadgets and apps to keep track and stay focused on your goals. Everyone wants to be fit, or at least, laments that they aren’t as fit as they’d like to be. Fitness can be a controversial topic because everyone has a different opinion as to how to go about it.

For example, I hate to run. If you ever see me running, please stop and help me, someone is chasing me. I do, however, enjoy working out in water. This is for three reasons. You don’t get all sweaty. If you make a mistake, no one can see it. And most importantly, if anything jiggles that shouldn’t, they can’t see that either.

Kidding aside, fitness is an important concept in our society. But what about theological fitness? Are our bodies strong, but our “theological muscles” wasting away? Does it matter if they are? What can we do about it? This is the focus of Aimee Byrd’s new book, Theological Fitness: Why We Need a Fighting Faith. Aimee Byrd, also known as the Housewife Theologian, is part of the team of contributors for the Mortification of Spin podcast. She and her co-hosts, Carl Trueman and Todd Pruitt, regularly discuss topics of interest in the Reformed world.

One of Byrd’s recent concerns has been the lack of discernment and doctrinal precision in many of the popular Christian books. I share her concern and am thankful for her solid and helpful contribution in her most recent book. Theological Fitness is an excellent study, and not just for women.

At the heart of Theological Fitness is a discussion of Hebrews 10:23 and what it means for believers. Hebrews 10:23 says, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful.” Byrd writes about how, why, and what we’re to “hold fast” to:

Are you tempted to backslide? Hold fast! Are you being persecuted? Hold fast! Through suffering, fear, and chastisement, and in the ordinary, everyday life of faith and obedience, we are encouraged to hold fast. It may sound like an easy adage, but my goal in this book is to show you that it is a workout. And this kind of workout, this exhortation, in fact, promotes a theological fitness. (14)

What is “theological fitness”? Byrd says, “Theological fitness, then, refers to that persistent fight to exercise our faith by actively engaging in the gospel truth revealed in God’s Word. (16)” Fighting, exercise, actively engaging … these words emphasize the effort we are called to make in our daily walk. It’s about the process of sanctification.

There are some today who prefer not to talk about our efforts as part of sanctification. They point to Christ’s work and our inability. But the idea that we are called to strive towards holiness is not unbiblical. The Westminster Shorter Catechism (Question 35) defines sanctification this way:

Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Sanctification is God’s work of making us holy, but part of that work is making us able to “die unto sin and live unto righteousness.” And Paul uses frequent examples from sports and warfare to illustrate that this means effort on our part.

Byrd makes this point in Theological Fitness:

We persevere not because of our own faithfulness, but because he who promised is faithful. … Only Jesus had the fitness for the work of our salvation. But he has now qualified us for the race of the Christian life. (17)

I love the image of Jesus having qualified us for the race. It’s God’s work, and He will finish it. But we are called to work, and work hard, in this life. And that is what Byrd focuses on in her book. Using many fitness metaphors and examples, thankfully well-explained for those of us less fitness savvy, Byrd encourages us all to struggle and to fight the good fight.

Because we have been justified by God’s grace and Christ’s death and resurrection, we are now free. Free to struggle against our indwelling sin and free to struggle for growth in holiness:

We are new creations under the reign of grace! Sin no longer reigns in us, and knowing this new status changes everything. We are not fighting to improve our old selves, but we are striving to live as new creations in Christ. (46)

And the struggle is a good thing! It’s a gift:

The great gift of faith doesn’t stop at our justification, but it causes us to continue to trust in God to sanctify us as we press on. That same faith that looked to Christ for a declaration of holiness now looks to him for the strength and ability to live in holiness. Surely, sanctification is not passive process; it is a daily struggle. But the struggle is part of the blessing. (50)

What I loved about this book is that it’s an encouragement, even an exhortation, to be serious about our sanctification, but it’s not a burdensome checklist kind of book. It strikes the right balance between struggling against our sin and resting in the finished work of Christ. Our efforts cannot save us, but we are called to “hold fast” because “He is faithful.”

If you are looking for a good study for yourself or a group, I highly recommend Theological Fitness. There are even study questions that can be used in a small group setting. It may not popular these days to be serious about holiness and piety (not to be confused with pietism), but we are in a very real struggle and need to be encouraged in our own fight and to encourage others. This book helps us do that. I am very thankful for Aimee Byrd and her work.

 

Note: I was given a copy of this book to review. I was not asked or expected to review the book in a positive light. Other than the book, I received nothing in exchange for this review.

Should being a Christian have a visible effect on our lives?

There are a couple of articles today that I think are worth pointing out. The first is, The Death Of New Calvinism by Stephen McCaskell. In his article, McCaskell addresses what he sees as a problem within the “New Calvinist” movement:

The idea of holiness is almost a peculiar doctrine for the new Reformed movement. I know many young and old in this tradition who feel no obligation to actively and passionately with their entire being, to pursue a life of holiness. They wouldn’t explicitly say this, but their lives wouldn’t reflect otherwise. …

The problem young reformers seem to have is in regards to the fruit of that “Great Exchange” – the fruit of our lives, the good works we are to do, the life of holiness. It’s clear throughout God’s word that we are to love our neighbor, serve the poor, give generously, cloth the naked, etc. We aren’t doing these things to obtain Jesus, but because Jesus has obtained us we do these things. In other words, we are to do these things FROM our position in Christ, not FOR our position in Christ.

His concern is that this new brand of reformers have forgotten that as Christians our lives should be marked by a pursuit of holiness. Not because we make ourselves worthy of Christ, but because He has already made us worthy. Our lives should show evidence of His work and the work of the Spirit. I think he makes a very good point.

The other article while published separately and unrelated to the first is a good illustration of what McCaskell is talking about. The Trouble with Cussing by Carolyn Arends discusses a trend among some Christians to defend using expletives or foul-language:

Except … it’s cool these days to be a Christian who swears. It gives the curser an “I’m into Jesus, but I’m not legalistic” badge. A recent tweet about a behavioral study that linked swearing and honesty went viral among my church friends (although no one could produce a link to the actual study). Many of these friends point to the arbitrariness of the cuss-word system. …

Contempt is a mixture of anger and disgust, expressed from a position of superiority. It denigrates, devalues, and dismisses. It’s not hard to understand why even subtle levels of contempt are damaging—not only in marriages but in all human interaction.

If profane language has a privileged place in the lexicon of contempt, then Christians have a unique mandate to avoid profanity. It’s not that abstaining from pejorative language outfits us with some holier-than-thou halo. It’s that we are called to live with a servant’s heart, affirming the dignity of every human and the sacredness of existence.

I have heard at least one pastor in the PCA say that cussing (to use the Southern word) isn’t a sin. I’m not so sure he’s right. It seems to me that Arends makes a good point. I think that the Scripture gives plenty of warning to us on the need to control our tongues. I think we should expect our lives to bear witness to who we are as believers.

What do you think?

Struggling to be Free or Free to Struggle

As hard as it is for me to believe, it’s been nearly twenty years since I started college. As I’ve written before, the best part of college for me was RUF: Reformed University Fellowship. My campus minister, Chris Yates, was such a blessing to me and to all of us in the Yates’ years at Texas A&M. There are a handful of illustrations or phrases that I remember from those wonderful Wednesday night meetings, but there is one that has made such a mark in my life that I’ve probably mentioned it in every Bible study I’ve been in since:

Are you struggling to be free or are you free to struggle?

So what does it mean? Well, it has to do with the work we do as Christians to fight against our indwelling sin. As Christians, we will struggle, that’s a given. However, it’s important to know why we struggle. What is our purpose in doing so?

It’s far too easy to fall into the trap of believing (or behaving like) our actions are what make us right with God. What must I do to be saved? By focusing on what we do to save ourselves, we end up as legalists proud of our self-righteous success, or we end up as hedonists having despaired of ever being right with God. Sometimes both, depending on the day. Either way, we are living as if we are struggling to be free of our sin.

This is where a good understanding of justification by faith alone really helps. As the Larger Catechism says:

Justification is an act of God’s free grace unto sinners, in which he pardons all their sins, accepts and accounts their persons righteous in his sight; not for any thing wrought in them, or done by them, but only for the perfect obedience and full satisfaction of Christ, by God imputed to them, and received by faith alone.

In other words, we no longer have to struggle to be free from sin. Christ has set us free, and we are free indeed.

But what does that mean? If we are no longer slaves to sin, and Christ’s obedience is applied to our account, are we free to go out and live lives of depravity? As Paul wrote, “May it never be!”

No, we are not free to revel in our sin, but we are now free to struggle against the sin that dwells within us.

This is where sanctification comes in. The Shorter Catechism defines sanctification as:

[T]he work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God, and are enabled more and more to die unto sin, and live unto righteousness.

Sanctification is God’s work in us through the Spirit. It’s His work that He begins and completes, but part of that work is that He makes us willing and able to fight against our sin nature. This too is wonderful news! Having been made new in Christ, we are no longer slaves to our desires and instincts. We can struggle with our sin, and by His grace, we will have success. It’s important to remember that the process of sanctification is life-long. There will be highs and lows, success and failure along the way.

Through the Spirit and because of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, we are being perfected and will one day be free completely from our struggle with sin. Until then, let’s fight the good fight and not grow weary of doing good! Our salvation is secure. We no longer have to struggle to be free from our sin. But we must not forget that we are free to struggle. And as Paul wrote:

I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ. Philippians 1:6 (ESV)

Footnote: Chris Yates told me recently that the quote is probably a Hal Farnsworth original. If you know who said it first, let me know, and I’ll be happy to update the reference.

Do the People in the Pews Still Matter?

In the Church today, there is a move by some to “correct” an overemphasis on the individual believer. The desire is to focus on the corporate aspects of Christianity. A good example would be the work of N.T. Wright, formerly Bishop of Dunham. In his book, Surprised by Hope, Wright explains that the Church has misunderstood the Gospel and the mission of the Church. According to Wright, the Gospel is not about saving souls from Hell, but rather about how God is using His people to redeem the cosmos:

But the most important thing to say at the end of this discussion, and of this section of the book, is that heaven and hell are not, so to speak, what the whole game is about.

The whole point of my argument so far is that the question of what happens to me after death is not the major, central, framing question that centuries of theological tradition have supposed. The New Testament, true to its Old Testament roots, regularly insists that the major, central, framing question is that of God’s purpose of rescue and re-creation for the whole world, the entire cosmos. The destiny of individual human beings must be understood within that context-not simply in the sense that we are only part of a much larger picture but also in the sense that part of the whole point of being saved in the present is so that we can play a vital role (Paul speaks of this role in the shocking terms of being “fellow workers with God”) within that larger picture and purpose.

The question ought to be How will God’s new creation come? And then, How will we humans contribute to that renewal of creation and to the fresh projects that the creator God will launch in his new world? …

If what I have suggested is anywhere near the mark, then to insist on heaven and hell as the ultimate question – to insist, in other words, that what happens eventually to individual humans is the most important thing in the world – may be to make a mistake similar to the one made by the Jewish people in the first century.

To focus not on the question of which human beings God is going to take to heaven and how he is going to do it but on the question of how God is going to redeem and renew his creation through human beings and how he is going to rescue those humans themselves as part of the process but not as the point of it all. (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope, New York: HarperCollins, 2008, 184-185)

Wright recognizes that his interpretation of the Gospel and salvation will have an impact in the work of the Church:

As long as we see salvation in terms of going to heaven when we die, the main work of the church is bound to be seen in terms of saving souls for that future. But when we see salvation, as the New Testament sees it, in terms of God’s promised new heavens and new earth and of our promised resurrection to share in that new and gloriously embodied reality … then the main work of the church here and now demands to be rethought in consequence. (197)

So what happens when pastors and churches decide that what really matters is what the people of God do to redeem the world around them? What happens when pastors start looking at their congregation as a means to an end instead of a flock to shepherd? What happens when sermons become about what Christians need to do to redeem the cosmos, engage the culture, and transform the city?

From what I’ve seen and heard, although thankfully not from our current church, what happens is that the needs of the congregation are overlooked. Pastors have lost sight of their role as shepherd. Instead, they see their role as motivating and equipping believers to go out and transform the world, but not through the preaching of the Word. Pastors don’t know who’s hurting, whose marriages are in trouble, which families desperately need jobs, or how to pray for their people. What I mean is that pastors are too busy to counsel couples whose marriages are falling apart, but not too busy to organize an outreach program to show how much their church loves the city.

And what about sanctification? Well, if salvation is about God using people to redeem the world, then does it really matter where individual Christians are in their walk? In fact, the whole idea that salvation should have an effect on the personal piety of a believer is obviously outdated. What good can Christians be in the transformation of culture if they aren’t watching, reading, and listening to everything their non-Christian neighbors enjoy? If Christians dress differently, talk differently, and act differently, then they are surely not winsome and contextualized enough. Racy sermon illustrations and foul language? Just part of being authentic.

It is often said these days that “the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of non-members,” but is that really true? Don’t we exist to encourage each other, bear each others burdens, pray for each other, care for each other, minister to each other, teach each other, and most importantly worship together? The Church needs to reach out to non-believers, to preach the Word, and to help those in need, but it must not forget the needs of those in the household of faith.