Mortifying the Evil Twins
Once upon a time, two sinners were saved by the grace of God. Before that, they were raised with a heavy emphasis on good morality and rule-keeping, both in the home and the church denominations in which they were involved.
Now, post-conversion, these two worlds collide. And they collide hard.
My wife and I grew up in a very moral home, meaning that good morals were enforced. A consistent teaching of what was right and wrong. We are grateful for them both…sort of. I went to church (evangelical) every Sunday morning and evening, and Wednesday nights. There was, however, the absence of Gospel-centered teaching. In fact, I can’t remember hearing an explanation of the gospel until the season of my conversion in my late 20’s. Most spiritual conversations were heavily focused only on the law of God and how we should obey it, without any emphasis on the reason we can obey it. That everything we can ever do or say to please God is rooted in the gospel and apart from the gospel we can do nothing to please God. I remember prayers about thanking Jesus for dying for me, but there was never any mention of justification by faith alone, or the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross, or why the resurrection is vital for our salvation. I don’t remember hearing a consistent explanation about why Jesus was born. Why did He have to come to Earth to die? I don’t remember hearing that regularly. I don’t remember having meaningful discussions with anyone about God sending His Son to earth to pay the penalty for our sin. I don’t remember talking about the fact that God demands perfection from me (Matt 5:48), and the only way I can be seen as perfect by God is, in humility, to believe in the God-Man, Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31), who lived the perfect life for me so that I didn’t have to (1 Peter 2:22), and if I trust in His perfect life and death on the cross taking the penalty for my sin, then God will impute His righteousness to me (Eph 5:25-27), give me a new heart with new desires (Ezek 36:26), and preserve me for eternity with Him (Phil 1:6). I don’t remember hearing that.
Growing up, in church, hearing “do this” and “don’t do that” without regularly hearing that Jesus Christ and Him crucified is the reason why “this” or “that” should or should not be done can lead to a heavy moralistic frame of mind in adulthood. It leads to a consistent thought pattern that says “remember, if you don’t do this, you will be condemned by God” or “if you do this, God will be really pleased and like you more”. When I was told something was wrong, I don’t remember being offered the promise of forgiveness in Jesus Christ with it. Furthermore, most of the time, the things of which we are speaking – “this” or “that” – were things that were not clearly defined in Scripture as sin, a lot of unwritten rules to which I was to conform.
Navigating daily life, at least for me, has been sometimes confusing, even, at times, overwhelming as a Christian who has had a moralistic mindset.
“Can I watch this?”
“Can I go there?”
“Can I say that?”
“What if I even think that?”
“Can I still be friends with them?”
“I like that mini-series that everyone else enjoys, so does God view me any differently?”
“I didn’t get drunk, but I drank, therefore I’m sinning, right?”
“Oh no, I got mad in traffic, I cussed. Now I’m really not saved.”
“I struggle with that one sin over and over, and even though I feel bad about it, that’s a habitual sin, so there is no hope for me now.”
“I liked the beat of that secular song. That’s it! God definitely doesn’t like me anymore.”
Can you relate with these questions? Have you wrestled with these inner conversations of doubt and frustration?
The mindset for many people is that if you go too far to the right, you might not be saved, and if you go too far to the left, you might be self-righteous. Do you find yourself continually beating yourself up because of one or two sins that you just can’t seem to kick? Are you always asking yourself if something is “ok” or “not ok”?
Maybe you feverishly go to the Bible, thumbing through all the verses that supposedly talk about this rule and that law, and you just come up short and distraught. The sentence “I’ll never be able to do this, I’ll never be able to look the part of the Christian” plays over and over in your perfectionist mind. Well, guess what? You are right! You will never be able to do it…alone. Apart from the God’s righteousness, you are a failure. But…“thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7:25). Because of Jesus’ perfect life, death and resurrection, He has made a way for you not only look the part of the Christian, but do that part also. If you have put your faith in Jesus Christ’s good deeds for salvation (instead of anything “good” you’ve done), and if you have admitted that you are a sinner who rightly deserves Hell for your sins, then you are now under no condemnation and are seen as perfect by God Himself. Because of Jesus Christ. Not because of you. Of course, you will still fall sometimes, maybe for a season, but you have the Holy Spirit to guide you back to truth. Unbelievers don’t have that luxury.
However, for those of us who struggle with rule-keeping, wearing masks of make-believe, and leaning so heavily on the wrath of God, the embrace of grace is a very hard switch to make. This can be especially hard if you have grown up either believing that you are living under some kind of generational curse (Exodus 20:5) or believing that listening to Prince’s Let’s Go Crazy means that you want to live without rules.
But some of us like our rules, don’t we? They tell us what to do. They can let us know that we are on the right track. We can control other people and determine their salvation if we know the rules, right? Admit it, you know it’s true! We want control. We want to know our boundaries and other people’s boundaries, because if we know our boundaries, we can check off what we’re doing to keep our salvation as if these things were items on our grocery list.
Salvation assurance based on rules we’ve kept….? Check.
But the grace of God is not a checklist. If we think that we can keep our salvation if we obey God’s rules and God’s laws, it all fits into a compartment and we can pride ourselves on a job well done. But living by grace doesn’t work that way. God’s grace can’t be compartmentalized. His grace in salvation is not merited by anything we have done, are doing, or ever will do. Without God’s grace, every good thing we do is completely worthless (Isaiah 64:6, Eph 2:8-9, Romans 3:9-28). Many believers, especially the ones who have grown up under legalism and moralism, really struggle with this. Justification (salvation) is often confused with sanctification (living the Christian life), and this is one of the root issues. And it is a deadly confusion.
Do you base your salvation on that fact that you try really hard, every day, to follow God’s law? Or because you don’t watch movies with cussing? Or because you don’t cuss yourself? Or because you never speed on the highway? (riiiight). Furthermore, do you believe that you might lose your salvation if you break one of these “rules”? Or other rules?
Moralism and legalism can not only cause someone to live in constant fear of losing their salvation, but they can also cause fear of doing something that will somehow make them less of a Christian than other Christians. Thank God, literally, the chance of a truly converted person losing their salvation is a massive zero (John 10:28-29), and the chances of that same person doing something that will make them less of a Christian is also…zero.
Now, there are things that Christians can do that displease God, but it doesn’t change our eternal or legal standing before God, and it certainly doesn’t mean that we have to make up for what we do wrong (it’s not Kharma! And it’s not Roman Catholic!). Gotquestions.org has some helpful insights:
“The Holy Spirit is a fire dwelling in each believer. He wants to express Himself in our actions and attitudes. When believers do not allow the Spirit to be seen in our actions, when we do what we know is wrong, we suppress or quench the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 5:19). We do not allow the Spirit to reveal Himself the way that He wants to.” (1)
In other words, when we do something that Scripture clearly teaches we should not do, it displeases God.
“We grieve the Spirit by living like the pagans (Eph 4:17-19), by lying (4:25), by being angry (4:26-27), by stealing…” (1)
So, there are things in Scripture that are clear: don’t tell a lie. God’s law is not a bad thing, it is what led you to Christ (Gal 3:24), and we should endeavor to follow those clear Scriptural commands. On the flip side, there are many other things that are no so clearly defined, and those things are a matter of your own personal choice according to your own conscience. Paul goes a bit further in 1 Corinthians 8 by telling us never to do anything that will offend a brother while you are around him, if you know that brother is weaker in that area.
Now of course, if someone professes to be a Christian, but their daily life – the overall pattern of their life – is characterized by lying, complaining, sexual immorality, bitterness, anger, etc., then that is a good sign of false conversion. That person, most likely, is not even a Christian according to 1 John.
But that’s another discussion for another time. R.C. Sproul helps us with yet another way of thinking about moralism:
“Here the biblical principle of Romans 14:23 comes into play: “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” For example, if a person is taught and comes to believe that wearing lipstick is a sin and then wears lipstick, that person is sinning. The sin resides not in the lipstick but in the intent to act against what one believes to be the command of God. The manipulation of conscience can be a destructive force within the Christian community. Legalists are often masters of guilt manipulation, while antinomians master the art of quiet denial. The conscience is a delicate instrument that must be respected. One who seeks to influence the consciences of others carries a heavy responsibility to maintain the integrity of the other person’s own personality as crafted by God. When we impose false guilt on others, we paralyze our neighbors, binding them in chains where God has left them free.”(2)
Maybe this story is similar to your own. Maybe you know people who struggle with understanding and applying the grace of God in their lives, maybe after years of living under the bondage of moralism and legalism.
Living in a culture drowning in both hyper-grace (living as if God doesn’t care about sin), legalism (you have to do something to earn your salvation) and moralism (trying hard to keep the rules or God will take away your salvation), many Christians have been drawing a line in the sand to keep themselves from going too far. I believe this to be an albatross around the neck. Let’s kill that albatross. It must be put to death.
There are ditches made on both sides of the Law and Grace coin, but there should be no ditches.
If you are a Christian, and are constantly hearing about what you must do to be a better person, or a bunch of things not clearly mentioned in Scripture that you must not do so that you stay in good standing with God, think about Romans 7:15:
“For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”
Or Romans 7:24?
“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?”
Yikes! If anyone could have lost their good standing before God by doing something or not doing something, it was Paul. Paul is literally saying that at times he does what he doesn’t want to do, and at times he doesn’t do what he wants to do. And he’s frustrated! But the first part of the very next verse says everything –
“Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
There it is! Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ has delivered us from this body of death. Certainly we want to obey God perfectly, but it’s never going to happen until we’re in Heaven. So stop trying! Live your life, and ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you read Scripture.
Of course, obey God’s clear commands in Scripture. The overall pattern of our lives should be that of obedience to God’s rules. But if you believe that your failures will change God’s view of you, then you need to revisit Romans 7, 8, 9 and Ephesians 1, 2 and dozens more. He loved you even when you were dead in your sins. Wowza!
Remember the gospel. Remember justification. And relax. Often.
If you now hate when you sin (2 Corinthians 7: 8-11), and have put your faith and trust in Jesus’ perfect life that He lived for you – not by any good works you may have done (Ephesians 2: 8-10) – then you have nothing to worry about. When you sin, confess it and Christ has promised to forgive you (1 John 1:9). Try not to do it again. Then move forward (Phil 3:13-14). If you do it again, confess it and move forward. And if you think you’ve committed the unpardonable sin…unless you’ve rejected Jesus’ offer of salvation, you have nothing to fear (Mark 3:28-29). However, you may ask, “what about all those ‘gray issues’?” You may have grown up believing things, which are not mentioned in Scripture, are actual commands. Be rest assured that it was probably based on someone’s eisegesis. The solution? Do what your conscience tells you to do. If your conscience says don’t do it, then you shouldn’t do it. If you conscience tells you there’s nothing wrong with it, then do it if you want (1 Cor 10:23-31).
Sadly, my wife and I did not know what God’s grace meant while growing up in church. Looking back from our current vantage point, sometimes we wish we had understood God’s grace then, but most likely it would not have meant so much or had such a profound effect on us now. Some years later, we feel like we are just now hitting the surface of God’s grace, not only related to our salvation but also related to our everyday lives. Back then, we were condemned sinners who were under the impression that we could make God love us by living good, moral lives, and as long as we didn’t do anything really wicked, like actual murder or theft. If those things didn’t happen, then we were ok (sounds like Roman Catholicism, doesn’t it?) Even after God made us alive in Christ, by the sovereign work of the Holy Spirit, we still spent many days in fear that because we did certain things that God would love us less, or worse yet, denounce us. How Satan loves moralistic thinking! How he enjoys Christians (and unbelievers) struggling with legalism. But that’s not how God thinks. Christians are saved and are preserved until Heaven by God’s sovereign grace alone, because He chose us. He chose us before he created the world. Nothing can change that (Eph 1:3-14), and no sin you commit will make God love you any less.