“To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth and the truth will set you free” (John 8:31,32 NIV).
“So Jesus said, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am the one I claim to be and that I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me. The one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what pleases him” (John 8:28,29 NIV).
The Sweet Spot
I remember the early years of Bible College when I was surrounded by other young Christian students and we studied and prayed and discussed and argued to our heart’s content. We went on Mission trips together. We sang songs with our guitars, the Sound of Silence right along with Amazing Grace and Hallelujah. We ate pizza and watched movies but most of all we talked about the reality of God. It was great.
I come from a religious family in the Dutch Reformed tradition and discovered that I was good at public speaking in High School. I won all of Southwestern Ontario and was supposed to go to the Big Apple and speak at the United Nations for the North American Public Speaking Competition. But I didn’t go. I was already committed to a summer mission trip and in a burst of religious zeal, I decided that my priority should be the church. Not that I was a believer really. But I was convinced that I should become a Pastor since I had the “gift of the gab.”
So I enrolled in Bible School and I was a pain in the ass. I was determined to find out the truth about all of this religious stuff. If I was going to be a Pastor, I wanted to know if it was bogus or not. I had a lot of questions I wanted answered. And so I asked. And I asked. And I asked. Every time they would say, “Jesus is in your heart,” I would raise my hand and say something like, “My heart is a pump for blood. Nobody is living in there. Why can’t you just explain things in English.”
I have to give the teachers credit, actually, because they were not only patient, they also had pretty good answers.
“Where are you?” they would ask me.
“Whaddayamean?” I would mumble.
“Where are you?” they would insist. “In what part of your body would you say your consciousness resides?”
“Well, probably somewhere in my brain, I suppose.”
“Great,” they would say. “Wherever you are, Christ is there with you, living in you if you are a Christian. The heart is just a metaphor for your seat of consciousness.”
“Oh,” I would answer. “Why didn’t you say that in the first place.”
Of course one question would lead to another and after a while the teachers would have to ask me to do some of my own research and write a paper on the topic. They would help shape my questions a bit and then give me more work to do. I didn’t really mind. I wanted to learn. I was interested.
It wasn’t long before I realized that there were some very interesting answers to my questions and that mostly I didn’t even understand the right questions to ask.
The Lord, in His wisdom, gave me a wonderful roommate who was a devout believer and his devotional life moved me beyond my mind to my heart and made me wonder about this relationship we were supposed to have with the Lord. I had “confirmed my faith” in my church before I came to Bible School, but I rededicated my life to the Lord a couple more times after that just to make sure. But there was still a problem.
I was being educated beyond my obedience. There was no system of discipleship, no accountability, no encouragement to put things into practice other than some daily devotions and some Mission trips. My church background took great pride in their superior theology and their dedication to the truth. We had all of the best Christian publishing houses, the best schools, the best theologians and it was more or less true. That is usually where Spiritual Pride takes root – in the areas you are truly good at. But that had nothing to do with our relationship with God (or very little at least). Dead orthodoxy is still useless in the kingdom of God.
I remember making lists of the things that I should do as a Christian.
If I was going to be obedient to God, I should read my Bible every day and pray (and I had a long list of people on my prayer list: family, friends, schoolmates, my pastor, the elders, the missionaries connected to my church or to the Bible School, and on and on it went). I would study all of the Spiritual Disciplines, the Spiritual Armour, the Spiritual Gifts, the Spiritual Fruit and try to make all of them work. I would make charts and lists and strategies and plans and they would fail everytime. I simply knew too much. I couldn’t live up to the expectations of what I thought was the normal Christian life. I would read books and articles and write papers but the truth was lurking there in the shadows. I simply could not measure up.
It was like a conspiracy. As soon as you become a Christian, you start to study the Bible and, in good faith, you would try to be obedient to all the things that you find there. If you study the Bible a lot (or in depth), the list starts to get fairly long. And it is overwhelming. The more you know about the holiness of God, the standard of Scripture, the beauty of the law of God, or the life of Jesus, the more you would realize how sinful you were, how far from the mark you have fallen, how much you still rebel against the authority of God in your life. The Sermon on the Mount, well, don’t get me started. That’s just not fair. It’s impossible to do everything that Jesus expects of you.
Professor Lovelace, in his book The Dynamics of Spiritual Life, calls this the preconditions for renewal. This awareness of the holiness of God and the depths of our sin and the incredible gap there is between the two sides of the chasm is essential for our salvation but also for our renewal (sanctification).
Yes, this is true for people in the process of becoming Christians. Of course. Jesus is the bridge between the two sides. The Four Spiritual Laws. I read the booklet. No problem. I get it. Jesus is our justification before God and he bridges the gap between the holiness of God and the depths of our sin. Thank God.
But that wasn’t the problem. Now that I was saved, I expected the gap to go away. But it didn’t. It got bigger. The more I studied, the more I tried. The more I tried, the more I failed. The more I failed, the more depressed I got. Which usually led to more failure.
Paul put it this way. He said, “When I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law, but I see another law at work in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within my members What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God – through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Romans 7:21b-25 NIV).
Who will deliver me from this body of death?
And just like Paul, I knew it was Jesus who was the answer. But I still didn’t understand the question and therefore I didn’t really understand how Jesus was going to rescue me. Why did the gap continue even as a Christian, and why did it get bigger? In our last post, we called this the Sanctification Gap but it really is a credibility gap. How can we live credible lives, how can we be a credible witness if we continue to sin, if the gap widens even though we are doing more and being better than ever before? It’s never enough.
I believe that the Biblical analysis of human nature is deep and profound and provides one of the most pragmatic proofs for the truth of Scripture. Beyond morality, “relationship” is the fundamental problem and therefore “a restored relationship” is the solution.
Even Freud talked about our rejection of the primal father in order to pursue the intimacy that comes from our mothers. He had no intention of providing an indepth analysis of spiritual truth where we reject the authority of our Heavenly Father in order to embrace the sensuality and self-fulfillment of our own authority (in the arms of our mothers who we think will let us have whatever we want). But he hit upon the primal truth of our existence even though he denied the spiritual application of it. We crave intimacy without loving authority and we end up with neither, destroying our lives on the altar of our own self-will.
The fundamental discovery of all times is that we are not capable of managing ourselves, of creating our own meaning, of finding true intimacy, of establishing our eternal value as self-conscious, rational beings.
Our self-knowledge as seen through the lens of Scripture will reveal the true source of evil in this world as well as the only solution possible. That solution is the atonement. A substitute has been found who is willing to take our place and therefore there is a brief, small window of opportunity to restore that primal relationship with our Father and find fulfillment in the intimacy of divine authority that values us eternally far beyond anything we can hope or imagine.
That identity of a relationship with our Creator Father, creates purpose and significance in joining his cause and become essential to his goals, all of which brings deep and lasting meaning to our lives. Enough said. It is beautiful in it’s simplicity. It’s about relationships. Instinctively we know that it is true between humans as well as between us and our Creator.
What does that have to do with the Sanctification Gap, the credibility gap that we agonize about constantly? Everything of course. In order to have a relationship, one must know the other and know ourselves (especially in relation to the other). Basic. Our problem is that we are blind or ignorant of who God really is and why he is hidden and why he is said to be so angry with us. On the other hand, we are confused as to what the problem is with this world, with our neighbors, with ourselves. The question of evil troubles us.
As middle-class Americans with good jobs and nice families, we are troubled by the evil we see all around us. We may even be troubled by the evil we detect in our own lives, albeit in a more subtle, gentler way. Gossip, resentment, backbiting, pornography, adultery, recreational sex and drugs, depression, prescription meds. But we don’t blow people up or shoot up schools or hijack cars so our brand of evil is more acceptable. But even we can’t maintain that lie for very long. And if we happen to be good, law-abiding, church-going folk who would never hurt a fly? What then? Are we deluding ourselves into thinking that we are all right? Not for long. It isn’t just about our actions. They are a symptom of a lack of relationship. That’s what we need to deal with first.
If we dare to read the Word of God, we will discover God’s anthropology (a study and analysis of man) and his evaluation of our situation. The word shows us the nature of God and His intention in our creation as well as our rebellion and the problems it has brought us.
The problem is relational and the solution is as well. We are the only religion in the world which claims that a relationship of love is at the heart of it all. But we must accept the picture that the Bible paints of our situation.
James tells us that “anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror, and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like” (James 1:23 NIV). God’s analysis of human nature fits the evidence of our experience like a hand in a glove. But most of us reject it out of hand and we are blind to it’s truth.
Unlike the world, when we become Christians the Holy Spirit convicts us of the truth of these revelations about God and about ourselves. That is where it starts. We are convicted of our guilt but that is only the first step. We must also have faith in God’s solution in Christ. That solution is called the substitutionary atonement of Christ. We cannot accept the solution until we are overwhelmed with the enormity of the problem. This doesn’t always happen immediately when someone becomes a Christian or joins the church. There are lots of reasons why people come near to God at the beginning, but sooner or later they will come face to face with this chasm and have to ask themselves some serious questions.
One thing is to accept Christ’s sacrificial, substitutionary atonement for our sins in the process of becoming a disciple but what about afterward?
Once we are Christians, the problem is aggrevated and the breach seems to grow larger and that’s exactly what God wants to happen. Listen carefully. God wants us to feel the chasm between our obedience and his holiness on a daily basis and resolve it only in Christ. That is at the heart of our sanctification, not just our justification. Embracing that chasm and truly believing that the only solution is the cross of Christ is the heart and soul of the gospel as well as our walk in the way of the cross.
Professor Lovelace tells us that “men and women cannot know themselves until they know the reality of the God who made them, and once they know the holy God, their own sin appears so grievous that they cannot rest until they have fully appropriated Christ” (p.82). He did not say until they became Christians but rather until they have FULLY appropriated Christ. C.S. Lewis is famous for stating that God is in the business of creating a certain type of person. A person who has fully appropriated Christ. A person who is truly in union with Christ. That is a lifelong process, a long discipleship in the same direction. That is sanctification.
But it isn’t common at all. Most Christians do not resolve it that way. Let’s look at what most of us do with this awareness of the credibility gap in our lives.
One very popular way of dealing with this conundrum is to soften the character of God. After the excesses of the Puritan legalism and Pietist isolationism, “rationalist religion began to stress the goodness of man and the benevolence of the Diety” (p.83)
“In the late nineteenth century,” Professor Lovelace tells us, “D.L. Moody determined to center his message around the truth that “God is Love” and to tone down the mention of hell and the wrath of God to the point of inaudibility. But this was only one example of the sentimentalizing of God in every sector of the church, among evangelicals and the rising Liberal movement alike” (p.83).
We still struggle with that inheritance in our churches today.
We are “avoiding the biblical portrait of the sovereign and holy God who is angry with the wicked every day and whose anger remains upon those who will not receive his Son. Walling off this image into an unvisited corner of its consciousness, the church substituted a new god who was the projection of grandmotherly kindness mixed with the gentleness and winsomeness of a Jesus who hardly needed to die for our sins. Many American congregations were in effect paying their ministers to protect them from the real God” (p.83,83).
But softening the character of God is only half the problem. The other half is the softening of the reality of sin.
Even Kierkegaard, the famous philosopher, complained that the New Testament was relatively useless for converting respectable people because it was designed for sinners and noone really believes anymore that they are sinners. “Owing to this it is almost impossible by the aid of the New Testament to punch a blow at real life, at the actual world in which we live, where for one certified hypocrite there are 100,000 twaddlers, for one certified heretic, 100,000 nincompoops” (p. 92).
I hope you can see the problem here.
It isn’t with the New Testament but with our self-understanding as sinners. It isn’t about our actions, whether we are seriously evil people or respectable people, it is about our relationship with God. Sin is a relational word. Sin is rebellion. What that rebellion looks like may be worse or better from one case to another but it has the same source and leads to the same end.
Our judgment on the last day is first of all relational (separation of the sheep and the goats) and only secondly about our actions (rewards and punishments). But if the true nature of sin is not preached (including the flesh, the world and the Devil as enemies of the soul) then people like Kierkegaard are right. If there is no awareness of sin, the cross means nothing, it changes nothing, it transforms nothing.
And the result in the church is a sort of “dead goodness” without the power to really change anyone’s life. Useless. Religious. Counterfeit. A form of godliness that denies its power (II Timothy 3).
This religious flesh can show itself both in a structured formalism and tradition as well as in active religiosity that keeps people busy doing church work or social work or anything that will keep them from the way of the cross which is the only way to deal with this great chasm between God’s holiness and our sinfulness. It is a chasm that God is only willing to bridge with the cross of Christ either in the process of justification or in the process of sanctification (which are the same for God, one simply being the start of the journey while the other is the continuation of the journey).
If there were no credibility gap, even for those who are now Christians, then “a sinless man would love God with all his heart, and soul, and mind, and his neighbor as himself, constantly and with full vigor. The most advanced saint on earth has neither the faith nor the Spirit-empowered love to do this, and therefore a continual cleansing of our experience through the blood of Christ is necessary for us to be righteous in the sight of God, and this cleansing involves the awareness and admission of our falling short” (p. 91). The only one who achieved this was Jesus Christ. The rest of us are dependent on him and his righteousness.
That is where the sweet spot is to be found. Don’t be scared of it. Embrace it. We must be very aware of the holiness of God, of what He expects from us, of what it means to be holy, to be righteous and even to hunger and thirst after it. But at the same time we must be aware of our sin.
There is no point in doing what the Pharisees did and simply reduce the law of God to a manageable size that they felt, with a bit of hard work and discipline, they could actually do. Jesus put that deception to bed in the Sermon on the Mount.
And there is no point in saying that all you are responsible for is your conscious sin and leave your unconscious sin out of the equation. God won’t go for that either. We are polluted with sin in all of our actions, our motivations, our intentions, even when we are at our best. If you don’t believe it, start paying more attention to your thoughts and your beliefs and values even when you are involved in charitable work and church activities. The Holy Spirit will show you the truth. That is one of his major jobs, to convict the world of guilt with regards to sin.
The sweet spot is a place of honesty.
It says that we aren’t afraid to look at the holiness of God and see revealed the depths of our sin because it isn’t about us. It’s about Christ. Our lives are hidden in his life. There is no room for spiritual pride (even though we still have to deal with our conscious sin but always in the context of an awareness of the pollution of sin which keeps us humble). And there is no room for spiritual depression (as though our failures have some eternal significance rather than simply being a “tutor unto Christ” to reveal to us our idols and our fears that we can then deal with in the resurrection power of the Holy Spirit).
We have union with Christ. There is no longer any person such as myself, only myself “in Christ.” I am a new creation. I will never bridge the gap. Only Christ can bridge that gap. I have no credibility in myself, only in Christ. What that means is that I should not focus on my morality first of all. That is not the measure of my walk with Christ. It’s about my relationship with Christ first of all.
“I want to know Christ,” Paul says, “and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10 NIV). I preach nothing but the cross. It isn’t about me. It’s about him. If you want to judge my walk in the Spirit then you must judge my relationship with him first of all, and my actions, motivations or intentions in that context.
But wait a minute.
Doesn’t Paul warn us that the grace of God is not a license for continued sin? Yes, he does. “What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means!” (Romans 6:1,2a NIV). But that’s not what we are talking about. We aren’t suggesting even for a moment that the grace of God is an excuse not to make every effort to walk in the Spirit and to stop sinning. Not at all.
What we are saying is that our success or failure in walking in the Spirit is a question first and foremost of the quality and nature of our relationship with God in Christ and not first of all about whether or not we have committed a particular sin.
The same is true for my relationship with my wife. My relationship with her does not rise or fall on whether or not I cut the grass, or do the dishes, or keep every thought under control. Our love is deeper than that and which is why I have the intrinsic motivation to live in that love, respect that love, walk in that love and therefore I develop a growth mindset that allows me to go from glory to glory beause I focus on developing the relationship not just on being perfect.
The sweet spot is a place of grace, a place of rest, a place of no-condemnation but it is also a place where I am deeply motivated to walk in the Spirit, to make every effort to be obedient to that love, to that great sacrfice, not out of obligation but rather out of gratitude. That sweet spot is a place of love. I have it with my wife and children. I have it even more with God because of Christ who is the bridegroom of my soul. It’s a relationship. Morality is a limit to the will but love is the freedom of the will. And that difference makes all the difference in the world.
The Desert Warrior
P.S. Let’s pray to God….
Lord, I want to live in that sweet spot of grace at the foot of the cross. I want to gaze upon your holiness and not turn my face from my sin. I am made righteous in Christ and I will make every effort to respect that great salvation. In Jesus name I pray. Amen.