In several recent posts I stated that the gospel calls people to repent and obey Jesus. Following Jesus by enacting new patterns of life is the instantiation or embodiment of faith.
This doesn’t sound right to many evangelicals. It sounds legalistic. It sounds like I’m putting the demands of the gospel up front, whereas we’re supposed to be calling people first to believe and only later talk about discipleship.
One possible reason for this is that many of us have a perverted conception of obedience to Jesus. Here’s what I mean.
Imagine two realms of reality, two spheres, representing two ways of life. On one side there is the realm of Sin. We imagine that this is where there is ease, effortlessness, autonomy, rebellion, hope, promise. This is the joyful way, where you can do what you want, where it’s interesting, fun, fulfilling, and free.
On the other side is obedience to Jesus. Here, there is obligation, seriousness, demand, austerity, difficulty. It’s all about performance, striving, perfection. It’s a realm of sterility and joylessness. Jesus calls us to obey, so we know we need to do it, but it’s tough. And, if there weren’t such drastic consequences in that other realm, that’s certainly where we’d rather be.
That’s a fleshly conception of things, a deception, something far less than the truth. But I think this is why so many people flinch when they hear the gospel grammar presented as I have done over the last week or so. It just sounds so harsh.
Scripture presents the two realms differently.
On one side is the realm of Sin and Death. While this way seems hopeful, promising, and life-giving, this is a deception. It is the realm of loneliness, isolation, emptiness, fear, bondage, alienation. This is the realm of inauthenticity and self-protection, where you are loved and accepted for your performance and social credentials. This is the way of bondage, the way of crushingly heavy temporal and eternal consequences.
On the other side is the realm of life. The gospel is indeed “good news” because it calls us to inhabit this sphere—the way of freedom, joy, and the liberation of forgiveness. We are called to be restored to our true humanity, to have the breath of God’s very own life fill our lungs once again so that we can finally live.
Jesus says, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30, CEB).
We are called to confess our sins, but not as a way of beating ourselves up. Jesus calls us to finally speak frankly and truthfully about how we have walked in the realm of death, how we have bound ourselves to enslaving self-destruction.
This realm isn’t one of performance to earn God’s approval. God pledges allegiance to us by having already sent Jesus to die and be raised again. God guarantees us acceptance and a joyful welcome. We are now freed to confess our sins as a way of increasing our joy in the forgiveness we already possess. This is the realm of serious authenticity, where we are free to confess our failures, knowing that we have already been warmly welcomed by the God who knows us more completely than we know ourselves.
John says that God’s commands are not burdensome (1 Jn. 5:3), and James speaks of the “law of liberty” (Jas. 1:25; 2:12). The way of obedience does indeed require Spirit-empowered self-discipline, but only to keep from returning to well-worn patterns of slavery. We have grown accustomed to manipulating others, dominating others, protecting ourselves from being hurt, and serving our pleasures at all costs. But this isn’t the way of freedom and ease. Such practices stir up death and lead to ultimate destruction.
Now, there may be much to say about Christian communities that haven’t portrayed the way of Jesus properly. Through hypocrisy and judgmental postures, they have portrayed the way of Jesus as one that is performance-oriented and joyless. That’s an all-too familiar reality, the tragedy of churches having become worldly.
Scripture, however, portrays God’s commands as the way of life, behaviors that draw upon the life of God and that stir up the presence of the life-giving Spirit.
We need to think of gospel commands as the call to truly and finally live. When we see things this way, gospel commands become gracious invitations to finally rest in the joyful freedom of being children of God.