“For by your words you will be acquitted, and by your words you will be condemned.” If I believe the remedy to this is to perfect my speech, I should think again, for “A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in him, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in him.”
We are condemned or acquitted on the words that come out of our mouths not so much because of what those words say, but because they serve as evidence of what’s in our hearts. And on the judgement day, I’ll either have Jesus in my heart, or I won’t.
I can test myself on this. Is Jesus in my heart? No human being speaks exclusively good or bad things, each one of us has the tendency to lift up at one moment and tear down the next; but is the love of Jesus shining through in my life? Would those acquainted with me say there is something good that shines out of me, that comes through in my words and in my deeds? If not, what to do, again, control my speech, pull up my bootstraps? Nope, that won’t work.
No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
- James 3:8 (emphasis mine)
Taming the tongue is beyond my capabilities. So what is the remedy?
Although 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 me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord!
- Romans 7:21-25
I am brought once again to the mercy of the cross. Self-control is a biblical virtue, and I ought to practice it as long as it’s within my capability to do so. But long-term change is impossible without Jesus in my life, working through the Holy Spirit.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
- Galatians 5:16
Once again I must throw myself on the mercy of the cross, the mercy of Christ Jesus, and cry out:
Create in me a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within me.
- Psalm 51:10
All praise and thanks be to God who is merciful, who is gracious, and who certainly will answer this prayer, changing us from the inside out. All we need do is ask.
Here, John the plain-spoken Baptist devastates his compatriots’ worldview with words that echo in eternity. God can turn rocks into Israelites; national heritage won’t cut it. Each and every tree that doesn’t bear fruit in keeping with repentance will be chopped up for firewood. The seed from which it sprouted will serve as no defense, no protection from God’s judgement.
This is serious, deadly serious, so its imperative that we learn what sort of “fruit” God expects to see. John’s audience certainly wants to know, and they ask him “what on earth should we do then?”. He responds:
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?” “Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them. Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?” He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely—be content with your pay.”
- Luke 3:11-14
On first glance, we may read these instructions and conclude that “fruit” is an outward action that pleases God. After all, most of these commands really don’t seem all that difficult; dropping a little charity into the collection plate and refraining from abusing others ought to do it, no?
First, John’s instructions are that difficult. The first two items on the list command us to give away half our stuff (ouch), and not collecting more taxes than Rome required wasn’t as painless as it sounds. Tax collectors didn’t earn a salary, they made their living by charging extra. John is instructing them to give up their livelihoods. Same deal with the soldiers. These demands don’t merely exhort us to become reasonable and rational people who avoid stepping on other peoples’ toes; something much more challenging is implied.
Fortunately for us, John isn’t giving us an austerity checklist, an itemization of incredibly difficult behaviours that will please God and convince Him to lay His axe elsewhere. How do we know this? Because the Bible tells us so. Read for yourself what Jesus has to say about fruit:
"And the one on whom seed was sown on the good soil, this is the man who hears the word and understands it; who indeed bears fruit and brings forth, some a hundredfold, some sixty, and some thirty."
- Matthew 13:23
Sit on this metaphor for a moment. Let it ruminate. Follow it to its natural conclusion. Does soil decide whether it’s good or bad? Does it will healthy trees into existence? Can a patch of dirt sitting loosely on a sidewalk choose to produce a robust and healthy apple tree? Of course it can’t. Even if it isn’t swept away by the wind or the rain, and even if the seed lands where it’s supposed to, and even if said seed manages to sprout, the roots will have nowhere to go; and the tree will die.
No, the point isn’t for you to put together a checklist of “good fruit” (i.e. “deeds”), start ticking off boxes on that list and keep it handy for the judgement day. Your benevolent and/or religious activities will not save you, because they are not the fruit John is talking about. What is?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
- Galatians 5:22-23
Ah, here we go, now we’re getting to brass tacks. Fruit in keeping with repentance, though it may (and generally ought to) lead to a radical lifestyle change, is a change of heart, a replacement of wickedness with Godly virtue. We must lay hold of the sin that is firmly rooted in our hearts and yank it up, sowing seeds of selflessness and self-control in its place:
For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love.
- 2 Peter 1:5-7
Well how on earth are we to do that? Soil can’t change itself, remember?
Why, the Cross of course! Jesus’ loving sacrifice on our behalf frees us from the judgement of sin under which we’ve been living all this time. While we still do sin and still must contend with the flesh, God sees in us only the righteousness of Christ. We are now a fitting abode for His Holy Spirit. He takes up residence in our hearts and begins the critical work of uprooting weeds and planting healthy trees in their place.
No, scratch that…
WOW WOW WOW WOW WOW!!! Are you kidding me? Are you telling me that Jesus died for us so He can live in us, personally uproot the nastiness that ails us and turn each one of us into a fountain of everlasting righteousness? How can we even function with this knowledge? How do we ever get off our knees and cease shouting God’s praises so we can eat, drink, or go to work?
Now, some of us come to Jesus with more weeds than others; sanctification is not an easy or instantaneous process. So don’t be disheartened if you’ve sincerely asked Christ into your heart but aren’t living a life that would impress John the Baptist. Beating your breast and condemning yourself will get you nowhere, neither will pulling up your bootstraps and going on a religious self-improvement program. Remember, the work isn’t yours.
Rather, remain firmly rooted in Jesus, for:
“No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:4
And do everything within your power to deepen your relationship with the Holy Spirit, who inhabits your heart; for those who walk by the Spirit do not gratify the desires of the flesh (Galatians 5:16).
Unless the Lord builds the house,
the builders labor in vain.
Unless the Lord watches over the city,
the guards stand watch in vain.
- Psalm 127:1
I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love.
- Galatians 5:4-6 (The Message)
There is a critical difference between practicing obedience to the Lord Jesus Christ and embarking on self-centered religious expeditions. The former comes from a place of worship: namely worship of the Triune God and a profound recognition of His sovereign right to rule our lives. The second also comes from a place of worship, albeit a different sort altogether. This is the worship of an idol that we hope to become, an image of a self-styled, successful religionist: someone who is able to bend the ear of other Christians and lead them in grand and impressive projects.
We must be ever vigilant to ensure we’re on the right side of this problem.
How? Good question. Ego is a tempting mistress. Vanity is ruthless and persistent, eager to lead us down false and fruitless paths; and she is not above using the appearance of virtue to do so. Search your heart; can you count the number of times you’ve used religious or moralistic rationalizations to justify egocentric conduct? I can’t. There are far too many to count.
So how? How can we ensure we’re being obedient to righteousness, rather than enslaved to moralistic vanity? Why, the Cross of course. The Grace of our Lord Jesus Christ gives us the power to confess our sin anew every single day – as many times as we encounter it – invite the Holy Spirit to come into our lives and plead with Him to continue His beautiful work: reconstructing our hearts.
This is why Christ commanded us to remain firmly attached to Him at all times:
“I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener. He cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit, while every branch that does bear fruit he prunes so that it will be even more fruitful. You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you. Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me.”
- John 15:1-4
In my next post, I’ll discuss how critical a role the Church plays in our connection to Jesus. For now, suffice it to say we do well to resist the temptation to practice an idolatry of the ideal self, and to empty ourselves before Christ so the Holy Spirit may fill the void.
Heavenly Father, how tyrannized we are by our own egos! We long to put ourselves aside and invite you in, so that we may be remade, and that we may gladly follow in your footsteps, the footsteps of a loving but uncompromising servant. We can’t do this without your grace, and without your loving hand firmly in our lives. We invite you in and ask you to continue this worthwhile work, in Jesus’ name, Amen.
Beware the prophet who speaks peace to your sin. There is a heresy out there – fast becoming a consensus – that because we are saved by grace we are free to revel in our sin. No! What biblical prophet ever preached against repentance? Not one.
But, don’t miss the point! Is Micah, in the above verse, preaching the evils of beer and wine? Of course not! This is merely an illustrative example. What he’s saying is that this people has become so perverse, so disobedient, that they would be far more hospitable to a soothsaying liar than to a truthful prophet.
Where are these people at when this is written? They enjoy a comfortable lifestyle marked by plenty of wine and song; but, meanwhile, those in power “covet fields and seize them, and houses, and take them. They defraud people of their homes, they rob them of their inheritance” (Micah 2:2, NIV). The people eat and drink the profits of injustice and misery; and they will not escape His terrible judgement.
We ought never to be at peace with our sin. Our flesh constantly wars against the Spirit (1 Peter 2:11, Galatians 5:17), and we must fight back. But, to war against the flesh we must be in the Spirit. To war against the flesh while in the flesh is to become a noxious white-washer of tombs; someone who foolishly subscribes to the notion that a cup cleaned only on the outside is clean enough. The Christian wars against the flesh while in the Spirit (Galatians 5:16).
What does this mean? We earnestly confess our sins (Romans 10:9-10, James 5:16, 1 John 1:9, Psalm 32:5); we cleanse ourselves in the waters of baptism and eagerly accept the promised gift of the Holy Spirit. We recognize that our cup can only be cleansed from the inside out (Matthew 23:26); and the Holy Spirit, who has entered our lives by the miracle of the Cross, is the only one who can complete this critical task. We cannot. Our work is to confess, repent, petition and pray; His work is to remake us in our Master’s likeness.
And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns (Philippians 1:6, NLT).
Once upon a time there was a screwed up Christian, let's call him "Colin". Colin was at a particularly low point of his life, one in which it was becoming abundantly obvious that the above fruits of the Spirit were clearly not present in his life. The fruits of his spirit were not so much love, joy and peace, but anger, resentment, fear, bitterness and anxiety. Clearly there was something wrong with his Christian walk, so Colin did what any rational person would do, he looked in places that he hadn't looked before to find answers.
Colin ended up focusing on certain preachers and theologians whom he now realizes probably belonged to something called the Holiness Movement: a group of people who believe that saved Christians have been given a "second work of grace" that enable them to live a life free of "willful sin". So says this movement: you have the power to abstain from any intentional sin in your life, just pull up your bootstraps and do it. Preachers of this movement say things like "porn?", that's intentional sin, just suck it up and stop looking. You're depressed? Suffering from anxiety? Moral failure. Stop being depressed, start being joyful.
Colin came to believe that self-control, the last item on the list, was the ticket to obtaining personal holiness. On Colin's list, self-control was at the top. He gritted his teeth, tightened his sphincter, and got to work on the biggest religious self-improvement project of his life.
Guess how long Colin took to become twice the intolerable jerk that he was to begin with?
Answer: about a month. Colin, as it turns out, was incapable of achieving these desirable character traits; what's more, in thinking that he was capable, he became twice the angry, embittered basket case that he was when he started. Once he realized this, he began to fear to the only reasonable conclusion one could come to if one still believes such theology to be true: Colin started to wonder if he wasn't saved after all.
Back to Colin later.
The attraction of this line of thinking, particularly for one who feels that s/he is losing the war against the flesh is obvious; it appears to be a path forward. If I were drowning in the ocean and someone told me I was perfectly capable of swimming to shore on my own, I would start swimming.
The problem with this theology, however, is that it promotes the laughable fiction that there is such thing as Christians who are, at this very moment, abstaining from all but accidental sin. Let's think about that for a moment. How did Jesus describe sin? Have you ever met anyone, anyone at all, who aside from avoiding the more obvious carnal sins (sex outside of marriage, smoking, drunkenness etc.) never:
Really? Never? All of these things are sin; all of these things are intentional, and they're sins of the heart, arising from selfish desire. And while Jesus was clearly concerned with sins of the flesh, He was absolutely, 100% clear that sins of the heart place us in immediate danger of God's wrath (see Matthew 23 if you're not convinced).
The problem with this theology is that it suggests that the "shore" in the above analogy is only about 100 yards away. It's not, it's more like 100 miles; and we scarcely know which direction to swim; and it's dark; and it's windy; and we're wearing lead-lined boots.
What's more, as we saw with Colin's story above, such thinking in amazingly counterproductive. You show me someone who believes this stuff and believes that he's somehow capable of achieving these ends, I'll show you an unendurable, self-obsessed blowhard who is bringing disrepute to the faith and setting himself up for fantastic (and likely very public) failure.
Why is that though? What's wrong with the idea that we have the power to abstain from sin, what's wrong with trying to please God and live a holier lifestyle?
Look more closely at Colin's story. You tell me: is Colin preoccupied here with loving God with his whole heart and loving his neighbour as himself? Or is Colin preoccupied with himself? Is Colin thinking about Jesus's holiness, or is Colin thinking about Colin's holiness?
Look at the next line penned by Paul: "Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Galatians 5:24 - NIV).
Here's what Paul is saying: those who belong to Christ are walking in the Spirit and, as a result of the Spirit's work, are becoming less concerned with themselves and more concerned with others all the time. Their worldviews are doing a 180; their focus is shifting; and they're bearing good fruit as a result. You may be able to love your way to self-control if that love comes from the Spirit of God, but you'll never be able to self-control your way to love.
It just, doesn't, work.
Self-control's purpose is to serve others in love and truth; it's not to serve the believer's ego, but to serve God's purposes.
"Okay..." I hear you say, "that's all fine and dandy. Holiness movement, bad stuff, gotcha. But isn't Colin just back where he started? Does he just go back to being a jerk rather than an a super-jerk?"
Good question, but Colin's story isn't done.
Colin, for once in his life, did something wise: he humbled himself and asked for help. He went to a friend from church who was always on about this "grace" stuff and asked that friend (let's call him, oh I don't know, "Tim") and said "I'm at the end of the rope Tim, can you help me?".
Tim opened up his bible and pointed Colin to the book of Galatians (a letter addressed to an early church that was quickly falling off the legalism side of the cliff) and showed him this passage:
You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.
Ouch. Tim might as well have punched Colin in the gut. In putting on his superman costume and trying to brandish the Christian faith as a means to feed and grow his own selfish ego, Colin had cut himself off from the fruit of the Spirit entirely. There always was plenty of grace available to him, he just didn't spend any time at the well where such water needs to be drawn. And when he decided that he didn't need the well at all, thing got much, much worse.
So what about Colin? Where did he end up?
Well, long story, but he went back and started reading his bible over again, only this time, he started looking for grace. He re-read the teachings of Christ, he revisited the sermon on the mount, and for the first time in his life, Colin really started to get the point. He started to understand (over time) that by Christ's standards, we're all guilty, that the blood of Christ really does cover a multitude of sins. He began to comprehend that what he needed was not to institute a religious self-help program, but to kneel at the foot of the cross, confess his sins, surrender to the Spirit of God, and joyfully contemplate the wonders of God's grace, all the while doing everything he could to extend that grace to others. He began to see why Jesus' commanded us to remain firmly rooted in Him and in His grace day after day after day. (See John 15)
Is Colin still an intolerable jerk? Ask his wife. My thoughts are, yes, probably, but maybe just a bit less so than when he started; and he's still very much screwed up. Colin still wages war against the flesh, with the Spirit's help, and often feels like he's losing. But he's not. God is in control; thankfully, Colin is not.
As Tim used to say, "whenever you try to control what you were never meant to control, you lose control". Amen to that.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obligated to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit we eagerly await by faith the righteousness for which we hope. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.
"Circumcise yourselves to the LORD And remove the foreskins of your heart, Men of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else My wrath will go forth like fire and burn with none to quench it, Because of the evil of your deeds."
In the above passage from Galatians, Paul instructs the church that those who become circumcised will be henceforth cut off from God’s grace. A strange declaration: prior to Jesus’ entry into the world, circumcision is what showed you to be a part of God’s Kingdom – it was the sign that you were effectively “in”. Now, Paul seems to be indicating the opposite. Circumcision now means, what, that you’re out?
Well, no. Circumcision, established as part of a covenant with Abraham, was a symbol. A symbol of what? Something deeply personal and intimate, I think, an inner-relationship with God that was meant to go beyond the rites and incantations practiced by the Hebrews' pagan neighbours. God could have chosen any symbol that he wanted, a tattoo, an earring, and in some cases He did; tassels and phylacteries served as outward symbols and reminders of the Israelites' identity as people beholden to the Lord. But in establishing His covenant, God not only chooses the most vulnerable and sensitive part of a man, He chooses an outward symbol that can’t be displayed without considerable embarrassment.
God is demonstrating, I think, what is required for us to have a relationship with Him: for us to allow Him into the most vulnerable areas of our lives, to change us from the inside out, to “circumcise our hearts”.
The Israelites had a lot of outward symbols to display their unique relationship with Yahweh, many of these established by Yahweh Himself. The problem in Jesus’ time was that these outward symbols had taken over and became ALL that was required. People became so focused on the outside that the condition of the heart (which is/was the whole point) became effectively ignored.
Further, as it was considered particularly righteous to do more than scripture required, more and more responsibilities got tacked on by the religious leaders of the day as they engaged in a game of spiritual one-upmanship. About this sort of self-indulgence, Jesus had plenty to say, none of it particularly nice:
Then Jesus said to the crowds and to his disciples: “The teachers of the law and the Pharisees sit in Moses’ seat. So you must be careful to do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Everything they do is done for people to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; they love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to be called ‘Rabbi’ by others…
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You give a tenth of your spices—mint, dill and cumin. But you have neglected the more important matters of the law—justice, mercy and faithfulness. You should have practiced the latter, without neglecting the former. You blind guides! You strain out a gnat but swallow a camel. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. Blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup and dish, and then the outside also will be clean. Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness”.
Jesus' problem here is not only that these religious leaders have swapped out a legitimate change in heart for performance art, but that they are preventing the children of the Kingdom from taking their rightful place by turning faith into a massive burden. Christ came to set us free from this sort of nonsense; His burden is light (Matthew 11:30), and that’s what Paul is getting at here.
Does Paul care one way or another about the literal practice of removing a foreskin? Clearly not, in the book of Acts he argues vehemently against imposing the right of circumcision on the gentiles; only one chapter later he himself circumcises Timothy to establish Timothy’s street cred as a Jew (he was half-Jewish). Why? So he could move past a useless impediment to their ministry (having to constantly fight with the religious authorities to get Timothy allowed into the synagogues) and get on with preaching the Gospel: “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value” …
No, the point is not whether foreskins should be removed or left alone, but that we are not to allow our freedom to be compromised by trading an intimate, personal and life-changing relationship with God for a set of religious activities or practices that serve to boost our egos, rather than humble our hearts.
The literal debate about circumcision is, for all intents and purposes, dead. But the temptation to replace a real relationship with Jesus with religious showmanship goes on; it exists in every church, and likely in every Christian heart, including my own.
It is therefore my responsibility to be on guard at all times. Yes, I must protect my soul from the more obvious sins of the flesh, and yes, I must be careful to ensure that the righteousness of Jesus shows through my daily activities; people who encounter me should be able to tell from my actions that I’m not living by the world’s rules of hedonism and pride. However, I must be equally careful to ensure that my own religious activities don’t become a snare for me. How do I know when this has happened? Typically, when I turn it into a snare for others.
It’s good to give generously to one’s church, but have I made tithing a point of pride for myself and a point of shame for others? It’s good to read the bible passionately; in doing so, however, have I set myself in judgement over those who don’t? Do I hold myself and others to standards that can't even be found in the bible, let alone in the teachings of Jesus?
Remember where this debate started in the first place: But some men came down from Judea and were teaching the brothers, “Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Acts 15:1 – NIV)
We mustn’t forget, it is for freedom that Christ has set us free.
Colin McComb lives in Edson, Alberta with his wife, Gail, and their three lovely children.