Part of it is Joy

I’ve been “going on” for a few posts now about legalism, and there’s more to come. I realize it’s easier to point out wrong thinking than it is to describe right thinking. A friend once described it as trying to describe a cow for an infant, as you drive the countryside. You can point at anything and say, “That is not a cow.” Horse, sheep, dog, donkey…”that is not a cow.” But the lesson won’t really be grasped until you can point at a cow and say, “That is a cow.”

Wow, I start early with the deep, profound thinking, don’t I?

Yesterday’s post, “If my daughter were a Pharisee”, was hard for me to write, and is the kind of thing I think and pray about often. I described behaviors that could be achieved by legalistic, moralistic thinking. But aren’t those very behaviors still very much to be desired? Don’t I want her to act exactly that way?

I don’t really care.

O, don’t get me wrong. I’m a real Dad, and she’s on a pretty tight leash. I enforce consequences for her behavior. Just ask her. And since she’s a pretty wonderful kid, I’m also pretty often taking pride in her behavior.

Remember, I’m a recovering legalist.

It’s not the behavior, the actions, which should be the prime focus of our attention. Our behaviors can change while our underlying and motivating idolatries remain untouched. For example, if I lie, it might be because I live for approval, and am afraid the truth will make me less likable. But if I am convinced that being a liar will make me less likable still, I will give up lying forever — and the Temple of Fearing Men becomes even more central in my life’s worship. Our efforts at defeating sin succeed only in making us more accomplished sinners.

Have you ever noticed that? Anger-management classes help us keep our anger — and the lusts and idolatries that produce it — intact, but in “acceptable” ways. Take murderous anger on one hand, and marry it to the lust of man-pleasing on the other hand, and the offspring is a better sinner. Better at sinning.

So what does the gospel produce? If moralism and gospel can each produce behavior that looks the same, how can we tell the difference, even for ourselves?

Part of the answer, we’ve already given — what produced the behavior? Is it a response to Jesus Christ and the work he has done for us? Or is it a response to the pressures of law or fear or guilt or lust?

A while back, I wrote about the illustration (original (I believe) to Lloyd-Jones and used by Tim Keller at the Gospel Coalition conference in May; Justin Taylor took good notes on the whole thing) of a king battling an invading army outside his city. If he wins, he sends back news and people (and soldiers) respond with joy. Jesus sends news; every other religion sends advisors. Then Keller said this, and it’s key: in the short term, the activity looks the same (troops heading to the battlefield), but the reality is much different — celebration and joy, or fear and desperation.

When you look at your own behavior, you can ask: is this motivated by joy, carried forward in celebration of the hope bought in Jesus Christ? What “pressure” do you seek to apply in your battle with a particular sin? Do you seek victory in discipline, accountability, determination; do you go about it in loathing and guilt and fear? Or do you see and rejoice in the victory that has already been achieved in Jesus Christ, and exulting in that and taking confidence and assurance from it, say “No” to ungodliness and worldy lusts, with your heart’s motive displaced unto a new affection and a blessed hope?

One thing I noticed some time ago, in a time of wrestling with my own sin and practical denial of the gospel: it was a time when my own family said I appeared to have lost all joy. I responded then that I had been robbed of joy, and I blamed others. But the reality is that my heart had turned aside from the gospel, and though I struggled and cried and vowed and prayed, I was unsuccessful in breaking the grip of idolatry, and I was captivated by fear, and utterly joyless.

When the gospel broke in, joy returned. And captivity was broken. And the desired behavior followed — in thanksgiving and rejoicing.

Such has ever been the case. It’s because our Jesus is great and gracious and triumphant and merciful and sweet — o so sweet! — to the taste, and powerful in his work and in the Spirit to change us, grow us, sanctify us.

For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age, waiting for our blessed hope, the God and Savior Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14)

Explore posts in the same categories: Christ-centered preaching, Gospel, Grace

One Comment on “Part of it is Joy”

  1. jameswillisisthebest Says:

    This is my first post
    just saying HI

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