A Pastor’s Reflections: Four Words That Frighten Christians
Life is filled with lessons, at least for those who pay attention. One such lesson involves the dreams and assumptions that I had as a seminarian and how those same dreams were challenged once I was in the pastorate. Like many who enter seminary with the hope of one day pastoring a church, I knew that there would be opposition to the gospel outside the church. Unbelievers are, as Paul writes, “fools,” those who deny God’s existence, hate him, and suppress the truth in unrighteousness. I also figured there would be opposition to the gospel from those within the church who were only interested in creating trouble—false teachers. When I graduated and found myself in the pastorate, I found trouble from the two usual suspects, unbelievers and false teachers. There was a third suspect that caught me off guard—the well-intending, gospel-believing, person—the genuine Christian. It came as a surprise to me that godly Christians were also a source of opposition to the ministry of the gospel. How so? I think this type of in-church opposition can be described by four words that frighten Christians: Christ, wisdom, and Christian liberty.
How is it possible that Christians would be fearful of Christ? How can one saved by Christ be fearful of him? The simple answer to the question is, sin. All of us, no matter who we are, still struggle with sin. This means that we struggle with our submission to Christ’s authority. I think that many Christians have the assumption that when they come to church, they do so to have their beliefs and values affirmed. Certainly this is the case. After all, those who believe in the Scriptures as the word of God want to hear it preached. However, I think that we can become easily forgetful of the abiding presence of sin, our struggle with it, and our continued need for sanctification—further conformity to the image of Christ. If we forget these things, then we can easily find ourselves fearful of Christ.
When Christ tells us that we must take up our crosses and follow him, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Christ bids us to come and die. Dying to one’s self is not an easy or appealing thing. This means that at some point during our lives, we should come into contact with the resurrected and ascended Christ through the means of grace and he will show us through the law how we fall short. He will reveal our sin to us and show us our need for his righteousness. For those who think they have arrived, that they have little need for greater sanctification, they will think that the medicine offered in the gospel, if you will, is for some other ill person, not them. They will flee Christ out of fear, perhaps unconscious or even unexpressed, because they believe the gospel is for sinners, not for saints.
I found that people at times would accuse me of preaching too much Christ and not spending enough time telling the church what they should do. Such people were fearful of Christ and the grace of the gospel, the gospel that tells us, believe and you will do, not, do so you will believe. A simple test to determine whether we might fear Christ and his gospel is to ask ourselves whether we have ever been offended or convicted by something we have heard from the pulpit. If we have never been offended or convicted of sin, then chances are we might be present in body but our hearts are far, far away, from the voice of Christ speaking in the Scriptures. How can a redeemed but nonetheless sinful person never hear a word that convicts him of his sin? Either he is perfect and no longer in need of the sanctifying work of the Spirit, or the preacher is not preaching the word, both law and gospel, or the person in the pew simply flees from Christ when he hears his voice. Like the bulimic who feasts upon a sumptuous meal and then purges, so the one who flees Christ feasts upon the word only to purge it out of fear.
In many respects a fear of Christ drives the fear of the second word for many Christians, wisdom. Why would Christians fear wisdom? Stated simply, far too many Christians want someone to tell them what to do. Out of a fear of Christ, Christians will flee to the law thinking that they can find answers there. To be sure, the law is an absolute essential part of the Christian life in all of its functions: the civil (the standard of moral government known through nature and Scripture), the pedagogic (that which condemns sin and drives us to Christ), and the normative (that which guides us in our knowledge of what is pleasing to God and therefore instructive for the Christian life). However what often happens is that people run past Christ and head straight for the law apart from him. What they fail to see is that the law has very limited capabilities and functions.
The law only condemns, it cannot save. Only Christ through the Spirit saves. Apart from Christ the law is our enemy. Only Christ through the Spirit can make the law our friend and guide. Think of the lepers that roamed the wastelands of Christ’s day—the law only condemned them as unclean; it was powerless to cleanse them. Only the touch of Christ healed, cleansed, and restored them. The restoration of the lepers gives us a window into the nature of our redemption but it also shows us why the law is insufficient for every circumstance in life.
The law can certainly give us guidance for many moral decisions, but the Scriptures themselves tell us of the insufficiency of the law. Think of Solomon and the two women who fought over the child. There was no law written for a time when two prostitutes claim the same child as their own. Solomon did not consult the law but instead made a wise decision. The same can be said of the Proverb that says, Answer a fool according to his folly and do not answer a fool according to his folly. Is this a hopeless contradiction—one upon which we have been impaled? Or is the Bible telling us that there are situations in life that call for wisdom? There are many Christians in the church who absolutely shudder at the thought of wisdom. They want formulas, commands, and instruction for every situation in life. I think it disturbed some when I would counsel one family to pursue home schooling and another to seek public education. Why is there not one standard for everyone? The simple answer is, because life calls for wisdom. Moreover if we understand that the treasures of wisdom are hidden in Christ, then we will realize that many situations in life call for us to reflect upon the teachings of the Scriptures and then apply those teachings all the while seeking guidance and direction from Christ through prayer and the means of grace. Christians in similar circumstances might come to different conclusions—one family may choose to adopt a child and another might not. One person might choose to invest in the stock market and another might not. One presbytery might choose to ordain a man to the ministry and another presbytery might decide not to ordain a very similarly qualified man. One may choose to go to a movie while another may not. Life calls for wisdom—seeking the mind of Christ.
But this brings us to our third and fourth words: Christian liberty. This is a cardinal teaching of the Scriptures, but one that all too many Christians forget. Rather than seeking assurance and comfort in Christ and in seeking his mind (wisdom) for the Christian life, people seek respite in uniformity. Life seems so chaotic, especially in the pluralistic society and culture in which we live. So people in the church assume that if we all believe in the same Lord and the same gospel, then we should all look the same. We should all dress the same, home school our children, use the same curriculum, discipline our children alike, have large families, and have the same theological views on a host of different subjects. If we can get on the same page, then we can have unity. The problem is that to achieve this sort of lock-step unity, people inevitably have to go beyond what the Scriptures teach. Though the Scriptures say nothing about home schooling vs. public schooling, movies, dating, and the like, people create rules about these things, whether implicitly or explicitly. Perhaps you have encountered this type of phenomenon?
You visit a church and very quickly you are informed, “All of the families here in this church home school.” Or there is pressure to conform to the practices of the majority of the congregation: “Your wife shouldn’t work. It’s sinful, you know.” Difference in views or practice is not perceived as another alternative but as dissension, rejection, and rebellion against the status quo (a status quo, keep in mind, that most in the church view as the “biblical way of life”). What often ends up happening in such circumstances is that spirituality is no longer measured by God’s word, the law and gospel, but by these other practices about which the Scriptures say little to nothing. In a word, many Christians fear Christian liberty—the idea that Christ alone is Lord of the conscience and that we may not impose, pressure, or ostracize anyone who does not conform to our created system of rules, however well-intentioned they might be.
I think these four words (Christ, wisdom, Christian liberty) strike fear in the hearts of many believers because they exude the supremacy and sovereignty of Christ and his gospel of free grace—something that we love to embrace but find ourselves fighting against because of the abiding presence of sin. The siren of our old man whispers to our souls that there has to be something at which we excel, some patch of our lives where Christ is not needed. Like the allure of returning to Egypt for pots of meat, we are tempted to return to a life of bondage under the law. We therefore seek shelter in our own abilities rather than beneath the wings of Christ. We seek comfort in following rules rather than seeking the mind of Christ. We find solace in uniformity of practice rather than in the lordship of Christ.
As a minister of the gospel it took me some time to realize these things, both in my congregation and in myself. It takes constant prayer to Christ that he would sanctify, grant his wisdom, and create in me a submissive heart. My elders and I constantly fought to keep the church identified as one that centered upon Christ and his gospel. We did not want to be the home schooling church, the political church, the anti-movie church, the courtship church. Rather, as in Paul’s instruction to the congregation at Rome that struggled with being the meat-eating or vegetarian church, Paul insisted that they had to be a church grounded upon Christ and his people in spite of whatever differences of opinion might exist among them.