When I was a teenager, the style was to have long hair and I had hair that was down to about my neck. We used to pick up an elderly gentleman and take him to church every Sunday. One morning, as we were driving to church, he told me that it said in the Bible that men should not have long hair. I didn’t change, but it did bother me that he should try to impose rules on me that I didn’t think were that important.
A few years later, I behaved in a similar way. My brother, who was not living for the Lord at the time, wanted to go skiing on a Sunday afternoon and I told him that I could not do so because it was Sunday. In doing so, I was judging my brother.
I knew one person who was so obsessed about attending church on Sunday that if he missed a Sunday because he had to be away on business or was on vacation, he felt guilty about missing church in his home church. I have met Christians who get so disturbed with a fear that they are failing to measure up to all that God wants them to be that they enter into depression.
There was a time when the list of rules about what it meant to live as a Christian were long and we were quick to judge those who did not measure up. It is much more prevalent today to be quite loose about our Christian life. We hear about Christian guys living with their girlfriends. We have changed from a people who did not own radios and certainly not televisions to people who watch just about anything that is on TV. We have gone from the excessive discipline of shunning to no discipline at all. Is there an alternative to the two poles of legalism and permissiveness?
We have been talking about being a healthy church and have emphasized lately that a healthy church is one in which people love God. I would like to suggest to you today that love for God is expressed by an obedience that is lived by the direction and power of the Holy Spirit.
Canada and the United States are probably two of the most Christian nations in the world. They were founded on principles which assumed belief in God. They have strong Christian roots. Most of the universities in these two countries began as church schools. There are churches everywhere and religious broadcasts can be heard in most parts of the country. Yet in spite of such a strong presence of Christianity, we find that evil is as much present here as anywhere else in the world. Prostitution, drug abuse, alcoholism, violence and theft and every other of the ten commandments is broken in significant degrees throughout these two countries. People say they believe in God but their lives don’t show it.
It seems evident that people have not understood that a relationship with God implies a lifestyle that matches. Many think that love for God is something you feel when you are worshipping or when you get an overwhelming sense of God’s presence or when you experience his goodness. According to the Bible, love for God is demonstrated in obedience.
In John 14:2, Jesus promised the disciples “I am going to prepare a place for you.” Love for God is a response of joy at the wonderful hope which we have of being in heaven some day. As we read on in this passage, verses 6ff talk about the possibility of a relationship with God. Love for God is the privilege of such a relationship. John 14:13 indicates that whatever we ask in the name of Jesus will be done. Love for God is rejoicing in the privilege of access to the power of God. Having hope, a relationship and faith are all part of what it means to love God, but then in John 14:15 Jesus says, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” The most direct statement about how love for God is expressed tells us that it is expressed in obedience.
In my personal pilgrimage of faith as I have sought to experience the love of God and to love him in return, I have been struck recently with how often the Bible teaches that love for God must be expressed in obedience. John 14:21, “Whoever has my commands and obeys them, he is the one who loves me…” and I John 5:3, “This is love for God: to obey his commands. And his commands are not burdensome…”
“Love to Him is not a thing of words. If it is real it is shown in deeds.”
As people who come from the Anabaptist background, we have understood this very well. Yet in emphasizing obedience to God, we have often misunderstood how we should live that obedience. Instead of emphasizing obedience as a love response to God, we have fallen into the trap of legalism.
We have fallen prey to the temptation to think that obedience is part of our salvation. As Mennonites, we have emphasized that you cannot be a disciple without following Jesus. We agree with Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s emphasis on costly discipleship. Obedience is a consequence of salvation, but by some twist of logic, we go beyond that and begin to look at failures to obey as signs that our salvation is in jeopardy. We begin to think and live as if we will not be saved if we don’t do certain things. We add our works to God’s work in order to help Him achieve our own salvation.
In “A Taste of Joy” Calvin Miller writes, “Any struggle to be a better person which aims at earning favour with God is a futile attempt to make payment to God for a completely free salvation.” “There are thousands of believers whose good works are not so much a response to grace as an attempt to pay for it.”
Even the guilt we feel when we think we have failed becomes a part of this attempt to help God. Miller writes, “Yet often guilt, the enemy of renewal, remains. It is our attempt at homemade atonement. By holding on to guilt feelings we are erroneously trying to help God do what God has already fully done in the death of Christ.” “At such times we say the cross is inadequate. Jesus could not possibly have ‘paid it all,’ so we must pay the remainder by feeling bad about ourselves.”
This is not what obedience as a love response to God is all about.
Another problem with legalism is that we emphasize outward obedience, but seldom deal with the inner sins which no one can see. A person may never pick up a prostitute or even read or watch pornographic material, but may permit all kinds of mental fantasies. We commend his moral lifestyle without realizing that an inner disobedience is destroying his relationship with his wife. A person would never consider murder and might not even viciously slander another person, but may allow hatred and bitterness to brew on the inside which also destroys relationships.
In “A Taste of Joy” Calvin Miller says, “Since we cannot get caught at sinning in the mind, we do not stress those sins so heavily.”
When we do this, we fail to understand the meaning of obedience.
The other problem is that in interpreting God’s requirements, we add all kinds of human requirements. So many of the things we adhere to are not in Scripture or if they are, we multiply their meaning with man made rules. Many are sincerely arrived at, as an attempt to live Biblical principles, but somewhere along the line, they become human rules. We see this clearly in the way the Pharisees had added all kinds of rules to the requirements which God had made. We have done the same thing when we have made rules about hair and clothing and radios and jewellery and the vehicles we are allowed to drive. Jesus condemns the Pharisees in their legalism and I believe that His condemnation applies to us as well.
Legalism is comfortable. We know where the fence is and we just have to stay inside it, but is this the way in which God has called us to live our Christian life?
When children are young, we put them into all kinds of things which provide them with external fences - cribs, play pens and even fences around the back yard. While they are young, these fences are necessary so they are protected from hurting themselves, but we know that the external fences will not work forever. There comes a time when we have to teach them to protect themselves by internal fences. Eventually, we take down the fences and teach them to look both ways before crossing they street. They are protected not by external fences, but by the internal fence of knowledge and life principles.
In the Old Testament, God gave Israel a large outward fence called the law by which they were supposed to live. After hundreds of years during which people built the fence ever higher and yet kept breaking through the fence, God made a promise in Jeremiah 31:33, “This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the LORD. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”
Paul picks up on that promise when he says in Romans 7:6, “But now, by dying to what once bound us, we have been released from the law so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit, and not in the old way of the written code.”
The wonderful thing about what God has done for us is that through the death of Christ on the cross, he has removed from us the guilt of our sin and the punishment of our wrong doing. He has also, by His Spirit, given us a new power to live in a completely new way. The fence for following Christ in obedience and expressing our love for God by obeying Him is no longer an outward fence, but is now within us. We as Christians obey through the direction and power of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
In writing to the Galatians, Paul addresses the temptation which we are subject to and that is the temptation to go back to law instead of living by the power of the Spirit. He says to them in Galatians 5:18, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.”
As Christians, we must live in an entirely new way. Instead of living with legalism or permissiveness, we need to live a Spirit led life. We try to avoid permissiveness by being legalistic, but God calls us to avoid permissiveness by living by the Spirit. We throw out legalism and end up permissive, but God calls us to throw out legalism and to live by the Spirit. This is the essence of Christianity. It is a faith not governed by laws and rituals, but by a relationship to God lived with the presence of God actually within us. To live in this way is to live with a holiness that transforms us from the inside out and so covers the problem of outward boundaries which do not cover inward sins.
When we live by the power of the Spirit we live in obedience because God’s love is present with us, we recognize it and we respond to His love by loving Him and expressing our love in obedience.
Calvin Miller in “A Taste of Joy says, “We are whole through the Holy Spirit, who is the Great Integrator for Christians, helping us to live by one will, that we may become altogether like Jesus, in constant communion with him whom we adore.”
“How do we live the Spirit led life?”
When a king or a president take their position of authority over a nation, they are protected in that position by a host of soldiers and guards. The president of the United States, for example, is always surrounded by several body guards so that no one can take away his position.
God does not operate that way. When we become Christians, we invite Jesus to come into our lives. The understanding is that he will now rule our lives. But soon afterwards, we crawl back on the throne of our life and God just steps aside and lets us. But constantly crawling back on the throne is a miserable way to live. “When we try to permit both wills to inhabit one life, phoniness is the result.” The “Holy Spirit…cannot fill our lives when we are filled with ourselves.” Jesus warns in Luke 16:13, “No servant can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other…”
The first step in living by the Spirit of God is to determine who is on the throne in our life. Miller says about the infilling of the HS that it “is more than just his ‘residency in us.’ It is really his ‘presidency in us.’”
The question we must ask daily is, “Who is in charge in my heart?” I like the way I Peter 3:15 puts it, “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord.
How do we do that? In “The Table of Inwardness,” Calvin Miller says, “The best way then to deal with sin is not to attempt reform, but to adore the Saviour.” “The evil we seek to avoid grows, with concentration, into targets we cannot miss.” “Worship, on the other hand, avoids all interest in sin, pointing our hearts and minds in a totally different direction.”
When the basic issue of who is on the throne is settled, we need to live all of life with that understanding.
When we have established who is on the throne, we can stop dividing our life into the sacred and the secular. Instead, we can begin to live as God’s people in every aspect of our life. When we attend public functions, we live as people in whom God reigns. When we do our work, we live as people who have yielded their lives to Christ. When we play sports, we do so as people who are yielded to Christ. We can be in the world, but definitely not of the world.
In “The Table of Inwardness,” Calvin Miller says, “God is the God of the parade and the marketplace and the wilderness.” “…wherever there are crowds of souls, God will be in the midst of them. We who contain Christ sanctify the parade.” “…we sin greatly when we make no effort to integrate Christ…into our livelihoods.”
In “The Pursuit of God, Tozer says, “…every act of …life is or can be as truly sacred as prayer or baptism or the Lord’s Supper. To say this is not to bring all acts down to one dead level; it is rather to lift every act up into a living kingdom and turn the whole life into a sacrament.”
Jesus affirms this kind of thinking when he says in John 8:29, “…I always do what pleases him.” Paul says in I Corinthians 10:31- “Do… all for the glory of God.”
To live in such a way involves daily building a relationship with God.
One part of building that relationship is listening to God. God has spoken to us in His Word. We fail to live our part of the relationship if we do not spend much time listening to Him as He speaks to us through His Word. There is a great ignorance of God’s word and so it is no wonder that we are struggling with living according to God’s will. We haven’t been listening to God, instead, we have been listening to the world and to each other. When we begin to listen to God’s word, we will hear God’s way for us and will be sensitive to the voice of the Spirit in our hearts.
Scripture invites us to this kind of study. Psalm 119:10, 11, “I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.” Psalm 119:18, “Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.”
Although Jesus had a closer relationship to His Father than any of us, yet he walked with His Father in a relationship of listening to the Word. In the temptations in the wilderness, Jesus gained victory as he used Scripture to refuse Satan’s temptations.
As we study the Bible, it is not to be like a doctor doing an autopsy in which he coldly dissects the body to learn hard facts. Studying Scripture means taking the time to listen to God speak as we look at His Word and then deciding that we will live what we hear.
Finally, living by the Spirit is a matter of talking to God.
In “A Taste of Joy, Miller says, “There are many Christians who are genuinely born again but live in utter misery because they have only a mechanical communion with God.” As in a good marriage, good communication is basic to the relationship, so in our walk in the Spirit, we cannot do it without good communication.
Jesus spent much time in prayer. In Luke 6:12,13, Jesus spent the night in prayer before he chose the disciples. In John 6:15, the people wanted to make Jesus king and for Jesus, this represented another temptation and so he went by himself and spent the whole night in prayer so that he could have victory over temptation.
We need to learn from His example of close and intimate communication with His Father.
The matter of obedience is pretty basic to who we are. My background and many of yours is Mennonite. As such, we have learned obedience, but we have also learned legalism. As a consequence, people have not understood us and have seen us as rigid and unyielding. They have seen us as living a faith which is formal and built around laws. Many have rejected faith not because they have rejected the gospel of grace, but because they have rejected the image of church which they have seen us live. I have seen how people steeped in legalism have a joyless Christianity. I have also seen ruined lives because people threw away obedience when they threw away legalism. I think both of these approaches are contrary to what God wants. He invites us to a living relationship. He wants us to know that He loves us and that he has forgiven our sins not because we deserve it, but because He is love. He has given us His Spirit to lead us in following His perfect path of life. Will we live in this relationship?
A healthy church is one in which the people of the church have and live in a loving relationship with God. For us, settling this matter of how we will live our lives is key to being a healthy church. I want to invite us not to live by the power of outward laws, but by the power of the indwelling Spirit of God. I invite us to express our love for God by an obedience with is a response to His love for us.
In such a relationship, we will find wholeness, peace, contentment, joy and righteousness.