“Christian, you cannot obey the Law. Your certain failure is a means to show forth the grace of God when you repent.”
“We don’t need more lists of how to be a better spouse/parent/Christian. We need more grace.”
“My life strategy for today: fail, repent, repeat.”
Sounds good, doesn’t it? These sorts of statements compose a growing body of commentary that regards the Law of the Bible as a crushing burden, not just for the unbeliever, but for the believer as well. Enough with “checkbox Christianity,” these voices tell us. No more “how to’s” on righteousness. In the righteousness department you are an epic fail, so toss out your checklists and your laws, and cast yourself on grace.
Failure Gets a Makeover
In recent years church leaders have rightly spoken out against moralistic therapeutic deism, which is really just a fancy name for legalism—the idea that we earn God’s favor through external obedience to a moral code. Moralistic therapeutic deism, as in the days of Jesus, pervades our culture and even our churches. It’s as harmful today as it was when Jesus spoke against it 2,000 years ago.
As a response to this skewed view of Law, some have begun to articulate a skewed view of grace—one that discounts the necessity of obedience to the moral precepts of the Law. I call this view “celebratory failurism”—the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt. Furthermore, our failure is ultimately cause to celebrate because it makes grace all the more beautiful.
These days, obedience has gotten a bad name. And failure has gotten a make-over.
Interestingly, Jesus battled legalism in a different way than the celebratory failurist does. Rather than tossing out the Law or devaluing obedience to it, he called his followers to a deeper obedience (Matthew 5:17-48) than the behavior modification the Pharisees prized. He called for obedience in motive as well as in deed, the kind of godly obedience that is impossible for someone whose heart has not been transformed by the gospel in the power of the Holy Spirit. Rather than abolish the Law, Jesus deepened his followers’ understanding of what it required, and then went to the cross to ensure they could actually begin to obey it.
Set Free to Obey
The gospel grants both freedom from the penalty of sin and freedom to begin to obey (Rom 6:16). And what are we to obey? The Law that once gave death now gives freedom. God’s Word teaches us that behavior modification should absolutely follow salvation. It just occurs for a different reason than it does in the life of the unbeliever. Modified behavior reflects a changed heart. When Peter says we have spent enough time living as the pagans do, surely he means that it is time to stop disobeying and begin obeying. Paul tells us that grace teaches us to say no to ungodly passions, not merely to repent when we fail to say no. He goes on to say that we are redeemed, not from the Law, but from lawlessness (disregard for the Law). If, as John attests, all sin is lawlessness (disregard for the Law), ought we not to love the Law (Psalm 119:97) and meditate on it day and night, as those who desire deeply to cease sinning? When Jesus says “Go, and sin no more,” don’t we think he means it?
Any profession of faith not followed by evidence is empty (James 2:14-26). And faithful profession without faithful obedience is spiritual double-mindedness. It is to affirm that God exists and then to turn and live as if he does not.
Celebratory failurism asserts that all our attempts to obey will fail, thereby making us the recipients of greater grace. But God does not exhort us to obey just to teach us that we cannot hope to obey. He exhorts us to obey to teach us that, by grace, we can obey, and therein lies hope. Through the gospel our God, whose Law and whose character do not change, changes us into those who obey in both motive and deed. Believers no longer live under the Law, but the Law lies under us as a sure path for pursuing what is good, right, and pleasing to the Lord. Contrary to the tenets of celebratory failurism, the Law is not the problem. The heart of the Law-follower is.
Obedience is only moralism if we believe it curries favor with God. The believer knows that it is impossible to curry favor with God, because God needs nothing from us. He cannot be put in our debt. Knowing this frees us to obey out of joyful gratitude rather than servile grasping.
Imagine telling your child, “I know you’ll fail, but here are our house rules. Let me know when you break them so I can extend grace to you.” We recognize that raising a lawless child is not good for the child, for our family, or for society as a whole. We don’t train our children to obey us so they can gain our favor. They already have our favor. We, being evil, train and equip them to obey because it is good and right and safe. And how much more does our heavenly Father love us?
Moving Beyond ‘Fail and Repent’
We must not trade moralistic therapeutic deism for celebratory failurism. Sanctification is about more than “You will fail, but there is grace for you.” Growing in holiness means that we fail less than we used to, because at long last we are learning to obey in both motive and deed, just as Christ obeyed. There is a difference between self-help and sanctification, and that difference is the motive of the heart.
Earnest Christians look to their church leaders and ask, “Teach me to walk in his ways.” We owe them an answer beyond, “Fail and repent.” We owe them, “This is the way, walk in it.” This way is often delineated by lists—a list of ten don’ts in Exodus 20, a list of eight do’s in Matthew 5, a list of works of the flesh (Galatians 5:22-23) and spiritual fruit (Galatians 5:22-23) in Galatians 5, and so on. These lists crush the unbeliever but give life to the believer. They make straight the paths of those who love them, and though this way is narrow, it leads to life.
The Law becomes a gracious means of conforming us to the image of the Savior. We love the Law because we love the God of the Law, who has engraved it on our hearts. We do not start our days planning to fail, nor do we celebrate failure. Rather, we set our faces like flint and resolve by the power of the Spirit to obey.
I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart. — Psalm 40:8