I’m learning that the more I see of the gospel, the more I see how little I see it. For every inch gained in gospel understanding, I gain a foot in seeing how little I grasp it. I peer over the ledge of grace and see a new hundred-foot drop, which enables me to see also that the cliff extends another mile beyond that.
There is an entire psychological substructure that, due to the Fall, is a near-constant emission of relational leveraging, fear-stuffing, nervousness, score-keeping, neurotic controlling, anxiety-festering silliness that is not something I say or even think so much as something I breathe. You can smell this on people, though some of us are good at hiding it. And I’m seeing more and more, bit by bit, that if you trace this fountain of scurrying haste, in all its various manifestations, down to the root, you don’t find childhood difficulties or a Myers-Briggs diagnosis or Freudian impulses. You find gospel deficit. All the worry and dysfunction and resentment is the natural fruit of living in a mental universe of Law. The gospel really is what brings rest, wholeness, flourishing, shalom—-that existential calm that for brief, gospel-sane moments settles over you and lets you see for a moment that in Christ you truly are invincible. The verdict really is in; nothing can touch you.
From another angle: Living by law, which we all believe we’re not really doing (those silly Galatians!) is deep and subtle and pervasive. More pervasive than the occasional moments of self-conscious works-righteousness would indicate. Those moments of self-knowledge are indeed gifts of grace and not to be ignored. But they are only the visible tip of an invisible iceberg. They are surface symptoms. Law-ish-ness (in Gal 3:10 Paul uses the phrase, literally, “those who are of works of law”) is by its very nature undetectable because it’s natural, not unnatural, to us. Feels normal.
But the gospel calls us to believe the unbelievable: The radiant sun of divine favor is shining down on me, and while the clouds of my sin and failure may darken my feelings of that favor, the favor cannot be lessened any more than a tiny, wispy cloud can threaten the existence of the sun. The sun is shining. It cannot stop. Clouds, no clouds—-sin, no sin—-the sun is shining on me. Because of Another.
The Lord looks on his children with utterly unflappable affection. At one level, I believe, there is a dimension of affection in the fatherly heart of God that kicks into gear precisely when his children fail. I am not saying the more we sin, the more he loves us. But on analogy with human fatherhood, which I know from the inside as a father of three, I can say a latent part of my heart is engaged when I see my son sin. Perhaps it is also true of the Lord. We read the most amazing things in the Old Testament prophets, the doom and gloom guys of the Bible, as they struggle to find language to portray Yahweh’s hesed, his covenant love. His compassion “grows warm and tender”—-remember, it was on the heels of recounting Israel’s spiritual fornication (not faithfulness) that we read that in Hosea.
Be Who You Are
How strange the gospel is. In one sense I am not restored. How painfully obvious. Sin clings, weaknesses and failings abound. Anxiety, anger, idolatry. But in another sense, a deeper sense, I am restored. Perfectly, already. Simul justus et peccator. Deeper Magic from before the dawn of time. It really is true.
According to the sweep of New Testament teaching, the latter now defines me. That is the fundamental reality defining my existence. New birth, new life. Eternal life, as John says—-the life of the Age to Come, of the New Realm—-has already begun for me. The eschaton longed for in the prophets is here. And by faith, not by sight, I have been swept up into it. Justified: my end-time judgment has already happened and the verdict is acquittal, because I am in Christ, in whose cross the end-time judgment of condemnation was borne. In the middle of history rather than the end. The restored Dane Ortlund therefore trumps, outstrips, swallows up, the unrestored Dane Ortlund. Not the other way around.
As a Christian I’m in the process of bringing my sense of self, my Identity with a capital ‘I’, the ego, my swirling internal world of fretful panicky-ness arising out of that gospel deficit, into alignment with the more fundamental truth. Richard Hays argues in The Moral Vision of the New Testament that the essence of the New Testament ethic is “Be who you now are.” There it is. You are this new being, fundamentally, as one united to Christ. So wake up tomorrow and do whatever you have to—-with a Bible, singing, prayer, meditation, a friend, listening to a sermon, a walk around the block—-do whatever you must to start your day in gospel alignment. William Hulme, the Lutheran professor and counselor, says in Pastoral Care and Counseling (Augsburg, 1981) that the gospel allows us to bring our subjective guilt feelings in line with our objective guilt eradication.
I am a sinner. I sin. Not just in the past but in the present. But in Christ I’m not a sinner but cleansed, whole. And as I step out into my day in soul-calm because of that free gift of cleansing, I find that actually, strangely, startlingly—-I begin to live out practically what I already am positionally. I delight to love others. It takes effort and requires the sobering of suffering. But love cannot help but be kindled by gospel rest.
How can you possibly stiff-arm this? Repent of your small thoughts of God’s love, your resistance to swallowing Christ’s atoning work whole. Repent and let him love you.