Title: Looking at Preaching Afresh
Part 7: Teaching Godliness or Self-Help Legalism
As I listen to many modern Christians in the conversations in church and hear them express their view on what ‘ought to be' I sense a form of self-centred legalism which worries me, because it is exactly what the apostle Paul spoke against.
Jesus once told a parable in which he has a Pharisee praying, ‘ I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.' The Pharisees were seriously ‘religious'.
When Jesus wanted to compare their way of doing things with his, he used the analogy of his approach being new wine needing new wineskins (Mt 9:17).
Indeed the apostle Paul was just such a person once but now was able to write of himself: “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel , of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; in regard to the law, a Pharisee; as for zeal, persecuting the church; as for legalistic righteousness, faultless. But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things”. (Phil 3:5-8) He ditched all that legalistic religiosity for the wonder of knowing Christ.
In the modern-day church, so often it seems we are bringing back such things and then wonder why we do not have the life, vibrancy and excitement of Christ moving in our midst. When it comes to preaching, the preacher needs to ensure he is moving in New Testament faith and not reiterating Old Testament approaches.
Please, as we go through this paper, remember the differences between the Old & New Testament approaches we saw in the previous paper.
In this paper we examine something of the approach that speaks of self-discipline and self-effort and consider whether it matches up to New Testament teaching.
1. Context: Be Aware of the Self-Effort Movement
A school of thinking has grown up in recent years based on ‘discipline' which is often a cultural spin-off from the USA. Wikipedia defines ‘The American Dream' as “a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility achieved through hard work.”
Whereas this has many very positive aspects, when it comes to the life of the Christian, ‘self-effort' and ‘self-discipline' can so easily become an expression of godlessness.
As much as it sounds so appealing – you need to make the effort to form the habit of prayer, bible reading etc., it forgets that all self-effort without reference to the Lord is in fact godlessness, however spiritual it may look.
What we also so often fear, is that the opposite will produce bad results, i.e. if we do not make the effort we will not pray, read the bible etc. What we then do is fail to understand the motivation that leads us to do these particular things, the presence of the Holy Spirit.
It is not that any of those things – prayer, Bible reading etc. – are wrong, quite to the contrary, but it is the motivation of new believers (and older ones for that matter) to do these things which is crucial.
In the self-help or 'discipline movement' material you find the following sort of things:
Well, actually, no! THE primary catalyst is the Holy Spirit, but He rarely gets a mention in their literature for they seem wary of Him. Wary of God????
I have also seen, and this was in respect of prayer, the heavy guilt imposing talk, "Suppose you had a meeting with God like the apostle John did on the Island of Patmos and he told you directly to increase you praying, wouldn't you do it?"
Yes, but actually he didn't and in Jesus' corrective words to the Seven Churches of Asia Minor, there is not a single mention of 'the spiritual disciplines'. Jesus did not say, "You need to pray more, read the Scriptures more, worship more, fast more, or anything like that," although I'm sure local believers weren't perfect in doing those things.
Reading their writings, I am left feeling they would much prefer 2 Pet 1:5-8 read as follows:
but it doesn't, it speaks about 'sanctification words': faith, goodness, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, love.
But yes, it does say make every effort
but that is only after reminding us that "His
divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness
through our knowledge of him who called us." (2 Pet 1:3)
That is what this page is all about, making sure we maintain this right emphasis in our preaching. HE is the enabler.
2. Why this Appeals to us
We love a challenge and we love being in control. The number of people taking up New Year resolutions (and giving them up within a month) is a proof of this.
If you can give me a course where I can measure my progress, I feel good about it. Whether I am a ‘better Christian' at the end of it is questionable.
It all sounds so plausible. We are given examples of piano players, opera singers or even craftsmen, and reminded that they needed to put in hours and hours of practice, so if it was true of them, it must surely be true of us.
If we believe this, it means we fail to understand certain spiritual principles of the New Testament.
A relationship with God is not formed and built on an ABC method. ‘Growth' as a Christian is far more complex than doing a course or following a formula.
3. The False Assumptions
a) I can get to know God better through the spiritual disciplines.
As much as I value all the so-called spiritual disciplines - prayer, Bible-reading, worship, evangelism, service, stewardship, fasting, tithing, etc., in their right context and with right understanding, I'm not sure that these are the things that make me more or less a godly person.
To understand that, we need to understand what ‘godly' and ‘godliness' mean, and we'll check those out shortly.
I can get to know about God by Bible reading, prayer and even worship but, I would suggest, getting to know God Himself is much more complex than that and will certainly involve me learning to listen to God and will certainly involve my obedience.
The terrible thing is that, with the nature of the way things are, we can read our Bibles, pray, worship in church, give generously and so on, and yet still have hidden vices that are so ungodly and unrighteous as to put severe question marks over us.
The early part of the twenty first century has been littered with religious leaders who have been involved with pornography, or even child abuse, or simply been in a violent domestic relationship where a blazing temper has never been put to death, or even in adulterous relationships. However godly such a person might appear on the outside – performing all the spiritual disciplines and being an example in them – it is clear that in reality they are not godly at all. Deception is very real!
b) I can become a better Christian the more I persevere with the spiritual disciplines
I certainly believe there is value in all those things, but talk of becoming a ‘better Christian' is, I believe, mostly misplaced.
If I am a pastor, then I will be reassured when my new Christians forsake their godless and unrighteous lifestyles, and stop committing adultery, stop stealing etc. etc.
Yes, I will want to introduce them to the wonders of Bible reading, prayer etc. but if I try and ‘measure' them, then both I and they are on a self-centred exercise. The only one who will know exactly their state is the Lord.
If two people followed exactly the same ‘discipleship course' then the unknowing would expect them both to achieve the same level of piety or godliness, but it doesn't work like that.
Why one person starts off their Christian life full of vigour and appears to ‘go on' in leaps and bounds and another seems, by comparison, to be the proverbial tortoise, is a mystery.
Why one person becomes an incredible people-person and an outstanding evangelist, and another becomes a mighty prayer warrior, and a third becomes a brilliant Bible teacher, is simply the grace and gifting of God.
From the moment we enter the kingdom of God, He knows what is best for us (Eph 2:10) and His Holy Spirit will be working in us (and with the insightful understanding of other ministries around us) to develop us in ways that are best for us and bring most blessing to others.
c) Establishing the Spiritual Disciplines guarantees life for the future.
If only it were true!
I have known those I have considered ‘great men of God' who have fallen into disillusionment and gone away from all pretence of a spiritual life. I have also known those who have fallen into sin, normally of an adulterous nature – and these were those who espoused and practiced the spiritual disciplines in large measure.
Why did they fall? I don't know. Don't be self-righteous and look down on them; heed the apostle Paul's injunction: “ if you think you are standing firm, be careful that you don't fall!” (1 Cor 10:12)
But, a defender of this ‘discipline movement' may cry, you are throwing out the baby with the bath water. Just because a relationship with God is more complex than learning new habits, the work of sanctification is more than pious procedures, and godly men who have practised them have fallen away, that doesn't mean that for most there is no great benefit in performing them.
Of course there is great benefit but the motivation for doing them and the approach to achieve them is prone to producing self-righteousness, works based on self-effort, and then, where there is achievement, pride.
Of course I agree they shouldn't, but there is the temptation to fall into a godless habit – Bible reading without any reference to God (do you pray and ask for help every time you start your study?), even amazingly prayer, where it is more of a performance than the outworking of a real, alive, responding relationship, or worship that is just singing nice songs, and so on.
Without the right background and the right goals and the right checks, these are very real and account for much of the lifelessness of modern Christianity.
4. Piety & Godliness
One particular failure of this movement is to equate ‘godliness' with what are referred to as the spiritual disciplines that we have already referred to: prayer, Bible-reading, worship, evangelism, service, stewardship, fasting, tithing, etc., failing to see that those things are tools or, better, activities through which the Spirit may work, but not actually an expression of godliness.
Godliness, in its simplest must mean “how to be godly” or like God, and as Jesus has come as the revelation of the Father to us (Jn 14:9), then to be godly is to be Jesus-like, and therefore we must refer to his character. For this see Jn 1:14 – full of grace and truth - and also see fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22,23). But we must not stop there we must also speak of his
Godliness being equated with ‘piety', means being pious or devout or dutiful or religious (dictionary definitions). Being devout or dutiful puts the focus on ‘doing to please God' and yet the best way we can please Him is to become like Jesus as we indicated above.
Putting the focus on these so-called ‘disciplines', as much as that has been done in history, means we fail to put the emphasis where it should be on becoming Christ-like in character and service.
These ‘disciplines' may or may not contribute to that in greater or lesser measure. As we noted earlier, you can have the disciplines but not be godly.
5. Being and Doing
Let's make a simple observation that we did make in an earlier paper of this series but which deserves repeating here: Doing should flow from being. Doing to achieve being, is human effort and human achievement and the end product always falls far short of what God achieves.
“Being” refers to who we are. It has to start there.
We are ‘Christians' because
“Being” refers to us being forgiven sons of God, loved by the Father who has plans to bless us.
“Doing” refers to our activity which is to be a response to what has happened to us and what we now are. As the apostle John said, “This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.” (1 Jn 4:10) Our love flows out of His love for us. We love because He first loved us.
The whole trust of this paper is that the Christian life is supposed to be a life responding to the Holy Spirit who lives within us and within all other believers.
Examples of our ‘Doing' in response to our ‘Being':
I read my Bible to find out more and understand who He is and what He has done for me and what He plans for me.
I pray because it is natural for a small child to talk to its Father and I want to share my all with Him.
I worship because I realise He is so great and has done so many wonderful things that I want to express back my praise, my thanksgiving, my wonder at all this.
I witness because I find I have something wonderful to tell others about.
I give because I find I want to bless others.
I would suggest all of these are responses to the prompting of the Holy Spirit within, and response levels will vary with each person as they hear teaching or testimony of possibilities and the Spirit is able to urge us on.
6. Playing my Part
Don't think that because we have been expressing reservations about human-activity-based piety, that we are against human activity. Far from it. We have a very real part to play.
Examples of Scripture requiring our co-operation:
Rom 6:11 count yourselves dead to sin but alive to God in Christ Jesus . (i.e. maintain right thinking)
Rom 6:12 do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires . (i.e. stop yourself as you sense a wrong desire. This ‘doing' follows the previous ‘being')
Eph 4:25 each of you must put off falsehood (the negative) and speak truthfully to his neighbour (positive behaviour)
Note that almost always when I play my part, there is a putting off or putting away the wrong behaviour and putting on the new behaviour. The negative behaviour is overcome by the positive:
Eph 4:29 Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, (i.e. stop the negative behaviour happening) but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (and replace it with positive behaviour)
Eph 5:18 Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. (Put away behaviour that relies on alcohol to stimulate) Instead, be filled with the Spirit. (Replace it with He who provides real and genuine stimulation that is life fulfilling)
Col 3:5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed (i.e. YOU make an act of will not to let these things have space in your life)
Col 3:8,9 now you must rid yourselves of all such things as these: anger, rage, malice, slander, and filthy language from your lips. Do not lie to each other. (Another list of negatives to allow no room in your life)
Col 3:12,13 Therefore, as God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved (Because of who you now are, i.e. “Being”), clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another. (purpose to let these things flow in your life, i.e. “Doing”)
This series of examples will do for now; there are plenty more.
However, note how they differ from the ‘disciplines' of do-it-yourself-piety:
The “put on” things are all things that are expressions of Jesus and will be things the Holy Spirit will be working to bring about in you.
The order is YOU make an act of will, the decision to be Christ-like, and HE enables you to be that.
Each of the things in this section to be “put away” are things from your old life which you surrendered to God and which, as a result, has no power over you today. To ensure that is so, you simply give the Holy Spirit permission to help you be Christ-like in your responses. For example you desire to ‘put on' love, and He comes and enables you to express it.
Yes, it does take a decision NOT to be one thing and a decision to BE the other. You make the decision and He enables it to happen.
7. The Balance of Spirit-Leading and Teaching-Responding
For some of us it seems too simple when we speak of being led all the time by the Holy Spirit. Do you remember in the previous paper we stated, “we are guided and led by the indwelling Holy Spirit and when we fail to respond to Him, our ‘fall-back' is the teaching and instructions found in the New Testament.”
Now, although we didn't make the comment then, this does suppose that we receive teaching and instruction within the church to supplement our own reading. God has provided teaching ministries in the Church and it is vital that we do have such teaching.
But why, you may ask, because you have been emphasizing this whole thing about being led by the Spirit? Why do we need the teaching in the Bible if they Spirit will impart it to us directly? The answer is very simple. Learning to listen to and respond to the Holy Spirit is a faith exercise – and we can get it wrong!
How often do you hear Christians saying, “God told me to….” and you wonder about the reality of that. Everything we ‘hear' has to be checked against what we can read in the New Testament. Is what I am hearing from the Holy Spirit, from me or even from the enemy? The New Testament and the bible as a whole is there for me to check what I am hearing.
It is, after all, God the Holy Spirit who inspired the Bible writers and it is God the Holy Spirit who inspires and calls and anoints teachers within the Church, and it is God the Holy Spirit who takes what they say and convicts you with it, so that you see its reality and its pertinence to your life.
When we thus refer to our ‘fall-back' being the teaching and instruction we mean:
it is there as a check for us to confirm what we are hearing from the Spirit is indeed conforming to His will, and
if, for whatever reason, we have not learned to be sensitive to the Spirit's teaching, guiding, prompting etc., then we have no excuse for knowing God's will because the principles are still there in black and white print.
8. A Godly Approach to the so-called ‘Spiritual Disciplines'
We have said those things are good in the Christian life so how do we avoid the self -orientated approach? With each of these things let's consider the attitude or approach and then the practical godly approach. We take these from an earlier part of the Preaching series and expand on them:
a) Reading the Bible
Legalism says, “Every Christian ought to read the Bible. Christians ought to turn up at the Bible Study every week. You need to persevere at forming the Bible-reading habit”
Grace says, “You know with God's help the Bible can become exciting, meaningful, helpful to teach or guide us, a real source of God's blessing. I know for myself it's been a major source of God's blessing to me.
Practical godly approach : Why don't you try asking God to teach you through it, asking Him to make it come alive as you read. Getting His help transforms it.
Legalism says “Every Christian ought to pray. Christians ought to turn up at the Prayer Meeting every week”.
Grace says, “Isn't it great that we can talk to God about anything. I find that when I put aside some time each day to purposefully talk to God, He talks back and puts lots of things in my mind, giving me wisdom to know how to deal with life. I've also found it really helpful to pray with other people sometimes.
Practical godly approach: Pray something like, “Lord, even as I come to speak to you, please open my ears to catch a sense of what you want me to bring you, and help me be open to hear you speaking back.”
Legalism says “All Christians ought to be witnesses for Jesus. All Christians ought to be involved in evangelism.”
Grace says, “Do you know, I hardly know anything more exciting than leading someone to Christ. It's so wonderful when you are actually part of seeing someone being born again. I find that God gives me opportunities to talk about Him and mostly it comes when other people start asking questions or making comments about spiritual things. Sometimes they want to talk further, other times not. It's up to God really, I'm just a witness.”
Practical godly approach : If this is to be a God-activity then I am going to need His vision to see people as He sees them, His wisdom to know how to approach people and what to say to them, and His sensitivity to know how far to go and when to step back and how to offer help. If I need all this, I can't help but pray!
Legalism says, “If you want to be serious with God you ought to fast as well as pray.”
Grace says, “Sometimes God may ask you to fast as well as pray and when He does He will enable you to do it for the time He says. It can be an incredible time of discipline and blessing from God.”
Practical godly approach: Why not pray something like, “Lord, I always want to be open to you but if you want me to spend a more intense time waiting on you, please just nudge me. I realise you love me already and are already for me but if you want me to become a better listener, show me the way.”
Legalism says, “Christians ought to tithe and give a tenth of their income to God.”
Grace says, “Well, I live in a materialistic society and I know God would rather I was a generous giver than a constant grabber, so a good way to put a check on my life is to make sure I give regularly. A simple and obvious way is to emulate the Old Testament saints and start by giving a tenth, and I find that when I do that I find God blesses me and helps keep my finances in order.
Practical godly approach: Again, why not pray something like, “I see all I have as yours. Please show me if you want me to bless others financially, and show me how to go about it.”
(If you are serious about giving you may wish to go to our pages “Giving by Faith” which lays out a practical prayer and action strategy for giving.)
9. And So…
To conclude, as unsettling as it might sound, why not kick out the door this language of self-help and instead ask the Holy Spirit to transform all your experiences and bring about the character of Jesus and his activity in you.
Remember, it is all about motivation. Let ‘doing' follow ‘being', your actions flowing out of you being a Spirit-filled, Spirit-empowered, Spirit-blessed and Spirit-led person.
Remember what we said in the paper on the distinctions between Old & New Testaments: Guidance and direction in the Old Testament period came mainly from Law and when the people failed to obey that, from the prophets sent by God and empowered by the Holy Spirit. In the New Testament era this is reversed: we are guided and led by the indwelling Holy Spirit and when we fail to respond to Him, our ‘fall-back' is the teaching and instructions found in the New Testament.
If your life has lost the sense of the presence, power and leading of the Spirit, or never known it, then you will be left with the attitude of “I must really work for this” and like the man of Jesus' parable declare, “I knew that you are a hard man” (Mt 25:24) and your ‘spiritual life will reflect that. It is not meant to be so!