If you’ve read this blog for very long, this may seem a repetitive topic to you. I’ve written on the topic of dedication several times over the years and it’s even a theme that I tend to talk about in casual conversation too. The reason is that I think it is extremely important. Why bother having any principles if you aren’t going to be dedicated to them? And how could one argue that he/she is dedicated to any principle if it doesn’t change his/her life foundationally. Dedication is a ‘bottom line’ kind of thing in any realm. Sure, an accountant who is dedicated to her work will try to do her best in accounting for the money entrusted to her; or a baker might be so dedicated to his craft that he refines his recipes and studies the science of baking in order to be the very best baker he can be. But for a Christian, dedication to a person’s confession is, quite simply, transformational to all of life and not just to the realm of religion. Christianity – when applied in totality – is what makes life worth living and death worth dying. It is hope and a future because it has determined our priorities.
The past couple of months have proven to me that many (most?) people who call themselves “Christian” lack the measure of seriousness about dedication to their confession which makes it properly transformational. By not applying the implications of their confession across all aspects of their life the spiritual transformation promised by God and provided by the Holy Spirit is neglected and even stunted. And because this transformation does not take place the flavors of life, the heroic twists and turns of the journey, and the expectation of the glorious eternal epilogue after the last breath is taken are eliminated, or at least impaired. Not that these flavors, adventures or valor are themselves the reason for life. For, after all, the reason for life is to glorify God and enjoy Him throughout eternity. But it is in glorifying God that our life breaks out from the human condition which Thomas Hobbes described as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” and “warre [sic] of every man against every man.”
Whatever your thoughts on Hobbes (I disagree with his materialistic worldview), he was exactly right on this foundational thing: that the natural state of man makes for the mind of every human being only a bed of nails on which to lie in rest and a threadbare covering under which to cower in fear (my words, not Hobbes’). How can man find any comfort in a life so “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” when all of a man’s life and energy are poured out in the defense of oneself against the will of every other man? Not that we see it that way most of the time. I have a feeling that we think our lives peaceful and tame. However, this just shows how lulled we are by the distractions around us. If we paid a smidgeon’s spiritual attention we’d see that the battle for our soul is wild all around us … indeed it rages furiously within us.
God has already given us a clear understanding of our position: In the Psalms we are told that “no one does good” (14:1,3); In the Prophets we are told that the human heart is deceitful and sick (Jer 17:9) and unfeeling and dead like a stone (Ez 36:25-27); Jesus warns that it is out of the heart of man that evil comes (Mt 15:18); and Paul taught that we were “dead” before Christ came in and “were, by nature, children of wrath” (Eph 2:1). Hobbes’ assessment – though used for a humanist and materialistic application – is an assessment born from a much better understanding of man’s state than we seem to hold, even within some churches, today. Some who claim the name of Christ seem so ignorant and uncurious regarding their own naturally sinful state that they fall for the simplest and most foolish – indeed the most damning – idea. Namely, that despite what is taught throughout scripture regarding this natural state, their sinful condition isn’t so great that it can’t be overcome by the force of their human will … and therefore the person has a hand in his/her own salvation.
What a horrid thought! What a lie we tell ourselves! To buy into the idea – even for a moment – that some action which originates within oneself can save us is to buy into the thought which the Hebrews writer says “[neglects] so great a salvation” brought to us by Jesus and Jesus alone (Heb 2:3). If Christ did not pay all on the cross, then be assured that no epic act of a man could redeem that man – or anyone else – from the pit of slavery into which he has fallen. If Christ’s work is not sufficient to atone, then no work of man – no matter how pious or sincere – is adequate enough to decrease the balance of sin in his life by even the minutest fractional amount. The heart is deceitful and sick and evil and dead; how can it produce truth and vigor and holiness and life?
And yet we keep stumbling bleary-eyed through our daily lives, content with an abject sacrifice – which is really no sacrifice at all – of Sunday entertainment pitifully disguised as “worship,” mealtime prayers with no thankfulness uttered, and empty therapeutic platitudes pronounced by “preachers” and “pastors” more concerned with their web feed to their satellite churches than in clearly and accurately expositing the Word of God. We care not for the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit which has been promised and poured out, because we don’t seriously believe that we need Him. We hypocritically cite all of the “good” things which we do, claiming it as some sort of evidence of us working for God, but then cite grace as license for not addressing every bad thing which remains. And it is no wonder we do this, when all of our energy is used to stay glued to Facebook and that new show that “has such good writing” to go along with its sacrilege, so that we lack any energy or time to break apart the onionskin leaves of the immortal and transformational words of the Almighty.
We know that salvation is not of us – that much is emphatically clear in scripture (Rom 3:24; Eph 2:8f; 2 Tim 1:9; Tit 3:5) – and it is for freedom from the checkboxes of legalism that Christ has set us free (Gal 5:1), but how is it that, after tasting this “heavenly gift” (Heb 6:4), we do not crave it more and more every day? How can we say, “Yes, I am a Christian,” and then live like that confession is incidental, minor, and peripheral to our life? To be a Christian is not just to say, “I trust in the cross of Christ,” which is, of course, a wonderful and beautiful confession. Instead, to be a Christian is to say, “I trust in the cross of Christ so much that it has changed my entire outlook on who I am and what my mission is in this world. It is the lens by which my blindness is repaired. It is the filter through which my every breath is breathed. It is the bread which sustains me and the wine which delights my heart. And it is the Son around which this undesirable and common pebble revolves.”
I fear few things for myself these days, because God has proven His care for me over the years. But I do fear for His church sometimes. Not that His church will ever cease, nor His elect ever fall away – He is too great and wise for that. I fear instead that the invisible church will be drawn down in the muck of the visible. I fear that those who call themselves by the name “Christian” will somehow dupe those who truly are Christian into accepting less than full submission and dedication to the God they serve – and therefore experience less of the joy which God means for them to know.
You see, I’m not worried about the people whom God has called not making it to heaven – the Holy Spirit will make sure of that (“While I was with them … I guarded them and not one of them perished …” Jn 17:12). Nor am I even that concerned with the hypocrisy of these non-Christian “Christians” being seen by the world and ridiculed or used as a stick with which to fend off God. After all, that’s been happening for a couple of millennia now and God has always proven that He is sovereign over the hearts of men – so He will not be thwarted for long (if at all). I’m just worried about those who will one day be in God’s bliss not experiencing God’s bliss today because they keep being distracted by the world, remaining shallow in their understanding. God’s glorious book, inspired by His Holy Spirit, is a revelation of the tiniest sliver of the incomprehensible God that He is – a magnificent glimpse into the heart of the Holy. In the words of that Holy book is both enough mystery to coax us forward and explanation to keep us going. The words make us laugh with reverence and weep with honor. They turn all that we do into a sacrifice to the Almighty. And when we sacrifice, we develop and mature; we are transformed by a renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2).
We humans have the honor of being made in the image of the Holy God … but we also carry the scandal and spiritual scars of the rebellion in the garden. Within each of us our Spirits groan for redemption while our flesh tries desperately to smother that groan. With so much of this world animated by self-interest, each person tends to listen to the flesh and fashions for him/herself an idol in the shape of who we think we are. Each impudent day of self-worship hardens the heart to all that the Spirit pours into it and replaces it with another callous layer of sin and self. The only way to stop this destructive process is to cry out to God for freedom from it … and the only way to fight it is to stay in His word, rejecting the elemental things of this world which “enslave us” – as Paul talks about in Galatians 4.
And it is in Galatians where all that I am saying – indeed, all that I am pleading – is summed up and spoken with apostolic authority. For in that book is Paul’s expression of the same disgust which troubles me. He doesn’t commend the Galatian churches, saying something like he does to the Philippians, Ephesians, Colossians, Romans, etc. Something like, “I thank God every time I remember you, your faith and your work on behalf of the ministry of God.” No, this time Paul articulates his disgust at how a group of Christians who had the freedom of God delivered clearly to them would so readily go back to the slavery of legalism. Even if the Galatians weren’t Jews – recognizing the Law of Moses – before Paul came, they would have had, even in Paganism, boxes to check in order to gain favor from the gods. And now, as the Judaizers enter in Paul’s wake, they impose these “weak and worthless elemental things” (1:9) and enslave the Galatians all over to a works-centered salvation – a gospel which is really no gospel at all (1:7).
I would absolutely love to go into all of the wealth of theology presented in Galatians, but I won’t (right now anyway). I simply want to point out that the same thing which Paul derides as enslavement in the Law is the same thing which gives rise to the stunting of our spiritual growth: distraction and immaturity. Don’t be distracted by the decadence of this physical world or by bad theology. Reject the immaturity that comes from laziness toward the study of the word of God. The Galatians fell prey to the bad theology of the Judaizers because they weren’t sufficiently serious about the message of grace which Paul had given them. We, in the modern West, tend to fall prey to bad theology because we incorporate Pagan ideas which sound good, but aren’t founded on truth; and we do it willingly because we’re lazy and naïve about the state of the world around us.
Along these lines, Paul gives final instructions to the Romans by ending his letter to them with, “Be wise in what is good, and innocent of what is evil” (16:19). The same simple instruction must be applied by us. If we stay “innocent” of the worthless things of this world we won’t be confused when choosing between good and evil. If we stay “wise” in the word of God we will see the lies people tell clearly contrasted with the truth. The promise is that if we seek God, we will find Him (Dt 4:29; Mt 6:33; 7:7; Heb 11:6). But what are the chances of telling truth from a lie if the truth is something you do not know? And what are the chances of knowing truth unless you are seeking the source of truth by spending time with Him? And, even if you are purposefully spending time with Him, are you then following up that time with things which dilute its effectiveness? Maybe you end up following up your prayer time with trolling through the derisive and contentious corners of social media or participating in the gossip against friends and acquaintances? Maybe you read through a daily devotional and then, upon closing and shelving it, you grab your remote control and turn on a show which actively undermines and belittles a life of piety and devotion? Such things either minimize or destroy any chance of being “wise in what is good” because they shirk the accompanying instruction to be “innocent of evil.”
What I often see in the church is either a distinct lack of interest in holiness or a distasteful irony that is akin to someone Instagramming their devotional time – steaming coffee mug and pens and highlighters perched ready on a moleskin notebook nearby. The Bible is conspicuously open to Matthew 6 and verse 33 is noticeably highlighted, “But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.” However, up above that verse, barely visible because it wasn’t considered by the flippant “Christian” patting themselves on the back with their social media post, is the warning from Christ in verses 1-6, “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them; otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”
If Christ is to be transformative in our lives, He must rule over all parts of our lives. It’s not enough to plop down into a pew every Sunday or to forward/re-tweet/like every reference to Jesus. It’s not enough to say that you want a relationship with God, or to say that you want to be filled with His Spirit. And while no action which we can ever accomplish will save us, no faith is complete without dedication to holiness and an insatiability for more of the God who saves.
Let us become dedicated to the One Who has called us out of darkness and into His marvelous light (1 Pet 2:9). Praise be to the God who saves!