We and Our Counselees Are Responsible to Exert Effort Towards Change.
We’ve been talking about the biblical doctrine of sanctification or how people change. The change we seek is not merely an external change which could be motivated selfishly, but we seek a change of heart to the glory of God and we begin by saying that biblically, the key to change is the gospel. It’s understanding who we are in Christ. Understanding what it means to abide in Christ. Understanding applying the gospel to every situation and to see that Christ himself is more desirable than all else. And so so much of our counseling needs to be about the gospel, and not to skip it over too quickly, not just assume, well, they’re a Christian. Now we need to go to the law. Still the gospel is important, but along with that, we and our counselees are responsible, biblically, to exert effort towards change.
Some wrongfully stop with the indicative, declaring what God has done for us in Christ, while neglecting the imperatives of what God calls us to do.
There are some people who would have stopped this talk after the first half and just said, “Great, just look to Christ, believe in him, and don’t do anything else.” And that is not a biblical perspective either. And there’s some who seem to break out in hives if someone uses the imperative and uses a command even though the Bible is full of these commands as well, including commands to believers. And they’re so fearful of what they call molism that they, I think, shy away from the biblical imperatives. They will even say, both in preaching and in counseling, just tell people what Christ has done for them, not what they should do for Christ. Well, it’s not either or, it’s both and. Tell them what Christ has done for them. Don’t neglect that. Even if they’re already Christians, keep telling them. But then because of what Christ has done for them, they need to respond. An example of I think the wrong kind of counseling. This is an actual case that happened to me. A couple came in and the husband was enslaved to pornography of a very perverse type. He was neglecting his wife sexually and they went to their pastor and the pastor who had this mentality said, “All I can tell you is look to Christ.” And the wife said, “Well, do we need to like, “cut off the Internet, or put a filter on, “does my husband need some accountability?” “Just look to Christ.” Now, I think we should tell the guy to look to Christ but I think the Bible says a lot more than that as well, like flee youthful lust, if your eye causes you to sin, pluck it out. In the same way… I heard one time, again, someone of this mentality preaching through the Book of Ephesians. And as he came to the section, very practical section in four and five, he took a really big chunk. Immorality, impurity or greed should not be named among you, no filthiness or silly talk, let no one deceive you, don’t be a partaker of darkness, don’t participate unfruitful deeds of darkness. And he’s going through all of these commands that Paul is making, and he said, “All you need to know is that Christ has fulfilled this for you.” Now I would agree with the guy that it’s important for us to know when we proclaim the law that Christ has fulfilled the law for us or we’d be in despair because we fall short. But I don’t think Paul would have agreed that’s all we need to say about that passage.
What is the use of biblical imperatives (God’s law)?
I think Paul really meant that the should work at controlling their tongues and speech and being careful how they actually live and walk. John Murray writes, “The pilgrimage to perfection, the eternal state, is not one of quiescence and inactivity. It’s not let go and let God. The journey proceeds apace with the most intense exercise on our part. Our working is not suspended because God works and God’s working is not suspended because we work. They’re complimentary. Our working is grounded in God’s working. Our working receives its urge, strength, incentive, and cause from God’s working in us.” Now, I’ve referenced first Thessalonians 5:14 before about how we need to understand people and how we treat them. Admonish the unruly, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak. Different types of folk will require different emphases in our counseling. Something that I’ve observed. I talked earlier about women who have been tempted to perfectionism and maybe comparing themselves with others or comparing themselves with their image of the perfect wife and mom. And there are many believers who, having a wrong idea of sanctification, not understanding how the gospel and justification relates to sanctification, after living for years under law, and really a kind of moralism where they had in their mind that God is only pleased with me according to how well I’m doing at making my own clothes and baking my own bread and keeping my husband happy and my kids being polite. And when these women come to understand that God is satisfied with you even if you didn’t break your own bread, even if you aren’t the perfect mom and the perfect wife. And that God is satisfied with you because of Christ and he could never be more satisfied with you than he is in Christ. Because Christ is the satisfaction and it’s his righteousness, not your righteousness, that makes God pleased with you. God can’t be more pleased. Some women, and it can be men too, but I’ve found that… It’s like, this is wonderful, and they’re so happy and they’re so thankful. But then in kind of reaction against their own self-imposed legalism of the past, they don’t wanna hear the commands of scripture anymore. And that, although I sympathize with them, is wrong. The Bible uses the law of God. And you said how is the law of God used? It’s used in at least a few different ways.
God’s law shows us our need for Christ who alone meets God’s standard and provides the righteousness we lack. Gal 3:23; 2:16; Phil 3:9
One use of God’s law is to show us our need of Christ. Galatians 3:24, it says, “The law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ so that we may be justified by faith.” So the law shows us our inability to meet God’s standards. The law rightly understood not merely as not actually committing murder but not even being angry, not merely actually committing adultery but even having lust. When we see our inability, and this happens at conversion, it’s the law of God to love God with all of your heart, to love your neighbor as yourself. And you see your utter failure that says, “I need grace!” It drives you to the cross, it drives you to faith, and turns you to Christ. And that’s beautiful. But even that use of the law is not over after you become a Christian. When we see what the Bible says and we are rightly trying to obey what the Bible says, the law keeps reminding us that we don’t measure up. Now I’m a believer, now I’m trying to be a good husband, I’m trying to be a good father, I’m trying to be patient with the people with whom I work. I still fall short. Which brings me back to the gospel again. As I fail to measure up, not to be in despair, but to remember yet again, I need Christ today as much as I did 35 years ago when I became a Christian. And thanks be to God for the gospel. So the law shows us our need for Christ who alone meets God’s standard.
God’s law also shows us how He desires His redeemed people to live. 1 Thess 4:1; Eph 5:10; John 14:15
But the law also shows how this desire we have to please God can be lived out. Jesus said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” Paul writes to the Thessalonians in chapter four verse one, he says, “as you receive from us instruction as how you ought to walk and please God, just as you actually do walk, that you may excel still more.” And so we as believers have been given God’s law. If you’ve been genuinely converted, if you’ve gotten the gospel and you know the love of God and Christ, you want to please him. And the law, the rules, the commands of scripture tell you how you can please him. In their book Counsel from the Cross, Dennis Johnson and Elyse Fitzpatrick write, “Since we cannot be made any more perfect in God’s eyes than we already are, we are now free to make the law serve us. It will serve us by making us more thankful for Christ when we see how we fail to obey it, and it will serve us by showing us how to love God and our neighbor as we long to. Rather than viewing the law as our enemy, we’ll learn to say along with our savior, I delight to do your will, O my God, your law is within my heart.”
So the law for us, God’s commands, and the Bible is full of these commands, informs us how to live in a way to please him whom we love. And we see this pattern throughout the Bible. I talked about it earlier, that in Romans after Paul has explained the gospel and explained our union with Christ and told us to think of ourselves as dead to sin but alive to God, then does say, “Do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lust. Do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness, but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead and your members as instruments of righteousness to God.” And he’s writing to believers. These warnings are repeated throughout scripture, and the warnings are even though you do have this new identity, even though the gospel is real to you, you still can fall into these old sins. You can still listen to the voice of your old slave master. You can still live as if you are dead though you’re alive. You can live as if you were in your old way. And you need to strive in your life not to give into these appetites of your flesh and of your old nature and your old identity.
In John 15, Jesus talks abiding in him, which we went through a little while ago. He explains in the passage what we can do. He doesn’t just say in the abstract, “just abide in me,” he describes how we as we abide in him it’s when we have his word in ourselves. Abide in me and my word abides in you. Ask what you will. So we’re praying and he even goes further to say, in the same context we’ve been talking about abiding in him, “If you keep my commandments you abide in my love.” John writes in first John two, “The one who says he abides in him ought himself to walk in the same manner as he walked.” So there is action on our part of obedience involved in abiding in him. A particular example, then, he gives as the commandment. “This is my commandment,” back to John 15, and this says, “that you love one another as I have loved you.” So abiding and loving involves doing.
And these patterns we’ve talked about in Ephesians, Colossians, elsewhere in the New Testament is as they begin with the indicative of what God has done for us, Paul especially will continue with writing to believers, continue with the imperative and the commands that are grounded on that. Again, I’ll emphasize the gospel in it. He doesn’t assume because they’re believers he can skip over the gospel part. He tells them that gospel and he intersperses it with the commands. But he does get to the point of commanding them. In Philippians 2, well known passage, we have both our responsibility and God’s work side by side. Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling for it is God who is at work in you. Both to will and to work according to His good pleasure. So we have the duty to live out. An explanation of that would be, like, if a couple was married, the preacher might say now go live out your marriage. By saying “I do” you entered into this relationship, now for the next 50 or 60 years, work it out, live it out. Work out your salvation. That’s gonna involve effort and obedience. But then knowing it’s God working in you by his spirit in this gospel that you can do all things through Christ who strengthens you.
And the New Testament is filled with these specific exertations to fight sin. In Matthew 5, if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. In Ephesians 4, there are the put offs and put ons. I earlier said don’t rush to them, talk about our identity in Christ, but we’re told don’t be angry, don’t lie, don’t speak unwholesome words, don’t let bitterness and wrath and clamor be a part of you. And then put on righteousness. The one who steals shall steal no longer but work hard with his hands and have something to share with others. Instead of lying, speak the truth. Instead of being bitter, forgive and show grace as you’ve received grace. And even in the teaching of Jesus, and I think, again, is significant for this when you read the Sermon on the Mount… Actually, one part of the Sermon on the Mount that impresses me, in the third chapter in Matthew 7, where he’s going into the third chapter in our Bibles of the Sermon, when he says, “Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and it will be open to you, for everyone who asks receives and he who seeks finds. Him who knocks will be opened.” I think part of the insight in there is by the time you’ve listened to the Beatitudes and you’ve listened to what real religion is in terms of praying and fasting and giving and not worrying, the things you’re asking for aren’t mansions and yachts. It’s, Lord, help me to live this way. Help me to live this pure, holy life you’re describing. To live out these Beatitudes.
And as he comes to the conclusion of the Sermon on the Mount in verse 24 our Lord says, “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and acts on them may be compared to the wise man who builds his house on the rock and the rain fell and the floods came and the winds blew and slammed against that house and yet it did not fall for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like the foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, the floods came, the winds blew and slammed against that house and it fell and great was its fall.” Our Lord is saying that if you’ve just listened to the Sermon on the Mount, it’s not, like James says, don’t just be a hearer but be a doer of the word, he says by their fruits you shall know them, and it’s to know their nature. Those who have this new nature that the gospel gives are diligent to put the word into practice. And then we do this, and this goes back to motive. We don’t obey so that God will be pleased with us. God is already pleased with you because of Christ. We don’t do it so we can feel good about ourselves, that I did the good thing and I’m a good boy. I’m no good. I need God’s grace as much the best day I ever lived as I did the worst day I ever lived. But it’s out of love for him, out of gratitude to him.
I’m gonna give an illustration of this. A couple of years ago when we were coming up to Valentine’s Day, my dear wife came up to me and said, “I really don’t think you should get me a gift for Valentine’s Day. You got me a lot for Christmas and you don’t need to give me anything else, I’m perfectly content, I don’t think I need anything.” Now, different husbands would have to analyze that statement in different ways. For some men that might be this is a test, and you understand your wife and you realize that you still need to do something. But in my case, I knew she meant it. She wasn’t manipulating me. I knew that if I let that day pass and just said happy Valentine’s Day and gave her a kiss, she would love me just as much as if I went out and got her something. That I’m completely and fully accepted. I even knew that if I went out and got her a gift it would not make her love me more. She already loves me as much as she can. As I thought about this it was actually kind of stunning and that’s where a good marriage really helps you understand the gospel, that she loves me because she loves me, she loves me ’cause we’re husband and wife, and it’s really a reflection of God’s grace and that work of giving a gift isn’t gonna change it. But then as I thought about it I said, well, that’s exactly how it is in relation to God. It’s that I can’t make God love me any more by obeying him. He loves me as much as he can love me. He accepts me as much as I can possibly be accepted because of Christ. But then how does that affect me? I can tell you, with my wife the effect wasn’t oh good, now I don’t have to do anything anymore. Now I don’t have to try. Instead the effect was, I wanna get her something really nice now. A love like that makes me want to love in return. Even though I knew I wouldn’t get an upgrade in how I was treated or my status with her by giving the gift. In the same way, when we understand how we’re loved in Christ that is gonna motivate us all the more to show love.
So to summarize where we’ve been so far, we wanna change to the glory of God and that change begins with the gospel and the gospel isn’t needed just at the beginning of one’s Christian life. We need the gospel in our lives and our hearts everyday. It’s understanding who we are in Christ and meditating upon this gospel and all that God has done for us that is the key to change. But we don’t leave it at merely thinking about the gospel and looking to Christ, the indicative what God has done for us. The imperative is also important biblically. We love him and we want to obey his commands and so as we live our own lives and as we counsel others, building the foundation of the gospel we boldly preach the imperatives of the Bible, the put offs, the put ons, hoping that they will be, because of the new nature the believer has, lived out in that way.