What Goes Up Must Have Come Down

January 15, 2012

by Carlton Wynne

Recent online debates over the proper pastoral use of biblical commands in the lives of believers have left me a bit bewildered. Apparently, some would see these commands merely as descriptions of the Christian’s deficiencies, the spiritual equivalent of a photographic negative, whose sole purpose is to direct us to the living portrait of Christ. Consequently, the “gospel” is the announcement that Jesus has performed all that we have failed to do and that, by faith in Him, we can receive His righteousness and find forgiveness in His blood. Read the commands and flee to Christ, it is said, read and flee. Just ease back into your justification and chill out, for this is the sum total of the Christian life.

Right or wrong, my guess is that this group is fairly small. Even people who are still gagging on the residual fumes of their former legalism, if they are truly converted, will admit that the Bible’s instructions about loving one’s spouse should eventually impact the home and not just crush the heart.

But here is where things get a bit tricky. If I take out the trash on a frigid night for my wife, am I to do so merely in response to what Christ has done for me? That is, is that (sin-infected) good work merely an expression of gratitude for my newfound status before God, an expression of gratitude that lies outside of the domain of the “gospel”? In short, is the “gospel” merely what Christ has done for me, while what is done in me or by me is my own doing–a doing that is somehow generated by Jesus’ work but does not properly belong to it?

Rather than tease out what I see as a back-handed moralism lurking in this line of thinking, perhaps a better approach is to reorient ourselves to a biblical description of good works. G. C. Berkhouwer put it well when he said that “The path of good works runs not from man to God . . . but from God to man.” His point, in part, is that good works (and the Spirit-given power to do them), are part and parcel of our being created in Christ Jesus (Eph 2:10). They are not some man-made appendix to Jesus’ work, but the “fruits and evidences of a true and lively faith” (WCF 16.2) that continually receives the resurrection power of Christ from on high.

The Lord Jesus, whose death and resurrection is the gospel (!), has not only accomplished the obedience that has secured our justification received by faith alone, but daily descends by His Spirit to work within us that which is pleasing in His sight (Heb 13:21; cf. Phil 2:12-13). Like “our” daily bread for which we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “our” works are not ours, but God’s, worked out in our lives in the quiet strength of the Spirit. This means that we do them in gratitude, yes, but we also do them in love, in joy, in peace, in patience, in kindness, and in the full range of the Spirit’s blessing.

To be sure, the Bible’s commands are a portrait of the righteousness of Christ counting for me. But they are also the molds to which divinely accepted Christians increasingly conform as the Lord Jesus ever renews their resurrected hearts. It may seem like a subtle change in how we think pastorally about scriptural commands, but I believe making it will mean the difference between our people’s bewilderment and their faithfulness.

Originally published on Reformation 21.

Carlton Wynne

Dr. Wynne (PhD, Westminster) is assistant professor of systematic theology and apologetics at WTS.

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