Gospel Obedience, Self-Denial & the Heartbeat of LegalismMonday, July 19, 2010
The heart is a simple, yet wonderful organ. Along with the brain, it controls everything in our bodies. As I was reading, studying and praying one day on the gospel and the promises and hope that sustain the life of the gospel in our hearts and lives, it struck me that the human heart seems to provide a wonderful parallel for the spiritual heart.
Human Cardiology 101
This may be an education for you as it was for me. If not, bear with me nonetheless. The heart has four chambers. They are divided into two chambers in the right side of the heart, and two in the left. In each chamber there is an atria and a ventricle.
The function of the atria is to receive blood pumped into the heart and hold it there until it is ready to be pushed into the ventricles which then pump the re-oxygenated blood back out into the body. The function of the right ventricle is to pump re-oxygenated blood out to the lungs. The left ventricle functions to pump re-oxygenated blood to all the other organs in the body.
To keep all the blood moving in the right direction, God built in four valves. That part is really important. Get the blood flowing in the wrong direction and you're pumping non-re-oxygenated blood back into the organs, and in seconds...you're dead.
Spiritual Cardiology 101: The Oxygen of the Heart is Promise
Now, in my experience, as well as the experiences of an untold number of other believers throughout history, suffering and trial and tribulation and sin all seem to sap us for strength. Big duh there, right? I guess you could say that these things drain the oxygen from our spiritual blood. Which means our blood needs to be re-oxygenated. So what's the oxygen?
For those who've read this blog for any length of time, you'll know what the oxygen is:
It's the life-flow of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In short...it's promise. The very "heartbeat" of saving faith is found in hearing the promises of God, believing they are for YOU, and living like you believe God will keep those promises. A good summary of saving faith is found in Romans 4:21, where we read of Abraham, "He was fully convinced that God is able to do whatever He promises."
Salvation begins when God reveals Himself to man. He reveals Himself to man in such a way that man's heart is opened up to see the true revelation of this God. The "heartbeat" of this revelation of God is that He is a promise-making and a promise-keeping God.
And there's something about this mysterious revelation of His promise that actually creates, sparks, ignites and then fans into flame a decision to act based on that promise. That's called obedience, and it's the natural outflow of a heart that has been fully convinced that God is able to keep His promises. When you believe God will keep His promise, you make decisions differently than you did when you didn't believe God's promises.
Spiritual Cardiology 201: You Do What You REALLY Believe Will Make You Happy
Obedience is not some strength or decision a Christian musters up against all odds. Self-denial is excruciating at times, but it isn't a path one chooses despite everything else inside of them. Obedience and self-denial are choices, to be sure. But they are fruits which naturally grow from the sap that is in the branches, which is in the trunk, which is in the roots, which is all in the DNA of the tree. A peach tree cannot produce grapes. And if it had a will at all, it would not even want to produce grapes....because it's not a grape vine, but a peach tree.
What happens so often in American Christianity at least, is that obedience and self-denial are preached and taught as things we must commit ourselves to...rededicate our lives toward...and somehow grunt out despite whatever other desires are in our hearts. I've taught it this way before...so many times...to my utter disgust. It's just part and parcel of fallen humanity, I think.
Two Examples of Bad Spiritual Cardiology
Here's an example of how it works. We receive a sum of money. We read our Bible which tells us to give to those in need or to the work of the ministry. We remember so-and-so who can't pay their electricity bill this month. We hear our church leaders reference it and teach the same thing. And we know we should.
But there's a stronger desire within us that wants more to spend the money on a new flat screen television and a video game console. We envision having people from the church family over to play games together and watch movies. "It'll be awesome!" we think to ourselves. "What a great tool for ministry!" We think more and more about the purchase and what we want to believe about the use of the purchase. Eventually we decide that buying it is the best thing to do.
At that precise moment, it is impossible to do anything other than purchase the flat screen and gaming console. Why? Because we've invested too much thought and rationale and especially emotion in it to do otherwise.
My issue is this: it is here at this moment in the life of a believer that obedience and self-denial are preached and taught...far too late in the process. The Bible teaches that the money should be spent on the brother or sister in need with the power bill. That's pretty plain (1 John 3:17; James 2:14-17).
However, obedience begins with believing in promise. So if you don't believe in the promise of God to provide for your needs (Phil. 4:19), to fill you with joy (Luke 15), to give you wealth in heaven (Luke 18:22), etc. then you will not be obedient to the commands to give to your needy friends. Obedience is the natural outflow of a heart oxygenated with God's promises.
Spiritual Cardiology 301: Proper Heart-Health Begins in the Mind
This brings me back to the illustration. The right and left atria receive oxygen-depleted blood into the heart and hold it there until it is ready to be pumped into the ventricles where is re-oxygenated. In a similar fashion, our spiritual atria receive promise-depleted thoughts which are held within. It is here that we find the need to, "take every thought captive and make it obedient to Christ" (2 Cor. 10:5). It is in this moment that we must find the sustaining need to, "Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil's schemes" (Eph. 6:10-17).
The battle is right here and right now, when we must "throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles" (Heb. 12:1-3). And what is the sin that entangles? What is the primary scheme of the devil? What is the thought that is at the most enmity with our souls? In a word...unbelief.
If I don't believe what God promised, I won't be able to do what He commands. Promise is the spiritual oxygen for the mind. If the spiritual ventricles of the heart aren't working properly, promise won't oxygenate our thoughts, and the spiritual blood that is then pumped from the ventricles will not adequately supply the need to our spiritual lungs or our other vital organs.
In short, we will grow spiritually weak, with little desire to do great things for God, and hardly any serious actions that get great things done in God's kingdom. We will be stuck in disobedience, bad habits, sinful behavior which we feel that we cannot break and fear we will always be stuck in. We will hear the things God has done for others and promises to do for us, but we will feel nothing in our hearts and believe that He cannot do that for us.
Legalism: The Heartworms of Spiritual Cardiology
This is called powerless Christianity. And it's rooted in legalism. Legalism is like the disease known as heartworms, diagnosed especially in dogs. Heartworms are parasites that enter the bloodstream through mosquito bites. If a dog is not on heartworm prevention medication, if and when a mosquito bites, the microscopic parasite will be introduced into the blood of the dog.
Within 70-90 days the parasites have "wormed" their way through to the animals heart where they take up residence and reproduce and multiply. What is interesting is that these parasites take up residence in the right ventricle of the heart and steal the nutrients and oxygen from the bloodstream (source).
This cycle will continue for several years until the heart is so filled with heartworms that it simply cannot function properly any longer. The heart becomes incapable of re-oxygenating blood any longer, and the organs begin to shut down in the dog. My very first dog, named Benji, died of heartworm disease, hacking and gagging to death. Unfortunately, we didn't know the dog had any heartworms until the symptoms appeared. Then it was too late.
Legalism is a parasite that enters the heart and just like heartworms, it remains in the spiritual ventricle stealing away the vital nutrients and oxygen of hope and promise.
In the one ventricle, legalism presents God's commands and standards to us while stealing away promise-oxygen. Legalism lies to us again and tells us that God's promises are conditional, based on our ability to keep His commands. And the moment promise becomes disconnected from command, that non-promise-oxygenated blood is immediately pumped into our lives and we in turn immediately attempt to obey God without finding any power to do so. Part of legalism is pointing to present-day obedience to God without the past promises of God or the future hope that He will fulfill them.
Spiritual Cardiology 401: How Legalism Destroys the Christian's Heart
An all too-often illustration experienced in the ministry is single adults who hear God's promise to fulfill their lives with a powerfully, godly spouse one day. But in the face of sexual temptation begin to doubt.
Legalism then tells them to obey God's commands regarding sexual purity. But because they have begun to doubt God's promises in the past, as well as His ability or faithfulness to make good on those promises in the future, they go ahead and give in to temptation and have sex before marriage. And one thing they all tell me is this: it only produces guilt. Why?
When the promises and faithfulness of God are not operating strongly in the ventricles of the spiritual heart, thoughts about obeying God only lead to disobedience. These two things - promise and hope - are the two ventricles of the spiritual heart which God originally designed and intended for human beings. The heartworms of legalism are a parasite that God did not intend for us to bear.
In the other ventricle legalism operates in this way. It lies to us telling us that God's promise to love us unconditionally is not for us. We've sinned too much. Our sin is too big. Or our sin is too often.
By telling us these lies, the ventricle then pumps out non-promise-oxygenated blood to our bodies in the form of self-resolution, recommitment, rededication, etc. We put our own strength into our own efforts to try to do better next time. We act as if we believe that our relationship with God is based on our success...rather than God's success in Christ on the cross.
To illustrate with something we're all familiar with, imagine the last time you sinned in that specific way that you seem to always struggle with. It seems to be lust for most men. You fall to lust and watch pornography, perhaps following it up with some form of self-pleasure.
Guilt overwhelms you when it's all over. Your guilt-ridden thoughts pump into your heart, but the ventricles of promise and hope aren't operating at full capacity. Therefore, you can't hear God speaking...just your sin.
Legalism lies to you and tells you your problem is WAY too big to conquer. All you can hope to do is just continue trying to fight it and win every now and then. You recommit yourself to read the Bible more, pray more, attend church and Bible studies more often, give more money, evangelize more, etc. And you try...but fail at these things more often than you'd like. So more guilt-ridden blood enters the heart and the cycle continues.
Healthy-Heart Maintenance is a Fight!
This is why we must fight with all our might to maintain the health of these two ventricles in our spiritual hearts. Promise and hope must be kept fresh and alive in order for our hearts to pump Spirit-oxygenated blood into our bodies so that we can be real living sacrifices for God (Rom. 12:1-2). We become transformed by renewing our minds.
We renew our minds with promise and hope, with the promises God has made and the character of His faithfulness to keep those promises. Here are three of the "standard" ways we do this. And as you'll see, they are standards which we have been taught to obey, yet almost always without the oxygen of promise and hope (which only leads to legalistic obedience, producing failure, leading to guilt).
First, we read our Bibles, but not in order to maintain closeness with God. We already have that through Jesus Christ!
We must read our Bibles with both eyes open. With one eye, we read every single passage with an eye to God's character. We want to see the faithfulness of God everywhere our eye lands in reading. This builds our faith in who God is. And with the other eye, we read every single passage with an eye to God's promises.
We want to see God making and keeping promises everywhere our eye lands in reading. This builds our faith in what God has done and will continue to do. That's why we read our Bibles.
Second, we pray, but not in order to maintain closeness with God. We already have that through Jesus Christ!
We pray asking the Spirit to open the eyes of our hearts so that we can know how much He loves us, like Ephesians 1:15-22 and 3:14-19 teach us to pray. Praying like this makes our primary interest that of knowing God and knowing that He is love and knowing that He loves us.
Also, we pray reminding the Father of the promises He has made so that we can see Him fulfill those promises. This is why and how Jesus taught us to pray without ceasing in Luke 11:1-11 and 18:1-8, with an attitude of persistent belief in His goodness and faithfulness. This again builds our faith in what God has done and will continue to do. It's why we pray.
Third, we attend fellowship together with other believers, but again not to have a closeness with God. We've already been given that in Jesus Christ!
We don't neglect gathering together with other believers because it is the channel God has ordained through which we receive faith and hope in what God has done for us in Christ (Heb. 10:14-25). Talking about these things, reminding each other of these things, and holding each other accountable to these things stimulates oxygen in our blood so that we believe in God afresh once more, which in turns enables us to obey with power and success once more.
Returning to Spiritual Cardiology Kindergarten
To summarize and conclude, any attempt you or I make at obeying God without promise and hope as the oxygenating force in our hearts will always lead to legalistic obedience. This is obedience that attempts to bear fruit for God without being nourished by the Spirit and power of God.
The Spirit and power of God operates on making and keeping promises. Nourishing your heart with the history of God's promises, and the hope of God continuing this practice, re-oxygenates the thoughts in your heart and mind so that obedience becomes a natural outflow, successfully producing fruit that remains.
Perhaps the time has come for some open heart surgery. Return to the ABC's.
Acknowledge your failures and leanings toward legalism.
Believe that God is a promise-making and promise-keeping God.
Claim these promises for yourself.
Decide to do something amazing for God.
Envision the success God has promised.
Follow the path His promises lead you on.
Guide yourself back to those promises every chance you get.
Hope in everything the Lord promised.
Insist on actions that enjoy God's promises.
You get the idea.
So return once more to your God and King, and listen to what He would preach and sing. Read all that He said He would do, and believe that He said all these things for you. Don't allow yourself anymore to obey, your promise-making and keeping God the wrong way. Instead focus only on the character of Him, Who in Christ has guaranteed that you cannot not win!