On the one hand, there are “emergent” and “progressive” evangelicals who increasingly are wary to appeal to Scripture as providing any sort of norm for behaviour. After all, Scripture has so often been misinterpreted and read selectively. (Perhaps incongruously, this is almost invariably followed up by some variation of the “all you need is love” refrain. Odd that that could never be misinterpreted and prejudicially understood.)
On the other hand, there are ostensibly conservative pastors who stress that the only thing that matters is “the gospel,” and in this case, the gospel is defined as the free acceptance which God gives to sinners, warts and all. In fact, one should be wary of moral effort and certainly of any notion of moral improvement.
It would take a fat book to answer either of these positions. These notes, obviously, are not that book. But here are a few biblical observations that (in my judgment) we need to consider in connection with these questions.
- The Bible claims to teach us how to live. The text that has often been the fulcrum of an evangelical view of Scripture says not only that all Scripture is “God-breathed” (“inspired”), but that it is “profitable for teaching, polemics, correction, and instruction in righteousness, so that the man of God may be fully qualified, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17). Claiming that Scripture can be and has been misinterpreted is taking the lazy way out. The Bible really is profitable—effective, advantageous—for correcting and instruction related to behaviour, and its aim is to equip us for every good work.
- The representative action of Christ is not a substitute for righteous behaviour in the Christian life. Jesus died, not so that we could sin without consequences, but so that having paid our penalty, He could unite us with Himself in His resurrection life, thus enabling right living. We do not continue in sin, so that grace abounds; rather, we were baptized into Jesus’ death so that we could die to sin and consequently walk in newness of life (Romans 6:1–4).
- The basis of Christian behaviour is shared life with Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. As Romans 6 shows clearly, we are united to Christ in both His death and resurrection, and that is to pattern our conduct. Indeed, we are crucified with Christ and yet live because we live within the faith and faithfulness of the Messiah who loved us to the degree of dying for us (Galatians 2:20).
- Genuine righteous behaviour is not merely an “automatic” by-product of grace, but requires intention. We are called to present our “members”—the aspects of our embodied beings—to righteousness (Romans 6:13, 19), to clothe ourselves with the attributes and characteristics of Christlikeness (Colossians 3:12–14). Christian living is not a matter of “letting go and letting God,” but rather of grabbing hold of God in Christ, and by that power taking decisive action.
- Far from negating effort in the realm of behaviour, our connection to Christ and the Spirit mandates a life of discipline. Paul repeatedly warns us to “put off” or even to “put to death” sinful deeds and patterns of life (Romans 8:13; Ephesians 4:22; Colossians 3:5, 8–9). He even says that like an athlete, he disciplines his body and masters it, so that after having preached to others, he himself will not become disqualified (1 Corinthians 9:24–27). It is because we are united to Jesus, whose pattern is self-denial, and the Spirit, who is the living power of holiness, that we are enabled to break free of the spiritual lethargy that is native to us, and to act decisively and with as much toil as necessary to become “spiritually athletic,” able to complete the long race before us (cf also Galatians 5:5–7; Hebrews 12:1–2).
- Holiness of character and behaviour is not optional for the Christian life. The one who sows to the flesh will reap corruption; and the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life (Galatians 6:9). This sowing to the Spirit means doing good, and reaping the harvest of that (Galatians 6:10). If you live according to the flesh, you will die, just as surely as if you put to death the deeds of the body by the life-giving power of the Spirit, you will live (Romans 8:13). Without holiness, no human being will see the Lord (Hebrews 12:14).
- Love as the Bible defines it is concrete and sacrificial, not merely tolerant. To hear many evangelicals tell it, identifying sin and warning against it is “unloving.” Aside from the irony (after all, by that standard, isn’t identification of “lack of love” also an identification of “sin,” and therefore “unloving”?), this is far removed from the love actually demonstrated and taught by both Jesus and the apostles. The Jesus who kept the Pharisees from stoning the adulterous woman also told her to “go and sin no more” (John 8:11). The Paul who said that what mattered was faith working through love (Galatians 5:6) was in the middle of a letter-long diatribe against false teachers whom he anathematized for sabotaging the gospel of Christ, and in short order he was about to warn that people practicing works of the flesh of every stripe would not enter the kingdom of God (Galatians 5:19–21). Biblical love is not a tolerance for every sort of behaviour; rather, it is rooted in love of the holy God, and expresses itself in costly self-giving to others. And that self-giving, as often as not, can mean confrontation. It is not love that pretends the mortally ill patient is perfectly healthy and thus needs no medical regimen; and similarly, it is not love that pretends the unrepentant sinner is going to be fine just as he is. It is not love to encourage the sinner to continue merrily along his personal pathway to hell.
While it is regrettable that some Christians seem to take perverse delight in telling others they are going to hell, there is nothing regrettable in the ability to see the pathway of hell and warn against it with tears in your eyes and love in your heart.
Love is the echo of Jesus, who did not come into the world to affirm it, but to save it, at the cost of His own life.
To sum up: the Bible expects that we use it as a sourcebook to guide our behavior, and sets forth good works as important and necessary. This holiness of life is not to be reduced to a vague tolerance masquerading as love, but is to be shaped by the example and life of our Saviour, whose uncompromising self-giving is the life of the world.