If the Grace and Guilt issue is to do with “What is the Gospel?” then the second is “Who is the gospel for?” We often tend to think in terms of non-Christians needing to know that they can be forgiven. Non-Christians come to Christ because of the guilt of sin. Some feel it others don’t but objectively they are guilty. However, what then happens is that we begin to think about how to go on as Christians, how do we experience sanctification, how do we discover God’s purpose for our lives? How do we face difficulties? What do we do when things go wrong? These questions are seen as separate from the Gospel. So why talk about guilt because most Christians don’t really have a problem with it do they?
The result is that what we tend to offer to Christians for going on is something instead of the Gospel and usually it is either one or a mix of the following three things.
- Legalism. We offer lists of things that they must do. Six steps to being a better husband, seven steps to being a good Christian in the workplace. We measure faith and maturity by how busy people are in church life. In conservative evangelical circles it is probably measured by how much doctrine we know too. We can end up with a legalistic attitude to prayer life and Bible study. We kind of put out an unstated rule that Christians serve to pay back God. John Piper in his book “Future Grace” highlights this as a problem with thinking in terms of gratitude.
- License. We tell people that God loves them and forgives then and so they can go on in life as they please. We rarely of course offer genuine full on antinomianism but we run shy of corporate accountability, church discipline etc and we let people follow their dreams and do what feels right to them. Licence is seen not just in sinful lifestyles but in apathy towards Gospel work. License reacts to the legalism of the old fashioned “quiet time” by saying “I won’t worry reading my Bible or praying regularly.”
- Magic. I’ve never found the third “l”. But I think there’s a tendency towards superstition. This is the idea that somehow through something that happens I will be lifted onto a higher plain of Christian living. This was seen in the Keswick holiness movement and in some aspects of charismatic thinking. People craved a second blessing that would give them power or holiness. Often these days, the magic is offered through the medium of the worship service and the mediator of the worship leader. In conservative evangelical circles we can think we’ve escaped this temptation. However, I think that there’s an undertone that if you are part of the right church and sit under the right preachers then some form of magic dust will rub off on you. When the “right sorts of preachers” fall into error or sin then it is earthshattering.
Now as well as being an alternative to what the Gospel says about sin, guilt, grace and forgiveness, these three approaches also relate directly to guilt themselves.
First of all, the least obvious one, licence can become a way of running away from guilt and yet it over the long term can lead to someone storing up guilt that one day leaks out. Also, the person who has lived under licence will use guilt as a defence. “How dare you challenge me?” “You’ve no right to say that.” “You made me feel bad.”
Secondly, we can see how quite obviously legalism relies on guilt to control and manipulate people. Faith becomes mechanistic. Do this and you will get this.
Thirdly, Magic is also mechanistic. Something happens that causes good things. So when the magic does not work we ask why. The result is that we either blame ourselves (I wasn’t spiritual enough, lacked faith etc) or we blame others “You’ve let me down, your church isn’t spiritual enough, you aren’t feeding me.”
So, these things not only fail but they are also deadly. Yet it is so easy for churches to fall into the trap of running on those principles. They become guilt driven churches. We see this overtly in cults and sects, we spot it in the prosperity gospel and when it comes to salvation then we see why the Reformation was needed to counter the Catholic church’s tendency to rely on these three things. But ordinary, local, evangelical churches can fall into this trap too.
So what’s the answer? Well this is why it is so important to keep going back to what the Gospel is and seeing it again in all its beauty. The good news is that we have a great and good God. This God is glorious and holy, loving and righteous/ He is sovereign. God made us to know him but we have sinned and rejected him. We stand guilty. The penalty of sin is death. Jesus took the penalty of sin on himself. Now because of this, we are forgiven. We are free in Christ, we are free to live for him, to love him, to obey him. And caught up in this central truth are all the other wonderful things that only really make sense and are possible because he has born the penalty. Jesus has won the victory over evil, Jesus has demonstrated God’s love. Jesus does offer an example to his followers about how to live and it is possible for them to follow that example because he has taken their sin and given them his righteousness.
When we remember what the Gospel is and how wonderful it is, we also start to realise who the Gospel is for. The Gospel as people like Tim Keller and Jerry Bridges have pointed out is for all believers, it is for the whole of life. So, our preachers need to preach Christ. We don’t just preach the Gospel to tell unbelievers how to be saved. We preach it so believers know how to live.