In Luke 15 Jesus wants to tell a story to the Pharisees about a sinner who has turned his back on God. So we learn of a son who takes his inheritance and visits all the brothels and buffet lunches he could afford, and after a long journey finds his way home and repents. Yet Jesus continues to tell us of another brother. We find that the true prodigal is not the one who left but the one who stayed. What Jesus was saying was that the people who are alienated from the father’s heart are the pharisees. Now here some work is required. The pharisees were the sincere, pious, and dedicated leaders of the religious community. Why does Jesus go out of his way to infuriate the local religious leaders of his day? Isn’t he about evangelical unity? What does this mean that Jesus wants to tell us a story about sinners who are alienated from God and shows us that it is not our “evil deeds” that keep us from God, but it is our goodness. This moral bankruptcy continues throughout the whole Christian life. This is the first point that one must consider: It is not our wickedness but our goodness that keeps us from God.
Martin Luther once said that the default mode of the human heart is legalism. Said differently, “everyone is born a legalist”. The human heart is bent on earning righteousness, unless radically confronted with the free grace of Christ, it will continue on. What this means is that everyone, everywhere, will be erecting some standard in which they can justify themselves. You do not need to teach anyone this, they are already doing it, whether you are black and look down your nose at the whites who have oppressed you, or you are rich and look down your nose at the poor who are lazy, everyone will roll their eyes at someone. Every institution that does not recognize this does so to its peril. So lets look at CIU if what Martin Luther says is true. Even if all the standards were made obsolete, CIU would still be full of people trying to justify themselves. “Shouldn’t any form of rules be thrown out on these grounds” some might say, however, I think there is a very clear distinction between why CIU needs to hear this and not USC. The “spiritualizing” of the campus forces the rules to be seen as spiritual. To give students a law they can keep is to play to feed their vice. Like throwing gasoline on a burning fire. Biblically this is called a stumbling block. Paul addressed this issue with words that ring all too clear to our present day situation “
“If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world , do you submit to regulations– “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) – according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self made religion and asceticism and severity to the body; but they are of no value in stopping the indulgences of the flesh.” Colossians 2:20-23
Paul questions whether or not they “died with Christ” not because they neglected assumed religious practices but because they observed them. The issue here is not law vs. gospel, but gospel vs. “human precepts and teachings”. These human rules and precepts lack any substance and are hollow. John Calvin in his commentary on this passage says
“When persons have once taken upon them to tyrannize over men’s souls, there is no end of new laws being daily added to old ones, and new enactments starting up from time to time. How bright there is a mirror to this Popery! Hence Paul acts admirably well in admonishing us that human traditions are a labyrinth, in which consciences are more and more entangled; nay more, are snares, which from the beginning bind in such a way that in course of time they strangle in the end. (Commentaries on the Epistles to the Philipians, Colosians, and Thessolonians )”
The movie Saving Private Ryan ends with a dreadful depiction of cinematic works righteousness. In the movie, eight men are sent out in the middle of WWII to bring home Private James Ryan (Matt Damon). As Captain Miller (Tom Hanks) is dying, his last words to Private Ryan are “earn this”. I think of Jesus on the cross. He did not cry out to his friends or enemies demanding that they not waste his life, but He asked for forgiveness for the very people who were crucifying Him. Saving Private Ryan ends with a shot of James Ryan nearly 50 years later as he weeps before Miller’s grave. James through his tears tells Miller’s grave that everyday he has thought about what he said, he has tried to live a good life. His wife rushes to his side and he begs her to tell him that he’s a good man, that he’s lived a good life. The reality is that he hasn’t lived a good life. There is none who does good, no not even one.
Legalism is this, pointing to anything other than Christ for justification or reason to stand before God. Most people can spot the smoking gun of legalism in statements like “your not a Christian if you smoke cigarettes”. But what about questions like “How many times have you masturbated this week?” or “You shouldn’t preach on that if you are struggling with that sin” and “I don’t want to give that homeless guy any money since he’s going to use it on drugs”. Here’s the dividing line: does Christ merely “jump-start” our lives so that we can go to our accountability groups with a clear conscience or is everyday of the Christian life a matter of looking to Christ saying “wretched man that I am who will save me from this body of death?”. The message communicated by the standards is that Christ has jump started our lives and now we will do the rest.
“Why write this article?” you might ask. After reflecting on these issues day after day and discussing these questions, I am convinced that the Gospel is at stake. While at CIU I found that I never told myself that I was growing in Christ through my keeping of the standards, but I specifically remember questioning people’s salvation when I would see them deliberately break the rules. The paradigm shift occurred slowly over the last year as Christ began to “cross all the fair designs I schemed”. This is not an issue merely of being bitter about not being able to celebrate the goodness of creation (though I could be accused of that) or of a rebel’s heart that will not submit to rules, this is an issue of the glory of God. Before God we do not point to our fulfilled standards forms, our grades, our converted souls, but to Christ and nothing else. Like James Ryan, we want to know that we have lived a good life, but despite our best attempts we have not. May God be found true and all men liars.