God doesn’t need our strength or even His own to trigger the deepest change in us.
I often see these kinds of promises emblazoned on book covers: “Have a new kid by Friday!” “Change your life in 7 days!” Some of the tips inside are helpful, but almost all of them are endlessly recycled from one title to the next.
Who could resist their guarantees of success? Whether Christians are aware of it or not, we eat up this type of do-it-yourself behaviorism. Maybe it’s the loud orange letters shouting at us from the kindle sales page. Or maybe we find it alluring to crack a code, or apply a three-step formula to cure the complex human condition.
For all its salutary pragmatism, though, this approach is largely sub-spiritual. At most, self-help law rarely generates anything more than external results. Yes, it can happen “by Friday,” or “in 7 days,” or even tomorrow. But don’t count on it being the new you.
The whole thing reminds me of a seared piece of steak, nice and cooked on the outside, but still raw within, untouched by the fire. The inside doesn’t match the outside. Maybe some of you prefer your steak that way, but God likes His believers done throughout.
And though we habitually recruit the formidable law of Moses to do the “cooking,” nothing works better at perfecting us than grace.
Surely, “We know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully” (1 Tim. 1:8). Paul himself, admitted to the fact that law has an enduring and necessary use among men:
“Understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practice homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine, in accordance with the gospel of the glory of the blessed God with which I have been entrusted” (vv. 9-11).
The best use of law is to restrain, to deter, to prevent corruption’s worsening spread. It also protects those who would otherwise be victimized by the appetites of others. Make no mistake, law is good if used that way.
Moses works well for a people who are as yet out of sync with the indwelling Spirit, and preferring to remain in their fallen sinful nature. It governs from without among those who gravitate to a native life animated by dark drives.
But as far as expecting the glorious internal work of transformation? Forget it (c.f. 2 Cor. 3:7-18).
In fact, when Paul credited his new life, he said,
“I thank him who has given me strength, Christ Jesus our Lord, because he judged me faithful, appointing me to his service, though formerly I was a blasphemer, persecutor, and insolent opponent. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost.” (vv. 12-15).
The law had been mighty to condemn Paul’s sinful life, constantly exposing his weaknesses as it does all sinners, but it had been powerless to radically change him. Nothing less than overflowing grace could save him, transform him, and turn him into a servant of His glory.
John Newton, who had been a notorious slave ship trafficker wrote,
Lord, Thou hast won, at length I yield,
My heart, by mighty grace compelled,
Surrenders all to Thee;
Against Thy terrors long I strove,
But who can stand against Thy love?
Love conquers even me.
In the fourth verse he said,
If Thou hadst bid Thy thunders roll,
And lightnings flash to blast my soul,
I still had stubborn been:
But mercy has my heart subdued,
A bleeding Savior I have viewed,
And now, I hate my sin.
The sum total of all the terrible power at Mount Sinai (c.f. Heb. 12:18-21) cannot do what a bleeding man on a cross can.
Truly, what eventually made us kneel was the “weakness” of God.
“For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God
is stronger than men”
(1 Cor. 1:25)