Christianity is not a program of conduct it is the power of a new life, so wrote B. B. Warfield. He was correct. Yet, humans, the sinners that we are, enjoy thinking that God desires or even needs help. We foolishly and ignorantly think that because God gives us commands to be obeyed that we must have the ability to obey the commands. From this belief we begin to interpret the rest of God’s word weaving together a perspective regarding ourselves and the world that is a distortion of the Christian faith and life. It is rather difficult to live the Christian life when you have overlooked what is, in truth, the most obvious thing about it—it’s a life. And we humans are not the authors or originators of life; God is.
The Bible begins by telling us that God created. God is life. God brings life. God also brings death. It could not be otherwise. God wills there to be life, and therefore it is his will that withdraws the life of which he is Lord (Isaiah 45:6—among the many that could be listed). One of the chief ways to express what is wrong with so much of what passes for faithful Christian living and faithful Christian counsel with respects to any and everything is that it adopts the idea that we need to do what God alone can do, does do, has already done, is doing and will do. It is another way of saying we have fundamentally misunderstood who we are and what we are able to do and should do. When that takes place we do not lack for doing something. Oh, no. We will act. We will be frenetically busy with all sorts of things. They might even to some degree be good and right things to do, but done while thinking that we can control or determine the results. Sadly, this God-denying and dishonoring pragmatism abundant in American culture controls so much of what passes for Christianity in America.
A few years ago I sat at a table having lunch with some of my colleagues at a Christian school. A man who had worked tirelessly in Christian education his whole life as a teacher and headmaster, who was well-conditioned in the Reformed tradition and who even in his “retirement” was joyfully working away in it asked me a question: “How do we get a Christian worldview into our students?” Side-stepping the discussion about whether the term “worldview” is the best term to use for what Christian educators ought to try and “give” their students, I addressed the more fundamental issue. I had to state state the obvious that was overlooked: “We don’t.” The conversation was short; the foundation of his entire way of thinking had not been granted. At another time, I had a similar conversation with a grandparent of one of my students. She said, “I understand that you are making my grandson into a Calvinist.” My reply? I smiled: “Oh, no ma’am. I don’t have that kind of power.” The irony, as they say, was lost on her. What she and the former teacher and administrator failed to recognize is that God alone gives life. That truth has consequences.
God blesses whom he chooses to bless; curses whom he chooses to curse. God is the Sovereign Lord or King of all creation. He brings his kingdom. He brought it, is bringing it and will bring it. A whole host of things follow from this truth. To the degree that we do not live in the reality of this truth then to that degree we are confused and busy ourselves in ways that we do not need to. We become a bunch of “Martha’s” (Luke 10:38-42).
So much of what I hear and read from pastors and denominational leaders is the advice and alleged wisdom of a bunch of “Martha’s.” Trying to accomplish for God what God never asked for and what in fact distracts people away from receiving from God the one thing that God uses to give, sustain and perfect his life. But see, to do that means you have to submit to what God decides to bring and not bring and when he decides to bring it. Too many well-meaning Christians, and, perhaps above all, pastors and denominational leaders, want to have the fruits of the gospel when they want them. In the sophisticated theological world it is called having an “over-realized” eschatology. Or as my wife puts it: “They want to hew out the heaven in the here and now.” Too many of them speak and act as if God handed over his sovereignty to them so that they could decide where, when and how God’s kingdom would come. They have 7 ways to do X and 6 ways to do Y and 5 things to avoid when not wanting to do Z. Success is measured by money and numbers and the congratulations of all the right people. I saw the same thing in junior high (uh, “middle school” for those of you born after 1980). The whole non-Christian world runs on this. In fact, if you pay attention to what is in the Bible you can read about this same way of thinking and acting from Genesis 3 all the way to the end of Revelation.
Because God alone is life, he alone brings life. Salvation is eternal life. We don’t decide whether there will be a church or what it will “look like.” We don’t decide precisely what the Christian life must look like with any particular person or in any given marriage. God’s life for salvation reproduced in a sinner is itself characterized by a particular kind of uniqueness because that sinner has had his or her qualified uniqueness given to them by God—not you or me! Any egalitarians and complementarians out there? Life is way beyond our abilities to fully comprehend. No, that does not mean we cannot know anything true about it. It means we are not God—there will always be aspects of life we do not fully understand. Among other things it means we cannot control life. Life cannot be reduced to bullet statements or pithy formulas that are harnessed to try and manufacture life. Pithy formulas for manufacturing life are used by people who fundamentally do not know life, who do not know the gospel of the Lord Jesus, at least not very well, and who in their pithy formulas suck the life out of whatever activity they are involved. It’s because in their pithy practical program of conduct THEY are on display—their sin and death. Only God has power for life.