Theological Cruelty

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It is “cruel,” said J. I. Packer. The teaching that says the Christian life is easy, that it can be lived without stress, that if one would only trust God for sanctification as one has trusted Him for justification, then all would be well, is just that: cruel. It gives rise to unreasonable and unachievable expectations among the people of God. This theology has been known by several names: the higher life, the victorious life, the abundant life, and so on. Its common theme is that while we can’t live the Christian life, Christ can live it through us. Our problem, it says, is that we are trying to live the Christian life ourselves. We need to stop. We need to quit our futile efforts. Instead, we need to yield ourselves to the love of Christ. Let Him live through us. Get out of the way. Quit striving. In the words of its old motto: “Let go and let God.” Do so, it says, and peace will flood your soul. Victory over sin will be ensured. Why? Because Christ Himself will be fighting our battles. So just step aside.

Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? Is there a problem? Yes, indeed. We need go no further than the metaphors employed by the apostle Paul in 2 Timothy 2:1–13. He likens the Christian life to the labors of the soldier, the athlete, the farmer, and in verse 15, the workman (NASB). Among the many things that might be said about each of these vocations, we note that each requires vigorous exertions. The soldier fights, the athlete competes, the “hard-working farmer,” labors long, and the workman builds. Success in these endeavours requires aggressive, focused, energetic involvement. Each may, and should, pray to God for help, for wisdom, and for strength. God’s strength is necessary for these activities. But the soldier finally must pick up his sword and fight; the athlete must step into the arena and compete; the farmer must work the soil, plant, water, weed, and harvest; and the workman must lay each brick. Dependence upon God never means passivity; reliance upon God never means inactivity. Fail to grasp the human contribution to Christian service and personal sanctification and one is doomed to experience continual frustration and defeat.

Imagine you are invited on a two-night, forty-hour, 160-mile bike ride from Paseo Robles to San Ynez, California. You’re told by the organizers that it’s “downhill all the way.” “My grandmother could do it,” one of them laughs. You know what a downhill bike ride is like. Sounds fun!

Off you go. Fifteen minutes into it and you’re winded. Thirty minutes and your thighs are burning with fatigue. You check your watch. You’ve got three more hours tonight, all day tomorrow, and another half-day after that. Despair sweeps over you. You begin to question yourself. What’s wrong with me? Maybe I’m sick. Maybe I’m in terrible shape. Or maybe my bike is defective. Self-doubt floods your soul. Something is very, very wrong, you conclude.

At your first rest stop you confide in your best friend: “I think something is wrong with me.” Your friend shakes his head. “This is one of the toughest rides in all of the continental United States. Neophytes are always given the grandmother talk. You wouldn’t attempt it otherwise. This is an exhausting, painful, rigorous course. Relax. We’re all winded. We’re all aching. We’re all tired. You’re supposed to be by the time you get to the rest stop. That’s why it’s there.”

What psychological impact will the truth have upon our rider? His out-look will dramatically change. As he becomes winded, aching, and exhausted, he will know that this is normal, not abnormal. He won’t be flooded with despair. He won’t be looking for explanations for his exhaustion, such as defective conditioning or equipment. No, he now understands that he is on a difficult course, experiencing what all who tackle it experience, and may, with confidence, attack it with all his might.

The Christian life is difficult. It helps to know that up front. We can expect not to arrive in heaven on “flowery beds of ease,” as Isaac Watts once wrote. Scripture abounds with military (Eph. 6:10–20; Rom. 13:12; 2 Cor. 10:3–4; 1 Tim. 6:12; James 4:1; 1 Peter 2:11), athletic (1 Cor. 9:24–27; Gal. 2:2; Phil. 3:14; 2 Tim. 4:7), agricultural (Matt 13:1–43), and laboring (see slave, bond-slave, servant) metaphors. Teach a formula of ease and it will give rise to expectations that are utterly divorced from reality. Sooner or later unmet expectations will greet the reality of struggle, spiritual warfare, and hard discipline. Disillusionment with a faith that “doesn’t work” may be considerable if well meaning fantasy is not quickly replaced with biblical realism.

“Who does the fighting?” Lloyd-Jones asked in a sermon by that title, preached in his famous Ephesians series. His answer: We do. Yes, we are strong “in the Lord” and we fight “in the strength of His might” (Eph. 6:10). But we do the fighting. Victory is assured, but only as we enter the fray with the combative energy of the solider, the competitive spirit of the athlete, and the hard-working ethos of the farmer and the workman.

First published in Tabletalk Magazine, an outreach of Ligonier. For permissions, view our Copyright Policy.