“I don’t want to become an alcoholic.”
“Pregnancy would get in the way of finishing my degree.”
“I know that getting baptized will help my mom see how serious I am about getting my act straight.”
Ministering to young adults, I’ve heard my fair share of lines like these. They come from folks who have been raised in the church and then, after a season as prodigals, return not because they’ve tasted that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8), but because they’ve tasted that sin’s consequences are bitter. On the surface, it appears they hate their sin, but they’ve only come to hate the results of sin.
They want the fruit of a life steeped in Christ’s love — a life with no guilt, no conflict, healthy relationships, self-respect — but without roots that drink deeply of Christ himself. They want all the benefits of a life united with Christ without committing their whole hearts to enjoying him.
But enjoying the fruit of a life with Christ (freedom from sin and guilt) is not the same as seeing the beauty of Christ. Losing your taste for drunkenness because you hate the hangover is not the same as acquiring a taste for living water (John 4:10).
Benefits Besides Christ
Because God’s law is written on our hearts, it is evident even to the unbeliever that the desires of the flesh like drunkenness, anger, and sexual immorality are evil (Romans 2:15; Galatians 5:19–21). Attempts to quit the desires of the flesh without laying hold of Christ are actually attempts to please God by our own efforts.
“Seeing the ugliness of sin is not the same as seeing the beauty of Christ.”
Whether we’re trying to make ourselves happy — or our parents, bosses, or friends — simple behavior adjustment is still slavery; we are putting off one yoke to take up another, the yoke of “good performance” or clean living. Trying to uphold the weighty law without the help of a perfect Savior is a joyless and pitiable position.
I first heard the gospel as an atheist singing in a punk band. In response, I quit the band and joined a local church, where I was quickly encouraged to get involved with the music ministry. I put away my outward sins of drunkenness and anger, but in my heart, I smuggled my idols of pride and the praise and admiration of man into the church. I had found a way to worship falsely without detection — even while leading the church in worship.
Too often, attempting to please God by going through the church motions, we move the focus off of God and on to ourselves. Others may not even be aware. They assume that as long as we remain sober, celibate, and studious, we are spiritually healthy.
It is possible to sing harmonies of Jesus while our hearts are far from him. We can modify our behavior in such a way that we sneak our idols into the church without ever truly replacing them with the true God. Until we thrust our idols off the throne of our heart and replace them with Jesus, no genuine change has occurred.
Trading One Burden for Another
Paul tells the Galatians that the outward mark of circumcision doesn’t count for anything without “faith working through love” (Galatians 5:6); it is the same with church performance. We may perform church activities from pure or impure motives. We may seek to obey God’s law outwardly because it is good (Romans 7:16) and leads to success (Joshua 1:8) without inwardly recognizing the goodness of God and seeking him above all else. Where this is true, we are still slaves to a cruel master, and Christ is of no advantage (Galatians 5:2).
“We cannot assume that as long as we remain sober, celibate, and studious, we are spiritually healthy.”
We may be able to fool humans into thinking we are righteous due to our church activity, but we are not fooling God — and yet it is God himself that shows us a better way. “The letter [of the law] kills, but the Spirit gives life” (2 Corinthians 3:6). Only Jesus’s performance on our behalf and his death in our place will make a way for us.
It is possible that we could gain the whole church’s approval while forfeiting our soul (Mark 8:36). Those with a church-performance idol can be good at manufacturing self-control in the flesh and creating the appearance that it is the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23). But the fruit of love and joy in God is impossible to manufacture in the flesh.
God is not pleased with the good churchman with fabricated fruit of the Spirit. This is not holiness — it is idolatry by another name. We must seek God first above all things, and not simply the fruit of a God-oriented life.
What’s the Deepest Root of Your Joy?
In his Inferno, Dante fittingly portrayed the hypocrites in hell as wearing beautiful jeweled cloaks, lined inside with heavy lead. Your good actions may look attractive to those around you, but God sees the ugliness of a heart that chooses moralism over his own infinite beauty.
“It is possible that we could gain the whole church’s approval while forfeiting our soul.”
As John Piper has counseled, ask yourself: what is the deepest root of your joy? Is it what God gives to you, or what God is to you?
Are you pursuing church performance or good behavior as a means to self-improvement and making your own life great? This is a heavy, leaden cloak that you can wear all the way to judgment. But in his grace, God has provided another cloak. By his grace, we can put on the robes of Christ (Job 29:14; Romans 13:14). We can take up the easy yoke of true worship if we simply turn to the beauty of Jesus.