Who Is Controlling Whom?

by Rick Shrader

On our church web site I received an interesting note from a young man named Steve.  Steve is an active member of a church that is going through a typical change (which of course is not a “change” at all but rather a conforming) from traditional to contemporary type of worship.  Steve is emotionally caught between the older members of his church who are resisting the “change” and the new and younger leadership who is insisting on the change.  Steve has been reading a lot from a web site that encourages believers to flee from “control freaks” who hold power over another person for their own gain.  The web site article begins, “Many controlling groups, whether economic, religious or political, use the ‘family’ model as their blueprint—with dominating, protective parents’ and ‘children’ acting out the many types of offspring and sibling behavior.”  The author goes on to equate pastors and other leaders who resist the typical change as “restrictive and controlling” who suffer from being “vengeful, outspoken, preoccupied by sex or a ‘righteous’ abstainer from sex, prone to fits of anger, jealous, distrustful of others, changes his mind without notice, sees everything black or white.” The article tells readers not to listen to those who would control you with their position of power, especially church leaders.  Steve has applied this to the older leaders of his church who have been in control of the church for years.  He feels stifled by their resistance to a change in church policies.  The serious challenge for Steve, however, is to perceive who the real controller is.

There is no doubt that churches have been controlled by the Diotropheses of the world for two thousand years.  But that is not the only kind of control, nor is it the most subtle.  Eve was caught in the same dilemma as Steve.  Someone told her not to follow a heavy-handed Controller who was withholding better things from her.  She agreed with this counselor and, rather than submitting to the first Controller, submitted herself to the new controller.  But, of course, she found the proposed freedom had placed her under the most insidious control of all—the lust of her flesh, the lust of her eyes and the pride of life.  Satan has always used these allurements to control believers through his own spiritual children.

Paul feared this type of control for the Corinthian church.  Control by the flesh then was as subtle as what the serpent told Eve (2 Cor 11:3).  The Corinthian believers were willing to let these “false apostles” (11:13) strike them “on the face” (11:20) in order to gain control of them (not unlike this web site’s tirade on church leaders).  They had been told that Paul was the problem!  But Paul warned them, You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections . . . For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? . . . . Come out from among them and be separate (6:11-17).

Peter (and later Jude) wrote of  those who seek control through the promise of liberty, For when they they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error.  While they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption: for of whom a man is overcome, of the same is he brought in bondage (2 Peter 2:18-19).

All of Paul’s theology is brought under scrutiny by this situation.  Yes, he taught justification by grace alone without the works of the law.  But he also taught good works after salvation as an obligation of the believer in Christ.  L. Berkhof has noted this ongoing problem:  “In the historical unfolding of the doctrine of sanctification, the Church concerned itself primarily with three problems:  (a) the relation of the grace of God in sanctification to faith; (b) the relation of sanctification to justification; and (c) the degree of sanctification in this present life.”1 The balance of these doctrines was crucial because the imbalance causes theological problems that remain with us today.

Legalism:  placing our justification in our sanctification

Paul spent much of his time fighting the Judaizers who taught that one must be justified by keeping the law.  After his first missionary journey in Galatia where he was stoned by them, he was called to attend the Jerusalem council because, certain men which came down from Judea taught the brethren, and said, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved (Acts 15:1).  Immediately after that Paul wrote the book of Galatians in which he said, Knowing that a man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ (2:16) and encouraged the believers to Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage (5:1).

God cannot accept our help in salvation.  If a rich man were tried for murder and the judge sentenced him to 100 years in prison, what would it do to the legal system if the rich man made a deal with the judge to reduce his sentence by ten years for $100,000?  What if the judge accepted and the rich man then asked if he would reduce the sentence 50 years for another $1,000,000?  Soon, rather than justice being meted out, punishment is rendered according to man’s station in life.  Paul wrote, Therefore it is of faith, that it might be by grace; to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed (Rom 4:16).

If I preached that a man can do something to help gain his salvation, I would be a legalist.  If I preached that a man must do something to help keep himself saved, I would also be a legalist.  If in any way I preached that a man is justified according to how well he practiced sanctification, I would and should come under the same condemnation as the Galatian Judaizers, let him be accursed (Gal 1:8).

License:  placing our sanctification in our justification

Though there is a positional sanctification of being accepted in the Beloved (Eph 1:6) and there is a final sanctification where we will be eternally confirmed in holiness, and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified (Rom 8:30), most of the doctrine of sanctification concerns the growth of the believer from a babe in Christ to full maturity, That we henceforth be no more children tossed to and fro . . . . But . . . . may grow up into him in all things (Eph 4:14-15).

Paul always had to warn immature Christians who see license to sin in the grace of God as if all of their human effort in sanctification were already taken care of in the divine act of justification.  Brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh (Gal 5:13); But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to them that are weak (1 Cor 8:9); and Peter also warned, not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness (1 Pet 2:16).  It seems a characteristic of human nature, when freed from punishment, to either fall into selfish indulgence (they profess that they know God but in works they deny him, Titus 1:16) or grow into grateful obedience (That they which have believed in God might be careful to maintain good works, Titus 3:8).  Good works for salvation would be legalism, but a lack of good works after salvation would be a license to sin that grace may abound (Rom 6:1).

Love:  Seeking a sanctification that matches our justification

When Paul finished admonishing the Galatians to not use their liberty as an occasion to the flesh, he added, but by love serve one another (Gal 5:13).  Love is seen in the servant who, when set free, became a bond-slave to the one who set him free!  Paul’s most poignant statement is to the Philippians, That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; if by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead (Phil 3:10-11).  Paul’s goal in life (this one thing I do, vs 13) was to so be changed into the image of Christ before he died that his conversation would be in heaven from whence also we look for the Saviour (vs 20).

Paul also speaks of the doctrine of mortification.  If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live (Rom 8:13); Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth (Col 3:5).  Older writers used to emphasize this more, in a day when it did not sound so repulsive to the average Christian.  Charnock (1628-1680) wrote, “We may gather from hence, the difficulty of conversion, and mortification to follow thereupon. . . . The love of sin hath been predominant in our nature, has quashed a love to God, if not extinguished it.  Hence also is the difficulty of mortification.  This is a work tending to the honor of God, the abasing of that inordinately aspiring humor in ourselves.”2

And So . . . .

The believer must not be controlled by the legalism of those who claim we can gain or lose our salvation by good or bad works.  Neither must the believer be controlled by the license of those who claim that a denial of the flesh is legalism.  If we love the Savior we will want to be conformed into His image as much as possible in this life.  Francis Schaeffer wrote,

This is the basic consideration of the Christian life.  First, Christ died in history.  Second, Christ rose in history.  Third, we died with Christ in history, when we accepted him as our Savior.  Fourth, we will be raised in history, when he comes again.  Fifth, we are to live by faith now as though we were now dead, already have died.  And sixth, we are to live now by faith as though we have now already been raised from the dead.3

If one would call such living “control,” I say amen!  Everyone is controlled by something.  It is far better to be controlled by the Holy Spirit; controlled by the Word of God; controlled by a clear conscience; controlled by the history and testimony of saints throughout the ages!

1. L. Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids:  Eerdman’s, 1977) 529.
2. Stephen Charnock, The Existence and Attributes of God, Vol I (Grand Rapids:  Baker Book, 1980) 164.
3. Francis Schaeffer, True Spirituality (Wheaton: Tyndale House, 1971) 41.