Our union with Christ means a separation from the domination of the sin nature because of its crucifixion. But it also means a resurrection to newness of living (Rom. 6:4). Throughout this section not only is death taught but also our resurrection. The truth includes not only the fact of separation from the old but also the all-important association with the new, the risen life of Christ. It is mentioned in every verse in Romans 6:4-10. Union with Christ, therefore, not only breaks the power of the old capacity, but it also associates us with Him who gives the power to live according to the new capacity.
It often seems simplistic to advocate the middle ground between two points of view but it is also true that we easily and often gravitate to one of two extremes. Sometimes the right (not easy) answer is the simple one especially in matters of Christian deportment. Francois Fenelon, in the 15th century wrote, “Dwelling too much upon self produces in weak minds useless scruples and superstition, and in stronger minds a presumptuous wisdom.”2 Our strongest foe in living the Christian life is the indulgence of our own selfishness. It is easier to call selfishness piety and go on than to seek a higher motive for our actions.
In my own life of being in church as well as in the ministry, I have watched the ongoing battle between legalism and license, between those who see the secret to Christian living in the striving to uphold a system and those who strive to be free of any restraint. I think because we realize that the truth must be somewhere in between, seldom do any of us claim either extreme position. But the fact is, we are often in one or both of these positions.
There are times when we strive and work for a pious life out of legalistic selfishness. It is actually easier to be given a list of actions the performing of which constitutes holiness. This was a Colossian problem, “Why are you subject to ordinances, after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the gody; not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh” (Col 2:20-23). This was also a Cretian problem. The law keepers were “vain talkers and deceivers” (Tit 1:10), who gave heed “To Jewish fables, and commandments of men” (vs 14). Sadly, “They profess that they know God; but in works (the system itself) they deny him” (vs 16).
I think the historical phenomenon of the Monastic system is a unique illustration of the weakness and failure to achieve holiness through human effort. G.K. Chesterton, a Catholic himself, defends the system by saying, “So far from being a revival of paganism, the Franciscan renascence was a sort of fresh start and first awakening after a forgetfulness of paganism.”3 But the fact is, such a fresh start was only achieved by the first generation who retreated to monastic life out of true pietism. The next generation came because they wanted the same recognition of pietism that their founders gained. And so, even though the system of self-denying rules remained the same, it quickly became only a means to a selfish end, a way to gain recognition for piety, which is not piety at all.
John Armstrong calls this sort of thing, “a new form of legalism. It is a modern moralism without Christ and the cross.”4 We can perform even the most biblical of functions selfishly and therefore gain nothing in holiness. We can pray to God while wondering how well we are doing. We can sing “Amazing Grace” to be heard of men. We can give our money to missions in order to get a blessing from God. It is all selfishness.
There are times when we insist on personal liberties out of licentious selfishness. What some call a freedom in grace is nothing more than the flip side to legalistic selfishness. In his great chapter on Christian works, James says we will be judged by the law of liberty, that is, held eternally accountable (Jas 2:12). Peter warns not to use liberty “for a cloke of maliciousness” (1 Pet 2:16), and not to follow those who “while they promise them liberty, they themselves are the servants of corruption” (2 Pet 2:19). If we have been crucified with Christ, are we not raised to a new holy life which is in antipathy to the world? Why, other than selfishness, would we want to be free to every indulgence?
There is also a unique illustration of this problem in Luther’s theology and that of his followers. Luther had found the riches of God’s grace and its unconditional forgiveness, so unlike the Augustinian order in which he had labored. As Bonhoeffer records, that grace for Luther was costly and would demand the price of his life. “Yet the outcome of the Reformation was the victory, not of Luther’s perception of grace in all its purity and costliness, but of the vigilant religious instinct of man for the place where grace is to be obtained at the cheapest price. All that was needed was a subtle and almost imperceptible change of emphasis, and the damage was done.”
Paul asked the “servants of righteousness,” “What fruit had ye then in those things whereof ye are now ashamed?” (Rom 6:21). Somehow, licentious grace has forgotten to be ashamed. We relish to be free to miss church. We dress down not up when there are no expectations. We indulge rather than abstain at almost every turn.
The middle ground between these two pitiful valleys of selfishness is the higher ground. In our lives we might call this middle ground between absolute law and unrestrained freedom, manners— that self-effacing action of doing right when no one makes us, just because it is right. Manners go against every selfish bone in our being. And so do religious manners! We must not practice holiness because the law demands it of us, nor ignore holiness because we are free to do so. Holiness is that self-effacing servanthood whereby we identify with Christ’s cross. There is no selfishness in it. There are no rewards nor applause in this life. John Bunyan said, “Were it not for the cross, where we have one professor we should have twenty; but this cross, that is it which spoileth all.”6 Yes, because if we could only pander to selfishness, whether by legalism or license, people would flock to us.
When once the great Puritan, John Owen heard Bunyan speak in Zoar Chapel, King Charles “expressed wonder that a man of his learning could bear to listen to the ‘prate’ of a tinker, [Owen] answered, that he would gladly give all his learning for this tinker’s power.”7 “For though he was crucified through weakness, yet he liveth by the power of God. For we also are weak in him, but we shall live with him by the power of God toward you” (2 Cor 13:4).
Notes: 1. Charles Ryrie, Balancing The Christian Life (Chicago: Moody Press, 1994) 57-58. 2. Francois Fenelon, “Simplicity and Greatness” Orations, Homer To McKinley, IV (NY: Collier, 1902) 1639. 3. G.K. Chesterton, St Francis of Assisi (New York: Image Books, 1990) 91. 4. John Armstrong, The Coming Evangelical Crisis (Chicago: Moody Press, 1996) 23. 5. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship (New York: Touchstone Books, 1995) 49. 6. John Bunyan, “The Heavenly Footmen” Orations, 1590. 7. Thomas Armitage, The History Of The Baptists,I (Minneapolis: Klock Publishing, 1976) 479.