“No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.” (Romans 8:37)
“He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-15)
When I had been a Christian for less than two years, I attended a fundamentalist church in my hometown for a while. One of the features of the public meetings was “testimony time.”
There was one man who, like clockwork, would pipe up, “Well, I’m just so glad I’m saved blah blah BLAH blah BLAH blah blah. If you think I’m being disrespectful, I’m not. After the introductory words of faint praise, there wasn’t enough substance in what he said after that to spread on a Ritz cracker.
And he did this every meeting. With almost the same words. Oh, sometimes he said, “Well, I’m just so thankful I’m saved blah blah BLAH. I beg your pardon. Wouldn’t want to get in a rut or anything.
If you want a picture of this man’s spiritual life you’ll have to imagine an RV parked on the wilderness side of the Red Sea but with a postcard view of the place of his salvation (i.e., the Egyptian army destroyed and his deliverance secured). The canopy is unfurled, and a couple of steaks are sizzling on the gas grill while the wife is in the kitchenette mixing up potato salad.
And there with his apron and Nationals hat askew on his head, stands Brother I.M. Doingfinethankyou tending the grill. I could say he’s living in tall cotton, but that only grows on the Egyptian side of the Red Sea, in the Nile delta. (What? You don’t pay attention during the My Pillow commercials?)
The problem is that while he’s camped out with the RV parked just so to admire his past (i.e., looking backward to his salvation), we’re exhorted to “run with endurance the race that is set before us” (Heb 12:1 NASB).
That would be looking toward the wilderness and, beyond that, to the Promised Land. But in 10 or 15 years Brother Doingfinethankyou will be another Cousin Eddie of the faith (“Is that true, Clark?”).
With distinctly more sobriety, I need to remind this brother that Jesus Christ purchased our inheritance in him, the new life in Christ, with his blood, not a lot rental in view of the Red Sea, as glorious a victory as that was.
If you’re not moving forward, I’ve got some bad news for you. The wilderness can be a harsh place, and if you don’t go through it, you’re going to die there. Plenty of people have. Paul warned the gifted and knowledgeable Corinthians it could happen to them (1 Cor 10:1-13 NASB).
But it’s not inevitable. By faith and obedience we can “take the country.” But even before I get started, what I just said is going to make some people uncomfortable, particularly those who are on the lookout for “works righteousness.”
I’ve written about this here and, frankly, I have never met a person in my 44 years as a Christian that has been attacked or consumed by this chimerical monster. But I respect the fact that some brethren are zealous to protect the unique, and uniquely glorious, “so great a salvation” (Heb 2:3) that we have been given.
The key is in that last phrase: we have been given. For this is what God has to say about our inheritance in Christ, in all its dimensions and life-transforming power: “You shall take possession of the land and live in it, for I have given the land to you to possess it” (Num 33:53).
You can call it a proof-text if you like; I call it a confirmation of the continuity between the Testaments, the thread that runs from Egypt through the wilderness to Canaan right on down to today. It is “not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph 2:9), now and forevermore (amen).
But the very next verse says, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them” (2:10). Prepared beforehand, just like God said, “I have given [i.e., “it is finished”] the land for you to possess.”
I have one proof-text for anyone who’s skittish about the introduction of “works righteousness” slipping in through the back door, or maybe the HVAC system if you’re really conspiratorial. It’s in the Great Commission, virtually the last word to his disciples (which should underline its importance in everyone’s mind):
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” (Mt 28:19-20). Frankly, a lot of teaching effectively omits those 4 italicized words as if they aren’t significant by themselves.
But if it is God’s intention is that we “walk” in “good works God prepared beforehand,” as opposed to thinking about them, admiring how others have done it and I wish I could be like them, or steeling ourselves against conviction by the Holy Spirit by resorting to excuses like “but that’s works righteousness!”, then we have to teach them to obey, not just teach them what Jesus commanded.
(And, incidentally, if you make that fatal assumption, that just teaching the commands is OK, “teaching them to obey” is part and parcel of “everything I have commanded you.” So you need to roll up the canopy, take your swimsuit off the line and get the RV rolling.)
When God began the process of transformation that would change me from being someone dominated by the fear of man to someone who conquered it, I had no idea how it would happen. But I knew it had to. It’s not enough to be forgiven. You have to learn how to live the right way and develop the capacity to do it. (This is what the laver is for, which I wrote about here.)
But go back and read all the promises in Isaiah 42:16, which includes the phrase in the title: “I will lead the blind by ways they have not known, along unfamiliar paths I will guide them; I will turn the darkness into light before them and make the rough places smooth. These are the things I will do; I will not forsake them.”
If me today had told me back then that a series of acts of obedience would result in my sanctification, meaning the ongoing process of transforming me into “a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God” (Rom 12:1), not the instant sanctification that brought immediate acceptance in the sight of God received through the cross, I would have balked because—you guessed it—it sounds like “works righteousness.”
But even if I didn’t, or couldn’t or even wouldn’t, understand this at the time, I could still recognize the voice of the Holy Spirit leading me here and then there, into “good works prepared beforehand.”
What did those “good works” accomplish, and how did they accomplish it? Well, it started with things as simple as making the rounds in the business district of my hometown with posters announcing our Christian coffeehouse.
Everyone knew me as the bright, enrolled-in-an-excellent college (the Johns Hopkins University), definitely going somewhere son and grandson of lawyers. And when they looked at me and looked at the poster they thought, Has he become one of “them”?
The answer was, Yes, although “one of them” was the kind of sneering response that used to make me backpedal and start talking about all the things that “one of them” did that I didn’t agree with, thought was pretty foolish or stupid and definitely would never, ever, in a million years, do myself.
And they were stuck on “one of them.” I could have read names from the Rochester, NY White Pages for all the attention they paid to my serial disclaimers, fine distinctions and defensive comments. It made no difference to them.
But their response made all the difference to me. It reminds me of Joseph’s confession, which must have astounded (terrified?) his brothers: “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives” (Gen 50:20).
No one was slapping me on the back and congratulating me on becoming “one of them.” The deer-in-the-headlight looks or the smirks so uniform they could have been choreographed by Jerome Robbins, were meant to discourage me or to make me think, Well, maybe there are giants in the land and this has all been a big mistake.
I will spare you the details behind the many similar encounters I had over the next 15 years, which also included running for village justice and school board positions, both crushingly unsuccessful because I was “one of them,” loads of ridicule, social distancing before it became mandatory for other reasons and generally rowing upstream against the current.
It made all the difference because, through these many and varied episodes, I conquered my fear of man. “City by city,” a little at a time. Of course, I could do that because of “I have given the land to you to possess it.” That was the finished work I relied on.
And the woman who I dated in college, the party pooper who spoiled my complacent view of myself by quoting this to me, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power and love and discipline” (2 Tim 1:7 NASB), had it right, the only one who did, in fact. Thank God for her obedience. She never knew how it reverberated through my life for nearly four decades.
I thought God had given me a spirit (i.e., attitude or disposition) of timidity, and I was stuck with it like my blue eyes and the little bump on my nose from my mother’s side of the family. I was wrong. I don’t think I’m the only one to make this mistake. Thank God he sovereignly led me–“the blind”–“by ways they have not known,” to “turn the darkness into light.”
Selah. When you think about what was accomplished at the cross, you realize what Caleb said was true. “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it” (Num 13:30). So let’s roll. (Oh, and what would you take for the RV?)