Dr. Timothy Keller, in his sermon “The Grace of Law” tells of a married couple that came to see him. The man had rude, crude and lewd behaviour and it was breaking their marriage. The wife threatened to leave him and he sobered up. He agreed to go for counselling. He agreed to stop the immoral life. He agreed to change. He made tonnes of agreements to change after Keller read him the riot act. He then became good for a few weeks but soon reverted to his old life. The wife threatened to leave again and he sobered up, agreeing to do counselling and meet Dr. Keller again. Again like before, he vowed to change and made emotional promises. After a few weeks, when he was confident that the wife was no longer leaving, he reverted to his old ways. This went on for a while and it became abundantly clear that the man demonstrated commitment to reform only when threatened. Keller had to confront the wife with a hard truth.
This is what she said, “I don’t want to lose him. But he is not the husband I want unless I threaten to leave him.”
Keller replied, “If you have to threaten to leave him in order for him to be the husband you want him to be, then he is not the husband you want him to be.”
Keller points out that the human heart is naturally rebellious to God (Jeremiah 17:9). However, the human heart conveniently becomes religious and seemingly repentant when it realises it will lose. It is like the children of Israel at Kadesh Barnea, the border to the Promised Land. They got assurance of protection from God himself but they still insisted on sending spies into the land. Ten spies came with a fearful report, while two (Joshua and Caleb) had a confident report based on the promises of God. When the Israelites heard the ten speak of the fierce enemies, they rebelled against God, they said that God hated them (Deuteronomy 1:27) and even wanted to stone Moses (Numbers 14:10). God therefore revoked His protection and timing to enter Canaan. The children of Israel then panicked. They suddenly became repentant and religious and started getting into the promised land to fight the enemies. We know how the tragic story went. It ended in tears.
Our hearts are like the children of Israel. We hate God’s commands and we hate his laws. We rebel, we challenge, we fight and we even say that God hates us. But when the difficulty of life and the results of our sin hit us, we suddenly remember how to pray and how to do good. On the surface, it seems that such a heart is sorry about it’s sin. However on the inside, it is only sorry for itself. Self-absorbed apologies to our loves ones may fool them, but they do not fool God. He sees our human hearts and he can still see the pride, lust, envy, greed, gluttony, wrath, sloth- all masked in a form of godliness that is devoid of power.
The Gospel of Jesus tells us that we don’t primarily need a change in behaviour; we primarily need a change of heart. A new heart will naturally result in new behaviour. Only the Gospel redeems a black heart 🖤 into a pure heart 🤍. Only the Gospel paints the picture of a man on a cross dying on behalf of His enemies. Moral reformation is motivated by self; it is therefore fickle and convenient. Gospel transformation is motivated by God’s mercy and grace towards you; it is therefore permanent like the nature of God himself (Hebrews 13:8). Christianity is not a recruitment into morality; it is an invitation to life; from death to regeneration- a spiritually transformed heart and not just a moral constricted one.
And once you get this new heart and become a follower of Jesus Christ, you want to be consistent to the new change. The way to do this is to not attach your identity to your sinful failures. Don’t attach your identity to your spiritual victories either. If you attach your identity to your sinful failures, you will sink into self pity when you fall. If you attach your identity to your spiritual victories, you will succumb to boasting. Self pity and boasting are basically the same thing at their core- pride. They may appear different on the outside but their DNA of pride is one- excessive focus on self. Self pity is pride that is frowning while boasting is pride that is grinning, but they are both puffed up with self. Self pity is pride without enthusiasm while boasting is pride with zeal.
What is the way out? True Gospel change will only be satisfied with a Gospel identity. Attach your identity to the Gospel that saved you. The Gospel says your sinful failures are no longer yours; they are absorbed by Christ’s death on the cross; you are saved by grace. The Gospel says your spiritual victories are not yours either; they are enabled by Christ’s Spirit in you; you are sustained by grace. The Gospel fills you up without puffing you up. A balloon is puffed up, and hence bursts at the prick of a needle. A sack of maize is filled up, and hence remains constant even if pricked constantly by the same needle. The Gospel fills you with the Spirit of God; any other identity puffs you up with self. The Christian with a Gospel identity can handle moral failure graciously and bounce back. He or she can also handle spiritual success soberly and enjoy it humbly.