Walking and Running
I see it time and again…my two-year-old daughter, who has been walking for over a year, decides to take off and ends up falling flat on the floor. It’s very cute, and she gets up and acts like it was nothing, but my breath catches every time it happens.
It catches because I know that this time, she could land awkwardly and break her arm or worse. She knows how to walk, and she knows how to run, but because she doesn’t take her time when she is walking, she hasn’t acquired the balance necessary to run without falling down.
I’m not alone in noticing that there’s a very large discrepancy between what most Christians profess to believe and the way those same Christians act. When I express this sentiment, I get variations of two responses: one is agreement and sadness at the state of the Church, and the other is, “Christians don’t stop sinning once they’re saved,” “Stop being so judgmental,” “You aren’t perfect either,” or something less diplomatic.
However, the fact remains: salvation in Christ is not simply about where we go when we die, it is about how we live once we are given God’s grace in the form of forgiveness from sin. That Way is exemplified in Jesus’ actions, but in this regard, there are two camps of Christians, and one of them can sometimes seem unconcerned with trying too hard to do what Jesus said or did.
And I get it. Many Protestants are raised to fear anything that resembles works-righteousness, and saying that those who are saved are people whose behavior has changed to resemble Christ leads to the conclusion that we have to actually work to get to Heaven. If we start exerting effort into being righteous, we will inevitably believe that what we do leads to our salvation, and the moment we do, we’ve fallen into the heretical “works-righteousness” that will lead us to Hell.
It’s all very neat and very effective at preventing people from thinking it’s necessary to obey Jesus in order to be saved. Of course, that heresy is the one that leads people to Hell, because it results in many Christians who remain unchanged in the heart because they never give up their love for sin, and it grows to overshadow and eventually extinguish their love for God in the hearts—and about this, most are happily unaware…after all, God has blessed them so much with material possessions and joyful relationships that they have everything they want. Just, God Himself isn’t what they want; His blessings, His gifts, and the blood of His son…that’s what they want.
We can trace the roots of this problem at another time (Dallas Willard does an exemplary job in The Spirit of the Disciplines). Instead, I’d like to propose a solution. I think that we Christians should learn to walk before we try to run, because until we acquire the balance necessary to run through sustained practice walking, we’re going to fall, just like my daughter, every time we run.
Running, in my analogy, is akin to preaching the good news of Jesus’ death and resurrection. We’re explicitly told to do this, of course, so Jesus Himself expects us to be able to run. However, He was fully aware that we would not be able to do so without gaining the sense of balance we only gain by sustained practice in walking. This is why He preached so many messages that emphasized obedience.
Obedience as a prerequisite to being saved sounds very much like works-righteousness to some, but this is because they misunderstand (and often, we do a poor job of explaining) the purpose of obedience. Obedience is sustained practice in walking—it is not the same as running. It is absolutely necessary to be able to run, don’t get me wrong, but they are two completely different processes.
In the same way, obedience is absolutely necessary to follow Jesus Christ and so be saved, but it has nothing to do with your salvation. Indeed, you can obey the command to love God and love your neighbor to the letter and be completely unchanged and not saved, just like you can practice walking until you can do it with your eyes closed, backward, to the tune of Billie Jean, and never progress to running.
See, obedience to Jesus builds the muscle of submission to God. It produces a behavioral change that becomes habit first, and then character second. That character, in turn, is called righteousness. Indeed, it’s Jesus’ righteousness, which we are commanded to put on (as in, obey).
But again, if the goal is to be able to run without falling down, then walking may be a prerequisite to this goal, but only to produce the balance necessary to be able to run without falling down. Once we have that balance, that character or righteousness, then we can run effectively.
There’s a very good reason we need to be wearing the righteousness of Christ before we can attract non-Christians to His love: non-Christians—actually, all human beings to some degree—are experts at spotting hypocrisy. So when a Christian claims that Jesus died to save you from your sin, and that you simply need to believe that His blood paid the price that you owed in order to be raised to eternal salvation rather than eternal salvation, it sounds too good to be true. What’s the old adage about things that sound too good to be true…?
Except God’s sacrifice of Jesus through grace, in order to pay the price for the sins of the world, and provide salvation to all mankind, is actually true! This salvation is eternal…but it begins when you place your faith in Jesus, not when you die and rise with Him. Paul claims that we died and rose with Him at the moment that we placed our faith in Jesus, and because of this, part of this salvation is being freed from slavery to our sins (also claimed by Paul).
Before we were saved, we literally couldn’t follow Jesus because following Jesus doesn’t just include our behavior, it includes our hearts, and we can’t change our hearts to want God—to want to be good. This is why Matthew shows Jesus emphasizing this again and again in the Sermon on the Mount…he wants to make it clear that the external righteousness of the Pharisees isn’t going to cut it. This external righteousness is still necessary, and we seem to have lost sight of that in the Church today.
Obedience produces this external righteousness, but the internal righteousness, the greater righteousness, the change of heart from rebellious to obedient, from self to God/other, from hate to love, that is something that God puts in us when we repent and humble ourselves enough to admit we can’t do it on our own, that we need His help to do something that we can’t, and that we believe He is good and will help us in response to our asking (have faith).
That is being saved by God’s grace through our faith in Jesus. We are born again! But just like the servants in Jesus’ parables, we then have a choice with what we will do with our new life: we can revel in the gifts we’ve received, in the assurance of salvation we’ve been given, and continue our life with our behavior unchanged, or we can seek to do His will, to have His righteousness, His character, become our own.
We often miss that in Jesus’ parables, the servants who are punished for being wicked, for wasting their master’s money, for disobeying, they stand for Christians. They’re servants, after all—they have already been employed in the service of their master.
But so many will read this and not believe me. Thankfully, I’m not alone in saying this. The gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John include Jesus saying this again and again and again. In his teachings, in his parables, even in his miracles (“Go and sin no more, or something worse may happen to you.” John 5:14).
There is another reason that obedience is necessary for salvation: when you obey, you spend time in Christian community (church) and being exposed to what Jesus says (scripture) and speaking to Him (prayer). None of those things save you, of course, but when you engage in these behaviors habitually, two things will happen: 1) your heart will be exposed to you, because if you don’t want to do them, you will be resentful and feel like they are chores, and 2) you will discover that Jesus is very, very concerned with our behavior.
It is His death and resurrection that cause the heart change that brings about the ability to put Him before us, and putting Him before us over and over, walking with Jesus, will produce the balance/obedience that will produce His righteousness in you over time. The choice, as they say, is yours—which means that you and I are entirely liable for the consequences. If there’s anything we should spend our time making absolutely sure we believe the truth about, it is what the gospels say about salvation.