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Moralistic behavior change vs. Gospel behavior change (part 2)

Moralistic Behavior Change vs. Gospel Behavior Change (Part 2)

~an excerpt from Tim Keller Center Church p. 67-70 


"In light of all this, let's look at how the Bible calls us to change.

2 Corinthians

In 2 Corinthians 8 and 9, Paul writes to believers to encourage them to give an offering to the poor, but he wants them to do so without a direct command from him. He does not begin by pressuring them into it or asserting his authority as an apostle. He doesn't force their wills by saying, "I'm an apostle and this is your duty to  me," or "God will punish you if you don't do this." Nor does he put pressure directly on their emotions by telling them stories about how deeply the poor are suffering and how much more money the Corinthians have than sufferers. Instead, Paul vividly and unforgettably writes, "You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich" (2 Cor 8:9). When Paul states, "You know the grace," he is reminding his readers of the grace of God by means of a powerful image, one that shifts Jesus' salvation into the realm of wealth and poverty. He moves their hearts through a spiritual recollection of the gospel. Paul, in essence, urges, "Think about his costly grace, until the gospel changes you from the heart into generous people."


We find another example in Ephesians, where Paul is addressing spouses - but particularly it seems, husbands (Eph 5:25-33). Many of these men had no doubt retained attitudes and understandings of marriage from their pagan backgrounds, attitudes in which marriage was primarily a business relationship that entailed marrying as profitably as they could. In his letter, Paul wants not only to encourage husbands to be sexually faithful but also to cherish and honor their wives. Here again (as in 2 Cor 8 and 9), Paul exhorts his readers to change their lives by showing unloving husbands the salvation of Jesus, our ultimate Spouse in the gospel, who showed sacrificial love toward us, his "bride." He did not love us because we were lovely (5:25-27), but to make us lovely.


In his letter to Titus, Paul calls his readers to "say 'No' to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives" (Titus 2:12). Think for a moment of all the ways you can say no to ungodly behavior. You can say:

No - because I'll look bad

No - because I'll be excluded from the social circles I want to belong to.

No- because then God will not give me health, wealth and happiness.

No - because God will send me to hell.

No - because I'll hate myself in the morning and lost my self-respect

Virtually all of these incentives use self-centered impulses of the heart to force compliance to external rules, but they do very little to change the heart itself. The motive behind them is not love for God. It is a way of using God to get beneficial things: self-esteem, prosperity, or social approval.


Paul does not urge his readers to use any of these arguments to attempt to change themselves. In the Titus passage, how does he call Christians to gain self-control? Paul states that it is the "grace of God that brings salvation...[that] teaches us to say 'No' to ungodliness" (Titus 2:11-12). In Titus 3:3-5, Paul explains what he means by this grace: "[God] saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy." Paul is saying that if you want true change, you must let the gospel teach you. This word we translate teach is a Greek word that means to train, disciple, and coach someone over a period of time. In other words, you must let the gospel argue with you. You must let the gospel sink down deeply until it changes your views and the structures of your motivation. You must be trained and discipled by the gospel.


The gospel, if it is truly believed, helps us out of the extreme neediness that is natural to the human heart.


We have the need to be constantly respected, to be appreciated, and to be highly regarded. We need to control our lives - not trusting God or anyone else with them. We need to have power over others in order to boost our self-esteem. The image of our glorious God delighting over us with all his being (Isa 62:4; Zeph 3:14; cf. Deut 23:5; 30:9) - if this is a mere concept to us, then our needs will overwhelm us and drive our behavior. Without the power of the Spirit, our hearts don't really believe in God's delight or grace, so they operate in their default mode. But the truths of the gospel, brought home by the Spirit, slowly but surely help us grasp in a new way how safe and secure, how loved and accepted, we are in Christ. Through the gospel, we come to base our identity not on what we have achieved but on what has been achieved for us in Christ.


And when the gospel, brought home to our hearts (see Eph 3:16-19), eats away at this sin-born neediness, it destroys the inner engines that drive sinful behavior. We don't have to lie, because our reputation isn't that important to us. We don't have to respond in violent anger against opponents, because no one can touch our true treasure.


The gospel destroys both the pride and the fearfulness that fuel moralistic behavior change.


The gospel destroys pride, because it tells us we are so lost that Jesus had to die for us. It also destroys fearfulness, because it tells us that nothing we can do will exhaust his love for us. When we deeply embrace these truths, our hearts are not merely restrained but changed. Their fundamental orientation is transformed. 


We no longer act morally simply because it profits us or makes us feel better about ourselves. Instead, we tell the truth and keep our promises simply out of love for the One who died for us, who kept a promise despite the unfathomable suffering it brought him. The gospel leads us to do the right thing not for our sake but for God's sake, for Christ's sake, out of a desire to know, resemble, please, and love the One who saved us. This kind of motivation can only grow in a heart deeply touched by grace. 


The Bible's solution to stinginess, then, is a reorientation to the gospel and the generosity of Christ, who poured out his wealth for us (2 Cor 8:9). We don't have to worry about money, because the cross proves God's care for us and gives us security. Likewise, the Bible's solution to a bad marriage is reorientation to the radical, spousal love of Christ communicated in the gospel. "You shall not commit adultery" (Exodus 20:14) makes sense in the context of his spousal love, especially on the cross, where he was completely faithful to us. Only when we know this sacrificial, spousal love of Christ we will have real fortitude to combat lust. His love is fulfilling, so it keeps us from looking to sexual fulfillment to give us what only Jesus can.


What will truly make us sexually faithful spouses or generous persons or good parents or faithful children is not a redoubled effort to follow the example of Christ. Rather, it is deepening our understanding of the salvation of Christ and living out of the changes this understanding makes in our hearts - the seat of our minds, wills, and emotions. Faith in the gospel restructures our motivations, our self-understanding, our identity, and our view of the world. It changes our hearts."