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Plus and Minus

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Ever notice how every good thing has a flip side? I’m not talking about dualism, where every virtue has an equal and opposite vice. No, I’m talking about the flip side of positive motivation. The Bible is full of it. Look at the number of times people are told to fear God, and compare it to the times they are told to love the Lord. Love and fear are plus and minus, two sides of the same motivation.

I see it most clearly in my closest relationships. I love my wife; I fear disappointing her. I love my children; I fear what may befall them. I love God; I fear him.

My son is serving his second tour in Afghanistan. He has excellent training, and I know that his missions are well-planned and that he is well-protected. I also know that he is fighting against a remorseless enemy. There are people who will try to kill him if they can. I love my son, and I fear for his safety. Because I love him, I pray for him and support him however I can. But if love fails to motivate me, fear for him will still drive me to do the same things: I will still pray and support him.

I have heard it said that fear is wrong, that it cedes authority to the devil in my life. But I don’t find any biblical warrant for such a view. The Bible never diminishes the virtue of an appropriate fear. Only in one oft-quoted passage am I told that perfect love drives out fear. I confess; my love is not perfect. At times I need fear to help me stay on track.

As a child I loved my parents. Yet there were times when I was tempted to do things I knew I shouldn’t. At those times love seemed weak and inconsequential. The desire to do wrong was strong within me, and love alone was not sufficient to hold me back. Then fear came to my aid. For I knew that if my mom or dad found out what I was about to do, I would catch it. Fear of punishment saved me from doing risky things. In the same way, my heavenly Father threatens terrible punishments for willful disobedience to his instructions. His threats are not meant to chill my love for him; on the contrary, they are meant to strengthen my fear of him. If I fear him, perhaps I will not do what he has forbidden. If I fear him, perhaps I will do what he commands.

Love is strong. It is stronger even than fear. When love is perfect, it drives out fear because there is no longer any danger of the disobedience that leads to punishment. But as long as I am still fallen, still capable of disobedience, still willing to say, “Not your will but mine,” I need fear. Indeed, I pray for fear to keep me from stumbling when my love is cool or God seems distant. I would rather be terrified than lost.

Jesus told his followers not to fear those who can kill the body but can do no more. Instead, he said, “But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.” This kind of fear leads to security and safety. It is mixed with reverence and awe. It is like the fear that prompts mountain climbers to go through rigorous training and invest in first-rate equipment. They know what the mountain can do to them. Other fears—fear of looking ridiculous, fear of embarrassment—become insignificant. In the same way, Jesus intends that our fear of God would sabotage every lesser fear. The great power of the first-century Christians was that they did not fear death; they feared God too much to fear anything else.

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“Christian” Militia

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The New York Times carried an article today about the arrest of nine members of a so-called Christian militia in Clayton, Michigan. They are charged with plotting murder and sedition. The Times uncritically labels them “Christian” apparently because that was how they described themselves. Calling themselves the Hutaree, they “saw the local police as ‘foot soldiers’ for the federal government, which the group viewed as its enemy, along with other participants in what the group’s members deemed to be a ‘New World Order’ working on behalf of the Antichrist.”

To the secular world, religion or every kind is without meaningful content, so it should come as no surprise that a group espousing murder and hatred should be able to call itself Christian. To those who follow Jesus Christ, however, it is an offense. Jesus laid down his own life and taught his followers to lay down theirs. Search the New Testament for any passage that justifies murder, sedition, or even forming a citizen militia, and you will search in vain. Paul tells the Christians in Ephesus to arm themselves for battle but makes it clear that the struggle is against spiritual, not physical, enemies. Likewise, he tells believers in Corinth that the gospel has powerful arguments capable of demolishing strongholds, but it is minds and hearts he wants to capture, not people. Even the apocalyptic passages depict a ruler making war on the saints, not saints making war on anyone.

Jesus taught his followers to love their enemies, do good to them, and pray for them. Those who claim to follow him must at least try to do what he said. But anyone who claims to follow him and continues to do evil is a liar. Such a person does not deserve to be called a Christian. If the charges against this militia in Michigan are true, then they are not Christian; they are domestic terrorists masquerading as Christians.

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The Discipline of Grace

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The Discipline of Grace by Jerry Bridges is one of the best books I have ever read on how to live life as a believer. One of the persistent difficulties in the church is the idea that God’s approval must somehow be earned, that when a believer sins, God becomes angry and punishes him but that when he does what is right, then God is pleased and blesses him. Yet this misconception is directly contrary to the good news of God’s grace in Jesus Christ. Somehow in going from salvation to sanctification, the extraordinary message of the gospel becomes forgotten, and believers turn to performance and good works in an effort to win favor with God (or, less charitably, to put God in their debt). So Bridges writes a prescription that serves as a refrain throughout the rest of the book: “Preach the gospel to yourself every day.”

In order to make sure his readers understand what he means, he then provides an excellent summary of the gospel, and the most salient feature of that gospel is God’s grace, his undeserved love and favor toward people. It is this grace that enables believers to pursue a life of holiness. By insisting on and holding together both grace and discipline, Bridges avoids two errors. The first focuses too much on grace and denies that believers have a role in their own perfecting. The second goes the other way and treats as grudging duty what should be joyful privilege.

The final chapters detail five disciplines necessary for pursuing holiness. These are not the religious disciplines one might expect: prayer, fasting, meditation, service, and so on. No, they are spiritual disciplines that deal much more with attitude than with action.

Throughout the book, the author draws liberally on Puritan theologians, often paraphrasing their prose for today’s audience. Nevertheless, the book is not for the casual or fainthearted reader. It requires but also amply repays patiently intent reading. Bridges is never glib; his writing cannot be skimmed. He deals with concepts that are inherently complex, even seemingly paradoxical, so his prose is likewise careful and precise. My only complaint is that at times his tone becomes somewhat scolding; at times he seems to assume that his readers are reluctant to follow him and in need of reminders of their duty. But this is a niggling objection to an otherwise excellent book.

This book is for any believer serious about becoming more like Jesus in his or her daily life. It is not a book of stuffy rules but of vivid principles. Those who read it with understanding will be changed by it as they put its principles into practice. Highly recommended.

I reviewed this book as part of the NavPress blogger review program, which provides free books in exchange for reviews. I did not receive any other payment for this review.

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