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The Wiles of Works Righteousness (4/4)

By Matthew Claridge–

(For the other parts in this series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Justification by navel gazing

This devious maneuver of works-righteousness is very closely related to the previous one. In fact, it only takes a slightly different path and less obvious detour to arrive at the same precipice. It is still possible, having exposed all these machinations of legalism, having laid hold of faith as the criterion by which our acceptance and continuance in God’s grace is attained, to still end up in the throes of self-made religion. This happens when we begin to inspect whether our faith is strong enough, good enough, or “spiritual” enough. We develop tunnel-vision that zeros in on our motives. We constantly question if we are acting out of simple self-interest or out of a genuine gospel-freeing interest in others for their own sakes. In pastoral ministry, I find myself routinely asking, “do I really care for this person as a person, or am I really just concerned about filling the pews and the offering plate?” In a roundabout way, I and my “works” are in the foreground again, and God’s grace has become blurred out of focus.

At the back of the dizzying array of demands the Judaizers were imposing on the Galatians was the basic demand to turn their eyes away from Jesus. Paul exclaims: “O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified” (Gal. 3.1). Invariably, works righteousness distracts us from looking outward to the cross and turns us inward on ourselves. When that happens, we are no longer talking about faith but something else. Faith, by definition, directs us outward, not inward. Paul declares: “I live by faith in the Son of God” (Gal. 2.20). Perhaps this is why it is important to maintain that when Paul speaks of the “faith of Christ” we are talking about an objective genitive, “faith in Christ,” not a subjective genitive, “the faith of Christ.” Those who prefer the latter puts the cart before the horse. It creates an inordinate focus on the internal, inward resolve of faith rather than on the external, objective ground of faith (this is not to deny the latter. The issue is a matter of priority).

As mentioned in the previous post, faith involves the whole man––will, mind, and heart. Clearly, the integrative principle of this complex of faculties is the heart, that “organ” that guides our worship. And worship is tied to something outside ourselves, something we find valuable, beautiful, and glorious to which we are irresistibly attracted. As John Piper has said, when we survey the astounding panorama that is the Grand Canyon the last thing we are thinking is, “how wonderful and great I am.” Faith, then, is incomprehensible apart from its object—that thing or person we are looking at and attracted to.

It is this kind of outward faith that makes all the difference for our growth in sanctification. Indeed, there is a Trinitarian shape to this process. Just as the Father looks to the Son to declare us righteous (Gal. 3.13; Ezek. 36.26, 32; Rom. 3.24-26), so the Spirit points us to Son in order to make us righteous (Gal. 5.4-5; Rom. 8.26-34; Jn. 14.14-15). The Holy Spirit hallows us and sanctifies us by constantly pointing us toward the Son. This is why the Spirit does not work apart from the capital Word and the lowercase word. By directing us to Son, the Spirit brings forth from our hearts, “Abba, Father” a cry of communion with God filled with inexpressible joy (Gal. 4.6). This is “the power of an expulsive affection” that Thomas Chalmers spoke of, the irresistible way in which the thing we worship motivates and transforms us. In the delightful words of Lewis: “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” True obedience and satisfying sanctification grows out of the Spirit’s work of revealing the grace and glory of the cross. Only on this basis can Paul conclude: “far be it from me to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world” (Gal. 6.14).

Matthew Claridge (M.Div. Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, Th.M.  Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is an editor with Credo Magazine and the senior pastor of Mt. Idaho Baptist church in Grangeville, Idaho. He is married to Cassandra and has three children.

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