A Guide to Spiritual Growth
Gary Ray Branscome
Since I am dealing with a broad topic that has no universally accepted terminology, let me begin by explaining my terms and what I see as a problem. First of all, I believe the life of a Christian should be a life of piety in the Biblical sense of the word. We should all want to live “a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty” (1Timothy 2:2). However, because the heart of man is “deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked,” piety is easily perverted, the Pharisees being one obvious example of such perversion (Jeremiah 17:9).
Now, I am sure that the Pharisees would not agree. After all, they prided themselves in their strictness (Acts 26:5). Therefore, let us begin by looking at what they really believed, and why Christ condemned them. Our first clue is found in the words, “You Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and platter; but inside you are full of robbery and wickedness” (Luke ). Those words tell us that even though they were very strict about following certain rules, and dressing in a certain way, it was all outward show.
Since I believe that we have a lot of people like that today, let’s look a bit closer at what they believed. The words, “you have made the commandment of God of no effect by your tradition,” give us our next clue (Matthew 15:6). They were rationalizing sin! To rationalize sin is to find some excuse for it in order to ease one’s conscience. And, this was not just a small problem it was their main approach to Bible interpretation. I did not realize this until I had a language teacher who had studied to be a rabbi. He told me that the Pharisees decided that no one could keep the Law if it was interpreted in the strictest sense, so they decided that the most lenient interpretation was all God required. And, the rabbis they acclaimed most highly were those who were most adept at finding “loopholes” in the Law. But, as Jesus pointed out, by explaining away commandments that were intended to show them their sin and need of God’s mercy, they made the Word of God “of no effect” (Matthew 15:6) [See also Luke 11:46, Matthew 12:7.] Therefore, even though they thought of themselves as pious, and made a big show of being pious, they were really watering down the law in order to convince themselves that they were righteous. Yet, by so doing they were only deceiving themselves (John ). Once this is understood, it becomes obvious that the very first rule of Biblical piety is that we should never rationalize sin, justify wrongdoing, blind ourselves to our own sin, or try to get around what the Bible says (Luke 18:13-14).
Because the self deception that blinds us to our own sins is a stumbling block that hinders us in seeing our need for forgiveness in Christ, once we come to faith in Christ we should want to remove that stumbling block by identifying our sins. However, as I just pointed out, we are only deceiving ourselves if we excuse or justify those sins. Therefore, instead of excusing them we should humbly confess them to God, acknowledging our need for forgiveness (1John 1:9). And, having acknowledged that need we should take comfort in God’s promise of forgiveness in Christ (1John 1:7).
Nevertheless, because of our carnal nature, and because we may have rationalized those same sins in the past, we do not always feel sorry for our sins. On the contrary, we may feel no remorse at all. Therefore, it is important to realize that this lack of remorse is itself sin. It is sin because it is the product of a sinful heart (Jeremiah 17:9, Isaiah 64:6, 1John ). However, because we often have no control over how we feel, we need to confess that sin to God as well, asking for His help in feeling the sorrow over sin that we ought to feel (Galatians 5:16-18). This brings us to the second rule of Biblical piety, namely that we need (with God’s help) to train our conscience so that we recognize sin, find it repulsive, flee from it, and long for the day when we shall rise incorruptible, with a nature that is free from sin (1Corinthians 15:52-54).
Part of training the conscience involves learning what the Bible says about sin. However, just learning the names of various sins is no guarantee that we understand them, or are able to recognize them. For example: I grew up hearing pride denounced as a sin of the Pharisees. But, it was not until I was grown that I actually understood what pride is. Up until that time I thought of pride as arrogance, rather than self righteousness. In addition, we may find the old names for certain sins totally incomprehensible — names such as, lasciviousness, variance, emulations, reveling, and so forth.
Another problem that sometimes arises is false guilt, or false humility. While this may be seen as just another aspect of the deceitfulness of the human heart, we need to be careful so that we do not wind up justifying sin. On one hand someone may feel false guilt over something trivial, like forgetting to send a birthday card, while on the other hand false guilt or false humility may itself be a satanic deception. For example: A pastor who refuses to condemn the sin of homosexuality because he feels that it would be unloving to do so. We know that that sort of false guilt is satanic because it contradicts the plain teaching of Scripture. Moreover, as Christians we have a responsibility to warn the unrepentant of their need to repent, and it would be pure hatred for them on our part if we instead give them a false assurance of salvation (1Corinthians 5:1-5, Hebrews -31).
Having trained our conscience to recognize sin, we need to have a tender conscience before God. And, that involves simply putting what I have said so far into practice. We should never rationalize sin, but should flee from it. Like Joseph — who when tempted by Potiphar’s wife said, “How then can I do this great wickedness, and sin against God?” — those who have a tender conscience before God will do what is right at all times, even if no one would ever know, because they would know and God would know (Genesis 39:9).
Once a Christian reaches this point in his spiritual growth, his life is not a matter of keeping certain rules, but of walking in a clean conscience before God. I am not saying that he will break the rules, for his conscience would not let him do that. What I am saying is that once God has blessed his efforts at training his conscience, the Law of God is written on his heart (Isaiah 51:7, Jeremiah 31:33, Romans 6:1-14).
Having said this I need to make it clear that as long as a believer thinks that his own efforts at resisting sin make him righteous, or even partially righteous, [although there is no such thing as partial righteousness James 2:10] he will not be able to understand the freedom we have in Christ. And, the reason he will not be able to understand is because he will see freedom from the law as freedom from righteousness instead of freedom from sin (Romans 7:4, Galatians ). In fact, it is only as we come to the point in our spiritual growth where we can see that all of our own efforts at righteousness are “like filthy rags,” and that we have nothing at all to offer God, that we can understand that freedom from the law is the freedom to be righteous, not the freedom to sin (Isaiah 64:6).
The law makes us sinners, not righteous men. It makes us sinners because it condemns us. It has sentenced us all to hell! Therefore, freedom from the law is freedom from condemnation, not freedom from righteousness. In short, we have all received a pardon. And, having been delivered from condemnation, only a fool would place himself back under condemnation by using his freedom as an excuse to sin (Hebrews -27).
However, I have encountered believers who, in the name of following the law, excuse such things as vulgar language by saying, “I’m not cussing”. Nevertheless, those who rightly understand the freedom we have in Christ will not use such language, or do any thing that might lead unbelievers to think that we do not “practice what we preach,” or in any way bring dishonor to Christ. On the contrary, Christ has called us to a higher standard, and on the basis of that standard we strive for what is good and high and pure while avoiding anything that is associated with unrighteousness (James 1:21, Philippians 4:8, Ephesians 4:29).
One of the biggest problems in American churches is false piety. In saying that, I realize that there are bigger problems, such as blatant unbelief and immorality. However, I believe that one reason conservative Christians are not making more of a difference in our society lies in works righteousness. I am talking about Christians who want to motivate themselves to do right by telling themselves that God is pleased with them and will bless them because of their efforts rather than because of what Christ did on the cross (Romans 9:30-33). In truth, as long as they believe that God will bless them because of what they do, they are trusting in what they do to bring them God’s grace instead of trusting in Christ. And, as long as they trust in what they do, they will not have the Holy Spirit’s help in resisting sin (Galatians ). At least, they will not have as much help as they could have, because if the Holy Spirit helped them He would be helping them to deceive themselves. That may explain many of the scandals that have rocked evangelical churches. On the other hand, let me make it clear that having the Holy Spirit’s help is not a matter of not making any effort of our own, but of not deceiving ourselves into thinking that our efforts are what makes us righteous, or that we can improve in any way on the righteousness that is already ours in Christ Jesus (Isaiah 64:6, Hebrews 10:14, Romans 10:1-4).
All that I have said can be summed up in the meaning of the phrase, “a tender conscience before God”. On one hand, we should all be able to say with Paul, “I know that nothing good dwells in me (that is, in my flesh,)” while on the other hand we should all firmly believe that because our sins have been washed away by the blood of Christ God sees no fault in us (Romans 7:18, 1John 1:7, Romans 10:4, 1John 3:21).