The lust of the world, the grace of God, and the heart of the church

The lust, the flesh, the eyes and the pride of life
Drain the life right out of me.

—The 77s, “The Lust, the Flesh, the Eyes, and the Pride of Life”

Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride in possessions—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever.

—1 John 2:15-17 (ESV)

You expect to find “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” in the world, because that’s what the world’s on about; the church ought to be different. Too often, though, it isn’t; too often, rather than challenging these things with the hard message of grace and the gospel of Jesus Christ—and it is a hard message to hear and accept, make no mistake about it, because it challenges our assumptions, our comfort zones, and (most of all) our egos—the church opts instead to find a pseudo-sanctified way to cater to them. This is why, as Jared Wilson pointedly notes (building off the Jollyblogger), we really need to convert the church to the gospel, in many ways and many cases, before we can even think about converting those outside the church.

In saying this, Jared writes about our “weird—but frequently exhilarating—position where the gospel is scandalous even to Christians,” but as counterintuitive as it seems, I don’t think the position is really all that weird. It ought to be, but it isn’t. The Jollyblogger points to the history of Israel and notes the Corinthian church as a New Testament example; I’d go further and say that whether you look at the NT epistles (Colossians is the one that comes to my mind, since I’m head-down in it right now), the Middle Ages, the New England Puritans (just look at the Half-Way Covenant), or any other period in church history, you’ll find this struggle. The pattern of oscillation we see in the book of Judges between reformation and relapse repeats itself over and over in the life of the people of God. I’m certainly no more of a fan of the attractional-church paradigm than Jared is—I think it trades in the mystery of God for a mess of pottage (or, if you prefer, a bowl of stew)—but I don’t think it’s the problem here; I think it’s just another symptom, just the latest form the relapse into legalism has taken.

The deeper problem here, I think, is how to inculcate in people a desire for grace—because most of us, anyway, don’t really want it. We may say we don’t want “legalism,” but the truth of it is, by our nature, we do. We don’t want it preached in a judgmental way because that makes us feel bad about ourselves, but make it optimistic and hopey-changey (to pull a phrase from Beldar) and we eat it up. We eat it up for the same reason the Pharisees did: because if you give us a set of rules we believe we can follow, it feeds our desire to believe that we can be good enough on our own, without God’s help—which is, I believe, the primal human temptation. The good news of grace, by contrast, begins with the bad news that we can’t be good enough on our own; this is one of the purposes of God’s Law, to teach us this—which leads us to the ironic reality that the older, judgmental forms of legalism, which still implicitly serve this purpose, are more redemptive than our modern legalism, which in its appearance of graciousness has been effectively (if unconsciously) sanitized of anything that might actually drive us to real grace.

So how to fix that? Well, first, recognize that even our acceptance of grace is only by God’s grace—no human power can teach anyone to desire grace. Which is to say, we can’t fix it, only God can. But, second, we certainly have the responsibility to serve God’s purpose in that respect, even as we recognize that while we plant and water, only he gives the increase; as such, I believe we’re called to preach grace relentlessly, unstintingly, unwearyingly, without trimming or compromising the message in any way. You can lead a horse to water, you can’t make him drink, but you can put salt in the oats. The grace of God is the water, and it’s our job to be conduits through which that grace pours out in a great stream; the salt, I think, is the reality of our own unholiness by comparison to the holiness of God, and proclaiming this is a necessary part of preaching grace, for this is what shows us our need for grace. And third, having begun to pour out the water and salt the oats, as we see resistance (whether active, as opposition, or passive, as apparent indifference), we can’t give in to it or compromise with it; we have to keep preaching the true gospel, even if it isn’t “working.” When once we give in to results-based analysis of ministry, we’re dead.

Posted in Church and ministry, Religion and theology.


  1. I was going to say that was one of my favorite 77s songs, but it is one of my favorite songs, period. Not enough contemporary laments.

    I try to remember Luther’s comments about the little religious zealot in each of us that wants to merit SOMETHING from God. I lament how quickly we lapse back into legalism.
    This problem with existing churches is why lots of young guys are planting churches. I’m trying to pray it into the congregation I’m temporarily serving. We get so bogged down in the administration etc that we neglect prayer for God to work in their hearts (and ours).

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