When it comes to understanding the Bible and living the Christian life I have always tried to stick with the KISS method–Keep It Simple, Stupid! As believers we often wear ourselves out fighting the good fight because we work harder than we need to instead of working smart. Spiritual growth does take effort on our part, but we often make things more complicated than they need to be. It’s not rocket science that can be grasped only by a few elites on the top end of the intelligence bell curve. Anyone who can read and think can understand and apply the Bible’s teaching on sanctification.
The first summer after I came to Jesus Christ some big-name Bible teacher came to town and packed the Seattle Center Arena for a week-long conference. It was called something like Institute In Basic Youth Conflicts, and every Christian I knew had signed up to attend. I opted out because the cost was forty dollars, a lot of dough for me in 1971. A bunch of my friends got wind that I wasn’t going and they took up a collection, which was nice. They approached me with the local youth pastor who was going to the conference with the group, and he gave me the hard sell–something to the effect that this conference would revolutionize my life, and that without it I would really be behind the eight-ball spiritually. As he spoke the half dozen or so of my friends present chimed in: “C’mon, brother–you gotta’ go, you just gotta’…” Right then and there I made up my mind to pass on their offer. I know they felt bad for me, but not so much because I insulted them personally. They really thought missing the conference would leave me spiritually deficient. All through the week of the seminar they would get together in the evenings and discuss what they had learned, which was contained in red three-ring binders full of printed material. When I came around they got quiet, and they literally would not let me touch the red notebooks. “Sorry, brother, but Bill Gothard (the teacher) says you can’t see what’s in there because if you don’t attend the conference you can’t understand the biblical principles.”
How foolish. To me it sounded like what the Jehovah’s Witnesses say when they tell you that if you read the Bible without consulting Watchtower literature you will not only misunderstand Scripture, but also be led astray by Satan. Something inside me has always rebelled against the idea that you need to go and hear this or that guru, read this or that book, or go to some big pep rally like Promise Keepers (I never attended) to learn to obey and serve God better. Experience has shown me that once people come back home from these gala extravaganzas to the real world the result is often the same as when kids return home from Bible camp. No more bells and whistles, smoke and mirrors, fanfare and parade–just real life and an empty wallet. I am sorry but the outcomes are not impressive. For this reason you will not see a complicated workbook accompanying this post. Let God’s Word be your companion book and you’ll be just fine. Get together with some brothers to discuss it and you’ll figure it out.
Again, fighting the good fight is not complicated in theory, even though it does take effort. We are told to kill the deeds of the flesh. How hard can that be to understand? No more difficult than it was for the Israelites to comprehend God’s command to slaughter the Canaanites. Even though it would take some elbow grease and would be a bit messy, the mechanics of it were pretty straightforward–grab a weapon and start swinging. In the same way the basic how-to of sanctification is clear. Still, for some of you the truths I am presenting might seem fuzzy. I think the Lord anticipated this, which is why He presented these things in more than one way in Scripture. Let’s look at it from another angle.
That you put off concerning your former conduct, the old man which grows corrupt according to the deceitful lusts, and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness (Ephesians 4:22-24).
Here Paul describes sanctification in terms of putting something off and putting something on. But what does that mean? In the verses which follow he gives examples which answer this question. If you are a liar stop lying and start telling the truth (v. 25) Lying is the thing to be put off and truth telling is the replacement behavior to be put on. If you are a thief stop stealing and get a job (v. 28). If you are a verbal abuser stop the trash talk and replace it with words that build others up (v. 29). You put off the old man when you stop a sinful practice and replace it with a godly one. You kill the deeds of the flesh the same way–you stop doing them! Pretty deep and complicated, huh? Why in the world would you need to shell out money to go to a week-long conference or some big pep rally to learn this? Answer: you wouldn’t. Save your money and take your wife out for a nice dinner.
But no. It can’t be that simple. We just have to complicate it. Here’s an example. “I know I have a problem with stealing and that God tells me to stop. But I need someone to show me how to stop stealing.” One thing you will notice about the Bible is that while it commands you to do and not do many things, it tells you almost nothing about how to do them. The Bible assumes that as a believer you already possess all the knowledge and ability necessary to obey God. People are really amazing problem solvers. God created humans with the ingenuity to identify obstacles, see opportunities, set goals, and make plans for reaching those goals. The Bible assumes that if you want to obey God badly enough you will figure out a way by hook or by crook to do it. You will try one approach, and if that doesn’t work you will try again–and again. You will seek someone out who has overcome the same obstacle you face, and you will learn from their support and example. Most problems we face as Christians do not require the help of a mental health professional or some other so-called expert. After all, what did believers do for nineteen-hundred years before Freud? They used common sense and wisdom coupled with Scripture to fight the good fight.
And do not lie to yourself and say you are suffering from a disease over which you are powerless. Nearly every habit that God defines as sin and warns that those who practice them will not inherit the Kingdom of God has been re-labeled as a disease. But bad habits are not literal diseases. The only way you can call a sinful habit a disease is by redefining the word disease. If you go to the doctor he can do a blood test to detect an influenza virus in you blood. He can do an x-ray to see a tumor. He can order a treadmill stress test to pinpoint blockages in the heart. But just go down to your doctor and ask him to run every diagnostic test possible to find traces of drunk-ism, drug-ism, steal-ism, gamble-ism, glutton-ism, and sex-ism. He will laugh in your face, as well he should. Do not defeat yourself by buying into twelve-step disease dogma. I do not say this to be mean-spirited: I want you to succeed spiritually, and complicating things with the extra-biblical theories of man does more harm than good.
My dad always used to say that if you give a lazy man a job he will find an easier way to do it. He was not using the word lazy in the normal sense; what he meant was shrewd. One cold winter day my three brothers and I applied his principle in a humorous way. He sent us out to shovel heavy snow, and all we had to work with were some round-end shovels. (It rarely snows in Seattle, so no one bothers to own a snow shovel.) We were working up a sweat and getting nowhere fast. We could see Dad in the window watching us, and a few minutes later he strode up the walkway quoting his timeless proverb. We followed him around the house where he found a piece of plywood with which he he plowed the snow from the sidewalk in a single pass. I think it was my brother brother Tom who said something like, “Yeah, but it will never work over there on the driveway?” Our dad rose to the challenge, and soon all the snow was cleared away. Later that night we were joking about how we had beaten him at his own game. When he overheard us we figured we’d had it; but instead of punishing us he lavished high praise on us for our shrewdness.
Don’t complicate the whole business of living the Christian life. There is definitely work involved, but why work harder than you need to. Work smart by following what the Word of God says about fighting the good fight. Put the deeds of the flesh to death daily by the power of the Spirit. Put off the old man and put on the new man. I know this is getting repetitive, but you need to lay the foundation the right way or you will be building on sand instead of solid rock.