When was the last time you worshipped with thousands of people? If you don't go to a mega church, this usually only happens at special events. Back in high school and college, I used to go to a lot of Christian concerts and events. In one particular memory, I was jumping up and down with thousands of my peers at a Christian concert. Drenched in sweat, we then sat down and intently listened to a well-known pastor preach. We were in awe as he showed us photos of the universe, many taken with the powerful Hubble telescope. I remember him sharing scientific facts to prove the vastness of the universe. The climax of the event, in my memory, was a photo of a star with a shadow of a cross on it. I was stunned. Only years later did I realize that Hubble actually explains on their website why many of their photos have a cross-shaped distortion on them – they're caused by "the light's path being disturbed slightly as it passes by the cross-shaped struts that support the telescope's secondary mirror" (spacetelescope.org).
Sure, the pastor's overall intent was good – he wanted us to marvel at our great God. And it's true – our universe glorifies God because He created it for that purpose. We can grasp the unparalleled majesty of our God a little better, knowing that the universe's majestic nature pales in comparison (kind of like a mere fingerprint!). And I did leave that evening in awe of Our Creator. But less than a month later, I was entangled in the same sin patterns that enslaved me prior to that concert. What went wrong? Back then, my feelings were my litmus test that revealed my spiritual health. If the tears came easily, I was doing okay. I felt "close" to God, whether or not I was enslaved to the passions of the flesh. If I felt particularly distracted and the tears had to be willed out, it was my indicator that I was drifting and needed to double my efforts in my relationship with God. I would craft lofty goals to read the Bible, cover to cover, in three months. Needless to say, I was never successful (but I think I read Genesis more times than any other book of the Bible!). Pulling up our bootstraps is not the answer to our intimacy with God. That's the mentality of a works-based faith. With this mentality, we completely miss the gospel. Jesus did all of the work. Period.
And here's the thing: our personal experiences cannot be the foundation of our faith. Our feelings cannot be the primary source of truth. We may read the Bible – we may know all of the stories. But if our faith and our union with Christ are evaluated on the basis of our personal feelings, experiences and sheer knowledge, we are merely using the Bible to proof-text those feelings, experiences, and head knowledge. We are engaging in subjectivism – it's all about us. Our view of God and our view of self are based solely on our feelings and emotions. So it makes sense that subjectivism would naturally lead us to legalism. Our feelings will lead us to the natural solution of trying harder. And before we know it, our view of God and His love for us are based on our performances (legalism). This is a bondage of an endless, impossible cycle of no resolution because it only looks to self (Matt. 23:4). Legalism completely misses the point of the gospel. The only "good" that can come from subjectivism and legalism is leading us to the truth that we are not enough – we need a Savior because we are utterly condemned on our own (Rom. 3:20). The solution lies beyond us. We need the gospel – for our conversion and everyday afterward because it is our human nature to look to ourselves to interpret everything else. This is why legalism is anti-gospel: it's saying that our obedience to the law can earn our forgiveness. Though we may not realize it, the root of this sin is the sins of self-sufficiency and self-worship. And in essence, it's saying that Christ's work on the cross was insufficient or faulty! This is why it's of utmost importance to preach the gospel to ourselves every day and guard against the pervasiveness of legalism.
Our faith is personal, but it is not individualized to fit our personal preferences. This is because the value of our faith rests in the object of our faith – for all true believers, the object of our faith is the person of Jesus Christ. When we say we believe in Jesus, we are confessing Him to be the Word of God, our Savior. But we are also confessing Him to be Lord; our allegiance to Him beckons our submission to His lordship for the whole of our lives. This is why faith is often seen as synonymous to obedience. Think of the book of Romans: chapters 1-11 is packed with rich, theological truths that are foundational to our faith. The epistle then continues with 5 chapters on how to practically live out those truths. When you read these chapters, you can clearly hear the Apostle Paul's firm exhortation to respond to these truths with obedience. This is the proper order: the study of God's Word informs our lives. This is clearly expressed in Romans 12:1-2 (ESV):
I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God,‚ÄØto present your bodies‚ÄØas a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by‚ÄØthe renewal of your mind, that by testing you may‚ÄØdiscern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that it is the Holy Spirit that transforms our minds through the study of Scripture. This inner transformation then manifests itself outwardly. Our obedience is an expression of our love! This verse was pivotal in my personal walk. By His grace, the Lord removed the scales from my eyes to see the beauty of Himself and the gospel. It was then that I went to the Word of God, not to figure out who I am and what I was supposed to do in certain situations, but to learn who God is and what He has done.
Our view of God should be shaped by who He declares He is in His Word. Sure, nature reveals many truths about who God is (Ps. 19:1-6, Rom. 1:19-20) – it was God's intention to reveal Himself in that way (called natural or general revelation). John Calvin goes further to say in his Institutes of the Christian Religion that every human has an immediate general revelation because "there is within the human mind, and indeed by natural instinct, an awareness of divinity". But believers have special revelation in the Word of God – we get to know the Divine! What a gift! This is why it's crucial to come under solid, expository preaching every week and to personally study the Bible daily. It's a gift and our daily sustenance!
And we need the entirety of the Bible to shape our thoughts, feelings, deeds, and perceptions. We don't accumulate a vast amount of knowledge of Scripture in and of itself; no, we need the God that inspired the 40+ authors that wrote our sacred text over a span of 1,500 years without a single contradiction! And as we get to know Him in His Word, we understand that "the heart is more deceitful than anything else, and incurable" (Jer. 17:9). We understand that our feelings and emotions are not always trustworthy so we look to the inerrant Word of God instead. There, we find freedom because we find the gospel – we find Christ. From this freedom, we strive to obey. We rely on the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit to help us overcome the sin patterns that want to enslave us. And through it all, we know that we'll never perfectly obey, but we have Jesus who perfectly obeyed on our behalf. As we saturate ourselves in the gospel, Jesus becomes the supreme love of our heart and transforms our lives.
Back at those Christian concerts during my college days, my life was an outward expression of my beliefs. My beliefs, however, was actually unbelief. I was looking to myself for salvation and justification. There's a better way: the gospel of Jesus Christ. His justifying grace frees me from legalism. I often forget and look to self-righteousness and my own spiritual disciplines to "feel right" with God, but it's His sanctifying grace that brings me back to the gospel and helps me live a life of obedience out of my secure union with Christ. Soli Deo Gloria!