This guest post was written by Daniel Bush, author of Undefended: Discovering God When Your Guard Is Down, Live in Liberty: The Spiritual Message of Galatians, and Embracing God as Father: Christian Identity in the Family of God.
My wife loves to observe a day many love to hate: All Hallows’ Eve, the night folks traditionally prepared for All Saints Day by scaring the spit out of demons. For several weeks she’s been taking me to look at costumes, hoping to make trick-or-treating memorable. I, on the other hand, am a Halloween Scrooge—I’d rather stay inside and turn off the light. But by the third shop, I got the hint. And after combing the aisles I finally found a disguise that made me feel holy: a monk’s cowl. When I pointed it out to her, she didn’t smile.
Honestly, I often feel I need a disguise. I’m planting a church and desire to see a community rise in which souls connect, shame weakens, sins surface, failures meet grace, irritations soften, and holy desires grow. I’m convinced that such a special spiritual place can only exist where a community feeds on the gospel of free grace.
Pithy sermons on “Four Ways to Be a Better Father” or “How to Think Rightly about Homosexuality” won’t create such a community. Christian preaching ought to be an extended paraphrase of the gospel, in which the Lord Jesus is explored, rehearsed, and explained out of every clause of holy writ. Isn’t this how Jesus himself caused his disciples’ hearts to burn along the road to Emmaus?
I’m visiting other churches these days as research, and sadly my heart hasn’t once been set ablaze. Instead I’ve become so demoralized by easy moralizing that recently I declared that I didn’t want to go to church anymore—again, my wife didn’t smile. When I texted this declaration to a friend who I was sure would share my sentiments, he responded: “You should’ve been with me last Sunday. We could have been self-righteous together.” Ouch!
There’s a story about a man shipwrecked on a desert island. After several years a boat came past, saw his signal fire, and rescued him. When the man saw the boat, he ran across the beach, and those on the boat noticed three buildings behind him and asked what they were for. The castaway responded, “That’s my house, that’s the church I go to every Sunday, and the one next to it is the church I’ll never go to, ever!”
I can be so self-righteous, so right about a particular issue, that I’m dead wrong. And in that moment of realizing my self-righteousness, I feel like I need a disguise: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7:25 ESV).
In his commentary on Galatians, Martin Luther said:
As long as a person is not a murderer, adulterer, thief, he would swear that he is righteous. How is God going to humble such a person except by the Law? The Law is the hammer of death, the thunder of hell, and the lightning of God’s wrath to bring down the proud and shameless hypocrites. When the Law was instituted on Mount Sinai it was accompanied by lightning, by storms, by the sound of trumpets, to tear to pieces that monster called self-righteousness. As long as the person thinks he is right he is going to be incomprehensibly proud and presumptuous. He is going to hate God, despise his grace and mercy, and ignore the promises of Christ. The gospel of the free forgiveness of sins through Christ will never appeal to the self-righteous. This monster of self-righteousness, this stiff-necked beast, needs a big axe. And that’s what the Law is, a big axe. Accordingly, the proper use and function of the Law is to threaten until the conscience is scared-stiff.
I was proud and presumptuous. My wife and friend brought the big axe, which didn’t feel good—but it was.
Seeing the monster within—a monster I’ve tried to slay without success—led me to remember Jesus. I like how the Living Bible puts Romans 5:20–21: “The Ten Commandments were given so that all could see the extent of their failure to obey God’s laws. But the more we see our sinfulness, the more we see God’s abounding grace forgiving us. Before, sin ruled over all men and brought them to death, but now God’s kindness rules instead, giving us right standing with God and resulting in eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Jesus brings to an end the deadly reign of sin not by granting me the power to defeat the monster within, but by giving me himself. That is, he becomes for me a covering under which the very real reality of sin is a finished reality. The monster of my self-righteousness is a defeated reality, not in me, but in the indestructible life of Jesus, which is the “free gift of righteousness”—or, better, the free gift of my acquittal (Rom 5:17 ESV).
The very thing I had hoped to disguise by donning a monk’s cowl for Halloween is the very thing covered with forgiveness. Jesus’ life is the final word. Christian growth is simply growth in seeing that the gospel is true.
My wife and I decided to dress as royalty for Halloween, displaying our true positions in the family of God.
The Reverend Doctor Daniel Bush is a Presbyterian minister, adjunct associate professor, and author of Live in Liberty: The Spiritual Message of Galatians (Lexham Press) and Embracing God as Father: Christian Identity in the Family of God (Lexham Press). His newest book is Undefended: Discovering God When Your Guard Is Down (Kirkdale Press). Dan and his wife, Brittany, have two children and are planting a nondenominational congregation in northern Kentucky, NorthPointe Church.