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Broken by the Law and Broken by the Gospel: the Failure of Defining them Synonymously

24 October, 2008

https://creedorchaos.files.wordpress.com/2007/09/n559278318_5310.jpgA couple of  my elders recently came to visit me, my wife, Erin, and my two children, Jackson and Ella in my home. Boy was I terrified. In the past every official pastoral (we did not have elders) visit at my home was always serious in a negative sense. It was always intended to confront some gross sin. This visit was entirely different, however. The elders were there to check on us, to make sure that all is well with us, to make sure that the good news of Christ was reaching our family. They also were interested in our thoughts on how the church could get better. The visits that I had in former years are analogous to a major surgery, but this recent visit felt more like a checkup to prevent potential surgery in the future. It was refreshing.

As we were talking, some stories of my past came into the discussion. I used to go to a charismatic church, and my pastors and peers viewed me as a spiritual leader. I was only 15 or so. As a result my popularity in the youth group began to rise, and with my newfound fame girls were very attracted to me. I became very involved with one girl, and our relationship became serious very fast. To make a long story short and to be as discreet as possible, we engaged in sexual sin. Word got to my youth pastor, and he met with me. He really came down on me hard, astonished that I could have behaved so poorly, given the fact that I had the Holy Spirit in my life.

Indeed, he was right to be appalled by my sinfulness but wrong to be shocked that I could sin. I violated God’s holy law. He appropriately stripped me of everything—my responsibility and my leadership in the youth group. All of my fame came crashing down and I retreated inward for solutions, trying to create the proper disposition in my life in order to become right with God. I woke up virtually every morning at five o’clock to repent with tears for hours before I headed off to school, but there was never peace with God. I wanted to mitigate his wrath with my tears and deeds. My Christian experience as a youth was largely characterized by such emotional behavior, which looks more like the roller coaster faith of the Greek religion than the purchased faith of the Christian. When I thought that I was living a holy life or I had the right disposition, then I felt God’s gracious disposition towards me (which I often called his smile upon me) but the opposite thought occurred when I did not (which I conversely called his frown upon me). It was a contract, not too far from the medieval pactum theology (God’s covenant with me to add grace to my best efforts)—although I never knew it existed at the time. Grace univocally meant righteousness, and I honestly did not distinguish the two. It was something lived, not imputed. The old law (the Old Testament) was bad because it could not be kept. The good news (New Testament) was that I was now given the ability to keep the law of God. In spite of all my effort, I was not advancing in the victorious Christian life. Nevertheless, I continued on, hoping that maybe there would be peace.

I then went with Teen Mania Ministries on a mission’s trip to Botswana, Africa and subsequently entered into a yearlong internship with the para-church organization. Stalled by my imperfections, melancholic predisposition, and total lack of enthusiasm, I doubted that I even had the Holy Spirit in my life. Four months into the program, I quit the internship. I was told that I was going to hell, along with many other terrible things. On the bus ride back to Phoenix, Arizona, I decided that Christianity was a load of  ****. I was moving in the direction of agnosticism, but in order to live with my mom I had to attend a church. To satisfy her wishes so that I could have a cheap place to stay, I went to a Calvary chapel church in Phoenix, where at least the pastor seemed more reasonable than what I had been used to. It was big and so I could avoid deep conversation.

I then moved to Flagstaff, Arizona and matriculated at Northern Arizona University. I got married but then my marriage was falling apart. Returning to my religious roots—that the church was designed solely to make people moral—I thought that I would start attending one to solve my morality crisis. There, I was introduced to Calvinism. Initially repelled by its propositions but providentially unable to shake the nagging possibility that they might be true, I started reading Calvin’s Institutes. After reading the first fifty pages, I was in tears and my soul was comforted by the warm and true words of this sixteenth century dude. Then I had to read more books. And then I had to come to Westminster Seminary California where the law and the gospel are taught properly and enthusiastically. I also found a really great church that follows suit.

Sitting with my elders, it dawned on me more clearly than ever that for so many years I thought that I was breaking the gospel. So not only was I broken by the law, but I was broken by the gospel. However, thanks to the great news of Jesus Christ that he actively, passively, and perfectly obeyed God his whole life long and that his accomplished work has been imputed to me, I now understand that the gospel is for Christians too. The gospel is good news and it can never be broken. It was finished on the cross and it is given freely to all who believe. It cannot be merited through any means or methods. It is not a higher law, a better way to live a holy life.

Not only do I need to hear how I have violated God’s law on a weekly basis but also need to hear how Jesus Christ has kept it entirely in my place. It is mine by imputation. It is mine by sheer grace. I am by no means perfect and I often sin but that has been a reality of my whole life. It was not any different in my teenage years. The difference today is that I am not looking to my own effort (disposition or deed) for the remedy but that I am looking to the objective work of another. That is a faith that I can believe and live, and paradoxically it is a faith that leads to a more genuine holiness. I am no longer schizophrenic about God’s favor towards me. He smiles on me in the face of Christ for I am clothed in the white (pure) garment of his glorious righteousness. In the heavenly Jerusalem, his garment will become my disposition; I will no longer be simul justus et peccator (simultaneously righteous and sinful). I will just be justus.

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9 Comments
  1. 24 October, 2008 9:13 pm

    Josh,
    Great stuff!

    — “I also found a really great church that follows suit.” —

    I’m assuming that you’re talking about Rev. Zach Keele’s OPC in Escondido right on Westminster Cali’s campus. Zach is an absolute blessing as a minister and da bomb as an exegete. Brilliant prof too! He needs to publish some commentaries. Maybe Brannan can edit for him.

    His elders are wonderful. Super cool guy Elder Greg and his gracious wife Raquel took great care of my precious bride Alisia and new daughter Isabelle before we married last March.

    It’s good to hear that you are well bro. Love ya man.

    ~p

  2. Sam Lee permalink
    24 October, 2008 10:31 pm

    Amen Joshua

  3. Darren permalink
    27 October, 2008 11:30 am

    Hey Josh, thanks for sharing.

  4. creedorchaos permalink*
    27 October, 2008 2:03 pm

    Phil,

    Thanks for the kind words. Yes I’m talking about Escondido OPC, and Keele is a wonderful minister of the gospel. Greg and Bruce were the elders that came to my house. Greg and Raquel are indeed very gracious.

    Love you back bro,
    Joshua

  5. creedorchaos permalink*
    27 October, 2008 2:05 pm

    Sam and Darren,

    Thanks so much for reading.

    Joshua

  6. Robert Widdowson permalink
    4 November, 2008 12:02 pm

    what an excellent testimony. Thank you so much. Like you, I struggled with balancing the Law and the Gospel. Not until I stumbled upon (was drawn by God) to reformed thinking did I realize the function of the Law and the sheer grace of the Gospel. Beautiful stuff!

  7. creedorchaos permalink*
    4 November, 2008 6:32 pm

    Robert,

    Thanks for commenting and sharing. I’m glad that you were encouraged. Indeed, the Gospel is a beautiful thing.

    Joshua

  8. 13 June, 2009 3:16 am

    Wow. Amazing story. That was definitely inspiring and encouraging. You got me choked up a bit after mentioning you were brought to tears reading the Institutes.

    Similar to you, I was brought up in quasi-fundamentalist churches never really understanding the law/gospel distinction. Understanding the difference is essential.

    Thanks for sharing your encouraging story.

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