Elyse Fitzpatrick made a remark on a recent blog that grabbed my attention in a big way. Talking about regrets in parenting (I can relate to that!), she said:
In addition, we had absolutely no clue how the gospel intersected with daily life. To us the gospel was the door into Christianity and then Christianity was almost exclusively about obeying, getting on down the road of sanctification. I cringe now when I think of how I used our faith to demand obedience and punish them when they didn’t comply.
I believe this way of thinking is more of a problem in Christianity and the church than most of us care to admit. It’s easy to view the gospel as the door into Christianity – something only unbelievers need – and then once they believe, we begin piling on law and rules for living without any ongoing consideration for the gospel and its place in our sanctification. We leave the gospel at the door. The scenario goes something like this: we may share the gospel with someone and if they embrace what Jesus did for them on the cross and believe, our emphasis quickly changes from the gospel and our need for Jesus to rules and our behavior. It’s easy for our Christian experience to become performance oriented without even realizing that it has. Before going further, let me be very clear on this point: the Christian life is a life of change and a life that seeks to live in a way that pleases our Lord and Savior. But it is a life of change that is rooted in grace and the gospel and that has far reaching implications. Look at Paul’s words to Titus,
 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine.  Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness.  Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good,  and so train the young women to love their husbands and children,  to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.  Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled.  Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity,  and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.  Slaves are to be submissive to their own masters in everything; they are to be well-pleasing, not argumentative,  not pilfering, but showing all good faith, so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior. (Titus 2:1-10 ESV)
That’s an incredible list of commands and I want this stuff in my life. I want to look like the person that Paul describes here (maybe not the women part) because I want my life to honor Jesus. But problems can arise when I get so focused on the commands themselves that they become a to-do list. This way of thinking can get more complicated if I have surrounded myself with others who view it the same way – as a list of commands to be obeyed because after all, “this is how a believer looks.” If I come to a passage like this one that is chock full of imperatives without considering them in the light of the grace and unconditional acceptance that has been given to me in the gospel, obedience becomes impersonal, burdensome, moralistic duty. It becomes graceless, proud performance. I think Paul understood our tendency toward this way of thinking because of what he says next. Look at the very next verse which couches his commands in the grace of the gospel:
 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people,  training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in the present age,  waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ,  who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works. (Titus 2:11-14 ESV)
Do you see what he did? He reminded us that it’s saving grace that changes us, not empty, moralistic, performance-based law keeping. Do you want to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions? Run to grace and extend grace to others! Do you want to live a self-controlled, upright and godly life? Run to grace and extend grace to others! Do you want freedom from lawless immoral behavior? Run to grace and extend grace to others! Do you want to love your spouse the way Paul described it? Run to grace and extend grace to your spouse! Don’t ask yourself, “How can I do this better?”. That’s the wrong question. That puts the emphasis on you. Instead, remind yourself of what is yours in the gospel already, run to grace, and extend grace to others!
I’m finding more and more that the New Testament always nests commands like these in the gospel. When there is a list of commands that I am supposed to do, there will also be a reminder of what I have freely been given in the gospel. This passage from Titus is no different. As I seek to obey these commands, I dare not allow them to become detached from the gospel of grace. If I do, the only direction left to go is downward toward my own moralistic performance and once I’m there I will either become proud of my ability to perform, or I will crash and burn and fall into a depression because of my failure to live up to my own expectations or the expectations of those around me. Grace isn’t just something that I need to get in the door of Christianity and then after that, it’s all about obedience to a moral code and punishment for failure to obey. Grace is the core of my Christian life and experience. Grace makes me a part of the “people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” because in grace, I am allowed to fail and still be fully accepted because of the cross. God isn’t preoccupied with my sin and failures like I sometimes am because of the cross and the grace that has been given me there. Grace makes His yoke gentle and His burden light (Matthew 11:29-30). It is grace that ensures His commands do not become burdensome (1 John 5:3). If we remove grace from this equation, or simply give it lip service, the burden to obey will become heavy and it will result in our becoming harsh and critical with one another. We will think it our role to police each other’s perceived sin and our joy will suffer. We will begin to take pride in our own performance instead of boasting in the cross and what Christ has done for me (1 Corinthians 1:31). Like the Pharisees, we will be guilty of placing heavy loads on the backs of others that we ourselves are unable to bear (Matthew 23:4). And we will do it all thinking it’s the normal Christian life.