“We all live in a yellow submarine”…the alarm clock jolts Tom out of bed. He enjoys his morning bowl of Raisin Bran, then takes a shower, shaves his stubble, brushes his teeth, and puts on his suit. He polishes his shoes, straightens his tie, displays his pearly whites for his mirror’s approval, shoves his money clip in his pocket and leaves for an important meeting.
The next block down, the screeching brakes of a commuter bus wakes Jim from his slumber. He whacks his newspaper blanket and digs his hand into an empty pocket. His empty stomach growls at him–rebuking him for spending his last bit of change on 40 ounces instead of food. “Today,” he says to his angry intestines, “we’ll spend our money on food”.
When Tom first caught sight of Jim he had to hold his nose. Jim’s breath was a cocktail of booze, coffee, and months without a toothbrush. His tattered clothes betrayed a man that had spent months on the streets, only bathing when graced by a heavy downpour from above. He’s a pitiful site.
But it is here that Tom will have his important meeting. His plan is to rescue Jim from off the streets. He has bought him a house, a car, a savings account, a new suit, and has secured for him a new job.
“Why in the world is Tom doing this?” you ask. They are brothers. Tom has been sent by their father to rescue Jim. It’s grace is what it is. Nothing but sheer grace. At a great cost to himself the Father sends Tom the obedient son to rescue the foolish son that has thrown everything away.
You see what I did there didn’t you? Tom is like our brother–Jesus Christ. We are like Jim–the homeless guy that does really dumb things like buy a 40 instead of a cheeseburger.
One Year Later
One year goes by since that terrific morning when Jim was pulled off the streets. Tom goes by Jim’s new house and knocks on the door. Nobody answers. The pile of newspapers and unopened mail on the doorstep tells him that something is up. Sadly, Tom’s fear is confirmed, Jim is living back on the streets.
Tom ventures back into the homeless community where Jim formerly frequented. As he begins asking other homeless people if they’ve seen his brother, he gets a few odd responses. Apparently Jim has told everyone about how strong and competent and wonderful and gracious his brother is. Jim knows that he’s the bum in the family but he has taken great solace in the fact that his brother is awesome, and he’s not shy about telling everyone.
Of course he’s still drunk half the time. He’s still refusing to work. He’s still largely incompetent. And more than anything he’s living on the streets when he ought to be living in a house and holding down a job—after all that is the grand desire of the father and the brother.
Here’s my question for you. Is Jim giving honor to his father and brother? He’s aware of his weakness and incompetence. He constantly talks about how wonderful his brother and father are. He is grateful that his brother paid for his house and even continues to pay for his house.
Surely, this is better than believing he’s strong. It’s certainly much better than going about in a delusion telling everyone about his own greatness. And it’s terrific that he is grateful for His brother’s sacrifice.
But I’m hard pressed to say that Jim is giving honor to his father and brother. To truly honor his father and brother he’s going to be living in that house, driving that car, and holding down that job.
What I’ve just described to you is not legalism. Legalism would be if Jim foolishly refused to live in the house until he could pay for it on his own.
Nor is this illustration without its holes. For one, the Lord doesn’t just buy us a house and then leave us to ourselves. A better illustration would have been for Tom to have been with Jim day upon day upon day upon day, strengthening him and giving him everything that he needs for life and godliness.
Secondly, one could read this and assume that what I’m saying is that God has done the work by buying us the house (justification) and now we are by ourselves to do the work in living in the house (sanctification). That’s not true. It is God who as work within us to act and to will according to His good pleasure.
Though it is not without weakness, I do believe that this illustration highlights an unhealthy movement in some Christian circles. There are some that I believe would disagree with these words from J.I. Packer:
Paul is envisioning a Christian life not of constant, total defeat, but of constant moral advance…It is clear both here [Galatians 5:16-17] and wherever else Paul teaches Christian conduct that he expects the believer always to be moving forward in the formation of godly habits and the practice of active Christlikeness. (Keep In Step With the Spirit, 33)
Listen, the truth of our indwelling sin and our utter reliance on Jesus Christ and the freeness of grace does not mean that we ought to adopt a pessimistic and helpless attitude towards sin. Jesus Christ has come to destroy the works of the devil.
I’ll shout from the rooftops the precious truth that I’m not good and righteous but Jesus Christ is. I’m happy to confess that all of my identity and worth and righteousness comes from the identity, worth, and righteousness of our brother, Jesus Christ. But I refuse to believe that this truth means that Christian growth does not entail actual Christian growth in Christlikeness. I refuse to believe that Christian growth is only acknowledging that Christ is my righteousness and not also living in that righteousness.