Tag Archives: holiness

On motivating Christians to holy living

(Old Facebook Post)

I once heard three seasoned conservative Anabaptist church leaders (many of you would recognize their names instantly) discuss the challenge of motivating church members to live holy lives. Specifically, they discussed how to help members walk in holiness without the presence of multiple church standards.

The first described the difficulty of awakening in members a sense of modesty. He said he found this most difficult to achieve among those who had grown up in settings with many prescribed standards. The second then turned to third with an observation phrased as a question: Is it not true that in your church fellowship (different than the speaker’s own) the members who are giving you the greatest challenges are those from backgrounds with many church standards? The third affirmed that this, indeed, is true.

Missionary Methods: St. Paul's or Ours? Buy on Amazon I have often pondered that conversation. I remembered it again last night when I read this from Roland Allen’s classic book, Missionary Methods: St. Paul’s or Ours? (written in 1912, by an Anglican missionary):

“In our dealings with our native converts we habitually appeal to law. We attempt to administer a code which is alien to the thought of the people with whom we have to deal, we appeal to precedents which are no precedents to them, and we quote decisions of which our hearers do not understand either the history or the reason. Without satisfying their minds or winning the consent of their consciences, we settle all questions with a word.”

That paragraph sounds like the experience of some youth in some of our Anabaptist churches. But it is the next paragraph that reminded me of the above conversation:

“This is unfortunate because it leaves the people unconvinced and uneducated, and teaches them the habit of unreasoning obedience. They learn to expect law and to delight in the exact fulfilment of precise and minute directions. By this method we make it difficult to stir the consciences of our converts, when it is most important that their consciences should be stirred. Bereft of exact directions, they are helpless. They cease to expect to understand the reason of things, or to exercise their intelligence. Instead of seeking the illumination of the Holy Ghost they prefer to trust to formal instructions from their foreign guides. The consequence is that when their foreign guide cannot, or will not, supply precise commands, they pay little heed to his godly exhortations. Counsels which have no precedent behind them seem weak. Anything which is not in open disobedience to a law can be tolerated. Appeals to principles appear vague and difficult. They are not accustomed to the labour of thinking them out and applying them. If a missionary explains to his converts that some act is not in harmony with the mind of Christ his words fall on deaf ears: if he tells them that it was forbidden in a council of such and such a date, they obey him; but that is the way of death not of life; it is Judaism not Christianity; it is papal not Pauline.”

Allen ends this chapter with these probing words:

“Christians are not only what they are by nature, they are a Spirit-bearing body. It is not a question merely of our faith in them: it is still more a question of faith in the Holy Ghost. We look too much at our converts as they are by nature: St Paul looked at his converts as they were by grace.”


I dream of writing a book inspired in part by Roland Allen’s book, called perhaps “A Pure Church: St. Paul’s Methods or Ours?” It would give a brief historical overview of Anabaptist methods of producing pure churches, then systematically survey Paul’s approaches to the same goal in each of the churches he founded (and what he envisioned that goal to look like), then compare the two, ending with a challenge to change our methods where they don’t line up with Paul’s.

Subtopics could include issues like leadership and authority (source, limits, use of), congregational decision-making methods (biblical and current), membership paradigms (who is my brother?), keeping unity of the Spirit while building toward unity of the faith (Eph 4), true nature of NT separation (physical vs. spiritual), covenantal contrasts between OT pure community (Israel) and NT pure community (Church), inclusion/discipleship of new believers and exclusion of sinful believers (conversion, baptism, catechism, training, disciplining, excommunicating), methods/grounds of motivation toward holiness, training by grace (Titus 2), the regenerate/Spirit-filled nature of the true believer, etc., etc.

We Anabaptists can sometimes become so enamored with parsing our own history (congratulating ourselves, selectively and favorably comparing ourselves with other groups, justifying current practices based on trends of 50 years ago, aiming for pragmatic solutions that will preserve our churches unchanged for centuries) that we fail to listen closely to Scripture as we ought. Perhaps it is true that, when looking for guidance on practical church governance, we look more to history than to God’s Word. We base decisions on our own Anabaptist history; the early Anabaptists examined their history in light of God’s Word and made changes. I’ve heard it said that we now have our theology already worked out, with the implication our doctrine is basically all correct and we just need to get busy putting it into practice. I think a close look at Paul’s vision for the church is a necessary corrective for every generation, including ours. (And not just Paul’s; such a book could draw from Jesus and the rest of the NT, too.)

Enough ranting. May we proceed in love and be open to correction ourselves.

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“The Expulsive Power of a New Affection”

(Old Facebook Post – Revised)

Do you long for victory over sin–for yourself, or for those you love? Here is some great reading from an old Scotsman. Read it slowly, enjoying every drop. Enjoy the presentation of the gospel of Christ–for what you love, you will serve.

The Expulsive Power of a New Affection,” by Thomas Chalmers. (Thanks to Tim Keller for alerting me to this old essay.)

My reflections after reading the essay:

How do we try to motivate people to live holy lives? Often the motivations we use, while they are true and even useful, fall short of the gospel. Sometimes the motivations we use actually reinforce sinful patterns in our hearts.

For example, how might we motivate a person to live honestly? We might warn him that lying to his wife may cost him his marriage, that shady business practices can lead to lost profits, that lying under oath can lead to prison time, and that little white lies will cost you your reputation in the community. All these warnings are true, and all of them are useful and valid when used wisely. But when cut loose from the gospel, they only reinforce the idolatry of our hearts, strengthening sinful motivations of fear and pride—the very motivations that cause us to deceive in the first place! These warnings may help some people choose good behavior (though see Chalmer’s essay), but when they become our primary motivations for good behavior, they will not form a Christ-like character in us or in those we love.

A grace and gospel-based motivation might look more like this: We will remind ourselves that it is impossible to hide anything from God, but that God has extended his love toward us even while knowing the worst about us—while knowing the fear and pride that cause us to deceive. We might ponder the absolute honesty of Christ, both in his own relationships with the Father and with others, and in his manner of dealing justly and lovingly with our sin. We would meditate on the wonderful assurance provided by the certainty that it is impossible for God to lie. Our hearts would become so captivated by the integrity of God that fear and pride would drain out of our hearts, removing all motivation for dishonesty and reshaping us in the image of Christ.


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Story-powered godly living

(Old Facebook Post)

What is the best way to teach people how to live godly lives? Michael Lawrence, speaking as a pastor at T4G (Together for the Gospel) 2012, gives an interesting answer. He begins by referring to the American Dream and other meta-narratives:

“Don’t think your people aren’t buying into these stories in one way or another. And those stories, because they tell a beginning and an end, they give purpose, they shape our lives. Without telling me what to do… they tell me what to do. Because they define the goal. And now I begin to live, I begin to make decisions. Nobody has to tell me what to do. I now know, and make decisions in order to get to that goal.

“Biblical theology gives us a different story to tell. It gives us a true story to tell. It gives us the story of what God is doing, has done, and will do. It begins at the beginning, it ends at the end, and we are smack-dab in the middle of it. And it is not through more and more rules that I know how to live; it is by being immersed in the story that I know how to live. Because this story now defines me. It shapes me. It tells me where I came from, who I’m related to, and where I’m going. I can’t give my people enough rules to get them to lead a godly life. There’s no way. But I can give them the story of God and how they fit into it through the gospel. And the Holy Spirit uses that story to redefine themselves [sic], their identity, and now they begin to know how to lead godly lives that fit into the story.”

I would probably want to nuance that to note that the Bible does indeed give rules as explanations of what the two great commandments look like in shoe leather, but that too often we point people to the rules without explaining the story very well. Rules are meaningless without the story! Indeed, we are powerless and unmotivated to heed the rules apart from the story. And the better we understand the story and our place in it, the less we may need reminders of individual rules, for God’s law is written on our hearts.

Here is a talk by Lawrence called “Why Every Pastor Should Be a Biblical Theologian.” Highly recommended! Listening to a talk like this could trigger a permanent change in the way you read and teach the Bible. For example: If you think the story of David and Goliath is mostly about having the courage to face our own personal giants, then you just might be missing the main reason God included the story in the Bible. It’s really a story about Jesus… Enough with mere moralism–let’s find our place in God’s Big Story!

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