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The Gospel and The List

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

– The Epistle to the Galatians 3:1-3

One of the major tenets of Christianity, especially emphasized in its Reformed expression, is that we are justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. In other words, there is nothing that makes me righteous before God except the applied righteousness of Jesus because of his life and work on the Cross. As a Christian (especially one who’s of a Reformed character) this is a truth I embrace wholeheartedly.

At least I thought I did.

That was until through a period of reading, discussion and self-reflection that I realized there were activities I refrained from that undermined my affirmation of the cardinal truth that Jesus is my total righteousness.

Let me give a little backstory here…

Once my father became a Christian our family began to attend a church affiliated with a denomination known for abstaining from a long list of activities deemed “sinful” even though the Bible didn’t explicitly say they were sinful. Things like dancing, drinking alcohol, going to movies for example. They also used to look down on card playing, swimming with the opposite sex and long hair on men. (Some churches probably still hold to those as well). But one way or another this denomination, and others like them, always have had a list, it just gets revised and updated as time goes by.

The problem with lists is that they’re easy to create, easy to enforce and easy to judge people with; however, they take away from the Follower of Jesus a critical thing that demonstrates his maturity in Christ as he or she deals with issues that don’t fall into the black or white categories in scripture – discernment. With a list there’s no need to discern whether something is acceptable or not, it’s just wrong no matter how you slice it. The result is a Christian life which in principle says Christ’s righteousness is sufficient for being made right with God but in practice lives out a life with extra-biblical rules added on to it so that in observing them (with the approval of those in authority) the person will be holier and possess a greater righteousness that those who practice the activities on “The List”.

This was the spiritual no-man’s land in which I found myself. I believed in Jesus and his work to give me a righteousness that was not my own and yet deep-down I believed that certain activities I didn’t participate in made me better than others spiritually. Now, mind you, these activities were not mentioned in the Bible as sins, they were seen as such because for whatever reason they made “The List”. As I got older I became more lenient toward others who did things on “The List” and even got to the point where I would defend them but still I didn’t dip my foot in the water, which told more of my real beliefs than I thought.

The ironic result was that in my abstinence of certain practices, instead of demonstrating my faith, I actually exposed my lack of it. My attitudes, beliefs and actions betrayed my confidence in the Gospel. With all the justifications I tried to convince myself of and straw man arguments I gave, the truth was that “The List” had invaded sacred ground. It was trespassing upon the Gospel of the Cross.

So I decided to put my actions where the Cross was. I chunked “The List” and reexamined everything, both engaging or abstaining by faith to the glory of God.

Let me ask you: Why do you do what you do? Do you do _________ and not do ___________ because the Bible says or because someone gave you a list a long time ago and told you this is what good Christians stay away from? Do you see your engagement or abstinence making you more spiritual than others? Do your actions say you trust the Gospel for your righteousness? Do you live out a life that proclaims you are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone?

I thought I did too.

Picture of Yancey Arrington
Dr. Yancey C. Arrington is an eighth generation Texan, Acts 29 Network and Houston Church Planting Network fan, and Teaching Pastor at Clear Creek Community Church in the Bay Area of Houston. He is also author of Preaching That Moves People and TAP: Defeating the Sins That Defeat You, and periodically writes for Acts 29 and The Gospel Coalition.

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