Pushed by the Law, or Pulled by the Gospel?

Spring is the season when many high school seniors get pestered the most about their plans for next fall. Are you going to college (about two-thirds will)? If so, where? Do you know what you are going to major in? Or what you want to do? How are you going to choose a roommate? Where are you hoping to get a job?

These questions can get wearying for students and parents alike, and that weariness compounds with every delay in making those looming decisions.

It seems like nearly everywhere I turn this spring, our increasing uncertainty about the future drives a kind of insecurity about what to do and how to live right now.

  • If whole swaths of the economy are changing as technology and data are increasingly applied, how does today’s education prepare kids and students for a future job market that’s unclear? (and what are humans useful for, anyway?)
  • When it seems people get tech devices earlier and more often and the options are proliferating, how do parents set rules and boundaries for wise use at home, when the world will certainly look different in a year or two…or five?
  • When marriages keep delaying and early family dynamics are changing, what is a high school student supposed to be and do in a world where “dating” is constantly changing as well?

All of that uncertainty can result in a failure to make choices (paralysis), a frenzied hop from one thing to another (distraction), or it can drive a kind of fearlessness that dares to take the future in your own hands and secure it for yourself. Either way, choices now relate to – and stem from – some vision of the not yet.

We Christians should be no stranger to this dynamic.

As a pastor who really cares about preaching, teaching, and equipping, I’m increasingly convinced that what we are taught or encouraged to do has to be shaped by a) who we are destined to become and b) who it is that guarantees that. In other words, I think our ethics (how we live now) need to be grounded more and more in our eschatology (what God promises in the future).

This is actually pretty basic to the New Testament. Take 2 Peter 3 for instance. Focusing on Christ’s return, Peter encourages us to trust that God is faithful to his word from the beginning and will do what he has promised to do. That promise that secures our future position becomes the ground of our present action: But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells. So then, dear friends, since you are looking forward to this, make every effort to be found spotless, blameless and at peace with him.” (3:13-14)

But that’s not how we often do it. The all-too-common way is to push ourselves (or our students) by way of the law from the past. The thought process runs something like: “This is what God or Jesus said to do – here’s what that looks like – wouldn’t it be great if we made that happen – therefore go do it.” I’m simplifying, of course, but doesn’t that sound familiar?

This kind of teaching pushes us from behind. It throws us back on our own effort to make something happen that either Jesus merely made possible, or won’t happen unless you get down to it!

But a gospel approach might actually be to pull one another forward by saying something like this: “Since we’ve become God’s children and we are one day going to be like Jesus himself, let’s live now as Jesus says and does!” (that’s a smashup of 1 John 2:6 and 3:2-3). Or see Titus 3:1-8, 1 Thess. 4:1-8, or Eph. 4:29-32 for other lovely examples of this dynamic.

Made new by a God who promises to make all things new, we share in the making new of life here and now by his Spirit working in us. The indicatives of grace are not only what God has done up to this point, but also the entirety of his work – past, present, and future – for us, in our place, and on our behalf in Christ.

In Tim Keller’s words, the kind of hope God offers “is a life-shaping certainty about the future.” This kind of discipleship is hopeful action based not on my own wishes or my own self-determination, but on the sure and certain hope a sovereign God has promised and secured. There may be reasonable uncertainty about much of what lies ahead in our future, but the certainty of God’s promise pulls us forward and provides a deep security. We are set free to live facing forward in love, not fear. As NT Wright says in Simply Christian, we live a life “which anticipates, in the present, the full, rich, glad human existence which will one day be ours when God makes all things new.”

So, take out the last few talks you’ve given, messages you’ve preached, or studies you’ve led. Answer this question: when you teach students from scripture and get to some area of application (exhorting them or encouraging them to have some attitude or take some action), do you more often push them by the law or pull them by the hope and promise of the gospel? Do you ground your teaching only in what we are commanded to do (and imply we have the power to do it), or do you anchor it in God’s promise, faithful character, and given Spirit? (1 Thess. 5:23-24).

Check out this article on Mockingbird for further reading.


Andy Cornett is an Associate Pastor at Signal Mountain Presbyterian in Chattanooga, Tenn. Andy earned a Masters in Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, Calif., and has more than ten years of experience in youth ministry.

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