A Paradoxical Tension

I have found that whenever I preach a sermon that calls people to actively “repent”, or “obey”, I am expected by many to explain exactly what I “don’t mean”, namely, self-righteousness.  My hope is that we live and preach the gospel so regularly that it can be assumed that we always fight FROM our righteousness and not FOR it.    The truth is that we will always fall short in our obedience. We we never fully stop “hating” as we ought not, but we certainly never “love” as we ought.   That is why our salvation is secured through the perfect life of Jesus by his sacrifice on the cross.  Our obedience will never serve as an effective means to obtain approval;  it is, at best, response to the love of Jesus who, by grace, makes us more loving every day.   Praise to the Lord that our rightness before God does not depend on our imperfect obedience, rather, on the perfect obedience of Jesus on our behalf.  But does that mean we don’t call people to obey?

Knowing our righteousness comes from Christ doesn’t mean that we can’t boldly charge everyone in the world to “Love God and obey” without having to qualify what we are saying.  Charging people to repent, believe, and obey (just like the first disciples did in Acts) does not require that we MUST remind people not to get PRIDEFUL in their obedience and good works or DESPAIRING in their disobedience and evil works.  Though truthful and helpful, I hope we understand that is ultimately unnecessary and powerless in generating belief.   Alas, the very fact that I am writing this blog evidences the ongoing, irresolvable, and paradoxical tension between belief and obedience.

Deitrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the paradoxical relationship between belief and obedience in The Cost of Discipleship.  Among many things, Bonhoeffer wrote of the “insoluble unity” between belief and obedience.  In explaining the call of discipleship, he puts forward two propositions: “only he who believes is obedient, and only he who is obedient believes“.  In order to not lose the gospel, both of these propositions must be equally held as true.   Bonhoeffer argues that these propositions properly address both religion and irreligion; and that in any given sermon, or personal encounter, one of these approaches is needed from the pastor.  He explains, “Only those who obey”, is what you say to that part of a believer’s soul which obeys, and only those who believe” is what you say to that part of the soul of the obedience which believes.  If the first half of the proposition stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of CHEAP GRACE, which is another word for damnation.  If the second half stands alone, the believer is exposed to the danger of salvation through WORKS, which is also another word for damnation.”

Suddenly, it seems very hard to preach it “just right” doesn’t it?  While all this might be semantics, I came face to face with this tension as I preached Joshua 23.  I am convinced I will face it again in Joshua 24.  In the last two chapters of the book of Joshua, the aged leader of Israel gives two final farewell addresses.  In his first address (Joshua 23), Joshua charges the people to devote themselves to God, to cling to God, to obey God.  He tells them to REMEMBER God’s faithfulness and to RESPOND to it by “being careful” to devote themselves to God’s Word.  Moreover, Joshua goes so far as to say, “Be careful to Love God”, connecting loving God with an active desire, intention, and diligence to obey.

How can we get away from the paradoxical tension of calling people to obey and yet resting on Christ obedience for our approval?  How do you remind people that they fight FROM their righteousness not FOR it, in such a way that actually stirs them to actually FIGHT?  How do you call people to depend on God, and not depend on the world, in such away that protects them on depending on themselves to do so?  In other words, how do you call people to a faith that actually means something tangible?  This same tension is expressed in Jesus brother James’ own letter where he declares, “Faith without works is dead.”  I’m sure that is why the book of James is not the top 10 “best reads” for the typical Reformer’s list.

With every sermon I preach, I realize that there will always be times I should have said more, or less.   Praise be to God that my responsibility is simply to tell people, believer or not,  that God has proven He loves you, so love Him. I can sleep tonight knowing that is enough–the Holy Spirit will take care of the rest.  My hope that the entire witness of the church, all the sermons, all the people, all of everything preaches gospel truth all the time so as to “fill in the blanks” or provide context to what “the preacher” meant when necessary.   I’ll close with three different verses from one book.  A good friend shared these verses with me as I began to rant about my sermon this afternoon. They remind me of the tension between God’s love for me and my love for him….

We are kept by God’s love. Jude 1-3

1 Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ:
2 May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you

We keep ourselves in God’s love. Jude 20-21

20 But you, beloved, building yourselves up in your most holy faith and praying
in the Holy Spirit, 21 keep yourselves in the love of God, zwaiting for the
mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life.

God’s love keeps us when we fail to keep ourselves.

24 Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you
blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy, 25 to ithe only God,
our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, jbe glory, majesty, dominion, and
authority, before all time and now and forever. Amen.


Author: Sam Ford

Sam Ford is a preacher, planter, and pastor from the Pacific Northwest. He is currently pastoring Restoration Road Church in Snohomish, WA.

2 thoughts on “A Paradoxical Tension”

  1. Today’s message was quite clear (and surgical as usual) Sam. I am thankful that your preaching comes without compromise. Or excuse.

    Sleep well tonight my friend. The Holy Spirit did take care of the rest.


  2. “Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.” and “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer (The Cost of Discipleship)

    One of the best books I have ever read. Also, Sam, several things spoken in todays sermon, broke me. I mean really broke me. Tears, pain, joy, conviction, all at once.
    In a moment grace came flooding in, and I was there at the cross. Amen Jackie


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