What I didn’t tell you the other day about reading David Platt’s Radical was that I had actually bought it and tried to read it a few months before our church read it together. I didn’t get very far in it before I just had to stop reading it. It was “too much.” At the time, I couldn’t really define what that meant, but by the time I picked it up again, I understood. In short, it was legalism that kept me from getting more than a chapter or two into it.
The version of Christianity I subscribed to up until a couple of years ago looked a lot like a to-do list:
- Go to church most every Sunday
- Take an active role in church, such as participating in Bible Studies (or even leading them), be on a committee, or volunteer in some other capacity. And the more you can do of these things, the better.
- Read Bible daily
- Pray daily
- Don’t cuss
- Don’t drink excessively
- Don’t have sex with anyone other than your spouse
- Take care of the house
- Be a good wife
- Be a good employee
- Be a good friend
- Be a good neighbor
- Volunteer with organizations outside of church
…and I’m sure the list could go on, but these are the things that immediately came to mind. This was what consumed my life. Some of it took work, some of it really didn’t, but I was busy enough keeping up with that list. So when David Platt came along saying Jesus said things like:
“Anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:27)
“Any of you who does not give up everything he has cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:33)
“Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” (Mark 10:21)
… it was just “too much.” I already had a to-do list a mile long, I couldn’t add those crazy things to it. So I put the book away. I’m so thankful God had other plans for me and wouldn’t let me run from what He wanted to teach me.
What I learned between the first and second times I picked up Radical was that I had been trying my best to reconcile myself to God. That, my friends, is the essence of legalism. I don’t really remember being taught too much about legalism in church (ha-ha), but I think I always had a vague notion that it involved having to wear dresses, not being able to cut your hair or following a very rigid worship style. If pushed, I probably would have said that legalists were people who felt like God wouldn’t be pleased with them if they didn’t do such-and-such. But I don’t think I would have gone so far as to say they were trying to reconcile themselves to God by those rules. And that’s where I was deceived. I had a whole laundry list of dos and don’ts that were the rules I lived by – the rules that pleased God – the rules that, when followed, reconciled me to Him. I realize now what blasphemy that was. Now, I fully understand when Jesus said to the Pharisees, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:12-13) I needed to learn the depths of my sinfulness and trust that Jesus was the only means of salvation, rather than compiling my own list of “righteous deeds” that could somehow earn salvation.
The other day I was reading Acts 5, and came across a familiar passage: Ananias and Sapphira. If you’re familiar with the Bible, you might remember that this is the story where Ananias lies to Peter about some money that he’s donating to the church, Peter rebukes him for lying and then he just falls down, dead. A little later, Ananias’ wife, Sapphira comes to Peter, corroborates Ananias’ story, and then she falls down, dead, as well. Harsh, right?! I always read it as a simple story about why you shouldn’t lie. And, to be honest, I didn’t really get what it had to do with the rest of Acts, other than to maybe show Peter’s power.
But this time when I read it, I saw a story I’d never seen before. If you back up to the end of Acts 4, you see the first Christians taking care of each other’s needs. How?
There was not a needy person among them, for as many as were owners of lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid it at the apostles' feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need. Thus Joseph, who was also called by the apostles Barnabas (which means son of encouragement), a Levite, a native of Cyprus, sold a field that belonged to him and brought the money and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 4:34-37)
Then what happens?
But a man named Ananias, with his wife Sapphira, sold a piece of property, and with his wife's knowledge he kept back for himself some of the proceeds and brought only a part of it and laid it at the apostles' feet. (Acts 5:1-2)
Oh, I see. Ananias and Sapphira want to look holy. They want to do what everybody else is doing. They want to be seen as self-sacrificial, generous. But they’re not. They can’t let all of that money go, so they hold part of it back and then… pretend. Peter’s response just cuts to the heart of it:
“Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and to keep back for yourself part of the proceeds of the land? While it remained unsold, did it not remain your own? And after it was sold, was it not at your disposal? Why is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart? You have not lied to man but to God.” (Acts 5:3-4)
Ouch. That really hurts. Because that’s exactly what I used to do. I looked around and saw what everybody else was doing and I copied them. I faked it. I had no idea I was faking it, but my heart looked a lot like Ananias and Sapphira’s.
Remember my to-do list? There’s nothing wrong with those things. There’s nothing un-Biblical about them. But when they come from a heart that’s trying to earn salvation, rather than a heart that loves Jesus and trusts in His grace, then, as Peter says, we’re not lying to men, but to God.
The reason I’m so passionate about this is simple: I can’t believe I’m the only one who has bought this lie. I can’t believe I’m the only one who, despite years of church and Christian education, thought Christianity was all about dos and don’ts, rather than Jesus’ grace.