In my libraries in Florida and Oregon, I have a variety of books on Theonomy from mostly American Calvinists  that delight in presenting the ideals of God’s law and in desiring the application of biblical law and especially penalogy in contemporary culture. The seeming glee that the authors discuss the narrow bounds of God’s graciousness towards totally depraved and fallen and mankind and the punishment of adulteresses and children who curse their parents by stoning would rival that of any Pharisee bringing a woman caught in flagrante dilecto before Jesus Christ Himself in the temple. What makes for good doctrine often makes bad practice. In other parts of my libraries I have books written about the loving concern of God for those who are broken and living in the mire of life , and almost without exception these books look at God’s love for those in the mess of sin and difficulty without any sort of discussion of the ideal of how life should be. The focus instead is on binding up the wounds of people here and now and sometimes on avenging the wrongs that people have suffered as a result of abuse and oppression on grounds of race, class, and gender.
In many ways, this is a familiar false dilemma, one that one deals with often . It is, if one wishes to be blunt about it, a satanic dialectic. On the one hand, people are pummeled with a view of law that does not include grace, and whether they are the self-righteous and often self-appointed enforcers of that law, or they are in despair because their lives can never reach the ideals presented to them on their own, or never feel forgiven and set free by the mistakes of the past, they often struggle to continue on the walk towards Christian maturity. On the other hand, cheap grace is promised, an encouragement for us as we are, without any focus on the requirements of godly living. In moral terms, this amounts to kissing the boo-boo of a crying young child, only for that child to run around and trip and fall and cry again a few minutes later, or to give a pig a bath for it to immediately return back to the mire once it is clean. It is the proclamation of a false Ragamuffin gospel, a call to sin so that grace may abound. What makes for good practice often makes bad doctrine. Ultimately, those who believe that God gives this sort of grace delude themselves, and the people who in one moment proclaim the clean slate that God has given them the next wallow in despair when they have once again failed to overcome the sin that ensnared them before, only to seek that grace over and over again. Whether we look at thesis or antithesis, we are engaged in a false dilemma, in which neither extreme, nor any compromise between the two, is a correct view of the character of God or the nature of salvation.
Salvation and justification, however one wishes to talk about it, involves a difficult process, and one in which the specifics vary but the general picture is the same for all of humanity. We live in a marsh or a bog, and on a clear day we can see a glorious mountain, yet we know of no way to move from the swamps where we live among the muck and mire and the mountain where we know we belong, and where we long to live, but simply cannot reach. Not only is the way long, and the path difficult to find and stay on, but we are blind, deaf, broken, imprisoned, and tormented day and night, not the most promising candidates for such a difficult climb that involves a lengthy hike through seemingly trackless wilderness as well as mountain climbing. Regardless of our own individual stories and lives, when we look at the righteous standards of God, and look at the reality of our life and our world, we do not know how to get from here to there. As our world becomes increasingly more fallen and difficult, the yawning chasm between where we are and where we belong and were meant to be only becomes wider and wider.
As speakers and writers, should we attempt to wade into the thicket and deal with such matters, we are faced with some difficulties. For one, any time we urge compassion and understanding on those who are stuck in the mire without pointing to the standard that God wants us to reach, the destination for our lives, all we are doing is enabling people to remain stuck in the mire. We cheer on the many and varied manifestations of brokenness and tell people that they should not feel bad about the sort of brokenness their lives show. We comfort people dealing with the aftermath and consequences of sin, and somehow they never seem to progress beyond the same problems and the same concerns and the same cycles of dysfunctional living. Just as wrongly, if we point to the standard that God wants us to reach without showing compassion and understanding to those broken by their own sins and the sins of others against them, we club people over the head with harshness and despair, and make it seem as if God is only calling a certain elite group of people who come from intact homes and who have basically sound physiques and mental health, a privileged list that we ruefully recognize we do not belong to. Even if we recognize that both extremes are wrong, and seek to avoid the false dilemma we are continually presented with, we are faced with a barrage of difficult questions: Does God’s forgiveness of our sins free us of the consequences and repercussions of those sins? Not necessarily. Do God’s righteous ways present us with difficult choices and the need for great restraint and self-denial in how we live? Absolutely. Are God’s ways contrary to our “natural” longings, contrary to the societies in which we live, and likely to make us stand out if we choose to obey them as widely and deeply as possible? Without a doubt.
These matters are not only difficult when we view them with a broad brush, but are even more vexing when we look at the particular details of our own lives and the lives of others around us. When David, at length, admitted his sin against God concerning the matter of Bathsheba the wife of Uriah the Hittite, whom he then murdered in cold blood through the hand of the Ammonites, God forgave his sin, but stated that the son born of adultery would die, and that David’s family would be riven by bloodshed as a result, which happened in due course in a sordid tale of rape, incest, fratricide, and rebellion. When Paul asked that a certain thorn of the flesh be removed, he was told that it would not be removed because its existence was a way of keeping Paul humble. When we turn from the pages of scripture and look into our own lives, we see a bewildering array of how God deals with people. Some people are given wealth and social influence, and life seems to be smoothed for them. Other people are given lives of harrowing difficulty, wracked with continual torments and problems, and yet they live with graciousness and serve others as they can. Here on earth we only see part of the story. We may know, at least intellectually, that we are living with the Kingdom of heaven in mind, but we do not know how the path we are on now gets us there, or why there could not be another way, or why someone else’s way is so different than our own. We see the green grass that others have, and do not know the requirement of cattle that they must feed on the grass they have been given, and we may not see that God has given us only a few goats to tend on the scrubby soil that we have been appointed to at this time. Lacking insight into the bigger picture, it is hard for us to be just to others.
Even where we seek to present our own way of life, and the reasons for it, those reasons cannot help but provide a commentary on the way that others are living around us. Our words and deeds, whether intentionally or not, will present a commentary and a critique of others around us. If we are at a birthday party and remain silent, not singing the words to “Happy Birthday,” that refusal to join in signifies a critique of the practice of celebrating birthdays. If we do not join others at bars or nightclubs, our refusal to do so is a critique of that way of living. Likewise, if we bring with us reusable cloth bags to grocery stores, our action is itself a critique of the wasteful proliferation of bags and packaging that exists in our world. Whether this critique or criticism is intended or not, it is felt, and it can easily cause resentment from others who draw the lines differently than we do, who are offended by something we may care little about, or who are offended that we do not share in their own activities. And yet if we live with our eyes on another world, and in preparation for another life, that fact alone will dramatically change how we view this life, and the fact that we will not see the same level of finality that others do with death. May that not make us live lives any less graciously all the same. We are in the midst of a long journey, and it is not yet clear how we will get to the destination we seek. It is little wonder that others along the way will be equally confused about the way that we live and the beliefs we espouse.
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