Bringing Reality to the Spiritual Life (Part 2)

Francis Schaeffer wrote True Spirituality to address the sense of unreality that pervades the faith of modern Christians. Schaeffer was a philosopher, not a storyteller, and readers who are unaccustomed to his dense, abstract writing style may find this classic book hard to digest. In this series of articles, I will try to unpack and explain the major ideas.

This installment focuses on Chapter 1, where Schaeffer discusses rules of Christian behavior. When the implications of the gospel are reduced to outward behaviors, our relationship with God becomes superficial and trite. True spirituality is not found in any set of rules. Nor is it found in setting aside rules.

The starting point of the Christian life is regeneration. When we put our faith in Jesus and accept his atoning sacrifice for our sins, we are born again. In one sense, new birth is the most important fact of spiritual life. Unless a person is born, that person does not live. But in another sense, it is the least important fact, because once a person is born, that birth recedes into the past and he must get on with the actual business of living. Although we always remember our new birth and thank God for it, we should not keep returning to the new birth to make it the focus of our spirituality, because birth is just the beginning of what God intends for us.

After new birth, the believer will ask, “What now? What am I supposed to do?” At that point, the church will typically present him with a list of spiritual disciplines to be followed and sinful behaviors to be avoided. The intentions behind these lists may be good, and the rules may help the young believers to begin his walk of faith on solid footing. But sooner or later, he begins to question the rules. Did Christ redeem us just to make us rule-followers? Of course not.

In his discussions with young Christians at the L’Abri community, Schaeffer noticed a great deal of complaining about legalisms imposed by the church and Christian culture. They wanted to set aside rules in order to experience a deeper, more authentic spirituality. At first, he sympathized with them. But as Schaeffer listened to these young people, he began to sense that many of them wanted to set aside the rules simply because they wanted to do the things that were prohibited. Rules cannot be set aside and replaced by nothing. If we put aside the moralisms of any particular community and ask what God himself requires of us, we are faced with the Ten Commandments.

At first glance, the Ten Commandments may look like another list of prohibitions. Yet behind them lies the positive requirement to love God and to love one’s neighbor. The principle of love is not an invention of the New Testament era, but is found in the Commandments themselves, especially the final one, “Do not covet.” Coveting is a directing of internal desire toward things that others have. All the other commandments can be kept through outward behavior, but “Do not covet” cannot. It is no accident that the Apostle Paul, a highly disciplined external keeper of the law, found himself to be a sinner when he honestly faced this last commandment (Ro 7:7). The only way to avoid coveting is to possess a heart of thankfulness. Not coveting means loving God so much that I am genuinely satisfied with the life and circumstances he has given me. It means loving my neighbor so much that, when I see the good things that he has and I do not, I am truly happy for him and rejoice in his good fortune. It means that, when my neighbor suffers failure or loss, I do not derive any hint of pleasure whatsoever.

Love is an internal matter. It does produce external expressions in behavior, but those expressions (kind words, serving) are not the essence of love, because they can be motivated by something else. Real love is always internal, a matter of the heart, which cannot be faked or forced.

The essence of the Christian life is not found in adhering to any list of external behaviors, but in truly loving God and loving other people. Sinful people are not naturally filled with love. The kind of love needed to live the Christian life requires nothing short of a supernatural, miraculous transformation of the inner person. Anything short of that is not authentic Christian spirituality; it is playing games and trifling with God.

As I was reviewing chapter 1 and writing this summary, I was reminded once again of how difficult it is for Christians to grasp the relationship between grace and law. Many of us still don’t understand it even after decades of Bible study. The gospel that is presented in the New Testament is a gospel of pure grace, rooted in God’s unconditional acceptance of us apart from anything that we do. Yet we are hesitant to declare unconditional grace, because we fear it will lead to lawlessness. So when we talk about the gospel, we try to “strike a balance” between grace and law. We say, “Yes, God forgives us unconditionally and frees us from the law, but we must still obey the law.” Indeed, I find it very rare for any Christian in UBF or elsewhere to talk about grace without immediately inserting one or more of those “but” statements that include rules and regulations, because we fear that if we don’t, those who receive the message might get the wrong idea and become lawless. This notion that the truth is found somewhere in the middle, striking a careful balance between legalism and lawlessness, is a deeply flawed idea that misrepresents the gospel. Christian spirituality is not about finding a middle ground between legalism and lawlessness. It is about drinking deeply from the well of grace until we are transformed from the inside out. Yesterday, I happened to run across a great article on this by Tullian Tchividjian.


  1. James Kim

    Hi Joe, thanks for the series of True Spirituality by Francis Schaeffer. As you pointed out, even after we are born again, we can be enslaved by many man-made rules. Many Christians are still guilty of “keeping the rules” legalism including myself. Many faithful duty bound Christians do what they do out of fear or simply because they are used to do it or because they feel good and comfortable about themselves by doing it.
    Francis Schaeffer likened this to marriage. There are two kinds of marriage, ugly marriage and happy (and beautiful) marriage. For example, faithful marriage can sometimes be ugly. They perform all kinds of duties to their partner, but if there is no heart to heart love relationship and communication, it can be very ugly. On the other hand, if the couple has heart to heart love relationship they are very happy. Their happiness does not depend on what other partner does for their spouse.
    I also compared this problem to swimming. If we swim in the shallow water, we feel safe, standing on your feet anytime we want (depending myself). But when we swim in the deep water, we have to constantly move our limbs to float, otherwise we will sink. Schaeffer called this, “moment by moment” relationship to God and the Holy Spirit. Of course this will be much harder, 24/7 relationship with God. Even though we fail all the time in this regard, we can come to Jesus, trusting in his love, and appreciate his great grace, what God has done for us, again and again.
    Galatians 6:2 says, “Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ”. “—rather serve one another in love” (5:13b). God granted us wonderful Christian community to practice this kind of love.

  2. GerardoR

    I love your concluding point Joe. Here is my protestant stereotype: Many protestant believe in once saved always saved. But if your saved forever despite the sins you commit after your declaration of faith, then a man could go on sinning and still get into heaven?

    Although I am still confused by that reasoning, I have to admit that very few of the devout protestants I know acknowledge  that they are saved and yet, continue to try and live a life full of faith and charity. Not because their works are meritorious but because they want to live a Christ like life. So even though a once saved always saved position creates the ripe enviroment for lawlessness, I have to admit that most people who I know that follow this dont do whatever they please. They are wonderful, self sacrificing individuals. If someone who didnt know them, witnessed their behavior, they might even be tempted to think that they are trying to earn cookie points with God because of their self sacrificial life.

    So I totally agree that grace should not be confused with lawlessness. I have been fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who live within the laws despite being free’d from them in Christ.    

    I also love your point about drinking deeply from the well of Christ and not seeking that balanced life. Whether we are justified by faith alone or faith and works is one question. However, I think that no one would deny that despite the role that works *might* play in salvation, we are called to have the faith to move mountains AND the works that would lead us to lay down our life for our friends. Christ taught us to believe deeply and Love deeply. I think we often take this middle ground approach because we assume that all extremes are bad. And indeed, many of them are bad and even the ones that are inherently good, can become self destructive if they are viewed through the lens of a world view that cannot support them. C.S. Lewis often wrote how many moderns love the idea of deep, deep humility but outside of a devout religious framework, they quickly give up that pursuit because their world view cannot sustain it. I do not think we can ever have too much of a inherently good thing IF it is carried out through the right vessel (e.g., Holy Spirit) and the right world view (e.g., the Gospel).  

    The one thing I have often been fascinated by is how people who do not hold the gospel world view view a person who carries this extreme out. For instance, how does an humanist atheist view a Saint like Mother Theresa?

  3. Thanks, Joe. I think that true Christians know Grace, and surely want to live by the grace of Jesus. But Satan is a liar and a deceiver (John 8:44), who wants us to communicate something else other than Grace, which is always free and undeserved and unconditional, and really “too wonderful to be true.” So the easiest way to confuse Grace, I think, is to tack something else onto it, which is the Law. So “unless you come to church, come to fellowship meetings, come to Bible study, and do what is expected of you as a church member,” we will not regard you as a “good Christian.” Such an attitude destroys Grace, and promotes legalism, don’t you think? Enforcing the Law or enforcing any preferred methodology of the church always communicates legalism, thus obscuring or assuming Grace, for only Grace and Grace alone causes us to delight in the Law (Ps 1:2).
    Hi Gerardo, with regards to once saved, always saved, I would say that it is based on God Himself sustaining a true believer from the beginning to the end of one’s life as a Christian (1 Cor 1:8). But with every true and beautiful doctrine, we sinners corrupt it and pervert it, and imply that I can then do whatever I want. But when God truly sustains us, God will enable us to do what pleases Him for His glory (1 Cor 10:31). If a “Christian” just does whatever he wants, including sinfully indulging his flesh (Gal 5:19-21), claiming “once saved, always saved,” then it is highly questionable if one is truly a believer, for “faith apart from works is dead” (James 2:17,26).

    • GerardoR

      Dr. Ben,
      There seems to be an interesting difference with the way you might be defining laws and the way Joe seems to be defining them. I think we would all agree on the following two statements:

      #1 You cant have a church do whatever they want and especially believe whatever they want. We see the consequences of this kind of relativistic attitude in secular culture. That is why Chesterton often said that within the bounds of the Church, there are walls that that give children the security to know you are within truth. But if you take away those bounds, then people feel a great sense of insecurity and they dont even know what is truth anymore.

      #2 A church is not a  business  where many like to look down on their “subordinates.” A Church is driven by the grace of God and the grace that its children show towards one another.  If a church has leaders, then these leaders should not look down on others.

      I don’t see these two views in conflict with one another. When Jesus bent down to wash his diciples feet he said to them, “You call me Lord and teacher” and then concludes this statement by saying, “and rightly so!” He did not say, “you guys flatter me to much, I am just like you.” Instead, he humbled himself and gave them what they wanted, a master and savior to served. He answered as the Son of Man and yet he showed within his humility that he was the Son of God.  

      Lets take another example. Matthew 20, Mark 20 and Luke 22 all recount an incident in which the disciples wanted to know who was the greatest. How does Jesus respond? Well first he says, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.   But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves”

      If we look at this passage, we see a lot of support for what you have been saying on this and other threads. The inappropriateness of “those who lord it over them.” But we may also be tempted to think that Jesus is saying, there should be no leaders among the disciples or Christians in the future. However, I think it is important to point out that Jesus does in fact mention who is the greatest among them by saying that the greatest among them is he who “serves and is like a child.” So Jesus does in fact both say, humble yourselves and yet names the  characteristic  of he who would seek to be the greatest among them. I think this passage suggest that we can reconcile the desire to be great and the desire to seek humility in this: To reject the greatness that the world gives and seek after the greatness that God gives.  

      Interestingly, if you go just a few verses down, we see that after Jesus says goes on to name the person who was to lead the apostles when he says in verse 31-32: “Simon, Simon, Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat.  But I have prayed for YOU [singular greek], Simon, that your [singular greek] faith may not fail. And when you have turned back, strengthen your brothers.”

      But again Dr. Ben, your point is well taken in looking at acts when Saint Paul rebuked Peter (even though he was the leader) for not eating with the gentiles. So even though Saint Paul received Peters blessing to be a missionary to the gentiles, he still rebuked him and Peter had no choice but to stand rebuked.  

      So I think Jesus ministry and the apostles ministry shows us several excellent examples of how both you and Joe are quite right in asserting that we both need rules, authority and boundaries as well as a spirit of humility.

    • Thanks, Gerardo, for your reflective and throughtful comments based on the biblical accounts, which are always fun to read.  Perhaps, a  problem of all fallen men, which includes all Christians in all churches and denominations,  is “How do we Christians view Law and Grace?” The Law is good (Rom 7:12,16), because  it reflects and reveals God perfectly. But since no one can ever live up to the Law, it only exposes us as the  rotten  sinners that we are (Rom 7:7-8), and condemns us appropriately  and accordingly (Rom 7:10-11). So the Law, properly used,  leads us to Christ (Rom 7:24-25, 10:4; Gal 3:24), when we correctly realize, by the work of the Holy Spirit,  that we ourselves have no hope in ourselves at all because of our sins, past and ongoing.

      I see a major problem in the church when the Law is used to control people, manipulate people, rule over people, assess people, evaluate people, judge people, make distinctions between people (obedient, disobedient; leader, non-leader; senior, junior; older, younger; etc), etc. Such a use of the Law only makes some people proud (because they are “good,” obedient, superior, senior, faithful, fruitful,  etc), and some others it primarily  burdens and condemns people (which is what the Pharisees did). Such a legalistic, moralistic use of the Law is not what the Bible intended. So it does not  uplift people and point them to Christ, who alone fulfilled the Law perfectly, and whose righteousness is then imputed to us Christians through repentance and faith (2 Cor 5:21).

      This is not to say that there are no leaders and no boundaries in the church. But a Christian leader’s role should follow the Bible and not the world (Mark 10:42-45), as you pointed out, and which I addressed previously.

  4. Right Ben, like Gerstner said: Faith —-> Justification + Works. If the works are not there, the faith was not real in the first place, but the works MUST follow as a result of faith and not as the cause of Justification.

    Gerardo, by your own logic, how can you personally have hope of heaven? What if you commit 10 “Mortal sins” one second before death?

    I am not saying that I believe the Gospel allows for licentiousness, it certainly does not, and I think you would be hard pressed to find a  Calvinist that would tell you it does. However, if true believers have “crossed over from death to life” and are “sealed with the Holy Spirit” and  have been  “elected unto salvation” and presently HAVE “Eternal Life” then how can they lose it? If I have eternal life but I can lose it, then it is not eternal, at best it is contingent life (contingent upon my obedience and righteousness), but not eternal life. So the question begs to be asked, at what point do we gain Eternal Life? Now or at death? Why did Jesus say in John 11 “Whoever lives and believes in me will never die.”?

    • GerardoR

      I have hope in heaven because I  have placed my faith in God and accept what he has done for me and is doing to me. I  believe that I am saved (Romans8:24; Eph 2:5; 2Tim1:19), I am being saved (Phil 2:12; 1 Peter 1:19) and I will be saved (Mat 10:22;Mark 24:13; Mark 8:35) provided that I remain in him (John 15; Matthew 24:13; 1 Cor 9:27). Because even though I am a part of the vine, God will “prune every branch that does not bear fruit” (John 15:2). Notice he did not say prune a fake branch or a branch that thinks it is a branch but really is not. Hence, if I “do not remain in [God], I am like a branch that is thrown away into the fire” (John 15:6).

      I am indeed a sinner who by the Grace of God, has been “grafted into the vine and now shares in the nourishing sap from the olive root” (Romans 11:7). Nevertheless, I try not to “consider myself superior to those other branches” (Romans 11:17) because if I do, “God will not spare me” (Romans 11:22). So I pray that God might help me to carry my cross and help me to respond to his kindness so that I may not be “cut off” (Romans 11:22).  

      If you have a concern for my salvation, please email me and we can discuss anything I present here.

    • lots of things out of context in there…some questions: Who are the original Olive branches in Romans 11 do you think? In fact what  is Paul talking about in Romans 9-11?  How are you able to bear fruit in your life, from your own strength or by God’s? Who sustains your salvation, yourself or God?

      Surely the axe is at the root of the tree that does not bear fruit, but that is the point! if Works do not follow from faith, then the faith was not real in the first place! Works are simply the EVIDENCE of faith and the outworking of faith in Christ who gives Justification. And “good fruit” and “good works” are only made possible by the Holy Spirit who indwells every believer.  Works are NOT the CAUSE of Justification or Salvation or Preservation, that  Cause  is Jesus and Him Alone. Sola Fide in  Solus Christus. No one can snatch his sheep out of his hand. Once we are his we are his forever, he has not lost even one that the Father has given him. No one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him, and like I said before, if a believer has crossed over from death to life, and will never die, and has eternal life right now HE CANNOT LOSE IT OR IT WOULD NOT BE ETERNAL. John 5:24, “”I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life.”

    • GerardoR

      David, let’s have this discussion over email.

    • Yes Gerardo, good idea, however to extend the invitation to correspond via email  and then revoke it by email  before the conversation begins is somewhat strange! No matter, we can let UBFriends be our place of discussion if you prefer.

  5. A nice short read of why rules alone, no matter how well intended,  never works, and that only Grace surprises and truly changes and transforms  our hearts.

    This is another nice cute little story about a little girl blogged by  Tullian Tchividjian that shows why God’s grace in giving us an “A”  is the only way we sinful human beings, who never deserve an A,  can ever be truly changed.