That precept of Solomon, ‘Be not righteous over much’ (Eccles. 7:16) is very useful and necessary, if rightly understood. We are to beware of being too rigorous in exacting righteousness of ourselves and others beyond the measure of faith and grace. Overdoing commonly proves undoing. Children that venture on their feet beyond their strength have many a fall, and so have babes in Christ when they venture unnecessarily upon such duties as are beyond the strength of their faith. We should be content at present to do the best that we can, according to the measure of the gift of Christ, though we know that others are enabled to do much better; and we are not to despise the day of small things, but to praise God that He works in us anything that is well-pleasing in His sight, hoping that He will sanctify us throughout and bring us at last to perfection of holiness through Jesus Christ our Lord. And we should carefully observe in all things that good lesson of the apostle: ‘Not to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God has dealt to every man the measure of faith’ (Rom. 12:3).
-Walter Marshall, The Gospel Mystery of Sanctification, Chapter 12
This section demonstrates Marshall’s pastoral heart more than any other section of the book. Anyone who has worked in the ministry likely realizes that you cannot set the same bars for everyone – even in regards to holiness.
Chesterton once quipped something to the effect that the Puritans wanted to turn the whole world into a monastery. This is a caricature, but it has some teeth. There are those who have misused Puritanism in that way. I would prefer to think that the Puritans wanted to open up the windows of the monastery and let some fresh air in. They didn’t think anyone was strong enough to be a good monk (much less a good Christian) under that suffocating air. C.S. Lewis once pointed out that the tone of the early Reformers and Puritans was one of relief and buoyancy. If our Christianity doesn’t follow that trajectory of relief and buoyancy, then we’re headed down an inverted, yet somehow genuine, primrose path.
So much for the anecdotal, let’s get to a couple of actual points.
First, 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 exist for a reason. Elders and deacons are called to a higher standard than others within the church. If the are quick-tempered, for instance, they are disqualified from the ministry. If other Christians are quick-tempered, they might be disqualified from partaking of The Lord’s Supper from time to time. The Apostle James made a similar point: “Not many of you should become teachers, my brothers, for you know that we who teach will be judged with greater strictness” (James 3:1). Those texts tell me that I should hold teachers (including myself)/elders to a higher standard of holiness than I would hold someone else in the same congregation. For instance, I probably can’t count the number of times I have let church members get away with saying things (without a rebuke) that I would have chided an elder for. If God judges the teacher with greater strictness, then we should as well.
Allow me to anticipate an objection: this does not mean that ministers never sin and should never be shown grace. 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1 do not say that the minister must be perfect. But they do set a certain standard. They still get grace, but there are sins that disqualify them from office. Such sins do not necessarily mean that they are not a Christian; but it does mean that they are not called of God to be elders or deacons or what have you.
Second, the world is not a monastery. We want our people to live holy lives to be sure, but we do not want them to be stiffs. We don’t want to destroy their personalities, but we want their personalities to be submitted to the person of Christ. We want them to live in this world, to have fun, to learn from their mistakes, and ultimately to live a life of repentance. And, sadly, a life of repentance implies a life that includes sin. This does not mean that they will live in constant sin, but it does mean that they will fall. The Christian doesn’t stay in sin, but he certainly will fall into sin. Yet he keeps turning from it.
Third, speaking of living their lives, Christians should not feel under constant oppression. God does not have his thumb on us. As Spurgeon said, not a drop of water gets inside the ark; likewise, not a drop of wrath gets near the Christian. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Christians are serving a loving Father, not a tyrannical despot. Luther wrote something to this effect: sin boldly, but let your faith in Christ be bolder. I want the people I teach to be unafraid of screwing up. I don’t want them to be looking over their shoulders, constantly in fear that the hammer is about to drop. I want them to know what sin is, and I want them to know when they sin, but I also want them to know the feeling of gospel relief on a daily basis.
In his great hymn, Here, O My Lord, I See Thee Face to Face, Horatius Bonar described his desire in partaking of The Lord’s Supper in this way:
Here would I feed upon the bread of God,
Here drink with Thee the royal wine of heaven;
Here would I lay aside each earthly load,
Here taste afresh the calm of sin forgiven.
The calm of sin forgiven, tasted afresh. That’s it.
Fourth, I’ll bottom line this line of thought. I know what it is like to put yourself under tremendous pressure to live in holiness. I read books about sanctification and talk about Law and Gospel a lot. The reason I do so is this: I am a closet Legalist. I’ve known this for years. I distinctly remember the relief I felt a few years ago upon reading The True Bounds of Christian Freedom and realizing that I am not under the Law as a covenant. But, you see, I already knew that. I just hadn’t experienced the relief of that fact up until that point in time.
An amazing thing happened at that point. My preaching improved, and so did my life – my wife can attest to it. I tell people that the gospel frees us up to be screw-ups without fear of not being loved. If I didn’t believe that I wouldn’t have lasted this long. There are days when I will fight myself on and off for hours at a time over sinful thoughts and temptations – even stupid temptations that 99% of the world isn’t the least concerned about (like how many hours I sleep and how many minutes I spend reading the Bible in a given day). When I do this in my own strength I only beat myself down. When I remember the grace of Jesus Christ, I find myself built up. If that is my own experience why would I put that sort of pressure on other people? I don’t want them to think that sin is ‘okay.’ But I want them to know that God is gracious and forgiving to those who are trusting in his Son. And I want them to know (as I want my children and my wife to know) that I don’t expect them to be exactly like me – or exactly like Christ (and I am by no means exactly like Christ).
To expect perfection is to have an over-realized eschatology. We won’t be eternal splendors until we get to eternity. We are, says Peterson, in the midst of a long obedience in the same direction. That direction implies a destination that we haven’t reached. Don’t expect yourself to be there when you’re still en route. You know what it’s like to wish you had the magic button so that your tedious car-ride would be over. But no magic button exists this side of death. The good thing is that there are radios and audio books and fun games that can be played in the car along the way. I’ve learned more on some car-trips than I did in seminary classes. You’ll get there, Lord willing. The road has bumps and can be tedious, but you’ll get there.
As for how we treat others: we want to encourage one another in holiness, but we want to do so in a godly way. To encourage people to godliness in an ungodly way is the height of hypocrisy. So then, how does God encourage his people to godliness? By gospel means. Go and do thou likewise.