Tuesday, March 4, 2014

has failure become a virtue?

“Christian, you cannot obey the Law. Your certain failure is a means to show forth the grace of God when you repent.”

“We don’t need more lists of how to be a better spouse/parent/Christian. We need more grace.”

“My life strategy for today: fail, repent, repeat.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? These sorts of statements comprise a growing body of commentary that finds the Law of the Bible to be a crushing burden, not just for the unbeliever, but for the believer as well. Enough with “checkbox Christianity”, these voices tell us. No more “how to‘s” on righteousness. In the righteousness department you are an epic fail, so toss out your checklists and your laws, and cast yourself on grace.

failure gets a makeover

In recent years church leaders have rightly spoken out against moralistic therapeutic deism, which is really just a fancy name for legalism – the idea that we earn God’s favor through external obedience to a moral code. Moralistic therapeutic deism, as in the days of Jesus, pervades our culture and even our churches. And it’s as harmful today as it was when Jesus spoke against it two thousand years ago.

As a response to this skewed view of Law, some have begun to articulate a skewed view of grace - one that discounts the necessity of obedience to the moral precepts of the Law. I call this view “celebratory failurism” – the idea that believers cannot obey the Law and will fail at every attempt. Furthermore, that our failure is ultimately cause to celebrate because it makes grace all the more beautiful.

These days, obedience has gotten a bad name. And failure has gotten a make-over. 

Interestingly, Jesus battled legalism in a different way than the celebratory failurist does. Rather than tossing out the Law or devaluing obedience to it, he called his followers to a deeper obedience than the behavior modification the Pharisees prized. He called for obedience in motive as well as in deed, the kind of godly obedience that is impossible for someone whose heart has not been transformed by the gospel. Rather than abolish the Law, Jesus deepened his followers’ understanding of what it required, and then went to the cross to ensure they could actually begin to obey it.

set free to obey

The gospel grants both freedom from the penalty of sin and freedom to begin to obey (Rom 6:16). And what are we to obey? The Law, that once gave death but now gives freedom. God's Word teaches us that behavior modification should absolutely follow salvation. It just occurs for a different reason than it does in the life of the unbeliever. Modified behavior reflects a changed heart. When Peter says we have spent enough time living as the pagans do, surely he means that it is time to stop disobeying and begin obeying. Paul tells us that grace teaches us to say no to ungodly passions, not merely to repent when we fail to say no. He goes on to say that we are redeemed, not from the Law, but from lawlessness (disregard for the Law). If, as John attests, all sin is lawlessness (disregard for the Law), ought we not to love the Law and meditate on it day and night, as those who desire deeply to cease sinning? When Jesus says “Go, and sin no more,” don’t we think he means it?

Any profession of faith that is not followed by evidence is an empty profession. And faithful profession without faithful obedience is spiritual schizophrenia. It is to affirm that God exists and then to turn and live as if he does not.

Celebratory failurism asserts that all our attempts to obey will fail, thereby making us the recipients of greater grace. But God does not exhort us to obey just to teach us that we cannot hope to obey. He exhorts us to obey to teach us that, by grace, we can obey, and therein lies hope. Through the gospel our God, whose law and whose character do not change, changes us into those who obey in both motive and deed. Believers no longer live under the Law, but the Law lies under us as a sure path for pursuing what is good, right and pleasing to the Lord. Contrary to the tenets of celebratory failurism, the Law is not the problem. The heart of the Law-follower is.

Obedience is only moralism if we believe it curries favor with God. The believer knows that it is impossible to curry favor with God because God needs nothing from us. He cannot be put in our debt. Knowing this frees us to obey out of joyful gratitude rather than servile grasping.

Imagine telling your child, “I know you’ll fail, but here are our house rules. Let me know when you break them so I can extend grace to you.” We recognize that raising a lawless child is not good for the child, for our family, or for society as a whole. We don’t train our children to obey us so they can gain our favor. They already have our favor. We, being evil, train and equip them to obey because it is good and right and safe. And how much more does our Heavenly Father love us?

moving beyond “fail and repent”

We must not trade moralistic therapeutic deism for celebratory failurism. Sanctification is about more than “You will fail, but there is grace for you.” Growing in holiness means that we fail less than we used to, because at long last we are learning to obey in both motive and deed, just as Christ obeyed. There is a difference between self-help and sanctification, and that difference is the motive of the heart.

Earnest Christians look to their church leaders and ask, “Teach me to walk in His ways.” We owe them an answer beyond, “Fail and repent.” We owe them, “This is the way, walk in it.” The way is often delineated by lists – a list of ten don’ts in Exodus 20, a list of eight do’s in Matthew 5, a list of works of the flesh and spiritual fruit in Galatians 5, and so on. These are lists that crush the unbeliever but give life to the believer. They make straight the paths of those who love them, and though the way they delineate is narrow, it is the way that leads to life.

The Law becomes a gracious means of conforming us to the image of the Savior. We love the Law because we love the God of the Law, who has engraved it on our very hearts. We do not start our days planning to fail, nor do we celebrate failure. Rather, we set our faces like flint and resolve by the power of the Spirit to obey.

I delight to do your will, O my God;
    your law is within my heart.”      Psalm 40:8


  1. Thank you so much, Jen. It's quite possible I've found myself in one of these two circles my whole life. Somehow we seem to have confused the Law with God's wrath toward those who break the Law. Under the blood we stand on the Law as the righteousness of Christ. It is because we are no longer under wrath that we are free to obey. Your post is one of the best I've seen on this issue as I've been grappling over the last year with all of this. Grateful for the beautiful fullness of the Gospel and the freedom it gives. Always thankful for your words.

  2. Thank you for putting my hearts concerns to words. Finally! is my thought. I bet you get a lot of heat for it though….I believe ecstatic failurism also neutralizes the gospel…what is even for then? Why make new creations if they're going to be the same as the old ones but with a grace stamp? sometimes i think its just laziness? I don't know. we've been reading a lot of christian biographies and they show just how much the church has changed in this way. ok i'm rambling but praising God for your courage.

  3. Good stuff. This is a much needed message, especially in younger reformed churches where "ecstatic failurism" is being heavily promoted.

  4. I have also seen the trend of people celebrating their failures. Great timely post.

  5. Are you saying that Christians are to serve God by the "written code"?

  6. Actually, we are free from obligations to the Law (it can only apply to a living person [Ro 7:1-6]), since the intention of the Law was to condemn men as sinners [2 Co 3:9] (and we are no longer sinners--it is not meant for righteous men, but for sinners; even though some may unintentionally unlawfully misuse the Law as if it were [1 Ti 1:9]), not to bring about righteousness in men (God did what the Law could not do--made men saints--with the Gospel [Ro 8:1-4])--however, we are free from the Law NOT to indulge in the flesh but to be united with Christ (the Lawgiver) through Whom we "serve God" (the definition of righteousness) in the new covenant way of the Spirit (a righteousness from God through faith in Christ not a righteousness of my own from the Law which I can boast about and end up forfeiting Christ over [Pp 3:1-9]) [Ro 7:6].

    Even Rabbi Dr. Immanuel Schochet, a Pharisee, agrees Jews who die are no longer obligated to the Mizvahs--and, when they are resurrected, they will live their resurrected lives STILL free from the obligation (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eyIDPb80FV8&list=PL8DADE8D0B52F75E3&feature=mh_lolz).

  7. Paul's use of the term "written code" doesn't preclude purposefully obedience to the breathed-out inspired Word (2 Tim 3:16, 17), as that is part of what it means to walk in the Spirit. The Spirit inspired the Word for that very purpose. Paul's use of the term is a paradigm for the nominal Israelite or any natural man who attempts to keep God's revealed will in a self-justifying manner. Justification is about "earning," sanctification is about "following."

    Though imperfect on this side of glory, purposeful obedience to the Word of God by a Spirit indwelt believer is acceptable and pleasing to God because we are positionally sanctified as well as involved in God's ordained process of sanctification -- of which good works is an ordained means (Eph 2:10).

    Paul wrote in 1 Tim 5:21, "In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules . . . (ESV) If obedience to rules/commandments/precepts in the written Word was not a part of the vital NC experience, why would Paul preface the "charge" with a call to Christ and the elect angels as his witness?

    1. 1. "Paul's use of the term 'written code' doesn't preclude purposefully obedience to the breathed-out inspired Word (2 Tim 3:16, 17), as that is part of what it means to walk in the Spirit."
      i. The definition of "written code" in Romans is "Torah"--not "New Covenant".
      ii. Most people could not read at that time so expecting them to read and obey would not have been practical.
      iii. The Roman believers were called "doers of the Law" even though they did not even know the Law because God was putting His Laws in their minds and hearts [Ro 2:13-15]--this was the plan of God in the New Covenant, and any words in the Bible are simply going to turn us to that reality (and if we do not enter it we are not truly living the Words in the Bible). Those Roman believers did not even need to have knowledge of the Written Code to fulfill the righteous requirement in it.
      iv. I agree with 2 Ti 3:16,17 but I disagree with what I think your interpretation or definition of it might be. I believe that one example of how it equips us for every good work is 1 Co 9 where Paul says the Law about not muzzling oxen was actually written for Christians (people ought to contribute in various earthly means to those who labor faithfully in spiritual things / the Gospel). In other words, if Paul meant, "Serve God by knowing and obey Torah" he would be contradicting many of his doctrines.

      2. "Paul's use of the term is a paradigm for the nominal Israelite or any natural man who attempts to keep God's revealed will in a self-justifying manner. Justification is about 'earning', sanctification is about 'following.'"
      Yet, Paul is quite clear: we do not serve / follow God by the old way of the written code but in the new way of the Spirit [Ro 7:6] with "wisdom taught by the Spirit" [1 Co 1].

      3. "...ordained process of sanctification -- of which good works is an ordained means (Eph 2:10)."
      Of course I agree that God expects works--I am only saying I believe Paul taught believers to serve God not by the old way of the Torah rather than the new way of the Spirit.

      4. "Paul wrote in 1 Tim 5:21, 'In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels I charge you to keep these rules...' (ESV) If obedience to rules/commandments/precepts in the written Word was not a part of the vital NC experience, why would Paul preface the 'charge' with a call to Christ and the elect angels as his witness?"
      I believe we can walk by the Words in Scripture--however, there ought to be something working in you that is already making you do them. Example: When I was first saved, I didn't need anything to tell me to take every thought captive--I knew and obeyed that rule by the Spirit. The same Spirit Who wrote the Bible is "writing" me ("an epistle written by the Spirit").
      Remember the Apostles commanded Paul to "remember the poor"--and his answer, "which I was already wont to do": the Word can tell us many things, but there ought to already be something in us leading us to do those things. There is a lawful use and an unlawful use of the Torah. My only objection was that we are not to serve by Torah, but that the Words of Scripture ought ultimately to lead us to Christ.

    2. That will be my last comment--I should be moving along.
      Thanks for the discussion.

  8. Actually the Beatitudes aren't "do's". But, I agree with the majority of this post. You seem to be downplaying that the Law does indeed drive us to the cross. . . . not to just celebrate our failures. . but confirm our need for a Savior, whom as we celebrate HIM will lead us into more obedience. The cure for antinomianism is a focus on Christ, who, whether we're comfortable with it or not. IS "the end of the Law".

    1. Aaron, I agree that the Beatitudes aren't "do's", strictly speaking. They describe the character of a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven. But the character they describe is a person who acts in righteousness, and the subsequent passages of the Sermon on the Mount explore both the Don'ts and the Do's of the OT Law. So I think the point is not a stretch. But thank you for pointing out the nuance.

    2. Thanks Jen, I agree with you that the Sermon on the Mount does contain ethical imperatives. I also agree with the tacit implication in this post that the verbage we use as we talk about Grace is very important. I would just say that most of the authors that promote similar ideologies are deailng with the "How" as in "how Christians grow". An emphasis on the 3rd use of the Law as ethical guideposts is affirmed, but the "fuel" for how we pull off the 3rd use of the Law is grace. So, to celebrate the Law, and go hard after the ethical demands without that pursuit being based on a continual amazement at God's grace does easily lead to a soft legalism. We won't grow if we're focusing on simply obeying the law apart from a thriving awareness of Christ within us. He is our perfect obedience.

      I'm agreeing with you that ecstatic failurism is an overstated, bad thing. But, let's remember that Paul perhaps got close to what you're describing: "wretched man that I am, who will save me from this body of death, thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ" Romans 7:23-25. . . A focus on Christ and our Union with Christ keeps us from ditches on both sides of the road. And, Christ is the end of the Law. We pursue His ethics for us out of His presence in us and the Holy Spirit's guidance. We should obey more and more, as you say. . . .How? By Christ working in us and us "working it out".

  9. I love the theology here, but where is the Holy Spirit in all of this? Stories of His enabling, supernaturally transforming power are notably absent from the Gospel Coalition blogs. Maybe I'm missing something, but I keep hearing arguments about legalism vs antinomianism (which are good conversations to have, don't get me wrong), that consistently stop short of the power given to us to overcome. That power is The Comforter.

    Without an otherworldly Power to combat sin, we are all of us up a creek.

    1. Hi Chris, I agree with you completely that without the Holy Spirit to apply the grace of the gospel to our lives, sanctification does not happen. I think many writers assume that idea is implicit in any discussion of sanctification, but I understand your desire to see it stated explicitly. I actually did state it in my last sentence, but I realize it was a rather long post :) Jen

  10. Jen, reading and re-reading and pondering this post is tremendously helpful to me --- you've so eloquently explained aspects of sanctification and grace that've been hazy to me, a confusion of sorts that I'd not been able to fully describe or put into words. Deeply, deeply grateful to you, once again, for sharing what you write.

  11. *What's a failure? "Failures":sometimes they are sins and sometimes, we as humans, have decided something is a failure, but in God's sight it's not a sin.

    *Is a false dilemma and/or straw man argument being created?

    *Are these two items you juxtapose mutually exclusive?

    *Through what lens does God ask the believer to view his sin?

    *I don't see a lot of scripture (other than the lists at the bottom of the post) and should we put forth a Biblical viewpoint outside of lining up it up with specific scripture, and comparing scripture with scripture?

    *Romans 6 and 7: Might these chapters be a place to start/relevant to the question?

    It seems that Aaron (commenter above) has added some vital points that cannot be left out of this topic, so as not to fall into a "soft legalism", as he puts it.

  12. I like what Aaron had to say above as well, and agree there is a ditch on either side, and boy do we have tendencies to swing from one extreme to another. Some churches emphasize grace almost to the exclusion of obedience, and others hammer obedience/law/and the fear of God, and seem almost afraid to motivate their congregations by means of grace and love. There is danger in both. Forgetting grace and jumping into a must-try-harder, will power, sheer grit obedience trap is just as prevalent and perilous as falling into a sloppy, shallow type grace. God-ward focus is so essential. The gospel is SO necessary for every day life. Because the fact is, even though we are empowered by the Holy Spirit, whether we like it or not, we will still mess up. Fatalism is bad, and the kind of talk you mentioned above that tells Christians all that they can ever do is fail so stop trying- that is bad. But as Aaron mentioned, boy do we still deal with a body of death. When we do fall, and we sin, I pray we don't wallow in self inflicted, laboring type guilt, punishing ourselves, and holding on to shame like its our Christian duty. I see too many women do this, and I have been there myself. How glorious it has been for me to recognize that my sins and failures DO present an opportunity to run to my gracious God for mercy, forgiveness, and enablement to change! We don't celebrate our failures- why would we? But we do celebrate God's grace.

    I would be curious what you would think my article here http://cometochrist.ca/nevertheless-your-failure-and-gods-faithfulness/#more-1058.

    I hope you will recognize the vast difference between celebrating failures and thanking God for His grace towards us in spite of them. John 1:16 "And from His fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ." Thank God for that! You are so right that He is so faithful to keep growing us and growing me so that I fall less and less then I used to! Blessings, and would love to hear if you have further thoughts.

  13. Jen, it seems that many have somehow not understood your point regarding the difference in celebrating failure' and 'grace-reliant confession and repentance.' It's not hard to see that you were careful to distinguish the two, propping up the latter as glorifying to God.

    In some circles there certainly is this antinomian undercurrent to confefssion that is really offputting. So, I think your points are certainly timely, valid, and helpful. Maybe this is not experienced by everyone, and it may cause some to write long strawman arguments against you on the internet, but it makes your case no less valid.

    Thanks for speaking up.

  14. Thank you for this, Jen. So much cheap grace has matriculated into the body of Christ over the years that we have grown accustomed to it, forgetting to hear and listen to the conviction of the Holy Spirit when we sin. This blog is a great reminder of the beauty and joyful submission Christ calls us to in the Gospel. I am sorry that Tullian Tchividjian resorted to name calling and insinuation in his response. I only hope he can find more actual grace for the people he disagrees with in the future, and not just argue for the concept of grace in theory.

  15. Jen,
    I tried to comment on this blogpost at the TGC blog but it was blocked. I have two problems with the post. First, I believe that this post is ambiguous with regard to perfectionism. Perfectionism is a form of legalism and is both alluring and unrealistic. It is alluring because it is flattering to think we can achieve some kind of perfect obedience before God. I believe that things would be helped if you were more clear as to whether you are advocating some sort of perfectionism.

    The second problem I struggle with in this post is best expressed in a blogpost review I wrote on you post. The link is below if you are interested.


    If you were interested enough to read the blogpost, let me know what you thought.

    finally, I understand some of what you are struggling against. Not sure if your approach is the best at addressing those issues but you are addressing important issues.

    1. Hi Curt,

      Thanks for your comment. I understand your concern about Christian perfectionism. I did try to include language in the post that discouraged pointing to that conclusion, and I’m sorry if you do not think I was clear enough on that point. The difficulty with having a post run on TGC is that readers come from so many different vantage points. They tend to have no context for me outside of the 750 words they have just read. With prominent authors, this is less the case. I do try to write in such a way to minimize confusion, but as a blogger yourself, I’m sure you can affirm that it’s not possible to address every concern a reader may have about a topic within the limits of a blog post. I can only say that, having just taught through James and John’s epistles, I have addressed the question head-on, and if you enjoy women’s Bible study audio you are more than welcome to listen.

      As to your post, I hope you will grant me the benefit of the doubt. I am a woman who teaches women how to study the Bible. If anti-intellectualism has a foothold anywhere, surely it is in women’s ministry. I have written quite a bit to that effect. In fact, I have a book releasing on that very topic in July. I am glad to know you care about combating anti-intellectualism as well. This particular post was directed at teachers. However, if you click on the “Bible study” tag you can read what I have said to students regarding loving God with their minds (emphasis on “their”). Or you can listen to the introductory audio for any of my studies.

      Warm regards,

    2. Jen,
      The anti-intellectualism has to do with the approach to our church elders which you suggested. From what I saw, it gave the elders too much of authority and that yields authoritarianism and that lends itself to anti-intellectualism. BTW, the person I've learned the most from in my life is my best friend and she is a former coworker doesn't even have a Bachelor's degree. I learned from her examples of showing compassion despite the criticisms she received.

      I will reread the post, which I have done a couple of times to check if I missed your guarding against perfectionism. From what I read, I couldn't say you were espousing that but couldn't say you weren't. That is why I said it was ambiguous and I think the reaction from Tchividjian senses that regardless of whether he stated it explicitly.

      Finally, a good book to read is called "A Theology of The Holy Spirit" By Fredrick Dale Bruner. It applies here because he more than adequately discusses holiness movements and what moves Christians to be more obedient. He also stated something else which is of some worth. He stated that the more we focus on the law, the more we focus on ourselves.

      Thank you for the response.

      Take care,


    3. Thank you, Curt - I absolutely loved Bruner's commentary on the gospel of Matthew. I'll check it out. Jen

    4. Jen,
      As I wrote, I thought you were ambiguous about perfectionism. And statements declaring that we obey or fail, which makes measuring obedience an exercise in using discrete values rather than continuous ones, can be read as suggesting that. Even in our best obedience, we also have failure. Bruner makes emphasizes the fact that in the parable of the two men praying, it was the religious professional who declared himself righteous before God.

      We need to bring that out, that we will always have a measure of failure and always an almost unsurpassed need for grace everyday of our lives. Otherwise, we might be tempted to pray the prayer of the religious professional, the pharisee, in the parable of the two men praying. Yes, without an increase in obedience, we have what you expressed a fear about in the post. But, again, expressing our predicament as obey or fail exercise without further qualification might have suggested things you didn't want to. The same is true when you write:

      "When Jesus says “Go, and sin no more,” don’t we think he means it?"

      Yes, we fail less, as you wrote. But what obedience of ours is without need of God's cleaning?

      BTW, thank you for mentioning his commentary on Matthew, I was unaware of it though I might be tempting my fate with the wife if I bring home one more book.

      Take care

  16. I re-read this post today (I remembered it from the spring) after reading more social media posts encouraging us, as Christian women, to air our failures publicly because that just 'gives more glory to Christ'. This just sits wrongly with me, because although I have no 'sin' that I am ashamed to discuss if it would encourage or build-up another believer, I don't understand how it is becoming of a godly woman (or helpful to other believers) to share every failure in my life in an attempt to be 'authentic'. It concerns me that authenticity is being equated with posting pictures of dirty laundry on instagram or sharing the deepest wounds in your marriage. It's not that those things are NEVER helpful to another believer, but often I find that those types of posts help me 'excuse' my sin, not repent of it. What encourages me to follow in obedience is seeing other women who are living in grace AND being obedient. Who aren't flaunting their inability to obey as a means to display the grace of Christ. Thank you for this post - I regularly refer to it!