A Tale of Two Ditches
Not too long ago a friend shared with me his struggle to faithfully teach grace to the folks he disciples. I certainly share that struggle. Faithful discipleship is a narrow path between the two ditches of legalism and licentiousness.
I didn’t come up with that distinction. The Apostle Paul dealt with the same issues. On the one hand he had to warn the Galatian Christians about the ditch of legalism espoused by the Judaizers. These were folks who claimed Jesus was great, but you still had to obey the Law of Moses to be saved. On the other hand, he had to give an emphatic “NO” to those in the other ditch whose philosophy was, “Let’s sin up a storm so we can experience more of God’s grace.” In their view, Christians don’t have to worry about obeying God, because they’re under God’s grace.
The path between the two ditches is hard and narrow indeed and Christian history is littered with examples of how individuals, (as well as groups of people), have fallen into one ditch or the other. Regardless of which ditch you fall into, you still end up dirty and smelly.
To my struggling friend, and as a reminder to myself, I offer some counsel I once heard. Take comfort in the struggle of the narrow path because the Apostle Paul experienced the same. Grace is a dangerous thing. If we faithfully and accurately teach the biblical doctrine of grace, there will always be the risk someone might distort it in a libertine direction, just as a faithful and accurate teaching of obedience might lead some into the legalistic ditch. We are called to be faithful in our message of grace, even though we can’t control what people will do with it.
Those who take the ministry of discipleship seriously will always struggle with this. However, we can use this struggle between the two ditches, the journey of the narrow path, to motivate us to be careful, loving, grace-filled, and faithful in our teaching, discipling, counseling, correcting, etc.
Remembering My Own Struggle
I know that walking the narrow path is hard for me, and I’ve been at it for some time now. I can still remember the early days of my walk with Christ. I often caught myself walking a little too closely to one side of the path or the other. Sadly, I sometimes found myself having to climb out of one ditch or the other. But in God’s goodness, he cleaned me up, disciplined me, and sent me along my way.
This reminder of my own history will hopefully encourage me (and you) to be patient with those whom I disciple, especially those who are just beginning their own way down the narrow path. Thank God for his ever-present grace!
Do you remember when you first became a Christian? Which ditch did you find yourself falling into in your early days? Now that you’ve been a Christian for a while, which tendency (or, ditch) do you find yourself struggling with? Why do you think Christians, regardless of how long they’ve been walking with Christ, find themselves struggling along the narrow path? Why do they get too close to one ditch or the other? What are three things you can begin doing today, with God’s wisdom and power, to help you stay on the straight and narrow?
Grace and Truth,
James 1:2-4 – Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trials of many kinds,  because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance.  Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.
Painful Tests and Trials
Several years ago the men's study at our church studied James 1:1-12. We spent most of our time discussing our need to persevere during times of tests and trials, for this is a significant way in which God produces in us the character of Christ. It is one of God’s ordained means to help us grow into his “mature and complete” children.
Most of us readily acknowledge how hard, even painful, tests and trials are. We would certainly prefer not to have to experience them. That was the testimony of many of the men who shared a little of what they had been through, or were going through, in their lives.
Another Kind of Test and Trial
Shortly after that lesson I had a thought one evening as I was getting ready for bed. It occurred to me that perhaps not all of our tests and trials should be categorized as painful, though they may still be considered quite hard. Could this be what James meant when he said “trials of many kinds?” Could it be God sometimes tests us even through our really good and happy circumstances as well?
Suppose I had four healthy, happy, and full-of-life children. Furthermore, suppose these four children gave me great joy and nothing pleased me more than pouring my life into theirs – even sacrificially. But what if this true and right expression of love and commitment for my children went too far? What if this love for these four precious children actually began, slowly but ever so surely, to turn into idolatry? What if they became more important to me than God Himself?
Such love and commitment would not be good at all. In fact, such love and commitment would become sin in my life. Why? Because I would, quite literally, be putting other gods before the one true God. Could it be that God tests us through such good and positive relationships, things, circumstances, and opportunities in our lives?
My Clear and Present Danger
My hypothetical description regarding my four children is not hypothetical at all. I have four such children and I treasure them. I have had to, on many occasions, ask God to help me not put my children before him. In my unguarded moments, I could essentially turn them into little idols.
The same could be true for all of us, whether we’re talking about our families, jobs, status, health, success, ingenuity, etc. Each of these could be little tests to determine whom we are worshipping, to see whom we love most?
The Reason for Trials
Why are we given trials? According to James it is to help us grow in our faith – to become more like Christ – to develop into mature and complete children of God, lacking nothing. But it’s awfully hard to become such faithfully devoted followers of Christ when we love other people or things more than we love Him. It’s impossible to follow and serve God correctly when God’s not even in our top five priorities, much lesson number one.
It’s little wonder that Jesus declared we cannot serve two masters. It’s no wonder he said we must seek God and his righteousness first. It’s not hard to figure out why God’s first commandment to us was that we’re to put no other gods before Him. And it’s not surprising to understand why the Apostle John’s last verse of his first epistle reads thusly,
1 John 5:21 – Dear children, keep yourselves from idols.
Because of our fallenness, we have a propensity to put other people, places, things, circumstances, opportunities, feelings, emotions, thoughts, attitudes, etc., ahead of God. And anything that is in God’s place is not merely neutral – it’s an idol - an idol of the heart.
Be On Guard
The really good things God graciously blesses us with could be listed under James category of “trials of many kinds.” It’s true we don’t think of them as trials. It’s also true they are not necessarily painful to go through. But it’s equally true that these sorts of trials can be gruelingly difficult, even if we’re not aware we’re going through them, or perhaps, especially if we’re not aware of it.
Therefore, to increasingly mature in our faith and become more like Christ, we must realize God’s tests and trials can take many shapes and sizes. We must be vigilantly on guard. For it’s critically important for us to persevere through such tests and trials so that we “may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” And by God’s grace, I pray it will be so for you.
Why do you think it’s so easy to put people or things before God? What are those people and things in your life that could become potential idols, if they’re not already? Have you ever considered something good in your life, like your children, job, or health, a potential idol? What are two or three ways you can make sure these don’t become idols?
Grace and Truth,
Psalm 119:13-16 – With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth.  I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.  I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways.  I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word.
Matthew 22:29 – Jesus replied, “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.
A Good Reason or Two to Read Scripture
I wonder if much of our aimless spiritual wandering isn’t self-inflicted. We are often content to grope in the dark when pure and undefiled light is offered us. This light I speak of penetrates our deepest being (Heb. 4:12), judges our thoughts and attitudes (Heb. 4:12), makes us wise for salvation (2 Tim. 3:15), is breathed out by God himself (2 Tim. 3:16), is truth (John 17:17), is the means by which we are sanctified (John 17:17), is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness (2 Tim. 3:16), thoroughly equips us for every good work (2 Tim. 3:17), works as a mirror to show us our truest selves (James 1:23-25), endures forever (1 Peter 1:23-25), cannot be broken (John 10:35), counsels us in every sphere of our lives (Ps. 119:24), will not return to God empty but will achieve the purpose for which he sent it (Isaiah 55:11). As the sword of the Spirit (Eph. 6:17), it is our only offensive weapon in our war with the world, the flesh, and the devil.
And so, if all of this is true (and it surely is, and more), why are we not plumbing its depths, mining its riches, and saturating ourselves in its mind-renewing, life-transforming power every available opportunity?
Psalm 119 gives us a beautiful model of what a “piety of the Word” should look like in our lives. All through the Psalm we find a variety of synonyms for God’s Word, such as decree, statute, law, ordinance, precept, as well as word. Sometimes these words are used to communicate God’s “directives for our lives” and other times a word represents “his promises.” The first “calls us to obedience while the other calls us to faith – the two elements of godliness” (NIV Study Bible notes).
Each of today’s verses contain enough material for its own sermon. That would require more time and space than is presently available. But just dream with me for a moment…
Can you imagine a person, home, church, small group, or community that regularly recounts the law of God, rejoices in following his statutes as one rejoices in great riches, that meditates day and night on God’s precepts and considers his ways for every thought, word, or deed? Can you conceive of such an individual or community that delights in God’s decrees and will not neglect his word at any time for any reason? What would such a person or church or small group look like? What would be their impact for the world in which they live? According to Matthew 22:29, Jesus says there would be great power that would attend such commitment, passion, and saturation. Can you picture the reformation and revival that would break out at God’s behest?
Humanly speaking, it all starts with one – one person who will saturate himself or herself in God’s Word, and who, like Ezra, will study it, live it, and teach it to others.
Are you such a person? Imagine what might happen if you were! What’s stopping you? Why not take God at his Word – trust his Word – saturate yourself in his Word – and then hang on.
Which of the descriptions of God’s Word found in the first paragraph fires your imagination most? Have you ever wondered why Christians don’t spend more time studying God’s Word? What are the obstacles in your own life that have prevented you from spending time in Scripture? Be creative: What are three ways you can increase your intake of God’s Word this week? Share your ideas with a friend and then get busy putting your ideas into practice.
Grace and Truth,
Ezra 7:6 – this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him.
Ezra 7:9-10 – He had begun his journey from Babylon on the first day of the first month, and he arrived in Jerusalem on the first day of the fifth month, for the gracious hand of his God was on him.  For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.
Ezra, A Model Disciple
You may not know much about Ezra, though you’ve probably heard of him. He has a book in the Old Testament named after him. He exemplifies much of what I believe my own purpose is as a pastor. More important than that, however, he is a model for all Christians.
Ezra was a descendent of Moses’ brother, Aaron, the chief priest. Ezra was a teacher, we’re told, who was well versed in the Law of Moses (Ezra 7:6). The end of verse 9 tells us the hand of God was on Ezra. Why? Because, according to verse 10, Ezra “devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord as well as to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.”
In other words, Ezra passionately studied God’s Word, lived God’s Word, and taught God’s Word to others.
Study, Live, Teach
Every Christian must first study God’s Word. This is obvious. This is where the pump is primed and fresh water is poured into the soul. This is where the renewing of the mind takes place so that it will become fertile ground for transformation later.
This leads to the next point – living God’s Word. If you don’t believe the teachings of God’s Word, nor trust in the God of those teachings and practice them each day, then one might ask why you are studying Scripture in the first place. The Word of God makes us wise for salvation, teaches us, rebukes us, corrects us, trains us in righteousness so that we may become thoroughly equipped for every good work (2 Timothy 3:15-17). We don’t study it to win Bible trivia contests or to impress our congregations. We study it so we may become more and more like Christ.
But Ezra did more than study it and live it – he taught it to others. He passed along his knowledge to those entrusted to his care. He taught them about their covenant God, how they could rightly relate to that God, and how they should live in light of that covenantal relationship. And it’s the fact that he faithfully studied and lived it that brought credibility and integrity to his teaching. You see, the goal of any disciple of Jesus Christ is to reproduce the life of Christ in the lives of others. This is accomplished through learning what it means to be a disciple of Christ, faithfully living that calling out each day, and then passing it along to others. It’s sometimes called, “pouring your life into another person.” Jesus put it this way in the gospel of John,
I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. (John 12:24)
For the Sake of Others
In a sense, we die to ourselves as we diligently study God’s Word, conform ourselves to its standards, trust in its promises, and then pass it along to others, even at personal cost. But any sacrifice offered is more than worth it because, as Jesus put it, it produces many seeds.
How do we pass along God’s Word to others? This can be done in a variety of ways. It can be shared with others from the pulpit, in a classroom, in a hospital room, in a counseling session, over lunch with a friend, around the family table at breakfast or dinner, or written correspondence. The list could go on and on.
Finally, I love how Ezra did all of this. The text says he devoted himself to it. He gave his life to it. He was committed to God’s Word in all of its life-transforming fullness. And because he was so devoted, we learn that God’s hand was on him. God has appointed his Word as a primary means of grace (as it works with his Spirit) whereby we are enabled to intimately know God and his Son Jesus Christ, know about the character, attributes, and works of God, learn how to love and serve God and others, discover how to become more Christlike in our daily lives, as well as how to spend eternity with him.
God’s Word: Know It – Live It – Teach It to Others. Not a bad purpose statement for all of us. I want to be more like Ezra. How about you?
Which of the three, studying Scripture, practicing it, or teaching it to others, do you find easiest for you? Which is the most difficult? Why do you think that is? What are three ways you can grow in your weakest area? What are three ways you can help a fellow Christian grow in their weakest area? Get started today.
Grace and Truth,
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