There’s a Difference Between Frenetic Activism & Faithful Activity — An Excerpt from Michael Horton’s “Ordinary”
Last month Michael Horton released a new book inviting readers to recover their sense of joy in the ordinary. Ordinary is your guide to a sustainable discipleship that happens over the long haul.
Yet Horton makes it clear that “ordinary” doesn’t mean passive—as if we’re called to trade in our activism, campaigns, and movements for a quiet life on the sidelines. Instead, we need to ask ourselves what kind of action are we called to take, why are we to take it, and to what end?
“There is a difference between frenetic activism and faithful activity in the daily struggles of and joys of life.” (39)
In the excerpt below Horton turns our attention to the gospel to help answer those questions in order to help you cultivate a sustainable faith in a radical, restless world.
Read it, pass it along, and then add Ordinary to your nightstand.
The call to action, to have an active faith, is well-supported in Scripture. “Ordinary” does not mean passive. All believers should live out what they believe, should practice what they preach. But misguided or chaotic activism makes us sloppy. The real question is: What kind of action? Why—and to what end? There is a difference between frenetic activism and faithful activity in the daily struggles and joys of life.
Some, in defending the doctrine of “grace alone,” have given the impression that there is nothing we need to do as a Christian. It is certainly true that there is nothing that we can do to be righteous in God’s courtroom. How do you qualify for the mercy and forgiveness of a holy God? By being a transgressor of his law. (In other words, we all qualify.)
Nor can we do anything to raise ourselves from spiritual death. The new birth is a gift. Not even our faith causes this new birth. In any case, faith is not something we possess, our contribution to the enterprise; it is the gift of God (Eph 2:8–9). Calls to action cannot assume the gospel. Otherwise, the church itself — even in the name of evangelism—conspires with the world in driving us deeper into ourselves.
The power of our activism, campaigns, movements, and strategies cannot forgive sins or raise the dead. “The gospel … is the power of God for salvation,” and, with Paul, we have no reason to be ashamed of it (Rom 1:16). That is why phrases like “living the gospel,” “being the gospel,” and “being partners with Jesus in his redemption of the world” are dangerous distortions of the biblical message of good news. The gospel is not about what we have done or are called to do, but the announcement of God’s saving work in Jesus Christ. “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake” (2 Cor 4:5).
So first and foremost—and always—we are recipients before God. He is the benefactor and we are the beneficiaries. We cannot give him anything he needs, but we receive everything from his hand (Acts 17:25; Rom 11:35–36; Jas 1:17). The gospel is not a warm- up for the lightning round of our schemes of self-improvement and world transformation. We need to hear the good news each day.
However, the whole point of the gospel is to raise the dead, to justify the ungodly, to transform and liberate us to glorify and enjoy God and to love and serve our neighbors! Chosen, justified, and adopted by the Father, in the Son, we are united to Christ by the Spirit through the gift of faith. This is the same Holy Spirit who separated the waters in creation and in the exodus, for the safe pas- sage of his covenant people to the holy land; the same one who filled the temple; the same one who made the eternal Son incarnate in the womb of a virgin, led and sustained him through his earthly trial, empowered him to perform wonders, and raised him from the dead…
The gospel produces peace and empowers us to live by faith. We are no longer anxious, but secure and invigorated because we are crucified and raised with Christ. We are no longer trying to live up to the starring role we’ve given ourselves, but are written into the story of Christ. We have nothing to prove, just a lot of work to do. Good works are no longer seen as a condition of our union with Christ, but as its fruit. We are no longer slaves, but the children of God—co-heirs with Christ, our elder brother. The first question and answer of the Heidelberg Catechism summarizes this faith well:
Q. What is your only comfort in life and in death?
A. That I am not my own, but belong —
body and soul,
in life and in death —
to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.
He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from the tyranny of the devil.
He also watches over me in such a way
that not a hair can fall from my head
without the will of my Father in heaven;
in fact, all things must work together for my salvation. Because I belong to him,
Christ, by his Holy Spirit,
assures me of eternal life
and makes me wholeheartedly willing and ready
from now on to live for him.14
As God’s creatures, made in his image, we are “not our own” already in creation. Yet our redemption doubles this truth. Created by God and saved by his grace, I am truly “not my own, but belong — body and soul, in life and in death — to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
Toward the end of the Heidelberg Catechism (after treating the Ten Commandments), the question is asked, “But can those converted to God obey these commandments perfectly?” I love the answer: “No. In this life even the holiest have only a small beginning of this obedience. Nevertheless, with all seriousness of purpose, they do begin to live according to all, not only some, of God’s commandments.”15 Notice we are not looking for a balance between passivity and perfectionism. Both are rejected. In his own experience, Paul laments that even when he sins, he is still loving the law and its Giver (Rom 7:14–25). It is precisely this quandary that makes the Christian life such a struggle…
So here’s some relief to perfectionists out there: Give up! Stop climbing and fall into God’s gracious arms. “For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God” (Col 3:3). Awakened by a true understanding of God’s law and your own life, you’ll never be a perfectionist again, at least in principle. (Getting used to it is a different matter.) So get on with life, with love, with service — fully realizing that God already has the perfect service he requires of us in his Son and now our neighbor needs our imperfect help. Now, with confidence in the gospel, use God’s law as a guide rather than as a means of self-justification. Precisely because we cling to Christ alone for our peace with God, we are liberated to love and serve others without trying to score points.
And notice that all of the Ten Commandments are oriented toward others: God and neighbor. Much of our piety is focused on “me and my inner life.” Just look at the Christian Living section of the average Christian bookstore. Yet God’s commands are focused on what it means to be in a relationship with others: to trust in God alone and to love and worship him in the way he approves and to look out for the good of our fellow image bearers.
On the heels of the question and answer above, the Heidelberg Catechism asks, “Since no one in this life can obey the Ten Commandments perfectly, why does God want them preached so pointedly?” Answer: “First, so that the longer we live the more we may come to know our sinfulness and the more eagerly look to Christ for forgiveness of sins and righteousness.” Even in the Christian life we need this first use of the law to drive us out of ourselves to cling to our Savior. “Second, so that we may never stop striving, and never stop praying to God for the grace of the Holy Spirit, to be renewed more and more after God’s image, until after this life we reach our goal: perfection.”16
“Because of Christ alone, embraced through faith alone, for the glory of God and the good of our neighbors alone, on the basis of God’s Word alone”—and nothing more. This is the slogan of the ordinary Christian (Luke 10:27). (39-44)