HOLD FAST TO THE HORN
As a teenager I had the opportunity to ride horses at the Christian camp that I would go to frequently, but there was this one time when I went with a group of friends horse-riding on a beach trip. Now on this occasion we were riding on stock saddles, and the saddles were different from the ones I was used to at camp (western-style saddle). The big difference between the stock saddle and the western saddle was a ‘horn’ at the front of the seat of the saddle. On that particular day the horses in front of me suddenly decided to move at ‘lightning speed’ and I was ill prepared for my pharlap friend to take off so quickly! Before I knew it we were all headed towards a sharp turn in the trail and I needed to brace myself for the momentum shift as we hit the curve. Knowing that my horse didn’t have any brakes I decided to reach for the ‘horn’, and as I was thrust sideways through the turn, I grasped at a big handful of nothing. In that moment I discovered stock saddles are bad value for money! As I reached forward, I tumbled right off the horse and landed in some bushes on the side of the track. I had wanted to grip on to the horn but had nothing to hold fast to. So I sat there a little bruised and pondered my lesson learned… and waited for my friends (and horse) to come back around! In our lives it’s the bumps and turns of the trail that reveal to us what we lean towards and look to for stability.
WHAT SIDE OF THE HORSE DO YOU LEAN TOWARDS?
Martin Luther penned this helpful picture, “The world is like a drunken peasant. If you lift him into the saddle on one side, he will fall off on the other side. One can’t help him, no matter how one tries. He wants to be the devil’s.” (Luther’s Works, vol. 54). They may not want to be the devil’s, but all Christians do tend to lean towards a side! As they ride along in life they either lean too much towards legalism (Judgementalism) or they lean too much towards license (Antinomianism). We must guard against these two dangers. On the left side of the horse is the temptation to be judgemental; think about the Pharisee looking down on the repentant tax collector in Luke 18:9-14. Then on the right side of the horse is antinomianism, which is a term describing someone who is ‘anti-law’ and believes the grace and forgiveness of Jesus’ cross grants people freedom to do anything and is essentially a license to sin. The combination of these errors could even be seen in us as individuals being judgemental to others whilst being free and forgiving (antinomian) to ourselves, but Jesus’ forgiveness and fulfillment of justice doesn’t lean or fall into either side (John 8:11) and we shouldn’t either.
When we face a turn and can be tempted to lean to a side and slide right off the saddle and tumble into the trap of the devil, we are often like that drunken peasant who helplessly leans toward theological error. The steady and secure truth Jesus gives us is needed daily to keep us from these errors. The true gospel will guide and give us confidence to be upright and balanced in the saddle of life.
LICENSE OR LEGALISM?
Knowing which side you have a tendency to lean towards is helpful so you can make adjustments when the bumbs and turns come your way.
Jonathan Dodson examines the folly of both errors, saying, “When we’re not operating out of the gospel of grace, our motives are distorted by religious performance or spiritual license. Sometimes we vacillate between these two extremes. But understanding and repenting from legalism and license can lead to tremendous freedom and joy. Religious disciples don’t think of themselves as legalists. They think of themselves as “biblical.” They’re right! Legalists follow biblical commands without cherishing gospel promises…. Their knowledge of the Bible is objective not subjective. They stay on the outside of the gospel. When we live out of legalism, we measure ourselves and others on moral, spiritual, missional, you-name-it performance. Religious performance operates on an assumption: If I perform well, God will accept me. This assumption is subtle and deadly…
Alternatively, we may be motivated by spiritual license. Spiritual license is the tendency in the human heart to find meaning in freedom from rules. Disciples who operate by spiritual license perceive themselves as liberated, set free from the bondage of more conservative Christians. Instead of believing the lie of performance—If I perform, God will accept me—they believe the lie of license—Because God has forgiven me, I’m free to go my own way. Instead of using God’s word to judge others, they simply disregard it. Holiness becomes negotiable. These disciples don’t think of themselves as disobedient; they think of themselves as free… Gospel-centered disciples drink deeply from the cup of costly grace and fight to live in obedience to King Jesus” (Gospel-Centered Discipleship By Jonathan K. Dodson).
STEADY IN THE SADDLE
“Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony about our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but share in suffering for the gospel by the power of God, who saved us and called us to a holy calling, not because of our works but because of his own purpose and grace, which he gave us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, and which now has been manifested through the appearing of our Saviour Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel, for which I was appointed a preacher and apostle and teacher, which is why I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know whom I have believed, and I am convinced that he is able to guard until that day what has been entrusted to me. Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. By the Holy Spirit who dwells within us, guard the good deposit entrusted to you.” (2 Tim 1:8-14, ESV)
Paul’s clear teaching to Timothy points him to sit firmly in the saddle of the truth because of the work of Jesus. He describes the gospel as a means that God uses to save and call people, not through works or merit (or we could add law or rule keeping), but because of God’s purposes and grace. This gospel of grace isn’t legalistic for we can’t earn or add to it with our behaviour.
What Paul describes is by no means a ‘license’ to sin either, for Jesus’ work is merciful to sinners whilst also abolishing the immorality of sinners through justice being accomplished by the cross. Both the ‘license to sin’ and ‘legalism to earn’ approaches can’t live in the light of what Jesus has accomplished for sinners who are called, saved and guarded by faith. Like Timothy we can’t be a legalist nor can we be licentious because these notions distort the integrity and implications of grace. Paul urges Timothy to hold fast to the faith by following the pattern of the sound words of truth given him and so should we. The steady journey in the saddle means holding fast to the gospel and living in its light every day!