There is something very attractive in teaching people commands (you must do this) and virtues (you must be this type of person). I see the attractive temptation in my own life. On my worst days I just want my kids to behave, and I don’t think much about why they are behaving. On my worst days, I can default into performance mode so a list of commands to perform or a set of virtues to aspire to can be very appealing to prove to myself that I can do whatever it is I want to do. It is very American of me, but not very Christian. If we believe, as Martin Luther said, “religion is the default of the human heart,” then we can easily default to commands and virtues as a way to earn God’s favor and qualify ourselves with our goodness.
And for those of us who teach – there are plenty of rich young rulers who would love another list of something “they must do” to earn real life. There is always going to be temptation and invitation and opportunity to teach commands and virtues.
Of course, we must teach commands and we must challenge people to be who God has declared them to be. Commands are in the Bible. Statements of our identity fill the Scripture. But if we only teach the commands and virtues without rooting those commands and virtues in the finished work of Jesus, then we are not serving our people well. In fact, we are burdening them and enslaving them. Here are three dangers in only teaching commands and virtues:
1. Commands don’t empower us; Only Christ does.
Years ago I saw Justin Taylor tweet something that has stuck with me. He said “Imperatives – Indicatives = Impossibilities.” Imperatives are the commands in Scripture. They are things we must do. Indicatives are what Christ has done. It is impossible to live out the commands without a heart that is refreshed by what Christ has done. In Scripture we see the holy rhythm of commands being rooted in what Christ has done. “Forgive as Christ has forgiven you.” “Love your wives as Christ has loved you.” “Accept one another as Christ has accepted you.” The apostles knew their own hearts and knew that Christ is the One who empower us to obey.
2. Commands don’t liberate us; Only Christ does.
If commands could liberate us then Christ died for nothing. If commands could liberate us, then the law would be our Savior. If we only teach commands without rooting those commands in Christ’s work for us, we enslave people with a new law. If we only teach commands without celebrating Christ’s perfect obedience to those commands, we give people commands without the ability to live them out.
3. Without being connected to the Vine; virtues merely frustrate.
Our life comes from being connected to the Vine not from a set of virtues we aspire to live by. Whenever we teach virtues, we must point people to the only One who gives power and life. If we only teach virtues, we are settling for behavioral modification instead of aiming for true transformation. Virtues can’t transform. Only the Vine can.
As a parent and as a pastor, I am extremely grateful for The Gospel Project. The team behind the curriculum is incredible and is committed to rooting the imperatives in the indicative, the virtues in the Vine. I use The Gospel Project with my kids and am thankful for the constant connection to Christ and His finished work. I have used the curriculum in groups of adults I have led and I love the focus on the whole story of the Bible and the constant reminder that Jesus is the hero of every story.