Gospel IntangiblesDecember 1, 2022
Last week, I wrote about 5 tips for leaving a good inheritance to our children. In actuality, I was suggesting five practices that, I believe, are reasonably derived from Scripture and will help us in our task of raising our children in the instruction of the Lord. While these practices are good I realized that they are, in themselves, insufficient. There are other ingredients that must be present. Let’s call them “gospel intangibles”.
If you are familiar with sports scouting then you may be familiar with the idea of intangibles. It’s those qualities in an athlete that can’t be quantified. You can measure how fast an athlete runs, the width of their wingspan, or their squat max. Intangibles can be measured yet they are critical to the athlete’s performance in the game, when it matters most. Two players can have all the same “measurables” and the one with intangibles succeeds while the other does not. The same can be true in spiritual work.
Let’s consider Paul’s description of his own work in his first letter to the Corinthians. After reminding them of the gospel message (1 Cor. 15:1-8), he makes this statement in verse 10: “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me.” We can glean two “gospel intangibles” from Paul’s description of his work and both are game changers in our spiritual work.
The first is gospel discipline. Paul worked harder than any of them. Do we justify a lack of effort because we aren’t certain of results? “Even if I do these five tips religiously,” a parent might object, “that’s no guarantee my kids will love Jesus.” But we must distinguish between discipline (which the Bible affirms) and formalism. Formalism goes through the “forms” of disciplines assuming (consciously or unconsciously) that the mere practice of them is sufficient to produce the desired end. Paul recognizes that it’s only by the grace of God that he was given the work and it was only by the grace of God that he is able to practice it.
I appreciate J.C. Ryle's words in his book Thoughts for Young Men, "the practices of Christianity are not to be despised because they are not saviors." None of these tips have salvific power but they are means of grace through which God has promised to work. The basketball player who puts in extra free throws after practice doesn’t guarantee he will make a specific shot with the game hanging in the balance but it’s an intangible that generally makes a difference. We want to control the outcomes but God commands us to certain inputs. It’s our duty to plant and water and God gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:6-7).
The second intangible is a gospel heart. If the first kind of formalism is ignorant then the second is insidious. This kind of formalism believes that the forms, in and of themselves, ARE the desired end because their desired end is to attempt to justify themselves before God or make themselves look good before others. Unfortunately, often times those who rightly call out this kind of self-righteousness and hypocrisy end up throwing the baby out with the bath water. The blame is placed on the practice rather than the heart of the practicer. Interestingly, I’ve never heard anyone offer Ananias and Sapphira as an example for why we shouldn’t give to the church.
J.C. Ryle is helpful, yet again, when he writes, “It is never fair to argue against a thing because it is improperly used… No man would think of giving up eating, and drinking because others choose to eat and drink improperly, and so make themselves sick.” If we ceased to obey every command in Scripture which have been practiced incorrectly or with wrong motives then we would be out of commands to obey. We don’t need new commands, we need new hearts.
Paul gives commands to this troubled Corinthian church (see 1 Cor. 3:3, 5:1), in chapters 11-14, for how they ought to act toward one another and order their corporate worship. But it is not religious form that is void of gospel heart. Paul reminds that before that whatever they do it ought to be for God’s glory (1 Cor. 10:31) and reminds them that his work is not for his own advantage but that many would be saved (1 Cor. 10:33-11:1). He reminds them in the middle (1 Cor. 13) that everything must be done in love. He finishes by pointing them to the gospel and the great hope of resurrection as motivation (1 Cor. 15). He is not concerned with gaining any credit in the Corinthians’ eyes but that many would be believe (1 Cor. 15:11).
The point is this, if you religiously practice these tips with a self-centered and self-righteous heart, your kids’ spiritual noses will sniff it out and your own behavior will inevitably find you out. God will not be mocked. We have no reason to believe that God would honor that effort. At the same time, if we neglect planting and watering, what will we reap?
Do not let fear of uncertainty or guilt for failures keep you from working harder to leave a good inheritance. Paul was the least likely and the most unworthy because he persecuted the church (1 Cor. 15:9) but the grace of God is sufficient. By God’s grace, we have every reason to believe that God will bless our efforts however and whenever He sees fit. The Lord has assigned your children to you (1 Cor. 2:5, Eph. 6:4) and you must plant and water the gospel in their hearts, always remembering that it is God who gives the growth.