It stands to reason that the process of following Jesus should build a life branded by the character of Christ. So why is our character so very different at times?
Sin, by definition, is missing God’s intended mark. What is His mark? Grace and truth. Our deviation from God’s mark causes us to embrace one and reject the other. Our damaged character finds appeal in one of two insidious and character-distorting forms of sin:
The sin of sensuality (license)
Sensuality is seeing ourselves small and therefore living in a way that is less than God created us to be. This is deviant grace without truth. A life of sensuality leads to a character damaged and enslaved by obsessive addictions of every shape. In Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son (Luke 15:11-31), this is the younger brother.
The sin of pride (legalism)
Pride is seeing ourselves large and therefore living in a way that is greater than God created us to be. This is smug truth without grace. A life characterized by pride leads to a character deformed by an arrogant self-righteousness and pseudo-spiritual superiority. In Jesus’ parable of the Lost Son, this is the older and equally lost brother.
Growing up and learning to navigate the icy winter roads of Canada, one of the first things my father taught me was the danger of oversteering – the tendency to overcompensate when starting to lose traction and beginning to spin.
It seems at first like a natural response – but soon it leaves the inexperienced driver completely out of control. Instead of correcting a slight skid, he finds himself spinning much faster in the opposite direction. The proper correction is a minor change back toward the center of the road.
We can readily see spiritual oversteer regarding the Kingdom character of grace and truth. It may come from an attachment to a historical movement (“this is truth”); following a personality (“this is who I want to be”); spiritual lethargy (“this is who I am”); the need to over-define mystery (“this is who God is”); or the desire to make personal applications universal (“this is how you should be”).
Attempting to correct without the character of Christ as our guide usually leaves us in worse shape than when we started.
What are the symptoms of spiritual oversteer?
When we singularly accentuate and consequently reduce one of the hallmarks of God’s glory (grace and truth), we find certain symptoms that indicate we are now on a road to damaged character.
Often our attachment to ideologies leads us to embrace extreme and rigid positions.
This fanaticism drives us to an understanding of truth devoid of the grace of Christ. Conversely, our escape into a twisted understanding of grace sends us down a destructive path of self-fulfillment through sensual gratification. The end is always the same, selfish grace without truth leads to bankrupt character.
Back and forth we have swerved past the character of Christ in our attempts to self-correct. From liberalism (grace in isolation), to fundamentalism (truth in isolation), to the emerging church (grace in isolation), to the new orthodoxy (truth in isolation). From ditch to ditch we attempt to be the church of Jesus Christ and see the glory of God.
How can I leave oversteer and lead with the character of Christ?
The good news is that in Christ we have two spiritual realities that can assist us when we oversteer, either personally or corporately, to guide us into the mystery of grace and truth.
The cross of Christ
If the sin of sensuality is seeing ourselves small and therefore living in a way that is less than God created us to be, then what higher expression of grace could there be than the cross of Jesus Christ?
With His sacrifice He has once and for all demonstrated the eternal value that we have to the Father.
Unworthy though we may be, we are not worthless. Whenever we are tempted to revel in grace by excluding truth, we need only to gaze at the cross to remind ourselves of the high price paid for our position of holiness. “For our sake He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21). The cross is history’s best picture of absolute grace.
The throne of Christ
Spiritual arrogance becomes difficult to maintain when we compare our sullied morality to the holiness of our sovereign King who sits without blemish on an eternal throne. Whenever we are tempted to swagger in our distorted version of truth without grace, remember that only One sits in perfection. “We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away” (Isaiah 64:6).
And so the riverbanks of spiritual protection that keep us flowing in the character of Christ are His grace and His truth. By daily embracing both, we find ourselves walking closely behind our King.
And the world takes note.
(EDITOR’S NOTE – Jeff Christopherson is the author of "Kingdom First: Starting Churches that Shape Movements," released this month by B&H Publishing Group, and the earlier "Kingdom Matrix: Designing a Church for the Kingdom of God." Prior to serving as the North American Mission Board's vice president for the Canada region and the Send City Network, Christopherson had served in pastoral, church planting and denominational leadership roles in his native Canada.)