There is a legal structure in so much Christian thought—justification, covenants, guilt, law, obedience—and it can dominate the deeper structure of Scripture. Perhaps it is the familiarity of legal imagery. The U.S. is a country of law, and an American citizen cannot go more than a few minutes without thinking about violating a speed limit, whether or not to walk all the way to the crosswalk or just cross the street where it is convenient, or strategizing what can be deducted from taxes. Laws are nuisances if we don’t want to follow them, but at least expectations are clear. We know what we are supposed to do. When we transfer this style of thought to Scripture we understand why we are especially interested in the practical, to-do sections of Scripture. Just tell me what to do. That doesn’t mean I will do it, but cut to the chase. If heavenly crowns are what I am after, obedience will get me there.
Obedience, however—our growth in holiness—is not our goal. It is only a means to an end. Obedience to the law of Christ is an outgrowth of our faith in Jesus Christ, and serves the purpose of our communion with him. This goal of communion is clear from God’s presence in the Garden (Gen. 3:8), Jesus’ prayer “I in them and you in me” (John 17:23), and our marital consummation when Jesus returns (Rev. 21). Fellowship, bound up with worship, praise and downright enjoyment is what we are after.
Try this. Instead of considering your growth in Christ as progressive sanctification, which is a fine expression identifying that growth in holiness does not come all at once, think of it as “progressive nearness.” (A phrase I am borrowing from Michael Morales’ fine book, Who Shall Ascend the Mountain of the Lord?). God’s laws, at their best, are instructions about how to be in relationship with him. What they don’t do is give us good reasons to want to be in relationship with him. That comes through the Spirit’s opening our eyes to see Jesus, showing us, in Jesus, the depths of humility and the pinnacle of love, opening our ears to the Father’s invitation, and establishing an unshakable bond that links us to the risen Jesus right now.
This fellowship is basic to our proclaiming “the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9). The image here is not so much that we have been in a dark prison and we can finally come out into the sun and fresh air. It is that we have made choices that have led us into solitary confinement and we live with an abiding sense of personal alienation from everything good. Into this disaster comes the Holy God who is the light. He invites us to come to him, and warms and comforts us in his presence. Somehow, through his Spirit, we actually become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Pet. 2:4), which means that we get to be a bit shiny to the world around us as we love in his name. Progressive nearness makes this process increasingly beautiful, satisfying and attractive.