2 Ways Our Motives Can Be Twisted in Discipleship

When the desire to be right eclipses our desire to serve others, we veer from the gospel and hurt others.

I love gathering with my city group every week. We often share a meal, pray, and discuss our church’s most recent sermon. Getting into the nooks and crannies of one another’s lives, we offer compassion, prayer, and timely words of grace. But sometimes, when God’s word convicts, a person will blurt out, “I don’t want to be legalistic.” Other times someone will say, “I don’t want to take too much license here.” How do you know when you’ve veered right or left of the gospel? Our motives are so easily twisted. I want to consider two ways our motivations can veer away from the gospel.

Two Ways We Veer from Scripture

When Christians discuss any given topic, our aim should be to align our thoughts with God’s thoughts, not his thoughts with our thoughts. We should expect God to disagree with us. Since Scripture claims to be God-breathed and profitable for teaching, reproof, and correction, we ought to inhale its instruction like fresh mountain air (2 Tim. 3:16). But often we hold our breath. Instead of receiving his word as good and true, we treat it as toxic and false. In that unbelieving moment, we think being right is better than being righteous, or continuing in sin is more satisfying than walking in his ways. But it’s our taste that is off. If we’re not attentive to our intake of the words of the world, we will lose a sense of the sweetness of Scripture: “How sweet are your words to my taste, / sweeter than honey to my mouth!” (Ps. 119:103). When this happens, we are prone to explain away Scripture or simply avoid its guidance. Driving under our own license, we veer left of the word.

It’s also possible to veer right of Scripture. Believing the Bible is God-breathed, we may eagerly use it to teach and correct one another. Unfortunately, this can also be done without a sense of Scripture’s sweetness. Zeroing in on the truth, we may quickly quote or apply a verse when someone shares a sin or struggle. Like an untrained surgeon we yield the scalpel clumsily, taking a cut without discerning where the real issue is. In our zeal to be right, we blurt out an answer. But when we’re confident of our righteousness in Christ, we’re more prone to ask questions to sensitively expose a spiritual malady in others. People become more of an end in themselves and less of a means of self-righteousness. We try to make just the right incision to apply a healing word of grace. But when the desire to be right eclipses our desire to serve others, we veer from the gospel and hurt others.

1. Religious Performance

When we’re not operating out of the gospel of grace, our motives are distorted by religious performance or spiritual license. Some times 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. They get stuck on ethical rules without enjoying gospel graces. They are like people who can describe a sweet plum in detail—its semi-oval shape and smooth, deep purple skin—but don’t know its perfectly balanced sweetness because they haven’t tasted it. 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.

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Christians from a pietistic background perform spiritually to impress God—regular Bible reading, prayer, fasting, speaking in tongues, and service. Christians oriented toward mission perform missionally—renewing their city, serving the poor, sharing the gospel, and making disciples. Other Christians perform morally—avoiding “the culture,” doing what’s right, exposing what is wrong. The trouble with this performance-driven discipleship is that it’s awfully unreliable. If we perform well in our version of Christianity, we think highly of ourselves, but when we perform poorly, we think poorly of ourselves. Our self-image rises and falls with our performance. Like a nauseating roller coaster, discipleship by religious performance will seem fun at first, but eventually it leaves a bad taste in your mouth.

As a pastor of a missional church, one of the ways I’ve tried to gain favor before God is by my missional performance. As a young church planter, not a week went by without self-interrogation: “Have I shared the gospel enough?” “Am I spending enough time making disciples?” “Am I serving the poor enough?” On one hand, these questions can be good. They help me cultivate integrity and live in a way that blesses others. On the other hand, they can be a substitute form of acceptance before God. If I’m evangelizing, discipling, or serving consistently (and with results), then I’ll feel more approved by God. This isn’t living by faith in Jesus Christ as Lord; it’s living by faith in a missional version of myself. Even personal holiness or social justice can become a functional lord. This is deadly.

Whenever we replace Jesus with another lord, we displace the gospel from the center of our discipleship. We substitute Jesus’s perfect performance with our imperfect performance, which always fails. The gospel reminds us that our approval before God rests not on our performance but on the performance of Jesus in his perfect life, death, and resurrection. Religious performance deceives us by saying, “Impress God, and he will approve of you.” The truth of the gospel, however, says, “You don’t have to impress God, because Jesus has impressed him for you.” When we turn to the God of the gospel, we can’t help but serve him.

2. Spiritual License

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.

Spiritual license may be expressed by drinking too much, watching inappropriate films, or refraining from Bible reading, all in the name of freedom. They often say, “I don’t want to be legalistic.” They define themselves against the legalist instead of in Christ. Their identity is formed in the negative—not being legalistic—instead of the wonderfully positive of being united with Christ.

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Singer-songwriter Ray LaMontagne sings: “And freedom can be an empty cup from which everybody want to drink.” Spiritual “freedom” looks full and satisfying but eventually proves empty and bitter. Spiritual license will eventually leave you with a hangover. The truth is, everyone serves somebody. Even the rebellious disciple is obedient, bound to obey his or her fleeting desires. Those fleeting desires are connected to other “gods.” For example, the god of self curtails Bible reading while consuming an unlimited stream of social media. “Free” to read whatever they like, liberated Christians allow unfiltered data to float through their hearts and minds without the redemptive lens of Scripture. The god of alcohol rules over the “free” drunk, who obediently takes drink after drink in pursuit of pleasure or escape. Those who are motivated by spiritual license are actually ruled by the ultimate god of freedom. Freedom to not read the Bible or to drink in excess actually ends up hurting more than helping. Freedom is a deceptive master. So while disciples who operate on spiritual license may appear liberated, they are, in fact, bound to a false, self-injurious form of freedom. Anyone who has chased this so-called freedom for any length of time can testify to its eventual, gnawing emptiness.

A disciple motivated by spiritual license drinks from the empty cup of spiritual freedom. Gospel-centered disciples drink deeply from the cup of costly grace and fight to live in obedience to King Jesus. Faith in the gospel actually makes us slaves of Christ, who frees us from sin and graciously binds us to him. At his side, we discover a better God and enjoy a more gracious Master. Spiritual license deceives us by saying, “Because God has forgiven me, I’m free to disobey.” The truth of the gospel is, “Because God has forgiven me in Christ, I’m bound to obey.”

The gospel points us to Jesus as Christ and as Lord. Neither the religious nor rebellious are truly free. The religious bind themselves to keeping rules, and the rebellious are bound to breaking rules. The gospel, however, tells us that we are bound not to rules, but to Christ. We have been crucified with Christ, and he now lives in us (Gal. 2:20). In Christ we are liberated from sin and delivered into the arms of a new Savior. The gospel steeps our hearts in a new motivation of grace, which neither flaunts disobedience nor feigns obedience. Grace gives us a new identity, not a new set of rules. We all need grace. We all need to be continually awakened to the beauty and glory of Christ and the sufficiency of his grace, which compels Christ-beholding obedience.

Content adapted from Gospel-Centered Discipleship by Jonathan Dodson. This article first appeared on Crossway.org; used with permission.