A Tree, a House and Christian Externalism

While eating dinner several years ago, we saw a storm roll in quickly with black clouds and strong winds. The pine and sweet gum trees outside the dining area began to lean over as if they were being pulled to the ground. A few seconds later, the house shook and a deafening crash reverberated through the room.

I slowly walked to the front room to view the damage. The vaulted ceiling looked like a fault line and the suspended ceiling fan had been shot to the floor and shattered everywhere. All that could be seen through the front window was the ceiling of the front porch. A microburst hit and snapped an 80 foot tree, throwing it into the side of the house. The porch was demolished, the roof ridge snapped, and a huge crater was punched into the roof. The restoration process began quickly, but our home was no longer what it once was, nor was it fully repaired.

There is a hole in the “now” of our lives.

As followers of Jesus, our lives resemble our damaged home. Through the restorative power of God’s grace, our lives are no longer what they once were, but until God’s restorative work is complete in glory, we are not fully repaired. There is a hole in the “now” of our lives. We read about this hole between the “what was” and the “what will be” in 1 John 3:1-3:

See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are. The reason why the world does not know us is that it did not know him. 2 Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. 3 And everyone who thus hopes in him purifies himself as he is pure.

John points out that in Jesus, we are no longer what we once were. Before Jesus, we were blind, lost, enslaved to sin, and enemies of God. But through faith in Jesus, God has taken us into his home and made us his own children. We are no longer what we once were. John goes on to say that we are not yet what we will be. In glory, we will be free from our struggle with withering sin. This hole between our past and our future influences us. Every day we do what we can to fill the spiritual hole. Our daily struggle is fill in the crater with the gospel and to push against everything that attempts to replace it.

The default setting of a heart struggling with sin is to fill in the crater with external things that sound similar to the gospel.

The default setting of a heart struggling with sin is to fill in the crater with external things that sound similar to the gospel. They may even be related to the gospel, but they aren’t the gospel. To which of these external things are you drawn.

  • Activism - This happens when someone replaces a joyful pursuit of Jesus with zeal for a Christian cause. They fight against the evil “out there” losing sight of the Spirit’s fight against evil within their own heart. Activism often shows itself when people use a certain Christian cause as the litmus test for mature faith.
  • Legalism – This is when a person reduces their relationship with Jesus to merely obeying a list of biblical dos and don’ts. Rather than focusing more on personal heart transformation, he or she focuses most on a set of rules. They also try to impose those exact rules on others. “Keeping the list, strengthens my relationship with God” is the underlying belief that drives legalism.
  • Mysticism – This happens when a person reduces Christianity to dynamic emotional and personal experiences with God. While all Christians should long for and celebrate personal experiences with God, it is easy to replace the pursuit of Jesus with a pursuit of an emotional high. This can often be seen when people jump from church to church searching for an emotional experience that will last. Once the enthusiasm and motivation fades, they move on to another church.
  • Formalism – This happens when a person shrinks Christianity to participation in formal ministries within the church. Living for Jesus becomes participating in church meetings, trips, classes, groups, service projects, etc. Formalism takes good things, like church life and service, and makes them the primary thing. It crowds out a deep hunger for God himself and a longing for his help in other areas of life.
  • Biblicism – God calls his people to regularly read and practice mindfulness with his Word. Followers of Jesus should store up the Bible in their minds and hearts. However, it is easy for the heart to drift into Biblicism where the emphasis centers on attaining accurate biblical and theological knowledge as opposed to knowing Jesus personally. A person struggling with Biblicism can have an impressive theological library and defend many theological concepts, but is not known for becoming more like Jesus in their life.
  • Psychologism - The gospel provides hope and healing to God’s people as our deepest needs are met and fulfilled in Jesus alone. However, it is easy to see Jesus as our therapist more than our Savior. Psychologism tightens its grip when a person views themselves as needing healing more than redemption. Christianity then becomes more about the healing of emotional needs and less about a pursuit of personal maturity in the gospel. Those who wrestle with this can frequently talk about healing, but seem to never experience it.
  • Community-ism – Followers of Jesus are created to thrive and flourish in gospel community. The Bible states clearly that gospel maturity happens in and through Christ-centered relationships. But the heart can drift into craving relationships, acceptance, and respect more than dependence on communion and fellowship with Jesus. When community-ism takes root, church becomes a spiritual social club. This begins to show itself when people become aggressive or hopeless when their particular group is perceived to be threatened.
The gospel centers around Jesus and his works of transformative grace in our lives each day.

We are drawn to these external things, these “isms”(1), because they provide a sense of spiritual control. But the gospel is not centered around our performance of any “ism”. The gospel centers around Jesus and his works of transformative grace in our lives each day. Through John, Jesus tells us that everyone who hopes in him “purifies himself as he is pure” (1 John 3:3). As we strive toward growing in the grace that he gives us, you and I need to recognize which forms of Christian Externalism we struggle with the most. I admit that I am drawn to filling in the gospel crater in my life with Biblicism and Psychologism.

Which two “isms” do you most lean toward? How do those “isms” practically impact what you do, say, and think? How do those “isms” influence the way you minister to others? Let’s help each other root out Christian externalism and fill in the daily crater of our lives with gospel-centered grace. It is free grace that helps us find hope, freedom, and purpose in Jesus.




(1) I’m indebted to Tim Lane and Paul Tripp’s work on this in How People Change. (2006).