Kelly Clarkson famously sings, “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Stronger.” The sentiment being, “if you’re still alive, you can learn from the experience and become a better, stronger person.”
As humans we love this kind of stuff because it gives us hope, a silver lining around the horrendously difficult life we are living under the sun. But it’s a false hope, a mirage that we can never seem to find as we scratch and claw our way through the desert of life desperately looking for a drop of water. Honestly, there’s probably some truth to this idea, but when we carry this philosophy into our Christian life, we end up losing the very crux of how God works in the life of the Christian. God isn’t looking to make us “stronger” or “better” or whatever adjective you want to place in front of your faith. God is actually putting us to death so that what might blossom forth is not a revitalized version of ourselves but a completely new man, the very life of Christ given to us as a gift. The water He’s offering is Christ himself, the Living Water. This water, while life-giving, must first drown us under its baptismal flood so that Christ might resurrect us into new life. This drowning is the work of the law. A law so demanding and heavy that we cannot possibly keep it or carry its weight. When the law is delivered in this way (as Christ did in the Sermon on the Mount), it doesn’t leave any room for the sinner to keep swimming and survive it actually holds the old man down until there’s not a breath left in him.
I am often criticized for not preaching the law strongly enough. My well-meaning critics believe that while the gospel is good and necessary, the law must be emphasized to keep Christians from going off the deep end into sin and licentiousness. The problem with this idea is manifold, but primarily it empties the gospel of its power making the law the driving force of the Christian life. It makes the law into something other than what the Bible presents: a word from God that reveals our sin leaving us nowhere to turn but toward Him. This word of God doesn’t become something else for the Christian. There is no “revitalized” law for the Christian, nor is there a “reenergized” will given to the person of faith whereby they can now keep the law with the motivation of the gospel and the help of the Holy Spirit. The will of the sinner remains a will bound in captivity to sin, held under the death sentence of the law. The hope for the sinner is not in growing stronger and more capable of obeying God. Our hope remains in Christ and his word of promise: “you are forgiven…your sins are no more.” This is the hope that holds onto us, and that clings to us as we bumble our way through this life.
To be a Christian is not to become a better person, nor is it to be given a new lease on life. The Christian actually becomes a dual-natured soul — a sinner and a saint. Two distinct lives that run parallel through this life. They do not merge, nor do they communicate with one another. The sinful old man just keeps on going through this life desperately wanting to find a righteousness outside of Christ, and the new man is there as well, giving us everything we long for but can never achieve on our own.
So where does this leave us? Do we just go on sinning that grace may abound? Paul tells us that this is impossible (Romans 6) because the new man is incapable of sinning, the old man has been put to death in the waters of baptism, and the new man has burst forth with all the sinlessness of Christ and all the good works already given to him freely. From this place, the Christian is free to cease worrying about his “progress” because it truly is finished. All the navel-gazing and sin sniffing is subsumed in Christ who has turned our eyes upon him and the life we have that is hidden with him (Col. 3:1-4). This freedom is not used for finding life in our sin, that is the work of the old man and the law. The freedom we have in Christ gives us hope beyond ourselves and our futile attempts at finding life. It’s a freedom that turns us away from ourselves toward our neighbor. A neighbor who can benefit from the good works given to us freely by Christ.
Therefore what doesn’t kill you isn’t the law, and it doesn’t lead you to the gospel but to hell. What doesn’t kill you might actually be a cheapened law that leaves wiggle room and space in the door for your old man to stick his foot in and get in on the work of Christ. And once the old man enters this space, his only concern is diminishing Christ and making himself stronger and better. God is not interested in this kind of human endeavor; what God desires for you is death and resurrection. Dr. Jim Nestigen calls this the “drowning and dancing” of the Christian life. The law is not meant to make you stronger; it's intended to put you to death so that Jesus might call you forth out of the grave and give you life that needs no strengthening or improvement.
Go in peace my friends; it really is finished.