The Trouble with Your Checklist

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Inside the heart of every man is a legalist dying to get out. The trouble is, no one wants to admit to being a closet legalist. So instead, we plot and scheme clever new ways to hide the motivations of our hearts with trinkets that are much less sinister.

One such trinket that isn't always so obvious is the ethical and moral checklist. The heart of the legalist adores the savory goodness of working to keep them, not to mention the kudos that come from sharing them publicly. The avid checklister is already saying in their mind:

"I'm not a legalist, I just like to measure my progress in legal terms. And, there's nothing like a good old-fashioned checklist to help me do just that."

To be sure, no one I know has ever spoken those exact words out loud, but if you peruse popular Christian blogs and websites, it's hard to deny that we have a love-affair with the checklist. On any given day, you can find a plethora of blog titles promising ten ways to this, and five things you must do for that.

Grant Castleberry, PhD candidate at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, posted on Twitter last night this warning: Beware of "Mount Sinai preachers," they leave you with appealing "how to" lists, but no Christ. I would add this: Beware of that preacher's first cousin, the "Mount Sinai Counselor," who promises you a new marriage in ten, easy steps, but no Christ.

What Must I Do to Be Saved

In Luke 18:18-30, we read of Jesus's encounter with the "Rich Ruler." Among the many other things that were going on in this passage, one thing that can't be missed is the man's desire for Jesus to give him a checklist of items that, if completed by him, would ensure his inheritance of eternal life.

Jesus placates the man's desire for a list of things to do, taking him first to several of the Ten Commandments. In a heart-revealing moment, the man declares, "All these I have kept from my youth." Finally, in a move unanticipated by the man, Jesus goes straight to the idol of his heart: money and possessions.

"One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me," Jesus said. The passage tells us that in response to Jesus's final instruction, the man "became very sad, for he was extrememly rich."

Whereas the Rich Ruler was seeking a type of checklist from which to establish his own righteousness, Jesus gave him one that would do nothing more than expose and uncover the darkness that was within him.

Who Must I Trust to Be Changed

The trouble with checklists is not that they're useless or inherently anti-gospel. In counseling, checklists can be a useful tool on the road to true, lasting change. They help us gather our thoughts, visualize the change process as it happens, and coordinate lives previously out of control.

The trouble isn't the checklist.

The trouble is the propensity of the human heart to find confidence, assurance, and rest in its capacity to adhere to the demands of the checklist (a type of law), rather than the Christ who has already fulfilled the ultimate "checklist" (God's perfect, righteous law) on our behalf.

Conversely, checklists become for many a relentless taskmaster, accusing the addict, the self-mutilater, and the meloncholy with failing to meet the checklist's otherwise good command. The condemnation that flows out of the experience of failing to keep a checklist can drive many to despair, or deeper into the pit of legalism with re-newed, but flawed commitments to keep the list.

If we're honest with ourselves, we must confess that we cannot and will not perfectly adhere to and keep even the simplest of checklists (see Genesis 3). The sinful nature we inherited from Adam precludes this from being a possibility. Even the most prodigious dieter covets in their heart the bowl of ice cream they outwardly avoid.

These realities, common to counseling and discipleship, ought to do in us what the giving of God's law was intended to do all along, that is, we ought to be driven to the cross in search of the grace of God in Christ alone, by grace alone, through faith alone. Anything less will be revealed as nothing more than an attempt at self-righteousness through works.

Louis Berkhof, in his Systematic Theology, writes, "The law seeks to awaken in the heart of man contrition on account of sin, while the gospel aims at the awakening of saving faith in Jesus Christ. The work of the law is in a sense preparatory to that of the gospel. It deepens the consciousness of sin and thus makes the sinner aware of the need of redemption" (Kindle Location, 13874).

A Checklist for the Checklister

In sum, we might say this in the context of biblical counseling:

By works of the law, no man will be biblically, God-glorifyingly, joy-producingly changed (Gal. 2:16). Therefore, we confess that what we need is not another checklist, but a new heart (Ezek. 36:26). We know that our greatest need is not for another row of legal demands to work, but a Christ in whom to trust (Rom. 10:13). The fruit we seek will come as we learn to rest in Him (Matt. 11:28).

If we keep these biblical truths in mind, then we can more safely create and utilize the checklist as a tool for our sanctification.

Here's a short list of items to help us keep our checklists in proper perspective:

  1. Checklists can be good, but trust in Christ for our hope and identity is best.
  2. Checklists can be good, but don't necessarily reveal a changed heart.
  3. Checklists can be good, but they sometimes tempt us toward self-righteousness.
  4. Checklists can be good, but we must master them, not be mastered by them.

Join the Conversation

  1. How have checklists helped you in discipleship and sanctification?
  2. How have checklists proven to be a "new law" in your process of change and becoming like Christ, tempting you to trust in your results, rather than His grace?

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