The Law of Unintended Consequences

The Law of unintended consequences holds that almost all human actions have at least one unintended consequence. Unintended consequences are a common phenomenon, due to the complexity of the world and human over-confidence.” – Author Unknown

The Law of Unintended Consequences, as defined above, is not a divine mandate, but more in line with proverbial wisdom, and is typically applied in sociology or economics. Inflation is an unintended consequence of economic prosperity, for instance. We will save discussions about the economy for another day. I actually want to talk about theology. Specifically, I want to talk about anthropology – the doctrine of man, and a very common unintended consequence of our moral behavior.

The Bible is clear in Lev 19, 20, and 21 (several verses), which Peter quotes in 1 Peter 1:15 – 16, that we are to be holy because our God is holy. As Christians, we all know this, and we all desire it. It’s what God desires of us and for us. Unfortunately, regardless of our high opinion of ourselves, none of us is very good at it. That’s not an excuse. It’s simply the truth. If we look at God’s standard for holiness, sinless perfection, we all fall miserably short; not occasionally, but constantly. So what is a Christian to do?

What most devout Christians do, is set out on a spiritual self-improvement project. We think, “I gotta get holy. I had better pray more, read more, get into an accountability group, get internet filters on my computer, and commit myself to greater self-control.” To quote the great theologian, Dr. Phil (obvious sarcasm), “How’s that working for you?” Sure, all of those Christian disciplines should be part of a healthy growing disciple’s life, and some of those practical safeguards can be very helpful. But, in and of themselves, they will not make us holy. This is where the unintended consequences come in.

If we look to external sources to modify our behavior, even spiritual ones, then we are setting ourselves up for failure. As we “try our best” to perform, as we strive to do all the right things, and yet we still fall flat on our faces in our attempts be holy; at some point we lose heart. We give up. And finally, we rebel. The very thing that we thought would save us will eventually crush us (Rom 7:10). This is an inevitable and life-altering unintended consequence of trying to be holy through religious effort.

Now there are some that are deeply steeped in legalism and moralism that are not crushed by their effects; actually, quite the opposite. They are puffed up by them. These are those that don’t realize they are falling flat on their faces. They have come to believe that either God grades on a curve and because they are better than most (in their mind), they are accepted by Him; or they believe that they are actually meeting God’s holy standard of perfection most of the time – and they need a little grace to close the gap when they slip up (misinterpretation of 1Jn 1:9). That means they they need to ask forgiveness for those minor shortcomings and get back to their holy high performance. That’s not Christian doctrine, that’s Mormonism.

When we have an honest appraisal of our performance, and realize how miserably short we fall of holy perfection, we are prone to despair. We think, “We are called to be holy, and we aren’t very holy at all. Self-help and intense religious effort has only left me disappointed and even, at times, in rebellion.” We know that it is not only impossible to be that holy, but even claiming to be is an insult to the Cross. “OK. So now what?”

I’m glad you asked. What we need is a righteousness that comes from outside of us. Our holiness is a gift from God not a result of even our most valiant spiritual efforts. The love and acceptance we enjoy, from our holy God, is based purely and eternally on the finished work of Christ alone – once and for all – yesterday, today, and forever (Titus 3:5).

When we learn to embrace this gracious truth, it leads to an unintended consequence of its own (a good one); we actually begin to live in a holy manner (not perfect, but God honoring). Our love for the One who loved us first actually motivates us to live the life He called us to: not because we have to, not because we need to, not because God won’t accept us if we fail, but because we can; because we want to! Our hearts swoon for the One who loves us unconditionally. The Holy Spirit, the helper, then goes about His ministry to glorify Jesus; in the world and in us. As we then, set out to love God and live for His glory because we know that we are the objects of His perfect gracious love, an unintended consequence occurs – we actually start living holy lives.

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Comments

  1. Kevin Subra says

    I personally believe you are confusing justification (holiness in standing) with sanctification (holiness through obedience by God’s enabling) throughout your article. One (justification) is a once-given, always-possessed gift based upon the finished work of Christ (which secures our eternal relationship with God). Those that have believed on Christ as their Sin-Bearer ARE holy before God, and nothing can add to or take away from this.

    The other (sanctification) is a daily taking up of one’s cross and following Christ through obedience which is the process of becoming holy in practice. It is not the external keeping of man-made lists, but it *is* identified as a struggle, a fight, a race in Scripture, all of which *require* discipline and effort. The imperatives to believers indicates that there are things we are to act upon, to obey. This is practical holiness, and results in, to an imperfect degree, being holy in conduct.

    We cannot do the latter without first having partaken from the former,
    but it requires willful obedience and effort. For example, if I choose
    not to abide in the Word through choice, priority, and effort, I am
    still holy in standing before God, but I certainly cannot become holy in
    practice.

    You confuse the two most clearly here:

    “What we need is a righteousness that comes from outside of us. Our
    holiness is a gift from God not a result of even our most valiant
    spiritual efforts. The love and acceptance we enjoy, from our holy God,
    is based purely and eternally on the finished work of Christ alone –
    once and for all – yesterday, today, and forever (Titus 3:5).”

    Our acceptance as being holy is from justification, being declared right because we have received Christ’s righteousness by faith (2 Cor 5:21). There is no struggle or effort needed (in fact, there are no works that add to this).

    Our practical holiness does involve effort, application, and doing. We can “please” God by doing what He commands (1 Thes 4:1; Heb 13:6, etc.). This is our reasonable service (Rom 12:1), not something that adds to our holy standing before God. It does not further justify us, but it does make us more holy as we “walk as He walked” (1 John 2:6).

    I see this “you can’t do it yourself” talk quite a bit, but we are indeed required to obey, and we have been given the indwelling Holy Spirit which enables us to do just that as we mature and obey.

    • says

      Thanks Kevin,
      I completely agree with the point that our practical obedience (sanctification) is a struggle, is a fight, is a race. I also agree with the Cross settling our justification once and for all. However I am not confused regarding the two. http://impactedbygrace.com/152-2/ As a matter of fact, two years ago I would have been right next you arguing with this this wacky blogger preaching ‘cheap grace.’ However, I have changed my position as God has gripped my heart with an intense view of His holiness, my sinfulness, and the sufficiency of the cross. http://impactedbygrace.com/about/ 

      You end your comments with “we are indeed required to obey.” Required to obey what? or else what?  If my ongoing good standing with God is based on my obedience, I’m sunk and so are you. Yes the Holy Spirit convict and empowers, but I still fall short even when I think I am obeying. I suspect we are both after the same thing, but maybe approaching it from different positions.  I assure you that my heart’s desire and master passion is to live a life that glorifies my Lord and King, but my motivation is not fear of falling short, it is love toward the one who graciously fulfilled all of God’s requirements in my place. Tit 2:11-12 http://impactedbygrace.com/2012/04/29/what-kind-of-obedience-purifies/

      • Kevin Subra says

         I see the two, standing (salvation) and efforts separately. My efforts do not affect my standing, period (and that is where your confusion comes in). However, the Bible (I’m thinking specifically of the Epistles) are full of imperatives – commands – that we are to obey. I do not suggest that we can keep them perfectly this side of glory, but I don’t use that as an excuse not to walk with God.

        Living in the spirit and walking by the Spirit are two distinct things (Gal 5:25 “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.”). Since we have eternal life, and we are holy before God in standing, He wants us to live out that salvation, to do His work by His enablement. However, it is obvious, even by Gal 5:25, that such walking takes affirmation on our part – it is not automatic.

        Another passage that suggests this is Col 2:6-7, “As you have therefore received Christ Jesus,the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted, and built up, and established in the faith, as you have been taught.”

        What do we gain if we obey (and lose if we do not)?:
        1. Crowns and other rewards.
        2. A worthwhile eternally focused life.
        3. Confidence to face Him instead of shame (1 John 2:28)
        4. Eternal impact with others.
        5. Fellowship with God (1 John 1).
        6. Spiritual Fruitfulness
        [I'm sure there are more. These are just off the top of my head.]

        My mind is full, but my writing is slow. One more passage seems to be very relevant. Paul says that I press toward the mark of the high calling of Jesus. That is effort. (As is his bringing his body into subjection, etc.). It is not externalism of the Pharisees, but God-directed effort to carry the cross and resting in His sufficiency in the midst of our weakness.