Cart-Before-the-Horse Theology

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Last Sunday I went to church with a good friend. I had attended the church before, had enjoyed the excellent worship and heard a very well-prepared, well-delivered, and stimulating message, so I was anticipating another similar experience. The singing time, again as before, brought me from the parking lot directly into the presence of the Lord, where I was drawn into losing myself in worshiping Him. It was exhilarating! My cup was overflowing.

At the conclusion of the worship time, the senior pastor stood and promptly proceeded to totally break the spirit of worship, love and adoration of Jesus that had so obviously filled the sanctuary. He figuratively wagged his finger at us for our sinfulness and our need to repent in order to experience the presence of God and His love in our lives. What? Where had he just been?

If you have read these blog postings consistently you are aware of my constant reminders that we are all sinners and that repentance for our sin is not a one-time or occasional exercise, but it is a constant way of life. And it will indeed be—if I understand that those reminders in the postings are not exhortations to repent for my sin, but proclamations that God has already forgiven all that sin at the cross, sin of which I am becoming increasingly aware.

Therefore, repentance is not the means of gaining God’s love, mercy and forgiveness, but the naturally occurring result of knowing I already have it. Repentance is not the cause of God’s favor, but the spontaneous effect of knowing it is already mine.

Just as it is in the matter of repentance, this reversal of means and results is also at the heart of every other problem we face in our Christian lives. We have, unknowingly, gotten the cart before the horse in the way we live. We have fallen for Satan’s temptation in the Garden to “Be like God.” We are not content to be the object in the story of our lives, but instead we want to be the subject; we want to be the actor and not the one acted upon. God alone is the Subject and the Actor. Our lives are completely of Him, by Him, and for Him.

Instead, we are always “living by the law,” actively pursuing God by being the “horse,” “making it happen,” never content to be the passive “cart,” living by faith in Jesus, who is always the  “Horse.” We do not want to trust Him to take us where He wants us to go, pulling us at the rate He chooses to get us there, without any help from us whatsoever. We think, subconsciously, life is all about us.

There is a widely-taught verse in the Bible that perpetuates this cart-before-the-horse theology, probably the first verse you learned about how to live the Christian life. When we look at the verse through the lens of the law, it has what seems to be at first glance a very obvious meaning. However, when we learn to substitute the eye-glasses of faith for the eye-glasses of the law, the meaning changes dramatically.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).

This verse seems to fit the cart-before-the-horse theology perfectly: we are the subject, the actor, and God is the object, the One acted upon. He waits for us, of our own free will, to initiate toward Him by confessing our sin, and He responds to our confession by faithfully and dutifully forgiving us. Case closed. But is it?

How can we reconcile this traditional 1 John 1:9 theology with the following verses that represent literally scores of others throughout the Bible that communicate the same idea:

“Our God is in heaven; he does whatever he wishes” (Psalm 115:3);

“My plans will never fail, I will do everything I intend to do. I have spoken, and it will be done” (Isaiah 46:10, 11);

“I am the LORD, and there is no other. I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create evil, I am the LORD, who does all these things” (Isaiah 45:6,7)?

From these verses it would appear that God is always the Subject; always the Actor, seemingly contradicting 1 John 1:9.

Since the Bible is inerrant, there is always agreement between problem verses, if we have eyes to see it. However, “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face” (1 Corinthians 13;12). So, commentary on the Bible is not the word of God itself, but God desires that we study Scripture carefully to know what He has said as best we can. The following is such an attempt.

What if your optometrist said to you. “If you can read the bottom line of the eye-chart, your vision is 20/20”? Does reading the bottom line of the chart make your vision 20/20? Of course not; it is good evidence that your vision is already 20/20.

Here is another example: “If she speaks with a Southern accent, she is from the South.” Does speaking with a Southern accent cause her to be from the South? Of course not; it is good evidence that she is already from the South.

Notice that the two sentences are  constructed exactly like 1 John 1:9. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Does confessing my sins cause God to forgive me? Of course not; that would make me the subject, the actor. Instead, it is good evidence that I am already forgiven.

The interesting thing about this approach to this verse is that when I really know, in my heart, God has completely forgiven me, loves me just as much when I sin as when I don’t, and has taken from me all responsibility to be good and not evil I took upon myself in the Garden of Eden, I am set free.  

I am set free to be exactly who I really am, a wicked sinner. I no longer have to defend myself, refuse to look at my own sin and blame others, for I am now only the object, the one acted upon, with no responsibility to shape myself up. I can now readily, eagerly, “confess my sin,” and be the evidence from 1 John 1:9 that God is indeed currently forgiving all my sin. I am free to even “glory” or “boast” in it, as Paul did (2 Corinthians 12:9; 1 Timothy 1:15).  knowing that God, even in the midst of my sin, thinks I am adorable!

This is living by faith, the horse pulling the cart, the church of God on the march, and the gates of Hell will not stop its attack!

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  1. jane dyson says:

    This only somewhat relates: Something that has always been hard to read about in the OT is God’s anger. Recently reading through the OT I saw something new. All that anger went on the cross when Jesus took our sin to himself. I can now rejoice when I read of His anger.

    1. Robert Andrews says:

      Bingo! This is exactly the point of the post. Since the cross, God is no longer a God of wrath and judgment. All that was poured out at the cross, and He is now only a God of love.

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