In his book Pure Grace, Pastor Clark Whitten makes a number of strong statements against what he calls “behavior modification,” and I find much important truth in what he has to say:
Christians are way too conscious of sin and way too unconscious of God’s grace. Listen, Jesus did not die to modify your behavior! He could have achieved behavior modification in any number of ways that wouldn’t have cost Him His life. Jesus went to the cross taking the sins of the world upon Himself
Religion— not real Christianity— is and always has been in the behavior modification and sin management business. It is so lucrative and so firmly entrenched in the Church that it will take a second Great Reformation and a revelation of no less importance than Luther’s to correct this great and spiritually murderous lie.
This Good News reveals the “excellencies” of Christ and is much more attractive than the gospel of behavior modification that legalists proclaim.
If behavior modification is the goal, and it is with all legalists, then repentance is viewed as the primary method of accomplishing it.
I am convinced most pastors and leaders do not have evil intentions nor impure motives toward their people; however, they are deceived and have believed the lie of the enemy that behavior modification is the goal God has set before them in ministry.
The legalistic behavior modification gurus say to those who have failed to keep the rules, “go and sin no more and we won’t condemn you.” Jesus says, “I don’t condemn you, go and sin no more.” He knew the power of love and its ability to transform a human heart!
Without a doubt, many of God’s people live their whole lives with very little understanding of the Father’s incredible love, very little understanding of the message of grace, very little understanding of the power of the blood of Jesus, and very little understanding of the ministry of the Holy Spirit. Consequently, they live under a cloud of condemnation and frustration, always feeling that they are falling short and never feeling fully accepted by God. How they need a life-transforming revelation of the love and grace and goodness of the Lord! How they need to take hold of their standing as sons and daughters of God!
Unfortunately, there are some statements that Pastor Whitten has made that are easily misunderstood (or, worse still, actually overstated or even wrong),* and now many believers are throwing out whole portions of New Testament Scripture because of the so-called new grace reformation. It has gotten to the point that the moment you share a biblical exhortation with them, they cry out, “I’m not into behavior modification!” I’m encountering this more and more every day, and the tone of the “grace” people is becoming more shrill and harsh by the hour.
Just tonight, someone posted this on my Facebook page: “Ishmael will always mock Isaac and the persecution will get even more intense as grace is poured out and thus overtakes law-living. It’s coming and I’m ready in Him. I will be John (God’s grace) and take in more of His love for me as the law-living folks attempt to self-sanctify and focus on their love for Him like Peter (stone). I don’t expect ‘law-abiding’ folk to get this post any more than they got my last one [which, by the way, was not much better than this one, and to which I gently replied]. Law-living folk are confounded by sin even today as the Pharisee’s were back in Jesus’s day. Jesus, however, was confounded by your unbelief, that will never change.”
How remarkable. If you differ with this “new revelation” of grace, you are Ishmael, persecuting Isaac; you are a “law-living” person who is attempting “self-sanctification” and who is “confounded by sin,” akin to those terrible Pharisees. You are even confounding Jesus “by your unbelief.” Yes, in this harsh and judgmental post, even Peter is a bad guy, and his name, “rock,” given to him by Jesus, becomes something negative (hard like stone). Is there no limit to how far this will go?
To be sure, Jesus did not die so we would become nicer people, or so we wouldn’t tell as many lies, or so we would think less lustful thoughts, or so we would dress more modestly. Put another way, Jesus did not die to put nice make up on a corpse. All of us were dead in our sins, all of us had no hope of salvation outside of Him, and in a million billion lifetimes, we could have never improved ourselves enough to be accepted by a perfect and holy God. And as believers, on our very best day, compared to the perfect love and holiness and purity of the Lord, we fall infinitely short.
It is Jesus who makes us righteous by His blood and Jesus who stands to defend us against accusation. It is Jesus “who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1Cor 1:30). Really, it is almost impossible to express the breadth and power of these glorious truths:
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died--more than that, who was raised--who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. (Rom 8:31-34)
These truths are the foundation of my spiritual life, and I rest in God’s love and goodness every day of my life. And because of His grace, I want to serve Him all the more faithfully. At the same time, as His child, I have no problem with “behavior modification.” In fact, the Lord calls for it constantly throughout the New Testament, with the help of His indwelling Spirit.
Let’s start with Jesus (and I’ll just cite one passage each time; otherwise, this article would be dozens of pages long):
If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body go into hell. (Matt 5:29-30)
Sounds like behavior modification to me!
What about Paul?
Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph 4:28-32)
Sounds like behavior modification to me!
What about Jacob (James)?
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions. You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you. (Jam 4:1-10)
Sounds like behavior modification to me!
What about Peter?
Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. (1 Pet 1:13-19)
Sounds like behavior modification to me!
What about John?
No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him. Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s seed abides in him, and he cannot keep on sinning because he has been born of God. (1 John 3:6-9)
And since we started with Jesus, we’ll end with Jesus, this time not from the Gospels but from Revelation:
[To the congregation in Ephesus:] I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name’s sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember therefore from where you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first. If not, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place, unless you repent. (Rev 2:2-5)
And remember: I could have quoted many more passages from the New Testament, all addressed to believers. (The Sermon on the Mount, where the first quote came from, was addressed to the Lord’s disciples too; see Matt 5:1-2.) But just to illustrate the point, here’s one more wonderful passage from Paul (please take time to read it through):
If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry. On account of these the wrath of God is coming. In these you too once walked, when you were living in them. But now you must put them all away: anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk from your mouth. Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have put off the old self with its practices and have put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its creator. Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. (Col 3:1-14)
This is “behavior modification” from first to last: As those whose lives are now hidden with Jesus the Messiah in God, we are to put to death various sins of the flesh (“sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry”); we are to put away other sins (“anger, wrath, malice, slander, and obscene talk”); we are not to “lie to one another”; we are to put on “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” along with forbearance and forgiveness; and we are to crown this all with “love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.”
To be perfectly clear, we do not tell a sinner to become good in order to be saved; we do not tell a believer that he or she must reach a certain level of perfection before God will accept them; and we do not try to change ourselves in our own power or might. Rather, as born-again, Spirit-indwelt, grace-empowered children of God, we take hold of the Father’s provision, we renew our minds (Rom 12:2; Eph 4:23), we consider ourselves dead to sin and alive to God (Romans 6), we “find out what pleases the Lord” (Eph 5:10), and we seek to glorify Him with our thoughts, with our words, and with our deeds, “bringing holiness to completion in the fear of God” (2 Cor 7:1; once more, this is just the tiniest sampling of what could be quoted).
The bottom line is that Jesus Himself taught that, “If you love Me, you will keep My commandments,” and, “Whoever has My commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves Me. And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to Him” (John 14:15, 21).
And so, when our friends share God’s Word with us and remind us of His holy standards and commandments, let’s not say, “Don’t throw that behavior modification stuff on me! I’m not coming under your legalistic bondage! You won’t throw your self-sanctifying judgment my way!” Instead, let’s say, “Lord, how I love You and Your Word! I have come to do Your will, Father, and Your truth is written on my heart.”
* Without getting into detail here, I find troubling Pastor Whitten’s unqualified statement that “behavior modification and sin management business” is “so lucrative,” as if those of us who preach holiness and purity do it for the money (right!). Pastor Whitten is also guilty of painting with too broad of a brush, speaking of “the gospel of behavior modification that legalists proclaim,” as if those calling on believers to live according to the Word are legalists or, to quote another one of his terms, “legalistic behavior modification gurus.” Based on the verses quoted in this article, that would make Jesus, Paul, Peter, James, and John “legalistic behavior modification gurus”! And even though Pastor Whitten states that he is “convinced most pastors and leaders do not have evil intentions nor impure motives toward their people,” he still claims that “they are deceived and have believed the lie of the enemy that behavior modification is the goal God has set before them in ministry” – unless, of course, they have received this new revelation of “pure grace” that has been withheld from the Church for almost 2,000 years.
It’s easy to see how dangerous these kinds of statements can be, especially in the hands of zealous believers who have been helped by the message of grace and who can turn all too easily on their “unenlightened” brothers and sisters, accusing the vast majority of pastors and leaders of being “deceived” and believing “the lie of the enemy.” I want to believe that this is not what Pastor Whitten meant, and I believe he would be horrified to see how his quotes are being used, but when you make such broad, unqualified statements, the damage is already done.