Does God work from the inside-out or the outside-in?
I think, as evangelicals, our instinctive answer would be that God works from the inside-out. After all, the fundamental problem is our hearts, and the gospel is that God promises us a new heart (Eze 36:26). Only once there’s been inward spiritual transformation can we expect to see outward change. This is absolutely true; it’s why Jesus said: “You must be born again!” (John 3:7) and why Paul said that being a Jew inwardly is what matters, not being a Jew outwardly (Rom 3:28-29). Christian behaviour isn’t what makes us Christians.
But starting our thinking about God from our insides can cause big problems. This is where covenant thinking can help us. Covenant thinking teaches us that in a very important sense, God works from the outside-in. What do I mean?
When we listen to preaching, we’re not listening to our own voice, but a voice outside us, that we can’t switch on/off. My heart is changed through listening to God’s word, which is outside me. God hasn’t designed me to live the Christian life with just me and my Bible, but with the “ministers of the new covenant” (2 Cor 3:6) preaching Christ to me.
When I am baptised, God is not pointing me to a gospel that is first inside me and now in baptism is being shown on the outside. No, he is pointing me first to what he has done outside me in Christ’s death and resurrection. Baptism is an act done to me, not in me. But which, by faith, will have lasting inward effects. Again, notice the outside-in movement.
At the Lord’s Supper
When I partake of the Lord’s Supper, God is working from the outside-in. This bread and wine that I touch, taste and swallow is designed by God to be eaten outwardly. It’s outside me, and the direction of travel is outside-in. The risen Christ, in heaven above, is coming all the way down by his Spirit to my heart, when, by faith, I receive him.
If we realise that our relationship to God plays out in a covenant, it gets us to look at the outward aspects of religion differently. The outward things are no longer irrelevant bits of tradition. Neither are the outward things just expressing a gospel that God’s done inside me; instead, they are vehicles through which God takes what he has done outside me in Christ and works it inside me.
What difference does this make?
i. This is why we don’t add to the outward things we do in church. We’re not adding extra rituals like Roman Catholic, or Eastern Orthodox churches, because God’s covenant isn’t something we come up with, but that he reveals (Deut 12:32)
ii. This is why we take the outward things at church seriously. Those outward things are not flexible, or pick’n’mix, because they’re holy things God’s appointed to use. It stops us treating the outward things like customers.
iii. This is why we’re not to be driven by our feelings. We come to church even though we don’t feel like it. After all, church is much less about me expressing myself, as God impressing me.
iv. This is why we baptise our children. If God works from the outside-in, then I include my children in the outward things, with trust that he will work the inward things inside them (Gen 17:12; Acts 2:39).
v. This is why we cannot stop with the outward things. To love the externals and miss the internals is to miss the whole point of the outside stuff (“I desire mercy, not sacrifice” Matt 9:13).
Yes, the gospel tells us God works inside-out. “Neither circumcision counts for anything, nor uncircumcision, but a new creation” (Gal 6:15). But how does God’s gospel advance in the world? It’s not with our marketing skills or ingenuity. It’s in a covenant. The good news advances as God uses the outward things of his covenant to work faith inside us.