A number of my friends are involved in full time mission work. One was making a trip to several different countries to visit with missionaries from their organization to try to assess morale. He found many who were discouraged, and who deeply appreciated the support and encouragement which was brought to them by my friend’s team. In his report, he says the following:
“By far my favorite part of the week was mentoring a national church leader and his wife. This couple was profoundly impacted by our retreat and how God’s grace trickles down into all aspects of our lives. My new friends explained the burden they feel to keep every jot and tittle of God’s law. It was a breath of fresh air for them to internalize how Christ has kept the law for them and that obedience flows out of resting in His work for us! Pray that this message of grace would seep deep within my new friends’ hearts and overflow into the church they are a part of.”
That is a prayer I can make for many, including myself. The world’s misconception that we need to earn our salvation is subliminally deeply ingrained. Even though we may understand intellectually that our salvation is by grace alone, we often still unconsciously try to find ways to earn it.
If I find myself thinking this way perhaps I need to examine what I genuinely understand of grace. By what standards do I determine whether or not I am living a life pleasing to God? Is it in the number of times I read my Bible or pray or go to church? By how many I have brought to Christ or the number of good works I have done, or how I dress or what I sing or what I read? Or, instead, is it in being faithful to trust Him and obey the hard principles which Christ taught, like loving my enemies and praying for them; how I reflect the love of God in my relationships? Is it in how much I love Him, not just for what He has done for me, but for Who He is? Is my primary focus on myself or on God?
I don’t think we always appreciate His grace. We are uncomfortable with the idea that our salvation and God’s grace are gifts which we can’t earn. We have been taught all our lives that we need to do something if we are to get something. As children we are good in order to please our parents and stay out of trouble. As young adults we study hard so that we can eventually function successfully as adults. As adults we work so that we can get a paycheck to support ourselves and/or our families. We strive ~ we are rewarded.
Unfortunately, no matter how well intentioned our lives, the wages which we have earned by our lives (apart from grace) is death. We can never generate enough good works or a lifestyle sufficient to meet God’s standards of holiness. Eternal life is a gift given at the will of the Giver. We have no options except to accept or reject it. I suspect that there is something in us which resists this. If we have no part in our own salvation, if it is all from Him, we can take no credit. That goes against instinct. Something drives us to try to rack up points with God so that we can point to our deeds and say, “See what I have done!” We want the right to choose how we will be saved and how we will follow Him.
There it is: one of the oldest sins in the world ~ the desire to be self-determining; to do it our way. It is the hook with which Satan tempted Adam and Eve. He prompted them to question God’s wisdom and motives in keeping them from the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They chose the path which would take them toward autonomy; outside God’s rules. It was the same sin for which Satan had been cast from heaven. He wanted to be like God; they wanted to be like God. We want to be like God in choosing our own options.
An unintended consequence of well-meaning self-determination may be legalism in the Church. We begin our walk with Christ with great intentions. Because we love Him and are grateful, we want to do those things which we believe will take us closer to Him. We reason that if we read our Bibles and pray every day and do many good works, this will please Him. We hope that these things will make us more spiritual. We refuse to go to certain places, or read certain books or dress in certain ways because we want to keep ourselves set apart for God and focused on higher goals. However, in truth, none of these things is required as a compulsory part of our salvation. They are free choices we make which we believe will strengthen our faith and take us closer to God ~ but they are choices none the less.
All these things are probably good, but in making these arbitrary choices for ourselves, sometimes we find that our act of choosing mutates into a requirement in our minds. From “choosing” to “requirement” to” law” are just tiny steps, and soon we have come to believe that we must live by all these rules or that somehow we will have failed Him. Not only do we make these things commandments for ourselves, we then insist that others live by our standards, or we begin to judge them. If we stand back far enough we see that we have put ourselves back under law… and somewhere in the process grace has been lost. We begin to define ourselves by what we do or don’t do, rather than by Who He is and who we are. I can do many good things, yet be filled with pride; or harbor anger in my relationships. The Pharisees pointed to their meticulous keeping of the Law, yet Jesus told them they were hypocrites because He saw into their hearts. God is more interested in what is in our hearts than a list of all the good things we do in His name.
Christ came to bring us freedom in Him; not to put us back under a system of rules and regulations. Some people resist this idea of freedom because they are afraid if there are no regulated standards of behavior it is giving us license to sin. I suggest that only those who don’t understand grace would believe that anyone who truly loves God and wants to honor Him with their lives will use freedom in Christ as an excuse for deliberate sin. You can’t deliberately sin expecting that you are covered by God’s grace; it just doesn’t work that way. We might fall into sin whether we live by law or grace, but if we are truly His we will always be prompted by the Holy Spirit to aspire to lives which honor and glorify Him. No one who is truly His will look for deliberate ways to dishonor God or consciously try to subvert the Spirit’s leading.
We already know God’s standards. We all know straight up that we are not to have other gods before Him (including money, children or self); not to lie, cheat and steal, live sexually promiscuous lives, murder, dishonor our parents, covet or take the Lord’s name in vain. We already know these things are not pleasing to God, and try to live lives which honor these prohibitions (and none of us fully succeed). It is when we put matters of personal taste and conviction into the same category as these standards and then impose our rules on others that we really get off course. Paul writes succinctly to the Corinthians that some things are a matter of individual conscience. Paul tells them that whether “we eat meat offered to idols or not” (one of the dilemmas which faced the Corinthians) it is a matter for each individual to decide. The important thing was that whatever we do we are to do it as unto the Lord.
In the end, it won’t be about all the rules we structured for ourselves, but how we have learned Christ. Have we been open to the development of the fruit of the Spirit? Do we live lives which demonstrate the love of God to those observing us? Do we love to share with others how much God has loved the world in sending His Son? My prayer is that we can all open our hearts to a spirit of grace and the things that genuinely matter in our walk with Christ.