We Christians may talk about God being loving and forgiving, but what we often mean is that God loves and forgives those who are good and clean—who meet His conditions, in other words.
Or maybe it is more subtle than that. Maybe you are a Christian, and you rightly believe that God forgave your past indiscretions—that was what drew you to Him in the first place. But once you made that initial Christian commitment, it was time to get your act together and be serious. We conclude that it was God’s blood, sweat, and tears that got us in, but that it’s our blood, sweat, and tears that keep us in. We view God as a glorified bookkeeper, tallying our failures and successes on His cosmic ledger. We conclude that in order for God to love us, we have to change, grow, and be good.
Author Jerry Bridges puts it perfectly when he writes:
My observation of Christendom is that most of us tend to base our relationship with God on our performance instead of on His grace. If we’ve performed well—whatever “well” is in our opinion—then we expect God to bless us. If we haven’t done so well, our expectations are reduced accordingly. In this sense, we live by works, rather than by grace. We are saved by grace, but we are living by the “sweat” of our own performance. Moreover, we are always challenging ourselves and one another to “try harder.” We seem to believe success in the Christian life (however we define success) is basically up to us: our commitment, our discipline, and our zeal, with some help from God along the way. We give lip service to the attitude of the Apostle Paul, “But by the grace of God I am what I am (1 Cor. 15:10), but our unspoken motto is, “God helps those who help themselves.”
The liberating truth of the Christian gospel is that God’s love for us and approval of us has nothing to do with us. The Christian life commences with grace, continues with grace, and concludes with grace. Jesus met all of God’s holy conditions so that your relationship to God could be wholly unconditional.
Thanks to Jesus, I am clothed in an irremovable suit of love and forgiveness.
The other day I saw a truck that made me laugh out loud. It was a truck from Premier Booting Services, one of those companies that comes to put the bulky metal lock on your front tire when you’ve parked illegally. Not that funny, right? What was funny was their slogan: “Your Source for Parking Compliance.” Something about that line struck me as appropriate for the Ministry of Information in George Orwell’s 1984. So I laughed. But while I was laughing, I realized that their slogan had profound—and unintended—theological implications as well.
Premier Booting Services doesn’t actually want to provide parking compliance. It would put them out of business. Their business model, in fact, depends on people getting booted, and then getting booted again. It’s not in Premier’s best interest for people to learn their lesson and start parking legally. They’re not actually in the compliance business, they’re in the punishment business. They say that they provide “compliance” because it doesn’t sound as nasty.
Preachers who think that simply telling bad people to be good—applying the boot to the tires of our spiritual lives—will actually produce compliance misunderstand the law’s purpose. The law tells us that compliance is required but the law is incapable of producing a compliant heart. We would all agree that compliance is a laudable goal. We want people parking legally and we want people loving their neighbors as themselves. But how might compliance actually happen?
Counter-intuitively, it is grace that produces compliance. Grace—that love that comes to the undeserving—is the thing that causes the kind of heart change that can actually generate true obedience. Punishment and judgment don’t create a reformed heart, they create—at best—a heart full of fear, and—at worst—a heart full of rebellion. Love and grace replace a fearful heart with a grateful one, a heart that desires whatever the lover asks.
(Excerpted from my forthcoming devotional It Is Finished: 365 Days of Good News)
Life, suffering, and failure have a way of transforming you from an idealist to a realist—from thinking that you’re strong to reminding you that you’re weak.
When I was 25, I believed I could change the world. At 42, I have come to the realization that I cannot change my wife, my church, or my kids, to say nothing of the world. Try as I might, I have not been able to manufacture outcomes the way I thought I could, either in my own life or other people’s. Unfulfilled dreams, ongoing relational tension, the loss of friendships, a hard marriage, rebellious teenagers, the death of loved ones, remaining sinful patterns—whatever it is for you—live long enough, lose enough, suffer enough, and the idealism of youth fades, leaving behind the reality of life in a broken world as a broken person. Life has had a way of proving to me that I’m not on the constantly-moving-forward escalator of progress I thought I was on when I was twenty-five.
A while back, I received an email from a friend inquiring about my understanding between the relationship of ongoing sin in the life of a Christian and sanctification (Christian growth). He said he understood that Christians continue to be sinful, but the question he asked me was whether I thought Christians continue to be staticallysinful. I told him that I hadn’t considered the categories of statically or non-statically sinful because, while those categories may be moderately helpful in a theoretical discussion, they are categories that don’t correspond to life as it is actually lived. For instance, it becomes pretty subjective as to what is static and what isn’t static. I have improved over the years in some ways but I also see areas in my life that seem better or worse given the day, the circumstances, the season of life, etc. Some things I’ve “licked” (although I’m typically proud of those things so that becomes a “new” problem) and others, I’m sure, will plague me the rest of my life with more or less success depending on a variety of situations, moods, people I’m dealing with, and so on. I told him that the category which speaks to the reality of life as it is actually lived is Martin Luther’sSimul iustus et peccator (Christians are both justified and sinner simultaneously)–a category that the Apostle Paul gives existential voice to in Romans 7.
I think most people can probably relate better to what my life has actually looked like: Try and fail. Fail then try. Try and succeed. Succeed then fail. Two steps forward. One step back. One step forward. Three steps back. Every year, I get better at some things, worse at others. Some areas remain stubbornly static. To complicate matters even more, when I honestly acknowledge the ways I’ve gotten worse, it’s actually a sign that I may be getting better. And when I become proud of the ways I’ve gotten better, it’s actually a sign that I’ve gotten worse. And ’round and ’round we go.
If this sounds like a depressing sentiment, it isn’t meant to be one. Quite the opposite. In fact, as my friend Mike Horton says, “The hype of a radical calling to change the world can creep into every area of our life and make us tired, depressed, and mean.” If I am grateful for anything about these past 17 years, it’s for the way God has wrecked my idealism about myself and the world and replaced it with a realism about the extent of His grace and love, which is much bigger than I had ever imagined. Indeed, the smaller you get—the smaller life makes you—the easier it is to see the grandeur of grace.
So, while I am far more incapable than I may have initially thought, God is infinitely more capable than I ever hoped.
New beginnings. Fresh starts. Clean slates. Second chances. We love ‘em all. They carry so much promise; they —give us so much hope. If we blow it today, we can start again tomorrow. We conclude that the answer to yesterdays failure is today’s success. If I preached a bad sermon this past Sunday I can fix my sense of failure by preaching a great sermon next Sunday.
In many ways, all of our striving under this performance idol is a grown-up re-creation of the adolescent playground cry: “I want a do-over!” Have you ever heard that? Watch children playing a game at a park like football or basketball. Maybe somebody messed up the opening kick. Maybe they weren’t sure the ball stayed in bounds or not. So somebody proclaims, “Do-over!” And they start over. They have to get it right. They want the bad play erased and replaced by the good play.
We’re still doing this into our adult years, trying to manage our lives in some bizarre system of spiritual checks and balances, trying to outweigh our bad plays with our “do-overs.”
When we worship at the altar of performance we spend our lives frantically propping up our images or reputations, trying to do it all—and do it all well—often at a cost to ourselves and those we love. Life becomes a hamster wheel of endless earning and proving and maintenance and management and controlling, where all we can see is our own feet. We live in a constant state of anxiety, fear, and resentment until we end up heavily medicated, in the hospital, or just really, really unhappy.
So what’s the answer to this enslaving addiction that plagues us all?
The gospel of grace.
The gospel is God’s announcement to failing people like you and me that we are now free from the slavery of “if at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.” We don’t have to put all our weight into the do-over. We can put it on Jesus. Because Jesus succeeded for me, I’m free to follow with abandon and fail without fear.