Some people worry that if we emphasize God’s grace, that people will stop caring about how they behave. Well, they can stop worrying. You see, I’ve never met a Christian who did not care about how they behave. However, I have met many Christians who have serious trouble believing that God could keep on loving them and forgiving them in spite of how rotten they behave.
Most Christians have an easy time seeing their sins and trying to do better. What they have trouble with is handing off their deep sense of guilt and failure to Christ. Most Christians are always and ever struggling to overcome something, but their moments of deep peace and guiltless rest in God’s total and unconditional love for them are, sadly, few and far between.
The gospel truth is that, in Christ, we are free from guilt—not because of us, but because of him. God accounts us righteous in Christ. All we can do is believe that truth, because we can’t see actual evidence of it. We might see a little, or even a lot, of improvement in this or that aspect of our lives, but we never see anything close to perfection (unless we are delusional).
Yes, we should fight sin in our lives, and because Christ lives in us, we do. But we should never measure God’s love for us by our success levels in achieving sinlessness. God wants us to trust him to be our righteousness. When we do, three things happen:
- We realize we are not righteous (that is, we are sinners in need of mercy; that’s what we mean by repentance—admitting we are sinners in need of mercy).
- We realize his Word, his promise to forgive us and save us, is good.
- We rest in him.
God got hot with Israel over unbelief (Psalm 106:6-7, 21, 24; Hebrews 3:9, 12, 19). They would not trust him to do what he said he would do for them, which was to save them, to be their salvation, to take care of them. Instead of trusting him, they would make treaties with neighboring countries, or sacrifice to the gods of other nations, or trust in their own military strength.
(And hand in hand with their untrust, they would oppress the poor and weak among them. Not trusting God to take care of us always leads to walking all over the poor and weak. That is because when you try to make your own way in the world, you have to adopt the ways of the world, play by the world’s rules—survival of the fittest.)
Trusting in God means that when we are hurt or taken advantage of, or when problems arise or tragedy strikes, all is not lost, because Christ was raised from the dead for us. It means that we know we have nothing to lose because everything we have was given to us by God in the first place. It means we can cast all our cares on him because he cares for us. And that takes faith, because God’s deliverance from the many things that fall on us in this life very seldom comes in ways that make sense to us.
Sometimes deliverance doesn’t come in this life at all. In the same way, overcoming all our sins doesn’t come in this life, which means we have to trust him when he says he doesn’t count our sins against us (Romans 4:1-8) and that our new lives are hidden with Christ in God (Colossians 3:3).
Holy in Christ
Sin is our enemy as well as God’s enemy. It destroys the creation, including us. But God has moved powerfully, decisively and once for all in Christ to redeem the creation, including us, from the corruption of sin. The outcome of the war with sin has already been determined through the death and resurrection of the incarnate Son of God. The devil, along with the sin and death he champions, has already been defeated, but he still exercises influence in the world until Christ returns.
By God’s grace, we are God’s children. Our hearts are turned to him, devoted to him and sanctified by him. We have tasted his goodness and experienced his love, and we have given our allegiance to him. We fight sin in our lives and strive to walk in righteousness because he lives in us.
Christ’s victory is our victory. In other words, what Christ did, he did for us, and he stands for us with God. We are holy because, and only because, we are in Christ. That is something we can see only with the eyes of faith—we have to trust God that it is so.
Christian life a paradox
Here is another way of putting it: God has given us an active part in Christ’s victory. We stand clean and forgiven in Christ’s blood even while we seek to live in harmony with God’s perfect love. A repentant heart and commitment to obedience characterize our lives of faith in Christ, yet we routinely fall far short of Christ’s ideal.
When we fail, which is continually, we can trust in the forgiveness of our God who loves us so much that he gave his Son to redeem us. In Christ we stand, and we stand only because we are in Christ, who is for us, as opposed to against us.
In Christ, even though we are sinners, we are righteous. Even when our commitment flags, Christ’s commitment to us does not—God is faithful even when we falter (2 Timothy 2:13). There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ (Romans 8:1).
If all this sounds like a paradox, it is. At least, it is from our perspective. But from God’s perspective, it is the way the universe is put together. God loves and redeems, and he has made all things new in Christ. We are dead in sin, yet we are alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:5; Colossians 2:13). We still sin, yet God no longer considers us sinners (Romans 4:8). Our real lives, which are a new creation, are hidden in God with Christ (Colossians 3:3). Just as the old creation is judged, the new creation is saved.
Does that make sin OK? The question misses the point. Sin is not OK. It is never OK. But it is defeated. Its teeth have been pulled. It is on its last legs. It still slaps you around and might even kill you, but God has you covered forever.
Jesus confirms the ideals of the life of the kingdom in Matthew 5. The old categories of the law of Moses are transcended by Jesus’ description of the transformed heart that reflects the new life in him. It is a heart that puts others ahead of self, that not only avoids hurting others but also actively loves others. It is a pattern of life that cannot be measured by mere outward appearances, but flows instead from a new creation, a new interior, a new birth.
It is the heart of Christ. And as such, it is a heart we are given, not one we work up with moral energy and personal commitment.
But, why then does Jesus say that “anyone who does not keep the whole law and teach it will be called least in the kingdom of heaven?” Because it is true. But remember, it is in Jesus that we keep the whole law, not in ourselves. It is Jesus who has kept it for us. The law condemns us because we cannot help but fail to keep it (Galatians 3:10-14). In Christ, there is no condemnation.
We become law keepers only by putting our faith in Jesus, who himself alone is our righteousness. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. We don’t begin to have what it takes to stand righteous in the presence of God. Jesus does, and the gospel is God’s good news that God has in Christ made us everything he wants us to be. He has already done it.
Because we can’t see any physical evidence of that, we can know it only by faith in the One who gives us the gift (Galatians 3:22). That’s why God pleads, “Trust me!”
One other point, while we’re on the topic: When Jesus refers to the law in Matthew 5, he is obviously not talking about the whole old covenant law. Otherwise we would all be wearing blue tassels and phylacteries and sacrificing lambs. Whatever way Jesus is defining “law” here, we are law keepers only through faith in him, not through our ever-bungling efforts to avoid sin.
Devotion born of trust
Jesus is our Savior, Lord and Teacher. We can start with the confidence that we are indeed forgiven and saved, purely as God’s free gift to us through his Son. Jesus is our Savior. With that sure trust in God’s true word of grace, and because his love is growing in us from the moment we believed him, we can (in his strength) devote ourselves to doing whatever he says. Jesus is our Lord, which also means he is our Master, our King, our Ruler.
We come to know God better and understand his will more fully by listening to what he has given us about himself in the Bible. Some of the ways we listen to him are: reading the Bible, listening to our teachers in the church (Ephesians 4:11-14), reading devotional writing by Christian teachers, as well as “listening” to God’s prompting of our wills during prayer. Jesus is our Teacher.
As we listen to Jesus we learn that obeying God is important. If we believe in God’s mercy and love through Christ, then the Holy Spirit works in us to lead us to desire to obey God, and to actually obey him. Yes, we bear fruit, but it is not really that we are doing it ourselves. It is the Holy Spirit working in us to bear it. But the beauty is that the Spirit makes us able to cooperate with his work in such a way that we are indeed pleasing God and bring glory to him through Christ.
So let us return to the original problem—we do fall short, a lot. But, again, we can rest in the confidence that God has already forgiven us, already saved us and already made us his saints. In that confidence we don’t have to languish in discouragement; we can get up and continue our struggle against sin, resting in the sure and unlimited love of God. Our failures, lapses and sins are not the measure of who we are in Christ; his faithful word and his victory for us are.
We really are in a battle against sin. But the victory does not depend on us; it depends on Christ, and he has already won. We are living out the implications of his victory in our personal struggles, and because the victory is already his, our God-given part in his victory is not at stake.
Our part has already been secured by the Son of God. By God’s gracious will for us, we are indeed safe in Christ, and we can take joy and rest in God’s presence if we believe his word about that. (If we won’t believe God’s word about that, then, of course, we won’t be able to rest in his joy. God doesn’t force people not to stew in hell, but hell is not his choice for them.)
Teaching right living
“But,” some might object, “shouldn’t the church teach people right ways to live?” Yes, it should. And as it does so, it needs to keep in mind that teaching right ways to live is not the same as teaching people how to be loved by God or how to be saved. The two must be kept separate. God already loves us and has already saved us, even though we are sinners. Right living can help us avoid loads of trouble, pain and heartache, but it can’t make God love us or save us any more than he already has.
“But,” some will ask, “doesn’t it please God when we live right?” Yes, it does. It pleases God because he loves to see us living in tune with him and with the persons he has made us to be in Christ. Likewise, he hates to see us torturing ourselves and living in fear and despair, out of harmony with the new creation he has made of us in Christ. Do we stop loving our children when they ignore our rules and warnings and get themselves hurt? God loves us even more than we are able to love our children.
With the new covenant in Christ, God has eclipsed the old system of reward for righteousness and punishment for sin (Hebrews 10:9-10). That system bound everybody under sin and death (Galatians 3:21-22). Because of our utter helplessness, weakness and bondage, he has taken on himself for us the consequences of sin, and he, as the righteous Human for all humans, shares with us the rewards of his righteousness. Those rewards for righteousness are reconciliation and unity with God. We receive everything Christ has done for us only one way: in faith, and without faith, or trust in God that his word of the gospel is true, we will not accept his love, reconciliation and eternal life.
What this means is that we must get rid of the notion that our behavior determines how God feels about us. God alone determines how God feels about us, not our good works or our bad works. God decided before all time that he loves us, and his Son is the perfect Human for us in our place so that God’s love for us may be complete and eternal precisely because its essence is his love for his Son. He will be faithful even when we are not faithful, because in Christ we are reconciled with the Father, and it is in Christ that he loves us for the sake of Christ.
So, when we teach people to live rightly, we are teaching them, and ourselves, how to live free of the bondage and pain that accompanies sin. We are not teaching how to be better than others, more loved of God than others, more important to God than others, or even more righteous than others. That is because our righteousness is only in Christ, and we walk in that righteousness only by faith in him, not by avoiding illicit drugs, sex and violence.
To be sure, life is indescribably smoother if we do avoid illicit sex, drugs and violence. But we need to remember that the blood of Jesus is just as necessary for indifference, laziness, stubbornness, selfishness, gossip, judgmentalness, secret envy and the like as it is for blatant adultery, grand theft, heroin trafficking and murder. We are all sinners, regardless of how much success we achieve in right living, and we all stand in need of mercy at the foot of Jesus’ cross.
Faith in the faithful One
Still, the church does have the role of teaching right living, and every one of us does have an obligation to God to commit ourselves to doing everything God wants us to do. God gives us all this instruction about right living because it is good for us, and because it reflects the way he is toward us. The more we trust in God to save us from our sins, the more we desire to turn away from sin. Yet it is God himself, reigning in his divine freedom to save sinners in Christ, who actually delivers us from sin.
When we pore over pornography or engage in casual sex, we are reinforcing empty illusions about human intimacy that corrupt our ability to find real and fulfilling intimacy. In other words, we are robbing ourselves of the very thing that led us to the porn site or the one-night stand in the first place, the need for an honest, trusting, intimate relationship.
Besides that, we are defrauding and taking advantage of other children of God for our own gratification, whether by indulging in photographic images of their shame and ignorance, or by participating with them in their own painful journey of humiliation and indignity. We are ignoring God’s warning to avoid the attractive but dangerous trap door in our quest for the real thing he made us to need and desire.
When we resort to fraud or larceny, we are turning our backs on God’s promise to be our provider and see us through. We are finding our own solutions to our needs or wants, overlooking the consequences our actions will bring to others, and robbing ourselves of the peace of heart that God wants us to experience with him through the deepening trust that comes of patience.
Church of forgiven sinners
Whatever instruction the church gives in paths of right living needs to be framed in humility and love. The same Bible from which we draw God’s pearls of wisdom about human conduct provides us his testimony about his Son who died to save us from our failure to heed perfectly such instruction.
Every teacher of the Bible is a sinner. As fellow sinners with the world, then, we must guard against the tendency of the church to allow its proclamation to descend into a mere rattle of condemnation against people who don’t walk in the precepts of the Bible. To become a voice of condemnation does violence to the gospel and reduces the Christian proclamation into merely another religion vainly trying to hold together a powerless façade of human morality.
The church is the place in the world where the gospel visibly intersects human history. It is the place where sinners have found out they are clean and forgiven, and where these forgiven sinners continually offer to God their worship, praises and thanksgiving.
It is where this good news of the gospel is celebrated and affirmed for everyone who will listen. It is where the love of Christ can take root in the world. It is where men, women and children of faith have been made able, by their Savior and Lord in whom they trust, to be like him in the world—a friend of despised people and sinners.
Wherever the church comes into contact with the world, the world should be the better for it. The poor should be hearing good news. Prisoners should be hearing about the release that transcends physical freedom. People in bondage to personal and societal sin should be finding mercy, kindness and hope.
The cleansing, purifying light of Christ’s truth and love and peace should be finding its way into dark fears, lost hopes and tortured souls. And this should be happening because the crucified Christ is risen and living in his people, not because the church found an ancient book of laws it can use to more effectively declare sinners condemned.
Jesus did not come to condemn the world, but to save it (John 3:17). That is why the gospel really is good news! How sweet it is when the proclamation of the church is the same good news.
Author: J. Michael Feazell