“OK, I can see that we’re saved by grace and not by works, but I’m still not clear on a couple of things. For example, some passages in the New Testament indicate that we won’t be saved unless we are doing good works. How do those passages fit with the passages that tell us we are saved by grace and not by works?”
The truth is, just as these passages tell us, we cannot enter the kingdom of God unless we are righteous, unless we are meeting the righteous demands of the law of God (that is, the law of Christ, not the law of Moses). That is a fact, and there is no way around it. Unless we are righteous, we are doomed.
The bad news is, the righteous demands of the law, which are indeed righteous demands, leave us in exactly that position: doomed. Why? Because we don’t have what it takes to be sinless. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one,” Paul reminds us (Romans 3:10).
But that is where the gospel comes in. The gospel, which is, remember, good news, tells us that God made Christ, who was sinless, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Corinthians 5:21). Like the man said, it is good news.
That means we are saved by, and only by, God’s gracious acts of love on our behalf. In spite of our rebellion, he loves us and wants us in his kingdom (John 6:40; 2 Peter 3:9). His eternal banquet of joy and celebration is so important to him that he has decided to have it overrun with guests even if the only guest-pool in the world is made up of nothing but loser, ne’er-do-well, no-good-nicks.
God wants us at his eternal dinner party, and he has made sure we can have, free of charge (because we haven’t got the price of a ticket), the soapy scrub-down, fragrant oils and clean clothes not to stink it up. He has made sure, with no help from us, because we bring nothing to the arrangement but our smelly, dirty selves.
So, when we read a passage like Galatians 5:24, for example, we need to keep firmly in mind that this kind of person is exactly who God has made us to be in Christ. We are not righteous of ourselves; we are righteous only in Christ, and only by God’s grace, and we can know that only by faith.
We can believe it or not, but that is what God says he has done. If we believe it, we will welcome the scrub-down and the clean outfit.
If we don’t believe it, that is, if we don’t accept God for who he is, the Father of Jesus Christ through whom he has saved the world, then we will simply continue the futile masquerade we call life and cut ourselves off from the joy of real life waiting for us in God’s banquet hall.
Standing in the light
In the kingdom of God, righteous pretenders aren’t welcome. Only sinners who know they are sinners, and who trust God to forgive them and make them righteous in Christ, are allowed in. Pretenders, who think they are in some way more deserving, or more acceptable, or less dirty than the others, can’t stay. They remain in their sins because they won’t give up their little righteousness charade and trust God fully to be their righteousness.
Knowing what God has done for us and in us, we are led to work on ourselves to overcome the sin that so easily entangles us (Hebrews 12:1-3). But keep this in mind: we are accepted as righteous by God only because of what Christ has already done for us, not by our three-stooges-Keystone-cops-overcoming-performance, which is the best we can ever muster.
The Holy Spirit in us moves us to devotion, but the victory in which we participate is the victory of Christ (Ephesians 2:4-7). We can enjoy the glorious fruit of his victory only by trusting him, not by improving our behavior (Romans 3:27-28).
When we rest in Christ, the peace of God removes our doubt, fear, anxiety and worry (Philippians 4:6-7). We are secure in him, like a helpless baby comforted in his mother’s arms.
When God sent his Son to die for our sins and to be raised for our life, he made two things indelibly clear: 1) He loves us immeasurably and unconditionally, to the point of taking our burden as his own, even to the point of death, and 2) Our salvation was entirely his work; there is nothing we can do to save ourselves.
What is it about sin that makes it so bad? Sin amounts to an inseparable gulf between us and God. Imagine what would happen to, say, a tomato plant if it suddenly declared independence from soil, water and light. Without resting in the elements that produce its life and growth, the wretched little plant is doomed.
It can never be what it is, a tomato plant, without soil, water and light. It can never do what tomato plants do—bear tomatoes—without soil, water and light. Yet our little rebel tomato plant, if we can still call it a tomato plant, has decided it has a better plan toward self-realization than the natural plan that makes tomato plants be tomato plants.
Sin amounts to a state of declared “independence” from God. It cuts us off from the very source of our life and being. It is refusal to be who we really are, who we were created to be, in a mad effort to be who we think we ought to be. Sin is more than mere actions. It is the very condition of our lives. Individual sins are merely the natural fruit of a corrupt heart.
On our own, because we are sinners, we are like that tomato plant, trying to scratch out a life for ourselves in a hostile world, ignorant of the fact that we are not even stuck in the ground. Lying as we are in the dark on the concrete sidewalk, the best we can hope for is to stay as green as we can for as long as we can and finally wither up and die.
But the gospel tells us that we are not on our own. God has come to our rescue and planted us in the rich, moist soil in broad daylight. What can we do about it? The truth is, there is nothing we can do about it. But we do have a choice about whether we will believe it and enjoy it or deny it and shut off our roots and close our leaves and go on pretending we are lying on our side in the dark on the sidewalk. Such tragic pretense can end only in withered ruin.
Dead in sin, alive in Christ
To put it another way, if any one of us is fog-brained enough to think we are actually acceptable and righteous before God because of our devoted efforts to do what is right and avoid what is evil, then what can anyone say? Imagine a spoiled can of Spam shedding a layer of its reeking, bacteria-infested mass and then humbly telling you that it would now, free of that layer of putrefaction, make an acceptable lunch for you, and you have something of the idea.
In other words, no matter how much you overcome, no matter how many sins you shed, no matter how many bad habits you replace with good ones, no matter how much better you are today than you used to be, it is still fourth down and one million yards to go.
That is why we need to get our minds off ourselves and onto our Lord and Savior. We need to give up on ourselves and put our trust in Christ. He fixes us from the inside out.
Quit looking at the evidence you see in your life and start trusting him to be for you and do for you what he says he will be for you and do for you. Quit worrying that he will not be faithful on account of your being a sinner, and start trusting him to forgive you and clean you up like he said he would.
You see, it works like this: your unfaithfulness does not keep God from being faithful. He will be faithful because that is the way he is—faithful. You can stick out your tongue at him all day long, and he will still be faithful. You will have a sore tongue and you will miss out on all the fun he wants you to have, but in spite of your woodenheadedness he will still be faithful.
He will not stop loving you and he will not stop knocking on your door, hoping you will let him come in and have supper with you. He is, and always will be, faithful, even when you are not.
We are free even to deny him. We are free to give up on him. We are free not to believe him, even to hate him. We have that choice, the choice to love our own self-defined pseudo-lives and turn down his gift of real life. We don’t have to enjoy his kingdom. He will let us stew in the misery of sin and death if we want to.
Even so, he will always remain faithful, never forcing himself on us but always desiring our love.
As Paul wrote: “The saying is sure: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he will also deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself” (2 Tim. 2:11-13).
You can get yourself into all the trouble you want, and God will still be faithful. He will hurt for you and grieve for you, because he loves you, but he will not force you to trust him.
He earnestly wants you to trust him and receive the glorious benefits of his grace, mercy and love, but the choice is yours.
You ask me if you can sin and still be saved, and all I can say is that you are a sinner and God saves sinners, so there can be no other answer but yes. You ask me if I am trying to encourage you to sin, and I answer, no, I am not; I am encouraging you to trust God to love you and forgive you and save you in spite of your sins, because that is what he promises to do.
You ask me how a person can have true faith in Christ and still keep sinning, and I answer, it would be nice if we believers would quit sinning, but nobody, ever, in all history has quit sinning this side of death. You try to think of some other way to ask it, and I still can answer no other way and be faithful to the Word of God.
We are all sinners, and God saves us anyway, because saving sinners is what he does. That is not an invitation to sin; it is simply a fact. God remains faithful to us even when we are unfaithful to him, and thank God it is so. If we put our trust in him and admit we are sinners, he is faithful and just to forgive us.
Saved by grace
“But God will not save us unless we change, will he?”
Change how much? Change a little, change a medium amount, change a lot? Listen! God saves sinners. He heals the sick, not the healthy (Mark 2:17).
“Mike, you know what I mean. You have to change at least some, or he will not save you.”
God does not save on the basis of human changes. He saves on the basis of his own righteousness (Romans 3:21).
“Come on. You know what I mean. If you believe, and Christ lives in you, then you have to put sin out of your life or you won’t be saved.”
OK, how much sin do you have to put out? All sin, most sin, some sin, a little sin? How much sin have you put out? How much sin is still left?
“Look, I may not have all the answers to your cute little fast and loose in-my-face questions, but I know this much: God is not going to save us if we just keep on sinning and not even caring about it.”
Ah, now we’re getting somewhere. Who said anything about not even caring about it? That is precisely what believers can’t do. Not that there is a rule against it. There doesn’t have to be. When you love somebody, you care, that’s just the way it is. The fact that we are believers means we do care about it.
The very thing that believers are trusting God to do is to forgive their sins and raise them from the dead. People who sin without caring about it, you see, do not, by definition, care about whether God forgives them for sinning. They might figure that it’s nice if he does, but it’s all the same to them if he doesn’t.
In other words, to them, it doesn’t matter what God thinks, one way or the other. They only care about one thing: themselves, which is why they don’t mind sinning in the first place.
Believers, on the other hand, care about themselves too, of course, but they also care about something else even more: God. They care that God says sin is wrong, they care that sin destroys, and they don’t want to be sinners, which is why they want to be forgiven.
They trust God’s Word about everything, including sin, they care about the fact that God loves them and has forgiven them, and they care about loving, thanking, praising and serving their gracious God.
Believers fight their sinful nature, desiring to live in harmony with their calling in Christ. But when they sin, as they all do, they trust God to forgive them for the sake of their Advocate, who is their Savior. That is, they ought to trust him to forgive them. But with all the legalistic you’d-better-measure-up-or-go-to-hellfire preaching and teaching loose on the planet, tragically, many Christians live in dread that God will in the final analysis reject them because of their sins, not save them.
Ask the average churchgoer, “How do you avoid hellfire?” He will say something like this: “By living a good life.”
That is not the gospel, but it is the common perception not only of John Q. Public, but also of John Q. Churchperson. Why is it the common perception? Because that is what has passed for preaching in untold numbers of Christian pulpits for centuries. Believers are lured in with promises of grace, then held hostage by a long and slippery list of required moral demands necessary in order to stay on God’s good side. It is called religion.
The gospel, however, is not religion. The gospel is a loving God’s good news to humans: “I love you so much that I sent my Son, so that by putting your trust in him you will not perish but live in joy and peace with me forever.”
Let him who thinks he stands …
When we love God, we obey him. Right? Well, maybe that works for you—maybe the fact that you love God moves you into a life of faithful obedience and steady purity. It doesn’t do that to me. I love God with all my heart, and in many ways I do better than I used to when it comes to sin, but I still grieve the Holy Spirit a whole lot more than I want to.
God’s children want to obey him. The Spirit of God in us leads us to obey him. Our consciences, appropriately, plague us when we know we are disobeying him. Still, two things to remember: 1) We have been forgiven already, and 2) We keep sinning no matter how much we overcome.
The person who thinks he stands is the very one who needs to take heed (1 Corinthians 10:12). Why? Because nobody stands except in Christ. Even with all the apostolic urging to do what is right, not one of us actually walks a pure and holy life—except as we are held in Jesus, and that life is invisible to us (Colossians 3:3).
Unless our righteousness exceeds that of the Pharisees, Jesus said, we have no part in the kingdom (Matthew 5:20). What? The Pharisees were the most careful and devoted law abiders around! They took the word of God seriously, and they devoted themselves scrupulously to observing it. But Jesus said that anyone who will be in his kingdom must have even greater righteousness.
Do you have such a level of righteousness? I sure don’t.
And that is just the point. Salvation does not come by what we do, no matter how good we are—or think we are. Our righteousness is the righteousness of Jesus (1 Corinthians 1:30), and our faith is in his promise of deliverance, not in what we can do (Ephesians 2:8-9).
So how do we stand? By admitting that we are stone dead, flat on the ground, unable to lift a finger, and by trusting Christ who raises the dead (John 11:25).
How do we stand? By faith in the God who justifies the ungodly (Romans 4:5). How do we know we can trust him? Because he has proved how much he loves us by sending his Son (Romans 5:8). How much proof do we need to be able to put our trust in him? What does he have to do? Die for us? He did just that. More than that, he was raised for us too. And it is in him that our true life is hidden with God until it is revealed with him when he comes (Colossians 3:3-4).
Then we shall see ourselves for what we really are, for what he has made us, and we can accept our resurrected life, which includes and springs from our death, or we can reject it in favor of what we have always had, this pitiful excuse for life we see all too clearly right now.
We can keep the crisp five bucks Monty Hall gave us for the two used Kleenexes in our back pocket and think we have really got a handle on life, or we can trade it all in for what’s behind the curtain—trusting God’s gracious promise that even though we can’t see it yet, it is the mother of all jackpots.
In other words, we can die to all the things we thought were worth fighting, clawing and bleeding for in this world, and trust God to give us the real life we don’t yet see, the one that is hidden in Christ with God.
The two cannot exist together. We must give up the fake life we hold so tightly with both hands in order to grasp the real life God continually holds out to us (Matthew 6:24).
Serious about sin
Yes, we do need to “get serious” about overcoming sin. But we need to do so in the context of complete assurance that we are God’s forgiven and beloved children for Christ’s sake.
We need to get serious about overcoming sin knowing full well that God has not and will not reject us because of our sins, and that he will always stand with us in our struggle against sinning. The only thing that can cause us to “lose” our salvation is for us to stop caring about it altogether and stop trusting God (Hebrews 2:3). Even then, God will continue to knock on our door, earnestly desiring that we answer it and let him in (Revelation 3:20).
The bottom line is, fight sin tooth and nail but quit worrying that your failures, setbacks and dry periods cut you off from God. They don’t. God is not arbitrary in his love for you, nor does he keep score (1 Corinthians 13:7).
He is absolutely true to his covenant promise; he will never leave you nor forsake you, and you can count on that no matter how deep in the miry pit of sin you have wallowed.
In his eyes, even while you still wage war with your sins, you are already new and righteous with him in Christ (Colossians 3:3). He sees you for what he has made you in Christ, not for what you have made yourself by a lifetime of wrong turns, bad decisions, weak moments, failures and sins.
Again, that is why this gospel is good news!
Author: J. Michael Feazell