Self-Forgetfulness

I labor to preach and counsel that the message of Christianity is ultimately good news, not bad news. The good news of Christianity is that we are forgiven of all of our sin through faith in what Christ has done for us, not by what we do for God or ourselves. I also labor to help people understand that we do not just believe the gospel once, but daily live by faith in the gospel of grace. Growth in the Christian life, not just our justification, must revolve around Christ and His grace. We never move on from the gospel.

But I know myself somewhat, and I talk to others for a living, and I fear that I see a tendency in Christians to make our obedience our primary focus. Even those of us who “get” that obedience does not earn us anything from God are not above the temptation to make our Christian growth and obedience the “main event” of Christianity.

It is as if we treat the gospel as the stage in a theater. The stage is vital, because the show will not happen without it. But no one buys a ticket to see a stage. It is about the show that uses the stage as a foundation.

It is easy to treat the gospel like a stage. The real show is you. The gospel is the vital foundation, but you are supposed to move on. Your Christian life, walk, growth, sanctification, and all the wonderful things you will do for the kingdom is the glory for you to boast in and have others stand in awe of. We may not consciously think these thoughts, but we feel the pull to make sanctification revolve around us.

We make Christianity all about us. We are consumed with thoughts about our bad works and good works. We are constantly thinking about what we are doing wrong and what we are doing right, rather than ultimately boasting in what Jesus did right for us.

While our sanctification does concern our growth, we have to understand that Christianity is not all about your growth. And true growth is realizing that more and more. Our primary focus is Jesus, His perfection, His death, and His resurrection. May the gospel be our boast and our celebration, not us.

 

Gospel-Centered vs. Gospel-Motivated

Our salvation and subsequent sanctification (growth in Christ-like character and good works) are connected, but entirely different. They cannot be mixed together or mingled. They are connected in that sanctification is totally dependent upon salvation, but in no way earns it, brings it about, merits it, and so forth. They are different in that salvation is completely distinct from, and not dependent upon sanctification in any way shape or form.

What I have learned over the past I’m-not-sure-how-long is that to be “gospel-centered” or “all about Jesus” does not mean “Jesus is our example, rather than Buddha, Joseph Smith, Muhammad, or Justin Bieber.” That is just another form of a self-salvation project; another religion, with Jesus as the central moral figure whom we must be like in order to make God love us. That is not Christianity, biblical, or the gospel.

If being “all about Jesus” means first and foremost that, “We are not like those religious people, we do good works motivated by Jesus’ cross,” at the very least, it still seems the emphasis is on our good works, our religious works, and possibly our ability to make God like us, all in the name of Jesus. It sounds like the gospel, but it isn’t. It is still about what you do, or how you can or have changed. And that is the result of the gospel, not the gospel itself; that is the subsequent sanctification that is the inevitable result of salvation.

Said positively, to be “all about Jesus” first and foremost means to recognize that you are not a good person and that Jesus is a good person for you. It should not mean, fundamentally, that Jesus is our new and better motivator to be religious. Fundamentally, it should mean Jesus stands in our place as the Righteous One, giving us His perfect record. Good works are not needed to have God’s love and friendship. We have it because of Jesus’ good works, His death and resurrection.

I think this distinction is key to understanding the whole Bible. Jesus primarily understood as our new and better motivator keeps us under God’s Law, trying to follow His example in order to earn God’s love. It turns the Bible into a rule book for religious people to save themselves. That is not biblical or Christian. Jesus primarily understood as Savior of bad people keeps the gospel the gospel: good news for bad people who need a righteousness given to them, not worked up within them.

Does Grace Contradict Commands?

How does the reality of grace in our lives change the way we view God’s commands? Does it at all? Does grace make obedience irrelevant? These are questions many of us ask, consciously or not. Our default mode is to believe that grace must change the way we view the commands of God, namely, that they do not matter anymore.

Often, it seems people naturally treat grace as something that creates in us a spirit of rebellion to God’s commands. The idea is that if we are totally forgiven, if Jesus has paid the price for our sin, and if salvation is all by grace, not by works, then what is left to motivate us to obedience? That kind of thinking will make us lazy and rebellious. This is our natural way of thinking, because we recognize that a powerful motivator to obedience is fear; fear of consequences. And grace removes fear.

The “logical” inference we make is that if God has forgiven us our sin, and we will for sure be saved in the end, doesn’t that mean obedience does not matter anymore? Does that mean I don’t need to obey the commands of God anymore?

Here is my answer: If were are talking about the requirements for God’s free love and acceptance, then no, you don’t need to obey the commands of God. Actually, God loved you in the midst of you not obeying his commands. You don’t need to obey the Law to receive God’s love and favor. On the contrary, it is those who know they do not obey the Law who look to Christ and receive full and final forgiveness. So no, you don’t need to obey to have God’s love.

Now, does that mean God does not care about His commands to you, as a Christian, anymore? Does that mean we shouldn’t care about God’s commands anymore? Of course not. This is an illogical inference. Nothing about grace turns God’s commands into suggestions. Think about it this way: If a man cheats on his wife by having sex with 100 women in their first year of marriage, then confesses his rebellion, and the wife completely forgives him, does that mean she no longer cares about adultery? Does that mean adultery is no longer hurtful and stupid? Of course not. That is the weirdest logical inference you could make. 

Adultery is still destructive, personally hurtful, and stupid. Whether you receive grace for it or not. Think it about it another way: If a man sky dives with no parachute, and survives, does that mean he should no longer respect the law of gravity? Of course not. Keep breaking the law of gravity and it will keep breaking you (paraphrased from author Steve Brown).

In a similar way, grace does not mean that God’s commands, which in one sense can be seen as describing how the world works, have changed. Gravity is still gravity. Murdering is still destructive to society, stealing is still hurtful to neighbors, lying is still a relationship-killer, and worshipping false gods still begins to unravel the way things are meant to be.

But here is the gospel-kicker: while the earthly consequences for rebellion still stand, the eternal do not. The Law of God can no longer condemn those who are in Christ through faith; it has no right to tell you that you are damned by God, for Christ took the curse and death of the Law for you. The earthly consequences of breaking commands still stand for Christians, just not the eternal consequence of losing God’s love. That can’t happen in Christ.

Grace should never, never be pitted against God’s commands, or treated as though we no longer have motivation to obey God as our Father. Quite the opposite. Grace removes the threat of the Law, so there is nothing to fear. In doing so, grace frees us to obey out of thankfulness and genuine love for our neighbor. We begin to obey spontaneously, without compulsion, threat, or fear. We obey enthusiastically, with creativity for how to best love people. We don’t obey to appease God, but rather to love those around us. We will never obey enough, and we will never have to. The demand the Law makes on you of perfection as been satisfied by Christ’s perfection. Enjoy.