One night recently I couldn’t sleep, and after an hour or so of tossing and turning I got up and went to the kitchen. I stared into the fridge for a minute or so, then stared into the freezer for a while, and finally into the food cupboard, and then started over. At last, sometime during the third or fourth survey of the fridge, I pulled some leftover meatloaf from behind the milk and made myself a sandwich, and went to see if anything good might be on TV at 2 o’clock in the morning.
Flipping through the channels I ran past a Star Trek rerun, an old M.A.S.H. episode, and a Steam Buggy infomercial. Then I came upon a bespectacled, white-haired preacher who, with furled brow, was pointing threateningly and warning his listeners with an air of authority that they had better “wake up” and start “keeping God’s law,” including, he emphasized, “God’s holy Sabbath day,” or they would not be in God’s kingdom.
He was scary. He had a string of verses lined up, right out of the Bible, that sounded like God was mad at just about everybody, and that the only way out of the horrible mess we’ve gotten ourselves into is to “repent” and “start keeping God’s law.”
“Oh, you’ve heard that it’s just by faith, but that is not true,” he said. “All those preachers are just preaching an empty faith, without meaning. God will not save you if you are not keeping his law.”
I wondered just what this preacher counts as “keeping God’s law.” Does he really mean what he says? Does he mean that even one sin will doom you to hell, regardless of your faith? Just how well does one have to keep God’s law in order to be saved? Is, say, 95 percent good enough? Or does one have to be perfect?
To be fair, he finally admitted that nobody can keep God’s law perfectly, “at least not on our own,” but with Christ in us keeping the law, he said, we can. I felt sick. This finger-waving professing prophet was telling people that if Christ lives in them, then not only can they keep the law of God perfectly, but they must, or they will assuredly not be saved.
Wait a minute.
I would like to point out that no Christians, not even the sober-faced, stone-jawed preacher on the TV screen or the apostle Paul himself, have ever, EVER, finally got to the point, even with Christ living in them, that they no longer sin.
I am baffled as to why the Law Brigade has never seemed to notice that. Or maybe they have, but quickly put it out of their minds, since it doesn’t fit their tidy view of how salvation works. Or maybe it’s never occurred to them, and they really do believe, that somewhere, somehow, somebody finally, at last, with the Spirit’s help, actually overcame all sin and got perfect and died without ever sinning again.
Only in Christ
The gospel teaches us that “because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved” (Eph. 2:4-5). The righteous us—the sanctified us, the perfect us—is a miracle of grace performed by God in Christ. That perfect us is “hidden with God in Christ” and won’t be seen by us or anyone else until Christ comes back (Col. 3:2-3). We do not get perfect in this life by trying really hard, by setting goals for overcoming, by following Preacher Fearmonger’s seven-point program, or any other form of Christian work, jargon or platitude.
We are accounted righteous by God for the sake of Jesus Christ—and Jesus Christ alone—and that is only because God is holy and good and full of grace and loves us and did it, period (Col. 1:19-20). That’s why we trust our salvation to him alone and not to the latest overcoming model. With a sense of peace, I went back to bed and fell fast asleep.
What must we do?
Salvation is by God’s own grace, given freely in spite of our sins for the sake of Jesus Christ, and we experience and enjoy that gift by trusting him. If we don’t trust him, we don’t enjoy the gift he has given us; if we trust him, we do. It’s that simple.
We don’t have to know deep theology, or sign the right statement of faith, or recite the right phrases, or read the right books, or belong to the right club. He is already our Redeemer; he has already redeemed us. All we have to do is trust him to do what he has already done and to be who he already is.
“But you had better stop sinning!” warns Preacher Ironjaw, who forever seems to be lurking behind the lamppost. Well, when Preacher Ironjaw stops sinning, maybe we can too. But he won’t, because he doesn’t have it in him, and neither do we. And the sooner we figure that out, the sooner we will cast our burdens on Christ and find our true rest in him.
A crowd beside the Sea of Galilee once asked Jesus, “What must we do to do the works God requires?” Jesus answered, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent” (John 6:28-29).
“But my sins!” your weary conscience protests. Listen. Jesus knows you are a sinner. That’s exactly why he died for you. Don’t let your sins talk louder than the Creator and Redeemer of the whole universe. Sin and death are done for. Your sins and your death are done for. They are done for because God condemned them and destroyed them and reconciled all things to himself through the blood of Jesus Christ (Col. 1:19-20). That’s the gospel; that’s what the Holy Spirit empowers you to know and believe so you can start resting in Christ instead of worrying so much.
Not saved by faith
We are saved by grace, by God’s own kindness toward us, which he expressed perfectly in Jesus Christ. No work of ours, not even our faith, can save us. Salvation is entirely God’s work for us from beginning to end. Our faith is simply the act of accepting what God has already given us even though we didn’t deserve it. Faith doesn’t cause him to give it to us. It doesn’t convince him to give it to us. He doesn’t even withhold it from us until we have faith; he died for us while we were still sinners, before we ever had any faith (Rom. 5:8).
But without faith, we will not, indeed cannot, see, experience and enjoy his gift. In other words, if we don’t trust him, we won’t believe him, which means we won’t accept and make use of his gift. And when you don’t believe you have something and therefore make no use of it, it amounts to the same thing as not having it. Faith doesn’t save us, but without faith, the salvation we have in Christ by God’s grace is meaningless to us.
So we lament, “But I’m not sure I have faith.” By God’s grace, the answer to that concern is not to worry about it. Jesus has enough faith for all of us. He provides not only the obedience and perfection, but also the faith (compare 2 Pet. 1:3: “His divine power has given us everything we need for life and godliness through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness”). So instead of worrying that we don’t have enough faith, we can simply trust Christ to save us in spite of our doubts and weakness. We can trust him to have for us the faith we need to believe in him.
We can trust Christ to save us in spite of our sins, in spite of our past, in spite of our ignorance, our fear, our doubt. We can trust him to be everything for us that God requires, because he is.
“Wait a minute,” you say. “You just said we have to have faith, and then you said if we don’t have faith, don’t worry about it. What kind of shell game are you playing?”
It’s no shell game. It’s just that we need to learn to trust in Jesus, not in faith. Listen. When we start analyzing our behavior to see if it is good enough to make God happy, we are playing a losing game, because our behavior is never that good, for starters.
In the same way, when we start to analyze our faith to see if it is good enough, we have already aced ourselves right out of real faith, which is simply trusting Jesus. Instead, we have set up faith as the new work of salvation, and ruined the whole thing.
That is why, when we start to worry that we don’t have enough faith, we should just trust Jesus, whose faith is perfect, to be everything we need for salvation. We trust him, not our faith. We can set aside our worry about how much faith we have, and remember that we have decided (by God’s grace—through the Holy Spirit freeing us and prodding us) to trust Jesus to save us no matter how things look.
Looks are deceiving
Looks are deceiving. Sometimes things look bad because we feel depressed. Sometimes things look bad because we are plagued by doubt. Sometimes all we can see is our mountain of sins and failures. But we don’t trust in looks and feelings; we trust in Jesus Christ. Feeling good about our progress in holy living does not save us. Feeling bad about it does not condemn us. Christ saves us. We trust in him, not in how things appear to us.
The Bible says that there is nothing that can separate us from Christ’s love (Rom. 8:31-39). Our worries are no match for his love. Our doubts can’t overpower his love. The shortcomings of our church, our pastor, our friends, or our families are no match for his saving power.
The noise, lack of space, and even chaos of our home, which might keep us from the kind of prayer and Bible study we might hear about others enjoying, cannot keep Christ from saving us. Not even our roller-coaster-style emotional instability can keep him from making us into his new creation.
When we trust Christ, when we rest in him, we can quit the futile game of counting up our good deeds and our bad deeds. We can cast all our cares on him. We can confess, without fear or reservation, all our sins to him. We can rest in his forgiveness, in his acceptance, in his love.
God has not called us to worry, to fret, to fear (Rom. 8:15). The Holy Spirit leads us to courage, to boldness, to confidence in the one who loves us and gave himself for us. He is on our side (vs. 31-32); why should we worry that he, the very one who is indescribably for us, might somehow be against us? It makes no sense. Yet every time we fall short, it seems, we go through this traumatic worry session that God is going to pound us instead of forgive us.
Sin lies to us in countless ways. It tells us that it is fun. It tells us that we need it, that we deserve it. It tells us it won’t hurt us or others. All lies! Once we fall for its lies, though, sin takes off its mask and laughs in our faces while it beats us senseless. And then it starts lying all over again.
But maybe the worst lie of all is when sin tells us that God doesn’t like us any more. Don’t ever forget: Christ died for us while we were still sinners (Rom. 5:6, 8). God does not hate sinners. He loves them. That’s why he died for them.
Are you a sinner? What a surprise! Well then, sinner, God loves you. And he loves you right in the midst of your sinfulness; in fact, it is right there in your sinfulness that his greatest display of love took place on the cross.
That means that when we confess our sins, we are not begging for God to do something that he might not otherwise do. We are, in a word,celebrating the forgiveness he has already given us. We admit our need and then celebrate the restoration of fellowship we have with God through Jesus Christ. We celebrate our friendship with God, who loved us and saved us, coming to us in our sinfulness and taking it away. (And in the joy of such celebration of God’s love and grace toward us sinners, we likewise forgive those who have sinned against us.)
Trust his mercy
When we trust in Christ, we believe he knows what is best for us. That means we listen to what he tells us to do, and we do our best to do it. Still, even though we commit ourselves to live by every word of God, we fail in so many ways. But because we trust in Christ, we do not everhave to despair! We ask forgiveness, in full assurance that we have it, and we get up and try again.
This very process is an exercise of faith, of trusting in the One who both saves us and who is at work in us. As C.S. Lewis wrote: “We learn, on the one hand, that we cannot trust ourselves even in our best moments, and on the other, that we need not despair even in our worst, for our failures are forgiven. The only fatal thing is to sit down content with anything less than perfection” (from Mere Christianity, chapter five).
Keeping faith strong
Faith is not a feeling. It is not an emotion. It is a gift of God that prompts a decision, a decision to trust in Christ no matter how we feel. Sometimes we mistake our emotions for faith, and we think that because we have bright feelings toward God we are full of faith, or that because we are in the dumps we lack faith. But that is a mistake. Faith is not based on moods. It is a gift, ministered to us by the Holy Spirit, and it must be held onto even when the winds of doubt and fear threaten to pull it away.
But it is not usually the wind that causes us to lose faith; winds usually motivate us to hold on tighter. No, it is usually neglect—just setting it down someplace and planning to get back to it sometime, but rarely getting around to it. That is why Christians make it a point to pray and read the Bible and confess their sins every day, as well as meet together every week. When we do that, we are reminded of what we believe, and therefore less likely to let our confidence slip away (see Eph. 3:12; Heb. 10:25).
Such constant reinforcement, such practice or exercise, helps our grip on faith remain strong, which is important, because it is only through faith that we can see things the way they really are—instead of they way they appear to be. The more we let God remind us of the truth, the less inclined we are to believe sin’s lies.
Without faith, the lies that sin tells us start to sound logical again. Without faith, we start to think God is mad at us again. Without faith, we start to think salvation comes by good behavior again. Without faith, we start to forget the real gospel, and that makes us start down either the road of arrogance or the road of despair, depending on how we feel about the way our dimming eyes decide to size up our behavior.
One way we could describe faith is this: Faith is the Holy Spirit nudging us to believe what is really true in spite of the great pendulum swings in how we feel about things. And what is really true is that God loves us and saved us by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Some Christians think that God ordained before all time some to be saved and the rest to be lost. But the Scriptures tell us that what God has ordained before all time is his own steadfast love, that is, his unswerving covenant faithfulness (Acts 13:32-33). He will see through what he began in Christ before all things (Eph. 1:9-10), and he will do it because he is faithful, and in spite of our human unfaithfulness (Rom. 5:6). In fact, our unfaithfulness becomes the very tool through which God magnificently displays his utter faithfulness (Rom. 5:10, 15; Titus 3:3-7).
In Christ, the ever-living God whose word cannot be broken, became, as God in the flesh, the perfectly faithful human for all our sakes, thereby keeping his covenant with humanity from both ends. From God’s side, as God, he became and provided everything we needed for life and godliness (2 Pet. 1:3); from our side, as human, he became and offered up to God everything humans needed to be and needed to give to God (Rom. 8:1-3). That is why we find our fullness, our true selves, only in our union with Christ, for it is only in our union with Christ that we are truly ourselves as God created us to be (Col. 3:3-4)