How often do we function as if God’s acceptance of us is conditioned upon our conformity to his precepts? Let’s be honest for a second...it’s a pervasive problem. We are all guilty of this. On paper we believe that Christ's work is the basis for our relationship with him, but we are prone to live in a way that suggests otherwise—that our religious piety serves as the continual basis for His approval. Our inability to properly understand the order of our acceptance and obedience not only hinders our interaction with God, but with others as well. The vertical justification we receive from God in Christ must shape our horizontal relationships. Before I tease this idea out, I feel like I need to unpack the vertical aspect first.
Acceptance Given, Not Earned
“For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” - Ephesians 2:7-10
The church we attend, the number of sermons we listen to, the money we give, our service to others, and the political party we adhere to amount to absolute dung in terms of making us suitable to be forgiven by God. They ultimately fail to cleanse us.
“Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” - Philippians 3:8
We cannot trick God into thinking that we are good and upright people who have merited a spot in the forever Kingdom. Sure, we can fool others by living a decent and generous life, but when it comes down to state of the heart, we are all deeply broken. Since God is God, he is able to do what we can’t, that is, to look past our externalities and see us for who we really are. Yes, we are image bearers who matter, but we are also broken mirrors that fail to perfectly reflect the One we were intended to display. And the fact that this kind of corruption is lodged into the core of our being means that there is an incurable tension between us and the Divine. No amount of outward holiness can produce the kind of spiritual cleanliness that God justly requires for reconciliation.
The Law as Diagnosis—Jesus as Remedy
"Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian." - Galatians 3:23-25
To pretend like we can actually do something to remedy this problem is to live like a Jew who assumed that their ethnic identity and moral aptitude were their means to being loved by God. When reading the Old Testament, we will see time and time again that they incorrectly believed that their obedience to the law of Moses actually created peace between them and their Creator. But the law wasn’t given to the Jews so that they could earn their way to heaven. Those countless restrictions and to-do lists primarily served as the diagnosis of Israel's spiritual condition: that there was nothing they could do to save themselves.
That’s a depressing reality. Or is it?
While one side of the coin revealed Israel’s inability, the other pointed them to the true remedy, the Savior-King Jesus. Therefore, Christianity is primarily about what Christ has done for us, not what we do for him. Just like Israel’s identity was given to her by God, so it is also given to the Christian. We do not earn, rather we receive. Our faith, repentance, gifting, service, and worship are all made possible by the grace of God in Christ. There is no room for boasting. I assume that many people reading this already know and believe this truth. So why is it that we continue to cling to our own effort as if it actually makes Christ love us? Maybe it’s because we love to control things. Or maybe it’s because we have a very difficult time believing such an outrageously simplistic remedy.
Obedience: The Fruit of Belief
"For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory. Put to death therefore what is earthly in you: sexual immorality, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry." - Colossians 3:3-5
Now, it is important to note that I am not suggesting that our obedience doesn’t matter. It absolutely matters, but it is the result of inward regeneration, not the cause. It is also worth mentioning that obeying God does not sustain our position before him. Putting sin to death, communing with believers, and reading and praying certainly confirm that we belong to Christ, but they are not the foundation we stand on. The beauty of the gospel is that we are declared righteous before God in Christ alone. Everything after that is simply the fruit of that reality.
Our Un-Christian Application
If we are accepted by God despite our outward appearance and moral virtue, then why do we make those things the basis of our acceptance of another person? Humanity's external and internal brokenness did not prevent God from stepping off his throne and becoming the cure. He loved and pursued us in our darkest hour. In the gospels we see Jesus humbling himself by entering into relationship with sinners who were all equally unworthy. He did this in a way that broke down social and ethnic barriers. He did not require his disciples to clean themselves up before He called them. He did not wait for the Samaritan women to get herself in order before He sat with her and forgave her.
“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” - Galatians 3:28
God is able to make men and women of all ages, cultures, and races clean through faith in Christ. Slow down and think about that for a second. If the truth of the gospel has truly taken root in our heart, then why would we establish so many prerequisites before we engage with people who are not like us? After-all, in terms of divinity, Christ is altogether unlike us. But that did not discourage him from becoming the friend of sinners. It did not deter him from breaking down prejudices, biases, and blatant racism. Christ had every right to take advantage of his superiority by tossing us aside, but instead he walked with us and laid himself down for us.
Think for a moment about how we tend to operate around those who are different than us. Think about how we distance ourselves from those who do not share our values and opinions. That is why we have to let the gospel shape the way we relate to other people, especially the kind of people we would typically not associate with. The gospel has no barriers or prejudices. It informs the way we are to engage and relate to one another regardless of gender, age, religion, ethnicity, and political affiliation. It has the power to bring two very different people together.
Agents of Reconciliation
Since we are all equally unworthy yet equally valuable, let’s start behaving like it. Let us fight against a kind of legalism that justifies our separatist ideologies, Facebook grenade lobbing, and tendencies toward cultural assimilation. We must allow the gospel to saturate our hearts so that we can become true agents of reconciliation. In light of what Christ has done for us, I pray that we will devote our lives to the cause of the gospel, rather than our own comfort, preferences, and liberties.
"From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God," - 2 Corinthians 5:16-21