This article was originally written for Christ Hold Fast.
Among the things that perturb me about modern Christianity is our residual clinging to a sort of “Christian-karma.” You’ve probably read this frustration from me before, but with some recent events in my own life, I feel as though Christians still just don’t get it. We want so much for our deeds and actions to matter that we’ve actually trivialized grace instead of personalized it. We’ve made the Christian life so conditional and provisional, qualitative and restrictive. We’ve degraded the relationship we’re supposed to have and called to have with the Lord Jesus into nothing more than a rigid life of “paying it back” and “balancing the scales.” We’ve crisscrossed the vertical and the horizontal, so that now the minor is majored, the petty is prominent, and the arbitrary is aggrandized. We coerce obedience through convictions instead of cultivate it by grace. We loft our goodness into perfectness so that it’s easier for us to condemn others and exonerate ourselves. We’re lost in karmic realities when we should be lost in cosmic grace.
Let me reiterate very clearly: Christianity isn’t a “this for that” reality! Salvation isn’t us balancing the scales or making it up to God. It’s not us paying God back with our manner of life. It’s not us rigidly adhering to rules and regulations in order to achieve some earthly-realized perfection. It’s not us formulating for ourselves some fabricated righteousness. All these notions are categorically false. Salvation is much more simple, much more real than that. At its core, it’s just filthy sinners who’ve been saved by grace, proving to the world that Jesus came to ransom, redeem, and rescue filthy, wretched, deplorable sinners. It’s unholy hooligans, engaging in the pursuit of an absolutely holy God. We should’ve had nothing to do with God, and, left to our own devices, we would have nothing to do with him. We’d simply resolve ourselves to our mirth and frivolity, which have so easily and swiftly enticed and entrapped the common man.
I believe the essence of this mistakenness lies in our misconception and misconstruing of holiness. We’ve resorted to biting off bits and pieces of Scripture without realizing their context and purpose. Take for instance, the summarizing decree of Christ in his Sermon on the Mount, when he states, “Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.” (Mt 5:48 KJV) Naturally, with all our “Christian-karma-goodness,” we loft perfection as the absolute goal and mandate of all Christ-followers. We judge others by this directive and demean them when they’re not living up to it. We’ve attached this decree to our sanctification and load ourselves and others with gigantic burdens of perfection and holiness, burdens we weren’t meant to bear.
Permit me to clear something else up, while I’m at it: Holiness isn’t the root of the gospel, holiness is the fruit of the gospel. We’re not Christ-followers because we’re ardently pursuing perfection and purity, but because we’re pursuing the “God of all grace” (1 Pt 5:10 KJV), who, then, transforms us by his grace into holy hoodlums, righteous ragamuffins, and saved sinners. As people of “the simul,” Christians are those who are pursuing Christlikeness and sanctification but keep failing and doing that which they know they shouldn’t. Christians aren’t to be marked by their competency in righteousness, but by their confession in grace.
Because of our fascination with perfection, we’ve made competence the endgame of the Christian life. But that’s not what God’s after — after all, he’s already received the most perfect sacrifice and life in that of his Son, Jesus Christ. God’s not after perfect people, he’s after pursuant people — those who are sold out to his gospel and ready to be wrung out for his glory. God’s not after law-abiding citizens, he’s after gospel-driven ambassadors! God’s on the prowl for constrained convicts who’ve been radically remade by Jesus’s grace. The “Hound of Heaven” is hunting down those who’ve been crushed by the law, so that he might rescue them from their terminal sinfulness. He’s waiting with baited Breath to fill all penitent lawbreakers with his Spirit of Grace and of Life. (Eze 37; Rom 8:2) As the apostle Paul says:
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 Cor 5:17–21)
Jesus is our sanctification! Jesus is our salvation! Jesus is our righteousness! Jesus is our holiness! Jesus is our everything! This is the good news, that because of Jesus’s accepted perfection and secured redemption, you’re approved as you are, not as you should be. Therefore, we’re now able and free to pursue God how he intended, with relentless passion and fervent grace. We’re made holy, not because of our achieving and progressing and performing, but through our cavernous plunge into grace; through our falling into Jesus, our leaning on him and reliance on his love; through our greater and greater dependence upon the Savior for everything.
One thing, and one alone, is necessary for life, justification, and Christian liberty; and that is the most holy word of God, the Gospel of Christ.1
Programs and provisions, rules and regulations: these don’t stoke holiness, they stifle it. The one way we’re made holy is through a relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, which is founded by grace, cultivated by grace, and kept by grace. Yes, holiness comes through grace — which is why we must continually affirm, “Sola Gratia” — “All of grace!”
Martin Luther, Christian Liberty (Philadelphia: Lutheran Publication Society, 1903), 8.