The life of the Christian is the counterintuitive art of focusing less and less on your progress and more and more on Jesus’s performance.
This article was originally written for 1517.
One of the things you get used to if you talk about this thing called “grace” often enough, is sooner or later you’ll be looked down on by your peers. Now, if that be the case, maybe you need to find new peers, I can’t say — but what I can say is that one of the natural reactions to frequent discussion and promotion of God’s free grace is to downplay its expansive power. The message of grace is often curtailed and congested by our intricate religious systems, which flourish at the inherent and scary simplicity of God’s gospel. As is often the case, we like to add complexities to areas we don’t even fully understand. We like to inject difficulties that prove the validity of one’s dedication where Jesus just says, “Come, follow me.”
Our innate desire for self-salvation is further inspired after quickly reading verses like Philippians 2:12, where Paul says, “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” Or where Peter similarly says, “For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue” (2 Pet. 1:5). Boy, do we like the sound of that!
Both of the apostles seem to suggest that while Christ’s work certainly gets us in, all manner of work and effort on our part is expected in order to keep us there. Both statements, taken by themselves, speak to our natural inclinations to work and to perform. We’re born self-saviors — we enter this world with the determination to win salvation by our sweat. “God helps those who help themselves” is our creed, surmising that while grace unlocks the door, it’s only by our grit that we’re allowed to stay in the room. So, naturally, when we see expressions like “work out your own salvation” and “make every effort,” our primitive instincts awaken: “Aha! See, I got to work something out, I got to make every effort, the burden’s on me!”
Much like the Galatians, though, notions like this reveal that we’ve been duped into believing “another” gospel (Gal. 1:6–9), buying into the idea that there’s something else we have to accomplish before God’s grace can become effectual. This sinister deception suggests that Christ’s deliverance wasn’t sufficient, that the gospel’s not enough, and so we must move on to something more solid and sensible. The writer of Hebrews seemingly corroborates this conviction, too. In chapter 5 he writes, “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil” (Heb. 5:12–14).
Here’s another instance of Scripture seemingly speaking to the workaholic in each of us. None of us want to be considered as “unskilled” children or babies in the Spirit. No, we long to be counted among the mature and the sophisticated. We want that “solid food” — and, surely, we’re more than capable of handling it. The grand delusion arises, though, with the thinking that this “solid food” is something other than the gospel of grace. Too often, grace is treated this way. Because of its sheer simplicity, we often think that the good news of grace is the “milk” mentioned here, that it’s only for the unlearned infants in the faith. You’re quite misguided if you ascribe to this unfounded idea, though.
The gospel itself isn’t the milk of the word, something that we mature from or grow out of. The gospel’s the entire meal! The good news of the crucified Christ isn’t for the unsaved, it’s for sinners . . . and sinners are all that there are! The meat of the word, then, is simply understanding how vast the gospel is (Eph. 3:17–19). Growing in grace doesn’t imply growth to a point somewhere beyond grace, rather, it implies growth into grace — into all its cavernous riches of mercy and favor. We often wrongly presume that spiritual maturity is similar to our own lives, going from toddlers to teens to adults, and that, likewise, there must come a time to graduate from milk to meat. “When are you going to be done talking about grace?” or “Aren’t you talking about grace too much?” I’ve had these and similar sentiments said to me before, too. I’ve been called a “grace-pert” (a grace expert) and a “grace-addict” (I actually like that one). But really, I’m nothing of the sort. I’m just a filthy sinner who’s been awakened to his only lifeline and knows how desperately and how frequently he needs that lifeline.
One of the fears of the “religious elite,” of the “pejoratively pious,” is that those who talk about grace too much are basically promoting a system of religious anarchy. Why preach a message of such simple freedom, of such easy-believism when people need to be told what to do? Aren’t you basically telling them to sin? Maybe you’ve suffered such a line of questioning before. But the truth remains the same, by preaching God’s grace over and over again, one is in no way suggesting that their congregation make a point to sin. “By no means!” (Rom. 6:2), we affirm along with the apostle. The point is not that you can sin, but that you will sin, and when you do God won’t condemn you to hell forever for it — that’s grace.
Until we think, “This is too good to be true,” we haven’t heard the gospel. Grace rightly understood will always be accused of lawlessness, and if it’s not, we haven’t understood the grace of the Bible. The freedom it imparts will always be scandalized as something resembling anarchy or antinomianism. And as soon as you think you’ve gone too far, you haven’t gone far enough. The gospel is that good, that amazing, that free. A “mature” Christian, therefore, isn’t one who has advanced in the faith to somewhere beyond the gospel but is one who is diving deeper into it, understanding that it is in the depths of grace that disciples are formed, not in the doldrums mere spirituality. We are routinely guilty of treating Christianity this way, as if we must ram down the door of God’s salvation with our piety, or as if we must move on from the gospel in order for true spirituality to be realized.
Moving on from the gospel causes us to become great in our own eyes. We esteem our worth and think highly of our goodness. We reckon we understand it all because we’ve done it all and heard it all. In our eyes, we’re the epitome of perfection, the quintessential Christian who’s checking all the boxes off. We hear the honesty of other men and are shocked. We hear the prayers of others, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” and wonder what they’re making such a fuss about. They’re just not trying hard enough. Those who pray to God in that way need some more milk.
But, more often than not, the barrier to us believing the gospel isn’t the iniquity we know we have, but the righteousness we think we have. The more you believe the lie that “you got this,” the less you’ll believe the truth that Christ already did it all (Ps. 118:21–24). As long as we’re telling ourselves to “make every effort,” we’ll never celebrate Jesus’s “it is finished.”
The life of the Christian is the counterintuitive art of focusing less and less on your progress and more and more on Jesus’s performance. And, like any other art, this takes time and looks different depending on the individual. The Christian faith is much more fluid and dynamic than we make it out to be. It’s not growth from weakness to strength, from brainless to brilliant, from milk to meat. It’s not an ascension to some higher plane of spirituality or piety. Instead, Christianity is merely the gradual and continual awareness of our own unworthiness and the awesome extravagance of God’s grace.
This is upside-down to us. Surely growing in Christ deals with advancing upwards and soaring higher, right? Wrong. It actually deals with diving deeper and deeper into the understanding that without him, we are nothing (John 15:5). It’s not so much growing, as we think of it, as it is dwelling in all that Jesus has told us about himself. “Abide in me,” Christ says (John 15:4), and such is our duty: to abide and rest and revel in all that God’s Son has already accomplished for you. Whether you’ve been saved for 5 minutes, 5 days, or 50 years, your prayer is the same: “God be merciful to me the sinner!” Christ’s blood is our only hope. The Spirit’s grace is our only life. Let us stand in the grace of our Lord, and there we will be safe.