Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Grace v. Merit

I think most of our emotional issues in life result from our failure to receive and apply the grace of God in Christ to that issue.

Let's take for example the issue of lust. Imagine a Christian believer who has "stumbled" again and again into pornography. He feels dirty and guilty afterward, berates himself, and promises God not to do it again (although he doesn't really believe he can keep that promise). The cycle goes on repeating itself. Again he "stumbles." Again the feeling of dirtiness and of having "disappointed God." Again the promise. Until, in addition to the lust, he's now entangled in deep issues of personal dishonesty with God. Those promises are empty and he knows it. He's either going to go on living that lie, keeping a significant part of himself hidden from others, faking righteousness to all his church friends, or . . .

Or what? We see here how guilt over sin entangles us in projects of will-based self-improvement which always fail, and therefore always lead to disappointment and more lying. The only answer is, give up! Christian, lay your deadly doing down! In my example above, that would look something like this: at the very point of the lustful impulse in the mind, the fellow simply reminds himself of the good news of God's grace toward him in Christ Jesus at the cross.

That truth is impressive. It has impact. It changes things. This fellow begins to realize and receive the truth that God loves him no less after his lustful indulgence than before. God knows him, which means he knows about the sin problem he has (in fact, God has a more realistic grasp of that problem than the fellow himself), and yet He gave His Son so that this sinful guy could have fellowship with Him forever, regardless of the repeated sinning.

Since lust is a frequently recurring impulse in many men, the reception of grace is a frequent need. Moral of the story: grace received overwhelms the lustful impulse and replaces it with gratitude. At that point in time it will be very difficult to follow through with the lustful impulse. All the momentum of the flesh will have been lost. It has been replaced by a new impulse, an impulse toward something far more beautiful and stimulating than had been the object of his lust. Over time, he will find himself winning this battle more often than losing. He will find himself more and more free. Grace always wins. Grace deals sin its death-blow. Eventually, in the new heaven and new earth, grace will have killed sin dead.

A final point: I believe this truth is one that is hard for many men to receive. I'm talking about Christians here, who are supposed to get it. I've seen this in my own experience time and time again. We continue applying the merit template: I'm good, and so God loves me (or, similarly, I'm a Christian, and so God loves me); I'm bad (or, I have weak faith), and so God is miffed, disappointed, maybe even angry. I have seen Christian men cling persistently to this template like drowning men to a water-saturated log. They say they believe in the grace of God, but they live like they don't. Maybe that's because to let go of the log would mean admitting they'd been wrong all these years. Men don't like to do that.

The grace of God is powerful, but there is something in us, in our flesh, that resists it. We need to be realistic about ourselves in this. The gospel remains "hard to believe." That is, hard to accept, to walk in. To trust. The merit-template feels much more natural and intuitive. That's where we're at home. It's what we understand. Rewards for the good, punishment for the bad. But God is asking us to believe him when he says, "I love you now and forever, I have forgiven your sins, and my plan is to walk with you in a garden as I once did with Adam. After the cross, there is no longer any room for shame and hiding."

That's his plan, and remember, He's sovereign. Do you believe it?


Anonymous said...

God's grace is far more important than we realize. One of the greatest down falls of the church today is our failure know grace fully. Grace is quite literally the gospel, yet we (me in particular) so often try to reach God based on our own strengths. It is imperative that God's grace through Christ takes our works completely out of our relationship with Him. What we do for Christ is a moot point in our relationship with Him.

Thank you for sharing this.

Blessings in Christ,

Marshall Jones, Jr.

Bob Spencer said...

Thanks for stopping by, Marshall. Good words.