The natural state of the human heart is to be self-seeking and selfish. I’ll just go ahead and raise both my hands in the air in personal confession. If you were to honestly consider your heart’s true motives behind even your best do-gooder actions, more often than not you will come to discover that even your most well-intentioned deeds are motivated by selfishness or pride and were only disguised as something shiny, pure, and selfless. No one wants to hear that, though, right? Because that would essentially nullify the personal reward for all of our wonderful acts of kindness and efforts at improving humanity. And what would that say about us? That even in our attempts to do good, our compassionate acts of service and love, our fight for social justice, we are still very broken people in need of saving. We ourselves are not the saviors. And we are still coughing up dust at the starting line because we are missing the point.
If you believe your faith in God and your salvation are based on a certain moral code, a set of ethical beliefs, or upholding all the do’s and don’ts of your version of Christianity; if you believe you will receive eternal life because you are living a morally upright existence; if you think faith has anything to do with doing… you have missed the mark. And thank GOD that’s not the actual truth.
If you think that any positive thing you are accomplishing is earning yourself the ability to claim righteousness in God’s eyes, you are living in sin. Ugly, prideful sin. And pride was the first sin of both angels and humanity.
“People who believe they can save themselves by their own actions believe God approves them because they are better than other people. Even atheists fall into this trap; they simply substitute the world’s praise or history’s opinion for God’s approval. The self-satisfied superiority is the same.” (BSF International)
“Righteousness” is a big, religious-sounding word that some people may have a difficult time understanding. I’ll admit that I have spent the majority of my life glazing over it, having only a general sense of its meaning. So let’s start there. “Righteousness” is being in a right, perfect relationship with God. The only way to be in a right relationship with God is to believe in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection; to accept Jesus as God’s gift to us as the only way to receive forgiveness for our sin and be restored to a right relationship with Him.
I’m not sure why Christians make this so difficult when it is meant to BE and FEEL so incredibly freeing. Why do we want so badly to make it all about us? Pride. It really is the worst.
Perhaps those who live believing they are in a right relationship with God based on the things they do are so bound up in their self-righteous, religious pride that the thought of it actually being that simple is sort of a letdown; they want to believe that all their hard work and personal effort will somehow put them on a more level playing field with God; that they are storing up extra credit points to take them to the next level and leave the rest of us failing peons behind; that they deserve more because they are doing more.
Well, the rain on their parade is a downpour because religious and moral behavior doesn’t save us. Faith in Jesus does. Freely. Believing in the redeeming act of the cross of Christ, having faith in its truth, in its ability to forgive every single wrong action, thought, word, etc.… THAT is what allows us to come back into a right relationship with God. Because when we believe, accept, and internalize that truth, we are justified by grace and made perfect in His sight. It has nothing to do with our “doings.”
Consider the difference between “works-based faith” and “faith-based works.” The first says that we must do in order to receive God’s forgiveness and salvation. But that would mean salvation comes by way of our own actions, in all our imperfect humanity. Yeah, okay. No thanks. The second says that morality, ethics, good deeds, and righteous living pours out of a desire to be this way because of our faith in Jesus. We love because He first loved us. We give because He gave to us. We serve because He was a servant.
People who simply live good and moral lives because they believe that’s just “the right thing to do” are just as far from the truth as those who live in the sinful pride of religious superiority or the utter darkness of moral depravity. And this is the truth that is often hardest for those that want to believe God is all love and mercy to accept. God IS love and mercy, but there is still a reckoning with the sinful human heart that needs to be satisfied. No one is perfect. No one is without sin. All sin separates us from God. But God, in His perfect love, provided a free avenue for justification through Jesus- justification meaning that we have been forgiven of all our sin and justice has been appropriated so that we can be set free from it, because when Jesus suffered and died on the cross he bore the weight of ALL the sin of humanity, enduring the full wrath and judgement of God for us. He became sin for us so that we could be freed from it. But no matter how good of a person someone is, if they choose not to accept that gift, they remain separated from God. Their morality and ethics are based on humanity’s ever-evolving standards rather than God’s perfect standards. And human standards will never be good enough to save us from ourselves.
That’s why those who know they are screwing up, the people who feel the full weight of their failure and can do nothing but say, “God have mercy on me, a sinner,” these are the ones who are able to experience the freedom in its fullness and receive it with absolute joy.
Jesus, himself, talks about this when he shares the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector in Luke 18:9-14.
9 To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: 10 “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’
13 “But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’
14 “I tell you that this man [the tax collector], rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”
Beautiful, gracious, gift. Our loving God, who sent His only son, Jesus, to live, suffer, and die in our place. A God for all people – not just the religious ones or the Jewish ones or the ones who do great things… ALL of us. Christianity was never meant to feel or be exclusive- that is the product of human failure and man-made tradition; because Christianity, as intended by Jesus Christ, is, in fact, the most inclusive of all belief systems. It doesn’t matter who you are, what you’ve done, where you come from, what your past or current story is, He loves you and He wants you to accept His free gift of salvation. You don’t have a checklist of things to accomplish before you can receive forgiveness and freedom. You don’t have to fit a certain mold, look a certain way, or do certain acts. You are able to have a right relationship with God through simple faith just as you are right now. It really is that simple. And that’s what makes it such good news!
And how can we know that God never intended for salvation and righteousness to be exclusive? Abraham was called righteous by God even before the law of God was given to the people of earth (Genesis 15:6), simply for believing in the promises God was making with him. His belief was credited to him as righteousness. It didn’t come by way of anything he did (and guys, he did some pretty absurd things). David committed adultery and murder, yet was called a man after God’s own heart and made righteous in God’s eyes because he confessed his sins with an honest, broken heart and repented (Psalm 32, 51). He even specifically says in Psalm 51:16-17, “You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. My sacrifice, O God, is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart you, God, will not despise.” We are made right with God through our faith in the work Jesus accomplished and the gift of grace and forgiveness that is free, not by the things we do. It is the posture of our heart that matters.
In Romans 3:21-24, the apostle Paul again explains that a right relationship with God comes through faith in Jesus and not the things we do and the laws we follow.
“21 But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. 22 This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, 23 for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, 24 and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.”
Christianity becomes a faithless faith when we trust ourselves more than we trust God, when we walk our own self-made journey believing in our own ability to play God rather than give up control and follow an unfamiliar path that requires trust. Anybody can create all their own answers if they really want to. That doesn’t make them right, good, or true. A right relationship with God requires faith- faith in Jesus, faith in His omnipotence, faith that He is always at work in the world and in our hearts despite the darkness, and faith that He can and WILL do all that He has promised.
When all our good deeds and actions begin to flow out of a faith-filled heart, there is no longer room for pride. Instead, humility takes root and begins to grow, and we begin to do those things out of right desire rather than selfish and prideful desire. That is when the authentic light and hope of Christ can be seen in us. And that is the precious, holy work Christians are called to.
Peace & Love, Amy
(Please feel free to comment or send me a message with any questions you may have.)