The gospel of free sins makes getting better sort of irrelevant. In fact, the constant pressure to "get better and better, every day in every way" is driving people away from the truth of the gospel. It's not about getting better.
Let's start with a principle: almost everything of any importance is found while we're headed somewhere else. I know that runs counter to the common wisdom of most leaders, but nevertheless, it's true. We are admonished by almost everybody "who knows" that goals are important and if we don't aim at something, we won't hit anything.
While setting goals is a good thing and setting laudable goals even better, if you get neurotic about it, you probably won't achieve your goals, and you'll make yourself and everybody you know miserable in the process. Christians, by and large, are neurotic about purity, obedience, and holiness. It is probably the main reason we're not very pure, obedient, and holy. And in order to maintain our witness, we have learned to fake it.
The book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible is a realistic and, I believe, accurate view of the world as it is-especially when God isn't factored into the equation. The writer of Ecclesiastes has been there, done that, and has several T-shirts. He allows us to see what is important and what isn't. Let me give you a verse from that book: "Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might" (9:10). That means your life is too important to waste on trying to do the impossible. Best to do what you're called to do, what you do best, and what is put in front of you. Then the impossible might become possible. In other words, almost everything of any importance is found when you are headed somewhere else, and that includes getting better.
I want to give you two truths that can change your life and maybe even make you better. Then again, maybe not on the "better" part, but that's okay.
YOU DON'T HAVE TO GET BETTER
This first truth is the essence of the gospel. You don't have to get better to get God to love you. You don't have to get better to maintain God's love. You don't have to get better to witness. You don't have to get better to be forgiven. You don't have to get better to "make a difference." And you don't have to get better to be sanctified or holy.
One of the most amazing chapters in the Bible is Romans 7. The apostle Paul said things that a religious leader shouldn't say if he wants to keep his job! He said, "I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate....For I know that nothing good dwells in me,...I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing" (vv. 15, 18-19).
The interesting thing about Paul's words is the verb tense. They are present tense and are not a confession of sin whose statute of limitations has long since run out. Paul is talking about the ongoing experience of every Christian and a whole lot of people who aren't.
It's not just Paul and Romans 7 either. Throughout the Bible, God persists in illustrating Paul's words with incredible ruthlessness. Moses was an angry, petulant, and confused leader. Abraham lied in telling the king that his wife was his sister to make her sexually available to him. Abraham also had a sexual relationship with a slave, which, as you can imagine, caused all kinds of problems. Yet Moses and Abraham are our biblical heroes.
The whole superstructure of our Judeo Christian heritage was built on a con game. His name was Jacob and he conned his brother out of his birthright. Jacob is one of our heroes too. David was an adulterer and, not being satisfied with that, arranged to have the husband of the woman with whom he had the affair killed in battle. Jeremiah was consumed with fear. Hosea married a prostitute who refused to be faithful to him and then was used as an example of God's love for his people.
It doesn't get a whole lot better in the New Testament. Paul and Barnabas, early Christian leaders, were on different sides in a church fight that was so big they couldn't even speak to each other or work together. Their first assistant was a coward. We all know about Peter and his denial of Christ, but he didn't become the pristine example of purity after that either. In fact, in the Bible he is referred to as a hypocrite. Peter, Paul, and Barnabas are our heroes too.
It's everywhere! Sometimes I want to tell God that we really do need better heroes than the ones he gave us and that he certainly could have kept some of the family secrets to himself.
Maybe God is trying to communicate something to us. You think?
One of the most important passages in the Bible is in Genesis 15. It is about a ceremony where God sealed the covenant he had made with Abram (later Abraham).
It's kind of a bloody deal. (Even if contemporary or traditional worship ticks you off, it's still better than killing off a bunch of animals in the sanctuary of the church.) This is how it worked. It was called "cutting a covenant." (We would say "cutting a deal.") The cutting-up part came in cutting animals in half (in this case a heifer, a goat, a ram, a turtledove, and a pigeon) and putting the halves on either side of a path through which the people who were making the covenant/deal walked, thus sealing the deal. Each person had certain obligations or responsibilities and got a certain return. The symbolism of the whole process suggested that those who "cut the covenant" as they walked down the path between the two halves were saying, "If I don't fulfill my side of this covenant, may the same thing that happened to these animals happen to me."
Abram then went into a deep sleep, and the text reads, "When the sun had gone down and it was dark, behold, a smoking fire pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces. On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, 'To your offspring I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates'" (vv. 17-18).
The interesting thing about this particular "cutting of the covenant" is that Abram didn't walk through the pieces of cut-up animals. The truly amazing thing about the whole incident is that it was God-and God alone-who walked down the path between the cut-up animals. God was saying that Abram wasn't required to do anything, to obey the laws of the covenant, to be faithful, or anything else. That was God's business; he would fulfill all the requirements and obligations of the covenant!
That, of course, was the beginning of the story (a shadow, if you will) that has an incredible climax on a cross where God came and covered every requirement of the covenant with the blood of his own Son. During the Reformation when Luther said that the only thing he brought to his salvation was his sin and his reluctance, he articulated the amazing message of the Christian faith-God did all the fulfilling that needed fulfilling, and that means we don't have to fulfill anything.
YOU WILL GET BETTER & YOU WON'T BE ABLE TO HELP IT
Paul wrote to the Philippians, "I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). The apostle John adds his affirmation, "Beloved, we are God's children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him" (1 John 3:2).
The Christian faith has never been passive. "Go," "speak," "defend," "fight," "do," etc. are words found throughout the Bible. I wouldn't suggest that you just sit around doing nothing. Rather let me suggest that you do something (preferably something you like, are good at, and which doesn't cause more damage than you can fix) and "let the devil take the hindmost." I promise that you will one day wake up and find that you "smell like Jesus." You will find yourself better than you were. It's the promise of God and the experience of every believer who refused to get neurotic about his or her own goodness and obedience.
Someone has suggested that when you come running to God, he gives you a mirror and a picture of Jesus. God says, "Look in the mirror, and then look at the picture. As we walk together, you are going to change from what you are to what he is. Meanwhile, go on about your business and let me walk with you."
I have the mother of all lemon trees in my backyard. In fact, my neighbors often comment about the magnificence of that tree and its fruit. The lemons don't even look like lemons; they look like grapefruit but are often bigger than grapefruit. That's not all. There are hundreds of lemons on that tree every year. We give them to family and friends and leave a few for the squirrels and mice who, for some reason, like lemons. It really is an incredible tree.
Do you know what I did to get that tree to have lemons? Absolutely nothing. I didn't water it, I didn't fertilize it, and I didn't talk to it. The truth is that I'm not big on lemons, and it would be perfectly fine with me if the tree were to die. I almost cut it down on a couple of occasions.
We had no lemons for the first two full years. There were times when that tree looked like it wasn't even trying. Once, with the exception of a few scattered leaves, it looked like it had died. No fruit and no life. If I had had Jesus' powers, I would have cursed that lemon tree (as Jesus did with the fig tree in Matthew 21) and watched it die. I actually planned to plant an orange tree in the place of that lemon tree because I like oranges better than lemons.
Then the third year, there were a couple of lemons on the tree. The next year, a few more. And by the next, there were more lemons than I could handle.
Donald Grey Barnhouse-the late, much lauded Bible teacher and pastor at Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia-said that all of life illustrates biblical doctrine. My lemon tree is one of those illustrations. The lemon tree didn't grunt and try really hard to have lemons. The tree is a lemon tree and lemon trees have lemons. To mix the metaphor, dogs don't bark to become dogs; they bark because they are dogs.
The Bible says that if we are in Christ, we are a new creation. "The old has passed away; behold, the new has come" (2 Corinthians 5:17).
But it becomes a problem when we turn that fact into a commandment. Paul isn't saying that we should do anything. He is telling us who we are. You don't have to work, be more religious, be pure enough for unbelievers to notice, read the Bible, or pray to become a new creation-that is what you already are. And for the rest of your life he will work in you to make you like Jesus.
What God starts, he always finishes. The very fact that he started his work in you is an absolute promise that you will be completed...so lighten up and go live your life without all the religious obsession over your own purity and goodness. Nobody cares whether you're good or not, and while God cares, he doesn't obsess over your goodness. He did something about it. God forgave you when you didn't deserve it, and he gave you the righteousness of his Son. You're fixed, and you probably didn't even know it.
Now you do! Isn't that a relief?
Adapted from Steve's new book, Three Free Sins, published by Howard Books, copyright 2012 by Steve Brown. Used by permission.
Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright (c) 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
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