Resting in the Gospel; Fighting for Holiness
It never fails! You see a documentary of Mother Teresa, you hear your pastor talk about his devotional life, you hear how many sermons John Wesley preached, or how many hours a day James the Less prayed and you feel like you will never attain to such “spiritual greatness.” Or maybe the struggle is different for you. Perhaps you see, not the things you wish you could do, but the things you wish you could stop doing. Maybe you’re fighting a habitual addiction or some other sin. You want to honor God … but how?!? What does God want from us?
I have pondered this question for years now and have spoken to several Christians who have also wrestled with this question and have helped me think through it. 1 Corinthians 10:13 says that “No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.” In other words, you are not alone in the things you wrestle with, including the question of how to please God. From the time of Jesus until now, there have been numerous ways men have tried to answer this question. Jesus railed on the teachers of the law of His day because they “bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders.” Today, we struggle with the same problem: if you read your Bible more, if you prayed more, if you gave more money, if you fasted, if you were a better husband/wife or father/mother, if … if … if …. The yoke keeps getting heavier and heavier!
If you have been walking out your Christian faith, feeling like it is more of a burden than a freedom, I have good news for you: Jesus’ yoke is easy and His burden is light. Seeking a close, intimate relationship with Jesus is the only requirement for the Christian. Let us begin here to flesh out what it means to truly love the Lord our God with all our hearts.
Jesus and the Gospel
When the Jews asked Jesus what it meant to do the work of God, they were asking the same question that I am asking: what does God expect of us? They had the answer in the Law of Moses, so why did they need to ask? Maybe because, like many modern-day Christians, they had come to the point of exhaustion in trying to fulfill law after law after law. They were weary! Jesus’ answer was the last thing they expected to hear: “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.” The Jews of His time had no way to understand why that was the fulfillment of the Law. It took Paul many letters to explain this mystery and we still miss it today. To believe in Jesus is the work of God, period! Paul explains it this way, “God was, in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself, not counting their trespasses against them …” How? “…He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.”
In Jesus, we become the righteousness of God. This is the Gospel! When Jesus cried out, “It is finished!” He meant that your salvation was completed absolutely. The truth here for us to really absorb is that the work was finished on the cross. It’s not the cross plus you reading your Bible, or X number of hours of prayer, or paying your tithe, or your church attendance. It’s the cross plus nothing! In Christ, you are holy; In Christ, you are perfect. You are complete in Him apart from anything you do or don’t do. Believing this is the first step in being able to experience the joy that Jesus’ burden is light.
Enter the Paradox: The Fight for Holiness
It’s one thing to accept the fact that we are pronounced innocent because Jesus bore our guilt and God’s wrath on the cross. He is our Blessed Assurance as we look forward to the Great White Throne Judgment where we would all be condemned if we stood in our own sinful state. But our question, “What does God expect of us?” touches us today, right where we are. We want to be good husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters, employers/employees, etc. In a word, we want to be good people and we want to know that when God looks at us, He smiles … and not only because He sees us in Christ. So we end up coming full circle, back to an endless list of dos and don’ts that help us feel like we’re upholding a standard of holiness that becomes a “good Christian.” We see the passages that tell us to rest in God’s mercy and grace, but then also read the firm exhortations: to “let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven;” to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called;” and to “conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.”
And so we have entered the paradox between faith and works all over again. We know that we’re saved because of Jesus’ work, while still feeling like there’s got to be more. We’re saved! Now we desperately want to go out and honor our Savior with our lives. But how do we do that when the guilt of failure is so depressing, leaving us wondering at times if we’re defaming Him more than honoring Him? In our enthusiasm to serve God, we set up requisites for ourselves and then feel condemned when we fail to live up to our own standards. In that moment of recognizing our failure, we suddenly forget Who is the foundation of our salvation. The paradox of faith in Christ alone and our desire to live well for Him makes our head spin at times.
The Answer: Looking Unto Jesus
“Therefore, we also, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith.” Here we see a clear call to holiness couched together with the answer as to how to fulfill the calling. We are to “lay aside every sin” and “run the race with endurance.” But it is Jesus who is the Author and Finisher of our faith. He does it! And He does it while we are looking unto Him as the Author.
“If then you were raised with Christ, seek those things which are above, where Christ is, sitting at the right hand of God. Set your mind on things above, not on things on the earth.” The Bible doesn’t just tell us what to do, it tells us what to think about. The amazing thing is that what we think about on a regular basis will define how we act later. When I look in my mental mirror, I don’t always like what I see. I have a perception of a man I want to become and I am far from that man. But looking at the man in the mirror is not the solution to my problem. The solution is to find an image of what I want to become and to remain transfixed with that Image knowing that I will become like what I look at most. If we look at the world, we will become like the world; if we gaze intently into the face of Christ, we will become like Christ. And in becoming like Christ, we will fulfill the law of Christ.
Jesus used plant analogies several times in His teachings. The first one He used in Matthew 7:18 strikes close to home regarding our question of what God wants from us. “A good tree cannot produce bad fruit, nor can a bad tree produce good fruit.” As a Christian, I have gone through periods of life when I produced some really nasty fruit. Some of those times of nasty produce came while I was trying very hard to produce good fruit. I was working really hard! The problem was that I was focused on trying to produce good fruit in order to prove that I was a good tree. My focus was on my ability, my goodness. But producing good fruit is a result of being a good tree, and I can’t make myself be a good tree. How do we become good trees? Jesus answers that question in John 15:1-11 and most clearly in verse five, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.” To abide in Jesus will have the effect of good fruit (i.e. good works) in a person’s life. But we fail when we begin to focus on the fruit rather than the One who produces the fruit in our lives.
Both Jesus and Paul taught the paradox of resting in grace versus fighting for holiness. On the one hand, Jesus said that His yoke was easy and His burden was light. But He also taught that “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.” Any Jew who heard these two claims must have struggled to harmonize the apparent difficulty, for no Jew of Jesus’ day would have thought of a cross as a light burden to bear. However, when we “deny ourselves” by getting our eyes off of ourselves and onto Jesus, our own struggles with fear of the future, wounded pride, anger, resentment, greed for money, etc., seem to melt away as we become absorbed with more and more of Him. The pain of the cross we must bear every day is the pain of forgetting ourselves and looking unto Him; the yoke we are left with is light as we walk in the joy of being with Him.
Paul also dealt with this paradox. In Romans 7:18 Paul confesses, “For I know that in me (that is, in my flesh) nothing good dwells; for to will is present with me, but how to perform what is good I do not find.” Paul wanted to do what was right and could not (at least as much as he wanted). A few verses later he cries out in frustration, “O wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He then immediately gives the answer, “I thank God ‒ through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Jesus Christ was Paul’s answer to the question, “How do I do what is right?”
The Offense of Simplicity
As I have come to the conclusion that the entire Christian walk is to be centered on Christ and about building a relationship with Him, I have struggled with the feeling that the answer is too simplistic. The responsibilities of life still face me and I have to acknowledge the many things I am commanded to do in Scripture. The two commands to love the Lord with all my heart and to love my neighbor (aka, everyone around me) as myself, entail numerous actions that, if neglected, leave me looking very un-Christlike. But those commands are the fruit of a relationship with Christ. Jesus said, “apart from Me you can do nothing.” He is the vine and we are the branches. While we are in Him, we will produce fruit. This does not mean that producing the fruit is not important, it means that being in a right relationship with Jesus in order to produce the fruit is the first requisite. We see in Scripture a long list of things that we need to do, that really are very important. But too often we begin to focus on doing those things instead of realizing that they will flow naturally from a relationship with Christ.
So the simplicity of this message is, focus on your relationship with Jesus and then watch Him produce the fruit in your life that you are commanded to produce. A tree does not try to produce fruit; it merely sucks the nutrients out of the ground and then it produces fruit naturally. Neither should we “try” to produce fruit. If we merely build and nurture our relationship with Jesus, He will enable us to do all the good works that He wants us to do.
It’s NOT About You!
Is this the secret to a sinless life? As much as we wish we could live without sin from here to eternity, the answer is, no. As long as we are in this “body of death,” we will continue to strive against sin and fail at times. But it’s not about you. It’s not about your successes or your failures. It’s about Jesus! As you lift Him up in your heart and magnify Him in your life, you will become more like Him and less like who you are today. Paul must have struggled with regrets from his pre-salvation days. He said about himself, “For I am the least of the apostles, and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” He even called himself the chief of sinners in 1 Timothy 1:15. But he did not let that hold him down. He moved on. His battle cry was, “forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” He wasn’t going to let his past hold him because he wasn’t focused on his past. He was choosing to forget it, to not look at it. If you’re focused on a great saint from the past, your pastor, your father, your mother, your neighbor, your past, your present, your future, your successes … your failures every time you compare yourself to them. I have great news for you: you’re focused on the wrong thing! Let Christ become your focus and He will direct your life into the success that you were created to be.
The “How To” of Building a Relationship
It’s very easy sometimes to think in poetic, philosophical ideas that are hard or impossible to apply to our daily lives. I love the story of Peter walking on the water toward Jesus in the midst of the storm. As long as Peter held Jesus in his gaze, the wind and waves had no power over Peter regardless of how real they were. It’s a beautiful picture of how we can walk through life with our eyes on Jesus and not be affected by the problems that would sweep us away. But it’s very philosophical. How do we apply it?
The answer comes in two parts. First of all, rejoice in your unshakable, immutable relationship to God. As I entered a relationship with my wife, I struggled with the fear that on any given day she was going to decide that she no longer loved me and had decided to cut off the relationship. When that fear went away, I was able to rest in her love and focus on the quality of our relationship instead of feeling like I was fighting for its existence. Likewise, when we realize how unconditionally certain our relationship is to God, we begin to feel freer to rest in His love and focus on His Person simply to get to know Him instead of constantly feeling like we are unworthy to even talk to Him. A good relationship requires the certainty that love is mutual. “We love Him because He first loved us.” In our case before God, we must accept that He loves us regardless of what our self-perception might be. I fear that many times we fail to know Him, which keeps us from accepting His love for us.
This brings us to the second part of building a relationship. Like any human relationship, building a relationship requires time together. This is what will build your relationship with God. We must distinguish between our relationship with and our relationship to God. Our relationship to God is immutable; our relationship with Him rises and falls based on our devotion to Him. In reality, we spend every second of every day with God. The challenge is to live with that fact in mind and take advantage of it by talking to Him. I believe this is what Paul meant when he said, “pray without ceasing.” It’s not that we have to constantly be praying, but that we must maintain an attitude of prayer; it’s an awareness that God is with you. Reading your Bible and having times of quiet prayer at home are also important ways to simply spend time with Jesus. If it feels like I’m turning around and putting a requirement on you in order to “be a good Christian,” then go back to the heart of the issue. Are you in love with Jesus? There is indeed a catch-22 here. It’s impossible to love the person you don’t know, and it’s hard to enjoy spending time with (getting to know) the person you don’t love. You have to start somewhere!
My personal testimony is that when I spend time with God in prayer and Bible study, I love Him all the more. And when I am spending that daily time with Him, my perspective toward all of life, including myself, changes and I am able to be more like the man I want to be. Not because I force myself to be. I simply am more loving, more faithful, more generous, and more enthusiastic when I am walking close to Him. He changes me! His yoke is easy and His burden is light. The reason this is true is because we forget about ourselves as we grow closer and closer to Him. It’s when we’re focused on ourselves that our own fears and pains dominate our lives. “Turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full in His wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of His glory and grace.”