I remember being a child, about 9, in junior church. Each time we gathered we had worship through song, two fast songs and one slow one to calm us down for what came next. We then moved into a time of worship through communion and offering. Our children’s minister took his usual moment to remind us what communion was and what we should be doing at this time. We would take our moment of silence or silent prayer, and those of us who had made a commitment to the Lord surely took our bread and juice. After communion came offering, and I would have pulled out the three quarters that our grandma always gave us as we walked into church. There was a younger girl next to me, and she had a small purse. It was the type with a long strap and a clasp that is easy for a child to maneuver but still makes what is inside feel like yours. As the plate came around, I remember the girl opening her purse, and dumping the contents into the offering plate. There was a clatter of pennies and I remember admiring her. I vividly remember leaning over the seat between us and telling her, “You’re going to make such a good Christian someday.”
I was misguided in many ways, and the children’s ministry director in me wants to correct young Faith in all of them. Today, however, I share this story to illustrate that my unchecked inclination is that faith is defined by what we can do. I thought that she “would be” a great Christian because she was willing to do something that looked like something a religious person would do. Somehow, she was proving herself to God and others that she was worthy of the designation “Christian.” I could give countless examples of ways that I have tried to earn “Christian,” and as many examples of ways I felt like I lost it.
If it is your inclination as well to try earning the title “Christian,” and thereby to try earning salvation, I predict that this time of “stay home, stay safe” might be having one of two effects. First, that you’re incredibly relieved. You have a reason beyond your control to not leave the house and do everything. Second, that you feel challenged. Under the surface you might be thinking, “now how am I going to accomplish anything.”
In the first characterization you probably started out feeling pretty relaxed, but then you will start to feel scared. Maybe you’ll start thinking along the lines of “will God pardon me for taking this time off?” You’ll start getting busy at home, trying to think of things that you “should be” doing.
In the second characterization you’ll try at first, creatively thinking of things you can do with your kids or neighbors. You’ll make a bunch of masks and do a bunch of housework trying to just do anything good. Yet it won’t be a joy, it will be an accomplishment. You’re still trying to earn something. Over time, the longer we are in isolation, the more helpless you’ll start to feel. The disappointment might turn into a depression, and you’ll become hit very hard by this time of isolation.
I believe that it is one of the most subversive dangers to the maturing Christian to try to earn their salvation. I have confessed to you that I tend to try to show God that I am worthy of being called “Christian,” of being granted salvation. I had a kind spiritual teacher correct me as I grew, and I thought that I had addressed the problem. Yet it was recently I realized that I was defaulting to the same problem in a different way. Instead of trying to earn my salvation through being moral, I found myself trying to earn it by doing good. Even now, as I write this, I realize that I have tried to fix this by myself!
It’s hard. Our society puts such a big emphasis on earning what you have. We collectively admire people who work hard and come from nothing to have everything. We try to control our own destiny. This translates into the pseudo-spiritual belief that we can be a “good person.” We do so many things to try to build up the “good” to outweigh the bad. We volunteer on the weekends until we are ragged, we joylessly sit through a church service, we try to cheer up a coworker, we avoid cursing, we keep our anger in check, we are generous at a fundraiser. At the end of the day we hope the “good” outweighed the bad, that we didn’t fail God. But we continue to fail. Romans 3:10, “None is righteous, no, not one.” A white lie slips out, we forget our mother’s birthday, we snap at our kids. Even when we go through a perfect day, in baseball terms a “no hitter,” we still have to keep it up for the rest of our lives.
Let me tell you, that is the way of the world. The way of the world is exhausting. No wonder we are relieved when the government tells us to stay home! Yet Scripture gives us true relief in Romans 6:23, “The wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is salvation through Christ Jesus our Lord.”
I remember being told this as a teenager and being suspicious. How can this be true? I knew and felt strongly the truth of Isaiah 59:2, that my ‘sinful acts had alienated me from God,’ so how can it be that by just believing in Christ as the resurrected Son of God I can receive His grace?
Romans 5:8, “But God demonstrates his own love for us, in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
It is God’s truth that even while we were still swimming in the sea of our sin, God was offering us a way to him. We did nothing and can do nothing to earn it.
But it is true. It is by grace you have been saved. The only thing you need to do to experience salvation is to know and love Jesus. This is bolstered by many things – Bible reading and prayer are means of communication in that relationship. Fellowship is a key facet of being built up in the knowledge and the wisdom of the Lord as well. I believe it is true that fasting, service, obedience and praise should be outpourings of the relationship with Christ, not the relationship itself. John 14:15 says “If you love me, keep my commands.” But stop trying to be “good” enough. These things cannot earn God’s good gift, we can only accept the gift through faith.
Here’s what I suggest you do with that feeling of, “I’ve got to do something!” If the concept of “salvation by grace” feels new to you, then stop and pray that God would show you how to wholly accept His grace knowing that it is not something you can earn by doing “good.” I hope that you will share this with someone who can build you up in the truth. If it is something you know but can’t quite accept, I hope that you will struggle with it in prayer and ask a mature Christian to pray for you as you struggle. If you have experienced the joy of knowing your salvation is freely given and freely accepted, take a moment to thank God, to dwell in the goodness of His Truth, and ask God that He would give you the right words to communicate this free gift when He brings you someone who needs to hear them. No matter who you are, consider reading Romans where many of these verses were found, now that you might have a little extra time to savor it.