On Good Friday each year in the Philippines, we observed tens of thousands of religious pilgrims walking many miles, passing our seminary campus, to get to a holy site in Antipolo City. "Flagelantes" beat their bare backs with whips till their blood flowed. Some pilgrims struggled to carry heavy crosses. Other presented their bodies to be nailed to crosses.
We can not atone for our sins and earn God's favor, not even by doing our best to keep God's commandments. To be right with God we trust in his Son alone and take hold of his gift of eternal life. Jesus came to earth as the Lamb of God to take away our sin.
When I'm dying from a disease, observing health "laws" won't save me. Surgery may save me. When I'm drowning, safety rules won't save me. But a life line may save me.
In his or her own strength, no one can fully keep God's laws and save himself or herself.
God sent his Son into the world not to condemn us but to save us and give us his very own quality of eternal, overflowing life.
Do you need to be set free from the confusion and bondage brought on by having been taught the heresy of self-achieved salvation and holiness? Fear of failure to keep the rules of God or others haunts many people in Christ's church.
"Hi, my name is Bob," says a guy surrounded by a group of fellow strugglers. "I'm a legalist in lifelong recovery. For years I tried to please God and people by keeping religious rules and requirements."
"Yeah, I know what you mean," Hannah chimes in. "I was raised on guilt instead of grace." Others nod their heads in agreement.
A drastic difference exists between trying to be right with God by keeping rules and trusting Christ's work to make me right. Grace-based salvation is centered on Christ not me. I must not devise "a way of life in which I have no need of a saving God" (Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places, 145). Like Wesley, every moment I need "the merit of Christ's death" ("A Plain Account of Christian Perfection," The Works of John Wesley). Trusting in my own righteousness keeps me from Christ's righteousness and lordship in my life.
Self-righteous people, often angry and condemning, think it is okay to condemn others as long as they condemn the right things (Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy, 22). Wrong! Leave judging, even "fruit-inspecting," to God. Jesus pointed out people who were "confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else" (Luke 18:9).
Christians may say they have "personal convictions" against wearing or doing certain things and then push their beliefs on others. A church youth brought a friend who was wearing something considered taboo, though it was not immodest. "Make your friend get rid of that," he was told, "or you get rid of your friend." Harsh "holiness" has stunted many people's spiritual growth.
Some children have "growth hormone deficiency" and need hormone injections or they won't grow. If I insist on a grace-plus-works holiness, I have a grace deficiency that will arrest my spiritual growth.
Self-righteousness gives off a disgusting odor. Christ living in me gives off the fragrance of grace. He changes me from the inside out and bestows on me "a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair" (Isaiah 61:3).
Trying to earn God's favor is "a religion of requirements" (Marcus J. Borg, The Heart of Christianity, 172). The error of the Pharisees was "not that they substituted something for Christ's work, but that they tried to add something to it" (John A. Knight, "Scourge of Legalism," Holiness Today, May/June 2005). The songwriter was right: "It is enough that Jesus died, and that he died for me" (Lidie H. Edmunds, "My Faith Has Found a Resting Place," Sing Unto the Lord, 435).
A grace-is-not-enough righteousness hinders Christ's lordship and kingdom in our lives. Jesus said, "Every kingdom divided against itself will be ruined" (Matthew 12:25a). About the Pharisees he said, "Their teachings are but rules taught by men'" (Matthew 15:9).
Shall you disregard God's laws? No, don't throw the baby out with the bath water. "Don't use your freedom to satisfy your sinful nature," Paul wrote. "Instead, use your freedom to serve one another in love" (Galatians 5:13, NLT). "The corrective for legalism is not license (Galatians 5:13ff) but that Spirit-generated love which fulfills the spirit and intent of the law from the heart" (Richard E. Howard, Beacon Dictionary of Theology).
We don't have to measure up to people's rules. "Before he made the world," wrote Paul, "God loved us and chose us in Christ to be holy and without fault in his eyes" (Ephesians 1:4, emphasis added). Christ not only calls us to follow him, he gives himself to us so that we may "be as he was, permeated with love. Then the doing of what he did and said becomes the natural expression of who we are in him" (Willard, ibid, 183).
Humility and holy living go hand in hand,
We are to lift up Christ, not ourselves.
We are to lift up Christ, not our methodologies.
We are to lift up Christ, not our programs.
We are to lift up Christ, not our 'successes.'
(From the Board of General Superintendents annual report, David Graves, February 2012)
In the power of the Holy Spirit let's make "the great escape" from fear of other people and their rules.
Let's take hold of the wonderful grace of Jesus. Let's lift him up and experience the high adventure of following him in the fullness of his life and lordship, serving him because we love him.
A. Brent Cobb has served as a pastor, missionary, and director of the Asia-Pacific Region. Now he and his wife, Marty, speak in local churches and for special events.
Holiness Today, Mar/Apr 2013