The following article appeared in the September 9th edition of the Chanute Tribune.
Within conservative evangelical Christianity in America, there has been a tendency to think about the gospel—the good news of what Jesus has done for sinners—almost exclusively in terms of how we become Christians. We see it as all about how we get into the family. Although we have all sinned, Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins so that if we put our faith in him, our penalty is paid and we stand before God forgiven. This is how we convert—it’s how we become Christians. Someone tells us about what Jesus has done and calls us to turn to him in faith. In that moment, if you are born-again, your eyes were opened and you saw the truth and the beauty of this gospel with the result that you put your faith in Christ. In that moment, you were reconciled to God and adopted into his family.
Now, while I wholeheartedly agree that this is central in the way one becomes a Christian, once we’re in, we sometimes leave Christ’s work on the cross behind. This is a deadly error. In this case, the Christian life becomes more a matter of obeying commands and less a matter of believing the good news. We fall into the trap of thinking that although we were brought into the family by grace, we grow in the family by works.
So I want to make the point that Christ’s work on the cross isn’t just about how to get into Christianity, it’s also about how to get on in Christianity. The gospel is what empowers us not only to escape the penalty of sin, but also the reign of sin in our lives.
As Christians, we can fall into one of two extremes—we tend toward either legalism or license. Some tend to make Christ’s death on the cross into a license to sin. We might reason that it doesn’t matter how we live our lives because Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins. But when we look at Romans 6, we see that the gospel provides us not with freedom to sin, but with freedom to live for God. We are being saved not only from sin’s penalty, but also from sin’s reign in our lives.
Others fall into legalism. I think this may be more indicative of my own tendency. Legalism is when we view our relationship with God as based on the things we do. I know God wants me to pray and read the Bible and memorize Scripture and to be kind to my neighbor, but sometimes I fail in one or more of these areas. Maybe I’m somewhat inconsistent in my prayer life or my Bible reading isn’t what I believe it should be. So I begin to feel guilty. I feel like God isn’t pleased with me or that God is angry with me because I haven’t done what I believe He wants me to do. This is legalism. It’s this idea that my relationship with God and my acceptance before God is based on what I do.
Now I begin to get discouraged. I learn I’m incapable of living up to God’s standards and so I become disheartened because I don’t think God is pleased with me. Worse-case-scenario, I give up on prayer and Bible reading and other spiritual duties altogether and try not to think about it because it only makes me feel guilty.
Notice that when we fall into this, we don’t seek God. We think he’s not pleased with us. We think he’s mad. If we have truly come to faith in Christ, nothing could be further from the truth. The good news of the gospel is that God has sent His Son to rescue us from this very thing. And when I understand that I am forgiven because of what Jesus has done, it delivers me from my guilt and frees me to come boldly to God, asking Him to deliver me from the sin against which I continue to struggle.
Ultimately, we need not be discouraged because we are unable to overcome the sin with which we are struggling. Rather, we should be greatly encouraged because, through Christ, the penalty for our sins has been paid, and we have God’s unwavering love and acceptance that fuels us in our continued battle against sin. The good news of what Jesus has done not only gets us into the Christian faith, it carries us through and takes us home with the result that all glory belongs to him.