Beware the Myth of Independence

We’ve all heard (or experienced) the story of the young child who threatens to run away from home. A friend just told me about a proclamation her four-year-old child recently made in a fit of anger: “I’m leaving!” This friend proceeded to question her daughter on how she would eat, wash clothes, or get to preschool on her own. “I’ll walk on the road, or maybe even the sidewalk!” the little girl retorted. “And where I’m going, they’ll have grocery stores and washing machines.” Her mother replied, “But will you be able to reach the washing machine to put your clothes in?”

We chuckle in amusement when we hear these common “run away from home” stories because the folly of the child is so evident, and the threats are so ridiculous. Any rational adult knows that a four-year-old child marching “free” on the open road is a child marching defiantly toward her doom. Children are only truly free to flourish within the boundaries of a safe home and under the  authority of loving parents. Yet, in the moment of her rash declaration, my friend’s child evidenced her own embrace of the lie every human being believes–the lie that freedom from the constraints of authority is the way to the good life. 

The parent/child relationship is a parable built into the creation order to teach us something about God as Father and ourselves as foolish, rebellious children. In it, we see the myth of independence that we’ve all believed, but we also get a taste of the grace-driven dependence that leads to freedom and flourishing. You see, to run away from the boundary walls of home is to simultaneously run away from the rest, comfort and safety that only a home can provide. The two are inextricably interwoven, and that’s by design. So this leads us to the questions: What is true freedom? And how do we obtain it?

The Myth of Independence 

The world defines “freedom” as self-determination, or the ability to sovereignly control one’s own life without the constraints of a higher authority or objective morality. This is a “you do you” concept of freedom in which the individual alone decides how to think, act, and be. Justice Anthony Kennedy summed it up well in his majority opinion in Planned Parenthood v. Casey: “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” 

This concept of freedom as self-determination isn’t new. It’s the same myth the first humans believed in the beginning—the age-old lie whispered by the serpent in the garden: “The path to true happiness is freedom from the constraining rules of that Creator of yours. Freedom is the wisdom to determine what’s right and wrong for yourselves. It’s the power to create your own identity, make your own rules, and chart your own course.” Our rebellious first parents sank their teeth into the beautiful forbidden fruit, but, instead of finding freedom, they found themselves slaves to corruption–a corruption they passed on to all people in all generations. 

God’s word teaches that no human is truly “free” in the libertarian sense of the word. We are slaves to whatever we obey, either sin leading to death or obedience [to God] leading to righteousness (Romans 6:16-17). The will is never unfettered to the nature. And the human problem is that our nature is corrupted by sin. We’re children running blind–hell-bent on maintaining the independence that leads to death while desperately trying to satisfy our seemingly insatiable desires. This is the essence of slavery to sin–being locked into the endless chase for what our souls crave and never finding it, never finding Him.

James K.A. Smith writes, “When we imagine freedom only as negative freedom–freedom from constraint, hands-off liberty to choose what I want–then our so-called freedom is actually inclined to captivity… Insofar as I keep choosing to try to find satisfaction in finite, created things–whether its sex or adoration or beauty or power–I’m going to be caught in a cycle where I’m more and more disappointed in those things and more and more dependent on those things. I keep choosing things with diminishing returns, and when that becomes habitual, and eventually necessary, then I forfeit my ability to choose.

 So, if the endless quest for independence enslaves, how does one break free? 

Freedom as Dependence

The first step toward real freedom comes when our eyes are opened to see the chains that bind us in our pursuit of autonomy. True liberation comes through realization of need and the desperate cry for help that follows. The path toward freedom is found when the runaway child on the street, a moment ago so exhilerated in her quest for independence, realizes she cannot live without her parents after all (and doesn’t want to). So, she turns around and runs back home into their arms with tears of humility in her eyes. And she’s received warmly, not because she deserves it, but because of their gracious, unconditional love.

Our Heavenly Father has only one true Son who never rebelled and ran away from him– only one child who obeyed him perfectly and lived within the boundary lines of his perfect will and love. Yet, the Father turned his back on his perfect Son that he might welcome every rebellious son and daughter willing to run home into his arms through faith in that perfect Son. Grace is the answer. Our dependence upon God’s grace in Christ is the only path to true freedom from sin. It’s the only path to satisfaction in the God who made us. 

Smith says, “It is the posture of a dependence that libertes, a reliance that releases. Once you’ve realized you need someone not you, you also look at constraint differently. What used to look like walls hemming you in start to look like scaffolding holding you together.”

Fully Free Forever

Freedom is the gracious gift of a new nature through which we desire to turn away from sin and run back to the Creator we’ve scorned. It’s the gracious gift of the Holy Spirit within us, enabling us to obey the Lord. But freedom from sin is progressive. By faith in Christ, we’re freed from sin’s power, but we’re still plagued by its presence in our lives during our time on earth. Not who we once were, we are still not yet who we will be. This is why Paul reminds believers that sin has lost dominion over us while still exhorting us to “present [our] members as slaves to righteousness leading to sanctification” (Romans 6:14;19b). It’s why he declares,” For freedom Christ has set us free” and, in the same sentence, exhorts, “stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

By grace, believers have been welcomed back into the family of God. Hidden in Christ by faith, we’ve turned away from the wide path leading to destruction and have begun our journey along the narrow way–the way to our forever home where our freedom will be full forever. Augstine writes, “What shall be more free than free choice when it is unable to be enslaved to sin?…The first freedom of the will was therefore to be able not to sin; the final freedom will be much greater: not to be able to sin…The Christian life is a pilgramage of hope. We live between the first and final freedom; we are still on the way.” 

Wherever you are on the road, dear pilgrim, keep running heavenward in the freedom of Christ. In him alone, restless souls find rest. In him alone, runaway rebels know the freedom of being forever home. 

***Quotes taken from On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts by James K.A. Smith

Lament With Hope

Lament With Hope

I’ve felt a heavy sense of sadness lately. Sadness about all that has been lost because of COVID and cancer and a host of other sicknesses people face. Sadness because everything in our world feels heavy right now. Sadness because anxiety, depression, addiction, abandonment, violence, and unrest are such realities. Sadness because so many people, including people I know and love, are blinded to the truth and walking in darkness—like sheep without a shepherd. It’s so clear to me that the effects of human sin are more catastrophic than we could have ever imagined; the suffering is often deeper than we can bear.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that I’m in the book of Lamentations in my Bible reading plan, and I’m thankful for the reminder that God welcomes lament: “Pour out your heart like water before the presence of the Lord!” (Lam 2:19). The prophets knew what it felt like to grieve the deep losses brought about by sinful idolatry as they watched evil foreign nations ravage God’s people and their land: “For these things I weep; my eyes flow with tears…” (Lam 1:16a). The prophets knew the crushing discouragement of being misunderstood in a world where evil seems to have the upper hand: “My children are desolate, for the enemy has prevailed” (Lam 1:16b). Lamentations is heavy reading.

But! Tucked in the center of five chapters of deep sorrow is a thrill of hope.

In the midst of catastrophe and grief, God’s covenant remnant is never ultimately consumed because we are swallowed up by something greater: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases. His mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lam 3:22-23).

In the midst of his grief, the prophet’s hope is renewed by calling to mind God’s “hesed” (translated “steadfast love” in this passage). Commentators say the English language doesn’t have one word that fully encompasses the Hebrew word hesed. It’s used some 240 times in the Old Testament and most often describes the undeserved loyal-love, mercy, kindness, and goodness of God toward his people. Hesed is an active word in which “doing” is implied.  And knowing something of God’s hesed is crucial to our grasping real hope.

In his own self-description to Moses in Exodus 34:6, God says he abounds in hesed or steadfast love—a love that forgives iniquity, transgression and sin, but will by no means pardon the guilty. The steadfast love of God for his people is more than a mushy sentiment, and it doesn’t turn a blind eye to what he has called sin. So, who is this God of unceasing love and grace who both forgives sinners and punishes the guilty? And how did the prophets find hope in Yahweh’s hesed while experiencing the aftermath of his intense judgment for Israel’s sin? *They waited for what they couldn’t yet see.* The prophets put their hope in God Himself, basing that hope on his past faithfulness and future promises. Even (and especially) when circumstances were far from promising, the faithful remnant believed God’s own declaration of his merciful lovingkindness to be true, and they rested in him.

As the new covenant people of God, we too have the hope of God’s self-revealed, boundless “hesed” to cling to in the midst of our personal lamentation. But we get to see God’s steadfast love more clearly than even the prophets did because we see it in the face of Jesus Christ! In his kindness, God the Son put on human flesh. As he hung on a cross in the place of rebellious idolaters, he showed the world just how the God of Israel pardons the guilty without letting sin go unpunished. Then, Jesus rose and gave his Church the firstfruits of the Spirit so that we might have hope as we groan in the wilderness of this world while waiting for something much better to come—something we can’t yet see.

Sadly, in this life here on earth, there will always be sin and suffering. There will always be grief. But in the midst of my own feelings of heavy sadness, I call to mind the hesed of God toward me in Jesus Christ, and I have HOPE. I declare with the prophet: “The LORD [Christ] is my portion…therefore I will hope in [wait on] him” (Lam 3:24).

Mothers are Weak, but He is Strong

Mothers are Weak, but He is Strong

The line is so familiar. I’ve been singing it since I was small. I sing it to my children often: Little ones to Him belong, they are weak but He is strong. 

The weakness of little ones can hardly be denied, especially by mothers. Children are small, vulnerable, and desperately needy–totally dependent on another for everything. As their primary caretakers, it’s easy for us as mothers to slip into thinking that we don’t share in our children’s weakness. In fact, I think many of us enter motherhood singing the line as it is written but maybe believing our own version: Little ones to me belong, they are weak but I am strong. 

We are the strong ones, right? After all, we’re the ones who grow new life and nourish it from our own bodies. The ones who wash dishes, change diapers, tackle laundry, cook meals, read books, parent hearts, and train a future generation toward independence. We’re the ones who juggle doctor’s appointments, haircuts, soccer practice, homework, and school programs. We stay up late and get up early to do all the things. We’re the ones who keep all the balls in the air…until we drop one…or two…or all of them. 

I didn’t get very far into motherhood before I realized I’m not as strong as I would like to think I am. And that’s by design. When we’re “killing it” in any area of life, we’re prone to start believing we have no need for a Savior. Exposed weakness is a gift that brings pain in the moment but makes the good news of the gospel very sweet. 

No mother feels strong when she faces the daily avalanche of laundry or when she completely forgets an appointment. No mom feels “super” when every child needs something at once, and she doesn’t have enough hands (or energy) to go around. How strong is the mom who loses her temper and speaks harshly to a little one? Or the mom who ignores the sibling fight in the playroom while she scrolls Instagram? What about the mom who feels overcome by anxiety, discouragement, or exhaustion? What is the hope for moms like me who realize we aren’t much stronger than the little ones in our care? 

Mothers in Christ to Him belong, we are weak but He is strong. 

The good news of Jesus Christ is the hope for needy moms. My pastor said today, “Receiving Jesus gladly means first despairing of our own ability to save ourselves, then clinging to him for rescue.” Strong, perfect moms have no need for Jesus, but he is hope and salvation for all of us who know we’re not enough. How?

He lived the life sinful mothers cannot live.

No, Jesus was not a mother, but that doesn’t mean he is unable to relate to the many temptations common to mothers. Jesus is well acquainted with the exhaustion that comes from meeting constant physical demands (Mark 5:24). He knows what it’s like to always be “on call” and to get very little time alone (Matthew 14:13). Jesus knows the daily fight for time with the Father (Mark 1:35). He knows the temptation to find joy and satisfaction in the pleasures of the world and the approval of man (Matthew 4:1-11). Jesus knows what it’s like to mediate sibling rivalry (Mark 10:35-45) and to comfort weary, fearful “children’ in the middle of the night (Matthew 14:22-27). He knows the sorrow of loss (John 11:35), the sting of being misunderstood, and the agony of betrayal and separation (Luke 22:54-62, Matthew 27:46-47). 

The man Christ Jesus can relate to every one of our circumstances and temptations, but, amazingly, he cannot relate to our sin. He was tempted in every category we are tempted in, yet never responded sinfully in thought, word, or deed (Hebrews 4:15). He lived the perfect life God’s holiness requires. 

He died the death sinful mothers deserve to die

Unlike Jesus, we don’t respond to the many temptations we face as mothers with faith and holiness. Sadly, we often respond with fear, anxiety, apathy, pride, selfishness, impatience, laziness, idolatry, and a host of other sins that deserve God’s just judgment. We are weak. But God does not crush us as we deserve because he crushed his strong and perfect Son in our place. When we are faced with the shortcomings and failures of our mothering efforts, we don’t have to live with the despair of constant mom-guilt. We only need to look to the cross where Jesus took every ounce of our guilt upon himself and paid our debt in full.  

Mothers receive the life and death of Christ by faith. 

The perfect life and substitutionary death of Christ are both credited to the believing mom by faith. When we turn away from resting in our own perceived strength and rest in Christ’s perfection alone, God declares us righteous! When he looks at us, he sees us through the perfection of his Son, and then he uses every circumstance of our lives (including motherhood) to progressively make us look like Jesus. Though it seems paradoxical, the more we grow in Christ-likeness, the more boldly we declare our own weakness and his perfect strength. Our growth in holiness means we see it more clearly and rest in it more fully with each passing day. And, full of the hope of the gospel, we can now sing with our children: “Moms and kids to Him belong, we are weak, but He is strong. Yes, Jesus loves us. Yes, Jesus loves us. Yes, Jesus loves us, for the Bible tells us so.” 

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. -2 Corinthians 12:9

Nurturing Life in a World of Death

Nurturing Life in a World of Death

One of the most challenging aspects of my current season is the constancy with which I must feed other people. Perhaps it’s safe to say that no one thinks about food more than mothers. Even from the earliest moment a pregnancy is detected, a new mother must begin to consider her role to nourish another. When a baby is born, a mother is immediately faced with the daunting task of eight to ten feedings a day. As months go by, the number of feedings necessary to sustain life lessons, but the menu becomes more varied and complex. And the need certainly never lessens.

Preparing food is neither my greatest gifting nor my greatest enjoyment, but I have developed the skill out of sheer necessity. My boys must be fed multiple times a day, and, sadly, I often view the constant responsibility to feed them as more of a burden than a joy. But, as the Lord has faithfully strengthened my body to nourish little lives day-by-day, he has done a slow but sure work in my heart as well, showing me more of the great privilege and responsibility women have to image him as life-givers. This role is not less than the provision of physical nourishment for other people, but it certainly extends far beyond it.

A Gift, Not a Curse

When I am pouring what feels like the hundredth cup of milk for the week, I am quick to lose sight of the undeserved gift all women have received in both our calling and ability to nurture life in a world cursed by death. The beginning chapters of Genesis bring me back to this perspective-shifting truth: Adam and Eve did not deserve to live one moment beyond the moment of their sin. After all, God had promised that disobedience would lead to death (Genesis 2:17).

God would have been righteous in immediately striking his human creatures dead for their rebellion in eating fruit from the one forbidden tree in the garden. But we see a beautiful foretaste of God’s lavish mercy in the fact that he didn’t. Adam and Eve’s spiritual death was immediate, but their physical death was mercifully delayed. Although God cursed his children because of their sin, even his curses displayed beautiful whispers of his love and grace as he spoke of their continued ability to bring forth life in a world now corrupted by sin.

The toil would be hard, but man would image God as provider by working the ground to bring forth food. The pain would be great, but woman would image God by taking this food and giving it to others to nourish life–even new life within her own body!  And, eventually, one woman would nourish the life of a Son who would defeat the serpent and the curse of death once and for all (Genesis 3:15)!

Before his wife ever conceived a child, Adam named her Eve, which means “life-giver.” By faith, he believed she would be “the mother of all living” (Genesis 3:20). As daughters of Eve, all women share her calling to image God as life-givers, and this ability to nourish both physical and spiritual life is an amazingly undeserved gift, not a curse. This is the truth our hearts need as we chop veggies and make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches day after day.

What if I can’t cook?

What if a woman hates to cook, or believes herself to be no good at it? What if she isn’t married and doesn’t have a biological family to feed every day? Do these things negate the calling and ability of certain women to nurture life by feeding others? No. As the Scriptures make clear, nurturing life encompasses more than breastfeeding babies or putting a delicious and beautifully presented meal on the table every night. Our world is full of people needing to eat, and, as women, we are called to offer this food in a variety of ways.

When a woman meal plans, grocery shops, and prepares food for her family, she nourishes life. When a woman provides a meal for an elderly widower in her church, she acts as a life-giver. When a woman orders pizzas and serves them to her small group, she sustains life. When a woman ladles up bowls of hot soup to put in the hands of the poor and homeless, she images the giver and and sustainer of life. When a woman feeds children who aren’t her own in order to give their weary mother a break, she is being a life-giver. 

In all these instances, God is less concerned with a woman’s skill and more concerned with her faith (Hebrews 11:6a). Christian women nurture life as they are continually sustained by the life of Christ. As we walk by faith that leads to obedience, God grows us in the skill and strength necessary to feed others well to the glory of God. Being the best cook isn’t essential because even the most delicious of foods cannot ultimately satisfy. Whether we serve others takeout or a home cooked meal, they will always come back hungry for more. And this is by design.

Serve the Bread of Life

Why do these children constantly need to eat?!?” I’ve said it myself, and I’ve heard other moms say it. The demand for physical nourishment is a constant (and often exhausting) part of this life, but it is a beautiful and necessary reminder from the Lord that “man does not live by bread alone” (Deuteronomy 8:3). When the bread of this life leaves us wanting, we see clearly our need for a better type of bread.

As those called to image God by giving life, women must serve up sustenance for more than this life only. Nurturing physical life affords us opportunities to nurture spiritual life. As women, we fulfill our calling as life-givers by continually feeding others the food of God’s word–the only food that leads to Christ, the Bread of Life. Those who eat hot bread from our ovens will eventually die, but those who feast on “the true bread from heaven” through belief in him for salvation will have eternal life (John 6:47-50).

Feeding others is important work. It’s God-like, gospel work. When we feed others in our wombs, through our breasts, or with our hands, we tell the story of a God who is faithful to feed his people the Bread of Life when they deserve only death. As we serve up meat and bread and fruits and vegetables, we tell others of the one who gave the bread of his flesh for the life of the world. We must call those we feed to look to him in faith, so they will never hunger or thirst again. Sisters, in our marriages, parenting, friendships, and relationships within the Body and with the lost, let’s faithfully nurture life. In world where death cannot be escaped, let’s feed others the risen Christ.

 

The Goodness of Good Friday

The Goodness of Good Friday

There is a giant elephant in the room of life.

No one wants to talk about it. We really hate to even acknowledge it exists. But none of us can get around it. Its effects are deeply personal and universally widespread. They leave nothing and no one untouched. They are, quite literally, earth-shattering.

We try to live our lives pretending this elephant isn’t really a big deal, but it’s the reason our world is full of natural disasters, crime, poverty, sickness, hatred, oppression, and tragedy. The elephant’s ravaging effects loom large in our world, but the elephant itself emanates from our own hearts. It begins with wicked desires that give birth to wicked deeds (James 1:15). The fruit of these desires and deeds are fear, guilt, deep shame and separation from the one who made us, the only one who is truly good. 

The elephant is sin, and not one of us can avoid its fruit or its ultimate sting–death.

Whether we are aware of it or not, all of us attempt to deal with our sin, guilt, and shame in various ways. We hide, pretend, excuse it, or accuse others for it. We ignore sin’s heinousness and glorify it as good (or at least “not that bad”). We strive to self-atone through good works or prideful self-loathing so we can feel the faux peace of self-forgiveness. We offer grace to ourselves from ourselves because “we’re only human” and need not expect too much. We live for today as if judgement and death will never really come. And all of these efforts are so futile, so inefficient.

But on a dark day over two thousand years ago, God himself dealt with our sin, guilt, and shame. On this day we call Good Friday, God the Father took all that is unholy and placed it on his perfectly holy Son. Jesus the Christ hung naked on a cross, publicly punished and shamed by the Father for the world to see. In this, God demonstrated that the “elephant” of sin is a serious problem that cannot be hidden or ignored. It cannot be glorified or justified away in our own efforts. It cannot be excused. And God has not excused it. He has crushed the perfect Son in whom he delights that he might forgive rebellious children and make us holy.

How could the Father love us this much? For one will scarcely die for a righteous person…but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:7-8). Let’s not miss all that this love has accomplished for us. Let’s dwell on why Good Friday is so good.

The One Who Dealt with Guilt

The guilt we feel as human beings is not imagined, false guilt. We cannot avoid feelings of guilt because, deep within our hearts, we know we are truly guilty. We have transgressed the Creator King’s righteous law, and we stand legally condemned (John 3:18), awaiting God’s just judgment (Romans 2:5-9). And blood is required. 

For the wages of sin is death. . . (Romans 6:23)

. . .and without the shedding of blood there is not forgiveness of sins (Hebrews 9:22b).

For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one’s life (Leviticus 17:11).

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses. . . (Ephesians 2:8)

On Good Friday, Jesus took upon himself the just wrath of God our sin deserved. He paid the penalty for our guilt in his death that we may be declared “not guilty” in him. In a beautiful paradox, God was able to remain justly holy while justifying sinners through our faith in his Son (Romans 3:26). Only the love of God toward us in Christ vanquishes our guilt. By faith, we can stop striving to suppress or rid ourselves of the guilt we feel and boldly proclaim: There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! (Romans 8:1)

The One Who Dealt with Shame

But what about our shame? Although we are legally declared righteous before God through faith in Christ, how do we deal with the fact that our current practice does not match our new righteous position? Even in Christ, we still fight remaining sin. Christ has been righteous in our place, but deep down we know we are not yet truly good. In beholding the holiness of Christ, we have seen ourselves for who we really are, and it is painfully shameful.

When Christ hung on the cross–the very emblem of suffering and shame–he took upon himself not only our guilt but also our shame that his holiness despised. He is not only the founder of our faith but also the perfecter of it (Hebrews 12:2). In other words, by faith in him we need no longer feel shame for former sins or the remaining sin we still struggle against. In Christ, our holiness is as good as done.

For by a single offering, he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified (Hebrews 10:14).

But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the fruit you get leads to sanctification and its end, eternal life (Romans 6:22).

The fruit of sin is shame, but the fruit of being in Christ is progressive holiness. The benefits of  salvation are more (though certainly not less) than our being declared righteous by faith. By faith, we are also being made holy, and God will finish the work he started, bringing us to sinless perfection when we meet him face-to-face (Romans 8:30).

The One Who Dealt with Death

If the death of Christ on Good Friday was the end of the story, we couldn’t call the day good. If Christ dealt with our sin and its fruit on the cross but failed to deal with the sting of sin through the resurrection, where would we be? Paul tells us.

And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied (1 Corinthians 15:17-19).

Good Friday is truly good because resurrection Sunday is coming, the day when death lost its power and sin lost its sting!

But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of all who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. . . The sting of death is sin. . . but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:20-22, 56-57).

Look Up!

Today and every day, let’s look at our sin honestly. May we despise it, mourn it, and humbly confess it. But let’s not linger there, pridefully navel gazing in an attempt to deal with sin on our own terms. Let’s direct our gaze heavenward to Christ the perfect one, looking to him to deal with our sin and its fruit. Christ was high and lifted up on Calvary’s hill to bear our guilt and shame in his body and to pay for our sin through his death. He rose from the grave and ascended into heaven to rule with all authority—high and lifted up as the conqueror of death!

Good Friday is good because the Holy One bought back for himself what was lost because of sin in the world he created good. His resurrection is the proof that he is, indeed, making everything sad [and bad] come untrue, both in our hearts and in our world. Look at your sin but linger on Christ, thanking God for his indescribable gift!

 

Beware the Gospel of Self: Why Radical Grace is the Only Good News

Beware the Gospel of Self: Why Radical Grace is the Only Good News

The New Testament is full of warnings for Christians to beware false teachers–those who proclaim a distorted gospel that leads others away from the gospel of Christ (Matthew 7:15, Acts 20:28-30, 2 Timothy 4:3-4, 2 Peter 2:1).

We might imagine that false teachers are easy to pinpoint, but they slither their way into local congregations slowly and subtly. They slide through the front doors of the church unnoticed– comfortably situated in the minds of many who claim Christ but have been inundated with falsities wrapped in a Christian guise. False teachers proclaim their message everywhere we turn–from social media to billboards, blogs, and bestselling books–and it’s not difficult to see why many in the church have become their disciples.

False teaching can sound so right. It’s popular and self-affirming— wrapped in punchy cliches that tickle the ears and make us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Instead of heralding the good news of God’s undeserved grace for sinners, false teachers herald the “good news” of you and me and them. At first blush, their message sounds delightful and full of hope, but it actually isn’t good news at all. In fact, it’s damning news.

The gospel of Jesus Christ, on the other hand, doesn’t appeal to anyone apart from the divine intervention of the Holy Spirit. Grace–the good news that God has provided for us in his Son what we neither deserve nor can provide for ourselves– brings us low before it lifts us high. Grace rips the rug of self-righteousness out from under our feet. It  brings us to our knees in painful acknowledgment of our own inadequacy before it raises us in Christ. But the gospel of grace is humanity’s only hope. It’s the only truly good news for sinners.

As believers living in a world overrun with the gospel of self, how do we guard ourselves (and others) from subtly believing this falsehood? Simplistic as it may sound, the way to battle the lie is to know, believe, and proclaim the truth. We must discern and clearly articulate how the gospel of grace differs from the gospel of self and speaks a better word. Here are three primary ways:

You (Don’t) Have a Good Heart

Have you ever heard someone say, “She made a mistake, but that’s not really who she is. Deep down she has a good heart.” The gospel of self promises that, despite our sins, we can rest in the fact that we are basically good people. While we naturally want to believe this about ourselves, grace debunks the prevalent myth that human beings are born with a fundamentally good nature.

The Bible is clear that all of us are born into this world with deceitful, sin-sick hearts (Jeremiah 17:9) inherited from our first parents Adam and Eve (Romans 5:12,19). The way we live flows from the condition of our hearts (Proverbs 4:23). In other words, we aren’t sinners because we sin; rather, we sin because we are sinners. Any outward morality we have is polluted by inward desires (often unrecognized even by ourselves) for our own autonomy and glory (Isaiah 64:6-7). We come into this world with no desire for our Creator or his glory.

This is far cry from the warm fuzzy messages of self-goodness we are saturated with at every turn. But grace is only good news when juxtaposed with the bad news of our utter depravity. Basically good folks don’t need a bloody, substitutionary, atoning Savior (Galatians 2:21). Jesus Christ was the only human born into the world with a truly good heart, and the forgiveness God extends to us through him becomes precious only when we see just how desperately we need it. As the puritan Thomas Watson said, “Until sin be bitter, Christ will not be sweet.”

(Don’t) Believe in Yourself

Almost nothing sounds better to us than this oft quoted mantra of the American way: “Believe in yourself! You can accomplish anything!” It’s a positive word of empowerment that tells us we’re self-sufficient and able–a word we love to hear and are naturally prone to believe about ourselves. But, the truth is, we are not self-sufficient. We were created to live in joyful dependence on our Creator, the one who gives and sustains our very life and breath (Acts 17:28).

Grace reveals to us that we enter this world as spiritually dead slaves to sin (Ephesians 2:1) who exchange the truth of our dependence on an all sufficient Creator for the lie of creaturely self-sufficiency. Blinded to our need, we worship and believe in ourselves rather than in God (Romans 1:25). We strive in our own strength to clean up our behavior and achieve goals the world applauds, and, from the outside, it may look as though we’ve achieved success. But self-sufficiency is a lie.

Not only are we dependent on God for our physical needs, we are completely dependent on him to meet our ultimate spiritual need as well. Spiritually dead people are powerless and needy when it comes to our real problem. No amount of self-belief can resurrect a dead heart, but the gospel of grace has the power to save those who believe, not in themselves, but in Christ (Romans 1:16). Why? Because Christ is the perfect and powerful one who conquered sin and death. He’s been and done what we cannot be and do for ourselves. Self-belief will eventually crush us under impossible expectations, constant striving, and ultimate failure. But belief in Christ leads us to a hope that won’t disappoint (Romans 5:2-5).  

(Don’t) Be True to Yourself

Humanity is obsessed with the concept of personal identity, and we often go to great lengths to figure out who we truly are. Discovering and remaining true to one’s unique identity are key virtues of the gospel of self, but the Bible simplifies our identity quest by showing us there are only two underlying identities for all human beings made in the image of God: Dead in sin (Ephesians 2:1) or alive in Christ (Ephesians 2:5).  

Grace beckons us to come to Christ as we are in our sin, but it never leaves us as we are. Christ called those who would follow him, not to be true to themselves, but to deny themselves and prepare to die to the sinful nature that had defined and shaped every part of them until that point (Matthew 16:24). By faith, we share with Jesus in his death as our old identity is crucified, and we share with him in his resurrection as we are raised to a brand new nature and identity in him (2 Corinthians 5:17). When we trust Jesus for salvation, his sinless identity becomes ours!

In Christ, we receive the Holy Spirit who enables us to put off the deeds that were characteristic of our former identity and put on Christ-like living that matches our new identity (Romans 8:13, Ephesians 4:22). In other words, grace frees us to stop striving so hard to be true to ourselves and, instead, devote ourselves to lives of good works that are true to Christ.

The Only Good News

Beware the gospel of self–a message that falsely affirms us and is radically at odds with the biblical gospel of grace. Grace exposes the truth of our sin, powerlessness, and misplaced identity. It tells us we are not enough in order to freely offer us Christ, the one who is more than enough for us. He alone is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6). May we turn away from trusting ourselves and say with the apostle Peter, “Lord, to whom [else] shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God” (John 6:68-69).