It is sad to me how we see sin and disobedience so visibly in contrast to the lives of those in pursuit of the Gospel. Why are those living in sin so much easier to spot than repentant faithful believers? I’ve been thinking a lot about how it looks to have a life comparable to the first followers of Christ who Luke calls the Way in the book of Acts (9:2). He does not call them Christians (Acts 11:26). And even after establishing the historical pinpoint for the first use of the term “Christian,” he never calls them by that name again in the rest of the book (Acts 19:9; 19:23; 22:4; 24:14; 24:22). I find this very interesting. Their existence as believers included both a verbal expression of faith and a visual manifestation of their faith in behavioral patterns. How do we get to that level? How does holiness change us from the inside out so deeply that it overtakes every single extension of our lifestyles? And how do we pursue this without slipping into legalism and license?
Contemporary culture places so much faith in the abilities of mankind. So often it replaces the person and finished work of Christ with our own unstable and empty endeavors assuming that we can earn a place in Heaven with our good works and honest passions. And in doing so, it redefines who we are as human beings. If there is any inkling of confidence in our own works as being worthy of eternity, we have placed a piece of ourselves on the same level as God. This is done through greed, lust, judgment, and any other act that does not submit to the authority of the Gospel. We see this played out every single day in corporate business, film, music, relationships, and even the church itself with the recent decision of the ELCA being a prime example. The only problem is that the Bible speaks against this.
Chapter two of Ephesians begins with a Pauline summary of the Gospel and verses 8-10 say,
For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Clearly, we are not saved by our own abilities. It is a gift from God. We do not become holy by picking and choosing certain behaviors that are going to make us look more righteous. That’s works-based righteousness. We do not become holy by showing up at church every Sunday, singing every lyric to every worship song, memorizing enough Scripture, and knowing enough Christian people. That’s works-based righteousness. We do not become holy by listening to the “right” music, watching the “right” movies, and reading the “right” books. That’s works-based righteousness. The only way in which we can truly pursue holiness is by total and complete submission to the Gospel thereby receiving the grace of God which changes the fabric of our lives from the inside out – not from the outside in through self-righteous, moralistic fine-tuning of outward behavior.
I see this happen in myself all the time. It is so much easier to play the judge and decide the outward behaviors that will make you look like a better Christian. But in the end, that is legalism and it is the same thing Jesus verbally attacked over and over again with the religious leaders of his time. It is also easier to decide that the rules don’t apply and that your faith in Christ is so firm that anything goes and nobody can tell you what to do. But that’s license and works-based righteousness. To be holy means to be set apart. Romans 12 calls us to not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will. It also says to be “living sacrifices” to the world. It does not say to be tolerant and indifferent. It does not say to subscribe to legalism or license. And it certainly does not say that you can be judge in place of the true Judge. Jesus was not tolerant, indifferent, legalistic or anything else. He was God. And because of this, he was mercilessly beaten and nailed to a tree where he hung until his death – a death he died for the very souls who placed him on that cross.
Legalism and license are dangerous tools of humanity. When we begin to convince ourselves that we are God, we forget the cross of Christ and we make the Gospel about us and not about Jesus. I have been reflecting on Hebrews 13:2-3 lately and it says,
Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it. Remember those in prison as if you were their fellow prisoners, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering.
It does not say entertain those who you deem worthy of your entertainment, but entertain them all. Don’t remember those who you deem worthy of remembrance, but remember them all. Christ challenged the sins of others, but he loved them deeply. He pursued the drunkards, the prostitutes, the poor, the broken, and the hopeless. He gave his life for the calling of the Gospel and for those who did not know him. And we should love, embrace, entertain, and remember others in the same manner.