On a good day we may get out of bed as soon as the alarm goes off and have a refreshing quiet time. Events of the day generally fall out the right way and we encounter no significant sin issues. A bad day is just the opposite. We oversleep, skip our quiet time, muddle through a difficult day, and struggle all day long with sinful thoughts (resentment, envy, frustration, lust, etc.). On which of those days would you be more expectant of God’s blessing or answers to prayer? Your answer to that question reveals whether you are living by your works, or by the gospel.
Our default setting is to live by our works. But let me repeat a statement that I made to a group of college students some twenty years ago that is still valid and speaks to the good day and bad day scenarios: Your worst days are never so bad that you are beyond the reach of God’s grace. And your best days are never so good that you are beyond the need of God’s grace.
Every day of our lives should be a day of relating to God on the basis of his grace alone, for every day of our lives we are not yet perfect. Someday we will be. Someday each of us will go to be with the Lord (if he does not return first), and at that time we will join the spirits of “the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:23). We look forward to that day with anticipation and hope. In the meantime, despite having died to the dominion of sin through our union with Christ, we still struggle with the presence and activity of sin that remains in us.
So if we are going to grow in the realization of who we are in Christ, we must come to terms with the reality that we are not yet perfect; the presence and activity of sin is still alive and well within us. The reason we must accept this fact is that we cannot look to Christ for our identity if we are still trying to find something about ourselves to prop up our self-esteem. To really grow in the wonderful reality of who we are in Christ, we must abandon any desire to find something within ourselves that makes us acceptable to God.
This does not mean that we should not aspire to grow in holiness, nor does it mean we will never see progress in our lives. It certainly does not mean that we should shrug off the expressions of remaining sin with the thought, “Oh well, that’s just the way I am.” No, all the moral imperatives in the New Testament imply that we are to seriously pursue growth in Christian character. Consider just a few:
- We are to put off the old self and put on the new self (Ephesians 4:22-24).
- We are to put to death the deeds of the body (Romans 8:13).
- We are to put on such character traits as compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, and love (Colossians 3:12-14).
- We are to abstain from the passions of the flesh, which wage war against our souls (1 Peter 2:11).
- We are to make every effort to grow in all the traits of Christian character (2 Peter 1:5-7).
These are just representative of many moral imperatives scattered throughout the New Testament. There is no question that it is God’s will that we pursue a holy and Christlike life.
But though we are to vigorously pursue spiritual maturity, both in putting to death sinful traits and putting on Christlike traits, we must never think that God’s approval and acceptance of us is earned by our progress. God is obviously pleased when we seek to please him (Colossians 1:10), but his acceptance of us is based entirely on the work of Christ alone in his sinless life and sin-bearing death.
Let’s return to that thought that God is pleased when we seek to please him. How do our efforts please God? It is by our motive more than it is our actions. If our motive, even unconsciously, is to earn God’s approval and blessing by our obedience, then he is not pleased, because that motive actually demeans the perfect obedience of Christ in our place. It suggests that the work of Christ on our behalf was insufficient, so we need to step in and help out. The motive that God finds acceptable is joyful gratitude for the fact that Christ has already perfectly obeyed for us.
[T]he concept of Christ’s ownership of our lives is radical and comprehensive. At the risk of overusing the word radical, I want to say that the motive of obeying God out of gratitude, instead of out of the assumption that obedience earns God’s blessing, is a radical concept. It is radical in the sense that the vast majority of believers do not understand what it means to be “in Christ” and to find their basic identity in him. They do not understand the truth of our representative union with him so that his obedience becomes our obedience, and his death for sin becomes our death for sin.
Jerry Bridges, Who Am I?, 92-95.