Living the Christian Life Apart from the Gospel

umbrellaHis rain-soaked clothes served as a perfect picture for his life. Andre (not his real name) was a believer who was living with unbelievable guilt and frustration. The guilt and frustration were a result of walking through a particular season of downpour in his life. He made a squish as he sat in the chair across from me. What I observed rather quickly about Andre is what I have observed about lots of believers, it’s what I have noted in myself too: despite knowing the gospel many Christians still try to live the Christian life apart from its benefits. Living this way is bound to produce guilt, frustration, and anxiety in any Christian.

It’s not that Andre was a false believer. He clearly understood the gospel, professed ongoing faith in Jesus’ work on his behalf, and was bearing some fruit in many other places in his life. It’s important in counseling to begin with the gospel. I always want to make sure that a person has really understood and placed saving faith in the finished work of Christ. Andre had, but there was a major disconnect between what he believed and how he saw it relating to his everyday life. Living the Christian life apart from the gospel means trying to fulfill all that God commands of us both in our own strength and in order to merit God’s favor. Andre had been doing all his religious duties. He labored over the Scriptures, prayed consistently, led family devotions, shared the gospel, and participated in regular outreach. None of it, however, was particularly reassuring. At the end of the day he often still felt like a major disappointment to God. Had he done enough? He wondered. What was enough? He asked me. Is that even a godly question to ask? All sorts of thoughts raced through his mind. “Some days I am not even sure I am a Christian,” he said rather frankly. The more we talked the more it became clear that part of the problem was how he viewed and understood sanctification.

As Andre read the Scriptures he saw passage after passage in the New Testament that mandated a changed life in the believer. As he looked at his own life he still saw lots of sin and lots of failure. The reality of his continuing struggle with sin sent him into a downward spiral of guilt and self-condemnation. Though he understood, conceptually, that sanctification was a process he condemned himself for an insufficient amount of progress. We spent some time, then, talking through the Bible’s teaching on sanctification. I noted with him in particular that the New Testament authors regularly give commands and correct sinful behavior precisely because Christians still struggle with sin (see my piece on sanctification here). We noted too that sanctification is a work of God in our lives, it’s not simply something we accomplish. Therefore change and growth come according to God’s schedule not ours. There are a number of passages that remind us that sanctification, though clearly involving our activity, is ultimately God’s work:

  1. We are to work, but ultimately it is God who works in us (Phil 2:12-13)

  2. God is the giver of true repentance (2 Tim. 2:25)

  3. We are being transformed in degrees by the Spirit (2 Cor. 3:18)

  4. The Lord makes us increase in holiness (1 Thess. 3:12-13)

  5. God is the one who sanctifies us completely (1 Thess. 5:23)

  6. Sanctification is by the Spirit (2 Thess. 2:13)

  7. God works in us that which is pleasing in his sight (Heb. 13:20-21)

  8. He who began a good work will see it through to completion (Phil. 1:6)

I urged Andre to see sanctification through God’s lens and not his own.

It was also evident, however, that Andre still viewed his good works as earning brownie points with God. He felt incredible, crushing guilt when he failed. This is not a hallmark of Christian faith, despite what critics say. Christianity is not about guilt, but about freedom. “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1). It was clear to me that Andre was not living in light of the gospel. It is absolutely true that we can displease God with our sinful choices as believers, that we can, as Paul says, offer our bodies to sin as “instruments of unrighteousness” (Romans 6:13). But it is also true that “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). We can displease God, we can tarnish His name in our witness, we can incur the consequences of our sinful choices, but we can never be separated from the love of God (Rom. 8:38-39). It is crucial that Andre see and understand that God began a work in us and He will keep at it until He finishes what He started (Phil. 1:6). It was also important that Andre begin to reevaluate the role of good works in his life.

Good works are not attempts to merit God’s favor, they are opportunities to demonstrate a changing life. I stressed for Andre that his view of good works made him his own savior, something God would not allow. I pressed on him the truth of the gospel: Christ has accomplished every good work for you, that you may stand guiltless before God. The reason he felt guilt, frustration, and anxiety was because he was using his good deeds, or attempting to use them, as a means to earn what He could not earn.

Guilt comes as we try to merit God’s love. When we try to build our relationship with God on the grounds of our accomplishments it leaves big gaping holes in our confidence. After all, our works are never perfect. I can’t stand with confidence on what I do because I will always be plagued by the doubt that I could have done more, or the doubt that I did these things with the wrong motives. Even my best works are tainted a little with sin. I am grateful that God delights even in these imperfect works and he sees them as evidence of my growth in godliness, but they in and of themselves will not grant me confidence that God loves me. What gives me confidence is God’s love for me in Christ. Christ’s work on my behalf is a solid resting place for my feet; everything else leaves me feeling guilty.

Frustration comes as we experience setbacks in our walk. Like Andre we will be disappointed in our growth if we are using it to try to merit God’s favor. I am still wrestling with sinful desires, still falling short, and often overlooking opportunities to do good. If I misuse my good works I will find myself frustrated that they aren’t producing more in me, garner more from God, or happening as consistent as I want them to. A little bit of frustration is good, it keeps us from becoming complacent. But misunderstanding the role of good works in my life will leave me in a place of constant frustration. A place that is not healthy for the believer.

Finally, anxiety arises as I come to realize the futility of trying to earn God’s favor. Christians struggle, it’s simply part of life. When I realize this I can tend towards despair. I become anxious of my relationship with God, doubting even my very salvation. Andre needed to be regularly reminded that his relationship with God was not dependent upon his work, but on Christ’s. He could begin to grow in obedience only as he stopped abusing obedience. Good works were never designed to merit favor or relieve guilt. They were designed to encourage believers, glorify God, and reflect Christ to the world. By looking to them to produce something else Andre was merely cultivating anxiety in his own heart.

It’s important that we remind ourselves regularly that we are not merely saved by grace, but we live in grace. The gospel fuels us to obedience because it frees us from the weight of trying to earn God’s favor and allows us the freedom simply to live in the light of it. We have God’s favor because of Christ’s work, and this can dramatically change how we view our lives before Him. Yes, we want to strive for obedience, it’s not irrelevant or tertiary in the believer’s relationship with God. But Christians can rejoice that God always accepts our obedience, as pathetic as it sometimes is, because we are in Christ.

Andre’s soaking wet clothes were a good illustration of how he was living. He was walking in the downpour going on in his life at that moment, letting his emotions wash over him. But he didn’t have to live that way, he had Christ’s righteousness to free him from guilt, and Christ’s power to help shape his obedience. He didn’t have to walk in the rain.

“Don’t you have an umbrella,” I asked him. “I do,” he said, “I just forgot it.”

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