We must remember, however, that the gospel is for sinners. Jesus said, “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance” (Luke 532). The gospel is meaningful for us only to the extent that we realize and acknowledge that we are still sinful. Although we are new creations in Christ, we still sin every day in thought, word, and deed, and perhaps even more important, in motives. To benefit from the gospel every day, then, we must acknowledge that we are still sinners.
Without a continual reminder of the good news of the gospel, we can easily fall into one of two errors. The first is to focus on our external performance and become proud like the Pharisees. We may then begin to look down our spiritual noses at others who are not as disciplined, obedient, and committed as we are and in a very subtle way begin to feel spiritually superior to them.
The second error is the exact opposite of the first. It is the feeling of guilt. We have been exposed to the disciplines of the Christian life, to obedience, and to service, and in our hearts we have responded to those challenges. We haven’t, however, been as successful as others around us appear to be. Or we find ourselves dealing with some of the sins of the heart such as anger, resentment, covetousness, and a judgmental attitude. Perhaps we struggle with impure thoughts or impatience, or a lack of faith and trust in God. Because we have put the gospel on the shelf as far as our own lives are concerned, we struggle with a sense of failure and guilt. We believe God is displeased with us, and we certainly wouldn’t expect His blessing on our lives. After all, we don’t deserve His favor.
Because we are focusing on our performance, we forget the meaning of grace: God’s unmerited favor to those who deserve only His wrath. Pharisee-type believers unconsciously think they have earned God’s blessing through their behavior. Guilt-laden believers are quite sure they have forfeited God’s blessing through their lack of discipline or their disobedience. Both have forgotten the meaning of grace because they have moved away from the gospel and have slipped into a performance relationship with God.
Most of us probably entertain either of these attitudes on different days. On a good day as we perceive it, we tend toward self-righteous Pharisaism. On a not-so-good day we allow ourselves to wallow in a sense of failure and guilt. In fact, it may be more than not-so-good days—it may be weeks or months. But whether it is weeks or days, the problem is the same. We have moved away from the gospel of God’s grace and have begun to try to relate to God directly on the basis of our performance rather than through Christ.
God never intended that we relate to Him directly. Our own performance is never good enough to be acceptable to Him. The only way we can relate to God is through the blood and righteousness of Jesus Christ. It is only the blood of Jesus that will cleanse us from a guilty conscience and give us the confidence to enter into the presence of God (Hebrews 10:19-21).
The gospel, applied to our hearts every day, frees us to be brutally honest with ourselves and with God. The assurance of His total forgiveness of our sins through the blood of Christ means we don’t have to play defensive games anymore. We don’t have to rationalize and excuse our sins. We can say we told a lie instead of saying we exaggerated a bit. We can admit an unforgiving spirit instead of continuing to blame our parents for our emotional distress. We can call sin exactly what it is, regardless of how ugly and shameful it may be, because we know that Jesus bore that sin in His body on the cross. With the assurance of total forgiveness through Christ, we have no reason to hide from our sins anymore.
“But,” you may be saying, “is it good to keep preaching the gospel to Christians who sin over and over again, who never seem to get their spiritual act together? Won’t this cause them to quit trying? Won’t they say, ‘What’s the use of struggling with my sin and lack of discipline? I’m forgiven anyway’? Don’t we need a little bit of performance mentality to keep a sharp edge on our Christian commitment? And besides, what about all those indifferent Christians who never struggle with their sin and lack of commitment to Christ? Won’t this emphasis on the gospel just harden them in their abuse of God’s grace, their attitude that ‘It doesn’t matter how I live because God loves me unconditionally’?”
Let’s consider the latter group of people first. It is true that God’s grace can be abused. Paul anticipated that possibility (Romans 6:1; Galatians 5:13), and Jude indicated it was already happening in the first-century church (Jude 4). But we cannot allow some people’s abuse of the truth to deprive us of its value to us, especially when that truth is so necessary to our Christian lives.
As to the first group—those who may be struggling with their sin and failure—the last thing they need is to have more guilt laid upon them. Few things cut the nerve of desire and earnest effort to change like a sense of guilt. On the contrary, freedom from guilt through the realization of forgiveness in Christ usually strengthens a person’s desire to lead a more disciplined and holy life. And it is this deepened desire that will lead to earnest prayer for the Spirit’s aid and a more diligent effort to pursue discipline and holiness.
Years ago I heard a godly minister say “Discipline without desire is drudgery” What is it, then, that sparks the desire in our hearts to lead a disciplined, godly life? It is the joy of knowing that our sins are forgiven, that no matter how much we’ve stumbled and fallen today, God does not count our sins against us (Romans 4:8).