I am reading a very moving autobiography by Joe White entitled Bury Me In Montana. It’s especially intriguing because many of the events took place in Northwest Montana and some of the names are familiar ones to us, though we have never met Joe. His family moved many, many times during the first 10-12 years of Joe’s life, as his dad, who was an abusive alcoholic, bounced from job to job. Joe’s dad was an avowed atheist but his mom saw to it that the children attended Sunday school at the church nearest our home, wherever they lived and whatever the denomination–so long as it was Protestant.
At a summer Bible school in Whitefish, at age 10, Joe knelt at the altar and gave his heart to Jesus. But, whether the church he was attending at the time had some non-biblical beliefs or whether Joe misinterpreted what they taught, he vowed at the time of his salvation to “become so pure of heart and such a perfect Christian that God could not help but answer my prayers.” But, because his dad continued to drink and to be abusive towards his family, Joe assumed that God had not answered his prayers because of sin in his own life, so, for the next eight years, he strove harder and harder for perfection, trusting that then God would surely answer his prayers.
His prayers for God to change his father continued through their years in Whitefish (1948-1952), their move to Sunburst and on to Sweet Grass in 1953. Joe’s misunderstanding of the grace of God and the fact that it isn’t our performance that solicits that grace, led to some obsessive compulsive behavior. First, he decided that God wanted him to clean up the town of Sweet Grass so for more than two years he picked up every piece of litter he could find and put it in a trash can. Secondly, because his hands would get dirty from the filthy trash, he began to wash his hands every few minutes at home and as often as he could manage at school. Then he was also afraid that he might accidentally tell a terrible lie, so he began saying a silent “maybe” at the end of everything he said.
People obviously started noticing and commenting on his strange habits. Now he battled in his mind over what to do. He had done these things in his striving for perfection, which he concluded was impossible to achieve. He decided to stop his aberrant behavior and found that habits were much harder to break than to form. He also realized that his sin was not the cause of his father’s drinking problems and domestic violence.
Joe’s thinking that he had to perform in a certain way to “get on God’s good side” and see his prayers answered, unfortunately isn’t all that unusual for Christians. Far too many times we think that if we will do or not do certain things we will receive more of God’s grace, like He is obligated to respond to us when we act in a certain way or perform certain rituals. It is all over a misunderstanding of what God’s grace is all about. As Paul wrote to the believers at Ephesus, he reminded them that it is “by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast” (Eph. 2:8,9). There is absolutely nothing we can do to merit our salvation. It is totally–even our faith–by the grace of God.
But, what about subsequent to our trusting Christ for eternal life? Don’t we have to perform then in a certain way to stay in God’s grace? Well, take a look at what the Apostle Paul wrote to the churches of Galatia who were struggling with their liberty in Christ, thinking there were things they needed to do to assure their salvation, like being circumcised. Paul wrote: “You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you….did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Gal. 3:1-3). “It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal. 5:1). Paul wrote a similar thing in Colossians, saying, “As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him…See to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deception, according to the tradition of men, according to the elementary principles of the world, rather than according to Christ…For…in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority” (Col. 2:6-10).
Obviously we receive Christ by faith, so we are also to walk by faith–not by works. Oh, we are saved to work, but that work is the ministry of the Holy Spirit in and through our lives, not our striving in the flesh towards being a perfect Christian. First, we cannot, in our own strength, perfect ourselves, and secondly, it is not the means of entering into the grace of God. We did that when we put our trust in Christ for salvation. We entered into God’s family as an adult son, and became heirs of God, joint heirs with Christ (Ro. 8:17). We are complete in Christ (Col. 2:10), have been “blessed with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). We are blessed because of what Christ has done, not because of how well we do. Paul goes on to speak of God’s grace, “which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved” (v. 6). Now, it is true that when we obey God’s Word through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit, we experience in a very real way the grace that we have in Christ, but it is all because of Him, not because we are worthy. It’s easy for us to think that because today we read our Bible, memorized a verse and witnessed to someone that God will really listen to our prayers. There were those in Jesus’ day who thought that way too. They were called Pharisees, and Jesus had some not very nice things to say about them, like calling them “white washed tombs full of dead men’s bones,” and “hypocrites.” We can pray because we have an Advocate in the person of our Lord Jesus Christ, the “Mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave Himself as a ransom for all” (I Tim. 2:5,6). The author of the Hebrews, wrote this great statement: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. LET US THEREFORE DRAW NEAR WITH CONFIDENCE TO THE THRONE OF GRACE, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16).
It was hard for us to accept that we had to be saved solely by grace, totally apart from the works of the Law. And it is equally hard for us to accept that we live in grace the same way. It is not by striving in the flesh for perfection, but by a daily walk of trusting and obeying through the power of the indwelling Christ. “I can do all things THROUGH CHRIST who strengthens me” (Phil. 4:13). You’ve been set free from the bondage of sin, Satan and self. Don’t put yourself back under the yoke of the Law by striving for perfection. Rather, “Walk by the Spirit, and you will not carry out the desire of the flesh” (Gal. 5:16).