Can Trying Hard to Be Good Separate us From God? #277

Happy and blessed Tuesday to you, dear friends! As always, we have some fascinating Bible passages to read and discuss today, including 1 Kings 1 (will it be less violent than 1st and 2nd Samuel??) as well as Psalms 80, Ezekiel 32 and Galatians 5. Oddly enough, our Galatians 5 passage might be the most violent passage today, for reasons we will see in a moment. One note: I want to direct your attention to Psalms 80 today. We aren’t using it as our main focus passage, but I do believe the Psalms serve a wonderful purpose of training believers how to pray to God and how to worship God. As we have mentioned many, many times before, the Psalms are very authentic, and sometimes just plain raw, and the prayers of the Psalmists very often don’t pull any punches at all. For instance:

Lord God of Armies,
how long will you be angry
with your people’s prayers?
You fed them the bread of tears
and gave them a full measure
of tears to drink.
You put us at odds with our neighbors;
our enemies mock us.
Restore us, God of Armies;
make your face shine on us, so that we may be saved.

Psalms 80:4-7

So – pray with humility, pray with respect, pray with reverence and awe – absolutely…but also pray with raw emotions and the deepest of questions – it is a most biblical thing to do.

As I have mentioned before, back in 2005, the church I was on staff with opened a coffee house/ministry center/computer repair shop called Elevation on the south side of Birmingham, in one of the busiest and most hopping places in the downtown area. Very often we would go out and engage people in spiritual conversations – asking them if we could pray for them, asking them their beliefs, and seeking to share Jesus with them. Because this was right in the middle of the Bible belt, most of the people – even those who were drunk and/or high – would profess to be  believers in God, and probably saw themselves as Christians. One line I heard more often than any other was a variant of, “I am trying to be a good person.” I am sure that many of the people who said that were being sincere, and I imagine some were not, but I heard that particular line so many times. Galatians 5 is a perfect passage to share with people who are somewhat religious – believers in God, more or less, but not at all followers of Jesus – not saved by Him, not washed in His blood, not believers in the gospel. Let’s read Galatians 5 and then discuss.

Paul doesn’t pull any punches to all who would seek to gain entry into Heaven by believing in God, and ‘trying to be good:’

You who are trying to be justified by the law are alienated from Christ; you have fallen from grace.

Galatians 5:4

Specifically, Paul is speaking of the Galatians’ attempt to please God by having faith in Christ AND trusting in following the Jewish Old Testament, particularly circumcision, to receive salvation. This is NOT the way!

But…so many people – especially people in the more religious parts of the country – follow this way to be saved. I honestly believe that the broad way that Jesus warns against is some form of earning God’s approval by works + being a ‘decent’ person + believing in God.

13 “Enter through the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and there are many who go through it.14 How narrow is the gate and difficult the road that leads to life, and few find it.

Matthew 7:13-14

Most people, especially people that grew up in a fairly churched area, know they aren’t quite good enough to please God, but they also believe that they are better than a few dozen other people that they know (who in their mind are the real scum of the Earth) and they imagine that God will allow them in, because there are so many other people out there who are much worse. It is almost like a version of the old bear joke – two friends encounter an angry bear, and one says, “I don’t have to outrun the bear, I just have to outrun you.” Many people know they aren’t saints, but they are good enough to outrun others, so they think that will be good enough for God.

The problem is, of course, that entrance into Heaven doesn’t work that way. God doesn’t take the top 35% of people, and leave the other 65% for hell. If you are a listener to this podcast, I know you are aware of that, but please understand that so many of your friends that are at least a little religious on the surface – they have an attitude about Heaven and eternity that is much like that. I believe in God, and I pray sometimes, and I’m probably good enough to make it into Heaven. These people are on the BROAD road that Jesus speaks about, and that road leads to destruction.

Unfortunately, very often when people are confronted with being on the wrong road, they are confronted by Christians that aren’t sharing the good news – salvation by grace alone through faith alone by Christ alone…instead, they are confronted by Christians sharing a moralistic gospel. A drunkard is told he must stop drinking to get to Heaven. A sexual sinner is told to repent in order to go to Heaven. That sort of thing. It is true, of course: drunkards won’t make it into Heaven, neither will sexual sinners, the angry, the idolaters, sorcerers, the promiscuous, those who hate, those who cause dissensions. All of these are the works of the flesh, says Paul in Galatians 5…but the gospel isn’t merely that you must stop being angry, or stop hating, or stop being promiscuous – the gospel is that Jesus died for you so turn from your sins and turn to Jesus, and He will save you. Apart from the new heart that is transformed and washed by the Spirit of Jesus – then nobody can permanently change their behavior. Let’s close by hearing how John Piper expresses this truth:

Behold I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you. And I testify again to every man who receives circumcision, that he is under obligation to keep the whole Law. You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace.

Three observations: 1) If you want to claim that your partial lawkeeping in, say the act of circumcision, is part of your justifying righteousness, then you have to realize that you are indebted to keep the whole law (verse 3). If you want to provide any of your righteousness as the basis of your right standing with God, you must provide all of it. That is what it means to be “under law.” Christ did it. We can’t. We need his righteousness, not ours.

2) In verse 4 “seeking to be justified by law” is the same as “wanting to be under law” in 4:21. That is, wanting to be “under law” is the same as wanting lawkeeping to be part of our righteousness before God. That is what “justified by law” means.

3) If you try to provide any or all of your own righteousness before God, Christ will be of no advantage to you. Verse 2: “If you receive circumcision, Christ will be of no benefit to you.” In other words, Christ will be all your righteousness or none of it. If you try to provide some of your righteousness alongside Christ’s righteousness as the ground of your justification, you nullify grace (Galatians 2:21). Or, we could say, you are not “under grace.”

What it means, then, to be “under grace” is that Christ is all our righteousness for justification. We receive it in him as a gift by grace through faith alone. And the opposite is being “under law,” which means that Christ is not our righteousness for justification, but lawkeeping is….

“You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by law; you have fallen away from grace.” If you take upon yourself the yoke of the law and aim to use it to achieve your own righteousness before God, you have submitted to a yoke of slavery and are not standing in the freedom for which Christ freed you. Or to use the words of the verse: your relation to Christ is nullified and you no longer benefit from grace. What this verse teaches, then, is that the experience of freedom, including the freedom of eternal life, can only be enjoyed as we depend on the grace of Christ. Slavery is what happens when you fall away from the power of grace. The key to freedom is to keep depending on grace.

But what is grace? Grace is the powerful work of God which he exerts freely for you in your present life. You’ve heard the acronym: G.R.A.C.E.—God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense. That is excellent. But to remind us that grace is also God’s action for now, here is another acronym: G.R.A.C.E.—God’s Rescuing And Caring Exertion. For example, in 1 Corinthians 15:10, Paul says, “I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God which was with me.” Grace is God’s exertion in our lives to help us. Another example is Romans 5:21, “As sin reigned in death, grace also will reign through righteousness to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.” Grace is like a powerful king who exerts his reign in the lives of Christians.

John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (1980–1989) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2007).

John Piper, Sermons from John Piper (2000–2014) (Minneapolis, MN: Desiring God, 2014).

So – can trying hard to be good separate us from God? It can when we trust in OUR goodness and OUR good works to save us, rather than the fully completed Work and Righteousness of Jesus.


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