Friday, July 17, 2015

Performance vs. Grace: Is Your Best Good Enough?

The cure of all shame and insecurity is believing God fully accepts you in the Gospel - just as you are right now - and realizing He will never change His mind.
I mean to deal more broadly and deeply here with the problem I raised in the previous post. Let me start by making it clear that I do not believe obedience/works of faith are actually at odds with grace in Christian theology. What I mean by "performance vs. grace" is that this is how many Christians sometimes see their experience of faith. Sometimes they feel that they can never measure up to a standard of holiness and perfection, and therefore get depressed and discouraged by shame, or they feel that all the teachings of grace and forgiveness don't fit with the commands to do good works and to be holy. This leads to a creeping insecurity that we really aren't fully accepted by God unless we 'complete' our faith by getting really good at obedience. That's what Jerry Bridges calls "the performance trap." 

I know of no better or more encouraging antidote to this trap than The Discipline of Grace, which Bridges wrote to help Christians who want to accept the free grace of God, but feel burdened by their inability to meet our expectations of Christian behavior and holiness. If you've been weighed down by this burden as I have, I hope a very short unpacking of his solution will convince you to get this book and savor it. It is endlessly encouraging.

First, Bridges identifies the problem with the performance trap: Christians accept that we are saved and forgiven only by faith in Christ, and "readily acknowledge that we can never through our own obedience attain a righteousness that is sufficient for salvation. But then as believers we act as if we can live lives acceptable to God." In short, "we know God's blessings come to us through Christ, but we also have this vague but very real notion that they are also conditioned on our behavior." The trap is that we have separated 'salvation in Christ' from 'acceptance by God.' We have fallen into a misguided feeling that, although Christ fully and finally saved us from our sins and purchased our eternal life, we aren't completely acceptable to God or approved by God unless we perform well.

We have all felt this. Bridges proves it brilliantly by posing two scenarios that he calls the 'good day' and the 'bad day.' On the good day, you really keep the commandments visibly and you make a lot of time for the spiritual disciplines, and you feel good about your performance as a Christian. On the bad day, you neglect the spiritual disciplines, you don't do good things you think you should have done, and you feel inadequate as a Christian. Then a situation comes up where you need to rely on God's favor and help. Do you feel more confident that God will help you when you've had a good day? And on the bad day, are you hesitant and doubtful about whether God will help you?

Most Christians have to admit that, in daily life, their honest answers are yes and yes. Bridges found after asking this to numerous audiences that: "Invariably, about 80 percent indicate that they ... would be less confident of God's blessing ... at the end of a bad day than they would after a good one."

That is not how the Gospel works. The Gospel proclaims that we are not only saved from sin and death by the sacrifice Christ made, but we are also fully and absolutely accepted and loved by God through being clothed with the perfect righteousness of Christ. That's what the term 'justification' means. Salvation refers to our deliverance from sin and judgment, but justification refers to our receiving the acceptance before God that Christ Himself enjoys. "Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand[.]" (Romans 5:1-2). What we receive by faith is not just the removal of the negative consequences of sin, but the gift of the positive benefits of full acceptance by God. When you see "justification" in Scripture, that's the glorious and joyful news it should bring to mind.

This is the reason that the author of Hebrews exhorts us in Hebrews 4:14-16 and 10:19-22 to draw near to God's throne with complete confidence. We have nothing to be ashamed of in His presence, because He accepts us not on the basis of our own performance or 'goodness' but on the basis of Christ's holiness and perfection. Our problem is not whether we have favor or acceptance with God; the problem is in our perception of how God feels about us. Bridges declares: "This standing in Christ's righteousness is never affected to any degree by our good-day or bad-day performance. ... however, our perception of our standing before God will vary" based on how we feel about our own performance. But it shouldn't.

Bridges counters this perception by daily reminders of the Gospel. The Gospel is not just how we come to faith in Christ, but it is how we are sustained and kept in Christ (and in God's favor) each and every day. Bridges explains that many Christians stop thinking about the Gospel once they become believers, and start getting caught up with spiritual disciplines (which are essential) and the error that these disciplines improve our acceptance by God. But they don't. They improve our enjoyment of God, and they improve our fruitfulness for God in doing good, but our acceptance is never for one second dependent on how we perform or obey. In fact, Paul spells this out firmly to the Galatian church that had begun to believe their works made them more complete as Christians: "Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" No. Even miracles, Paul says, are works of the Spirit brought on by faith, not by performance. (Gal. 3:1-6).

The cure of all shame and insecurity is believing God fully accepts you in the Gospel - just as you are right now - and realizing He will never change His mind. The Discipline of Grace is one way to learn to believe this and to apply it every day. Don't approach your spiritual growth with uncertainty about how your Father feels about you. Pursue godliness with the security and assurance that your Father loves you completely and accepts you no matter how each day works out.

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