Trusting in Jesus Christ isn’t a matter of being perfect, its a matter of being forgiven for being imperfect. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through Him. Whoever believes in Him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” (John 3:16-18)
Eternal life is free to all who trust in Jesus Christ. Jesus lived a perfect life on this earth and died on a cross for our sins. He was the prefect sacrifice, since the Bible says that the payment for sin is death and that “without the shedding of blood their is no remission of sin.” Not only did He die for our sins, but God actually raised Him back to life from the dead, having conquered sin and death. When a person trusts in Christ, he or she is declared right with God and is said to have peace with Him (Rom. 5:1). All because Christ’s work was perfect!
For the first year of my Christian life I enjoyed the knowledge of the grace of God, with no sense of responsibility to Him. I had trusted in Christ for my salvation, yet still lived for myself, engaged in the same activities that characterized my former life, including the drinking and drug abuse. I was thankful that Christ forgave me, but had not spent much time thinking about the course of my life.
God saves us just as we are, but He wants to transform us and bring us to a place whole-hearted, growing commitment to Him. Later in his letter to the Romans, the apostle Paul issues a challenge to those who have trusted in Christ: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.” (12:1) Considering all that Christ has given to you and I in His grace and mercy, the most reasonable thing we can do as believers in response is give our lives to Him.
The Possibility of Living for Self
When an unbeliever trusts in Christ for salvation, it is because he has agreed with God about his sin and need for salvation. This is a basic element of the gospel message. It may seem strange to some for this person, having agreed that his sin was a big enough deal for him to turn to Christ in faith, to then go on and live for self and continue in the sin that he earlier recognized was an issue.
However, though some deny this possibility in genuine believers, this is exactly the experience of some, if not many. We learn primarily from Romans 6 the truths of our freedom from sin’s mastery over our lives as believers. It is in this same passage that Paul challenges believers saying in light of their newfound freedom, “…do not let sin reign in your mortal bod to obey its lusts.” (6:12) Interesting. Why would he need to say that to believers?
Let’s examine two similar verses from the apostles Paul & Peter. Here is what Paul says to the Galatian believers, “For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” (5:13) Peter echoes the same when he says, “Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves to God.” (1 Pt. 2:16)
A few observations can be made from these verses. For one, both of them were written to believers. Paul called his audience “brethren” and Peter urges his readers to “Act as free men” which he would have no theological basis to do unless he believed they were in fact saved. Secondly, the very fact that both Paul and Peter are calling for believers to not use their freedom for evil assumes the possibility of such a response. If true believers could not (or would not) use their freedom for sin, than why the exhortation from these two great apostles? It would be meaningless.
The same rationale can be used for all of the exhortations that are given to believers in the New Testament. We are given commands because we need them. We are given commands because without them we would do what comes naturally to our old nature or is familiar: rebel. How many times have I needed to realign my life with the challenge for husbands in Colossians to “love [our] wives and not be harsh with them” (3:19)? Or to refrain from “filthiness, foolish talk and crude joking” (Eph. 5:4)?
What does using “freedom for evil” or “the flesh” include, though? To be sure, it includes all varieties of sinful behavior the Bible condemns. At the same time, it must even include a general sense of living for self, a life lived in independence from God. We don’t usually label this as “evil,” especially with people who live relatively moral lives, but in light of what God calls believers to, it should be deemed as fleshly.
It is clear that both the apostle Paul and the apostle Peter saw that the individual believer maintained the ability to choose to walk in the flesh; to do evil. It is possible for people who have sincerely trusted in Christ to abuse grace by using their newfound freedom in Him for sin and self. This is not God’s desire of course, but God has allowed it as a possibility, though with consequences.
If the pulse of the American church were taken, we would probably find a lot of believers generally living a pretty moral life of self interest with only a Sunday commitment to Christ. Some have gone to great lengths to argue that a less than committed believer is truly no believer at all, but in light of the verses mentioned above, as well as a myriad of other commands and challenges for believers, coupled with verses that clearly teach the freeness of grace, this need not be our conclusion. The reality is believers have the capacity to live for themselves.
The Opposite of Living for Self
Notice a final observation from our exhortation by the apostles: each consider the opposite of using one’s freedom for the flesh or evil as serving one another in love and serving God. “…only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Also, “…do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves to God.”
In Ephesians, Paul wrote, “For 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, so that no one may boast.” (Eph. 2:8-9) Paul goes on from this familiar passage to show that, “…we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.” (v. 10) Good works has always been the plan of God for believers, not as the way of salvation, but as the intended result of salvation and a natural part of new life in Him.
It is important to see that God has a plan for our lives here and now. If we limit our understanding of God’s salvation only to “going to heaven when we die,” than we misunderstand the grand scope that God has for our new lives in Him today, on this earth. We were meant for good works as God defines them.
Let’s talk about what this means.
In attempting to define good works as God defines them, I want to note what is not meant by “a life of good works.” Living a life of good works does not mean “a life of trying not to sin.” Some people behave as if the end goal in the Christian life is to be as “sin free” as possible as we await the afterlife. They engage in a life long battle of trying not to sin, and trying to live a relatively moral Christian life. For the Christian, the opposite of sin is not “not sinning,” but rather the opposite of sin is serving God and others in love as expressed by both Paul & Peter. It isn’t about how little you sin, its about how much you love. This is the big picture of what is meant by “good works.”
The Biblical concept of a life of good works is a life of sacrificial love for God and others, as detailed in the Scriptures and exemplified in the life of our Lord Jesus Christ. They are things accomplished in the name of the Son of God and through the power of the Spirit of God, all for the glory of God.
We should view good works as having their goal in seeing people come to know Him, trust Him and worshipfully obey Him. It means involvement in the work of making Him known on this earth, whether directly or indirectly. In other words: the greatest fulfillment of the Great Commandment (to love God & others) is engagement in the Great Commission (to make disciples), whether directly or indirectly. Or to put it even more simply: True love for others means involvement in making Christ known to them. This is true irregardless of location or official ministry titles.
Both the apostle Peter and Paul challenge believers to use their new lives for service to Christ, not for a life of sin and serving self.
On a practical note, its easy for me to see blatant sin as wrong, like stealing or lying, but its harder to look at my life and realize that as a general principle I am living for myself. Here is a question a lot of us Christians need to ask of ourselves: Are we preoccupied with making sure we are staying relatively morally pure, protecting ourselves and our families from the world’s influence while never really engaging in active, sacrificial love towards unbelievers in the name of Christ? If so, we need to broaden our perspective on what our lives on this earth were meant for and become engaged in what God wants to do in the world around us.
Some Consequences of Living for Self
Living for self has consequences. Of course, there are natural consequences for particular sins, such as jail for stealing or relational distrust for lying, etc. There are also relational consequences with God, since the Bible teaches that a person can’t live for sin and self and claim close intimacy with Him. (1 Jn. 1:6) There is even the possibility of divine consequences to the extent of possible physical death. (1 Cor. 11:30) The person living for self misses out on the enjoyment of fellowship with Christ and experiencing the abundant life here and now, which only comes from an intimate walk with Him resulting in obedience to Him. There is a deep satisfaction that comes with being engaged in serving Christ that is missed out on by those who live for self.
One consequence of living this life for self is loss of future reward for those who choose to do so. Listen to what Paul tells the Corinthians, “For no other man can lay a foundation other than the one which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if any man builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw, each man’s work will become evident; for the day will show it because it is to be revealed with fire, and the fire itself will test the quality of each’s man’s work. If any man’s work which he has built on it remains, he will receive a reward. If any man’s work is burned up, he will suffer loss; but he himself will be saved, yet so as through fire.” (3:11-15)
The fact is, God is going to reward faithfulness in this life. Some miss this point in scripture when they think that because all believers are equal in Christ, the idea of God rewarding faithful lives, while those who lived less than faithful lives miss out on potential reward, seems unfair. However, it is clear from many passages in the Scriptures that God is going to reward faithfulness in this life. The believer who chooses to live a life of self-centeredness now will suffer loss of reward later. They will not lose their salvation, but will miss out on future reward for a life lived in service to Him. Alternatively, those who choose to invest their lives in eternal things have the hope of one day hearing from their Savior, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”
- Though it is not always clear the nature of the believer’s future reward, the following passages are often used for development of the concept: Mat. 10:29-32, 19:27-28; Lk. 19:12-27; Jn. 10:10; 1 Cor. 3:11-15; 2 Cor. 5:10; 1 Thes. 2:19; 2 Tim. 4:8; Jam. 1:12; 1 Pet. 1:6-7, 5:4.
Living a self-centered life at the expense of God and others is costly. The thing that we need to know is that just because we maintain our ability to sin, or our ability to live for ourselves, doesn’t mean we have to, and before we choose to continue living for self, we should count the cost. As believers we have been freed from sin’s mastery over our lives (Rom. 6:18) and we have the Holy Spirit to enable us to live our new lives in Him (Gal. 5:16). Because of our new lives in Christ, we now have liberty to pursue a life of serving Him.
Let His Grace Change You
“…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord an Savior Jesus Christ.” -2 Peter 3:18
Grace is God’s free, undeserved kindness extended towards the objects of His love. It is freely given and when received needs to be accepted as a gift, not as a wage or reward. God loves us and has accepted us, not because we are awesome, but because Christ is perfect. This new life we now live, we live, not out of fear of His rejection, but out of gratefulness for His complete acceptance in Christ. Not only are we accepted, but in Ephesians we are told that we have been “blessed with every spiritual blessings…” Some of these blessings include the fact that we are forgiven, redeemed, lavished in His grace, loved, adopted, sealed, made alive, co-heirs with Christ, citizens of heaven, united with Him, passed from death to life, under no condemnation, free and complete. The list could go on of these blessings scattered throughout the New Testament. We are new people, with a new position and new freedom all because of God’s grace. Its all grace and nothing else.
Paul’s challenge to present our lives as sacrifices to Him in light of His mercy gives us insight into the role knowing, understanding and reflecting on His grace & mercy plays in our spiritual growth. Paul saw it as a motivator for a life of commitment and sacrifice.
From personal experience, I had a lot of misunderstanding about God’s grace as an unbeliever and as a young believer. Over the years since becoming a believer, I have continued to grow in my understanding of grace, and it has transformed my life. Check out this verse: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously and godly in the present age…” (Titus 2:12) God’s grace transforms lives, and this has been my personal experience.
I started my walk with Him with virtually no commitment to Him, but as I grew in my understanding of His goodness and grace it slowly began to change me. I found that I didn’t want to continue to engage in some of the behaviors of my old life and eventually I decided I wanted to serve Him with my life. This wasn’t because I was afraid of His wrath; it was because I was thankful for His grace and love. I wanted, and to this day still want, nothing more than to say thank you to God for His grace with my life, lived in service to Him. Nobody is twisting my arm. Its a meager attempt to say thank you for His grace.
As a matter of personal conviction, I feel strongly that failing believers should be dealt with on the basis of God’s grace and their acceptance in Christ, not manipulated into change or deeper commitment using fear tactics, such as the threat of “eternal insecurity” as an attempt whip nominal believers into shape. To be fair, the disciple maker should feel some sense of responsibility for the maturity of their disciples, like Paul did when he wrote, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” However, the responsibility one feels for the maturity of others under their care does not justify the use of fear or in some case manipulation to see results.
The fact is, all who have trusted in Christ are secure in Him on the basis of Christ’s work, not their own. We are saved by His grace, and kept by His grace because Christ’s work was perfect. The Christian life is a growing process as we change into Christlikeness and it is out of His mercy and grace that believers should be motivated to press on, not fear of potential rejection based upon poor performance. When we do so, we are essentially communicating that receiving eternal life is somehow contingent upon our performance or works, not grace. This might cause some to reform their lives, but in my opinion, it does not promote true and lasting transformation.
Alternatively, when we live every moment of our lives as conscious recipients of His undeserved kindness, it will transform us. Some are afraid that if grace is taught it will only lead to abuse, and it does in some cases. As we have seen, some choose to live for self. However, God’s free grace needs to always be taught because it is this very grace that, when grasped, truly transforms lives.
When lives aren’t being transformed, I tend to think it is not because people aren’t trying hard enough or committed enough; I think it is probably because the vastness of God’s grace isn’t being understood, embraced and appropriated enough.
No matter what, the challenge remains for all who have received God’s grace by trusting in Christ to continue to, “…grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord an Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18) and to, in light of His mercy, “present [our] bodies as a living sacrfifice.”