I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile.
The question the gospel stirs up for every soul is whether to earn or to receive. The Bible says plenty about both perspectives.
On the subject of “earning” it tells us to consider our ways in life, our thoughts and actions. “God is not mocked,” it says, “Whatsoever a man sows that shall he also reap” (Galatians 6:7). To know and obey brings rewards into our lives and to disobey brings problems. Obedience is encouraged for our benefit and for the work of God in the world. In order to do His will we must do His will, not merely know it or think about it.
On the subject of “receiving,” however, the Bible presents this as the response of faith to the gospel itself. The response to the gospel is about receiving first, then doing. It is more about becoming than pretending. It is about being touched by the power and love of God first, then touching others through our good works. Being a Christian is about being converted in our hearts through the power of God, and then as God works in us, as we receive, then we do. Our doing as followers of Christ does not amount to earning. We cannot earn our salvation. Salvation is always beyond our grasp, beyond our capacity to merit. All that we can do is to receive what God in Christ offers.
The phrase “to become a Christian” is not found in the Bible; we have created it to fit our own circumstances. The words from Jesus’ own lips most often used were “come,” “follow,” “repent,” and “believe.” All of these fit into the general description of receiving. If “becoming” is an appropriate word to use, then it is because of the power of God making us to become something that we cannot become in our own strength. No one “becomes” a Christian, a true follower of Christ, by his own determination and will. But neither is this done through hypnotism, where the inner self opts out of the experience entirely. We come to Christ and repent, believe, and follow.
John Newton, the old sea captain and former slave trader and reprobate became a believer and finally served as a pastor. He wrote many hymns but his best known by far is Amazing Grace. People loved to hear Newton preach because he spoke just like many of them felt. As he aged, as it will probably happen to you and me, he began to be more forgetful. One of his most famous statements when he was old was this: “I have forgotten many things, but I remember that I am a great sinner and that Christ is a great Savior.” In his autobiography he told a brief story of the turning point in his spiritual life.
He was sick during this time with a high fever, and as he said, “That put me on my back where God could reach me. He broke the pattern I was stuck in and brought me back to my senses.” Memories came back to his mind, memories of all the times he had tried and failed to be a good Christian, memories of the goodness of God and of his “wicked, ungrateful responses.” Then he wrote these words: “Weak and almost delirious, I got out of bed and crept to a secluded part of the island. There I had a freedom in prayer I had never had before. I made no more resolutions to be a better man. I simply cast myself on the Lord to do with me whatever He wanted. I did not have a shred of power to do anything right. All I could do was throw myself at His feet, receiving the good of Christ’s death for me in a way I had never done before. I prayed for His forgiveness and found the burden lifted from my conscience. Not only did my peace come back, but my health, too … I make that day as the turning point in my spiritual experience.”
The journey toward our spiritual maturity will take us over this ground many times – do I earn my blessings or do I receive God’s blessings? In some ways it seems like a bit of both, because we know that even non-Christians can have more blessed lives if they seek to be moral people. Yet the biblical perspective always emphasizes receiving over doing, that God is at work within us, and even our seemingly “good works” are the result of His work in our lives. Like John Newton, we will only have true peace and victory when we come to the end of our selves, cease trying to impress God with our good works, and come to Him in our weakness and need, pleading our guilt and our need of grace, and receiving His grace that Christ had purchased for us on Calvary.
My wife, Lana, mentioned to me today how she appreciated a chapter from a book by Gordon MacDonald, Ordering Your Private World, where he described the difference between “driven people” and “called people” in Christian service. The driven are those who from within their own personality and desires seek to accomplish something in life, and this may show up in the church or in Christian ministry. I have met many like this – mothers who have driving ambitions for their children to become world famous evangelists, wealthy entrepreneurs for Christ, or church elders and pastors. Growing up in such an environment can create a driven personality – someone who seeks to impose his (or her) will on others or to accomplish much in life. This is not all bad – it seems like most of the inventions and benefits we derive from modern living came through such driven people. Yet in the church, in ministry for both lay and vocational servants, we must emphasize the call of God.
It is this quality of certitude for which we seek when we compare driven persons and called persons. Driven people are confident they have that quality as they forge ahead. But often, at the moment when it is least expected, hostile events conspire, and there can be collapse. Called people have strength from within, perseverance and power that are impervious to the blows from without.
All believers are called by God in some sense, called to believe and follow Christ, and in that sense to serve Christ. None of us can opt for the sideline and leave the service to the “professionals.” We who are vocational ministers are also to equip believers to serve the Lord. I have seen driven persons hang onto church positions stubbornly, unwilling to release them into God’s hands. Their specific church position was dearer to them than the ministry and sense of call itself. They could not look beyond the structure or specific job they held because they had either never been called or had neglected the sense of calling.
The driven person is earth-bound, linked to institutions, positions, and organizations on earth. The called sense the upward call of God in Christ, that transcends time and space on this earth. They often come from humble backgrounds. Herbert Butterfield wrote these words,
Both in history and in life it is a phenomenon by no means rare to meet with comparatively unlettered people who seem to have struck profound spiritual depths … while there are many highly educated people of who one feels that they are performing clever antics with their minds to cover a gaping hollowness that lies within.
God forbid that a “gaping hollowness” might dwell within our hearts, that only self-will and human determination might empower our service and Christian walk. Whatever is accomplished by mere human determination, by merely “clever antics,” even if they own the name of Christ, is temporary and fleeting.
The called know the grace that is bestowed by mercy, the Lord who dwells within, and the life that is empowered by God. This is freedom: Receive and, then in God’s power, do!
Lord, in weakness and doubt, scarred by temptation’s victories over our old nature, we come to You. We plead our guilt and our weakness and ask for Your mercy and grace. Cleanse us and empower us and build us up for Your purposes. Amen.