I last wrote for Everyday Exiles a few weeks ago. David repents of his sin in Psalm 51 with the plea, “take not your Holy Spirit from me,” and so I say to Chris Lawson, “take not my Monday post slot from me!” For my most recent post, I unloaded a nearly 2,500 word essay on the incompatibility of performance and the Gospel of Jesus Christ. No more than a week later, I faced a daunting reality – I recognized that the need to perform, to achieve, and to justify ruled every corner and crevice of my life. And, in irony, I realized that I wrote with such clarity on the topic because, well, I mastered performance as a means of justification.
I live from a works-based mindset. If my personal holiness rises to meet my standards, if my performance on the field satisfies me, if I feel well-liked, accepted, and respected, well, contentment fills my soul – a contentment with myself, rather than a satisfaction with God. My personal valuation falls subject to the mercy of my circumstances, and even more than that, my performance. Failure comes, and, by the mercies of God, it triggered a fall into a miserable state of self-loathing and the replacement, or substitution of, affections. Unable to dig myself out of such a pit, I knew I needed counseling and community to hold me up by the power of God.
Counsel and an introspection, guided by Robert Murray McCheyne’s wisdom, “For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ,” brought comfort and understanding. Submission to biblical teaching likewise. Now, I transcribed close to a two-minute excerpt from Tim Keller’s sermon “Justified by Faith.” I plead with you to read it, and consider the ways in which you seek to justify yourself. Ponder your motivations and your treasures that prompt your obedience and devotion to God. Examine your heart, and ask the LORD to search it. Invite him to expose sin and blow away the chaff. I will leave the rest to the Keller and the LORD.
“Paul actually goes so far as to say that God justifies the ungodly. And that means that when you are justified, when you are absolutely righteous and loved, absolutely accepted, in yourself you are absolutely unworthy, absolutely sinful – you’re ungodly. And therefore there is absolutely nothing in you that is the basis for this justification. Nothing!
Now, people have a lot of problems with that. They say, “I’ve gotta be good a little bit!” I had somebody once say to me, “If I really believe what you say – that salvation is absolutely by free grace – and I don’t have to be good at all, I don’t even have to screw my heart into a good state at all. If I believe what you believe, I have no incentive to live a good life.” And by the way, there’s plenty of people that have said that to me over the years. “If I really believed that I was totally saved and had nothing to do with how I lived, and it was completely free, then I’d have no incentive to live a good life.”
And here’s the proper response. If, when you lose all fear of punishment, you also lose your incentive to live a good life, then the only incentive you had to live a good life was fear. See, if you lose your fear, and you lose your incentive to be good, then the only incentive you had to be good was the fear. And here’s the ironic thing – the fear is selfish. Fear is always selfish. Because I might lose, this might happen, that might happen – I better be good! Well, what is goodness? Goodness is unselfish living, unselfish service to God, unselfish service to the poor, unselfish service to my neighbor. I’m scared that I might be lost unless I am good. And what is goodness? Being unselfish. But don’t you realize that is incredibly selfish? When you live a good life so that God will bless you and take you to heaven, it’s by definition not good, because it’s all for you. All of it’s for you – you’re not helping the poor, you’re not helping God, you’re helping yourself.
This is the reason why the Belgic Confession, an old Reformation document from the 17th century, puts it like this. “Far from making people cold toward living in a holy way, justifying faith so works within them that apart from it, they will never do a thing out of love for God, but only out of love for themselves or fear of being condemned.” Let me tell you what that is saying. If you think your good deeds are good – if you think your unselfish good deeds are good, they’re no good. In other words, if you think they’re good and therefore God owes you something, then they’re not good by definition – they’re not good by your own definition. Your selflessness is really selfishness.
But if you say, “My good deeds are worthless. I need to be saved by grace. I am saved by grace. Now I want to please God, I want to resemble God, I want to delight God, I want to get near to God – how do I do that?” By serving him. By serving other people. If you think your good deeds are good, they are no good. But if you think your good deeds are absolutely worthless and you are saved by grace, that makes your deeds good. So if you think they’re good, they’re no good. If you think they’re no good, they’re good. They start to get good. Because, you see, when you realize they’re worthless, and therefore you’re doing them just to please God, they’re actually for God. They’re actually for the person you’re helping.” (Timothy Keller, “Justified by Faith”)