One of the most persistent myths in the church today is the belief that salvation is God’s job and the Christian life is our job, as if the whole of the Christian life is something we do out of gratitude for getting to go to heaven when we die. Accompanying this myth are a whole set of cliches about how this works:
“God gave His commandments, now it is up to us to obey them.”
“Obedience is my responsibility, and I will be held accountable for how well I do.”
“Change comes from repenting and obeying God’s commands.”
“You need to be obedient whether or not you feel like it. Your heart will catch up later.”
“If you try to do the right things, the Holy Spirit will give you the strength to do them.”
Basically, the idea is that God has replaced the Old Testament Law with New Testament Principles. Our job as Christians is to try to live up to those principles. Failing to do so is disobedience, which must be dealt with by confession, repentance and a better resolve to be obedient. All of this is assumed to be self-evident from Scriptures about being obedience, of which there are many.
The problem, however, is that this teaching is precisely what the Pharisees taught. The theory is that you grow spiritually (that is, become a righteous person) by doing the right things. But changing the set of rules from Old Covenant Law to New Testament Principles fails to change the process by which we change. If it is up to me to become good by sheer resolve, then I am no different than a Pharisee trying to keep the law. God did not simply replace tablets of stone with New Testament writings. The truth is that no one kept the law well enough anyway, and the new principles Jesus taught are even more impossible to keep than the law was. Trying to live up to them is not only futile, it fails to address the basic issue — which is our inability to grow by trying harder.
But some will object, “We have the Holy Spirit to help us do those things.” Yes, we do have the Holy Spirit. And expecting Him to help us live better sounds really good. The problem is, that phrase only makes it harder to see the truth. It justifies our self-effort to try to live better, without really changing anything. In the first place, all we have to do is look around to see that this does not even work. No one we know is actually living up to the New Testament standards, so how is the Spirit helping? How is it that I can try really hard to forgive someone or to love an unlovable person, and God never does a thing to change my heart — I still hate them and cannot forgive them? Why do people struggle with sin, repenting over and over without ever seeing any help from God? Why do people limp along with wounds for decades, asking God to heal their heart, and nothing happens? Why do pastors burn out, when (according to this myth) all their effort should cause the Holy Spirit to help them do what they need to do?
If we are truly honest, this nice sounding phrase “God will help us if we try hard” is just so much self-deception. God is not interested in helping us live up to an external standard. He tried that already under the Old Covenant, and it clearly failed to change hearts. This is exactly why Paul was so vocal in his letter to the Galatians. “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being made perfect through human effort?” This is also what Jesus was talking about when he accused the Pharisees of “cleaning the outside of the cup.” Here’s the deal:
Whenever we try to follow external principles without first having been transformed, we are living by laws, not grace.
If “fake it until you make it” really worked, the Pharisees would have been stellar human beings. It doesn’t work, because it is living under law. In fact, if we practice faking it long enough, we may actually train ourselves to be good fakers and lose touch with our real feelings about things. As we practice saying “I forgive you” when we do not mean it, we may eventually have no difficulty at all mouthing the words and repressing our resentments to the point of being totally unaware of them. It’s more like, “fake it until you break it.”
Truth be told, there are two main reasons why this myth of self-effort persists in the church. First, so many of us have been raised in shame-based systems that the command to “behave yourself” sounds plausible to us. We borrow our social training and bring it into our spiritual process. But second, and most important, too few of us today have been taught how to receive from God what we need in order to be changed from the inside out. If you have ever been touched by God in a way that transforms your heart, then you know how this is possible. I think most Christians can identify with this experience at some point in their journey. But what so many do not realize is that we can learn how to engage with God in ways that allow this to become a common experience for us, not just a rare occurrence. Once we learn how to participate with God in ways that change our heart, everything we thought we knew about “obedience” makes no sense at all. “In the same manner in which you received the Spirit, so also continue to walk in Him” says Paul. We become Christians by coming to God and letting Him do in us what we cannot do. And we grow as Christians by coming to God and letting Him do in us what we cannot do. The rules do not change after we are saved. It is not up to us to be obedient to His commands. It is up to us to become apprentices of Jesus and to be mentored by the Spirit of God in ways that change our heart.
Only then will we be able to live out the principles, because God will have written them on our heart.