In order to stand before God, it is necessary that we meet His holy standard of perfection. This standard of perfection was set forth in God’s law, particularly in the Old Testament. This is a weight and burden when laid at the feet of men, and when men believe to have fulfilled the law by their fleshly striving, they boast in themselves, and when they fail they attempt to make the wrong right by working morally to make it so. Did not the history of Israel prove the very fact that man, even when God Himself revealed Himself to him, always turns from Him to his idols and sin? Israel failed over and over again and made it clearly known that man is infinitely incapable of fulfilling the law of God. So what’s the point of the law?
Isaiah 64:6 shows our problem to be even worse though, and it is very clear that even when man performs his best moral duties, even externally fulfilling some of these laws, those very righteous acts are like filthy rags before the presence of God. Like filthy rags! Who would ever take filthy, oily car-engine rags as a ransom for a bad deed done against someone? It’s like someone killing your entire family and in jail they say, “Here you go, I know I killed your family, but I just thought this might make it up to you. Here’s my ’67 Mustang engine rags.” Would this not infuriate you even more? And how much moreso with the God of the universe do we infuriate Him with our so-called “righteous acts?” His righteous anger against sinners is like nothing we’ve ever seen.
So with the weight of the law given to us, and our infinite inability to fulfill the law laid at our feet in Scripture, what hope do we have that we’ll ever escape God’s wrath? Absolutely none, except one way: faith alone in Christ alone. The law in and of itself is not a bad thing (Romans 7) because it’s God’s written standard for how we should live. The problem is that in and of ourselves, we could never even begin to come close to fulfilling the law in such a way that we could justly stand before God without being obliterated by His holy, just, righteous wrath. The gap between man and God is infinite. How arrogant is it of man that he would ever think he could fulfill the law of God perfectly? It’s comparable to attempting to swim across the Pacific Ocean while you are still tied to a post on a dock. It’s an impossible task for man! And so through the law itself, no one is ever saved. So what was the point of the law? Why would God give it at all to begin with? To point out our inability and failure to meet God’s righteous requirement, but then ultimately to point to the One who would fulfill the law for us: Christ Himself; in order that we might not rely on ourselves for anything, but in the Savior, the Messiah.
I would venture to say every religion in the world (except true authentic, Gospel-centered Christianity) puts this burden upon the shoulders of men, that they must fulfill this or that deed in order to obtain a good outcome. Even the Catholic church does this; and in fact, they’re guilty of a greater error because they confess Christ’s death and resurrection and think they still must please God with their works; as if the infinitely worthy blood of Christ, the death and resurrection of the Son of God, were not enough of a payment for sin! In some far east religions (such as Buddhism and Shintoism), when the followers have not morally performed as they ought, will walk on their knees, making them seriously bloody and infected, sometimes for days until their wrong has been atoned for by their works. Specifically within our country, the conservative leans toward the legalistic mindset and says, “You have to do this in this particular way, or else,” and there is a lack of compassion towards law breakers, to rehabilitate them. But then the liberal mindset comes along and says, “All that matters is that you love others and this is what justifies you.” But all of these mentioned systems and religions err on the side of moralism, just like every single religion in the world. All of them say you have to do something in order to be made right before God, before your own eyes, or before someone else. This is the natural tendency of man to default into moralism; and religion after religion after religion teaches this. No wonder there are many people that are just totally turned off from any religion at all. What a burden laid on people!
So what’s the answer? As I stated at the beginning, the law, in and of itself is good because it’s God’s perfect standard of righteousness given to men. But we cannot bear the load. Instead, what God did for us, knowing we could never fulfill the law and would never turn to Him on our own (mainly because our desires, will, everything is in chains and bondage to sin), is He sent His own Son into the world as a human: Jesus Christ. He is the Messiah that can rescue us from this hopeless plight. He sweat, He hungered, He walked the road marked with suffering, and was tempted in all things just as we are, and yet He was without sin. Christ fulfilled the law, and did what we humans could never do, on our behalf! And the very thing that God demands of us (perfect conformance to His righteous standard), is the very thing He gives us in Christ. And this includes not only the fulfillment of the law on our behalf, but also includes the very gifts of faith and the granting of repentance we need in order to believe in Christ that we may be saved (not that repenting of sin saves you, but it’s the natural out-flow of true authentic, God-wrought faith). So the very thing God commands us (i.e. fulfillment of the law before the Father, faith in Christ to be saved), He freely gives to us as a result of the work of Christ. God doesn’t believe for us, we ourselves do or do not believe in Christ, but He alone makes us willing to believe; a gift of the grace of God itself, through the cross.
Do you see a theme here with God, that everything comes from Him and is for Him and His glory? Everything we have is ours because of Christ’s work on the cross, including our faith and the ability to believe, results of the work of Christ on the cross at Calvary. God granting the ability to see Christ as Lord and Savior is the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. “Unless a man is born again, He cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (John 3:5-6) Even the conviction of a sinners’ heart for their wickedness is the work of the Holy Spirit, giving the sinner eyes to see and ears to hear. Just as God spoke creation into existence from nothing, so also He makes men alive and able to believe in Him by speaking a word into their hearts and creating something within them that wasn’t there: a desire, love, and hunger for God. “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” (John 15:5b) What are the implications of this? Well, salvation and the granting of mercy isn’t dependent on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy (Romans 9:16). You must come to a complete end of yourself, give up on your filthy rags that only infuriate God more. You, in and of yourself, have nothing to offer God, as if He needs anything from anyone (Romans 11:34-36). Come empty handed and throw yourself at the feet of the sovereign Lord who grants salvation to those who ask for it in faith. If you do not believe in Christ alone through faith alone, you will not be saved, none of these blessings apply, but rather the wrath of God still remains on you, even now. That is hard to hear, but it’s the truth.
Salvation is totally dependent on God, from alpha to omega. God has truly said that anyone who comes to Him He will not cast away, and that’s true. But in and through the person crying out to God for mercy is the Holy Spirit going before that person, working in him, and thus making him able and willing to believe … because, as Jesus said, “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” We are so totally dependent on God, we cannot even begin to understand this until we see that even our ability to believe and repent of sin is dependent on God granting mercy and changing our sinful nature to do those things! All glory then rightfully goes to God and we can hold none for ourselves (as we are naturally prone to do).
In the life of a Christian who has been saved for a number of years though, the same thing applies. There is no difference. The Gospel is not only the thing that saves you, but it is also the very thing that progressively changes you. Or to put it in simple theological terms: The Gospel not only justifies you (Romans 3:21-26), but also sanctifies you (Hebrews 9:11-14). We shouldn’t say, “Alright, now I’m saved, now I have to get up and get some things done for God.” I promise you, you will wear out really fast if you approach your walk with Christ like this, because where does your strength come from in this line of thought? Yourself. But what have we already established? “Apart from Me, you can do nothing.” We are totally reliant upon God for all things pertaining to salvation and our relationship with Christ. He must change us, we cannot change ourselves. Nor can we change others. Only the Holy Spirit can change the disposition of people’s hearts.
“Moralistic-duty teaching” is the approach of a majority of pastors in their preaching within the modern church, and they replace the daily application of the Gospel in the life of the believer with moralistic, worldly, pagan teaching that leaves the sinner dry, and with no hope. Simply telling a congregation, “Okay, now that you are saved, here is 10 steps on how to do this and that for God. Now get up and get it done!” That’s just another burden being laid at people’s feet that they can’t bear, and once again, these preachers return to the law instead of the Gospel. And more specifically, in and of ourselves, we can’t even do those things the preacher is telling us to do anyway. How defeating is that? Where is the power of God in a moralistic message? How is that good news to the ears of a believer deeply struggling with sin as it is? That’s just more weight on top of weight! And thus the believing sinner fails to grow in the knowledge of the grace of Christ that changes them, sanctifies them.
So what’s the approach in preaching and teaching? What is it believers need to hear (and unbelievers for that matter)? The pure Gospel. Over and over and over again. Every Sunday, at every Bible study. Personally, we must preach the Gospel to ourselves continually, lest we forget our standing and position before God, that we’re absolutely unworthy of God’s grace in the cross at all, but that before the Father we appear as Christ appears: pure and spotless. We need to understand and know what the implications of Christ’s death and resurrection is for us in order to be sanctified and changed, conformed to Christ. Because of our natural tendency to fall back into moralistic thinking every day, even after being saved, we must constantly preach the Gospel to ourselves and others and be freed from the hamster wheel of moral works, of thinking we have to please the Father more than Christ has already pleased Him for us. In 2 Peter 3:18, it says, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” And I simply like to put it this way: The more you understand and appreciate what took place at Calvary on your behalf from Scripture, the more you cannot help but be changed by Christ’s work on the cross. True life-change comes from understanding Christ’s work on the cross on your behalf, growing in that godly knowledge, and through understanding, having your heart and mind changed to love God more, know Him more, and in this find strength and power to do the very thing God commands of us. And the more and more you see His beauty, His worth, His lovliness, His passion for His glory, His love for you in the cross, the more you cannot help but be changed and are then given the strength and desire (by the work of the Holy Spirit alone) to live a life worthy of the Gospel of Christ. What God demands of us, He freely gives us in Christ through the work of the Holy Spirit; and through the grace that comes streaming from the cross of Christ, we see that the very strength and power to live a life for Christ, comes from Christ Himself, not from ourselves in any manner! We are in total absolute dependence on Christ for salvation and for life-change, and not one hint of this work in our lives can be attributed to our moral working or running. It is All of Grace! Praise God for the work of Christ to bring redemption to His people!