After I wrote The Offensiveness of Christ’s Blood, I was reading in I John 3, and how to know the difference between who is or isn’t a legit child of God. Basically, according to I John, if one practices righteousness, one is a child of God. If one practices lawlessness (sin), one is not a child of God.
Right, I thought. But a Mormon, for example, doesn’t believe Jesus is the Son of God, and of course Jesus says He is God, and that nobody will come to the Father but by Him. And yet, frankly, some Mormons, to my naked eye that sees only the outward appearance, seem to live the Christian life better than some non-Mormons who claim to be Christian.
Made my brain hurt, but I meditated on the passage a little more, and asked God to clarify. Romans says that there is none righteous, no not one. Meaning, no one is righteous on account of his or her own merit. The only person who can call himself righteous is Christ, and the person who has accepted Christ as their Savior and can therefore claim Christ’s righteousness as their own. Those who have done so are clothed in Christ’s righteousness, because Christ has imputed His righteousness to them. Righteousness is a gift given by God, through His Son, Jesus Christ. And any works of righteousness done by a person who has not accepted Christ as God in the flesh, cannot be truly righteous in the Biblical sense of the word.
Clearly, an unsaved person can do a good work. Someone who does not know Christ can perform open heart surgery, give a box of canned goods to the poor during Thanksgiving, or help change a stranded woman’s tire on the side of the road. But it is not the outward work that deems one righteous. It is the inward regeneration of the heart that deems one righteous, and of course, only God can regenerate a heart.
So let’s go back to our Mormon friend. We’ll call her Sandy. Sandy does many good works, for which we are grateful. But when Sandy dies, God will want to know why He should allow Sandy into His kingdom. If Sandy is a die hard Mormon, she will not have a good answer. Because if Jesus isn’t God, and if Jesus isn’t needed for Sandy’s righteousness, then Sandy has just picked the one show down she will never win. She cannot stand before a holy God who will not and cannot allow sin into His kingdom, and expect to live with Him eternally. The only answer Sandy could give that would allow passage into Heaven is to confess to God that she has no righteousness of her own, and that Jesus is her only righteousness.
Ephesians 2:8-9 says For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not of your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast.
If Sandy came before God having done more good works than say, her neighbor Fred, who is a legit Christian, it’s not going to help her case. The problem is, she would be boasting in her works rather than trusting in the work of Christ for her salvation. Say Fred is a bit of a loser in that he struggles with self-focus and laziness. But if he’s a legitimate child of God, eternally speaking, he’s better off than Sandy, simply because he relies on nobody but Christ to save his soul and be his righteousness. Granted, if Fred consistently practices sin, as I John 3 says, we can assume his faith is not genuine. A true Christian will not make it a habit to sin, and if he does, he will be chastened by God, in God’s timing, and in God’s good judgment as to how that chastening should look. But the point is, Sandy, though she appears more righteous than Fred, is not capable of committing true acts of righteousness.
We all deserve Hell. We have all come short of the glory of God, meaning, we have all missed the mark of righteousness, meaning we have all sinned (Rom. 3:23). None of us are righteous. Our hearts are only evil continually (Gen. 6:5). Truly, we are born into this world in a terrible predicament. We are born fallen, and yet will one day appear before a holy God. Holiness, fundamentally, is a cutting off or separation from what is unclean, and a consecration to what is pure. God cannot and will not allow sin into His Heaven.
To use a current buzzword, perhaps God’s way seems intolerant. And that’s right. It is intolerant. But God is God, and as such, He gets to make the rules, since that is in part the very nature of being God. Another part of His nature is that He is the Creator and we are the created, which also makes us subordinate … and in desperate need of mercy.
Intolerance and subordination. These are words that make us gasp. They are offensive to us. Most of us want God to be whatever we want Him to be. We view love as tolerance, and if someone loved us, surely they would not wield any power over us or expect of us anything that does not make us “happy.” Or withhold anything that we think would make us “happy.” Unfortunately, in our fallen state, we don’t even know what makes us happy. However, our Creator does:
Happy is the man whose God is the Lord. (Ps. 144)
Not happy is the man who works hard at self-righteousness so he can earn his way into heaven. Not happy is the man who resorts to self flagellation to prove himself worthy of God, or to offer penance. Not happy is the man whose god is Joseph Smith. Happy is the man whose God is the Lord. The beauty of the Gospel is that Christ has already done the work. He was nailed to a cross. Beaten to a pulp. Mocked. Spit on. Speared. Donned with a crown of thorns. And killed. He was also innocent. Perfect. Sinless. But He took upon himself the sins of the world, and He did it so you and I might have a way out of the exhausting, never-ending attempts our hearts and bodies make to justify ourselves before Him.
The human heart is stubborn and desires to earn its own way. In short, we are a prideful people. But Proverbs says that pride leads to destruction. That’s a truth useful for living, but also for dying. We can embrace pride and perish. Or we can renounce self-righteousness, accept Christ’s righteousness for our own, and live eternally in the light of God’s light, presence, love, mercy, grace, and holiness.
I’ve picked on Mormons today, but we all struggle with trying to earn our own way. After thirty-four years of being a child of God, I still catch myself trying to earn His favor by doing good deeds. But as it says in the book of James, faith is what pleases God. Yes, faith without works is dead. We can’t say we have faith, and have no works to prove it. Legitimate faith, at some point, always produces works. Works without faith, though, can never be counted to us as righteousness.
In closing …
Relying on our own self-righteousness is futile and fatal. Our only hope in this life or the next is to rely on Christ’s righteousness.
How do you know if you’re a child of God? I’ll answer your question with a few questions:
1. Do you practice lawlessness?
2. In what or whom are you placing your hope and trust?
As for me … well …
My hope is built on nothing less
Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness;
I dare not trust the sweetest frame,
But wholly lean on Jesus’ name.
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand,
All other ground is sinking sand.