Once there was a great music teacher who only took a few of the most gifted and promising students. One of his students was a very disciplined young man, hard-working and eager to please. He had not at first wanted to play, but he realized it was something that pleased his mother, and because he desired to please her, he worked at his studies very hard. Every morning he would wake before dawn, practice his scales and finger exercises, and slowly perfect certain passages in the grand classic he happened to be working on. All marveled at his dedication and devotion. In the evening, when others of his peers played outside, he again pulled out his metronome and worked at perfecting the most difficult passages.
The great teacher recognized his discipline and talent. There was technicality and even a clean perfection to his playing that was rare.
The great teacher had another student who was also quite gifted. Although his parents balked at the trouble and time and expense of bringing their son to the lessons, he begged them and insisted against their wishes that he be allowed to take lessons. He too woke up, and from an instinctive and raw appetite he played every chance he could get. He imitated songs he liked from movies and recordings from all styles, and was constantly making up songs and trying his hand at everything he heard. In fact, often his parents would argue with him to stop playing so much because his obsession was intrusive and bothersome. His obsession was anything but discipline, because he would often ignore his other chores and duties, even his personal hygiene, in his insatiable need to constantly play music.
In the lessons, the teacher had trouble getting this other student to discipline himself to practice the finer points of playing more difficult passages. However the music teacher was gracious enough to realize that a different approach must be taken to lead this student to greatness. In fact, although in certain ways this student’s playing was undisciplined and even a bit sloppy, there was a joy and life to his playing which hinted of true greatness. There was a truth and presence and ease to his playing, a natural musicianship that was indefinable.
The disciplined student went on to a prestigious music academy, where he played Mozart and Bach at music juries where teachers scribbled criticisms as he played. He did indeed receive the highest grades. Occasionally he played at recitals, and eventually he became a piano teacher and a professor of music at the academy. The other student travelled around the country, playing small concerts at bars and outdoor festivals.
Often what looks like success is only a prison made of fear of the opinions of others. True love counts the opinions of others as nothing, and counts the joy of the thing itself as its own significance. Though imperfect and humble of appearance, love is impelled by real desire.
I was listening to a teaching by R.C. Sproul (not that I’m in agreement with all of his theology, I’m not a calvinist), and he came to a point where you can hear him cracking the chalk against the blackboard decisively with this equation:
Faith + Works ≠ Justification
Faith = Justification + Works
How the dust was flying! You can hear people starting to cough. You gotta love him! A lot of free grace theologians don’t like R.C., but he seemed right on this point to me; at least, I am going to use this idea as a jumping off point.
He is talking about assurance, as in, being assured that you are really a Christian, really eternally and forever under grace, eternally out of condemnation. If we add works to the wrong side of the equation, we remove the possibility of assurance. Assurance, he says, is a crucial element of our sanctification, and I would have to agree with this.
If we have come to a point, and it is settled, that Christ has truly justified us, that our sin cannot ever come between us and God, and that it is out of our hands to spoil that, we enter a new dynamic. No longer do we labor. No longer do we strive. No longer do we worry. What we DO is no longer part of the equation which leads to justification. Thus, what we do becomes motivated from a very different place. We no longer act from fear, no longer perform based on an attempt to justify ourselves.
We always couch this in religious terms but I believe this is true across the entire spectrum of human experience. Just as Solomon writes:
“And I have seen that every labor and every skill which is done is the result of rivalry between a man and his neighbor. This too is vanity and striving after wind.” Ecclesiastes 4:4, NASB.
All men, believers or not, religious or not, in their field of endeavor, strive for eminence and skill as a means to significance, a means to self-justification. Even as we talk, make jokes, do business, work, recreate, form important relationships, we strive for significance with each other. In our minds, significance is earned by our deeds, our cleverness, our greatness in business or our daring in debauchery and pleasure or our skill with words or music. I must craft my own importance because it is up to me alone to do so. I am constantly on the lookout to be more clever, more successful, more insightful, happier, with better pleasures and appreciations, to prove my significance.
In Christ, this is completely turned around. We are justified as a gift. We are declared significant carte blanche. We no longer need to become great at anything to prove our significance – we simply ARE significant. We are declared just. Any attempt to water this down, to obscure it, to blunt it, only takes us back to the fruitless land of doing things to prove our worthiness.
The flesh rebels at this. The flesh wants to act, to do things, to prove significance. The flesh doesn’t rebel at the law, it loves it. The law represents a great challenge to prove our worth! The question before our flesh isn’t law or sin, the question for the flesh is really which law to revel in, which challenge to take on. Either a law of religious leanings, or a law of partying, or a law of violence, or whatever. Every community has its rules for belonging and honor, its rites of passage. You can feel yourself recoil at the idea that you need do nothing to be significant, to be justified.
However, under this new dynamic, under a decisive declaration of justification, we act and work and do things from a wholly different impulse. Under grace, whereas works are no longer necessary, works appear as fruit:
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you just as I have forewarned you that those who practice such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:18-23, NASB.
So, we can come around and say, am I acting from faith? It is the right belief, a real assurance of justification, that leads to the right fruit. Works exist in both equations, but if you put works on the wrong side of the equation, you nullify grace. Do you see that? If you have faith in the work of Christ but still have the notion that you have to do stuff to earn justification then it nullifies Christ’s work because you are still the one justifying yourself. This has drastic consequences to your works, because they are motivated by the need for self-justification and are not produced as the fruit of love. In effect, you reject the supernatural hand of God in producing your works, and maintain your own significance in still acting in effect as your own God. Just because you switch from doing lawless deeds to prove your worth to doing pseudo-lawful deeds to prove your worth, it is still the exact same dynamic producing your works – the flesh.
When Christ justifies us, all of our human endeavor comes from a wholly different place. We joke differently, because we do not need to pose as a clever person – we already have an assurance that we are completely justified. We speak differently, we think differently, we plan and scheme differently, we have true leisure time when we recreate. We are, in effect, a new creature. As the writer of Hebrews says, we enter rest.
Do a mental experiment with me. Just pretend that no matter what, I mean NO MATTER WHAT, you were the very apple of God’s eye. If you just got out of an orgy and smoked illegal things and did every debaucherous selfish act you could think of, you could immediately still pray and God would send you a million dollars dropped right out of the sky. How would you live? Would you still orgy-ize and smoke things? Would you keep asking for a million dollars?
Let me pose this to you: it really IS like that. We really have passed out of judgement, and as Peter says,
“… seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” 2 Peter 1:2, 3, NASB.
A million dollars is nothing more than a burden to manage, and a facade of fake wealth. You can’t eat a million dollars. Jesus fed 5000 with a few fish and loaves. Brad Pitt was married to Jennifer Aniston and he still divorced her! The world’s ultimate dreams are ultimately dissatisfying. Money is nothing but a tool, and it is far from the only tool of provision. Sin is unfulfilling and rotten. So since we are justified no matter what, we are now free to look at the world with a right mind, a free mind. We have the freedom to press straight for joy, for simplicity, for humble service. We can avoid unnecessary burdens because we are already declared significant; we have nothing else to prove. If EVERYTHING is permissible, and EVERY RESOURCE is available to me to do so, then the only question is, what greatness, what humble peace, what sweet loveliness, does my justifier have in mind for me today? What uncomplicated beauty, what red sea crossing, will He accompany me through?
Here is my advice to you my esteemed reader: put works on the right side of the equation. As Peter says,
“Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you; for as long as you practice these things, you will never stumble;” 2 Peter 1:10, NASB.
Be assured that you are justified by Him, you are significant already in the eyes of God. Live from this position of strength.