The idolization of the ‘changed life’

“For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, that no one should boast. For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Ephesians 2:8-10, NASB.

Discipleship, sanctification, the “Lordship of Christ”, the evidence of “changed lives” – these are all used as euphemisms for a graceless Christianity. Notice that when people speak of the “Lordship of Christ”, what they mean is that through their own obedience they ‘MAKE’ Him Lord – not that He actually IS Lord. I guess that poor Jesus cannot make Himself Lord unless I perfectly repent. What power I have! I conjure and control God with my ‘holiness’ – until I fall off my little pony! If the main sign of true Christianity is a “changed life”, then if those who otherwise consider themselves Christians still stumble, still struggle, still crawl off of the altar of being a “living and holy” sacrifice, then is that evidence circumspect? Of course it is, because human beings will always consider their last failure the truest evidence of what they really are, and this kind of thinking just reinforces the idea that perhaps they are not really a Christian. That only leads them into further failure, and closes the door to God, discouraging them from going to the throne of grace in their time of need. How do you think the Father feels about that whole dynamic? I don’t speak for Him directly, but personally, it angers me to no end.

On the other hand, we have the actual teachings of Jesus, and Paul, and the apostle John, et all. We have numerous parables and stories depicting the tender Father-heart of God. We see Jesus doing miracles to prove He has the power to forgive. We see sinners and tax-gatherers gathering to Jesus like moths to a flame, scandalizing the religious authorities. We see that Jesus perseveres in making Peter the cornerstone figure of His church, even in the face of heinous rejection and betrayal. In gospels, it is JESUS who is Lord – even terrible rejection and betrayal and abandonment by all of His closest disciples could not stop Him. He raised Himself from the dead, and came back with mercy and grace in His heart for them. I think that for them, the first disciples, the ‘Lordship of Christ’ would mean something very different than the half-hearted dim-witted drivel that most people mean who throw this phrase around.

Many modern Christians thus make virtue and their own changed life an idol, a graven and false image of God. “Holiness,’ meaning the absence of certain obvious sins, seems to be the chief end of their beliefs, not grace and mercy, not worship, not a free relationship with the true living God to whose throne we can go boldly in time of need. Grace for them is only a springboard into gracelessness. It is just as ridiculous and hopeless and pointless as it sounds. You can tell by your prayerlessness that you are sitting in that place – you have the picture that ‘God’ always sort of hates you and you certainly don’t really like Him either, He just makes you feel really bad about yourself all the time. Why would you pray under that dynamic? No wonder that people fall away from such nonsense. It is such a bad and colorless idol! If you want to worship an idol, why not make it a fat smiling Buddha who will let you have some fun! Then you can at least enjoy yourself for a short time before you spend eternity in hell. Maybe this is a bad example, but you can bet that everyone who chooses to be outside of the church definitely believes it; and they are more right than they know!

The language of graceless Christianity enters subtly through the back door even for many who otherwise profess to believe in grace. “We must move on from the need for mercy to a ‘deeper walk.'” “Yes, Christ loves us, but we must strive to become more and more holy and make Him Lord of our lives and [blah blah blah blah blah].” “I need to die more to self because the mind set on the flesh is death.” What they are really saying is this: “I need to take every scripture out of context and twist it to make me and everyone around me feel much much worse about our tepid relationship with Christ. Guilt-inducing conviction indicates that the Holy Spirit is really moving.” I’m sure they mean well, but what they really mean is, if you don’t show evidence of a truly changed life then you probably aren’t a Christian. What starts with grace continues with law and obligation.

So, does this mean that we reject virtue altogether? Does sanctification, gradually increasing righteousness, discipline and holy living, have any place? Of course, don’t be ridiculous. Really giving over to Him in belief in His grace and His empowerment, IS DEATH TO SELF. It means I am no longer in charge of making God accept and love me. It means I give up responsibility for being good and significant. It means I give up the secret idea that I can manipulate the favor of God by a limited and flawed and short-lived repentance. Eventually you get worn down enough by the circumstances of life to realize that you can’t repent very well, and that in fact you don’t even want to keep going that way any more. It is at that point you are ready for the power and joy of knowing Him. It is a joy to surrender everything, even our own responsibilities. However, the power to change, the power to grow in holiness, the power to sustain a true behavioral change, is not an obligation, and it is not the basis for the lordship of Christ even for me personally. Such change and such behavioral shifts are a gift, a fruit, a wonderful consequence of a growing and ongoing relationship with a God who loves me like a very good father. When we shift from the universe of law and obligation over to the universe of grace, when we set our minds on the things of the Holy Spirit, love and joy and peace and kindness blossom. Virtue is a gift!

Grace and mercy and the everlasting acceptance and love of God really are good news! It is so happy to believe all of this, and doubly so because it is biblical and it is true. It is solid and sustainable to think that we will fail, but God will forever accept us and lead us to greener pastures, and feed our hunger for righteousness. Changed living is not the foundation of Christianity, grace is. There are terrible consequences when we worship idols, even very virtuous and seemingly benign and safely harsh ones. Jesus, on the other hand, is full of grace and truth:

“And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” “For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” John 1:14, 17, NASB.

Posted in Book: Scandal of Grace, Scandalous Grace and tagged .


  1. I think it was Gerhard Forde who said that “Christian growth is forgetting about yourself.”

    “When we shift from the universe of law and obligation over to the universe of grace, when we set our minds on the things of the Holy Spirit, love and joy and peace and kindness blossom.”


    Thank you!

  2. Steve, thanks for the great encouragement! Nothing could be more exciting and liberating than this message; I think this is what the Holy Spirit is saying to the church in a new way.

  3. My church has been doing these “changed life” testimonials the last few weeks. The thought is that this is irrefutable evidence of the truth of Christianity. Anyway…other than never really hearing about Christ’s work on their behalf (which is troublesome) I have been trying to put into words the eerie feeling I have had while hearing them…your thoughts here put my feelings into words…their testimonies are graceless.
    This chapter, so far, is my favorite.

    • K.C.,

      Thanks for your comment. You’re right, many times these kinds of testimonies are little more than monuments to our own self-righteousness. How does a fakey story about how much willpower someone has that I don’t have motivate me to embrace Jesus Christ? I need grace, not someone’s questionable success at morals, preached to me.

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