The Dilemma Between Our Work Versus God’s Salvation

Image from Sharon Kuo

nenakristiani asked a question:

Hi, lately I’ve been confused about “working on our salvation” that’s generally our job after receiving Jesus. How do we do that exactly? How do we know we’re doing it right? And I’ve just listened to a local sermon and it says that after we received Jesus, we have to seek perfection through our struggles and efforts to meet His standard level of perfection. We have to strive for a perfect life, no flaws in His eyes. That’s what Christian life is about. Is that how we do it?

Hey dear friend, thank you for your honesty and candor. Before I say anything, I hope you’ll consider watching this sermon. I watch it about once a month and it continually feeds my soul, especially in moments of confusion about my faith. (There are a couple glitches in the video but they pass quickly.)

Essentially, one of the biggest points of the Christian Gospel is that it takes burdens off and will never add them on. Everything else in the world is squeezing you by demands, deadlines, dichotomies, and impossible standards that will destroy you the second you infringe on them. Every community will kick you out or kill you if you disobey their directives, and that includes Tumblr, Facebook, a high school football team, and political tribes. Every other religion and philosophy and system of thinking is prodding you to close the gap between who-you-are and who-you-want-to-be by striving for an arbitrary goal-line, only to move it further away when you get there.

Only Christianity says that the gap has been closed for you by grace, that every demand has been met in God’s very own provision, and that it’s from this gift of grace that you strive, and not for. In other words, the Christian Gospel is the news of what God has done through His Son, and not advice or formulas for a better life. It can certainly advise you, and there are certainly divine laws that are for our good, but the motive to follow His way is because of the grace He has given us. It’s inside His preemptive approval that we can find both rest and resolve. Since we’re no longer “working off” our existence to justify who we are, we can move outward from God’s fixed love without worrying about getting better or getting results. Perhaps ironically, when you have such a supernatural confidence, you actually get better and get results.

Christianity is such a counter-intuitive inside-out truth that it will never feel natural. We’re so used to measuring ourselves on progress and accomplishments and numbers that the second you get grace, it ruins our entire death-grip on control. It ruins everything so perfectly.

If you’re given grace, your worldly trophies and bank account and social media don’t mean very much. Fame isn’t even a real thing.

If you’re given grace, then God also loves the people you hate, and your grudge is about you and not them, and other peoples’ virtue is no longer a measurement of their inherent dignity.

If you’re given grace, you can’t bear to go back to the sin that had you imprisoned and consumed.

If you’re given grace, your kindness for other people is no longer self-motivated for image or ego-boosting, but merely an abundant overflow of the love you’ve been given, and maybe for the first time, it’s truly about loving the other person instead of a way to validate yourself.

It’s the difference between a boss and a mentor. A boss sees your qualifications, tracks your work, has a checklist, can fire you or give you a raise. A mentor takes in the unqualified, empowers your work, and roots for you to succeed.

It’s the difference between dating and a marriage. A certain kind of dating entails that you need to puff yourself up, lie your way in, and show off your merchandise. Marriage says that you’re already accepted in a promise of vows, that you don’t need to “try” to be a spouse, and that your efforts of romance are to be enjoyed instead of used as an advertisement.

Of course, we’re going to hate the idea of grace. I know that even when Christians say “grace,” we still minimize it to mean a general fuzzy warmth from some abstract being. It feels like enabling or pampering. But if my version of grace enables or pampers, it hasn’t gone far enough. Grace is not merely a sentimental love, but a love that cost everything. It cost the life of God’s Son, for our sin was very real, and sin always has a cost. Jesus closed the distance of our debt on a cross and in an empty tomb; his entire life was a cross of persecution, abandonment, betrayal, and still keeping a perfect law. He met the demands that we couldn’t. It’s only this kind of grace that would tenderize your heart into love-driven action, and electrify you into a life of clarity, purpose, and the bigger picture.

I understand why most preachers are legalistic, rule-driven, religious fundamentalists. I understand the popularity of blogs that say “10 Things To Do Before You’re 20″ or that tell you how to be offended and how to do online justice.  It’s because on some deep level, we all know we’re meant to be perfect. On any deathbed, in every blog post, in every community, we have a sense of condemnation that we put on ourselves and put on others. We’re profoundly aware that nothing is as it’s meant to be, most especially ourselves. We swim in the word “potential” but feel lost in falling short. We feel threatened by success or slightly more talented people. We each have a wounded sense of our own shortcomings, because inside, we have an immeasurable understanding of a perfectly divine holiness that we’re not reaching. Whether or not we call that God, we still manifest our “fear of unrealized potential” by jealousy, competition, drowning our woes in thrills and pills, or fantasizing over the next door neighbor’s wife and other people’s lives.

The thing is, you will never, ever meet perfection in this life. The discontent remains. You’ll never be good enough, because the world asks too much. That’s good news. You cannot be good on your own. You must look to the Only One who is good, who will call you good, too. You must recognize your utter incapability to meet divinity, yet at the same time be in awe of the infinite value that God has bestowed upon you.

As the great theologian Lecrae once said, “If Heaven ain’t a gift, then I ain’t gettin’ in.” We live between the tension of a hostile, fallen, fractured world and a perfectly loving God. We’re humbled because Jesus had to die for our sin, but we’re confident because Jesus gladly died so we may know Him.

So what do we do? Nothing. There’s nothing to be achieved. Only received. Sing the truths of the Gospel into your heart. Bask in His glory. Look to the cross and the empty tomb in everything you do. Move from grace as your base, as a home that will always be there. Faith is not a one-time decision or a one-shot moment, but the slow awakening to the reality of what God has done for you. If you pursue this truth, you will find that it’s been pursuing you all along. In such pursuit, His glory will flex through you, to do the work that must be done: not to earn Him, but because you already have Him.

— J.S.

3 thoughts on “The Dilemma Between Our Work Versus God’s Salvation

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