For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God-- not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. (Ephesians 2:8-10 NRSV)
Here is possibly one of the greatest problems with works, with trying to earn God's favor in any way.
When I make choices based on the premise that God harbors any feelings towards me other than total graciousness, compassion, selfless love and forgiveness, then that very premise defines my internal beliefs about the kind of God I am serving. I am basing my life on presumptions that God's mind in some way, small or large, needs to be changed, persuaded, convinced or altered. I am clinging to beliefs and feelings about God that though false constitute the very foundation and fabric of my opinion about God. And the more I act and speak in ways that reflect this view of God, the more deeply entrenched and permanent such false notions about God defines my perception of reality.
This is terribly important to grasp, for while it is never safe to believe lies, it is far more hazardous when they are related to our opinions about the kind of God we worship and serve. And when we have been given opportunity and exposure to the real truth about God, and in that light decide for whatever reason to turn away from it to prefer our traditional feelings and teachings about God, we put ourselves in extreme danger. When we reject the truth about God as revealed in Jesus His Son to favor what is more familiar or more broadly supported by religion or those around us, we are literally dismantling our internal capacity to repent. And if we persist in doing this repeatedly we will come to the point where God Himself will never be able to reach our hearts to reconcile us to Himself, for the very circuits He has implanted in every person for this very purpose will have been disabled and re-appropriated to live in rebellion against love instead of being healed to live in love.
The real truth about God is unfamiliar to most people. That means that the true gospel is going to challenge all of us to seriously reconsider long-held beliefs, doctrines and opinions about God. If the message of the gospel does not make us uncomfortable with the kind of God we currently believe Him to be, then it is quite likely that gospel may not be the same version of gospel that Jesus came to reveal. Much of what is labeled as the gospel today shares little in common with the gospel that rocked the world for three hundred years after Jesus finished His journey on our planet. The gospels now being circulated have become so infected by false presumptions about God that they are little different than the opinions people had about God when Jesus arrived in this world as a human. And those false beliefs about God are what compelled both the Jews and the Gentiles to crucify Jesus, for they could not reconcile their versions of truth with what Jesus presented as the real truth about God.
Just because our version of what we think is the gospel is saturated with references to Jesus and based on Scripture does not mean it is the gospel Jesus brought from heaven. In fact, a gospel built around the iconic Jesus as its foundation but which fails to embrace fully the truth of God's undiluted goodness and love is exponentially more dangerous than the version of presumed truth the Jews clung to from Old Testament writings. The enemy of souls is ever at work to infect any version of truth with subtle lies and insinuations about God that sound so plausible and that can easily be 'proven' using God's word, yet fail to harmonize completely with the explicit revelation of God in His Son.
When a person grows up with little or no knowledge about Jesus, of course they are likely going to have very confused and dark concepts about whatever supernatural force might be at the top of the heap of forces in the cosmos. But this ignorance about God may actually be easier to remedy than the deeply embedded prejudices of those who have long been immersed in stories and beliefs about God that are based on the Bible, and especially those based on the New Testament. It is those who believe they have the final truth who resist anything that might question or challenge their carefully formulated beliefs all based on proofs readily accessible from the Bible. These are the ones who have the greatest problem accepting a version of God that is different from what they hold. They are sure that the widely accepted presumptions of a God who needs to be appeased or persuaded or changed in the slightest way, are the correct views of God since they can so easily be supported with Scripture. Yet these are actually in the greatest danger of remaining deceived, for they are far more convinced that they know the truth about God than those unfamiliar with Scripture from the start.
Like the Jews of old, Christians today believe that their version of the gospel and their understanding of salvation is what is right and is what Jesus came to bring to this world. They often believe it is dangerous to entertain any idea that contradicts these settled beliefs that have been worked out over years of theological examination and tested by so many before them. They feel it is wrong to tamper with what experts have concluded who are specialized in the field of religion, so the safest thing to do is to play it safe and stick with what appears to be the truth according to the brand of denomination or cult they have chosen to endorse.
The Jews had this exact same mindset when Jesus walked this earth, yet they failed to recognize the actual truth about God who was living right in their midst. They could only see Jesus as a contradiction of the God they had so long embraced as the foundation for their perspective of religion and as a result challenged Jesus at every occasion, even accusing Him of blasphemy. Today we think we are past that danger, yet ironically we are in just as much if not more danger of doing the very same thing the Jewish leaders did with Jesus. For the version of God that Jesus revealed still strikes at the foundation of all our assumptions about the kind of God who runs the universe. We may try to use the right words to sound religiously correct when we speak of such things, but our hearts reveal to us a very different story as our symptoms of fear betray the fact that we really disbelieve that God is exactly the same as His Son whom He sent to save us from our dark thinking about Him.
This is most clearly exposed in how we attempt to describe what we believe must take place in order for us to be reconciled with God. How do we describe the problem of sin and what causes it? How do we perceive God's attitude toward sin and/or sinners? Do we define wrath as being pretty much the same with God as how we experience it? Do we view the Law of God and its enforcement similarly to how we relate to and enforce laws here on earth? How do we frame the bigger context that we think gives clarity and definition to the entire story of redemption and the war between good and evil? What do we insist must take place in order for sin to be resolved or before it can be eradicated?
Our answers to many of these questions will reveal our real opinions about what kind of God we worship. Even more so, our reactions to how others treat us betray hidden beliefs inside us about God that often we are largely unaware of most of the time. In addition, our resistance to confess that we really don't know the truth about God and are actually in desperate need of much more light than what we think we have betrays that the gospel we embrace is likely significantly different than the good news about God that so compelled the early disciples to passionately share His love and compassion with everyone around them in ways seldom today.
I am convinced that the greatest liability of Christianity today is our unwillingness to allow our settled opinions about God to be challenged to the core by the revelation of God as found in Jesus Christ. We may claim we have the truth, but do we hold it in unrighteousness?
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. (Romans 1:18)
This verse itself can be a litmus test to expose much of our own unbelief contrasted with the light of the truth about God as found in Jesus and His teachings. What we presume about the meaning of God's wrath being revealed, how we define godliness or the meaning of righteousness all can expose deeply held presumptions about what we think the good news is in the gospel. Sadly I believe that far more than we suppose, we too are often suppressing the truth in unrighteousness, because though we may not openly sin in ways Romans 1 describes, we may be among those Paul speaks of in the very next section where he exposes those who believe they have it together and condemn those they view as lost sinners.
Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things. (Romans 2:1)
This verse comes directly after a long list of sin symptoms observed in the lives of those who suppress the truth as mentioned in the previous reference. What Paul is saying clearly in both Romans 1 and 2 is that there are two kinds of sinners – open sinners who let it all hang out and religious prigs who believe they know the truth and thus are more righteous and therefore feel safe that they are favored by God.
But as I said previously, gaining God's favor by getting our act together and impressing God with how good we can be is an even more dangerous mindset to be in than open sinners many times. For a religious person who is confident that they are right with God, either because they are living a good life or because they believe Jesus died to gain forgiveness for their sins by an offended God – both are actually living in unbelief. For belief according to Jesus – saving faith as it is called – is not about believing that Jesus took the punishment for our sins so we could get off the hook with an offended deity; rather true belief is embracing the reality that God the Father is in no way different even in the slightest iota from His Son who became a human to prove to us how trustworthy God really is.
Many feel terribly threatened by this revelation, for they cling to the notion that without some level of fear produced through threats of punishment and/or enticements of reward for obedience, it will be impossible to change sinners into saints. Yet this very line of logic betrays the extreme subtlety of the lies of the enemy, that God runs His universe on laws similar to how our system of laws operate, and that love alone is not sufficient to prevent rebellion from taking over. This very thinking itself is the original logic used by Lucifer to launch his rebellion in the first place, and it is based on false premises about the heart of God and the methods He uses to maintain order and harmony in His creation.
Integrating the very logic that launched the rebellion of sin in the first place into the gospel message we present as the required way to be reconciled with God would in my thinking be treasonous toward God. How riddled with unbelief are our popular versions of the gospel. Most of what we hear today begins with the presumption that God is very offended by sinners, so the problem that must be overcome to be reconciled with Him is to find the most effective means to alter His disposition towards us before He runs out of patience and punishes all who reject His offer of salvation.
Yet in believing these versions of gospel we are really allying ourselves with the original insinuations against God's reputation that have perpetuated the sin problem already. I think this is a terrible tragedy. The truth is, we will never see the final end of the rebellion until we finally embrace the real truth about the nature of God's disposition and character, and that is only found in the revelation of His Son. And that revelation was most explicitly revealed in the way He reacted under the extreme treatment given Him during the last hours of His life while living here among us.
What, then, does this mean? That Israel as a nation did not achieve the reunification with God they sought, but a few individuals did. What Israel sought to earn by working to induce God to be gracious actually caused them to misunderstand God, become self-sufficient and arrogant, and fail in obtaining restoration with God. But those who trusted God, based on the truth as revealed in Jesus, obtained God's gracious gift of healing and restoration. The others, instead of being healed and restored, were instead hardened, as it is written: "When they rejected truth, God gave them over to a dull mind, eyes trained to no longer recognize truth and ears tuned to no longer hear truth, and this goes on to this very day." (Romans 11:7-8 Remedy paraphrase)
(You can find this excellent paraphrase of the New Testament by following this link. It is also available for smart phones and other electronic devices. For those who have PowerBibleCD on their computer, I am currently loading this paraphrase into this software as well.)