Grow in Grace?

As humans we tend to be incurably religious…most often in the pharisaical sense of the word.  We gravitate toward man made rules and regulations that supposedly represent God’s standard for acceptance or rejection.  Some of these tend to make a lot of logical sense.  If I never take a drink of alcohol I will certainly never get drunk therefore, no good Christian should ever crack open a Bud with his pizza!  If I am never out with a woman or man I will certainly never fall into sexual sin therefore, no good Christian should ever date.  If I never watch TV, go to movies, go to an art exhibition, read secular literature I will certainly never see or hear anything sinful therefore, no good Christian should ever participate in any of these activities. If I never let my child interact with other children they will not be led astray by peer pressure therefore, good Christian parents should only homeschool their children.  The logic appears reasonable on the surface but the results can be disastrous!  Take for example this logical statement, “If I never eat food then I certainly won’t become a glutton therefore, no good Christian should ever eat!” The apostle Paul recognized that the Colossian believers were in danger of being duped by this logical, yet spiritually worthless, approach to Christianity and he confronts the issue directly in the second chapter of his letter to the Colossians.

“Why… do you submit to regulations – ‘Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch’ – human precepts and teachings?”  Why do we put ourselves under these unbiblical man made religious burdens?  That is a very good question to ponder because if we don’t answer it correctly then we may actually be more vulnerable to the very “sins of the flesh” that all of our extra-biblical religious rules and regulations are attempting to prevent.  Paul says very boldly, “they (these human rules and regulations) are of NO VALUE in stopping the indulgence of the flesh.” (emphasis mine)  We respond, “You’ve got to be kidding, Paul!  You can’t really mean that all my vigorous and demanding attempts to defeat my sinful nature are worthless.  I’m busting my tail end to make my self better!” If we are relying on our own system to improve, that is exactly what Paul is saying!  To be honest, most of us simply don’t believe the apostle on this point.  We really do think that our thoroughly planned and well designed rules will allow us to triumph over the darker side of our nature.

So, we slowly and sometimes imperceptibly drift toward a rules based system of living the Christian life…we become “religious”! It is subtle, but the creep of religion into Christianity is a problem that followers of Christ have needed to face since the very first century.  Why does this happen?  What causes us, the redeemed and liberated followers of Jesus Christ, to give up the glorious freedom that the Lord purchased for us with his very blood? (See Gal. 5:1)

Let’s look at a few possibilities to ponder in our quest to answer this riddle:

  1. We become “religious” because we don’t really believe we are all that sick. We tend to opt for a home made remedy instead of paying a visit to the Great Physician…after all, it’s a bit embarrassing to admit some of these things we still do as believers. We understand that we couldn’t handle our past sins but we think, now that God has already removed some of our really bad behavior, that we can finish the rest of the job of cleaning up our lives in our own strength.  Frankly, we’d rather handle it on our own. After all, we’re not that bad…at least not as bad as “those” people or as bad as we used to be!  Pride is fabulously fertile soil in which religion quickly germinates, grows and bears its disastrously bitter fruit.  After pastoring and hearing people’s confessions for close to twenty years (and knowing myself for 48!), not much that believers or non-believers do of a sinful nature shocks me anymore.  I’ve seen bad behavior emanate from very “religious” lives and from very “rebellious” lives…with almost equal frequency.  We simply cannot repair the brokenness of our lives on our own.  Our lustful hearts will not be tamed by an internet filter, “bouncing our eyes”, or accountability partner – they must be healed by Jesus!  The egos that so often drive our critical and cynical tongues will not be reformed in three easy steps – they must be healed by Jesus!  We need to admit our pride and cry out to the Lord to make us whole. I believe that we will either acknowledge the greatness of our ongoing need for the Lord or He will allow us to sin greatly…one way or another, we end up on our knees seeking his help!   Most of us began our Christian life with the realization that we desperately needed Jesus’ forgiveness and help but we rarely continue to live as Christians in this humble dependent faith (Gal. 3:1-3; Col. 2:6&7). We really bring nothing to the table except our need for Jesus…and fortunately, that is enough! (John 15:5)
  2. We become “religious” because we are captivated by fine sounding arguments that extol our abilities and our human potential. (Col. 2:8, 23) We want a plan that we can “work”…and we will pay hundreds of dollars and hour to someone who will give us a fine sounding plan!  I’m not against counseling that is Gospel based yet so much is simply, “YOU CAN DO IT!” covered with a veneer of fine sounding therapeutic vocabulary.  Our sense of guilt seems to drive us to make some sacrifice in order to atone for our past mistakes and make ourselves better in the future. So we adopt rigorous rules and regulations that “appear wise”. (Col. 2:23)   These “ascetic” practices that our bodies find difficult to practice somehow cause us to feel that we are making up for our sin and moving forward in our lives.  “I’ll get up every morning at 4:30 and pray for 2 hours!”  “I’ll fast for ….”  “I’ll never speak until spoken to.”  “I’ll never …”  These rules sound good.  They make sense.  We will be able to do it…until we don’t and then the whole miserable process starts over again.  We need to remember Jesus words on the cross, “It is finished!”  He did really pay our debt in full and he does not require any additional “sacrifice” to be satisfied with us!  When we mess up our first step should be back into his loving and accepting arms!
  3. We become religious because we succumb to the pressures of the religious crowd. No one wants to feel like an outsider. So when the religious crowd lets you know, in subtle and not so subtle ways, that you are not meeting their standard there is a strong human tendency to simply go along to get along.  This propensity is one we have to battle regularly.  “Let no one pass judgment on you..” is what Paul tells the Colossian believers while referring to a list of man made religious standards that the religious crowd was attempting to foist on the church (Col. 2:16).   In Colossae, those turning up the legalistic religious heat also claimed to have had wonderful “spiritual” experiences that validated their particular rules and regulations (visions and exotic experiences with angels – Col. 2:18)   There can be very strong and persuasive pressures in a church culture that seek to conform members of the body, not into the image of Christ, but into their image of a “good” Christian.  How quickly a new believer’s joy and freedom in Christ can be quenched by the religious rules and regulations of the crowd.  Our freedom needs to be cherished and fought for!  We are often too polite and simply don’t say, “Nonsense!” to those who are trying to push their man made religious agenda on us- no matter how super spiritual it sounds. “The only acceptable bible translation is the KJV of 1611.”  Nonsense! “Women can only wear dresses.” Nonsense!  “Homeschooling is the only acceptable option.” Nonsense!  “You need to be at every church function.” Nonsense!  “You must tithe 10% to the church” Nonsense!  “You should never dance.” Nonsense! “You must submit and stop questioning my authority”  Nonsense! “You can never drink a glass of Riesling.”  Nonsense!  Paul says that it is not a big deal to him if other believers judge him as long as he is seeking to please the Lord…may we be able to adopt that attitude as well and live in the freedom that Jesus has given to us! (I Cor. 4:3)
  4. We become “religious” because we lose our intimate connection with Christ through his Spirit. The religious crowd in Colossae, with all their supposedly “spiritual” standards, had actually lost their grip on Jesus Christ (Col. 2:19)  How easily we can be led away from a “sincere and pure devotion to Christ” (II Cor 11:3) towards a false piety of religious rule following which is simply pride camouflaged with external religious behavior.   It is scary to ponder Jesus words to the religious professionals of his day who were so smug, so “right” and so “righteous” in their own eyes (Matt. 23).  Our fallen human nature gravitates toward a “system” of religion that we can control.  Our initial joyous walk with Christ can quickly morph into all the religious stuff I have to do before I go to bed tonight.  I was struck once again by Jesus’ words in John 5 to the crowds following him who asked, “What must we do, to be doing the works of God?”  That’s a good question…a very good question.  And what was Jesus’ response?  “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent!”  Jesus doesn’t lay out the top 45 things we have to do to satisfy the Father.  He says one thing, and one thing only is necessary – “Believe in me!”  Our call is to live in a trust filled relationship with Jesus.  If I am staying connected with Jesus then I will live in such a way that no amount of external rules and regulations could ever produce. I will have access to his power that alone can heal my brokenness and tame my sinful flesh.  I will walk under his easy yoke instead of being crushed under the burdensome yoke of legalism.  I will quickly and freely confess my sins – coming into his presence boldly because I know it’s not my performance that makes me acceptable to him.  I will delight in his unconditional love instead of being discouraged by the judgmental stares of the religious rule keepers.  I will seek from the heart to really follow what he says because I know he loves me and desires my best instead of grumbling my way through a long and difficult list of religious do’s and don’ts.

For a long time I wondered why the apostle Peter had to command God’s people to “grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”   Wouldn’t we, as broken fallen people, naturally gravitate toward a deeper and more intimate experience of the grace of Jesus?  After all, what is more needed and more wonderful than the grace of Jesus Christ?  Yet, our perversely proud nature continues to long to merit our own salvation or at least perform our own sanctification.  To combat this proud delusion we’ve got to stay close to Jesus…even if we are more uncomfortably aware of our own sinfulness in his presence.  Paul was keenly aware of his own sinful nature throughout his life. “I am (not “was”) the foremost of sinners!” he told his young protégé Timothy. (I Tim 1:15)  He details his ongoing battle with the flesh very honestly and clearly in Romans 7.  Yet, he constantly strove to know Jesus more intimately (Phil 3).  Why?  Because he knew that a life of religious rule keeping couldn’t change him and make him whole…only the person of Jesus Christ and the power of his Spirit could do that!

So, believers, fight for your freedom!  Don’t let yourself be judged by those who have an endless list of man made religious demands that lack any value in producing true change.  Hold fast to Jesus and may even your failures and falls grow in you a deeper understanding and appreciation of his undeserved grace.  Christ in us…our only hope of glory!

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh!”
The Apostle Paul