Today, God didn't just take me on a detour. He completely rerouted me.
During my 3-hour Religious Studies lecture today, God threw me through a loop. Isn't it crazy how sometimes, you think you've understood something inside and out for your whole life... and then one day, just like that, you realize you hadn't had the slightest clue?
Our discussion today was on Paul's letter to the Romans. Now, in religious studies, people get angry. Prof asks us questions we don't know the answers to. He poses questions that he doesn't know the answers to. Every lecture brings new thoughts and issues to wrestle with. Some get angry. Some walk out. Today was no exception. Prof told us all to close our eyes. 90 pairs of eyes closed. He then said, "If you think you're perfect, raise your hand." Zero hands went up. Next, he said, "If you think you're perfect in Christ, raise your hand." My eyes were closed, so I don't know how many hands went up. But mine did. Nervously. Tentatively. We opened our eyes and he looked at us with mock amazement. "90% of the people in this room profess to be Christians, and only a third of you know your theology?!"
We were silent, waiting for him to explain. Most people were shifting uncomfortably or looking down at their phones to avoid eye contact with him. He went on. "The Book of Romans is where Paul lays out the message of salvation. It's the Gospel of Grace! It's the point of Christ's sacrifice! And most of you don't understand the point of it at all!" A couple people were whispering. A few were staring indignantly at him. Of course we know the Gospel. We've known it for years. Who did he think he was?
He began to outline for us the narrative of God's plan. He illustrated it by taking us through Romans and highlighting the focal verses.
Romans 2:20 - "For no one can ever be made right with God by doing what the law commands. The law simply shows us how sinful we are.
Romans 2:22 - "We are made right with God by placing our faith in Jesus Christ. And this is true for everyone who believes, no matter who we are."
Romans 3:23 - "For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God."
Romans 3:24 - "And all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus."
He went on, and on, and on, and on reading verse by verse. Word by word. We sat there, thinking, "Yeah, duh." We know about grace. It's elementary. It's simple. But then, he started getting weird. "Don't you guys realize that because of what Christ did for you, you have been made perfect? Don't you realize that through the crucifixion of Jesus, God now sees you as blameless? Righteous? Spotless?"
Hold up, Doc. We aren't perfect. We're screw-ups. Some other students voiced my thoughts out loud. They challenged him, saying: "Okay, but, you can't call us perfect. We sin every day. We sin many times a day."
He responded with, "Yes, you do. But if you're born again, God sees you as perfect!"
More angry hands shot up. "Yes, but- we sin every day! You can't say we're perfect. We can't pretend we're perfect, because we're not. We can't just accept Christ and then think it's okay to keep on sinning!"
And he calmly replied with, "You're absolutely right. But the point isn't how well you perform with the grace you've been given, but the grace, itself! Grace is a gift. You didn't deserve it before, and you don't earn it after. It is not based on your works. After being born again, you could continue in your sin, but you would still have grace. Even if you never did a single good thing again, it is your faith in Christ that makes you righteous."
He illustrated with this analogy: "Say I asked you all to stand up, after I had given you your midterm marks. Then, say I began shouting out percentages, starting at 100%, and working my way down, and asked you to sit down once I had called your grade. You didn't have to be honest- you could sit down whenever you wanted. So, say I start listing out the percentages. I get through the 90s, and a couple people sit down. I get through the 80s, and a bunch more of you sit down. The 70s and 60s are where the majority lie, but there are still a few standing. I get into the 50s and the ones who barely passed sit down. Now we are into the failing grades. I number down through the 40s.... the 30s.... and there's one young man still standing. Hands in his pockets. Head down. I call him up, and ask him to tell us his midterm mark. '20%' he replies quietly. Now, say I asked him, 'Young man, why did you receive such a poor mark?' To which he responds with, 'Well, I wasted my time. I partied, I was lazy, and I didn't study.' Now, let's say I do something radical. Let's say I tell this young man, 'My boy, I am going to change your grade from a 20% to an 80%. No strings attached. Today, you receive grace.'"
What would the response be from the rest of the class? Anger. "But- Professor, that's not fair! He doesn't deserve that! We studied, he didn't!" The protests would be wild. We are absolutely obsessed with fairness. So if that young man received grace in such a way, what would we expect from him? Logically, we would expect that he would work harder. After receiving such an undeserved gift, we would be shocked to find him continuing to party and neglecting to study. If he continued to make 20% on his tests, something wouldn't line up. It's what we call "Cheap grace." It's not how he should respond to the gift, but even if he does, the gift was still given to him. Permanently. He could abuse it, but he would still have it. He could take advantage of it, but it would still be his.
It's absurd. It's illogical. It's Grace.
The debate went on for an hour and a half. And as I listened to the back-and-forth argument between my fellow classmates and my Prof for ninety long minutes, it was like God was engraving a Truth in my heart that I had always professed to know, but had failed to understand. I started to tune out the words of my Prof, and hear the voice of my God. I stopped hearing the protests of the students, and instead I argued with God, myself.
"But, God- I'm sinful! I'm dirty and wretched and filthy!"
.....Exactly. That's why you needed Christ to make you perfect.
"Yes- but my failures!"
.....Yes, but Jesus.
"Yes- but my sin!"
.....Yes, but My Grace.
"But- but I want to be better!"
.....Yes, and without My Grace, you'd never get any closer. Christ covers your inadequacy. His sacrifice was perfect. It covered all of your sins. When I look at you now, I see my Son. When I look at you, although you sin, I see you through the blood of of the Lamb. That is what justifies you. That is what has saves you. That is what has reconciled you to Me now, always, and forever.
See, that's the story of Grace. That no matter how big a debt we owed, Christ's death CANCELLED it. He cancelled the debt for the past, the present, and the future. The problem is, I don't like to believe that. Don't get me wrong, it is good to understand our wickedness. We are sinful. We are wretched. The issue is when we begin to see our relationship with God as dependent on our performance!
I fail so much, it's not even funny. I do that which I do not want to do, and I can't seem to do the things I should. So when I mess up in the same way again and again, I start to imagine that God is getting sick of me. I start telling myself that He's just about had enough with me. So then when I pray, my prayers turn into desperate pleas: "God, I'm sorry I messed up again! Please listen just one more time! I know I promised I'd fix this last time, please don't be mad!" We think He's angry with us. We think He's annoyed with our weakness. We're just absolute losers, aren't we?! There must come a point when He gives up on us out of exasperation, right?
I didn't realize it, but that's how I viewed my relationship with God. Dependent on my performance. Held in place by my work ethic. Based on my conduct. If I screwed up, I subconsciously thought that God was growing impatient with me. But today, I was hit with just the beginning of an understanding of Grace. God revealed it to me through a diagram. And this is how it was explained:
In the bottom-left corner of the chalkboard, my Prof drew the cross. And beside the cross, he drew a man. This is the point of conversion. This is the point where we first believe, and are born again in Christ. The very top-right corner of the board he labeled: "GOD / HEAVEN / PERFECTION." In one stroke, he then drew a straight line straight across the board from the cross to perfection. This line, he labeled: "JUSTIFICATION." Then, he drew one more line. This line began at the man in the bottom corner. From there, it began zigzagging up the page. It wobbled and wavered, sometimes running parallel to the bottom of the diagram. But gradually, it began to go up. Slowly but surely, the line swooped up to join with PERFECTION at the top of the board. This line, he labeled: "SANCTIFICATION."
Between these two lines, there is a fundamental difference.
When we accept Christ, we are justified. It's instantaneous, and it's once-and-for-all. Immediately, we have found Grace. That is the line that we are judged by. That is the line by which God sees us. That justification makes us perfect before God, immediately. Blameless in his sight. We are as spotless as Jesus, because His blood is what we are justified by. But there's more to it! The process of sanctification is how we respond to the gift of Grace. Our relationship with the Father is mended through justification and can no longer be broken by our sins. All that's left is to pursue maturity in our Faith. Sanctification is the power struggle. We grow, we fall. We succeed a little, we fail a lot. But our salvation is a permanent status, not a conditional contract.
We are forgiven. That's justification. But we're still on earth, learning to live like citizens of Heaven for the time being. That's sanctification. Justification is instantaneous. Sanctification will take a lifetime. Justification makes us right with God. Sanctification is how we draw closer to Him. Justification frees us from our bondage to sin. Sanctification is the process by which the Holy Spirit leads us to live out the proof of our salvation. Justification is the one-time guarantee, while sanctification is the purification that comes from the act of following after Jesus!
Grace. It's the fundamental unit of our faith. It's not about us. It's about Christ. It's something I always assumed I understood. It's something I thought I lived by. But today, for the first time, God showed me the truth: I rely on myself. I imagine that my good deeds will hold up my legitimacy as a Believer, and 'mend' or 'repair' my relationship with God. But that's a lie! Even my greatest deeds are filthy rags when compared with God's Grace. The best that I could do and the most that I could give are still considered garbage when compared to the perfection of God.
Ephesians 2:8-9 - "For it is by grace you have been saved through faith, and this not from yourselves; it is the gift of God, not by works, so that no one can boast."
Romans 6:14 - "Sin is no longer your master, for you no longer live under the requirements of the law. Instead, you live under the freedom of God’s grace."
Without even knowing it, I was subjecting myself to the letter of the law. I beat myself up every time I fell short. I was treating the process of sanctification like it was my justification. The arguments I had were true: I am a sinner. I am a failure. All the arguments my classmates were spouting off were true. What was out of place was our hearts. Our focus was not on the grace of God, but or responsibility to "be good." Our words were true, but our hearts were focused on our own strength. But I am not made legitimate because of what I do. I am declared righteous because of what Christ did. My status: Saved. No "If's," "And's," or "But's." My obedience doesn't determine how God sees me. It is just a natural response to the undeserved gift that I've been given. The gift of Grace.
So now, I want to cling to that Grace. When the Devil tells me that my shortcomings are separating me from the Love of God, all I have to cling to is Grace. Not my efforts to "try harder next time." Not my ambition to "get it right" someday.
Just Grace. And Grace, alone.
Hebrews 4:15-16 - "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin. Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need."