What freedom from fear and striving looks like

Written by Patrick McKitrick

When I was a student at Regent College, I took a course on vocation. One class discussion centred on how Christians should conduct themselves in the marketplace. One student suggested that Christians should always strive to be the best at whatever they do.

The professor replied, “Of course one should always try to do one’s best, but don’t forget we are justified by faith, not works.”

I thought long and hard about that statement and eventually I realized a thousand pounds had just been lifted from my shoulders. I had always obsessed with personal career ambitions; but if I was living in God’s grace, assured of salvation through faith, why worry? The problems of this life would work themselves out, and in the end, there was the glory of salvation. We can do our best, but not worry about a thing. Jesus has got us covered.

A lot of this is summed up by what the New Testament calls grace. In his book, Know the Truth, Bruce Milne describes grace as follows:

“Grace . . .  means the free display of favour, particularly by a superior to an inferior. Referred to God, it is that free decision of God, apart from all constraint and in no way compelled by our merit, to have mercy upon his sinful creatures, saving his people from all the effects of their sin, through Jesus Christ (Acts 15:11, Eph.2:8; Tit.2:11).”

Put even more simply, it is the love of God that we do not deserve. This is best illustrated through Christ’s sacrifice. Christ was a perfect sacrifice. We do not need to add to it. We must not, in fact, think that we can add to it.

If we skip further ahead in Galatians, we read: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery. Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all” (Galatians 5:1-2).

Circumcision was the ancient and sacred rite of the Jewish people. It originated in the time of Abraham, as a sign of the covenant between God and His people. It was a legal requirement for males if they wanted to be a member of that community. For Paul to start questioning the necessity of circumcision was a revolutionary thing, but there was no doubt in his mind that circumcision, as a “work of the law” was not necessary for God’s grace.

Theologian John Stott raises the question of why Paul thought circumcision was so objectionable and answers as follows in The Message of Galatians:

As the false teachers were pressing it, circumcision was neither a physical operation, nor a ceremonial rite, but a theological symbol. It stood for a particular type of religion, namely salvation by good works in obedience to the law . . . They were thus declaring that faith in Christ was insufficient for salvation. Circumcision and law-obedience must be added to it.

In verse 4, Paul goes so far as to say: “You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace.” Imagine— “alienated from Christ”—that’s strong language. Paul was concerned the Galatians either did not understand or did not trust the grace of God.

And just as circumcision was an inadequate “work of the law” in Paul’s time and just as the sale of indulgences was an inadequate work of the law in Martin Luther’s time, so are all our modern works, of every kind and description equally inadequate.

Here’s what grace isn’t: believing that Jesus was a good man, a good philosopher, a good healer, or a good leader. While those things are all true, they are not God’s grace. God’s grace is the love we do not deserve, the salvation we receive because of Jesus dying on the cross for our sins.

Something in our human nature wants to resist God’s grace. We want to say it is too good to be true.

The opposite of grace is believing that you can establish your own righteousness through your own efforts. In the same book quoted above, John Stott says that this idea is common to every religious and moral system save Christianity. “It is popular because it is flattering,” he writes. “It tells a man that if he will only pull his socks up a bit higher and try a bit harder, he will succeed in winning his own salvation.”

So if it is not a matter of “pulling up our socks,” how do we live once we have accepted God’s grace? We have this perspective: it is our faith alone that saves us, so we can handle the highs and the lows of daily life so much better. Having a bad day? Remember you are living in God’s grace, and that your salvation is assured. That should cheer you up. Having a good day, and perhaps in danger of your ego going through the roof? Remember you are living in God’s grace. That should keep your feet on the ground.

Of course, we continue to do all the things we feel God is leading us to do, whether those things be advancing our career; getting married; volunteer activities; sports; hobbies; etc. But when we realize we have been justified by faith, we will undoubtedly feel a great sense of gratitude to God, so church activities such as worship, or evangelism, will seem like glorious opportunities.