For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)
The great exchange is the good news of the gospel: what I couldn’t do, God did for me apart from anything I do (Romans 3:21-25). That’s grace and that’s great news!
Now, the bad news.
Once we come to Christ in faith and repentance, we can start to forget our deep need for the ongoing power of the gospel to live our lives day be day. We tend to think of the gospel as what gets us into the kingdom – that which starts us off in the Christian life – and then we move beyond it and immerse ourselves in the “deeper” things of God, as though there was something deeper than the gospel. Elyse Fitzpatrick captures this perfectly in a blog entitled Grace for Regretful Parents Too:
Let me explain what I mean. When Phil and I were raising our children, sure, we told them the gospel but only until they assured us that they believed it and then we piled on the law…
Then the focus changed from Jesus and the gospel to their behavior and the rules. Mixed into all this was my own idolatrous desire to be a successful parent and have successful, obedient children. In addition, we had absolutely no clue how the gospel intersected with daily life. To us the gospel was the door into Christianity and then Christianity was almost exclusively about obeying, getting on down the road of sanctification. I cringe now when I think of how I used our faith to demand obedience and punish them when they didn’t comply. Regrets? Yes, boatloads of them… if I let myself go there. (From The Biblical Counseling Coalition)
I think this is a common mistake not just in parenting, but in how we view the Christian life. Grace starts us off in this new life and then once we’re “in” we start piling law and rules on ourselves and each other so that our focus changes from our ongoing desperate need for the gospel to our own personal obedience and performance (and the obedience and performance of others) as we “get on down the road to sanctification.” Sometimes this is a subtle shift and because it can happen slowly over a period of years, we may not even notice it until the Holy Spirit reveals it to us. When we leave grace and the gospel at the door of this Christian life, something has to fill the void that it creates. If the gospel isn’t at the root and core of our sanctification, something else will be. Count on it. More often than not, that something will be our own performance.
For a number of years I was in the middle of an ongoing and at times, lively debate that attempted to define exactly what the “law of Christ” is (1 Corinthians 9:21 and Galatians 6:2). The issue arose in part because of a gnawing question that at that time was being asked repeatedly, “What commands are we obligated to obey under the New Covenant?” That’s a good question to ask and answer, assuming we get the answer right. But if we’re asking that question without any real regard for how the gospel of grace plays into our sanctification, the results can be devastating. Devastating because without the gospel at our center, it becomes easy to simply exchange one moral code (Moses) for another (the Law of Christ) and then pile the laws and rules of the new code on ourselves and others as we “get on down the road to sanctification.”
If the gospel isn’t alive and vibrant at the root and core of our sanctification continually, we’re left thinking that God’s delight or pleasure in us is based on our own performance. In other words, we start to think that God is more pleased with us when we are obeying better and we become clueless in the myriad of ways that the gospel, not law, intersects daily life.
Visit Michael W. Adams’ blog “Journey In Grace.”