Worshipping a ‘Salvation’ of My Own Making?

While undoubtedly revealing some poor theology – and no small amount of insecurity – I have to confess that there are two passages of Scripture that absolutely terrify me. What is paradoxical about these passages being scary is that they are both recorded as the very words of Jesus, the Savior who is also my Rock and my Redeemer. As I have been drawn into ministry work over the past several years, the chord of panic struck by these passages has not lessened. To the contrary, my great fear of “becoming a religious person” has only increased my wariness.

But I think that’s probably a good thing, solid evidence of God’s work in my life. At least I hope it is.

The passages in view are Matthew 7:21-23 and Matthew 23, both of which are spoken as a stern warning to the religious people of Jesus’ day, both of which are intended to upset the listener’s preconceived notions.

As Christians, we want to be saved, and we want to draw near to God. But the clear teaching of Jesus in these two passages is that there are many Christians who think that they belong to Him, but in fact do not. When reading “The Seven Woes” of Matthew 23, for example, it is helpful for me to recall from church history that the Pharisees were actually viewed with high esteem by most Israelites. They were, roughly speaking, “the good guys” who sought to uphold God’s law even under the yoke of Roman oppression. I have to think Jesus’ condemnation of the good religious folks was both shocking and scandalous.

So how do we avoid the fate of the “children of hell” that Jesus hotly condemns in Matthew 23 (verse 15)?

This is a big question that probably has several answers, but today I want to point to just one that, for me, is a challenge – our relentless tendency to focus on and judge the flaws and failings of others, rather than focusing on our own failures.

It seems depressingly easy to validate the truth of what Jesus says by careful observation of others. Some of the most religious and devout people I have come into contact with seem so confident in their salvation that they won’t hear of anyone telling them about a flaw in their character or anything else that might disrupt or change their preferred sense of self. But then, I notice that as soon as I make this judgment about someone else, I’m judging them and (by default) elevating myself.

When we allow ourselves to set our life of faithfulness on a measuring bar over against the faith life of others, we veer almost immediately into thinking better of ourselves than Scripture says we should (Romans 12:3) and slowly-but-surely drift away from Christ Himself because, after all, “I am doing so much better than that guy over there!” I am deeply persuaded that this kind of “sin comparison” is more deadly to a life of faith than just about anything else.

I have seen this tendency in myself. There was a point in time when seeing the hypocrisy in others made me feel better about my own flawed attempts to follow Christ. But here’s what I have noticed in the last few years. The “fun” (if you can call it that) associated with picking out flaws in other churchgoers has completely vanished. Where conversations about “other sinful people” previously had the ungodly after-effect of puffing me up, tempting me to think I was in any way “doing better” than someone else, the thrill is gone. Instead, the Spirit of God within has been strengthened to the point where even the smallest swipe at someone else immediately returns collected (unwanted) memories of times in my life where I did worse, usually “much worse.” Sin in anyone, myself included, now makes me sad instead of mad.

I think this might be progress.

Because our hearts are relentlessly self-deceiving (Jeremiah 17:9), we simply cannot trust that our walk of faith is authentic without judging our own hearts against the mirror held up by the Word of God, and the work of the Spirit through the lives of other believers.

We must guard our hearts at all times against judging the actions and motives of others, while also inviting those close to us to see the hypocrisy in our own lives. Humility, then, is key – we must be humble enough to admit we are far worse than we can imagine, that we likely can’t possibly see how sinful we (still!) are, and that we need the help of others to guard ourselves.

Written by Rev. Scotty Smith, the prayer below, with its specific examples of how hypocrisy and judgmentalism can sneak into all our lives, drives the point home. If we cannot go through our own days without arrogantly judging the hearts of others, how can we hope to avoid the terrifying words of Christ on that great day when we will see Him face to face? A clue, perhaps, from Matthew 19:25-26: “When the disciples heard this, they were greatly astonished, saying, ‘Who then can be saved?’ But Jesus looked at them and said, ‘With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.'”

March 15th: A Prayer for Adorning the Gospel

Teach slaves to be subject to their masters in everything, to try to please them, not to talk back to them, and not to steal from them, but to show that they can be fully trusted, so that in every way they will make the teaching about God our Savior attractive. (Titus 2:9-10 NIV)

Gracious Father, while jogging today I came upon your Son’s name in a recently poured sidewalk. “Jesus loves you” was scribbled in the cement with either a finger or a stick. The elder brother in me reared his ugly head, and I wanted to find the culprit and ask, “What were you thinking? You defaced private property, identified yourself as a Christian, and this is supposed to make the gospel attractive to nonbelievers?”

But it didn’t take me long to move from being a self-appointed prosecuting attorney to a convicted son. For I realize you have every right to ask me, “What are you thinking when you and your friends carry on a conversation about me in a restaurant, then undertip your server? And what are you thinking when you drive like a madman on the interstate, with a fish symbol on the back of your car? And what are you thinking when you overindulge in food and beverage and call it ‘Christian liberty?’ And what are you thinking when you cop an attitude when lines, traffic, and service people don’t move fast enough for you?”

Father, the gospel is attractive all by itself. You’re not calling me to “spice it up,” put a bow on it, or add anything to it, for there’s no such need. I simply must be more careful not to hide its beauty by my foolishness and lack of manners. Continue to show me what it means to do all things in line with the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2:14). I pray in Jesus’ peerless name. Amen.

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