Why do we live for Jesus?
We cannot earn our salvation. Our fleshly good works don't impress God. So, why do we do good works?
I've heard the question presented many times, and it's usually followed by some blank stares and uncomfortable shuffling around…until somebody pipes up and says, "We do good out of gratitude for all that Christ did for us!" I've heard this explanation taught actively by well-known pastors and organizations.
Gratitude is wonderful. It's essential. If we are not profoundly, overwhelmingly grateful for what Christ did on our behalf, we'd better check our spiritual pulses. But is that truly the only basis for our good works and obedience?
Does it matter? Am I asking a ho-hum question here with no relevance to real life?
I think it matters a great deal, because if we can't think of any reason besides just "gratitude" for our obedience, then we're missing something vital. Gratitude is necessary*. It is not enough.
In fact, if we're missing some of the other foundational building blocks of obedience, there's a good chance we really don't understand just how much we have to be grateful for. And our obedience may lack both urgency and tenacity. Hopefully by the time we're through here, we'll not only have more reasons for obedience, but our gratitude will be even deeper than it was before.
Some of you will read this and discover that there's always been much more than gratitude underlying your obedience, even if you couldn't have named what it was. But for some of you, this may be a strong verbal reproof. Either way, may it be a blessing.
Let me paint you a picture.
Suppose a man is walking along a path, and at one point it diverges. He knows that the paths meet up again in a short time. In fact, there's really no difference between the two.
But suppose that before this man left on his trip, he had visited with his dearest friend, who had said to him, "On your journey, when you get to the fork in the road, please take the right-hand one." Our hypothetical man is likely to take the right-hand road as requested, simply because of his gratitude towards this old friend. He wouldn't have any other reason to choose the right-hand road, would he?
Now, fast-forward a few years. War has broken out, and the enemy has made terrible inroads into our man's area. He sets out as he did before, but his friend first warns him that the left-hand fork is now enemy territory. He's sure to be killed if he goes that way. Now what motivates him to take the right-hand fork? Just gratitude for his friend's good advice? Or an awareness of the horrors of the other path?
Do you and I know what we've been saved from?
Here's where so many evangelistic schemes show their powerlessness. They've taught that the two forks represent Heaven and Hell. Jesus died to save us from Hell, they say. Once we're saved, we're always saved, so Hell is no longer an option for us to worry about. The left fork remains in friendly hands. There's really no difference between the two paths. Therefore, why should we choose the right fork? We are left with nothing but gratitude. Humor Jesus. After all, you owe it to Him.
If we say there's no reason other than gratitude, then we're like the man facing two equivalent forks. We're saying the path of disobedience is just as viable an option as the path of obedience, as long as we avoid the unpleasant ending.
Jesus did not come just to save us from Hell. He came to save us from sin (Matt 1:21, Rom 6:7, Rom 6:18, Rom 6:22). There are two paths, and they do lie in different domains. One ends in Hell, and one ends in Heaven, but what lies along each path before the end?
Are we really going to say that there's no difference…that we have no reason other than gratitude to obey our Lord? He died to save us from the sin that lines every step of that other path, not just from the Hell at the end!
Christ is our life (Col 3:4), while the way of sin is the way of death (Jas 1:15). The choices we make, even in the secret places of our minds, will determine if we breathe the noxious fumes of decay or the fresh air of the Spirit (Rom 8:6). Will we really insult our Lord by saying the two paths are equally good, so long as you get to jump to the other one right before the end?
Do we really believe that there's no difference in value, in quality, in worth, in joy, in peace, and in happiness between a life of obedience and a life of disobedience? Do we obey when the mood strikes, because we feel like humoring the nice guy upstairs, or do we obey with urgency and tenacity (and gratitude) because we know that walking away from Christ is walking away from our Life and into the territory of our deadly enemy?
Look down that left-hand fork with me. What do we see there? Obvious sins which disgust us. Obvious sins which should disgust us but don't. Subtle, hidden sins. And wait…what's that? Why…that's our good works done in the flesh. That's our very best efforts. That's everything we would ever trust in if we were to put confidence in our own flesh.
Jesus died to save us from those, too. They are nothing but filthy rags in His sight, as they ought to be in ours (Isa 64:6 NKJV, Php 3:7-8). If our very best needs His redemption, what brazen, misplaced confidence tells us we don't need Him every moment?
Why do we walk with Him in obedience? Is it not because we must eat and drink Him in order to live (John 6:57-58); because without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5); because He meets with those who joyfully do righteousness (Isa 64:5); because we love and believe in Him, and therefore trust what He says we should do (John 14:15)?
Dear friends, let's be grateful for more than salvation from Hell. Let's be grateful for salvation from sin, and obediently follow the only One who is the Way of Life, believing that the truest pleasures lie at His right hand (Ps 16:11), not on the paths of disobedience.
*Sometimes the enemy of our souls twists even a beautiful thing like gratitude into something that God never intended it to be. John Piper tackles this issue when he discusses the danger of "The Debtor's Ethic" (PDF file available here). He says it better than I ever could, so I'll leave that angle entirely in his capable hands.