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You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived . . . . But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ – by grace you have been saved . . . . For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life (Eph. 2:1-10 NRSV).
Our tendency to present the gospel as a formula for going to heaven when you die is why we still see so much spiritual desperation, emotional sadness, religious meanness, and lifestyle bankruptcy among people who have accepted Christ and joined a church. They may not have “accepted Christ.” They’ve accepted orthodox doctrine. They’ve confessed what a preacher told them to confess. But their hearts, minds, and lives haven’t yet accepted, come to participate in, and been transformed to feel, think, and function as Christ’s own in their setting.
Because we have presented the gospel as a theory of atonement rather than an invitation into Jesus’ way of thinking and living, we have argued about faith and works. We’ve pitched the battle as trusting versus trying. Letting God save us or trying to do good deeds. If only we had preached the gospel of the grace of God!
God’s unmerited favor calls us to leave an empty life of sin for the full life of righteousness. But the way to that new life is not by obeying all the laws in the Bible but through birth-entrance into the kingdom of God. John 3 is neither a “here is what you must do” or a “forgiveness of sins” text. It is about new life from above – new life on the inside that shows itself on the outside, kingdom-of-God life that manifests as walking-around-every-day life. Yes, you need to have your sins forgiven; but that is hardly the goal of Christ’s death and resurrection. Forgiveness is the means to the end of freeing you to live resurrection-style.
It is an obstacle to spiritual life and growth to see the teachings of Jesus as laws we have to obey. They are not. They are an explanation of the life that comes to us through birth from above. They are announcements of the lifestyle that goes on display in a person who is his disciple. So there is never a choice between believing and doing, trusting and trying. God’s grace has come to us through faith and created us in Christ for good works as a way of life (cf. Eph. 2:10).
And the place where God expects for this message to be communicated about his heart and perfect will is the community of faith called a church. More than that, the church is the place where people who have received grace learn to give it now to others. Kingdom life has broken through, and what God makes people to be is on display. Grace, you see, is not a personal gift to be received and relished in private moments. It is there for all the world to see in the great communal Body of Christ. And, seeing it, to be called into it themselves.