Saved by guilt or grace?

Cross and Sunset

“When You say come, rest, should I be working so hard?

When You say love, rest, did you want hands or my heart?

‘Cause I have done my best and still I miss the mark

But I remember You said it’s done

So I come”

– “Come Rest” by Lindsay McCaul

Our mistakes often leave us wondering what to do with ourselves. We Christians, in particular, struggle to be “perfect” for God and can easily become confused in our pursuit of perfection. On the one hand, when our eyes are opened to the sight of our imperfection, we cringe. We begin to despise ourselves as we recall bad choices, inconsiderate actions, and selfish desires. On the other hand, when we read the Bible, we are reminded of the astounding grace God gives to all who believe in Jesus Christ. When overwhelmed with guilt, we tend to deal with our imperfection in one of two ways—by continually condemning ourselves or by focusing on God’s grace. While self-condemnation has harmful effects, God’s grace is ultimately the only thing that will succeed in rooting out the sin in our lives.

Self-condemnation, by definition, means to blame oneself. Yes, it is absolutely true that we are at fault for our sins, and we need to welcome humility by recognizing and acknowledging our sins. However, by continually condemning ourselves for those sins, we can easily start believing the lies that tell us we are worthless, that we must work hard if we ever want God to love us, or that it is useless to change if we can never measure up anyway.

When our sins are magnified by circumstances, our tendency is to criticize ourselves repeatedly, thinking that this will somehow push us to change.

However, this action instead causes us to subconsciously start believing those negative thoughts we have about ourselves, and we essentially allow our sin to define us. If we allow sin to become our identity, we can become confused into thinking that because we are imperfect people, the perfect God will not give His love and acceptance to us without our working for it. This belief will inevitably lead us toward exhaustion and, eventually, failure. If we believe that we must work to earn God’s approval and come to find that we can never measure up, we may bitterly conclude that there is no point in changing our ways.

Self-condemnation can also distort God’s image and character in our minds. It gives us the picture of a strict, standoffish God who expects us to perform. But when we read the Bible, we discover the truth of his character in the accounts of all the wonderful things he has said and done. By learning who God really is and by listening to what he has to say about us, we can begin to tune out our own negative thoughts and instead put our confidence in him and his grace, letting him define us. We read in Romans 8:1, “Therefore there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” John 3:17-18a also states, “For God sent not his Son [Jesus] into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through him might be saved. He that believeth on him is not condemned.” If God, who has all authority, does not condemn us as followers of Jesus, why should we condemn ourselves?

Also, God does not tell us that he wants us to work to earn his love and acceptance. He says the complete opposite. Ephesians 2:8-9a says, “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of [your] works.” Because he loved us and knew that we were too weak to fight sin for ourselves, God switched places with us. He came to earth as a perfect human named Jesus Christ to give us his perfection and to take all of our imperfection upon himself, dying in our place. He himself rescued us from sin and death, and by giving us his perfection, made us perfect and acceptable. The work has already been done.

Although we may know that we did not save ourselves, but that God did, we can still get caught up in focusing on our own faults and how we need to change. However, we have to be careful not to believe that God is constantly focused on those things as well. If we believe that God is always focusing on what we need to change, and if we return to the belief that he is expecting our perfection, we will feel no motivation to change. The truth is, God is focused on loving us and giving us grace every day. Romans 2:4b says, “the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance.” It is his goodness and grace that make us want to change. By paying the price for our sin so that we would not have to, He gave us amazing grace that we could never deserve. As we realize this truth, we become so overwhelmed with joy, and we develop a sense of gratitude toward God for what he has done. It is only out of our feelings of joy and gratitude that we are motivated to change.

Self-condemnation will always lead us into confusion and bitterness.

As that bitterness replaces our desire to change, it allows sin to continue in our lives. But by focusing on God’s grace, which conquers all sin, we are enabled to see ourselves the way he sees us. We find our worth in him—the one who literally loved us to death. Because we know his goodness, we want to praise him and change our ways out of our love for him.

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