Having just moved to a new place, I am still trying to find my way around. Part of that process, at least for me, is learning all the nooks and crannies. It is discovering the little places, like a park or a trail, that provide moments of escape from the bustle here in America. A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across a gem. It is a wilderness area situated along a dam constructed by the Army Corps of Engineers.
Sitting at a picnic table, reading my Bible and gazing at the still lake, I noticed an unusual sight to my right. Not too far from my table was a large piece of the dam protruding up into the sky. It was housing some machinery that looked of particular importance for the operation of the dam, and crowded on the very top of it was a whole flock of pigeons.
Now, under normal circumstances, this would not catch my attention, but right in the middle of the pigeons I saw what looked like an owl. If you know anything about pigeons, they do not really get along with owls, so this scene registered as out of the ordinary. I watched, and within a mere moment, one of the pigeons actually fluttered up and landed on top of the owl, perching on its head.
That was when I realized the owl was fake.
It was a scarecrow, fastened to the top of the dam to scare away pigeons. As you may have guessed, it did not seem to be working too well. Apparently, the pigeons had figured out the scam, and being the wiser to it, were no longer fooled by the fake owl. If it had kept them off at all, over time, it had ceased to have the same effect on them.
As I sat there, reading through 1 Peter and his discussion of holiness, a light bulb went off. We Christians have a nasty habit of doing the same thing. We build scarecrows, hoping they will keep us away from sin and cause us to live a holy life.
Last week, I shared some thoughts on the self-help approach we often take to pursuing holiness. This week, my aim is fixed on our bend toward legalism as an answer to the holy life.
The gospel is a hard pill to swallow. There is just something about the idea of grace that makes no sense to mankind. We cannot fathom its scope. In that one mighty act of grace, Christ not only kept us from getting what we earned, but gave us something we did not deserve. But what does that mean in practice?
We will at least give lip service to this idea of grace when it comes to our justification (the act of us being made in right standing with God), but we want to divorce sanctification (or the process through which we become holy) from salvation and make it a different process, one in which we are responsible for the effort. In our minds, justification is a gift, but sanctification is something we have to earn.
Let me put it another way. We will admit that there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. And furthermore, we will let that apply to what we usually call the “act of conversion.” However, as soon as that has occurred in the believer’s life, then all bets are off. From that moment forward, we stress the effort necessary to be a “good Christian.” In essence, we begin to work for it. Becoming a Christian, well, that is God’s part, but being a Christian is apparently something we feel comes from our own merit.
Yet our sanctification is just as much a part of salvation as the act of justification; therefore, it is as much an act of grace as the initial conversion.
Basically, we cannot earn holiness.
But we sure try. We know the Bible calls us to a holy life. We know that God desires us to live above reproach, set apart, and sinless. So, we try real hard.
One of the ways we do this is by building scarecrows. We erect things in our life to scare us away from sin. We talk about all of sins consequences. We have all heard sermons filled with anecdotes that illustrate the awful things that happen to people who live in sin. When it comes to our youth, we fill them full of stories about the evil path of sin. We share the horrors of sex and drugs and a million other things, hoping our youth will understand their dangers and stay away from sin.
Then they do it anyways.
Study after study tells us our youth inside the church are no better off than the ones outside our reach, at least when it comes to things like sex, drugs, and a whole list of behaviors. What is more, the studies on issues such as adultery, divorce and substance abuse would lead us to think our adults in the church are in the same predicament.
So what is happening? With all our talk of sin and its consequences, with all our scarecrows, why are we still struggling with holiness in the church? Simply put, it is because we are reaching for holiness in our own power. We are attempting to grasp the ungraspable. Then, we fall short and live defeated.
This creates that cycle of up and down Christianity. In our own strength, we push forward, trying to find ways to convince ourselves to live a better life. So, for a while, we may find a tactic that seems to work. We begin to remove sinful habits from our lives, only to find ourselves back in the middle of them over time. Then, we beat ourselves up for falling and use guilt to produce a renewed sense of duty to the goal. This cycle is the natural outcome of legalism.
Trying to earn our holiness is so prevalent, we have created a whole vocabulary to explain it away as right. We talk about mountaintop experiences and valleys in our faith. I have heard youth speakers describe the faith walk as a roller coaster, as though that is the way it is supposed to work. People can be complacent Christians or “on fire for the Lord” depending on how hard they are trying. In essence, we have gotten so used to this up and down swing in our holiness that we think it is just how the Christian life is supposed to happen.
Scarecrows do not work. We will sit on our scarecrows like pigeons perched on a fake owl. They may appear to help for a while, but ultimately, they will never keep us from sin. The ability to truly resist sin and live the set apart life cannot come from our effort. Just like conversion, holiness is a gift given. If we want to live the life demanded in scripture, we must understand it does not come by pressure we put on ourselves, but by our position in Christ.
The real secret to happiness is not found in who we try to be, but where we try to be. We must abide in Christ and walk in the Spirit, and he will act in us. He will sanctify us and begin to transform us into his image. We will become holy, not of our own merit, but by his grace.
More on this next week…