I read a story about a ship that was discovered a number of years ago in the Arctic Ocean. It was manned by a crew that had frozen to death: the captain was standing over his captain's log as if he was writing an entry in it, and people were lying in hammocks and different parts of the ship. The entry in the log showed that they had been drifting around for 13 years before being discovered. The writer of the article called the ship "a floating sepulcher, manned by a frozen crew."(1)
I read that and thought, Now there is a description of religion at the time of Jesus Christ and a description of much of religion today. Everyone's in position, but nothing's actually happening. No life. Dead.
Paul wrote about the religion of the Jews in Romans 10: "For they being ignorant of God's righteousness, and seeking to establish their own righteousness, have not submitted to the righteousness of God. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes" (vv. 3-4).
I grew up in a religious home. Though I went to church and I knew all about God -- that He had a Son who was born of a virgin and died on a cross -- I lived in the spiritual ignorance that Paul wrote about and used to live in (see Philippians 3:4-9 and 1 Timothy 1:13). It's the ignorance of believing that doing good will get you to heaven.
So many religious people have a whole system worked out where they work hard to reach their own standard of righteousness and feel good about doing it. Then they say, "I deserve heaven. I worked hard for it. I've gone to church my whole life."
I love working in my yard. I'll go out and work, and after a while I'll say, "Woo! Look at me! I pulled a weed!" You do get a sense of accomplishment when you work hard for something and you see the job well done. But we should never carry that feeling or mindset over onto our relationship with God.
Jesus said, "Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill" (Matt. 5:17). In other words, Jesus came to fulfill all the requirements of the Law of Moses that nobody else could. Jesus lived a perfect life and then died for our sins. Trying to get to heaven by your own works and righteousness is like telling God, "I can do better than that. I can do better than the perfect righteousness that only Your Son could ever attain."
Many believers still want to live under the Law, whether that's by keeping the Sabbath or certain dietary restrictions. But you need to realize you're not under the Law; you've been given the righteousness of God through faith in Christ. And the only kind of righteousness God will accept is the righteousness He freely gives. That's why the religious person has trouble with the grace of Jesus Christ: it sounds way too easy. But you don't get saved by doing good works; you do good works once you're saved. Good works are the demonstration, not the method, of getting saved.
If the only righteousness that God will accept is the kind He gives, and the kind that He gives is the perfect righteousness of His perfect Son, you can't do any better than that. May our approach to God be not one of human achievement, but may we trust more and more in the already finished work of Christ on the cross.
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