This is a continuation of my previous post.
After four years of living like a legalistic, modern-day Pharisee, I was exhausted, humiliated by failure, and desperate for freedom.
Despite my good intentions, I had turned my life into a spiritual circus act. I followed as many rules as possible, only to discover that following the rules can’t make you holy – but rules can make you very aware of your sin (see my previous post).
Bearing the weight of that miserable revelation eventually broke me. It also led me to search for the Jesus who loved me despite my status as a loser – maybe even because I was a loser.
To be clear, I didn’t entirely let go of legalism after proving myself a failure at it. Rule-abiding was the only way I knew to live as a Christian. So I still condemned Christians who drank alcohol, smoked, said curse words, or voted for Democrats. I also looked down on Christians from Episcopalian, Methodist, and Presbyterian churches, calling those believers the “frozen chosen.” But regardless of my lingering legalism, I was searching for grace.
I began to find freedom from law-based religiousness in law school, of all places. My first-year contracts class was instrumental in helping me see that my view of God’s love had very little to do with His kindness.
In contracts, I learned the age-old legal principle that a signed contract doesn’t mean anything unless both parties can bring something valuable to the table. Signing a contract to give something out of the goodness of your heart isn’t enough. Payment or work by the other party is required – without that, they can’t hold you to the contract.
I realized that I was literally living under the law – contracts law – in my relationship with God. I tried to strike a deal with Him: You give me salvation, and I will tirelessly work in exchange for the gift. But He didn’t want work – He wanted perfection (Matthew 5:48). I couldn’t deliver on my end of the deal. There had to be another way, or I was doomed to hell.
Around that time, I watched a video called The Life, featuring Anabel and Bill Gillham, an older, unassuming couple who have a ministry that is focused on the good news of grace.
Anabel said something that didn’t sound anything like contracts law, and it stuck with me: “Dear Christian, if you never read your Bible again, if you never go to church, if you never say another prayer, please understand that God will still love you. You will not forfeit your salvation. You did nothing to earn it, and you can do nothing to lose it.”
That sounded so good, but it didn’t square with my view of divine forgiveness. I felt like God had put me on the planet to good works (Eph. 2:10) – but when I didn’t work hard enough, I believed He withdrew from me, sulking until I prayed again or read my Bible or told someone about Jesus.
I wouldn’t admit it to myself, but my deepest fear was that I would lose my salvation due to any unforgiven sin in my life. So throughout the day, I neurotically prayed, “Jesus-please-forgive-me-for-all-my-sins-today-Amen.” I did that because I was afraid I would unexpectedly get hit by a garbage truck, go to heaven with sin on my account, and be turned away. Game over. Joshua goes to hell. Buh-bye.
Bill addressed this misconception by asking how many in the audience were alive when Jesus died on the cross (none of us, of course). “If you weren’t alive when Jesus died for your sins, then He must have died for all your sins – past, present, and future,” he said. “Believer, all your sins have already been forgiven. You’re free.”
My jaw dropped.
This was scandalously good news to me – my future sins couldn’t hold me hostage to the fear of damnation anymore. For the first time since my childhood, I began to think that my damnation might even be impossible, that God had permanently adopted me into His family – not by contract, but by the blood of His Son.
My heart wanted to believe, but my mind was conditioned by years of seeing God as the demanding, all-powerful boss man in a spiritual contract. I figured, “He loves me,” on days when I had a revelation like the one from Bill and Anabel. But then I would do a face plant into sin and think, “Scratch that – now He probably loves me not.” It would take a lot more truth and some divine consistency on His part to set me free.