There are people in every church I’ve been in who need to be set free.
This is not to say that some of these churches didn’t preach grace. But sometimes, it just takes a while for grace to seep in to where change needs to happen. Grace on the surface is one thing; grace in our innermost being is life-changing.
Much of Christianity teaches that we “miss the mark.” This is true, of course. However, much of Christianity forgets to teach that Jesus has hit the mark for us. So, rather than hearing that we have succeeded in Christ, we only hear that we have failed and that we need to do more, and try harder. Once this concept is fully rooted in someone’s thinking, it may stay with them for years, in spite of their gaining an intellectual understanding of grace.
I suspect that some people first join these graceless, “miss-the-mark” churches because they already know that they don’t hit the mark, so they fit right in. They are given some guidelines that may help them hit the mark, sometimes, and they are promised that someday they will either make the mark in Heaven, or perhaps that the mark will simply be removed. And, being beat up every week for continually missing the mark helps assuage their guilt.
That’s the only reason I can think of to explain why people actually convert to a works-oriented form of Christianity. This parody of Christianity functions something like a 12-step group: The first step is admitting you are a sinner, and realizing that you will always be a sinner. The best you can hope for is God helping you to sin just a little bit less, or perhaps it’s enough just to know you’re surrounded by people who feel as lousy as you do.
This kind of graceless thinking gets into your core, because in your core you’re already feeling like crap. It simply confirms that what you have believed about yourself is really true. Here’s the irony about converting to a legalistic version of Christianity: In some ways, because you aren’t changing how you feel about things in your core, you don’t really have to repent all that much.
To accept salvation by grace takes real repentance. What you need to repent from is the thinking that your performance actually matters, in a spiritual sense. Yes, you’re a sinner, and if you ever think you can keep God’s law, it will condemn you. Now, get over it.
What you need to repent (turn) to is the truth that Jesus performed on our behalf; he kept the law, and more than that, he conquered death (the consequences of sinning). Think of the law as a video game (only with life or death consequences): Jesus has beaten all of the levels. In essence, the game is over. And not only that, the consequences for losing the game has been removed. You are now free to play the game (just make sure you log on under Jesus’ name).
The truth about repentance
Repentance (in a soteriological sense) has never been about changing your behavior; no behavior-mod program can save you. Repentance is about changing your core beliefs. For most of us, repentance is like peeling an onion; it happens layer by layer. With the discovery of each new layer of self-reliance, more repentance needs to take place. The good news is that it’s all by grace, the great onion-peeler.
So be free—because that’s why we’ve been set free.