This series of posts focuses on several pitfalls that especially plague Independent Fundamental Baptist (IFB) churches. These pitfalls are wide enough to catch people of a variety of stripes, but fundamentalist Christians tend to be especially prone to these errors. Having disentangled myself from some of these very errors, I aim to lovingly warn people of the dangers associated with this way of thinking.
We looked at legalism, in the first post in this series. Today we will focus on performance-based sanctification.
Performance-based sanctification is a particular form of legalism. I have quoted C.J. Mahaney on this topic before, but perhaps the following excerpt from blogger Terry Rayburn will best convey what I mean by “performance-based sanctification.”
If you think you’re performing pretty well at a particular time, then you think you are deserving God’s love and favor, and pride sets in. Even while you know that pride comes before a fall, right? And even while you know that God resists the proud, right?
But what if you think you’re performing poorly at a particular time? What if you have been deceived by the world, the flesh and the devil, and you find yourself doing what you don’t want to do, or not doing what you want to do, like Paul describes in Romans 7?
Well, then you feel like God doesn’t love you or favor you as much, if at all, and you despair, and you shy away from Him, which makes it even worse, because you need to be in close fellowship with Him to walk in the Spirit.
And so there’s this downward spiral. And God forbid that you just pull up your bootstraps, and “will” yourself to perform better so you can swing back to the proud side.
–excerpted from “The Harm of Performance-Based Christianity” by Terry Rayburn
Can you see the yo-yo swing there? Work hard, feel good; blow it and feel terrible. Where is the confidence in God’s grace in this model? The secret to living victoriously for Christ is gritting your teeth, doing more, and not doing the things you shouldn’t do. Try, try, try. Harder, harder, harder! Don’t quit. Keep going. We say that salvation is by grace, but growing in Christ is about the will power, the commitment and the determination.
This can lead to despair or a terrible form of pride. And it leads to class of spiritual elites. Those in the church who have the right know-how and ability to toe the line, those who have their externals together, they can feel like they are a superior bunch to the others who don’t spend hours each week on visitation, who don’t attend every service and say or do the right things in front of the right people. This can creep on silently, and people can do this without even realizing it. You are always thinking of this certain group of people who don’t seem to put up and do their fair share. And for their part, they seem to hang their heads appropriately and have resigned themselves to being sub-par and so serve menially or try to stick around for some benefit from the spiritually gifted leader class. And of course both classes can tend to view outsiders with suspicion. They aren’t us. They aren’t performing to the degree or on the particular points that we are. They must not be “sold out” to God, like we are.
Preachers can feed this mentality, heaping guilt on those who know they haven’t measured up. Calling for more sacrifice and greater devotion. Recommit your life to Christ, dedicate yourself again and everything will be fine. And they can promote an aura that says they are above this struggle to live for Christ. They have arrived and we, the peons, haven’t.
All of this focuses on self, and shifts the focus away from Christ. Instead of coming to him for grace, and “preaching the Gospel” to ourselves every day, we are encouraged to keep examining ourselves and just try harder. Instead of admitting that all Christians need the grace of Christ day by day, we assume that if we can just do more, we’ll arrive in this perfect place. We need to remind ourselves instead, that we are accepted by God because of Christ’s death for us and his perfect life lived on our behalf. Jesus died to save worthless sinners. We were not worthy of Christ’s death on our behalf before we were saved, and we are not worthy of His love and acceptance after we have trusted Him either. This point, that nothing we do can make us more valuable to God, is underscored in Jadon Lavik’s song “What If.”
I am reminded of an important quote from Tim Keller:
…the gospel is not just for non-Christians, but also for Christians. This means the gospel is not just the A-B-C’s but the A to Z of the Christian life. It is not accurate to think “the gospel” is what saves non-Christians, and then, what matures Christians is trying hard to live according to Biblical principles. It is more accurate to say that we are saved by believing the gospel, and then we are transformed in every part of our mind, heart, and life by believing the gospel more and more deeply as our life goes on.
If we think of the gospel as only pardon or forgiveness of sins, we will trust in God for our past salvation, but will trust in our own present strivings and attainments for our present relationship with God… the entire Christian life is a life lived (in a continual present progressive) by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Gal. 2:20) …we must continually remind ourselves of our status as legally righteous, adopted children of God. [Source]
Don’t try harder in your Christian life. Focus on Jesus more. Bask in His love, and try to realize how truly amazing and dumbfounding is His grace. He shouldn’t love you, but He does! And nothing can change that. Holiness flows from true, sincere love for Christ. When we realize we are accepted in Christ, we will want to please him. This point is subtle but oh, so life-changing.
There are so many Scripture texts which teach this truth, that we need to have a Gospel-based sanctification model. One concept that helps is realizing that “salvation” in the New Testament, often refers to the final, ultimate salvation we experience in heaven (our glorification). We are saved – in this future sense, as much by grace as we are saved in the justification (present tense). It is all of grace. I’ll leave you with one Scripture text on living the Christian life in the same way we receive the Gospel, but I encourage you to check out my “The Gospel’s Work in Believers” series which expounds Scripture more on this point.
Colossians 2:6-7 KJV
As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving.
We received Christ by faith, and that is how we must walk in him. We are built up in him, and the text goes on to say later that we are complete in him. We are accepted in Him. And that is how we live the Christian life – by faith in what Jesus has done. We walk by faith in what God says is true of us, and not by sight as to how we feel in our struggle to live lives worthy of Him. I hope this post can help some understand the peril of performance-based thinking.
~ Originally posted at Fundamentally Reformed