Why are you guys so afraid of telling people to do good works? You are Christians, aren’t you? There are plenty of times in the bible where we are told to do good works. Can’t you just stop wrecking our attempts to do the right thing, and let us strive with all our hearts?
This is really “the” criticism of our “over-emphasis” on grace. Why are we afraid of telling people to do good works? The answer is: because of the escalator.
If you aren’t on the escalator, if you are not completely obsessed with your devout appearance to the world, then I am insistent about telling you how to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength and love your neighbor as yourself (most of us are not here most of the time). Many of us are obsessed with how the world perceives our spiritual progress. Religious people love quoting bible verses, and we love bragging about our lengthy quiet time, usually because it reinforces an image of ourselves that is loved by God for all of our devotional strife. This is seeing ourselves on the way up the escalator, without too many obstacles in the way of success.
So when someone thinks they’ve reached the summit, it’s best to remind them how strictly God demands that we strive towards good works -with our whole heart!- and highlight the desperate impossibility. That person needs to be reminded just how immanent a fall to the bottom of the escalator is.
But if you are on the escalator, growing quickly exhausted, beginning to suspect that genuine improvement and meaningful transformation is much further away than you expected, I probably won’t let you think about good works until we can take a step off the escalator.
I don’t get flack when I challenge people generally, I only get flack for challenging one particular aspect of a person’s faith. I can challenge you to pray more, read Christian books more, go to church more, love your neighbor better, live in a cooler city, use fewer foul words, drink less alcohol, drink more alcohol, be a better son, be more independent, be more manly, be more sensitive.
But I cannot challenge you to step off the escalator. I cannot challenge you to stop praying to God, “Thank you, Lord, that I am not like that man, a sinner.” Because every devout person flips out. “Praying that prayer is good for us! It makes us see how messed up everybody is, and makes us grateful that we are not that. It makes us continue to strive for progress!” In other words, it makes us feel like we have triumphed over the escalator. We have reached the spiritual summit. We have earned favor with God.
What happens, though, when we finally step off the escalator, is that we start getting better and we don’t even really know what is happening. You are free to actually love people when you see how silly the entire escalator is. When you know that Christ has freed you from the rat race, from the exhausting pursuit of the next level, from the debilitating comparison with your neighbor on who is growing holier faster, then you are free to trust God without wondering if your possible failure will destroy you.
God’s unconditional love in Christ is for you. That’s not a punchline, it’s just the truth of the matter. You are free to jump off the escalator. Or wait until your glorious fall. Either way, Christ’s love is chasing you down, and it’s [literally] dying to liberate you.