Question from a Site Viewer
Recently I was rebuked by my Bible study teacher about my leadership. He said what I was doing was anti-gospel and that I was trying to do things for the youth group such as planning a great praise night or a powerful lock-in through my own work and my efforts. So in that way, I guess what he was saying was that it was not in my power to change anyone’s hearts, not my words or actions or planning that could convert anyone from non-believer to a Christian. I think he was saying that I was trying too hard — that I should just “let go and let God.” So I realized how much of a “Pharisee” that I have become. I’ve been reading Romans to see the theology behind Christianity, that we are justified not by our works but by our faith.
My teacher also said that no one can please God, and that even our “righteous acts are like filthy rags.” If this is the case, I started to wonder, what is there for me to do then? What good am I to God? Why should I even bother trying? Should I just “let go and let God?” If I love God but I fail all the time in my lust, greed, jealousy and all that sin, why should I even bother? I feel like there is something that’s really blinding me from a simple truth that I’m not seeing, and it scares me that I’m even asking these questions. I’m beginning to see how weak my faith really was, even though I thought after all this time I was strong in faith.
I’m also becoming very much like a Pharisee in other ways. I’m so judgmental of other people, I get angry easily and I am jealous of certain people, and try to justify my wrongdoings, believing that some people “deserve” it. It sickens me however whenever I do this, so I’m not completely blind to my sin. I know I’m doing it, but I don’t know how to stop. This is the thing that always bothers me. I read about Paul, and how he doesn’t do the good he wants to do, but the evil he doesn’t want to do, that he does. I was reading that whole passage and by the end of it I was waiting for some kind of solution, but I didn’t see any kind of solution. All it said was “who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” He thanks Jesus Christ, but sin is still there in us, so why is he rejoicing? I don’t get it! I guess I thought becoming a Christian was being able to overcome sin, but even Paul’s thorn wouldn’t leave him, so what can I do about my sins? My problems? Am I supposed to be stuck with them forever?
I don’t know what my problem is; I don’t even know what to pray for. I’m so confused. I need answers.
Thank you for your willingness to address this issue. It is always good to have an attitude of openness to consider rebuke, and this includes rebuke from our Bible teachers. Submission and humility are excellent traits for the kingdom servants. But submission and humility do not mean that we should accept the rebuke as being Biblically sound. No Christian, including a Christian leader, is always right. We all have imperfect theology and because of this we always encourage people to search the Scriptures to see if what we are saying is true. Once rebuke is given, the one who is rebuked, as is the situation with any instruction, should go to Scripture to see what is correct (See Acts 17:11; 2 Timothy 2:15). It is important to listen to rebuke openly, consider it humbly, and make one’s decision as to what to do with the rebuke through a prayerful look at the Scriptures. If Scriptures show that the rebuke was proper, it is important to learn and grow wiser because of the rebuke. If Scriptures show that the rebuke was not warranted, it is important to be respectful of those in authority while seeking to live out what Jesus teaches. Ultimately, we are His servants and He is the only Master for each of us (see Romans 14:4-9).
From your email, it appears that you and your teacher had a disagreement about how to conduct ministry. Your teacher considered what you were doing as being by your own efforts, instead of by Christ. I do not know whether that statement is true or whether the disagreement really was over a difference in the direction of the ministry.
However, I am a bit concerned about other statements you make. You seem to imply, if not state, that our own efforts have no role in Christ’s work. That is simply not true. It is true that our own efforts that are in rebellion to Christ are not fruitful for us. Paul tells us that whatever we do that is not in love is not profitable (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). Jesus said that without Him we can do nothing (John 15:5). But with Christ, we can do all things (Philippians 4:13). We are called to be engaged, to work out our salvation (Philippians 2:12). Paul labored night and day (1 Thessalonians 2:9). One does not need to read Scripture far to see that being a good servant of Christ is a lot of hard work. The words “labor,” “toil,” “struggle,” and “work” are part and parcel of Biblical theology. The difference for Christians is that our work is for the kingdom and should be done with prayer and conscious dependency on God. But that we should engage in the work is established throughout Scripture.
Further, the view that it is impossible to please God is far from Biblical theology. Hebrews 11:6 tells us that without faith it is impossible to please God. But the opposite is also true. With faith, it is possible to please God. Over and over, we are told that we can please God. Hebrews 13:16 tells us that we can please God by offering praise to God and by doing good works and sharing. With these God is well pleased. Enoch pleased God (Hebrews 11:5). In Romans 12:1, Paul urges the Romans to present their bodies as a sacrifice to God, well pleasing to Him. He tells us in Romans 14:18 that the one who serves Christ by not judging and grieving our brothers is well pleasing to God. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5:9 that his aim was to be well pleasing to Christ. Paul says that the support the Philippians provided to him was well pleasing to God (Philippians 4:18). The obedience of children to their parents is well pleasing to Christ (Colossians 3:20). Each of these verses uses a Greek word meaning “to be well pleasing.”
In addition to these, there are other verses about pleasing God. Paul says in Romans 8:8 that those who are in the flesh cannot please God but he quickly adds that we are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. The clear implication that Paul is making is that we can please God by walking in the Spirit. Paul writes to the Thessalonians that they knew from Paul’s teaching how they ought to walk and to please God (1 Thessalonians 4:1). We live in light of our acceptance in Christ Jesus and our ability to please Him with our walk. If we walk in love, we please Him. He is not untouched by us. Abraham was a friend of God. Moses was God’s beloved servant. David was a man after God’s own heart. Daniel was greatly beloved by God. The sense is that each of these mere mortals were pleasing to God. One gets that same sense from reading about God’s assessment of Job in Job 1. God is not a Father with whom His children can never measure up or satisfy. To the complete opposite, God is well pleased with us when we by faith seek to do what He requests of us. And we do not need to be perfect to please Him. None of the men mentioned, including Paul, were perfect. But their hearts were bent toward God and therefore their actions were well pleasing to Him.
You mention the verse from Isaiah 64:6 about our righteousness being as filthy rags. The context of this verse is a people who were living in sin (see verses 5-7). This passage is not talking about Christians who practice right things. From the days of Cain and Abel, those who practiced what was right were acceptable to God (Genesis 4:7). John tells us that the one who practices righteousness is righteous even as God is righteous (1 John 3:7). Paul tells us that we should serve righteousness in Romans 6. Jesus Himself said that a good person out of the goodness of his heart brings forth good things (Matthew 12:35). It is possible for men to live righteously with God. We do so by faith, by abiding in Christ, by walking in the Spirit, and fully pleasing God by being fruitful in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God (Colossians 1:10).
When you read through the epistles, you do not find any support for a position that we should give up trying to please God. The “let go and let God” theology is not Scriptural theology. To the contrary, we are encouraged to live in certain ways, to put to death the deeds of the flesh (something that is a responsibility for us to do) and to put on the deeds of the new man (something that also is our responsibility). We are told to walk in love, to love practically by helping people in need, and always making our plans contingent on God’s will. The commands of God come to us to do. Psalm 111:10 tells us that those who do His commands are blessed. Jesus said much the same thing in John 14:21.
But there are two ways of trying to live the Christian life. One is by trying to keep the commands of God by our own efforts. We struggle and we find that we are not able. The other is by abiding in Christ and doing good works out of that relationship. If we seek to draw close to God, we will find that He empowers us to love more, to serve more, to be more obedient to His calls, and to do more for the kingdom. The “secret,” if there is such a thing in Christian living, is simply to live in relationship by faith each day. Practically, we do this by seeking to know Christ, to love Him, to adore and worship Him, to seek His will, and then going out and doing whatever work is set before us with the ability He has given us, bathing all things in prayer.
The problem with “letting go and letting God” is it makes us passive participants in the Christian life. Jesus does not choose passive participants. Jesus said to the church at Laodicea that being lukewarm was not attractive to Him. He wants us to have a passion, a desire, a burning to be a follower of Him. He chose people like Peter, James and John (the sons of thunder) to be His disciples. He wants people who will engage and go and do. It is people with a passion, a vision, a purpose, and plan that God takes and uses and shines His light through them. But such people also must be humble and conscious of their dependency always on God.
You raise a question about Romans 7. I hope you see that Romans 7 is in the context of Romans 6-8. In Romans 6, we are told that we are not a slave to sin. In Romans 8, we are told that we are set free from the law of sin and death. So, any interpretation of Romans 7 must be consistent with these truths. There are some who teach that Romans 7 is Paul writing as a Spirit-led Christian. This simply cannot be true. Paul tells us in 2 Corinthians 2:14 that He is always led in triumph in Christ. In the end of Romans 7, there is no victory. In Romans 8, there is no defeat. The difference between Romans 7 and Romans 8 is the walk in the flesh or the walk in the Spirit of Galatians 5. If we live in constant fellowship with the Spirit of God, talking to God throughout the day, and seeking His will, we will not be in Romans 7. We will be in Romans 6 and 8. Sin shall not have dominion over us. Jesus has freed us from such dominion. At the end of Romans 7, Paul makes it clear that if he walks in the flesh he will serve sin, but in the mind He will serve Christ. The battle must be won in the mind, by focusing on Christ.
You speak about Paul’s thorn as if it were some sin in Paul. I do not think there is any support for such a position. We do not know what the thorn was in 2 Corinthians 12, but there is no indication that it was some besetting sin, as is sometimes taught. Such would be contrary to Paul’s teaching that we have been freed from bondage to sin, as he says in Romans 6.
Now, to come back to the rebuke of your leader, I do not know what he was intending to communicate. And it is true that we cannot convert anyone. However, we can plead with people to be saved, as Paul did. We can lead people to Christ, as the apostles did. We can be engaged in the proclamation of the kingdom, as Romans 10 tells us to do. And we can help people come to meet God in new and more intimate and personally revealing ways, as even Christ did with His apostles.
Finally, I sense some discouragement. I hope you will understand that we all stumble in many ways (James 3:1). Our standing before God is not based on our lack of stumbling, but on His love to us (Romans 8:31-39). We do not stand condemned before Him (Romans 8:1). The righteous man may fall, but he will not be utterly cast down for the Lord will sustain Him (Psalm 37:23-24). I encourage you to look into Scripture and find the face of Christ. Once you find Him, then stare at Him (Hebrews 12:2), and come to know His great mercy He gives forever to those who fear Him and love Him. Then, your sins will be seen in the perspective of His super-abundant mercy, and you will learn that a life with Christ is most blessed because of Jesus. I encourage you not to focus on your failures, but on His great love. And seek to model that same love to those around you, including your teacher.
May the Lord Jesus use this incident to refocus your life solely on Him and to deepen that most important relationship. And may He use you in His great kingdom.
A fellow servant,