It’s Monday Grace!
“If you do well, will you not be accepted?” That’s what the Lord asked Cain, way back in Genesis 4. You remember the story. Abel’s sacrifice was accepted while Cain’s was not. Cain was angry. The Lord warned him about his anger and said that sin was very close for him. Sin would control him if he were not careful. And God was right. Cain killed his brother and has been known throughout human history as the first murderer.
Those words have presented a puzzle to most of us who teach grace. Is the Lord actually suggesting that preference will be given for doing well? Is God keeping track of those who are the most committed and successful? Is it about performance after all?
Almost since the beginning, the people of God have worked hard to be accepted by Him. They adopted the Law as the measure of their success. The more they kept the rituals and rules of the Law, the more they expected God to be pleased with them. If they broke the rules or missed the rituals, they expected to be punished and considered unworthy.
So, today that’s what much of the church teaches. Performance is the measure by which God will find us worthy of salvation and favor, they suggest. Even many of those who preach Christ still insinuate that “real Christians” are measured by their performance.
Now, you know the list. How much you give, how hard you work, how nice you are, how often you participate, and on and on. No two lists are the same, but you can just keep adding things to the one you have. That’s performance.
But if performance is the real measure of the believer, then why do we need Jesus? The witness of the Bible is very clear: we need Jesus. If we could be good enough on our own, by our own performance, then it would be up to us. The sacrifice of Jesus would be unnecessary.
There is another perspective on the performance message. Perhaps we do need Jesus, they say. His sacrifice on the cross was important, they say. But your part is important too. Jesus did His part; now, you must do your part. The better you do your part, they say, the more effective Jesus’ part will be. If you don’t perform well, then maybe His part won’t be enough for you.
If you have been in the church very long, you have probably heard that message. Sometimes it is hidden. Do this, stay away from that, be a good Christian. No one ever says what happens to a bad Christian, but those folks should be afraid. Of what? Well, God will sort them out. Performance might not get you saved, but it may make you “really” saved or keep you saved.
Let’s look back on Cain. God was teaching them about the effect of sin and how sin would be handled. Sin kills. Blood sacrifice would cover sin. That was the system the Jews lived with for thousands of years, until Jesus came to be the final and forever sacrifice. Until the Lord’s own blood would be enough for all people.
Cain was not punished, not rejected, for his offering. His offering was rejected. God was teaching them something. In fact, the question about doing well was not a reference to the offering but to the anger in Cain’s heart. God was saying that Cain would be just as accepted as he had been, unless he followed his anger into trouble. Now he had a choice. And, in his frustration, Cain chose poorly.
Cain’s failure was not in his performance, but in his heart. Trying harder would not have made him more accepted. Bringing a better offering was not the point.
Neither is going to church, tithing, or being nice. These things are not bad, but they are not the answer. No one will be saved by them, nor will anyone stay saved because of them. Performance looks right, and thousands of years of poor teaching has made it seem right, but the heart is the point. And your heart is corrupt apart from Jesus.
The Pharisees showed us that performance of the Law was not enough. Paul showed us that excellence in study and application of Scripture was not enough. Kind people, diligent people, sacrificing people have learned that performance never makes us accepted. It is never enough because our relationship with God is a matter of the heart.
So, we are not saved by our works/performance. We are not kept saved by our works/performance. We do not become more saved by our works/performance. You and I are saved and accepted through Jesus alone. Whatever service and sacrifice we give to Him we lay at His feet in gratitude for what He has done.