What Does It Mean: to trust in performance?

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.

7 Comments

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7 responses to “What Does It Mean: to trust in performance?

  1. Good morning, Pastor Dave. I have been reading your posts for years and I almost never notice an error, which is a rare thing in the blog world. However, in the first paragraph of this post you wrote ‘Cain’s sacrifice was accepted while Abel’s was not.’ — I’m sure you meant to say that Abel’s sacrifice was accepted while Cain’s was not!

    I love the wonderful truth contained in this post. We are not saved by our works. We are saved by grace through faith in Christ’s atonement on the cross. Amazing grace!

  2. Z

    Hi Pastor Dave.
    I fully agree that we are all born with a corrupt heart and that the ONLY way to be saved is by the grace of God in Jesus’ “performance”-His obedience to the point of death on the cross to cover our sins.
    My question, because of my specific background of being born into a professing Christian family of both parents as vicious abusers-constant physical and every other type of abuse.
    I know I’m saved by God’s grace not my “niceness”, my years of forgiving their abuses over and over…I did that because I was wrongly taught to do so.
    But can a person(s) be truly born again when their actions are SO incompatible over SO long-decades and decades-with having a regenerate heart? Can there be “Christian habitual, unrepentant abusers”? I’m not saying their “performance” is not good enough. I’m saying it is openly and arrogantly evil! The destruction they’ve done to so many over the years is enough to buckle the strongest of people. My brother died because of their lifelong abuse of him. My other siblings have severe mental health disorders and are also abusive. I HAD to go No Contact with all family members for my and my husband’s protection and survival! They tried to kill us for setting boundaries on their abuses. And I’m suffering physically and mentally directly from their abuses and the continued retaliatory abuses even after going No Contact. Pure evil.
    If you could clear up my confusion about performance-based Christianity, which I know is false, and the OBVIOUS evil, habitual, unrepentant, abusive undeniable ACTIONS over a lifetime by “professing Christians”, I’d appreciate the clarity.
    Paul said in 1 Cor. 5:12 that we ARE to judge those who call themselves Christians but who are wicked. We are not to associate with nor even eat with such (wolves in sheep’s clothing/hypocrites). And we leave judgment of those outside the church to God. So how else can we determine who these wicked professing Christians, which obviously DO exist, as Paul writes about exposing and expelling them, other than by their wicked, habitual, unrepentant actions?
    Other Scriptures say there are people we are not to even pray for. Who have given themselves over to their depravities. How else do we determine who the Bible is talking about if not by their outward actions that reveal their evil hearts?
    I don’t see that as “performance-based” Christianity. I see it as taking Paul’s and others’ divinely inspired wisdom and teachings meant to protect us and Christ’s church from ravenous wolves, claiming falsely to be Christ-followers, from destroying it from within.
    I really don’t believe there can be such a thing as a “Christian Abuser”. Their actions come from DENYING the power of God. Not fearing His Wrath to come. Not believing He will judge them on those evil actions and that He has the power to send them to hell.
    I’m so glad to be set free from such evil I was born into. But how else could I know it was evil and dangerous for me to continue to associate with them unless I experienced and witnessed their incredibly abusive, violent, hateful…ACTIONS towards me and so any others over so long a time?

    • This is such an important question, especially for those who have suffered abuse from “christians” over many years. I think many people will relate. Rather than limit the exposure to the comments, I want to take a stab at an answer in a post. Watch for it on Monday!

  3. Jonathan

    thank you for these posts, from a reader in South Africa

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