“Perhaps there is no word in the Bible more precious than Grace.”
~ Rick Countryman, Senior Pastor, Big Valley Grace Community Church
The Performance Trap – A
So far in this series on God’s Grace, we have looked at What Is God’s Grace and How Do We Appropriate God’s Grace. Before digging deeper into other aspects of God’s Grace, I want to cover what I consider is the primary stumbling block to appropriating God’s Grace ~ perfectionism. I confess that this has been a major stumbling block for me and an issue that I still struggle with from time to time. In his book “The Search for Significance: Seeing Your True Worth Through God’s Eyes,” Robert S. McGee labeled this stumbling block as the “Performance Trap.”
You may recall that in Part 1 of this series I quoted from Rabbi Sha’ul’s statement to the Believers in Ephesus: “For you are saved by grace through faith, and this is not from yourselves; it is God’s gift – not from works, so that no one can boast” Ephesians 2:8-9 (HCSB). As Believers, we know in our knowers that we can’t earn our way into God’s Kingdom; we can’t be saved by trying to obey all His commands – no one but Yeshua has been able to accomplish that; we can’t even do good all the time (see Romans 7:13-24), so why do we think that we have to be perfect this side of Glory? Many of us strive to be perfectionists. We delude ourselves into thinking that success in whatever we do will bring us fulfillment and happiness. We usually base our self-worth on our ability to accomplish the goals we have set out for ourselves in our own strengths. However, we eventually figure out that as Believers we should focus our walk on Yeshua, not on self-imposed regulations. Our experience of His Lordship is dependent on our moment-by-moment attention to His instructions, not on our own regimented schedule or activity. Our goal is to endeavor to become more and more like Yeshua in everything we think and do, recognizing that we will stumble and fall on the way. But, we will always fall into His waiting arms.
You and I and every person in the world are spiritually bankrupt. In fact, every person who has ever lived, except for Yeshua – regardless of his or her moral or religious state – has been spiritually bankrupt. Listen to this declaration of our bankruptcy from the pen of the Rabbi Sha’ul: “As the Tanakh puts it, ‘There is no one righteous, not even one! No one understands, no one seeks God, all have turned away and at the same time become useless; there is no one who shows kindness, not a single one!’” (Romans 3:10-12)
Usually in a bankrupt business, the company still has a few assets that can be sold to partially pay its debts. But we have no assets, nothing we could hand over to God as partial payment of our debt. “All our righteous deeds are like menstrual rags” in His sight (Isaiah 64:6). We were spiritually destitute. We owed a debt we could not pay.
Then we learned salvation is a gift from God; it is entirely by grace through faith – not by works, so that no one can boast (see Romans 6:23; Ephesians 2:8-9). We renounced confidence in any supposed righteousness of our own and turned in faith to Yeshua alone for our salvation. In that act we essentially declared spiritual bankruptcy.
Having trusted in Yeshua alone for our salvation, we have subtly and unconsciously reverted to a works relationship with God in our Messianic lives. We recognize that even our best efforts cannot get us to heaven, but we do think they earn God’s blessings in our daily lives. We declared spiritual bankruptcy to get into His kingdom, so now we think we can and must pay our own way with God. We were saved by grace, but we are living by performance.
We are all legalistic by nature; that is, we innately think so much performance by us earns so much blessing from God. The apostle Kefa thought this way. After listening to Yeshua’s conversation with the rich young man, he said to Yeshua, “Look, we have left everything and followed you. So what will we have?” (Matthew 19:27). Kefa had already added up his merit points, and he wanted to know how much reward they would buy.
Then we turn to the Bible and read that we are to work out our salvation, to pursue holiness, and to be diligent to add to our faith such virtues as goodness, knowledge, self-control, and love. In fact, we find the Bible filled with exhortations to do good works and pursue the disciplines of spiritual growth. And worse of all, Yeshua Himself tells us “Therefore, be perfect, just as your Father in heaven is perfect.” (Matthew 5:48) Again, because we are legalistic by nature, we assume our performance in these areas earns God’s blessings in our lives.
One of the best kept secrets among Believers today is this: Yeshua paid it all. I mean all. He not only purchased your forgiveness of sins and your ticket to heaven, He purchased every blessing and every answer to prayer you will ever receive. Every one of them – no exceptions.
Why is this a well-kept secret? For one thing, we are afraid of the truth. We are afraid to tell even ourselves that we don’t have to work anymore for our salvation, the work is all done. We are afraid that if we really believe this, we will slack off in our Messianic responsibilities. Having come into God’s kingdom by grace alone solely on the merit of Yeshua, we’re now trying to pay our own way by our performance. We are now trying to live by good works rather than by grace.
The total Messianic experience is often described in three distinct phases: justification, sanctification, and glorification.
Justification – being declared righteous before God through faith in Yeshua – is a point-in-time event. It is the time in our lives when we are saved. It is the Ephesians 2:8 experience: “For you are saved by grace through faith.”
Sanctification is our growth in becoming like Yeshua. It is a progressive experience covering our entire Messianic lives from salvation to glorification.
Glorification occurs at the time we depart from this life to be with Yeshua. [Glorification actually achieves its complete fulfillment at the resurrection, of course, but even now those who are with Yeshua are described as the “spirits of righteous people who have been brought to the goal.” (Hebrews 12:23)]
All true Messianics readily agree that justification is by grace through faith in Yeshua. And if we stop to think about it, we agree that glorification is also solely by God’s grace. Yeshua purchased for us not only forgiveness of sins (justification) but also eternal life (glorification). But sanctification – the entire Messianic experience between justification and glorification – is another story. At best, the Messianic life is viewed as a mixture of personal performance and God’s grace. It is a subconscious assumption arising from our own innate legalism – reinforced and fueled by the Messianic culture we live in.
However, the Believer’s total debt has been paid by the death of Yeshua. The law of God and the justice of God have been fully satisfied. The debt of our sins has been marked “Paid in Full!” God is satisfied and so we should be as well. We have peace with God, and we are delivered from a guilty conscience (see Romans 5:1; Hebrews 10:22).
Not only has the debt been fully paid, there is no possibility of going into debt again. Yeshua paid the debt of all our sins: past, present, and future. As Sha’ul said in Colossians 2:13, “[God] forgave all our sins.” We don’t have to start all over again and try to keep the slate clean. There is no more slate. God is not keeping score, granting or withholding blessings on the basis of our performance. The score has already been permanently settled by Yeshua.
We are brought into God’s kingdom by grace; we are sanctified by grace; we receive both temporal and spiritual blessings by grace; we are motivated to obedience by grace; we are called to serve and enabled to serve by grace; we receive strength to endure trials by grace; and finally, we are glorified by grace. The entire Messianic life is lived under the reign of God’s grace.
In my next blog, I want to continue to look at this issue of the Performance Trap by examining the impact that perfectionism can have on our lives.