Thursday, November 29, 2018

Present Perfect

Everybody likes gifts, they say. Still, some are better than others.

A funny story: My in-laws were on their way to a wedding. Along the roadside, a hack artist was selling a number of truly horrible original oil paintings. (Doubtless this poor soul labored under the delusion he was some sort of Michelangelo.) Anyway, my relatives pulled over for a look. These ‘masterpieces’ were supposed to be landscapes, but they all looked like they’d been painted with a really fat brush using earth tones, pale blues and dark blacks. (If you imagine an explosion in a factory that produces toothpaste, peanut butter and licorice, you’ve roughly got the aesthetic here.)

My in-laws were amused. They chose the most disastrous effort of the lot, and paid for it. Then they took it to the wedding, and had all the guests sign in around the frame. At the reception, they presented it to the wedding couple with great pomp and ceremony, treating the painting as if it were the Mona Lisa. In a brilliant final touch, they reminded the couple that it had the names of all their friends and relatives on it, so of course the painting would be treasured forever, and everyone who came to visit would look for it on the living room wall ...

Fortunately, the groom was a member of the family, and knew his uncle’s sense of humor all too well. He could get the joke and explain it to his horrified bride. As a matter of fact, the trick became a sort of family tradition, and was recycled many times at other weddings. Of course, by now everybody knows what’s coming. It’s all in good, clean fun.

Gifts That Don’t Give

What’s a real gift, and what is not? I’m not always sure. I’ve received more than a few things that I wasn’t sure I really wanted: ugly sweaters, retro furniture, bizarre handicrafts, ceramic figurines, a pet goldfish … that sort of thing. Some things are suitable for giving, and some are just not.

A really bizarre one is a car. When I first saw those ads that companies like Mercedes and Lexus have nowadays — you know, the ones that show the car sitting in a driveway with a big red bow on the roof, and the overwhelmed recipient dancing in the driveway — I remember thinking, “What a bizarre gift!”

After all, a car may start free, but it sure doesn’t stay free.

I’m not sure I’d want one. Somebody’s got to take care of that thing. It’s got to be plated, insured, gassed up, oiled, tuned, maintained, serviced, repaired and protected from the elements, the birds, road hazards and vandals. It will need tires, spark plugs, tune ups, light bulbs, wiper blades and scratch repairs. It comes with a whole lot of additional responsibilities plus a lot of new liabilities.

I wondered, if a wife “buys” her husband a car, is he supposed to be happy that their family budget is now saddled with the payments? They now have an additional vehicle; how will they now afford what they apparently could not afford before? What if the husband doesn’t like it? Does he have to fake that he does? Can they return it? Do they lose money if they do?

I’m not sure I’d want such a gift … at least, not if it came with so many strings attached. Gifts are supposed to bring blessing, not stress. They’re supposed to enrich you, not impoverish you. And they’re supposed to be free.

But a car looks to me like the gift that just keeps on taking. I could imagine the conversation a car recipient might have with his or her colleagues: “Yeah, my wife bought me a car … I’m going to be paying that thing off forever. And people scratch new cars, so I’m afraid to park it anywhere. Did you know the oil changes are $85 each? And insurance, don’t get me started. I think we’re out of luck for a vacation this year … but it was a really nice thought.”

Can’t see it, myself.

If a gift starts off free, it ought to stay free. If it doesn’t, it was never really a gift at all. That’s my theory.

Start Free, Stay Free

I think Paul had something similar in mind when he spoke to the Galatians about a big mistake they were about to make. They’d decided that salvation was by grace, a gift of God through faith, and entirely free; but then they turned around and decided that once you were saved you had to get busy and do a whole lot of works.

Why had they decided that? Well, it seemed like common sense. God wouldn’t save you and then want you to go on sinning, right? He’d want you to move on, living a more and more admirable and moral life. You were saved by grace, they decided, but you had to be perfected by works. So hey, let’s get busy, they said.

But Paul called them on it. He pulled them up short with a really straightforward question, one designed not just to appeal to the human sense of things but to logic and the truth of the gospel. He posed this to them:
“Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?”
Duh. Of course not. Use your common sense.

How did they begin? Was it not by despairing of works? Was it not by giving up on their own efforts and prospects for perfection, and casting themselves on the saving mercy of God? Was it not entirely an act of faith in the goodness of the Lord Jesus Christ? Was it not a calling for the Savior to save them from the sinfulness they could not shake by themselves? Was it not a looking to his Spirit to produce newness of life in them, and to set them free in his marvelous light?

If it was not, then they were not saved. For salvation is only on the basis of faith, and is contingent on no work of man at all. And yet, somehow the Galatians had lost that theme. No wonder Paul could essentially say, “In light of this, folks, I’m really worried about you.”

But, he asked them, if that’s how salvation had begun for them, then how was it that they were turning back to the old failed strategy of trying to perfect themselves? How did that square with where they’d begun? If works failed them for salvation, how could the same dead works be any more effective as an agent of transformation afterward?

In short, should not a change that was first produced by the Spirit of God also be carried through by the Spirit of God? Of course! He who had begun a good work in them would himself perfect that work. Having begun by the Spirit, they would never be perfected by the flesh.

The Gift We Keep Trying to Pay For

It’s funny how many of us still don’t get the point. A lot of people think that we got saved in the first place so we would be able to keep the Law. Not true: the Law only ever told us how far short of the mark we were; but Law itself never came with any power to meet its demands.

Others people make the same mistake more subtly. They suppose that while the Law might not be our issue, we ought to continue to strive really hard to please God on our own steam. We ought to strive to do good works, they say, and so please God and prove — at least to our own satisfaction — that we are true children of God. In fact, they say, only those who “persevere” in such a way have salvation at all.

Well, I agree that as Christians we need to do good works. I would also concede that, if we don’t, we have good reason for looking askance at our original profession, wondering if we were sincere in faith. All fine and dandy. But the error is in thinking that security comes from “perseverance”; for perseverance is just a man-made work like any other. Unless it is backed by the power of the Spirit of God, it has no more power or utility than any other work of the flesh. It won’t perfect you. Only being indwelt by the Spirit of God will produce the perfecting of the Christian life.

So the question is not “Are you persevering?” but “In what are you persevering?”

Are you continuing in your own efforts to guarantee your own salvation? Are you trying to produce your own security? Then you’re wasting your time. You have no such power. But are you being led by the Spirit? Are you walking in daily dependence on the power of the risen Christ, not perfecting yourself but being perfected by his life? Then you are truly saved, secured and on the road to being perfected.


Any objection? “Aha,” someone might say. “Are you saying that Christians don’t need to try to live good, moral lives?” No, I’m not saying that. “Are you saying someone could live like a hellion and still go to heaven?” No, I’m not saying that either. But I am saying that while works are good in themselves, they have no bearing on your heavenly destiny — not at the moment of salvation, nor at any time after that.

Maybe I can illustrate.

Suppose you’re out working in your back yard. Your neighbor comes running over to you, and shouts, “Hey, do you know your house is on fire?”

You turn. What do you look for first?

Smoke, of course.

But why? Your neighbor didn’t say, “Your house is on smoke”. He said, “fire”. So why are you looking for smoke?

It’s because smoke is the testimony of fire. Smoke is not fire. But where fire is burning, smoke is quickly produced. You know this, so you’re looking not for fire but for the sign of fire.

Works do not save. They are smoke. Faith saves. That’s the fire. But just as smoke will soon be along when fire is burning, so good works will appear naturally, as a byproduct of a new life in Christ. And just as fire grows and produces more smoke, so too will your life produce more and more good works as your relationship to Christ grows.


The same power that produced your salvation will also produce your new life. You have begun by the Spirit; you will not be perfected by fleshly efforts to be a good person. You will not confirm your salvation by the works of your hands. You will never have assurance from your own actions.

It is from the Lord that we have all things for life and godliness.

Everything comes from the life of Christ.

Get closer to him.


  1. This looks potentially simply like a topic pulled from the archives and has probably been dealt with a number of times.

    The proposals here are simply a mistaken interpretation of the action of performing good works and how those correlate to our relationship with the Almighty. As we all know, only God knows our true standing in his sight and we can only make (educated) assumptions and hope for the best. One thing I will not do, as is implied here, is to deny God his fatherhood. He gave us fathers to be a living example and image of his fatherhood. For that reason principles of fatherhood, also for God, are deducible from the example of our earthly fathers. I am a father and there is no way I would ever have told, or will currently tell, my children that their actions, attitudes and behavior do not correlate with their standing and value in my eyes. As a matter of fact they were disciplined by me as they grew up to ensure that their value as ethical, compassionate, and religious human beings would ever increase. And now, that they are grown up, they thank me and have become the most wonderful human beings. That is exactly the way God works as well. Therefore, make no mistake about it, the ultimate decision concerning our final standing and destiny is indeed entirely up to God but it is a serious fallacy to suggest that we do not contribute to, and are not required by him to contribute to, our good standing and salvation by way of our behavior and attitudes often also expressed through good works.

    1. Hi Q:

      I think you’ve got a confusion there between what is called our “standing” and our “state”.

      I can illustrate from your own example, fatherhood.

      Your children are your children, both now and forever. Biologically, historically, genetically, and by right, they are yours. That is their “standing”. It’s the essence of who they are. It cannot change. But their “state” is different: it may be good or bad, desirable or undesirable, depending on the choices they make. The two questions are separate: being bad or a failure does not make them NOT your children, anymore than being good is the reason they ARE your children.

      However, the Bible speaks of not a natural birthright, but a right of being a child of God by way of the “the second birth”, or “the new birth”. You see this in John 3, for example. A person is not born into God’s family by genetics. But once a person has been “born again”, they are children of God. That is their standing, and it cannot change. Their state is a function of their choices, attitudes and works, though: they may be happy, healthy children of God, if they are cooperating with Him, or struggling, defeated sad children of God, if they are failing to do so. In other words, their “state” may be high or low. It changes with their actions and attitudes. And they will be better or worse sons of God as a result; but they will never NOT be sons of God. The works are only the evidence of their new birth, not the cause of it.

      The real question is only this: have you been born again? If you have, you’re a child of God — that is your standing forever. If you have not, then you’re not a child of God, and no works can contribute anything at all to making you one, just as a child from outside your own family can’t simply earn his way into your family by being good and then demanding to be let in — you’d have to AGREE to adopt him, or no works will get him there. The right to constitute someone as your child comes from your side, not from his.

      But once a person has been born into the family of God, his standing is as one saved, and saved forever. That is his new standing. See John 5:24.

      I trust this clears up the misunderstanding.=

    2. • Thanks for trying to clarify that, IC. But I think one can go round Robin with that for a while. There is a difference in how we interprete standing. I meant it almost in the legal sense that my standing implied that I have a stake in how my children turn out that will lead to consequences for them. A binary definition of standing as to whether or not you are my child is insufficient here for me, and for God, I believe. The consequences of their (poor, faulty, to even criminal) works can be as severe as an expulsion from my household, and a renunciaton of any standing with me. Of course, this is exactly the way it works biblically too to the point of gehenna. Thus, just saying you belief, which anybody can do fairly easily, has no bearing by itself on your positive standing unless verified with positive proof via actions (works) that show your desire to draw closer to and not to alienate yourself from God. As a matter of fact, as you well know, lesser standing results in a seat at the lower end of the heavenly banquet table. Hence, it's directly proportional to your standing with God with the saints getting the better seats :'(. Telling the head waiter "but I told God I belief" and therefore I should have gotten a better seat will probably not work. The same as in a worldly corporate environment, I think. Hence, standing and state are actually closely correlated in most situations and not separate as you imply since (a state of drunkenness, e.g.) may ruin your standing in the board room severely. People are therefore completely justified in improving their private interior state through training in the excercise of good works, improvement of interior disposition, prayer life, etc., in the knowledge that it will also therefore improve their standing with their creator.

    3. Well, Q, there could be nothing more automatically "binary" than birth. We are, or we are not, children of our fathers, whether we like it or not. Likewise, the works your children do will verify whether or not they are acting like good children ... it will not change genetics.

      But we needn't remain in doubt. The right order is given in Titus 3:4-7.

      "But when the kindness of God our Savior and His love for mankind appeared, He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by His grace we would be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life."

      But in deference to your point about the importance of good works, let us not forget the next verse, verse 8:

      "This is a trustworthy statement; and concerning these things I want you to speak confidently, so that those who have believed God will be careful to engage in good deeds ..."

      And so there we have it: the salvation standing, the right of being a child of God, is not on the basis of deeds we have done in righteousness, but according to God's mercy. However, our state is that now, being true children of God, we are to be careful to engage in good deeds -- but now out of gratitude, not as a way of earning God's approval or of producing our own standing.