Have you ever been arrested? I have. It happened last September, the week before I moved across the United States to work for Ministry. You might appreciate an explanation.
Late one afternoon I was driving my daughter Christi from the shopping mall to the home of a friend. After turning left to get on the freeway, I saw red and blue lights flashing in my mirror. My tax dollars were at work, calling me to ac count for turning from the wrong lane. I had to sit helplessly for six minutes while the officer radioed headquarters to make sure I wasn't a drug dealer. Meanwhile, cars drove by full of people from church, it seemed. Finally the officer handed me a yellow paper to sign, and I timidly ventured on my way.
Not wanting penalty points on my driving record, I spent the next Sunday in traffic school. That's where I learned that I had been arrested when I got my ticket. You see, according to California law, when the officer pulled me over he was actually placing me under arrest. When I signed the ticket I was posting bond. When he let me drive away he was releasing me from custody.
It was quite a shock to discover that I was now a criminal. A common law breaker. And I thought I was a worthy citizen. I used to think I was a pretty good husband, too. Then I took my wife (or she took me) to one of those Marriage En counter weekends. I'm glad we went, but I have to admit it wasn't much fun at first. As several sensitive, caring husbands testified about the love notes and poems they write to their wives day and night, I felt like a selfish failure. With all that I had to learn and unlearn, it seemed I was a marital Moonie getting deprogrammed. So much for my accomplishments as a husband.
I also used to think I was a pretty good worker for Christ. I try to take advantage of the soul-winning opportunities God brings my way. Last year while flying to Los Angeles I witnessed to Darryl Straw berry, a baseball player who had been having serious personal problems. Not long afterwards he became a believer and he told a reporter that it all got started one night on a plane when a minister talked to him about God. Darryl isn't an Adventist; he tithes his five million dollar salary to a charismatic group. But evidently I had some small role to play in his conversion. That makes me happy. I con fess to my shame that it also makes me feel proud. What a pity how seldom the Lord manages to really use me, and when He does I crave some glory for myself. Shame on me for my mingled motives. I'm not such a good Christian worker after all, any more than I am a good husband or a good citizen.
How about you, fellow minister? Are you a good citizen, or do you also find yourself under the condemnation of the law? I learned that the average driver violates traffic laws eight times every day. Probably Elder John sins a dozen times a day in the car. So much for our righteousness.
Now let's pull in the driveway and visit your home. How good a spouse are you? Are you compassionate and self-denying all the time? Or when you sit at your desk leafing through a news magazine, do you sometimes catch your eyes lingering over tempting pictures? At church, are you especially cheerful and attentive with attractive members of the opposite sex?
You who are married women reading this, please don't feel self-righteous if your husband struggles with sexual temptation. Yes, it's true that cherishing lustful thoughts amounts to adultery, and that's inexcusable. God has plenty of power available to keep your husband's heart and mind in Christ Jesus. But re member your own struggles. Do you take a plunge into the pit of resentment when your husband disappoints you? Jesus said that indulging a bitter, hateful attitude amounts to murder, just as your husband's lust is adultery.
The fact is that all of us are sinners. The Bible says: "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned, every one, to his own way" (Isa. 53:6).* If we sinners try to relate to a holy God on the basis of our spiritual attainments, we are damned, we are doomed, we are dead.
Notice this startling warning from the law of God: "For as many as are of the works of the law are under the curse; for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue in all things which are written in the book of the law, to do them' " (Gal. 3:10). The law of God demands absolute perfection. All things in the book of the law must be performed on a continuous basis, every waking moment seven days a week. And this re quires more than merely resisting the temptation to do something wrong or think forbidden thoughts. The law curses not just sins of commission (the bad things we do) but also sins of omission (the good things we don't do enough of).
Here we have a stunning blow to our personal righteousness. Since the law requires not just the absence of sin but perfect performance of all duty, we might never yield to sin yet still be under the curse of the law! Think of it!
That was absolutely shocking news to me. Then what hope do we have? I wondered. I kept reading in Galatians 3 and discovered my salvation: "Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us (for it is written, 'Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree')" (verse 13). Thank God, Jesus took our curse so we can receive His blessing. He wore our crown of condemnation so we can wear His eternal crown of glory.
This good news should melt our hearts and fill us with such intense love for the Saviour that we keep all of His commandments. Resting in Jesus isn't rusting in complacency. The grace of God gives us courage to confront our sins. "Those who are Christ's have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires" (Gal. 5:24). How sad that many counterfeit Christians yes, sometimes even pastors become careless in Christ, claiming the cross while secretly clinging to sin. They too are damned, doomed, and dead: "Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap. For he who sows to his flesh will of the flesh reap corruption" (Gal. 6:7, 8).
So saving grace does not disgrace our Saviour. Despite wholehearted obedience, however, we still fall short of the glory of God. You don't think so? The fact is that "God's ideal for His children is higher than the highest human thought can reach."1
Consider this solemn word from the Lord: "It is wrong to waste our time, wrong to waste our thoughts.... If every moment were valued and rightly employed, we should have time for every thing that we need to do for ourselves or for the world." 2 My brother, my sister, how do you measure up to that high and holy standard? People who suffer from legalism need to understand the curse of the law, how it condemns as sin every trace of unrighteousness and incomplete ness. How dare we presume to relate to God on the basis of our achievements! Those who live by the law will die by the law. If we insist upon ascending to heaven from Mount Sinai, we will lose our souls. Salvation comes only at Mount Calvary. Only on the basis of God's mercy can we ever have a relationship with Him. Yet it's so hard to admit our inadequacies.
A friend of mine had just delivered a camp meeting sermon when an elderly woman approached him, obviously up set. "Young man," she shouted, "I've served my Lord 40 years as a Bible worker are you telling me that all my sacrifice counts for nothing in the judgment?"
"My dear sister," he replied, "only Christ's sacrifice on the cross counts for anything in the judgment. Your only hope and mine is 'Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.' "
Do you know the real problem legalists have? Ironically, they don't take the law seriously enough. They want to raise the standards of the church, but their own standard of holiness is far too low. In trying to relate to God by how well they are fulfilling the law they inevitably minimize its infinite requirements. The foundation of their faith is really just a veneer of thin ice, cracking beneath their feet. Their only hope is the merits of Christ, the solid rock.
Notice this: "Perfection through our own good works we can never attain. The soul who sees Jesus by faith repudiates his own righteousness. He sees himself as incomplete, his repentance insufficient, his strongest faith but feebleness, his most costly sacrifice as meager, and he sinks in humility at the foot of the cross. But a voice speaks to him from the oracles of God's Word. In amazement he hears the message, 'Ye are complete in him' (Col. 2:10). Now all is at rest in his soul. No longer must he strive to find some worthiness in himself, some meritorious deed by which to gain the favor of God." 3
This compelling statement leaves us with some heart-searching questions. We may have repented of our sins, but have we also repudiated our righteousness? Do we see our repentance as incomplete, our strongest faith as feebleness, our most costly sacrifice as meager?
Maybe you baptized 25 souls last year, or even 125. That's great, but you had better not relate to God on the basis of any success in your ministry. Without the merits of Christ continuously imputed to our account we are damned, we are doomed, we are dead. But thanks be to God, if we have sincerely entrusted ourselves by faith to Him, then we are complete in Christ.
In ourselves we are wretched, miser able, poor, blind and naked. But in Jesus we are rich, increased with goods, and in need of nothing further to be worthy.
* All Bible passages in this article are from the New King James Version.
1. Ellen G. White, In Heavenly Places (Washington, D.C.: ReviewandHeraldPub. Assn., 1967), p. 141.
2. ____, The Ministry of Healing (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1942),p.208.
3. ____, Reflecting Christ (Hagerstown, Md.: Review and Herald Pub. Assn., 1985), p. 76.