What are you inclined to trust for meaning and purpose?
What is the earliest motivation you can recall in your life? When can you remember being really motivated (or deeply frustrated if you had failed) toward a goal or an outcome? Was it praise from a parent, teacher, or coach? Was it in an accomplishment, like a victory, a prize, or a paycheck?
These early, almost primal motivators can help us understand some of our deepest longings and our most powerful idols.
What do I mean by idol? I mean that as the Bible teaches us that we’re fallen — that we’re inclined away from God — we are not just moving away from our Maker. We are moving toward some created thing, person, or experience. This is the main rivalry at work in every human heart.
In the 1500s, Martin Luther wrote:
“For there is no middle ground between Christian righteousness and works-righteousness. There is no other alternative to Christian righteousness except works-righteousness; if you do not build your hope on the work of Christ you must build your confidence on your own work [without which Christ’s contribution is not effective]… Everyone has turned to his own way … hoping without the aid of Christ and by his own works to redeem himself from evils and sins. All this is sufficiently seen in the practices and records of every culture and nation …”
Tim Keller summarized this as “Everyone, even the most un-religious, is struggling to achieve righteousness, but everyone, even the most religious, is struggling to achieve it without dependence on Christ. The un-religious won’t repent of their sins, but the religious won’t repent of their righteousness (their best deeds performed as ways to save themselves).”
This matters if you want to faithfully follow Jesus because seeking Jesus involves ongoing repentance. The simplest definition of repentance is to either U-turn or to release something. To repent, I turn around, away from what I was pursuing in order to now pursue Jesus. To repent, I drop whatever I was trusting to make my life have meaning and value because now I see that whatever it was that I was trusting created things, people, or experiences, and there is no way they can compare with our Great God and Savior Jesus Christ.
Our pursuit of Jesus is not a work of addition only — as if we just need to add Jesus to whatever we’re doing. Jesus said (Mark 1:15), “Repent and believe the Gospel.” We do not, and we cannot add Jesus to our agenda. He calls us to drop our agenda, our already-existing treasures, our false gods and saviors in order to empty our hands and heart for just Him.
So repenting of sin, we drop whatever illicit pursuits we have craved instead of Him. And repenting of our righteousness, we see that there is NO WAY we could ever make up for our failings or guilt. Jesus alone can cleanse us and make us holy. So our only hope, simply, is to drop all of it and trust in Christ alone.
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