I often forget that God does not require us to sacrifice to him any longer. We do not have to bring any sacrifice to him in order to earn his love. Not only does he not require any sacrifices (good works) for him to love us. They - in light of the gospel - are offensive to him.
It's not hard to see this in scripture, either. In Isaiah 1:12-14, we read, "When you come to appear before me, who has required of you this trampling of my courts? Bring no more vain offerings; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and Sabbath and the calling of convocations—I cannot endure iniquity and solemn assembly. Your new moons and your appointed feasts my soul hates; they have become a burden to me; I am weary of bearing them."
In Isaiah 64:6, the prophet writes, "We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away."
God tells us in these passages that our sacrifices (offerings and incense) to him are an abomination; he tells us that our good deeds are "like a polluted garment." In the first passage, any of the things the people were doing were unacceptable to him. He (God) is burdened by these things; they make him "weary." In the second passage, Isaiah furthers the point that the deeds themselves were just polluted garments. They were useless. In these texts, God uses powerful language to capture an essential truth that I often miss in my walk with Jesus.
This leads us to one of the most haunting passages in all of scripture: Matthew 7:21-23.
"Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?' And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness.'
The people in this story did three things:
1) prophesy in the name of Jesus;
2) casted out demons in Jesus' name; and
3) did many might works in Jesus' name.
These people did what Jesus told them to do. But, he - like God in the Isaiah passages - finds their actions wanting. Maybe today we might say things like, "I preached the gospel in your name," or "I read my Bible every day," or "I served at my church," or even "I was a pastor in your church," and so on, and would his response be the same?
But why? If we do what Jesus told us to do - follow him, preach the gospel, seek him, etc., why would these things be like polluted garments or abominable to God?
Let's take a closer look at what these people were claiming. When you read the text, the people Jesus is talking about are claiming that their deeds ought to earn them a place in God's kingdom; they're claiming that because they prophesied, cast out demons, and did many mighty works all in the name of Jesus they ought to be accepted. These things are the polluted garments; they are offensive to God. The problem these people have is that they have a fundamental misunderstanding of the gospel. They truly believed that because they did those things they earned God's love.
This is what we often do today. Now, many of us may not say, "I do good Christian things, therefore God has to love me," but that is how we live. How do we know this? There are two ways to know this:
1) We don't spend time confessing to God; and
2) We spend a lot of time playing judge to other people.
When I don't spend time confessing to God my sins and my need for him, I can be sure that I've drifted from his call on my life: to know him more. When I do spend time in confession to God, I find myself understanding my desperate need for him more and more. By neglecting the call of confession, we are saying that we don't need God's grace but that our filthy, unworthy, tainted, impure works are good enough for God.
The first portion, confession, is connected to the second in that when I don't spend time understanding my sin (how short I fall from God's standard) then I can't possibly offer grace to others around me. This has always been an issue for me. One thing that's definitely true for me and probably true for most humans is this:
It's much easier to notice the flaws in other people than it is to know your own.
When these things are in full action (non-confession and harsh judgment) we can be clear we've elevated our works above God's. Our deeds are not and will not ever be enough. So, what does he require of us?
We'll look at two passages to show that God wants our trust in his salvation of our souls and our distrust in our abilities.
First, let's look at Psalm 51:17 -
The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.
When our hearts are broken because we realize how sinful and wicked we really are and thus how desperate we are for his grace, we are offering an acceptable sacrifice to God. Notice, this isn't an action, but a posture. When I understand that I have nothing to bring to God's altar but my sin, my heart breaks. God renders this as an acceptable sacrifice.
Fast forward to the first line in the sermon on the mount: blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matt. 5:3). Virtually all commentators agree that poor in spirit is the same as a contrite heart; it is understanding your unworthiness before God.
You see, I tend to think that my deeds are what Christ requires. That he truly requires me to read, study, pray, fast, give, serve, or else. This is a false and dangerous view. He requires me to understand my need for him, and in this, two of many things happen:
1) We will spend a lot of time confessing to God; and
2) We will spend a lot less time judging others.
Instead of telling Jesus, "Lord, Lord! I read every day; I served as a pastor, I gave, I loved!" I want to say, "I have nothing offer. I need your mercy and grace. I know you're all I need and you're all I could ever need."
Let's make this our prayer this week. Our task is to pray this every day (multiple times) so that we can be reminded of where we stand. I know I need to be reminded of this daily because I don't want to give God my trash, I want to accept his blood for my sins every day.
God, I need you. I need your mercy and grace. I know anything I do that honors you is because you've given me the ability to do that thing. Help my heart today. Help me to remember that I have nothing to offer you in the way of my salvation. Help me to remember that it's not about the things I do, but what you did. Make me poor in spirit, give me a contrite heart. I need you desperately. I ask all these things in the name of your Son, Jesus, and by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.