The Price of True Success
Dr. Jim Denison
A friend taped a cartoon to my study door this week. It pictures a very frazzled-looking man, sitting next to an excited woman, with a huge stack of money on the table in front of them. The sign at the table says, “Criticize the Pastor: $5.” The woman says to the man, “We paid off the sanctuary. Wanna shoot for a new education wing?”
The fact that we’re in the midst of a stewardship emphasis and capital campaign makes the timing of my friend’s gift less than gracious, wouldn’t you say?
The Gallup organization recently released a poll showing that one-third of all Americans suffer from low self-image. There are no statistics for pastors, but our ratio must be even higher, with friends like mine. Gallup considers low self-image the chief psychological malady of our day.
We all struggle with this issue. Every one of us here this morning, and every person we drove past to get here, has something in their life of which they’re ashamed. A failure, a secret, a hidden pain. We try to compensate for our failure, to validate ourselves, to make ourselves acceptable. We are driven to perform, to possess, to be successful, so we can be people of worth. But we never quite succeed. It’s never enough.
Praise God, there’s another way. A way of living which fills us with joy, satisfaction, peace, and purpose. A way of living which is motivated by gratitude, not guilt; by grace, not works. Let’s discover it today.
The road of works
The Galatians were troubled by the same frustrations which plague us. Paul founded these churches on his first missionary journey, around A.D. 47. But he’s not far down the road before the Judaizers show up—Jewish Christians who are convinced that these Gentiles must become Jews before they can become Christians. They are urging these new believers in Galatia to live by the Jewish law to be right with God. “Saved by grace, but living by works” would be their motto.
Paul has seen this before. Before coming to Galatia on their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas spent a year in Antioch, the headquarters of the Gentile Christian church. One day Peter came up for a visit; he ate and stayed with the Gentiles, despite Jewish laws prohibiting such behavior. But when other Jewish Christians came to Antioch, Peter reverted back to his Jewish legalism. He wanted to impress them, to measure up, to be accepted. Even Barnabas, Paul’s mentor in the faith, did the same. Paul had to confront Peter, to insist on grace. If Peter was saved by grace, he must live by grace.
Apparently spiritual schizophrenia can afflict even leaders of the church, myself included. Saved by grace, living by works.
Now these Galatians are doing the same thing. Paul learns of this and writes back immediately. He is very clear: the road of works is a dead end. Listen to verse 16: “By observing the law no one will be justified.” None of us can be perfect morally. None of us can own enough or earn enough or succeed enough to satisfy our craving for value and acceptance. It cannot be done.
And living by works makes no sense theologically, either. Paul closes his argument with verse 21: “…if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” If we could live by works, we wouldn’t need Jesus. We wouldn’t need the Holy Spirit, or prayer, or the Bible, or worship, or the people of God.
But we try. We want so badly to be people of worth that we work so hard to earn what we already have. Let’s be honest—why do we care about success in life? About our jobs? Our appearance? The car we drive? The house we own? The school our children attend? Aren’t we all tempted in the same way? Saved by grace, living by works. Trying to make up for our sense of inadequacy, to be people of value, to be accepted and loved. Climbing up the road of works. But it’s a dead end.
The road of grace
The real tragedy of this struggle is that it’s so unnecessary. We don’t have to do this. There’s another road of life. Here’s the fact: “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (v. 20).
Here’s how I’ve heard this verse interpreted over the years: we are bad people. We need to get rid of ourselves, to crucify ourselves. We must be broken, humbled people. We must get ourselves out of the way.
So every day we need to crucify ourselves with Christ. It’s hard work, but essential. This daily self-crucifixion is basic to the Christian life. We must all try hard to accomplish it.
But we can’t. Imagine trying to crucify yourself. You get the nails in your heels. You hold the nail in your left hand, while you hammer it with your right. Now what? You’re stuck. You can’t do it. Why? Because it’s already been done. Paul is clear: “I have been crucified with Christ.”
Paul uses the Greek tense for a completed event, a “done deal.” He has already been crucified with Jesus. Christ already lives in him. He already lives by faith in the Son of God, who loved him and gave himself for him. It’s already happened.
The day he made Jesus his Savior and Lord, Jesus made him a new person. When we trust in Christ we become a new creation—the old passes away, the new comes (2 Corinthians 5:17). Not, I will be a new creation, or I’m trying to be, but I am. Right now.
The decision is not in verse 20, it’s in verse 21: “I do not set aside the grace of God, for if righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” I choose to be saved by grace and to live by grace. I choose to walk on the road of grace. This is a decision I must make every day.