I meet with a lot of people—that comes with the calling to be a pastor. So I spend a good amount of time in coffee shops and restaurants, talking about the gospel and how it interfaces with our lives. As I meet with folks, I tend to find myself having the same conversation multiple times a week. It’s not the exact same conversation—the names and details are different—but the bottom line doesn’t change. The thing they struggle with is really familiar because it’s the same thing I struggle with every single day. (And I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe you do too.)
Here it is: I tend to view my relationship with God as a series of transactions. We could call this transactional sanctification.
Think about the last time you went shopping—for groceries, batteries for the remote, a sweet iPhone that just got replaced with an even sweeter one . . . whatever. It probably went down something like this: You drove to the store, found the items you wanted, walked up to the counter, and the salesperson rang them up. After getting your total, you pulled out your debt card, transferred money from your account to theirs, they gave you part of their inventory, and you went home. (Unless you didn’t have enough cash or your card was declined—in which case you went home empty-handed and embarrassed.) Repeat as needed.
It’s amazing how much we tend to view God like that. I do things for God, God does things for me. Quid pro quo. I don’t do the right things for God, God doesn’t do things for me. Now, most of us wouldn’t say it anything like that—but it’s at the core of how we think. If we’ve been around church long enough, we’ve learned to use the language of grace, but most of us are still trying to figure out how to dance to its rhythm.
Let me give you an example. Awhile back, I was meeting with a guy from our church over breakfast. We talked about how he was feeling distant from his wife and how things had been pretty chaotic in his business. Immediately, he follows up by explaining he hasn’t been praying very much, not to mention the fact that he drank a little too much on a fishing trip last weekend. After thinking for a minute, he looks at me and says, “I guess it makes sense.”
You see the formula there, right? Life—inconsistent prayer + getting drunk = God not giving me peace at work or at home. Now, of course, obedience and prayer are important, but could it be that work is crazy just because it is? Could it be that his wife is just going through a lot at her own job, and when you combine his work stress and hers it makes for a pretty rough stretch at home?
Let’s try another example—this one is for all of us pastors. I was reading about a church recently that has experienced unbelievable numeric growth over the past few years. The church is only a couple years old and has several thousand people attending worship. In a recent conversation about this particular church, I listened to two other pastors talking about why this church has grown so quickly. The answer given? “I’ve heard that so-and-so (name of pastor from growing church) spends a ridiculous amount of time in prayer. That guy is with Jesus A LOT, and Jesus shows up in their church.”
Now, I have no doubt that this particular pastor loves Jesus with all his heart and spends tons of time with him. But did you catch the formula? Pastor who loves Jesus + spends lots of time in prayer = God blesses their church with tons of people attending. You do something for God, then God does stuff for you.
Life isn’t a Transaction
Here’s the problem—it doesn’t work that way. Think about all the pastors whose churches aren’t exploding with attendance growth. What do they hear in the above conversation? “I guess if I just pray more maybe my church will grow too. Maybe the reason we’re not seeing similar results is because I haven’t been committed enough to Jesus. Maybe I need to really get serious about prayer—maybe then God will bless our church.” I won’t tell you how many times I’ve had that very conversation with myself—in my head and in my journal.
Transactional sanctification always leads to despair—when you don’t see the results you want, it’s obviously because you didn’t pay a high enough price. If you would only try harder, not screw up so much, and have more faith like all those other people who it seems to be working for, then maybe God would bless you.
As I meet with people, I remind them (and myself) that we are completely loved, accepted, and perfect in Jesus. God is a transactional God, but the transaction has already been completed—at the cost of the very life of Jesus. There is nothing more I can add to it or take away from it. My standing with God is secure—regardless of the “success” of my ministry, family, or career. Can you imagine the freedom and peace that would come if we could truly live out this belief?
Bill Streger serves as the Lead Pastor of Kaleo Church, an Acts 29 Network church in Houston, TX. Born and raised in Houston, he attended Houston Baptist University and is currently pursuing his M.Div. from Reformed Baptist Seminary. Bill is a husband to Shannon, daddy to Mirabelle and Levi, and a life-long Houston Rockets fan. Twitter @billstreger