“And by your grace, I will live for you.” I remember praying these words—but not meaning them.
At the age of nineteen, my then-girlfriend led me to Christ and I renounced the atheism of my earlier years. Those words—“And by your grace, I will live for you”—were the conclusion to the “sinner’s prayer” that marked my conversion. Every sentence leading up to that one I said with gusto. But this sentence was choked out, forced.
Like so many “professions of faith,” I was parroting lines given to me by my evangelist. So after saying, “Amen,” I followed up with her: “I’m not sure I’m up for the ‘living for Jesus’ part.”
She replied: “It doesn’t mean you have to give up everything you love; you’ll just want to do them for God and not for yourself.” I shrugged. “I guess that makes sense.” But deep down, I was unconvinced. I played in a punk band and I was not willing to give that up, even though I knew our gimmick was at odds with the Christian life (our album title, “Menace to Sobriety,” was an appropriate summary of our message).
For the next three years, I tried a dime-store imitation of discipleship—Jesus as Savior, myself as lord. I wanted to make a deal: Jesus, you die for me, but I refuse to live for you. I didn’t give Jesus my life, just my afterlife. I wanted an afterlife free from suffering, but a life with all the pleasures sin could provide. The only problem with this bargain is that grace so cheap (to borrow a term from Bonhoeffer) is really no grace at all.
We cannot “baptize” our existing sinful desires by blessing them in the name of God. The drunkard who converts to Christianity and returns to his booze with gratitude, thanking God for this “gift,” is no convert at all. We need our distorted desires to be expunged by a more captivating desire for Christ. We need to understand both our sin and his love in order to become true followers of Christ.
THE RAT RACE OF IDOLATRY
Jesus used a striking illustration for the seriousness of causing others to sin. He said it’s actually better to have a millstone tied around your neck and go for a “swim” in the Mediterranean Sea (Mark 9:42)! He then gives us several other extreme examples about keeping ourselves from the things that keep us from God (Mark 9:43-50).
How seriously do you take your sin? Your sin—and make no mistake, any false god (idol) we serve is sin—is bound to drown you. Holding onto your sin is like trying to tread water while holding a cinderblock in your hands.
For the next three years, I tried to be the lord of my life while claiming to be a Christian, and the futility of idolatry became more and more clear to me. When we serve idols we become their slaves (John 8:34). I’d be happy, I told myself, if I could just play CBGBs. When that goal was realized, it never fulfilled, so I’d create a new one.
Entrusting myself to the idols I served—this is the rat race of idolatry. We exchange the true God for a lie and worship creation instead (Rom. 1:24) of Creator. This never leaves us satisfied (Jer. 2:13), not in the long run, yet we return to our overlords once again, expecting a different result. The cycle repeats ad infinitum. If it sounds like insanity, that’s because it is.
The alcoholic knows his drink of choice is drowning him; he simply can’t slake the desires of his tongue with anything other than booze. The tongue wants what the tongue wants. We can’t simply starve our desires and expect to be satisfied.
To tire of our taste for sin, we need to acquire a taste for something new (Ps. 34:8). We need new tastes entirely, like the thirsty woman of Samaria who found Jesus so utterly satisfying to her palate that she dropped her water jug at the well (John 4:28). Our desire for lesser gods can only be overcome when a desire for the true God (Ps. 27:4) eclipses them.
We need something from outside to break that cycle if we’re ever going to be set free from slavery (John 8:32). Praise God that he has sent us the remedy to this terminal disease (Is. 53:5)! Jesus came to shake us out of the drunken, circular stupor of idolatry. He calls us to exchange the backbreaking burdens of our sinful idolatry for his life-giving, light yoke of discipleship (Matt. 11:30). He invites us to trade our taste for sin that never satisfies for his living water that never stops satisfying.
The functional saviors we cling to for life are, in actuality, no saviors at all. While they promise us deliverance, behind the veneer of power and pleasure, lies only death (Rom. 3:23). Like drowning men clutching cinderblocks, we hold on to our idols as they drag us to the bottom of the sea (Jonah 2:5).
Jesus stands there—a lifesaver!—but in order to grab onto him, we must let go of the cinderblocks. Otherwise, we perish.
A CINDERBLOCK-TAKING SAVIOR
The decision to follow Christ is costly and hard (Matt. 7:14), and should not be made lightly (Luke 14:28). We must be willing to exchange our ugly sin for the beauty of our Savior (Luke 14:33).
The good news is this: Jesus, while never yielding to the temptation to worship these false saviors, suffered the full brunt of the consequences for doing so. Though he never sinned (Heb. 4:15), he suffered on the cross for all of my sin (2 Cor. 5:21).
If the consequence for clinging to a cinderblock in the ocean is to drown, Jesus grabbed the cinderblock and held on until he breathed his last (Mark 15:37) so that we could breathe in the living God (John 20:22). The cross he bore, he bore for me.
Jesus is a patient, long-suffering, determined searcher of the lost sheep for which he came to die. The grace he offers is not cheap because it cost him his very life. Every drop of his precious, unblemished blood was required to make payment for sin.
My thirst for punk rock fame could only be put to death by understanding the depth of his love for me. He was thirsty (John 19:28) so that I never have to be (John 7:38). I don’t have to keep returning to a broken cistern; he is enough for me (Jer. 2:13).
THE BARGAIN OF GRACE
Once we begin to come to grips with how costly it was for Jesus to acquire us (Phil. 2:8), we gain a new perspective on how little we are actually giving up in return. When he calls us to pick up our cross and follow him (Luke 9:23), it is a call to death. But in putting ourselves to death, we are promised new life (Rom. 6:4)!
That new life is on the other side of the cross. If we want to follow him into glory, it means following him through pain and suffering. The way to Christ is the way of the cross. When I wanted to broker a deal with Jesus in which I gave him my afterlife but not my life, I wanted the ends without the means. If we want to be glorified with Christ in the new heavens and earth, we must cling to him in the present. He promises us trials (John 16:33), but he promises to be with us (Matt. 28:20). He promises us persecution now (John 15:20) but paradise later (Rev. 2:7); The cross now (Luke 9:23) but crowns later (James 1:12).
Jesus is better; he is worth laying down our own sinful desires. The bargain Jesus offers us is better than the dime-store bargain of the devil. Satan tempts us, saying, “deny your maker and I will make you like him and give you this world” (Luke 4:5-7). Don’t trust the master liar (John 8:44); this deal is a sham.
TRADE YOUR CINDERBLOCK FOR THE ROCK OF AGES
Renounce your idols and all their cheap promises. Instead, follow Christ, who promises we will one day rule with him as his coheirs after we suffer with him (Rom. 8:17). Lay down your life, lest it slip through your fingers. Renounce everything you have, everything you worship that is not Christ, because he is better!
So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:33)
Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the life-sucking cinderblocks; they’re all we’ve ever known, so we keep clinging to them even as we plunge toward the depths. But Christ is strong enough to lift these burdens off our back and give us his burden, instead.
His burden is the cross. The cross is death. But to die is gain because Christ is everything (Phil. 1:21).
Jesus, take these idols that drown us. Give us yourself, Jesus. You’re everything. We lay these cinderblocks down so we can be raised with the Rock of Ages.
Note the emphasis on “knew you” in Matthew 7:23.
Sean Nolan (B.S. and M.A., Clarks Summit University) is the Family Life Pastor at Christ Fellowship Church in Forest Hill, Maryland. Prior to that, he served at a church plant in Troy, New York for seven years and taught Hermeneutics to ninth and tenth graders. He is married to Hannah and is raising an army of toddlers. He blogs at Family Life Pastor. You can read all of Sean’s articles here.