“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
- Romans 8:1-2
Over the last few months, I’ve been thinking more about the ‘religiosity’ of our faith. And by that, I mean the tendency in our faith journey to think and act as if it’s all dependent on how good we are.
Now, there is ample evidence in Scripture that we are called to be stewards of creation, to love one another, to behave in appropriate ways, to show the world that we are salt and light, to mirror the ethics of our Lord, etc.
However, I’m wondering more-and-more about how our inclination towards piety can actually be a stumbling block in our own journey of transformation. Because what transforms us to look more like Jesus isn’t our ability to do all the right things. It’s our receptivity of the transformative message of grace.
In other words, we cannot transform ourselves. It’s only in understanding grace that we can be transformed to then respond in Christ-like ways.
In the book, Les Miserables, by Victor Hugo, there is a scene shortly after the main character Jean Valjean has been released after 19 years of imprisonment. When all the innkeepers see his passport marking him as a former convict, he’s forced to sleep on the streets.
He’s soon able to find refuge in a church, where the bishop welcomes him in and feeds him. But during the night, Valjean runs off with some of the silverware. He’s caught by the police and dragged back into the cathedral to confess his crime to the bishop.
Valjean, however, is completely caught off-guard by what happens next. The bishop informs the police that he had in fact given the silverware to Valjean. And then he takes two candlesticks off the dining table, hands them to Valjean, and states that his guest left so soon that he forgot to take these gifts as well.
The police accept the explanation and leave, and the bishop tells Valjean that his life has been spared for God, and that he should use the gifts he’s been given to make an honest man of himself.
This encounter with grace completely wrecks Valjean—whose basic impulse is still to steal for survival—and he can’t shake the experience he’s just had. His life is completely transformed.
Could he ever have made an honest man of himself without that encounter with grace? Could he ever have done it in his own power? Or is there something essential about receiving before behaving?
E. Stanley Jones once questioned why so many believers still go around “bowed under inner condemnation?” Certainly there is a place for confession, acknowledgment of guilt, and so forth; but he scorns the habit of religiosity that is so focused on sin that it’s completely deplete of joy.
It reminded me of the old tune by Charles Wesley, “And Can It Be?” Although the wording feels like old English, the song is beautifully poetic and reads like a story. Verse three reads this way:
Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray,
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light:
My chains fell. off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.
This verse gets me every time. Yes, we were bound in sin and imprisoned by the law of sin and death. Yet the chains have now dropped. We are no longer burdened by the yoke of do-this-do-that. The pressure’s off. The heart is free.
As Paul put it, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. As the song goes on to say,
No condemnation now I dread,
Jesus, and all in Him, is mine.
All of Him is mine? All of Jesus is mine? Based on nothing that I’ve done to earn it myself? Despite still being a sinner and forsaking Him on a regular basis? Regardless of how ‘good’ or not I am?
There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. None.
Sit with that for a while. How might you more deeply and joyfully embrace this message of grace today?
Song: The first time I heard Wesley’s song, it was a cover version done by The Enfield Hymn Sessions—which has a bit more bounce than perhaps other versions you’ve heard. Listen to this version and sing or recite the words aloud to the Lord. Speak the words as if speaking to the face of Christ. Make it a time of holy prayer. Listen here.