The first prerequisite of a true conversion is to despair of any hope from oneself, that is, to have no hope save in Christ's mercy alone.
It is a common, but erroneous, belief that Christians think they are decent people, deserving of God's favor, and that this is why God will allow them entrance into His presence in heaven. But any Christian who reads the Scripture and catches even a glimpse of God's majesty, knows they are undone, dreadfully cracked about the head and desperately in need of mending. Those who "don't think they need a physician" and think their relative goodness will save them are, by definition, not Christians at all. Such persons have simply not yet been fully prepared to hear the gospel ... that Christ is the only Savior, who does for us what we are unable to do for ourselves. In other words, in coming to Christ it is only truly evident that the Holy Spirit has done a work of grace in us, if we are fully convinced that we have been bad enough to need Jesus' help and are willing to repent of trusting in our good works. Of Course, those who are already Christians must also constantly, no daily, re-affirm their need of Christ, fleeing to Him alone for their righteousness. Any good we have or produce must be recognized as the result of grace, not the cause of it. As John the Baptist said, "A man can receive nothing, except it be given him from heaven." (John 3:27)
What many may fail to understand is that God does not weigh our virtue and good intentions against our malice and corruptions and then let us into heaven based on whether we have more goodness than evil in our life. On the contrary even the slightest infraction against his holiness is sufficient to cast you away from his favor into an eternity of misery. You are guilty of active rebellion against Him, and if you don't think so, try loving your neighbor from your heart at all times. Once we get a view of who God is in the splendor of His holiness, it becomes painfully apparent who we are, and it is not pretty. Any who think God too harsh, unjust or that God will simply wink His eye at our youthful indiscretions are still under the utmost deception. Every minor sin against His holy law makes us deserving of His just wrath. God demands that we live in the perfection of holiness at all times. One might counter this by saying, "but this is impossible" and that is exactly the point. His perfect law was given to us not with the express purpose of showing us our ability, but rather our inability. The Apostle Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans said exactly this: "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." In other words, a true Christian is one who recognizes their utter moral inability before God's holy law and can only turn and flee to Chirst for mercy. Any hope or trust in our own flesh, in ones own virtue or in our "good intent" is actually an act of rebellion and a damnable sin. This is because, in the face of God's perfect law, if we are not humbled to the dust, then we have not understood it. The regenerate, by definition, are spiritually bankrupt, have no confidence in the flesh, and glory in Christ Jesus alone for any and all standing before God.
You see, we were already condemned to death due to our flagrant violations of God's law. Yet, in spite of ourselves, God had compassion on multitude of people all over the world, that is, from every tribe, race, language and nationality of people on the earth. Though we all justly deserve His wrath ... God, not wanting to see those He loves perish, humbled Himself, became flesh and did what no one in history has ever done; perfectly obey the holy law of God and then fully bear our penalty of death on the cross. Jesus was the perfect substitute for the people He would save. He agreed with the Father, from eternity, that He would take the punishment His people deserve (John 17), and in this way God could justly declare, that those who are brought into union with Christ by grace through faith, to be fully forgiven their sins. Again, based on the sure Promise of God in the Scripture, if you trust in Jesus today then I can assure you that your sins are forgiven. It's as if you borrowed and squandered a huge amount of money that could never be repaid and yet someone else paid off the debt on your behalf. Likewise Jesus did for us in his life and death what we could not do for ourselves. He bore all the guilt of His people and He paid the debt they owed that could never have been repaid by them. This is key, for those who continue to try to repay their own debt reveal their lostness and the continual disfavor of God against their sin. So turn from trusting in self and believe the gospel. God raised Jesus from the dead in a body that will never perish, as a first fruit of all that will be grafted into Him by the Spirit uniting them in faith to Christ.
Did Jesus die for anyone who deserved it? Absolutely not! He died for people who deserved God's wrath and, by the grace of God, themselves recognize they have no way of gaining entrance to heaven on their own. This is grace. Grace and mercy means getting what you do not deserve (grace) and not getting what you deserve (mercy) respectively. There is now no condemnation left for those in Christ. No accusation can come against him, for Jesus has fully, not partially, but fully paid the price of his redemption and has given him a seal, the promised Holy Spirit to guarantee his inheritance in light.
As Christians we must also constantly keep before us that we can do nothing to maintain our justification before God. When we fall into such erroneous thinking we must take heed to Paul's warning, "Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" Good works are certain for the believer because they spring from our new nature in Christ. But they do not cause God to keep on justifying us. This trusting in good works to maintain our just standing before God must also be repented of. It is natural to think this way, but now that grace has come we must put away such nonsense once for all. Christ alone saves. That is why we are called by Christ to partake of the Lord's Table "till He come". The Table is a visual gospel which points continually to what Christ has done for us, not what we do for Him. In it, God has made a covenant in Christ's blood that he will remember not to treat us as our sins justly deserve. Instead he treats us with honor as He would His very own Son.
There is such an instilled rebellion in the heart of natural man that no one would believe this gospel unless God opened his eyes and plowed up the fallow ground of his heart. The natural man's love of sin is always greater than his love of Christ. For the man without the Spirit always believes spiritual truth to be foolish and will not accept it. So when Christ comes to save His own He not only justifies them for Christ's sake when they believe the gospel, but also raises them from the death of sin and grants them new life by His quickening Spirit in order to bring them to faith.
Faith is trusting Christ alone, plus or minus nothing, to save you from your sins. Any addition, no matter how good the intent, is to disbelieve that Christ is sufficient for you. Faith does not include trusting your own virtue, your ancestry or your baptism. It is not trusting in a sinners prayer or your altar call at a Billy Graham crusade. Christ alone saves His people and there is nothing more to add. He is sufficient in Himself and He wants us to forsake any and all trust in all other things including our good works. Dead works are to be repented of. Our faith and repentance are themselves the working of God's grace to change the disposition of our heart that we might desire to obey and love Him. Grace is not the result of our faith and repentance, but the cause of them. And faith is the sign that God has indeed done a work of saving grace in your heart. Faith looks not to itself but to Another for its help and we nurture it through reading the Scripture, fellowship in the Church, the preaching of the word, the sacraments and prayer...
If the church you attend does not understand these basic truths I just explained above, you may want to lovingly and humbly share them with your elders. If they refuse to see that Christ is sufficient and continue on trusting in moralism, then you may seriously consider finding a church which believes that Christ did not come for the righteous but sinners, for to see your need is the only qualification.Matthew 9:12-13 And when the Pharisees saw it, they said to His disciples, "Why does your teacher eat with tax collectors and sinners?" When Jesus heard that, He said to them, "Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. But go and learn what this means, 'I desire mercy and not sacrifice, For I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.'
The following are two classic quotes from Puritans Thomas Watson and Joseph Alleine on those who trust in their own righteousness:
[Some people being very moral have] "nothing to do with the business of repentance. They are so good, that they scorn God's offer of mercy. Indeed these are often in the worst condition: these are they who think they need no repentance (Luke 15:7). Their morality undoes them. They make a "savior" of it, and so on this rock they suffer shipwreck. Morality shoots short of heaven. It is only nature refined. A moral man is but old Adam dressed in fine clothes. The king's image counterfeited and stamped upon brass will not go current. The moral person seems to have the image of God—but he is only brass metal, which will never pass for current. Morality is insufficient for salvation. Though the life is moralized, the lust may be unmortified. The heart may be full of pride and atheism. Under the fair leaves of a tree, there may be a worm. I am not saying, repent that you are moral—but that you are no more than moral. Satan entered into the house that had just been swept and garnished (Luke 11:26). This is the emblem of a moral man, who is swept by civility and garnished with common gifts—but is not washed by true repentance. The unclean spirit enters into such a one. If morality were sufficient to salvation, Christ need not have died. The moral man has a fair lamp—but it lacks the oil of grace."
From Thomas Watson, The Doctrine of Repentance
[Some people end up] "Trusting in their own righteousness. This is a soul-ruining mischief. When men trust in their own righteousness they do indeed reject Christ's. Beloved, you had need be watchful on every hand, for not only your sins—but your duties may undo you. It may be you never thought of this; but so it is, that a man may as certainly perish by his seeming righteousness and supposed graces—as by gross sins; and that is, when a man trusts to these as his righteousness before God, for satisfying His justice, appeasing His wrath, procuring His favor, and obtaining His pardon. This is to put Christ out of office, and make a Savior of our own duties and graces. Beware of this, O professing Christians; you are much in duties—but this one fly will spoil all the ointment. When you have done most and best, be sure to go out of yourselves—to Christ; reckon your own righteousness as filthy rags (Phil 3:9; Isa 64:6)."
Joseph Alleine, A Sure Guide to Heaven
Both Christians and non-Christians are to repent of trusting in their good works. We can neither attain nor maintain our justification by them. Jesus would have us look to no other Savior but Himself. Yet true grace will always set a person to aspire after holiness (Phil 3:13; Prov 4:18).
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