God doesn’t want your best. Don’t think it. Don’t believe it. Don’t say it. God doesn’t want your best. He’s not your Little League coach. There is too much at stake here. And your best stinks. It’s not that good. Oh, relatively speaking I suppose there is some truth to this. We can compare ourselves to others. We can rank each other. My putting is the best at the office golf outing. The best student. The best BBQ. Fine. Seems a little childish for God talk though. God doesn’t want your best. Your best stinks.
And this is not a cranky theologian getting worked about semantics. I can do that too, but not here. This is important. It is at the heart of the Reformation. If you wade through all the theological jargon of the late medieval church (transubstantiation, venial sins, mortal sins, condign merit, congruous merit), if you fight your way through it all to arrive at the core, there is this phrase that stands out; facere quod in se est. Do what is in you. Do your best. Do your best and God will love you back. He knows that you cannot be perfect but there is something in you, a little, tiny, minimal good. God just wants your best and he will not deny grace to those who just do what is in them. As if Christ’s cross had nothing to do with our salvation.
Luther was fond of saying that we owe nothing to God, only faith. Good thing because what is in us is rotten. It’s not worth, even a little bit, parading around before God or man. I don’t care how good your putter is or your grades or your BBQ. At least not in the sake of your value to me or to God. There is too much at stake here to play this game.
This little phrase, “Do what is in you”, is devastating, absolutely devastating. It puts us back into a business relationship with God. I do this for him (as small as it might be) and he will do this for me. It’s not love. It’s not grace. It’s crushing because only an arrogant fool looks inside and declares, “This is good.” Despair is the only honest conclusion. Be very careful then where you throw this law. It might hit an honest person.
I don’t know why we try to put ourselves back under this curse. We are free from that. God demands nothing from me because it has already been given to me in Christ. I don’t have anything to offer him. Nothing at all. And I don’t have to, on account of Christ. Only faith and my faith stinks too, so the Spirit turns my sorry heart around in faith. He does it all. It’s the only way I have peace and security in all of this. It’s the only way I know the love of God. Even my repentance is a part of faith that God works in me. I owe God nothing.
I owe my neighbor everything. So my growth, my plan, my career, my ministry, my, my, my. Who cares? My life is now about something so much bigger than “my”. It’s about divine love. And how freeing that is. This was never about what is in me, my best, ever. How insulting it is to a gracious God to think so. “Here is what I have for you, O God.” Rather, he makes me a partaker of mercies more than I dare claim.
Luther contemplated what this meant when we take stock of our lives. He concluded what the Psalms and Paul and all the rest concluded, that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. I should always have this fear that my life is nothing before him. Only in that fear (as opposed to the hubris of “I got something to offer him”), only in this fear am I ripe for mercy and love. Mercy from him and love to others. So as we sing Psalm 103, notice there is no “Do my best.” There is only a healthy dose of fear, only a marveling at his grace (he doesn’t treat us as we deserve but much better), only a wonderment at forgiveness and mercy.
God does not return grace to those who try their best but rather shows compassion on those fear him, that is, who know, by the Spirit’s work, that they have nothing to offer and only hold out there hands to receive.
Together with our colleague and a guest on the show, Kerry Kuehn, Mike is offering a practical apologetics course, open to all, in the summer of 2019. You can learn more and register here.
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You can listen to our latest episode here. You can find our latest installment in the Wingin’ It series on Luther here.