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Making points or breathing grace?

Yesterday, our friend Shane (who teaches our mid-size group on Sunday mornings—okay, it’s a "Sunday School," but I hate that term) told a joke that gets to the heart of what Paul is trying to communicate in Romans 7. I probably won’t be able to tell it as well as he delivered it, but here goes:
A man dies and walks up to the Pearly Gates, manned by St. Peter himself.

Peter smiles down at the man from behind his desk, and asks: “So, how many points you got?”

“Well, I’ve been a pastor for 20 years,” the man says confidently.

“Well,” says Peter, scribbling a figure on his paper, “I’ll give you two points for that.”

“What?!” cries the man, incredulous. “How many points do I need?!”

“A great deal more than that,” Peter says with a grin.

“Well, okay,” says the man. “Every week, I fed the hungry at our mission downtown.”

“Okay,” says Peter, jotting down another figure. “One point for that.”

The man’s eyes got wider and he began to panick as he listed off everything he could think of while Peter patiently ascribed points accordingly.

Finally, as the man was wracking his brains for some more things to add to the list, a businessman walked by him.

“Hi Peter,” says the businessman.

“Hey, Bob,” says Peter, waving his hand for the businessman to enter the gates.

“What?!” protests the pastor as he watched the business man walk through the gates. “You’re just letting him go through?”

“Sure,” says Peter, shrugging. “He’s not playing this game.”
Heh. And that’s what Paul is getting at in Romans 7, which is all about what happens when we try to live the Christian life by our own efforts instead of the Spirit (Romans 8). But Paul says we’ve died to the law—we’ve died to this principle of “keeping score.” If we see the Christian life as trying to live up to standards or principles (be it trying to do what we think we should or not doing what we shouldn’t), we are playing the “point game,” like the pastor before the Pearly Gates. But our performance will always be underwhelming—it will never reach the mark.

We can’t live the Christian life by our own effort, but Jesus—who’s Spirit lives within us—can. One of my favorite quotes along this line comes from The Rest of the Gospel by Dan Stone, who recalls the moment he grasped this truth while listening to a speaker in a small-group:

The first thing he said was, “You can’t live the Christian life.” I thought, “Amen to that. I am a walking testimony to that. You can’t live the Christian life.” Then he said, “Christ is the life.” Well, I knew that. I had a head knowledge of that. But finally he stated, “Christ is in you and He will live the life.” And my spirit responded, “Ohhhh! Not, ‘He will help me live the life,’ but ‘He will live the life.’ That’s the good news. I can let Him live the life. I can do that.”

I had 21 years of trying on my own. I was absolutely convinced I couldn’t live the Christian life, not the way the Bible described it. Now I realized, “He can. I’ll let Him” . . . .

For the first time I came to know that He had already made me the righteousness of God in Christ (2 Cor. 5:21). I was truly righteous. He had made me holy (Col. 3:12). He had made me complete (Col. 2:10). I was blameless in His sight (Col. 1:22). And loved. And acceptable.

The Lord taught me that when I was crucified on the cross with Christ, as Gal. 2:20 had told me for so long, I died to myself as my point of reference. He living in me was my point of reference. He would live His life through me, as me. Has He revealed that to you? If He hasn’t, He wants to, because that’s the good news. That’s the good news.”

The Christian life—an abundant life given by God—is all about resting in and living out his Spirit, a constant, minute-by-minute trust in a God who loves us beyond imagination. When we cease trying to measure up and instead rest in God’s love and the wide open spaces of his Kingdom, transformation begins to happen. That’s when, like the businessman, we start living by that oh-so-amazing grace.

What can we do to start living by grace and the Spirit instead of playing the “point game”? God’s designed some ways to cooperate with him in transforming our minds and hearts (what many call “spiritual disciplines”). For example, read (and read and read) the Word—it’s God’s revelation of himself and the way he and the world works. Turn off the TV or ipod to listen to and talk with God. Meet regularly with a Christian brother or sister, with whom you confess where you’re struggling and messing up—and encourage each other with the Word and truth.

These actions, in and of themselves, don’t change us; they aren’t another point system to tally up. These disciplines, however, are a means to grace. They are ways God’s designed for us to open up to him, to focus our minds and hearts on him, to remind and teach us to trust and live out of his Spirit. God then uses that trust and openness to transform us to be more like Jesus. And that’s a sweet taste of heaven.

Which is much better than playing the point game, don’t you think?

(Image: brighterorange at