A Righteousness by Faith #7: Are you trying hard to be righteous?

Remain in me, as I also remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. John 15:4-5

If we get to live because Jesus lives, then our greatest life challenge is to rest from our own righteousness and depend on Christ’s. Here is our learning curve—that we stop trying to be good for God and allow his righteousness to pulse through our veins.

I grew up in church and cut my teeth on the Golden Rule, the Ten Commandments and John 3:16. Moral applications dominated my lessons in Sunday school. To be a good person, don’t be like David, who stole another man’s wife. To be a good person, be like Daniel, who refused to compromise his faith by eating food forbidden by God. To be a good person, don’t be like Achan, who took stuff God told the people not to take and caused Israel to be defeated in battle. To be a good person, be like Samuel who listened to God even when he was a little boy.

The result of this well-meant approach to applying the truth of Scripture to a young boy’s moral conscience was that I understood being good was up to me. I had to resist temptation, to fight the good fight, overcome whatever Satan threw my way—in my own strength. Somehow, the part of the story that showed how people depended on God’s strength or rejected His strength was kind of blipped over.

As Jesus comes down to the final minutes of his earthly ministry, he is putting the real challenge before his closest friends. Remain in me. He urges them to learn to trust him as their power source for obedience.

To emphasize this point, Jesus uses a common agricultural illustration. He explained that if they, the branches, wanted fruit produced in their lives, they would need to stay connected with him, the vine, who was the source of their life. The word Jesus used for this connection, ‘remain,’ captured the idea that the life-giving power for their faith journey would come naturally as they rested in this unbreakable relationship.

This is the clearest picture of the difference between Jesus’ invitation to righteousness by faith and the Pharisees’ call to righteousness through the Law. The Pharisees wanted people to live obedient lives, so they set up all kinds of fences to keep the herd from straying into sin. Don’t do this. Stop that. Stay away from those people, places or things. Righteousness in their world depended on human effort. Righteous living according to Jesus depended on the transformative power available by the presence of the Father, Son and Spirit in them.

But the issue of transformation goes much deeper than just obedience. It goes down to healing; to freedom from performance; to restoration from the effects of the Fall; to becoming the person we were created to be. This addresses the unfinished business of our lives. If God is not intent on transforming us, then we are on a miserable journey of the survival of the most morally fit. But He is intent on this and has already determined that everything we see in Jesus will be produced in us. Jesus stands as the image of every brother and sister he will have when the dust clears. Right now God is at work in you and me—not just someday. And God is at work in everyone that names Jesus as their savior.

If you have been living in the kind of morality trap I grew up with, I encourage you to rest from trying hard to be good for God. I know what it is like to think that, ‘This time, I’ve got it. I have overcome this temptation’—only to fall to its power the next day. We focus on the wrong thing. We focus on our efforts instead of focusing on Jesus himself. Jesus’ challenge is to rest from all that trying and trust him, so that His power will pulse through your soul.

I am very passionate about this issue and I’ll be continuing this in my next blog…

-Steve Smith