If God’s mercies are new to me this morning (Lam. 3:22-23), yesterdays hard work for him did not merit any favor. That’s too bad; by nature, my heart loves to earn favor with God by standing out in the crowd – just a little in front of the rest. But this is how the gospel informs and shapes my thinking about my relationship with a holy and merciful God who sent his son as an atonement for my sins. Orthodox Christianity is the only religion on the planet that will not allow man to get ahead of Christ and gain any favor with God by working hard. Mercy is counter-intuitive to how we think but it is God’s way.
This past Sunday, as I am preaching through 1 & 2 Timothy on Sunday mornings, we saw that Paul prays that God would have mercy on Onesiphorus and his household (2 Tim. 1:15-18). Onesiphorus ministered to Paul while in Ephesus – where Timothy is now an elder. But when Paul was arrested and taken to Rome, Onesiphorus risked his life searching for Paul and also risked his life refreshing Paul again and again as the old and beaten apostle languished alone in prison. You would then think that mercy is not what Onesiphorus needed from the Lord but rather a paycheck for all the hard work that he did for Paul. But the gospel shapes Paul’s prayer: No matter how hard you work you are still in need of mercy from the Lord, not because your work doesn’t matter – it does, but because your work does not obligate God to be good to you. At the end of the long work day for the Lord, you and I are still saying, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
This is one reason why I believe the Bible to be God’s Word. No sane man would write like this. Either you’re a grade A nut-job or you really are an apostle writing the very words of God. There is no religious document in the world that talks this way about man’s work in relation to God’s character of mercy. There is not a human on the planet that naturally gravitates to mercy. We are by nature, Merit-Mongers. We are blood-thirsty for approval based upon our works. In fact, I find myself wanting to do a good work right after I have sinned to off-set my trespass. Have you ever skipped your devotions and then thought, “I’ll read double today to make up for my failure yesterday?” Have you ever gone to church to impress God? Have you ever talked about what right and good things you have done without giving thanks to God, or saying, “God has been merciful to me”? Have you ever compared yourself to someone else’s sin and failure and the slightest infraction, only to put distance between you and the poor beggar so that all can see how better you are? Have you ever minimized your sin in front of your accuser? Have you ever kept embarrassing information about yourself out of the story-line and then slightly embellished the good stuff about you?
Our hearts are merit-mongers, seeking to be seen as worthy before man and God, seeking to be approved by our performance and hard work. But God will not share his glory with us. Our only hope is to plead mercy, look to Christ for all the perfection, performance, and righteousness that we will ever need. You see, the gospel is not something we believed at one time long ago and then got on with the hard work of being a Christian. No – the gospel is my life. It informs and conforms my life to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ – for my eternal justification. If I had to work to keep myself in the good graces of God, I would have been tossed out long ago.
Think of it this way: On Judgment Day, would you rather point to all your hard work for entrance into the eternal Joy of the Lord, or would you rather point to Christ’s hard work for you – in your place as your substitution? I’m going with the latter. I advise the same for you. Knowing your need of daily mercy may cut against the grain of your heart, but it is the safest and sweetest and only way to stand before the Lord.