Presumption vs. Effort

We are well into Advent, and the lectionary turns our thoughts to John the Baptist and his preparation for the ministry of our Lord. John is an interesting character. We admire his candor and focus, but I dare say we are glad he isn’t hanging out in the back of our church. He came preaching a message of repentance. “Straighten up for the Messiah is coming,” is the main emphasis of his teaching. He had no great regard for the religious leaders of his day; he called them a bunch of snakes and challenged them to repent as well.

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children for Abraham.

Matthew 3:8-9 (ESV)

Bear fruit in keeping with repentance. Do things that are congruent with pursuing holiness and turning from sin. Actively seek to root out pride, gluttony, lust, greed, sloth, envy, and wrath from your life. Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. Love your neighbor as yourself. Don’t be presumptuous.

“We’re children of Abraham. We are God’s chosen race.” One would think that 70 years of exile in Babylon would have tempered that a bit, but they were short-sighted and stiff-necked, as are we. We always seem to hope for assurance but don’t want it to require much from us.

Jesus, once he eclipses John and begins his ministry, reinforces John’s message.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Matthew 7:21 (ESV)

If you skim the preceding chapters of Matthew, it seems like Jesus’ idea of “doing his Father’s will” is more than just “giving him your heart.” Matthew 7:21 and its implications unsettle those of the “eternal security” camp, as it should. There is something to be said for not constantly worrying about “losing” your salvation, but then again, this seems to have a long lineage in history. Most of the saints were concerned about pleasing God through their actions. They sought God with devotion and effort.

To some degree it comes back to Gnosticism. If we think that because “I know I’m saved,” then “I’m good,” we are proclaiming that we have knowledge (the meaning of gnosis) and by that knowledge we are saved. This idea that “we don’t have to do anything, just believe,” has become so entrenched in American evangelicalism that suggesting we must do something is viewed with shock and horror. John the Baptist would be scoffed as a legalist.

But what is Scripture? Is it not a lot of teaching on how we are to act? Perhaps we should quit worrying about vainly trying to earn our salvation and focus a bit on being cast into hell for not being obedient. Not very popular these days, I know. But Scripture hasn’t changed.

We are on dangerous ground we when presume to be “good.” Scripture’s default assumption concerning every one of us is that we are sinners worthy of judgement. We can do nothing to earn salvation — because we have already irretrievably blown it. God’s grace is truly the only thing that can save us, not because he’s so nice and wants to make it easy on us. He desires us to be holy as he is holy.

We should be working double-time to try to appease the wrath of God. We should cling to Jesus like a man dangling from a cliff clinging to a rope. Not presumptuously swinging about and enjoying the view, but doing everything we can to get back up onto the straight, narrow, and high way of the Lord.


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