We think the gospel is the ABCs of the Christian life. “Of course, Jesus died for my sins – now, let me take it from here.”
No. We need to hear the gospel time after time, year after year, because we so easily slip back into an unconscious self-salvation way of being. In fact, in looking at the lives of the saints, it’s pretty clear that the spiritual life is simply the ongoing puncturing of the gospel (“Jesus has done it!”) deep into a human heart and a life lived out of an ever increasing, unconscious belief in the gospel to the deepest, unseen places of the human person.
It remains timelessly true in every way: without Jesus, we are dead (Eph. 2), and we must be raised to life by the “same Spirit that raised Jesus from the dead” (Rom. 8). There is literally no way we can stand in God presence and be united to Him. There is nothing we can do to accomplish that.
What would happen if you were an inch from the Sun? You would be eviscerated. Now the Sun is a small, dim star in a tiny galaxy in a corner of the universe, all of which fits effortlessly into God. Can we fathom the “energy”, the holiness, the intensity, glory, the power of God? What could we possibly do to fashion ourselves to stand before Him? The only possible way is to be “found in” Jesus (Phil. 3:9). What actually could exist an inch from the Sun? Something that basically is exactly like that Sun. Similarly, only in Jesus, we can “become partakers in the nature of God” (2 Peter 2:14). We have literally nothing to offer and lift up before the Father except Jesus. What else do you think we are doing when we’re doing this:
This means, in every way, we are one, vast need for Jesus. Therefore, all this talk of virtue somehow fits into the gospel, into our ongoing need for what Jesus has done for us.
Why do we want to be virtuous? So that we can make ourselves good, acceptable and desirable to God? So that we don’t go to Hell? So that we can become admirable in the sight of others? So that we can protect our sense of accomplishment, confidence, or security? So that we can escape the wrath of God?
See how often we slide off of Jesus? Do we want to be virtuous as a replacement for Jesus, or as a response to Jesus?
Sadly, we often approach life by ignoring God and trying to do things to make ourselves good, acceptable, worthwhile, etc (even in trying to be virtuous). We don’t do things because we love God for who He is in Himself, we do them because we don’t trust God! And, we live with the consequences: a life alienated from God (on some level or another).
But the good news is that the Father sent Jesus, who ignored the Father in nothing. He was totally virtuous. He did everything simply because He loved the Father for who He is. He lived the perfect human life – and got nothing for it. He is the only person in history to whom the Father said, “live for me perfectly, and I will pound you to dust and send you to Hell.” Why did Jesus do that? For you, for me. We do things to make ourselves good, accepted, holy, puffed up, approved, and, as a result, distance ourselves from Him. Jesus shouldered that distance, so that we could have a chance at being good, accepted, holy, approved. The only innocent man ever, chose to bear the punishment of the guilty, so that they may become innocent. Jesus did it. Jesus is the impossible gift of the Father.
What can our only response to this be? Jesus, I love you. And the life I now live, I live in faith and hope in you, out of love for you, who loved me and gave yourself for me. I want to be brave, because you were brave for me. I want to listen to God and do what He tells me (prudence), because you did that for me. I want to not give in to comfort-seeking (temperance), because you didn’t give in to it for me. I want to be a just, good companion, because you certain were and are that for me. Virtue is the supernatural shape of a natural human life utterly and increasingly won over by the beauty of the person and sacrifice of Jesus.
In the end, there is only one story: is it about Jesus, or is it about me?
C.S. Lewis, like always, says it best:
[Because the Christ-life is inside of him], the Christian is in a different position from other people who are trying to be good. They hope, by being good, to please God if there is one; or – if they think there is not – at least they hope to deserve approval from good men. But the Christian thinks any good he does comes from the Christ-life inside him. He does not think God will love us because we are good, but that God will make us good because He loves us; just as the roof of a greenhouse does not attract the light because it is bright, but becomes bright because the sun shines on it.
There is no one like You, God. All praise belongs to You, for You are faithful and You delight in Your children.