Scripture shows us two ways to approach change: through religion or through the Gospel.
Religious-based change is self-righteous. Religion teaches that God accepts me and empowers me because of my spectacular moral ability. To change my situation, I simply devote myself to earning the favor and power of God. You might picture a scale and a faucet to understand some of the ways we attempt this.
With a scale, I’m figuring my good works outweigh my bad. I think, “Sure, I’ve done some things wrong, but I’m not that bad. I give to the poor, I love my family, and I’m a regular at church. Those ought to outweigh any evil in my life.”
Or I might look at God’s favor more like water from a faucet: As a single twist turns on a faucet, so I can manipulate God’s blessing and power through a good work. I might say, “I’m not claiming to be a good person, but at least I’m not hypocritical like other people.” Or “So I’m not perfect. But I do make a cross sign when I drive by a church. That has to count for something.”
In either case, my religious approach assumes God gives strength to those who impress Him morally.
How do I know if I am coming to God this way? First, since a religious approach assumes I have earned my way into a relationship with God, I can’t help but feel superior to others (Romans 3:27). I’m probably judgmental and condescending toward people who don’t keep my most important standards. Religion also leads to bitterness when God does not live up to my expectations (Hebrews 12:15). If I “rubbed the lamp” the right way, how could God not come through for me? Finally, religion makes me vulnerable. I worry God will abandon me if I break the assumed standard. I live in fear that He will stop loving me if I stop going to church or He will no longer protect and bless me if I am no longer sincere about my religion. Approaching God in this self-righteous manner leads to certain discouragement.
The Gospel teaches just the opposite of religion. God doesn’t favor me because I’m a good person. Instead, He takes a supreme interest in me because of the work of His Son. Though I am as sinful as anyone I know, through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross my sins are forgiven (Colossians 2:13). And through the life of Christ the righteousness of God is credited to my account (Philippians 3:9). When I am in union with Jesus, I can be to God what Jesus is to Him: “my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). I am empowered, energized, and motivated by my relationship with God. Because of His mercy I can present myself as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1).
What are some signs that I am pursing change in the Gospel rather than religion? First, my obedience to God flows from a heart of thanks, not a spirit of manipulation. While I once obeyed God to get Him to love and bless me, I now obey because I have His richest blessing in Christ. Also, following God is no longer mere duty, but my delight. The law can make me drive 55 miles per hour, but it cannot make me want to go 55. In the same way, religion can compel me to follow God, but it cannot make me want to walk with God (Psalms 37:4). The Gospel not only changes my behavior; it changes my deepest desires. Finally, the Gospel can lead only to humility. Since I am accepted, blessed, and empowered because of the work of Christ, I have no reason to feel superior. The Gospel leaves no room for arrogance. I am confident in my relationship with God, but humbled by His grace.