Do You Have to Perform for God to Accept You (HC LD 23, QA 59-61)?

It’s ingrained in us. We love performance. We celebrate it. We believe that hard work pays off. Tonight, the Golden State Warriors take on the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. Both teams worked very hard and defeated very good basketball teams to rise from a record of 0-0 to the NBA Finals. Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Marcus Smart all worked incredibly hard to get to where they are. They performed, and that’s why they are where they are.

We tell our kids to study so they can get good grades and maybe go to college. We expect our paycheck to reflect our value and hard work. We look at a finished home renovation project with pride, we even show our friends, because we worked hard. Why does the little kid take the picture to his mommy and say, “Mommy look!” There is something inside all of us that wants to be recognized for what we do. It’s ingrained in our thinking. Hard work, sweat, blood, and tears all contribute to earning what we have. This is the American Dream, right? Work hard and you can achieve just about anything. And when we achieve, we want others to notice, to see, to know that we have done it.

Consider world religions. They are built upon a foundation of performance. Do this ritual, get into this habit, serve others in this way, and you can work your way into the favor of God. Performance is even at the heart of Roman Catholicism. I would even argue performance is at the heart of Arminianism which considers faith in Christ more of a meritorious work or reward than a gracious and unmerited gift from God. “Do this to earn this” is ingrained into us, probably because deep down we understand the Covenant of Works. God gave us the law and essentially said, “Do this perfectly and live; fail even once and die.” Apart from Christ, we continue in this Covenant of Works, and self-righteous delusion says we can do it, we can actually satisfy God with our performance. This is craziness, for even on our best days, we cannot even come close to obeying the Ten Commandments in their entirety. Only when God extends us His grace and by the working of the Holy Spirit in our hearts by the gospel do we realize we fail to perform the moral perfection needed to please God. Only when God opens our eyes to the truth of our spiritual estate do we realize we can’t do it.

Do you believe the Apostles’ Creed? Is it your confession of faith? The Apostles’ Creed is a summary of the gospel and incorporates many essential and comforting Biblical truths. No, you won’t find the Apostles’ Creed verbatim in Scripture, but you will find numerous Biblical texts justifying every single word of the Creed. And after the Heidelberg Catechism explains the Apostles’ Creed in questions 24-58, it asks a relevant and helpful question in 59: “But what does it help you now that you believe all this?” Okay, you believe the articles of the Apostles’ Creed. Great. How does believing help you? What difference does believing the gospel make for you? Oh, I hope you know. Believing the gospel makes all the difference. Here is what you can be sure of if you truly believe in the gospel the Apostles’ Creed nicely organizes and articulates. Heidelberg 59 answers, “In Christ, I am righteous before God and heir to life everlasting.” As you believe the gospel, you are right with God. He considers you righteous before Him, even righteous under the law. He also counts you as an heir of eternal life.

Now, a self-righteous person will not believe the gospel because they think they can do enough on their own or at least contribute a bit to their right standing before God. A self-righteous unbeliever cannot confess “I believe in . . . the forgiveness of sins” because they don’t think they need forgiveness from God. A self-righteous unbeliever may actually believe they need God’s forgiveness but then believe they can perform something to earn God’s forgiveness, like doing more good works than bad works. And in my experience, some professing Christians believe they contribute in some way to their salvation, which is antithetical to the gospel. So, I believe that Heidelberg 60 is among the most important of the entire catechism. R. C. Sproul said:

If any word was at the center of the firestorm of the Reformation controversy and remains central to the debate even in our day, it is imputation. . . .We cannot really understand what the Reformation was about without understanding the central importance of this concept. . . .This is the very heart of the gospel. [1]  

Sproul thought that the doctrine of double imputation – our sin is imputed to Christ, and Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us – is the very heart of the gospel, and I agree. There is no gospel without double imputation, and we have no salvation or comfort without double imputation. Heidelberg 60 is a statement you should commit to memory, and so should I. It explains clearly how you and I are righteous before a holy, perfect, and righteous God. Just listen to this massively helpful statement:

How are you righteous before God? Only by true faith in Jesus Christ. Although my conscience accuses me that I have grievously sinned against all God’s commandments, have never kept any of them, and am still inclined to all evil, yet God, without any merit of my own, out of mere grace, imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ. He grants these to me as if I had never had nor committed any sin and as if I myself had accomplished all the obedience which Christ has rendered for me, if only I accept this gift with a believing heart.

Self-righteous people won’t agree with that, but sinners who hate their sin and fear the judgment of God will not only believe that statement, they will find deep comfort in it. We are righteous before God, not because of our good works or performance, but by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. But what do all those alones mean? Our consciences regularly accuse us of horrible sin. God has opened our eyes to see our sin and inclination to sin. We know our disparity of righteousness. However, by grace alone through faith alone, God imputes (or credits or reckons or counts) to us the righteousness of Christ. We have not merited this. We have not earned this. Out of sheer grace, God has given the righteousness of Christ to us as a gift, and He gives it through faith. He gives us faith too, and through this faith, He credits Christ’s righteousness to us as if it was ours. God then treats us as if we were the ones who had perfectly obeyed His law. He grants us the favor reserved only for Christ His Son because we are united to Christ His Son by true faith.

To be a Christian you must shed any performance mentality. Instead, you must assume an imputation mentality. You don’t work for it, you receive it as a gift. That’s counterintuitive for self-righteous sinners. And even when we understand this, our tendency is to revert to a performance mentality, to return to a Covenant of Works, which only discourages and drains us of comfort and assurance. Look to Christ daily to see your righteousness. Christ is your righteousness, and trusting you have his righteousness will lead you to true comfort.     

[1] Are We Together: A Protestant Analyzes Roman Catholicism by R. C. Sproul. © Ligonier Ministries 2012. Used by permission of Ligonier Ministries. All rights reserved.

Quotes from the Heidelberg Catechism and creeds are taken from Zacharias Ursinus & Jonathan Shirk, The Heidelberg Catechism: True Comfort for Life & Death (Manheim: Small Town Theologian, 2021), 395.

Scripture quotations are from the ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved. May not copy or download more than 500 consecutive verses of the ESV Bible or more than one half of any book of the ESV Bible.

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Jonathan Shirk

Welcome to the online home of Jonathan Shirk, family man, Reformed pastor, author, podcaster, and small town theologian. Whether you're from a small town or big city, may this website help you find deeper comfort and joy in the gospel.

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