I am not married because I help my wife, Jessica, in the kitchen; I help my wife in the kitchen because I am married. When I help Jessica with housework, my work does not make me more married. I simply help her because I’m her husband. In the same way, you cannot become more righteous through what you do for God; rather you are excited to help God because you are righteous.
Under the New Covenant, our motives become more important than our actions. It is all about motivation. You can have the exact same action with the wrong motivation. A woman forced to have sex is raped. A woman paid to have sex is a prostitute. A woman who willing gives her body to the man she is married to is a wife. In all three cases, the outward action is the same (sex has occurred), but the motivation determines whether the act is a loving action or a repulsive one.
God’s grace is a believer’s motivation for good works, but “religion” is a whore. Our relationship with Jesus should be like a marriage. Jesus is the bridegroom and the church is the bride. The marriage bed is all about relationship. But religion is like a man who visits a prostitute: the physical action might be the same, but the love is absent.
Once there were two restaurant owners. The owner of “The Grace Café” was an immigrant who was proud of living in his new country. He put a huge American flag on a pole right in front of his restaurant. Because of his patriotism, people flocked to eat his food. When the restaurant owner across the street saw all the increased traffic because of the flag, he put up his own flag, not because he was patriotic, but because he wanted more business. Both restaurants now have flags, but there is a difference in their motives. The first owner has a “flag with patriotism,” the second owner has a “flag without patriotism.”
In the same way, some people do good works “because of grace” and others do good works in an effort to get grace or look like they have grace. One Christian man tithes because he is in bondage to legalism. He has been taught from the Old Testament that he will be under a curse if he fails to tithe. Another Christian man tithes because he loves God and he gives out of a motivation of thankfulness. They both put the same amount of money into the same offering plate, but one does it out of legalism and the other does it out of love. One is the equivalent of a spiritual prostitute while the other is part of the bride of Christ.
In another case, one man refuses to drink alcohol because he thinks it is a terrible sin. Another man refuses to drink alcohol because he has had a revelation that his body is the temple of the Holy Spirit, and he does not want to pollute that temple. Same behavior—not drinking alcohol—but one man is motivated by legalism; the other is motivated by grace.
You cannot become righteous through your own efforts, neither can you stay righteous though your own efforts. You need God’s help to change ingrained sinful habits. For many, the desire to change becomes a daily struggle with the flesh. This leads to a “works mentality” where people try to do what is right. But, even if they manage to keep their outward actions right, many still fight with inward temptation.
Doing the right thing is of little value when one inwardly wants to sin. The only truth that can set us free, both inwardly and outwardly, is God’s grace. Jesus said, “Come to Me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28). For us to truly be free of the heavy burden of temptation—temptation to sin and temptation to trust in our own attempts at good behavior—we we must come to Jesus, the personification of grace. Our self-effort is worthless; we must learn to rely on Jesus. Through Jesus, victory over sin becomes easy.