Good News For The Not-Yet-Perfect
We are complex creatures in whom perfectionism is a fickle master—its domineering voice is heard in some rooms but not others. While most compartments of my life are dominated by the Australian mantra of, “She’ll be right, mate” (a pliable phrase used to convey that ‘close enough is good enough’, or even that ‘what I have is sufficient’), there are some spheres that need to be perfect. Why certain fields, and not others, fall under each category is a mystery to me and probably has an answer influenced heavily by a unique blend of both nature and nurture.
Yet whether we ultimately classify ourselves as a perfectionist or not, we all have treasured idols hidden away in cupboards that demand perfection. Like all idols, they offer much but demand even more, and the fear of not being able to deliver will cripple us. I’m not sure of your idols, I could probably guess based on cultural norms, but I’m terrifyingly intimate with mine. So while my garden may be in disarray, my words and sentences are carefully hedged and neatly manicured. I will step over unnoticed toys and objects on the floor in order to reconfigure the dishwasher tray for optimal cleaning, because someone packed it the wrong way. There are more, but they’re my idols, and they are not easily drawn into the light.
I know there is another. Its shadow looms over many of the rest. And while I’m not deeply familiar with idol lore, I suspect many of my lesser idols pay ultimate homage to the greater. The idol of my own self righteousness extracts a heavy price, its demands are great and unyielding, yet it sings such a sweet song. The seductive tune of its voice whispers in incalculable ways, but always with the same refrain, “You can be worthy”.
The collective anguish of the ‘not-yet-perfect’ is the promise that perfection can be reached and that the reward will be great when we arrive. This anguish is never more pronounced than when it is felt in the pursuit of righteousness. Even as one who champions the song of grace, the seductive tune of self-righteousness is laying down a track to which I easily fall into a rhythmic sway. In some way or another, we all dance to this tune—that my righteousness can be secured by attentive effort and dedicated application of skill. What a boast we could have if we achieved it!
Like a parent arriving home early, Romans 4 bursts into our party and pauses the playlist. Throwing out the uninvited guests, Paul sits us down on the couch and lays out the ground-rules once again.
What then shall we say was gained by Abraham, our forefather according to the flesh? For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. (Romans 4:1-2 ESV)
He’s right, the pursuit of perfection for our own righteousness, if it could be achieved, gives us something to boast about—but not before God. Empty boasts in an empty room. But because good discipline always has restoration in mind, Paul doesn’t finish his heart-to-heart here. While our boasts have been vain, there is yet good news for the not-yet-perfect.
“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:7-8 ESV)
This is the reward held out to us, the one our idol of self-righteousness offers, though at great cost. “Blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” Isn’t that what we long for?
Don’t go anywhere yet, Paul isn’t done.
Is this blessing then only for the circumcised, or also for the uncircumcised? For we say that faith was counted to Abraham as righteousness. How then was it counted to him? Was it before or after he had been circumcised? It was not after, but before he was circumcised. He received the sign of circumcision as a seal of the righteousness that he had by faith while he was still uncircumcised. The purpose was to make him the father of all who believe without being circumcised, so that righteousness would be counted to them as well, and to make him the father of the circumcised who are not merely circumcised but who also walk in the footsteps of the faith that our father Abraham had before he was circumcised. (Romans 4:9-12 ESV)
We need to go to our room and think about this. Deeply. The good news for the not-yet-perfect is not found in the striving, a better method for achieving, or a short-cut to holiness through three easy steps. It’s found in Jesus. Righteousness isn’t achieved—at least not by us—it’s given.
Before the law, before circumcision (a sign of adherence to the law), "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”. Dear friend, set aside the sacrifice you were taking to the alter erected before the idol of your own righteousness. Your righteousness is declared, not earned.
Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:1-2 ESV)