When Our Hearts Revert to Self-Reliance

Being saved by grace may be easy to stomach when we’re first converted. That first time God opens our eyes to the gospel, we’re often already painfully aware of the brokenness inside of us, with varying levels of shame and regret over our past. The longer we’re “Christian” though, we can slowly and subtly begin to feel less needy. Self-reliance can creep in, corrupting our awareness of our own corruption and awakening fresh confidence in our own energy and effort.

Not long after embracing God’s grace in the gospel, some Christians in Galatia began to build confidence in themselves and their own works, again. False teachers had slipped in and were imposing old laws on these new believers, pouring theological weed-killer on the precious seeds Paul had planted.

What was their deceptive message? That in addition to faith in the work of Christ, these Gentiles needed to be circumcised and add observance to old-covenant laws (Galatians 4:10; 6:12). Faith in Jesus was truly not enough.

Now, we might think anyone who had tasted the real saved-by-grace gospel would spit this back out in seconds. But the Galatians obviously didn’t. Why? Because however wrong the false teachers may have been, their message met a sinful inclination deep inside the human heart: we all secretly love a gospel that relies on us. We love being the hero, or at least a celebrated sidekick. Self-reliance feeds our self-esteem and self-worth.

But self-reliance never offers us a real meal, and eventually it can get us killed (spiritually). The first bite may taste so rich and satisfying, but we only get the one bite. And while we’re caught nibbling at the crumbs, the buffet of grace is suddenly out of reach. Our impulse to finish what Christ started in our own strength must be exposed and denied.

For those of us who struggle with pride or are prone to rely on ourselves, here are four ways to remember to rest our souls decisively in God’s work, not our own.

1. Jesus had to die horribly, because we sin so horribly.

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. (Galatians 3:1)

How can we look at the cross — those cruel nails, open wounds, and God himself gasping for air — and believe we could do anything to get (or keep) ourselves right with God? If that is what we deserved for our sin, we are more wicked than we could ever completely grasp. And none of us could endure what Jesus endured for our sake — not just the physical cross, but the infinite, blistering volcano of God’s righteous anger meant for us.

The nature of Jesus’s sacrifice rebukes any notion of our works-righteousness or works-progress. How could we possibly understand the idea of Christ’s crucifixion — the scandal of his execution, the weight of the burden he carried, the gravity and seriousness of sin, and the enormity of God’s wrath — and hold onto any hope of justifying or sanctifying ourselves?

2. We were converted through believing, not doing.

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? (Galatians 3:2)

Jesus died for your sins, but how did you become a Christian? Those first moments in Christ were not God’s response to something you had done. They were your response to something God had done. The Holy Spirit landed in your heart, and led you to surrender your effort to be good enough but to trust instead in Jesus. You heard, believed, and were saved — no tasks assigned to you.

You’ve experienced conversion yourself without your own works: “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us” (Romans 5:5). And you’ve watched others believe and grow in the fruits of the Spirit by faith. Why would you start adding your own works back into the equation now? Our good deeds serve as evidence that we have been born again (James 2:17), but they’re not the guarantee. God is the guarantee of our new and everlasting life, by the power of his Spirit (Ephesians 1:13–14).

3. The Spirit carries us from our first steps of faith until our very last breath.

Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh? (Galatians 3:3)

How do you account for your personal growth? If you are a more patient person, where did that patience come from? If you have more self-control, where did you find the strength to wait or say no? If you have more joy in Christ today, what has made you happier? Anyone with enough self-awareness knows that we participate in the progress, “but God [gives] the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:6).

God gives the growth through the same grace and the same Spirit — the same gospel — through which he saved us. Tim Keller writes, “The Spirit does not work (never works) apart from the gospel. . . . It is the channel and form of the Spirit’s power. . . . (Paul) says that the way the Spirit entered your life should be the very same way the Spirit advances in your life” (Galatians for You, 60).

We’re tempted to begin relying on ourselves again because we think that accepting us is God’s responsibility in the project of our redemption, and obedience is ours. We try and pick up where God left off, but God never leaves off. Anything truly good or pleasing about us is evidence he has done something. “It is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

4. Our sacrifices and suffering for Jesus have not been in vain.

Did you suffer so many things in vain — if indeed it was in vain? (Galatians 3:4)

We may struggle to connect with this one. The Galatians had something to lose when they chose to follow Christ. Being Christian wasn’t culturally popular or acceptable where they lived, and it certainly wasn’t the dominant worldview. They lost friends and comfort and probably some of their rights and possessions because of their faith in Jesus. They suffered and sacrificed for his sake.

And now they were risking everything they had given up and turning to a different gospel. If they continued down this course, embracing these false doctrines, their suffering would have been worthless, of absolutely no value.

Our sacrifices and suffering do not have to be in vain, though. Paul says, “All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Timothy 3:12). And Jesus says, “You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But the one who endures to the end will be saved” (Matthew 10:22). If we haven’t suffered for our faith yet, we will. And we’ve probably given up more than we realize — not indulging in sin, not returning evil for evil, but laying down our lives for others. Don’t let all of that go to waste by trading away grace for something you’ve made yourself.

Jesus describes faith with a picture: “The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field” (Matthew 13:44). The investment we’ve made in the gospel should cause us to constantly rehearse, reevaluate, and refine our understanding of its message. We should want to give, serve, disciple, pray, and hope in line with the one true gospel, so that our labor and sacrifice is not in vain.

If we align ourselves with another gospel (even subtly different), all our hope and effort will yield nothing of any lasting value.