Today’s question is from Jordan. “Good afternoon, Pastor John. I was recently listening to episode 1322, “He Killed His Wife and Children — Can He Really Be Forgiven?” What you said about the older brother jumped out at me: ‘The problem with the older brother is that he lived like a slave, not a son. He related to his father as if his work would earn good things, instead of enjoying the fellowship of the father’s bounty.’ That’s a great principle pulled from Luke 15:17–24. I often struggle with knowing in my heart that no good work can ever be enough to please God. I think in my mind that God is surely not pleased enough with me. I fear I live like this older brother. How do you live as a son and not a slave? How would I know if I am living as a slave?”
Talk Like a Son
Okay, the first step in not living like a slave but like a son of God is to stop saying mistaken, slave-like things about our Father. Jesus said in John 15:15, “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.” You could say sons as well — both pictures are in the New Testament, and both are getting at the same reality. But here the point is this: “I have called you friends, for all that I heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
“The first step in not living like a slave but like a son of God is to stop saying mistaken, slave-like things about our Father.”
One of the marks of a slave is that we act like we live way out on the edge of the plantation in the slave quarters, where nobody knows what the master’s plans are. When you don’t know what the master’s plans are — how he does his business — you can easily say false things about him. One of the first marks of a son, or a friend, is that we know him. We’re brought into his councils. We see how he works. We see how he makes his decisions. We see what he’s up to. We begin to understand his ways and how he goes about running the world. We stop saying things about him that are not true.
Jordan, I say this out of love, so please take this right. Here’s one step you can take away from a slave-like relation to God. Never say again what you said: “I often struggle with knowing in my heart that no good work can ever be enough to please God.” Don’t say that anymore. Now, I might be misunderstanding you. I’m going to give you the benefit of the doubt here, but it sounds like you really believe this — like no good work can ever be enough to please God. That is slave talk; that’s not son talk. Step one is to not believe that. Don’t say that anymore.
I’m lingering on this because you’re not the problem here. Thousands of people have been taught to say that by quoting Isaiah 64:6. We even sing it. In the King James, it says, “But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags.” How many Christians have been taught to say that about every one of their good deeds as a Christian? That’s not what Isaiah is talking about. Let me emphasize — read it in context — he is not describing the good deeds of the genuine believer, good deeds done in the power of the Holy Spirit. Those were the hypocritical religious acts that made God hold his nose.
When Jesus said, “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works” (Matthew 5:16), he did not mean “that they may see your filthy rags.” He didn’t. When Paul said that Christians bear the fruit of the Holy Spirit — the Holy, Holy, Holy Spirit — he did not mean that the Spirit produces filthy rags. When Paul said, “[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Titus 2:14), he didn’t mean Christ died to create filthy rags.
What has happened in our grassroots theology is that, in our zeal to clarify the pervasiveness of sin and the perfection of justification, we have undercut the Spirit’s work in sanctification. But the Spirit’s work is very real and very precious and should not be called filthy rags.
In the Father’s House
One of the ways we know we are the children of God is that God has sent his Spirit to lead us. He leads us into warfare with sin, and he leads us into paths of righteousness. Here’s Romans 8:14–16: “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”
“Because he gave his Son, your sins are forgiven, and his Spirit enables you to please him.”
The Spirit “bears witness that we are children of God.” That witness he bears is, number one, his power in us to do things that are no longer filthy rags. That’s witness number one: “I am working in you to produce my fruit, not your filth.” Number two, he gives us a sweet assurance that we have an all-caring Father: “Abba! Father!” When that cry rises from the heart in childlike need, it is the Spirit in us.
Here’s the key to a non-slave, sonship relation with God: Get to know God in his word. You are no longer slaves who do not know what the Father is up to. You are in the big house. Your slavery is over. You may walk into the Father’s study at any time and interrupt him. His book is 1,200 pages long, and full of gold and silver and honey for his children. That’s where you know him and meet him — in his word. Realize that because he gave his Son, your sins are forgiven, and his Spirit enables you to please him.
Leaving Rags Behind
Okay, I’m going to wrap up in a minute. You said you don’t think you could ever do anything that pleases God. I could have misread what you said, but that’s what it sounded like. I want you to stop talking and thinking that way. Paul said in 2 Corinthians 5:9, “Whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him.” He did not mean “Our whole futile, aimless, pointless Christian life is a failure since nobody can do it.” He didn’t mean that.
“Christ did not die just for our justification. He died for our sanctification.”
He meant what he said in 2 Thessalonians 1:11: “[God fulfills] every work of faith by his power, so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Thessalonians 1:11–12). Don’t call that magnificent, grace-based Spirit-work filthy rags and displeasing to the Lord. Christ did not die just for our justification. He died for our sanctification. He did not die just to remove the guilt of sin, but the power of sin as well.
Sons of God revel in forgiveness and trust the Spirit of the Father to do good. If there are imperfections in our Spirit-empowered good deeds, which there are, that does not make them filthy rags. They are the fruit of the Spirit, and our Father is pleased with them. The day of perfection will come. Oh, it will come. But until then, God knows what he’s working in his children. Mark that: God knows what he is working in his children, and he is pleased with what he is working. Hebrews 13:21 says — and I end with this — “[He is] working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”
That’s the way a son talks, not a slave.