The Gospel transforms everything. The transformation is inward and outward, and it happens through repentance. The famous theologian Martin Luther wrote in the first of his history-renowned 95 Theses, “The entire life of believers [is] to be one of repentance.” In repentance, the Gospel shapes our core motivations (inward) and behavior (outward), since all of our spiritual struggles stem from a failure to apply the Gospel.
For example, the Gospel can shape our motivations and efforts to earn acceptance from others:
Religious (moralistic, “churchy”, or legalistic) people depend heavily on how acceptable they are within their primary communities. If acceptance is a core motivation, they focus heavily on how well they measure up to their community’s standards, laws, stated and unstated rules, and perhaps, how successful they are, as ways to prove their worth. As a result, religious people can suffer burnout, will judge others against moral-ethical failures (self-righteousness), and are prone to jealousy; this can easily rob them of the joy of being in Christ.
Secular (irreligious, de-churched or un-churched, hedonistic) people, however, also depend heavily on how acceptable they are within their primary communities. As a result, they are no strangers to the risks and potential fallouts of working to measure up to society’s standards, and are just as susceptible to burnout, failure, jealousy, judgment, and self-loathing.
For both religious and irreligious, the acceptance of others—whether in the form of public affirmation, sexual appeal, a salary increase, or a promotion, can become the primary means of identity and self-worth. Unfortunately, the desire for approval can be a primary source of burden, work, and restlessness as well. This is why we are often slaves to our communities and work environments: we are constantly working to build our reputations to gain acceptance. However, the Gospel teaches us that when Jesus Christ was on the cross, the King of the universe labored unto death, sacrificing His own cosmic acceptance before His Father. Jesus Christ was forsaken by God (Matthew 27:46) to pay the sin debt we owed, so that we could be made acceptable to God. His last words on the cross, “It is finished (John 19:30),” literally means, “The debt is paid in full.”
If religion is the frail human attempt to earn God’s favor through self-effort, the Gospel shows us the main reason why we can really rest in Jesus: the cosmic sin debt is paid, and our worth is assured in Him. We no longer strive to obey God in order to earn His acceptance; rather, we are accepted by God in the worth and work of Jesus Christ alone. As a response to God’s grace, we obey. Any other reason to serve God would be self-centered and manipulative, at best. The Gospel, in essence, restores a genuine relationship with Him.
Resting in the finished work of Christ on the cross sets you free from the enslaving power of work; it does not mean you must leave your earthly job or abandon a life of obedience to God. However, it does mean that your accomplishments at work, and your good deeds, no longer define you as a means to feel acceptable. You no longer find your righteousness in your accomplishments or good works. This has lasting outward consequences; you can actually rest! You can be freed of anxiety. You care less about your reputation because your real self is “hidden” with Christ. You can have the courage to be truthful and honest about yourself; this marks the death of your ego. You can genuinely care for others in the workplace because they are no longer manipulated tools to help you gain popularity or promotions.
The Gospel makes you incredibly attractive to people who do not know Jesus, and refreshing to people who do. Imagine your life with the fullness of humility and boldness that comes from the Gospel; it will make you a confident person, but not obnoxious. It will also make you sacrificial, and not self-seeking. The Gospel will compel you to live a life of moral conviction without feeling the need to judge those who do not live like you; this marks the end of snobbishness, and makes you incredibly inclusive and compassionate. The more you center life around the Gospel, the more you will reconsider your approach to money, your suffering, difficult people and difficult situations, illnesses and death, our environment, your relationships, love and sex, self-control, your neighborhood, and the church: everything.