Read: Philippians 3:1-11

I regard everything as loss because of
the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
Philippians 3:8

I just read Debra Rienstra’s delightful exposition on the course syllabus.

While some students may ignore that document, syllabus day was my favorite day in college. The syllabus is the Enneagram 3’s dream. All the expectations laid out in clear and concise terms. Exactly what pages needed to be read ahead of what class. When each paper or project would be due. How many pages those papers should be, of what size font, with what size margins, and which kind of citation style.

I’d get back to my dorm room and pull out my planner and schedule out the entire semester, with readings assigned here and paper research assigned there, and I knew that if I just followed this plan, I would get it all done. And it would all be worth it. Because the joy, the true uninhibited joy of turning in a paper knowing it had a clear thesis, and was paginated properly, and the footnotes were executed to the exact standards of Madame Turabian, oh there was nothing better.

That first day of class brimmed with possibilities. Possibilities to achieve perfection. A 4.0. An A+ paper. No page left unread. I loved the first day of class.

Wouldn’t it be nice, I think sometimes (most of the time), if there was a syllabus for faith?

Course Title: How to Win God’s Favor & Influence the World

Required Texts:

  • The Bible.
  • The Today Devotional.
  • Extra credit given for each additional devotional book read.
  • Extra extra credit given if said book was written by Kuyper, Calvin, Luther, Spurgeon, or Augustine.

Course Objectives: “Act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.”

Schedule:

  • Week One, Day One: Visit home-bound member of congregation
  • Week One, Day Two: Teach Sunday School class for 2nd Grade
  • Week One, Day Three: Pray for at least ten minutes
  • Ongoing: Refrain from singing Christmas Carols until Christmas

Format Requirements:

  • “Don’t let your left hand know what your right hand is doing”
  • “Do everything without complaining or arguing”
  • “Let your gentleness be evident to all”

Grades and Deadlines: Progress to be evaluated every year on January 31, with final grades given on the event of student’s death.

I’m being facetious, but you must admit, it would be nice to know we were doing the thing properly. Because even if we know works-righteousness isn’t our guiding principle, most of us still feel as though everything depends on how we live this Christian life. We still believe that God will bless us if we’re good and punish us if we’re not. We still believe that everything rests on us.

Pelagianism is one of the oldest heresies in the book. Put simply, it’s the belief that we have to earn God’s favor and earn our salvation. Get all those gold stars. Check off everything in the syllabus.

Paul Zahl, in his book Grace in Practice, writes, “People become semi-Pelagians the day after they become Christians.” We have this moment of pure and ecstatic joy at the knowledge of our salvation. And then we wake up the very next morning already stressed about everything we need to do to be a good Christian.

If anyone could have shown off all his gold stars, it was Paul. He had it down to a fine art, that project of being a good Jew. Circumcised on the eighth day – check. Showing zeal through persecution of those Christian heretics? Nailed it. Offering the proper sacrifices in accordance with the law? Just look at his crossed-off schedule stuck to the fridge.

But then the rapid about-face. “Whatever were gains to me I now consider loss for the sake of Christ….I consider them garbage, that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”

The life we are called to live, those things we are called to do for the sake of the Gospel – our course objectives – are not garbage. But our attitude toward them may be if we do them in order to earn some better standing with God. For in doing so we deny the very heart of the Christian faith – salvation by grace alone.

Grace comes to us in the inevitable moments when we’ve come to the end of the rope. When we have no more to give. When we’ve messed something up so royally we’re not sure we can come back from it. In that moment grace says, “You are still loved. You are still justified. You have not failed out of the class.”

I belong to a gym whose Facebook page is always peppered with those motivational slogans about how to achieve the perfect you, including these familiar words: “There is nothing you can do to change the past. The only thing you can do something about is the future.”

Zahl argues that Christ flips that message on its head.
The only thing we can do anything about is the past, in our repentance of it. God alone can do something with our future, revealing his image within us, molding us into who he made us to be.

And on the day of judgment, when we might otherwise stand trembling, certain we didn’t do enough, God will see us clothed in Christ’s righteousness, and say with a smile, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Laura de Jong

Laura de Jong serves as pastor of Second Christian Reformed Church in Grand Haven, Michigan.

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