It happens all the time. People are sentenced for long prison sentences (perhaps even life) and they have the potential to get time off for good behavior. After all, our prison system believes in rehabilitation and still has that as the primary goal.
The fact is that there are typically two groups of people who get the time off. One group displays the good behavior because they are seeking that reward of time off and the other group displays the good behavior because they have actually changed from the inside out. They have confessed what they have done wrong and have repented and asked for forgiveness. Their behavior is not towards some sort of reward, but instead is a result of their change.
We meet people every day that behave good in life, and just like those former convicts, there are two groups of good behaving people in society. One group, like the rewards driven convict, is driven to behave good as some sort of credit system working towards their idea of supreme justice. They acknowledge they are not perfect and have done some bad things. They may even acknowledge they are still going to do more bad things in the future. As a result of this acknowledgment, they seek to do enough good to outweigh the bad on the ultimate scales of justice.
The other group of people are the truly repentant and thankful group. They acknowledge they fully deserve their sentence (perhaps even more of a sentence than they received). They have confessed their bad and sought forgiveness for their wrongdoings and now have altered their behavior as a way to say thank you for that forgiveness.
Paul warns the Christians who find themselves in that first camp. Those who rely upon their good deeds to outweigh the bad have fallen away from grace. “I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law. You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified[a] by the law; you have fallen away from grace.” (Gal 5:3-4)
We do not do good as some way to earn a better spot in Heaven (or a spot at all). Our position in Heaven is promised as a result of the sacrifice of Christ. Through our faith in Him, we are “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him.” (Rom 8:17)
Paul not only has words to say to those who believe their works are what restores them to God, but he also has some choice words for those false teachers who convince right believing followers of Christ that this is so. Knowing that such a lie does not come on its own, Paul says “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!” (Gal 5:12)
Now there is one final and very vital truth about grace. Though it is free, it is not to be taken advantage of. Knowing Christ’s sacrifice was once and for all, redeeming us from all sins past, present and future… one could see this as removing all punishment for sin and therefore creating a sort of “get out of hell free” card. This is not so. Our freedom may come without strings but it does come in Love and with expectations that we would respond in love. “For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. 14 For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” (Gal 5:13)
Receive your gift freely and live out your thanks in love.
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