Performance for praise is a strong and inescapable tendency in human nature. It lurks somewhere in every human heart and drives some people to overt ambitiousness. The quest for fame is competition with the divine Name. It is to use his gifts to one's own glory. The temptation is powerful in the truest hearts. The disciples of Jesus were afflicted with the quest for honour: “They came to Capernaum. When Jesus was in the house, he asked them, 'What were you arguing about on the road?' But they kept quiet because on the way they had argued about who was the greatest'” (Mark 9:33-34). This was a nagging problem for the followers of Jesus. There was a recurrence when James and John asked for special status: “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37). Again the rivalry was aroused among the men Jesus had chosen. “When the ten heard about this they became indignant with James and John” (Mark 10:41).
John's conscience must have registered a twinge when he had to record his Master's rebuke directed at the Jewish leaders: “How can you believe if you accept praise from one another, yet make no effort to obtain the praise that comes from the only God” (John 5: 44). The pursuit of praise is evidence of a puffed up ego, and pride and grace are incompatible. Grace causes humility and humility receives blessing. The huge obstruction to the salvation of the Pharisees was their craving for human praise: “For they loved praise from men more than praise from God” (John 12:43). They perversely preferred the flattery of their fellows than the approval of God which comes from dependent faith in his way of salvation.
The quest for praise is a subtly disguised denial of our complete justification and vindication, as a person, by faith alone. We are seeking glory through our doings whereas we participate in the glory attained by Christ through union with him. There is no other glory but divine glory graciously shared with men. He shines it upon us through his favour alone as we reflect the splendour of his image restored in us.
Baruch is cautioned about bemoaning frustrated personal ambition when it is dashed by the wider purpose of God that brings a close to his cherished dream of social distinction as a member of a noble family. It is a perennial warning to each of us in our personal desires for advantage of any kind: “Should you then seek great things for yourself? Seek them not” (Jeremiah 45:5). Such self-directed effort in the service of God runs counter to the Pauline principle that we should make our only boast in God. Our salvation from cradle to coffin – the redemption of our souls and the renewal of our life – is a matter of pure grace. Even our good works enabled by grace are tainted with sin. Works in any form do not contribute to salvation pre- or post-conversion. When we congratulate ourselves we are contradicting sovereign and free grace – that our reliance is utterly upon divine mercy.
Paul points this out continuously in his letter to the Galatians, chapter by chapter, verse by verse. There is absolutely no hope in human aspiration or action. That avenue is forever closed. The law – right living – and ritual, even commanded by God, do not win his approbation. Only the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ can do that for those who see that and trust in it. And that attitude itself is wholly a gift of grace.
Paul is insistent upon his message of “justification by faith by grace alone”. “YOU SEE WHAT LARGE LETTERS I USE AS I WRITE TO YOU WITH MY OWN HAND” (6-11). Its not a matter of the apostle's failing sight. Its because of the Galatian's blindness to the gospel. The Galatian folk are falling under the spell of deceivers who don't care for them a bit. They are simply out to make a good impression (v12). They yearn for the praise of men and the feeling of superiority. They want grounds for bragging about the number of their converts. Appearances are paramount in their estimation. Score well and swell the figures. They don't preach Christ accurately because that would be too costly in personal terms. These liars are merely chasing good statistics: “Not even those who are circumcised obey the law, yet they want you to be circumcised that they may boast about your flesh” (v13). There is no substance to their religion just the attempt to make a jolly good show.
The craving for success on this selfish basis is alien to salvation without works and hazardous for perpetrators and those they have duped. God doesn't care about our works (they have been forgiven) but Christ's works for us and in us. All his righteousness becomes ours. We are recipients of favour because of his qualifications on our behalf and the quality of his life within us. We can do nothing without him.
This so hard for us to learn. In our flesh we still strive to establish a righteousness parallel to the Saviour's. Here is the temptation to meritorious performance. Luther admitted it after a lifetime of seeking and preaching justification by faith alone. Karl Barth admitted the tempting notion of appearing before God with his barrow load of books, and jettisoned it, declaring the only hope that he elsewhere expanded into Luther's exact conviction – Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.
We are so addicted to attaining our own success in “the things of God” and thriving on it in self-admiration and public notice. It is too easy to mouth the mantra, “to the glory of God”, without examining our own true motives in any enterprise. We overlook true opportunities for service in the search for the sensational and gratifying. What is the purpose of our architectural achievements all over the world and in all ages, our loudly announced activities, and ambitious aspirations? Kingdom or kudos?
To make a good show, create outward impressions, crow over converts, exult over achievement, is an ever present tantalization sneaking up within the minds of Christians and the programmes of the church. Nothing is more pleasing than to devise a project and mark our progress. It is easy to forget that God must do it all, yes, through us, but not in conformity with presumptuous proposals and ambitious aims. John and James show that the most audacious aspirations and requests can be made to God in unguarded, self-regarding, moments. We need to enquire of him our true vocation at his bidding, seek clean and humble hearts, and his sovereign provision of required resources. Our hunt for accomplishment can be hurtful in so many ways, and even inadvertently a nullifying of the gospel we profess. Always we will be reminded that our acceptance with God is not through works, so that no one may boast before him. Obedience is self-effacing and self-forgetful (Matthew 25: 31- 46). Our consideration of good works is prefaced with the question, “when?” Our care is for the “little ones' in the sense that fame is not the reward. To emphasise that our works are not deserving or meritorious it seems that sometimes God even blocks our way to self-satisfaction and a sense of our sufficiency. Perhaps this is what is meant by Gerhard Forde when he quotes Luther, “Whoever has been emptied through suffering no longer regards himself as the worker but rather God, who works and does all things in him”. And then he (Forde) adds, “The point here is that the obsession for works as the basis for self-reliance is to be extinguished. God can even go the whole way. He can bring on the ultimate suffering of doing no works through believers in order to bring them lower still!”
On Being A Theologian of the Cross, Wm B. Eerdmans, 1997.