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And no matter how long or how hard you play the game of life, you are going to be successful only three out of a hundred times at executing it well. But still, every time you step up to the ball of life, you're going to strive to make the perfect golf swing—strong grip, slow back swing, right position at the top, release with the hips, accelerate after impact, finish high (and a thousand details in between, like how your waist is bent, your swing plane unbroken, your hands releasing at the right moment, and so on). You know rationally it's not likely to happen perfectly, but you hope against hope. And when it happens, you are elated—which, in addition to forgiveness, is another gift of grace, albeit more intermittent. But alas, you will most likely fail in one way or another, and may curse (yes, even if you are a Christian). But as you walk toward your ball down the fairway, within a couple of steps you are already imagining how you're going to hit the next shot perfectly.

We are in the bad habit of thinking that ethics is a REAL SERIOUS BUSINESS, that our welfare and the welfare of the world depend on its proper execution. Not quite. The gospel is the end of ethics in this sense. In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself. The welfare of the world is a settled issue. Someone has already won the Masters. The key question for believers is not "What are you going to do to earn God's blessing, or to attain a good life, or to thank God for all he has done for you, or to make the world a better place?" No, it's "What are you going to do now that you don't have to do anything?"

The wonderful thing about the gospel is that it takes ethics away as duty and gives it back as joy—precisely because we don't have to do it anymore but get to do it in freedom. We golfers don't look forward to spending four or five hours on a course hoping that, if we play perfectly, we'll finally enjoy ourselves. No, we step onto the course with a sense of joy because we already love the game, even though we're going to fail 97 out of a hundred times over the next few hours! Similarly, we don't try to live the perfect life because, once we do, then we'll be able to relax and enjoy life. No, it's because we now can relax and enjoy life—thanks to grace—that we try to live the perfect life. Ethics is the golf swing of life.

Some say, "But look at those professionals, who really do improve, and beat par all the time." And I say, talk to those professionals and ask any one of them if they are satisfied with their game. You're likely to hear the golfer version of "I am the foremost of sinners" (1 Tim. 1:15). Yes, there are Christians who appear to have mastered the game of ethics, but talk to them, I dare you, and ask them how they see things. And what they'll say is not only "I am the greatest of sinners," but also "Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own" (Phil. 3:12, ESV).

For "world-class Christians" see the perfect holiness of God—and therefore the perfect image into which we are called to live—and they see it more clearly than we mere "amateurs" can imagine. They recognize that even though they may be able to play ethics at a world-class level, they don't for a minute mistake that for an accomplishment they can bask in. There is always something to fine-tune, and it is the fine tuning that is all the fun.

In "SoulWork," Mark Galli brings news, Christian theology, and spiritual direction together to explore what it means to be formed spiritually in the image of Jesus Christ.
Mark Galli
Mark Galli is Editor of Christianity Today in Carol Stream, Illinois.
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Mastering the Golf Swing of Life