There is in the soul of American evangelicals a feverish anxiety. If our faith in Christ does not lead to our moral uplift, we jumpstart a new spiritual formation regimen that promises to lift us. If the church is not making a difference in the world, we shame ourselves to become more socially relevant and evangelistically effective.

A great deal of the literature we produce is a variation on this theme—from the fevered poll taking of our movement's politics and spiritual state, to the many jeremiads (left and right) about our lack of personal holiness and social concern, to the call to reframe the Christian faith so that we can address the great social issues of the day.

Still, the anxiety remains mostly personal. It is a deep longing for transformation, and it is evident in the responses to my last, and unfortunately controversial, column, in which I argued that it is not our transformed lives but the crucified Christ who offers something to the world. Note three comments (the caps are in the originals):

Christ's death not only freed us from the penalty of sin, but from the power of sin in this life. I am a witness. CHANGE HAPPENS.
Grace causes us to have changed lives. Or maybe u haven't read Ephesians 2 really well.
My concern must be to live the life GOD called me to live AT THIS MOMENT! I CAN CHANGE!!

Such comments suggest that the Christian faith is meaningful for many primarily because it promises to produce moral change. We are fed up with the tragedy of our lives—the failures and flaws, the coarse habits and endless addictions, the inability to do the good that we long to do consistently and sincerely. In pragmatic, practical America we look for a faith that can solve this problem—what good is a religion if it doesn't change anything?

But, of course, the change that most interests Americans, and the change the Christian faith promises, are two different things.

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Contrary to our aspirations and assumptions, the Christian faith is not a bulleted list that equips us with principles to create the good life, let alone the best life now. Nor does it present us with an agenda, as some would have it, for making the world a better place. The core of the faith is good news. It is a revelation of the deeper realities that plague us (of which our anxiety about change is just a symptom) and the unveiling of an unshakable hope.

As Michael Horton puts it in his Christless Christianity, "You don't need Jesus to have better families, finances, health, or even morality." Lots of religions, therapies, and self-help regimens enable people to break addictions, control tempers, repair relationships, and even practice forgiveness. Many social reform groups help us serve the neighbor. At this level of ethics, God appears to work through many means.

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The good news drills down deeper. As Horton says, "Coming to the cross means repentance—not adding Jesus as a supporting character for an otherwise decent script but throwing away the script in order to be written into God's drama. It is death and resurrection, not coaching and makeovers." The deeper reality is that our alienation is not from our better self but from the Creator of that self. And that this alienation is fixed and certain, right and true. And that this alienation will never be healed without annihilation. It demands not a makeover but a start over, a start over so complete that it begins with death.

But how can we speak of starting over with death, when death speaks of the end of all things for us? It doesn't make sense, so we try to scratch and claw our way to a better life now.

The good news is not that God so loved the world that he gave his Son as an example of the good life, that whoever follows him will be changed. It is: "God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

We are not called to imitate the Lord Jesus Christ so that we will be transformed. No, we can imitate Christ because first we are promised, "If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved" (Rom. 10:9).

The good news does not hinge on words like do or change, but on the powerless, irrelevant, and frightening word faith.

Faith is frightening because it speaks of the death of the self. It seems weak and useless because it undermines any role we might play in this salvation drama. For faith is not an attitude we conjure up, like a cheerleader rousing a crowd, to show God we really mean it. It is not mere intellectual assent that shows God we are thinking soundly. Faith is not even a repentant and contrite heart that we work up to impress God with our humility. Faith is the unexpected realization that something remarkable has happened in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ: our annihilation and our start over.

More remarkable still: There are no conditions. No bargains. No back room deals. Pure grace. Grace as a gift. No strings attached!

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It is the no-strings character of grace that demolishes our usual view of change. The free gift must remain absolutely free if we are going to be transformed in the way God calls us to be transformed—if (as Jesus says) we really are to surpass the legalistic righteousness of the Pharisees, if (as Paul exhorts) we really are to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit, the first of which is love.

If grace is in any way, shape, or form a deal, a quid pro quo, a bargain, a contract, then we will always be obligated to do our part. It would then be our duty to do what God says. It would turn Christian ethics into another law, and therefore into another burden, into "Alienation: The Sequel." God is not looking for people first and foremost to do or be good, to fulfill the law—in Christ he's already fulfilled it (Matt. 5:17)! He's looking for people who will love—love God and neighbor.

But love cannot be created by contract, no matter how righteous the clauses. If a "grace contract"—to speak absurdly—is to remain in force, God would do his part, and then we would be obligated to do ours, or vice versa. A contract is about mutual obligation. It has nothing to do with love. Only unconditional grace can transform a hardened heart into a grateful heart. Only a free gift can sabotage any notion of the quid pro quo. Only an utterly merciful act of love can fashion a new creation capable of love. As theologian Karl Barth puts it, "As the beloved of God, we have no alternative but to love him in return."

Now, this does not address the issue of why in this life we know grateful, purity-of-heart love only in fleeting moments (more of this in my next column). Still, it does suggest that the Christian life is not grounded in moral improvement—but in the reality that he who is forgiven much, loves much (Luke 7:47)—and that our first prayer is not a plea for changed behavior but "Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me" (Ps. 51:10).

Mark Galli is senior managing editor of Christianity Today. He is author of A Great and Terrible Love: A Spiritual Journey into the Attributes of God (Baker).

Related Elsewhere:

Previous SoulWork columns are available on our site, including:

The Scandal of the Public Evangelical | What we really have to offer the world. (July 2, 2009)
Chaos Theology | Finding hope in the midst of the terror of creation. (June 18, 2009)
Does Twitter Do Us Any Good? | How the movement of the Trinity can help us decide. (June 4, 2009)

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 former editor in chief of Christianity Today and author, most recently, of Karl Barth: An Introductory Biography for Evangelicals.
Previous SoulWork Columns: