Why Rules Alone Never Work


The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. - Romans 5:20


Your eternal salvation isn’t dependent on performance or effort. Well, not your performance anyway...

We Christians are a dull bunch. Tie a string around your finger if you have to, but whatever you do, remember this: spiritual performance inventories are futile. Luther knew this, and the Apostle Paul backs him up:

For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." (Gal 3:10)

A Theology of Glory is dependent on human-made efforts toward salvation. A Theology of the Cross recognizes that the Christian’s only hope lies in the offense and foolishness of the cross.


Punishment and reward is intuitive. If you finish your homework, you get a gold star. No homework, no star—or worse, stand in the corner. Law is the default of the human heart; it’s grace that takes us by surprise. God in his grace says, “I make sinners righteous.” This just doesn’t compute to our sensibilities. In response, the human heart is always inclined to hold out for just a little bit of God-pleasing spiritual performance. The problem is, God requires perfection, but still we try to better ourselves before the face of God.


Everyone understands that blowing your paycheck on gambling, strippers, and booze is a no-no. But according to our glass-is-half-full human standards, somehow we think that religious effort will count in God’s registry. It doesn’t. In fact, good efforts aimed at earning God’s approval compounds sin upon sin. In the words of the first thesis of the Heidelberg Disputation

The law of God, the most salutary doctrine of life, cannot advance humans on their way to righteousness, but rather hinders them.


So what do we make of spiritual thriving and works? Conventional thinking says we know we’re unable to fulfill the law of God but at least we’ll give it a good try. And when we fail...well... “Do your best and God does the rest.” Ironically, in all our striving, we only make things worse.

God in his grace says, “I make sinners righteous.”

For the Christian then, following the law isn’t something we achieve through effort, but in receiving Christ’s perfection credited to our account. This gift though seems too much like a demeaning sort of charity. 

What this means, of course, is that secretly we find doing it ourselves more flattering to our self-esteem—the current circumlocution for pride. The law, that is, even the law of God, “the most salutary doctrine of life,” is used as a defense against the gift. Thus, the more we “succeed,” the worse off we are. 

Spiritual points-keeping just won’t do. Only in our giving up on the approval-through-works game can we truly rest in the assurance of Christ’s perfection for us and respond appropriately in heart changed obedience.


·       Gerhard Forde: On Being a Theologian of the Cross

·       Robert Kolb: Luther on the Theology of the Cross

Matt is a husband, father to two little girls, and is an armchair student of theology. He is a freelance writer and editor with a penchant for redemptive snark. Until recently, Matt spent 7 years as an associate volunteer pastor in counseling and recovery ministry. Many moons ago Matt forwent a proper education and traveled the country playing drums in 90 Pound Wuss, Roadside Monument and other bands you've never heard of. He likes long walks on the beach, puppies, and has questionable taste in music.

Twitter @BlingFortheKing