I know a lot of men who get wrapped up in performance—work, sports, even community service or church attendance; competitiveness in any arena. This hard work can reveal an admirable sense of drive, responsibility and commitment. It can also reveal an underlying belief that our performance defines our significance. Or earns us points.

For some of us Christians we are vulnerable to no “arena” more than spiritual performance. I am historically vulnerable to that one. Like the older brother of the prodigal son, I can do the right things for the wrong reasons.

Luke 15 tells the well-known story of the rebellious younger son who returned home filled with shame, assuming his behavior negated his right to be called “son.” We sometimes miss the reverse assumption made by the older son. Indignant that everyone is celebrating his brother’s return, the older brother says to his father:

“Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!” (v. 28-20 NIV)

In his mind, the poor performance of his younger brother negated his standing with his father. The older son’s own righteous (though probably resentful) performance should have elevated him to the level of “favored son.” He was wrong on both accounts. The point of Jesus’ story is applicable to both sons: the father’s love for you is not dependent on behavior alone. Neither outright rebellion nor hidden resentful performance will sway the father’s love.

When he was in Antioch, the apostle Paul was asked to if he had “a message of encouragement for the people.” The core piece of his message is this:

“I want you to know that through Jesus the forgiveness of sins is proclaimed to you. Through him everyone who believes is justified from everything from which you could not be justified by the law of Moses.” (Acts 13:38, 39 NIV)

Jesus is the source of our justification. He brings forgiveness. He brings life. He brings freedom from every distorted compulsion of the law of Moses —rule-keeping, legalism, judging, comparison, point-keeping, spiritual performance. Those “laws” birthed Pharisees in Paul’s day. They still do today.

Are you personally vulnerable to spiritual rule-keeping or legalism? Paul reminds us that “…the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith. Now that this faith has come, we are no longer under the supervision of the law.” (Gal. 3:24, 25 NIV) Faith justifies us, the law doesn’t.

Are you personally vulnerable to spiritual judgment or comparing yourself with others? Paul urges us, Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves,  not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” (Eph. 2:3-5 NIV)

The following verses reveal Jesus’ remarkable spirit of humble servanthood and self-sacrifice:

“…who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (vv. 6-7)

Yet, one day every knee will bow before him.

Are you personally vulnerable to spiritual point-keeping and outward performance? In Matthew 23 we read the account of Jesus’ encounter with self-exalting, other-condemning, point-keeping Pharisees. “Woe to you teachers of the Law!…Woe to you hypocrites!…Woe to you blind guides!…You snakes!…You brood of vipers!” Piercing, stark, unmistakable words of conviction against point-keeping and performance. Jesus hated it.

By contrast he told the multitudes who followed him not to be like the hypocrites who, for example, pray on the street corners so they will be seen by men. Rather, says Jesus, When you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matt. 6:6 NIV)

Jesus’ harshest criticism is against spiritual performance; his deepest message, indeed the message of the cross, is that we are free from the law that condemns us. Our justification, and our significance, is ALL because of Jesus. Without his sacrifice we are entirely without hope; with it, we are fully, completely, eternally justified. There is no room left for works-based performance.

Act, serve, speak, teach, lead, defend, give comfort, not because you must, but because your heart is so filled with joy, hope and gratitude for what Jesus has done for you. Do these things because “…the love of Christ compels us.” (2 Cor. 5:14 NIV) Do them because we can’t not act.

There is no more keeping-score. Just liberated freedom to be exactly who he created and gifted us to be. All because of Jesus. Thank God!