I know that illustrations always break down at some level but I still think the following one makes a good (albeit, not perfect) point.
A friend of mine recently told a silly story about a man standing at the gates of heaven waiting to be admitted. To the man's utter shock, Peter said, "You have to have earned a thousands points to be admitted to heaven. What have you done to earn your points?"
"I've never heard that before: but I think I'll do alright. I was raised in a Christian home and have always been a part of the church. I have Sunday school attendance pins that go down the floor. I went to a Christian college and graduate school and have probably led hundreds of people to Christ. I'm now an elder in my church and am quite supportive of what the people of God do. I have three children, two boys and a girl. My oldest boy is a pastor and the younger is a staff person with a ministry to the poor. My daughter and her husband are missionaries. I have always tithed and am now giving well over 30% of my income to God's work. I'm a bank executive and work with the poor in our city trying to get low income mortgages."
"How am I doing so far", he asked Peter.
"That's one point," Peter said. "What else have you done?"
"Good Lord…have mercy!" the man said in frustration.
"That's it!" Peter said. "Welcome home."
My friend who used this silly illustration ended it by saying, "Teach the law. The Psalmist called it perfect. Teach it until people recognize their inability to keep it and cry out for mercy…Mercy always comes running."
In his commentary on galatians, Martin Luther describes the Law as a divinely sent Hercules to attack and kill the monster of self-righteousness and to show us everyday just how desperately we need God's grace:
"To curb and crush this monster and raging beast [that is, the presumption of their own righteousness], God is obliged, on Mt. Sinai, to give a new Law with such pomp and with such an awesome spectacle that the entire people is crushed with fear. For since our reason becomes haughty with its human presumption of righteousness and imagines that on account of this it is pleasing to God, God has to send some Hercules, namely the Law, to attack, subdue, and destroy this monster with full force. Therefore the Law is intent on this beast, not on any other."
The law exists to crush any sense that "we can get ‘er done." Regardless of how well I think I'm doing in the sanctification project or how much progress I think I've made since I first became a Christian, like Paul in Romans 7, when God's perfect law becomes the standard and not "how much I've improved over the years", I realize that I'm a lot worse than I fancy myself to be. Whatever I think my greatest vice is, God's law shows me that my situation is much graver: if I think it's anger, the law shows me that it's actually murder; if I think it's lust, the law shows me that it's actually adultery; if I think it's impatience, the law shows me that it's actually idolatry (read Matthew 5:17). The law shows us that our best is never good enough. For, as J.C. Ryle said, "Even the best things we do have something in them to be pardoned." The law smashes our "rose-colored glasses" view of ourselves. No matter how decent I think I'm becoming, when I'm graciously confronted by God's law, I can't help but cry out, "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death" (Romans 7:24). The law alone shows us how desperate we are for outside help.
After the law does its crushing work, however, we are then able (with Paul) to break out into the song of freedom-the laughter of the redeemed: "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord…There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus" (Romans 7:25). It's only when we come to the end of ourselves that we come to the beginning of God's grace-which yields bona fide freedom! We will always be suspicious of grace until we realize our desperate need for it ("Wretched man that I am!"). Desperate people love grace. Deceived people (i.e., those who think they're basically "making it") fear it. Those who know (and I mean really know!) just how much they've been forgiven, love much (Luke 7:47).
The reason Paul breaks out into loud praise is because he knows that the determining factor in his relationship with God is not his obedience (the law showed him how bad he was at this) but Christ's obedience for him. He finds great doxological freedom knowing that his standing with God is not based on his struggle for Jesus (he fought the law and the law won), but Jesus' struggle for him-that God doesn't relate to us based on our feats for Jesus but Jesus' feats for us.
The law reveals how quick we are to run from God; the gospel reveals how quick God is to run after us.
So, "Cheer up; you're a lot worse off than you think you are, but in Jesus you're far more loved than you could have ever imagined."
william graham tullian tchividjian (pronounced cha-vi-jin) is the Senior Pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. A Florida native, he is a visiting professor of theology at Reformed Theological Seminary and a grandson of Billy and Ruth Graham. Tullian was the founding pastor of the former New City Church which merged with Coral Ridge in April of 2009. A graduate of Columbia International University (philosophy) and Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando (M.Div.), Tullian is the author of The Kingdom of God: A Primer on the Christian Life (Banner of Truth), Do I Know God? Finding Certainty in Life's Most Important Relationship (Multnomah), Unfashionable: Making a Difference in the World by Being Different (Multnomah) and, most recently, Surprised by Grace: God's Relentless Pursuit of Rebels (Crossway).