Your web journal titled "Wretched Urgency" highlights similar struggles in my Christian walk although our circumstances are quite different... Your sub-title, "The Grace of God or Hamsters on a Wheel?", raises the primary issue. I am not referring to the question, itself, although it is quite humorous, but rather to the first four words -- the grace of God. Defining, recognizing the extent of, and understanding God's grace seems to have been and continues to be the greatest schism in Christianity. This issue is at the heart of both your and my struggles and, I expect, many others' besides. As you have well described, it is severely complicated by other factors such as guilt, loyalty, and tradition. However, God graciously blessed us with His word.
Gen 6:7-9 And the LORD said, I will destroy man whom I have created from the face of the earth; both man, and beast, and the creeping thing, and the fowls of the air; for it repenteth me that I have made them. But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD. These are the generations of Noah: Noah was a just man and perfect in his generations, and Noah walked with God.
How many times have I read a children's book, heard a gospel song, or listened to a preacher or Sunday school teacher expounding on this passage and its surrounding events? Invariably, the story is related that because Noah was "just" and "perfect," he "found grace in the eyes of the LORD." Hello! Are we reading the same scriptures?
First, God declared that He would utterly annihilate all humanity and terrestrial fauna. As a member of humanity, Noah is included under this condemnation and the earlier verses describing humanity's (and Noah's) continual evil thoughts.
Second, Noah finds "grace in the eyes of the LORD." The Hebrew word here translated "grace" is chen, which is a derivative of chanan. Strong's defines chanan as "to bend or stoop in kindness to an inferior, to favor, or to bestow." The same Hebrew word is translated as "favour" in Esther 5:2, which passage is also an illustrative depiction of this word.
Third, Noah is "just," "perfect," and -- perhaps more to the point -- walking "with God." Thus rather than Noah finding "grace in the eyes of the LORD" because he was "just" and "perfect," the scriptures teach exactly the opposite.
Time does not permit reviewing the many other examples of God's grace in the lives of men recorded in the Old and New Testaments. However, if you examine other individual cases, then I believe that you will find that Noah is a representative sample of a vast mountain of examples such as Moses, Gideon, and David. The New Testament is also rife with examples of God's grace, but it is even more helpful -- in my opinion -- by addressing the very nature of God's grace. Perhaps the most relevant passages to "Wretched Urgency" are the following:
Rom 4:2-8 For if Abraham were justified by works, he hath whereof to glory; but not before God. For what saith the scripture? Abraham believed God, and it was counted unto him for righteousness. Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. But to him that worketh not, but believeth on him that justifieth the ungodly, his faith is counted for righteousness. Even as David also describeth the blessedness of the man, unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, Saying, Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin.
Rom 11:5-6 Even so then at this present time also there is a remnant according to the election of grace. And if by grace, then is it no more of works: otherwise grace is no more grace. But if it be of works, then is it no more grace: otherwise work is no more work.
In addition to the above verses, practically the entire book of Galatians and many other New Testament scriptures provide specific doctrine regarding God's grace. However, the point is clear even just from the above passages in Romans that grace and works are mutually exclusive. The failure to recognize this truth has produced more error and heresy in the church's history than any other single doctrine. Apparently, false teachings arose about this matter virtually from the church's inception because the Apostle Paul did not mince words on the subject.
Gal 1:6-9 I marvel that ye are so soon removed from him that called you into the grace of Christ unto another gospel: Which is not another; but there be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. As we said before, so say I now again, If any man preach any other gospel unto you than that ye have received, let him be accursed.
Gal 2:21 I do not frustrate the grace of God: for if righteousness come by the law, then Christ is dead in vain.
Gal 5:1-4 Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage. Behold, I Paul say unto you, that if ye be circumcised, Christ shall profit you nothing. For I testify again to every man that is circumcised, that he is a debtor to do the whole law. Christ is become of no effect unto you, whosoever of you are justified by the law; ye are fallen from grace.
Gal 3:1-3 O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you? This only would I learn of you, Received ye the Spirit by the works of the law, or by the hearing of faith? Are ye so foolish? having begun in the Spirit, are ye now made perfect by the flesh?
Of course, any fundamentalist worth his salt will immediately object that he is not teaching folks to be circumcised, keep the Old Testament law, or work for their salvation. Of course, there are the nut jobs who do teach circumcision as some sort of spiritual blessing in direct and explicit contradiction to the scriptures: "For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love." -- Gal 5:6. But I concede the point that by in large fundamentalists are not instructing their congregations to be circumcised. Once again, there are radicals who teach that one should keep elements of the Old Testament law such as dietary regimens, but on the whole fundamentalists are not boarding ships to relocate to the Holy Land.
However, they are doing something much more insidious: they are making their own law to follow, which you outlined very well. Be politically conservative, don't drink alcohol, don't smoke tobacco, don't go to movie theaters, ladies wear modest skirts or dresses, gentlemen wear short hair with no facial-hair, go to church whenever the doors are open, have family devotions, have personal devotions, engage in a ministry such as visitation, don't listen to modern music, don't let your children attend public school, separate from all evil influences; and if there be any question of what is acceptable, please refer to Americans of the 1950s.
Which brings me to the last and most pertinent objection: fundamentalists say that they are not teaching a works-based salvation. No; they are teaching a works-based sanctification. To which I respond, what is the difference? Don't get me wrong, I remember studying soteriology in college, too. It is arguably useful to study salvation and sanctification as separate topics, but is that how salvation and sanctification work in the real world or are taught in scripture?
John 15:1-5 I am the true vine, and my Father is the husbandman. Every branch in me that beareth not fruit he taketh away: and every branch that beareth fruit, he purgeth it, that it may bring forth more fruit. Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.
Rom 8:28-30 And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose. For whom he did foreknow, he also did predestinate to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom he did predestinate, them he also called: and whom he called, them he also justified: and whom he justified, them he also glorified.
Col 2:6-10 As ye have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk ye in him: Rooted and built up in him, and stablished in the faith, as ye have been taught, abounding therein with thanksgiving. Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in him, which is the head of all principality and power:
Based on the above passages, two truths are evident. First, God is the only one doing anything in our salvation and sanctification. We are merely bearers of the "fruit" that He grows through us. (Please see Galatians 5:22-23 for a biblical description of Christian fruit.) Second, there is no break in the essence or roles of responsibility between our salvation and sanctification. Romans 8 presents our predestination through our glorification as a seamless act of God. Colossians 2 makes it clear that our Christian walk is just as dependent on Christ as was our salvation, which Ephesians 2:8-9 explicitly declares to be "by grace," "through faith," and "not of works."
I am sure that I have tested your patience with this epistle, so I will bring it to a close. I hope that this information is helpful and encouraging to you. As God patiently revealed it to me despite my fundamentalist paradigm, I found these truths to be greatly liberating and humbling at the same time. To God alone be the glory!