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The Grace of Failure

  • June 2020 Issue
Practical Theology

“Instead of dwelling on our failure, we ought to treat it as a signpost. Failure shows us where we are lacking and motivates us to look to God.”

You have probably seen a bumper sticker that reads, “My child made the honor roll.” You may also have seen the one that says, “My child beat up your honor student.” But you have probably never seen a bumper sticker that boasts, “My child has failed at everything.” Nobody likes to fall short of the mark.

Yet when it comes to the Old Testament law, failure seems to have been God’s plan all along. The law was designed to help us understand the nature of righteousness, but it was never meant to make us righteous. The primary function of the law was to convict and condemn. Romans 3:20 explains, “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin.” The way God makes us righteous is “apart from the law” (v. 21). The righteousness of God comes to us through faith in Jesus Christ (v. 22).

God uses our inability to live up to the righteous standard of the law as an instrument of grace. Through it, we are made aware of the need for our righteousness to come from another source. We cannot earn it for ourselves, so Christ must earn it for us. The only way we can obtain a righteous standing in God’s sight is by receiving it as a gift. Elsewhere Paul compares the law to a guardian or tutor which had “locked up everything under the control of sin, so that what was promised, being given through faith in Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe” (Gal. 3:22).

Even the worst failure can be an agent of grace that drives us into the arms of Christ. It shows us our need and teaches us to rely upon Christ’s forgiveness and help. We must avoid two extremes when it comes to failure. One is to make too much of it. The other is to make too little. Instead of dwelling on our failure, we ought to treat it as a signpost. Failure shows us where we are lacking and motivates us to look to God. Only He can make up the difference. Dr. Erwin Lutzer observes, “Those who have failed miserably are often the first to see God’s formula for success.” The name for that formula is grace.

For Further Study

To learn more, read Failure:The Back Door to Success by Erwin Lutzer (Moody Publishers).

BY Dr. John Koessler

Dr. John Koessler, who retired as professor emeritus from Moody Bible Institute, formerly served in the division of applied theology and church ministry. John and his wife Jane enjoy living in a lakeside town in Michigan. A prolific writer, John’s books include The Radical Pursuit of Rest (InterVarsity), The Surprising Grace of Disappointment (Moody), and True Discipleship (Moody). John is a contributing editor and columnist for Today in the Word.

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