When someone wants to have the best of both worlds, we might say, "you want to have your cake and eat it too." This American colloquialism never made much sense to me; doesn't eating your cake require you to have it? Then the infamous Unabomber schooled us all in the proper way to recite this metaphor. "You can't eat your cake and have it too." Well, duh. This makes perfect sense; for you, once you eat the cake, you certainly don't have it anymore.
In my years of attending, pastoring, and studying Christ's Church here in America, I have found myself thinking, "you can't eat your cake and have it too" as I look at my own life and the lives of others. Every Protestant worth their theological salt will tell you that we are not saved by works, but by the finished work of Christ. But almost as quickly the same preacher, or Christian, will go on to explain how that this position in Christ necessitates some progress, growth, and advancement in good works. Not for justification, but for practical sanctification. "We are saved by faith alone, but saving faith never remains alone." This speaking out of both sides of our theological mouths is not just a matter of debate amongst those of us who care about biblical minutiae. For any time we speak of faith and works in the same sentence, we run the risk of leaving people with the idea that in some way their works earn favor with God. This is the default logic of the old Adam (Eve). To eat Christ's cake (receive the imputed righteousness of Christ) and to have ours too (to earn righteousness with our own works). While this proclivity runs rampant in our sinful-selves, it is the role of the Church and the preacher to remove this law-laden idea from us by handing over the goods of the gospel with no ifs, ands, or buts. Too often though rather than removing the law from the sinner's conscience, the preacher drives the law deeper in by confusing the Christian with where good works belong. While good works belong only in the horizontal plane for the good of our neighbor, the sinner is always looking for a way to point their works vertically in an attempt to earn what is already theirs as a gift.
"Only as the old man, still under the law, does the Christian ask about the righteousness of his works. Faith and the new man knows only one righteousness: the forgiveness of sins."
—Gustaf Wingren, Luther on Vocation
The Church, as Paul Zahl states in his book Grace in Practice, is often the enemy of grace. For it becomes obvious to the pastor desperately wanting to grow his church and his parishioners, that simply preaching Christ and him crucified is not going to be enough for Christians looking for some practical truths for "discipleship." They want to eat their cake and have it too. This might be an explanation for why so many preachers, in their sermons, set a feast before you with all the fixings to only pull the whole thing out from under you just as you are about to partake. The gospel becomes a bait and switch, a feast that you can smell, but you never get to enjoy. For you can't possibly leave people thinking that there's nothing left for them to do. There will be plenty of time for feasting in the kingdom, but for now, it's time to get to work. Jesus died for you, so you better get busy living for him.
It is incumbent upon the faithful preacher, looking to see sinners transformed into the image of Christ, to preach a naked gospel. That is a gospel that stops the sinner in his tracks with the promises of God. Here the law most certainly has its place (to put the sinner to death), but there is no place for a cheap-law that is doable with the help of the Holy Spirit. No, once the law has done its work of crushing the sinner under its weight, there is only room for a gospel without conditions. This is the only kind of good-news that will raise the dead and set the sinner free to live for the good of his neighbor rather than in pursuit of works righteousness.
In the kingdom of Christ, he offers you the cake of his righteousness through the forgiveness of your sins, but once you eat this cake, there is no room left for you to retain your own righteousness. With Jesus, you don't get to eat his cake and have yours too. This my friends is the best news you will ever hear: your sins are forgiven in Christ, and there's nothing left for you to do.