Posts Tagged ‘grace’

Some Thoughts

Maybe a large part of the problem with christians in general is that when we approach the bible, what we call ‘the word of God’ or the ‘scripture’ (and rightfully so), we do so with the idea that it is a prescription. That is, we have a problem so let’s head to the Physicians Desk Reference and find the cure or something silly like that. Maybe we do not take enough time to consider genre.

That the Bible is made up of different genres was eye-opening for me the first time I heard a professor explain it. Well, of course, I knew there were letters and apocalypses and gospels and suchlike, but even though I knew that, my interpretive skills were not at a level where it mattered. All I was reading was the Bible. I was not reading a ‘letter from Paul to the Colossians’ or a ‘gospel written to the Gentiles in Rome.’ Genre, and thus context, mattered little and I suspect for many christians this holds true.

Quote

The standard practice of preachers linking God’s work so closely to church programs and priorities had a devastating effect on Christians who gave up on the church. For them, leaving the church meant leaving Jesus behind in the church. God was so closely linked to the building that it seemed he was the property of the congregation. The church acted as if it had God on salary, with him keeping regular office hours and even being on called whenever he might be needed.

“The claim on God and his activities, ironically, helps explain the empty pews in most of our churches.” (Michael Spencer, Mere Churchianity, 16)

Today’s readings are from Numbers 22:1-21, Romans 6:12-23, Matthew 21:12-22, and Psalm 106:1-18.

Numbers 22:1-21

Moab needed an ally and their king, Balak son of Zippor, evidently thought that words mattered. Thus he summon Balaam.

This is a curious story. It echoes thoughts from Genesis 12 where God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who curse you and I will curse those who curse you” (Genesis 12:3). Balaam was setting himself up for something terrible as was Balak. Balak says to Balaam, through his emissaries, “For I know that whoever you bless is blessed, and whoever you curse is cursed.” This is terribly problematic because it must be somehow true.

So we will have a conflict here where God, who promised to bless and curse on behalf of Abraham, will be up against a man who also blesses and curses—in this case, on behalf of Balak to Moabite. Strange this conflict that must ensue. God spares Balaam the trouble, “You must not put a curse on these people because they are blessed.” (22:12) It kind of makes me wonder how there can be such a conflict.

Clearly Balaam was bargaining for more cash. Greed is a powerful ally (I’m fairly certain I heard this from a Jedi Knight.) And if it is greed versus God…well, clearly in this case Greed wins hands down.

Romans 6:12-23

NT Wright on Romans 6:

All this helps us, too, to understand the exhortation in chapter 6 to ‘reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (6.11). This is calling for an act, not of guesswork, nor of fantasy or speculative imagination, but of mental deduction: you are in the Messiah; the Messiah has died and been raised; therefore, you have died and been raised; therefore sin has no right to hold sway over you. That mental framework, and that alone, is the basis for the appeal which follows instantly: ‘So don’t let sin reign in your mortal body, to make you obey its desires’ (6.12). All of this—and much more, actually, but at least all of this—stands now behind Paul’s deceptively brief instruction at the start of chapter 12: don’t let yourselves be squeezed into the shape dictated by the present age, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” (After You Believe, 154-155)

To use a quaint christian metaphor: there can only be one king reigning in my body and it must not be sin. Yet all of this is couched in grace language: “For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace.” (6:14) I am not governed by sin, law, or anything else that engages in a coup; I belong to Christ.

Frankly, I think that all too often I simply forget that and get caught up in the moment. Not one single part of me belongs to sin and therefore I should not feel compelled to offer one single part of myself to sin—as if I have an obligation to sin.

We learned a ‘pattern of teaching’ and we are to obey from the heart. We have come to obey it. It takes practice to be obedient, it takes time. We are not masters over night. And we do not gain so much from indulgence as we might be led to believe. Freedom consists not in the offering of ourselves to sin, but in the bondage of Christ.

Matthew 21:12-22

The so-called ‘temple incident’ is one that Christians often use to justify their ‘righteous indignation.’ But if we were truthful about this I would say that it has nothing to do with us at all. Frankly Jesus would probably come in to many of our own temples and turn over many of our tables too, and whip us, and drive us out, and remind us what the Scripture says—and how we have made a mockery of Scripture by doing the things we do.

What Jesus did—and, let’s be honest, this is somewhat embarrassing—is strange. I mean, he had been alive for at least thirty some years and had seen this many times over during those thirty years. Why now did it suddenly offend him? Why now did he get bent out of shape about what was going on in the temple? Did it really take him that long to get angry about it? Had he not seen it a thousand times before?

And if that were not enough, after he turns over all the money-changing tables and drives everyone out, he sets up his own shop: the blind and the lame came to him at the temple. The implication is clear: the temple is a place of healing and restoration and some had taken over the temple space for their own objectives. How can the church be a place of healing and restoration when the church has been ransacked by those whose only objective is to secure their money?

There is a lot going on in the temple that day: Jesus driving out the capitalists, Jesus preaching a sermon, Jesus healing people, and children shouting in the temple. I love that: children were shouting in the temple and Jesus didn’t rebuke them but justified them. It was the curmudgeons who did the rebuking.

This scene must have appeared strange to all who saw it and heard it and, in some way, participated in it.

Concerning verses 18-22 I have scratched in the margin of my Bible: the appearance of fruitfulness is not the same as fruitfulness.

Psalm 106

Praise the LORD. 
       Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
       his love endures forever.

Who can proclaim the mighty acts of the LORD
       or fully declare his praise?

Blessed are they who maintain justice,
       who constantly do what is right.

A little ways down in this Psalm it says this, “They forgot the God who saved them, who had done great things in Egypt, miracles in the land of Ham and awesome deeds by the Red Sea” (21-22).

Forgetting is not easy yet sometimes it is easier to forget God than it is to forget those who have wronged us—or at least the wrongs they did to us. I have a suspicion that this is a large part of what is wrong with the world today.

Maybe, too, we have to practice remembering. Maybe we need to daily remember all that God has done, his faithfulness. Then in lean times when he seems strangely absent we will not be so quick to forget and lapse into the ways of Egypt he redeemed us from. Maybe I should start today making a list of all his ways of faithfulness, start remembering all his mighty deeds.

Maybe if we thought more of God, remembered more of his deeds, we would think less and remember less of all that humans manage to accomplish—whether evil or good.

The God of Our Expectations

1 But Jonah was greatly displeased and became angry. 2 He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity. 3 Now, O LORD, take away my life, for it is better for me to die than to live.” 4 But the LORD replied, “Have you any right to be angry?”

5 Jonah went out and sat down at a place east of the city. There he made himself a shelter, sat in its shade and waited to see what would happen to the city. 6 Then the LORD God provided a vine and made it grow up over Jonah to give shade for his head to ease his discomfort, and Jonah was very happy about the vine. 7 But at dawn the next day God provided a worm, which chewed the vine so that it withered. 8 When the sun rose, God provided a scorching east wind, and the sun blazed on Jonah’s head so that he grew faint. He wanted to die, and said, “It would be better for me to die than to live.”

But God said to Jonah, “Do you have a right to be angry about the vine?” “I do,” he said. “I am angry enough to die.” 10 But the LORD said, “You have been concerned about this vine, though you did not tend it or make it grow. It sprang up overnight and died overnight. 11 But Nineveh has more than a hundred and twenty thousand people who cannot tell their right hand from their left, and many cattle as well. Should I not be concerned about that great city?”

There is something wrong with this story and it’s not what you think. Well, maybe it is; I don’t know what you are thinking. From where I sit the problem appears to be Jonah, though, again, perhaps not how we think. In an ironic twist, the only person in the story of Jonah to remain unconverted was Jonah. I believe that this story is told from a point of view that means for us to see that Jonah was the real target of God’s advances. Everywhere Jonah goes in the story, someone gets religion. It doesn’t matter if it is men on a ship headed for Tarshish or the 100,000 people living in Ninevah or the animals: God does weird, wild, amazing things in spite of Jonah. Yet Jonah, for all his theological profundity, remains steadfast in his anger.

But there’s a problem with the story. The problem should be obvious, but in case it is not, let me point it out to you. It’s in verse 2 and I think it is worth repeating: “He prayed to the LORD, “O LORD, is this not what I said when I was still at home? That is why I was so quick to flee to Tarshish. I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.”

The problem is not this verse per se, but Jonah’s application of it. I think what it demonstrates is that Jonah had a profoundly orthodox view of God. He had dotted all the theological ‘i’s’ and crossed all the theological ‘t’s’. He had it all together and to prove it he quoted from the Torah. Jonah knew his Bible; Jonah knew his God. Look what Jonah says, “I knew this is what you would do…” and it was precisely because Jonah knew that he fled and ran and ran and fled. That is, Jonah’s theological orthodoxy is the very problem of this story. It got in the way of Jonah’s discipleship and it got in the way of Jonah’s vocation. It was precisely because Jonah knew something about God that Jonah refused to be obedient to God or care about the people God cared about.

You see, Jonah did not want God to be gracious, and compassionate, and slow to anger, and abounding in love, and relenting from calamity towards the Ninevites. Jonah wanted God to act in a way contrary to God’s revealed character, the character Jonah knew and believed. He wanted God to, well, not be God or do God things. That is, Jonah wanted God, I think this is clearly the implication, to wipe out the Ninevites because of their wickedness. Clearly, if any one deserved the wrath of God, it was the Ninevites. But Jonah knew what kind of a God he served and prophesied for and so Jonah did what any self-respecting, theologically orthodox Christian would do: He ran and refused to offer that God to the Ninevites. He would rather have been dead than to offer the God of grace to the people of Ninevah (that is why he asked to be thrown overboard; he hoped to die.)

Jonah must have figured if he ran and ran and ran then perhaps the Ninevites would get what was coming to them.

I might go so far as to make this claim: Jonah had reduced God to an idol. That’s right: An idol. You know why? Because Jonah knew God, he knew God’s character, he knew how God would act and he, Jonah, challenged God on this point. Jonah wanted God to act like Jonah wanted God to act which is contrary to what Jonah knew about God. Jonah had no desire for God to demonstrate grace to Ninevah. Ninevah deserved wrath and judgment. When we reduce God to our expectations and demand that he act in accordance with our expectations we have made him an idol. God did not act in accordance with Jonah’s wishes but in accordance with his own character: “I knew that you are a gracious and compassionate God, slow to anger and abounding in love, a God who relents from sending calamity.” And that is how God acted: Perfectly orthodox.

What I’m suggesting is that God is not bound to our conceptions of theological orthodoxy even if he is bound to his own revealed character. Here, in Jonah’s short book, I think that is abundantly on display. And I suppose when God does do things that run contrary to our conceptions of theological orthodoxy or our expectations of God,  we act just like…Jonah. Theological orthodoxy, while not wrong, can be among the most dangerous weapons wielded by the church because it breeds the sort of pride and privilege we see in Jonah the man. The worst thing we christians can do is try to hold wind in a bottle, but the wind blows where the wind blows and who among us can stop the wind? And if we cannot stop the wind, what makes us think we can stop the Spirit of God?

Let’s see if this economy of grace plays itself out in the New Testament too. We already know that Jesus preferred hanging around with the sinners of the world, but he also taught about these things. Consider this parable of the workers in the field (which is a sad misnomer) in Matthew 20:

1″For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. 2He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

3″About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. 4He told them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right.’ 5So they went. “He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. 6About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, ‘Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?’ 7″ ‘Because no one has hired us,’ they answered. “He said to them, ‘You also go and work in my vineyard.’ 8″When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, ‘Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first.’

9″The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. 10So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. 11When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. 12′These men who were hired last worked only one hour,’ they said, ‘and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day.’ 13″But he answered one of them, ‘Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn’t you agree to work for a denarius? 14Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. 15Don’t I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?’ 16″So the last will be first, and the first will be last.”

Here we see a profound example of God acting contra the expectations of people and doing something no one could explain, even though it is perfectly in keeping with his revealed character: Paying everyone equally for unequal work. Thus this isn’t a parable about workers in a field or about eleventh hour salvations as much as it is a parable about the crazy economy of God’s grace. Someone wisely pointed out to me this morning that those who expected to get more because they ‘bore the labor in the heat of the day’ are, actually, those who are bound up in a system of works righteousness. They believe they deserve more because they worked longer and harder and at the most inconvenient times of the day. They did not recognize that they were being paid according to the owner’s gracious will. At the end of the day, all the workers go away baffled at God’s grace. Grace makes no sense. Grace is the great equalizer. (It is likely, though, that those at the end of the day went away far more thankful than did those who began working at the beginning of the day and this for reasons that should be fairly obvious. The whole ‘those who have been forgiven much…’.)

This parable should turn our conceptions of God upside down because in it we see a great, profound reversal of all our expectations about God: He is not fair. Grace is not fair. We need to get used to it. This is what Jonah could not get in his head, and since the story of Jonah is left open-ended, we have no idea how he answered God. (Just like we have no idea if the older brother went in and joined the party in Luke 15.) Grace makes no sense because it is so wasteful. Grace makes no sense because…well, because it is grace. Who can understand it?

The great thing about Jonah and this parable in Matthew 20 is that they both end with questions the readers are supposed answer. In Jonah, God asks whether or not he has a right, as God, to be concerned about those whom he has created and to demonstrate grace to them as he wills. In the parable, God asks the people if they are envious because he is generous and spreads around his grace freely to all equally. (Another parable that fits well here, and also ends with a question, is Luke 15’s parable of the two lost sons.) All of these stories are pointing in one direction with these questions: Have we so bound God to a theological system that we actually prevent God from being God? Or, negatively, we cannot bind God to, or in, a theological system. Hear it well: We cannot control, bind, predict or anticipate this God and his grace.

Just about the minute we do, he tells us this parable (or the story of Jonah or the story of the two lost sons.)

Have we so demanded God act according to our expectations that we have actually reduced him to a mere idol?

Do we have a right to be angry with God when he acts outside our expectations, outside our theological constructs (no matter how orthodox), and against our will? (And doesn’t it infuriate some of us when he does?)

Are we so bound to a theological orthodoxy about God that we actually hope God sends calamity, that we get angry when he doesn’t, against those whom we deem to be the worst of the worst? What if…what if…those that we think are the worst, the ones most deserving of God’s wrath and judgment in our expectation…what if God actually does care about them more than we do and is in the process of saving them quite apart from our efforts, pride, and prejudice?

What if…what if…at the renewal of all things….what if God raised everyone up and in his grace had mercy on…everyone…without exception paid everyone the same price? I don’t know if he will; I don’t know if he won’t. I do know that if he does, which he could since he is a God who delights to act outside and contrary to our expectations, it will be christians who will complain the loudest and the longest and who will, most likely, bear a grudge against God, sit outside the party, pouting and refusing to join in an celebrate that the lost have been found, the blind have received sight, the lame dance, and the sinners forgiven, or will grumble because others have unfairly received the same as we have. Do you think we will rejoice that the lost have been found?

The God of our expectations is not necessarily the God of the Scripture or the God who saves. The God of our theological orthodoxy, is not necessarily the God who saves and reveals and redeems. The God of grace is.

Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you . . . — Luke 10:20

Oswald Chambers on discipleship:

Worldliness is not the trap that most endangers us as Christian workers; nor is it sin. The trap we fall into is extravagantly desiring spiritual success; that is, success measured by, and patterned after, the form set by this religious age in which we now live. Never seek after anything other than the approval of God, and always be willing to go “outside the camp, bearing His reproach” (Hebrews 13:13). In Luke 10:20, Jesus told the disciples not to rejoice in successful service, and yet this seems to be the one thing in which most of us do rejoice. We have a commercialized view— we count how many souls have been saved and sanctified, we thank God, and then we think everything is all right. Yet our work only begins where God’s grace has laid the foundation. Our work is not to save souls, but to disciple them. Salvation and sanctification are the work of God’s sovereign grace, and our work as His disciples is to disciple others’ lives until they are totally yielded to God. One life totally devoted to God is of more value to Him than one hundred lives which have been simply awakened by His Spirit. As workers for God, we must reproduce our own kind spiritually, and those lives will be God’s testimony to us as His workers. God brings us up to a standard of life through His grace, and we are responsible for reproducing that same standard in others.

Unless the worker lives a life that “is hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3), he is apt to become an irritating dictator to others, instead of an active, living disciple. Many of us are dictators, dictating our desires to individuals and to groups. But Jesus never dictates to us in that way. Whenever our Lord talked about discipleship, He always prefaced His words with an “if,” never with the forceful or dogmatic statement— “You must.” Discipleship carries with it an option.

HT: Brendt

caponIn the course of some reading this afternoon in preparation for a blog post on Matthew 13, I read the following paragraphs from Capon’s wonderful book The Parables of the Kingdom.

These paragraphs speak to the untidy nature of the parables and strange nature of the God whose Kingdom is spoken of by Jesus. God, as it turns out, turns all of our notions about himself upside down and inside out. We do not get from him what we might expect, and he does not give to us as we might desire. Those who are first are last and those who are last are first.

It is this strange way of grace that keeps us anchored to him. It is his own strangeness that keeps us coming back to his well of grace. We know that even if all else fails, grace will not.

“In the eighteenth chapter of the Gospel of Luke, we find him addressing a group of people who are smugly content in their confidence that they are upstanding citizens—and who are convinced that anyone not exactly like themselves has no chance of making it into God’s guest register. So he tells them the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican. Note not only what an insulting story it is, but also how small the prospects are that his audience will ever be able to get past its details to its point. Far from being an illustrations that shines an understanding they already have on something they haven’t figured out, it is one that is guaranteed to pop every circuit break in their minds.

“God, Jesus informs them, is not the least bit interested in their wonderful lists of moral and religious accomplishments. Imagine the scene for a moment. You can almost hear the reaction forming in their minds: ‘What do you mean, God’s not interested? We have read the Scriptures—with particular attention to the commandments. We happen to know he is absolutely wild about fasting, tithing, and not committing adultery.’ But Jesus ignores them and presses the parable for all it’s worth. Not only is God going to take a dim view of all their high scores in the behaving  competition; he is, in fact, going to bestow the gold medal on an out-and-out crook who just waltzes into the temple, stares at his shoelaces, and does nothing more than admit as much” (7).

So you can be reminded of what Jesus said that day and why Capon’s words are so important:

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood up and prayed about himself: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.”

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, and he who humbles himself will be exalted.”

The trouble with this parable is in the assumption that we know who Jesus is speaking to (‘those who were confident in their own righteousness’) and the assigning of roles. This is exactly what we must not do with this parable. It’s too easy to do so. It’s too easy to know exactly who is the publican and who is the sinner and the minute we start assigning roles we have ceased being a player (either a publican or a tax-collector) and started being the one who justifies one and not the other (i.e., God). It is only God who justifies and therefore only God who can assign roles.

Jesus didn’t tell this parable to us so that we would take it upon ourselves to assign roles. He told it to us so that we would recognize the grace of God. What is amazing is that the grace of God was available to both the publican and the tax-collector, but one understood it and the other did not. That is, the publican thought he deserved it because of all his righteous acts; the tax-collector did not even though he begged for it on the slim chance that there might be some for him.

Those who are warped by the grace of God get this, sort of. These are the ones who come before God singing ‘nothing in my hands I bring simply to the cross I cling.’ They recognize that they are broke, broken, and full of brokenness. They recognize that before God they are empty and need everything. These ones fall on their faces saying, “God what do you have for me?”

Those untouched by grace do not get it. They are the ones who come before God with a laundry list of their accomplishments and gifts and achievements talking out loud to God and saying, “God what can I give to you?” They have to do this because, as people who have everything already, there is nothing left for God to give them. They don’t need his grace because they don’t want it. They don’t want his grace because they don’t need it.

So God turns upside down and inside out notions of who he is and what his kingdom is like. It’s certainly nothing like we might expect. His is a kingdom where it is far better to be broke than it is to be fixed, far better to be empty than filled, far better to be the sinner than the righteous.

With each passing day, grace becomes more and more alive to those who are willing to cast all of their life on Jesus who can and does what we can’t and won’t. Grace. A sweet word. A sweet sound.

The Love of God in Christ

“You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.”

“But Paul’s vision of God’s love, rising here like the sun on a clear summer’s morning, shines through all the detail that has gone before…God’s love has done everything we could need, everything we shall need. As Paul continued to explore the meaning of the reconciliation that has taken place between God and human beings, he delves down deep into the depths of what God had to do to bring it about….When we look at Jesus, the Messiah, we are looking at the one who embodies God’s own love, God’s love-in-action.” (NT Wright, Paul for Everyone: Romans, pt 1 chapters 1-8, 86)

Paul has spent a great deal of space telling the world, telling the church at Rome, telling anyone who would listen exactly how terrible is the predicament of man. It is bad. One might say that if it was bad in Paul’s day, it might be worse now. I doubt it. All bad such as Paul is speaking of is relative to the age. That’s not to say bad is relative, it is to say that the nature of the depravity is relative to the age. I agree with many who think that there is something terribly amiss in this world, in our culture, and in the church in general. I am not so pessimistic to think it is beyond redemption-in fact, I think that might have something to do with Jesus and why he came in the first place.

That’s what I love about Romans 5:6-11. If one were to read Romans and suddenly stop at the end of Romans 4, one might be left despairing and hopeless although, to be sure, Paul has dropped hints and given us glimpses of the beauty of what God has been planning for humanity such as chapter 3:23-24: “…for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus.” And perhaps also this in chapter 5:1-2: “Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into the grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God.” But these hints in these places are hints. Here in Romans 5:6-11, Paul blows the lid off the whole thing: Here’s what God did despite all that I have written about in the previous paragraphs! And we are stunned. We are stupefied. We are knocked down; thrown for a loop. Our entire world is shattered by these few sentences concerning God and his actions.

How can we not be bowled over by such statements? How can any single one of us, any of us, read such passages of Scripture as this and think that it means anything but what it says at face value? In the midst of all the wrath, in the midst of all the sin, in the midst of all the hate we have for God, in the midst of all the pride and boasting, in the midst of all the immorality, lying tongues, open grave throats, in the midst of all the convoluted ways we have chosen to live precisely because of our free-will-there is God. There is God! Standing at the dawn with his arms opened wide welcoming home all those who lived in the manner Paul described in chapter 1 is the God who loves. There is God! I don’t know about you, but when I read how God demonstrates his love (which leads me to understand how he really, truly feels about me) I am stunned into silence, humbled, humiliated; wrecked.

At just the right time God did the most inconceivable thing: No eye had seen, no ear had heard, no one could even imagine what God had planned for us; many still find it impossible to believe. Yet God was not even willing just to say ‘I love you.’ For God it was not enough to give lip-service to his great love for us: He demonstrated it. He made it visible. He made it concrete. He put his love on display for all to see. He so loved the world that he didn’t bother to ask anything of us. He so loved the world that he sent, essentially, himself. Paul will later express this love as such: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all-how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” (8:31-32)

Have any of us plumbed the depths of love this God has for his rebellious children?

For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God. (Ephesians)

Is it possible to read Romans 5:6-11 and be anything but overwhelmed? Is it possible to read these verses and be anything but destroyed, thrown down, overwhelmed, unraveled, and undone? Is it possible to consider that God loves us quite in spite of ourselves and be anything but humiliated and humbled? And so Paul can rightly ask in these verses: If God loved us this much while we were yet sinners, then ‘how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life?’ Or if God demonstrated his love for us while we were yet rebellious, then how much more ‘having been justified by his blood, shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!’

I’ve been thinking about these verses because it seems to me that this God is rather amazing. Paul hasn’t written, in these particular verses, about the pride of men. He has written about how utterly confounding is this God who loves and forgives and heals and justifies and resurrects despite the worst man has to offer. “You see at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.”

So there it is again: Hope! Forgiveness! Healing! The love of God towards a people who are decidedly against him. He continues, time and time again, to astound us and reverse all our conceptions of himself. We hate, and he loves us. We run away, he chases after us. We curse, he blesses us. We sin, he forgives us. We deny he exists, he shows Himself in Jesus. We kill him, he Resurrects! We can’t really make out this God can we? We cannot really, truly comprehend a God who goes out of his way to make himself real to us, who so desires that we be his people and that he be our God that he will be crucified to make the point and to make it possible, who is so wildly in love with us that he himself will deal with our sins instead of asking us to. He makes a way where no way exists. He creates a people where none is. He extends mercy where there is none.

I’ve been thinking about this God who loves us quite in spite of ourselves. I’ve been thinking about this God who loves us. I’ve been thinking about this God who thought it necessary to demonstrate his love to us, and did so in the flesh; in Jesus. If there is anything that dispels pride in humans, it is this amazing God who loves; the God of grace. This is the God we need to preach and share and adore. This is the God who saved us in Christ.

The best irony there is is that God loves us. In spite of all the worst that Paul wrote we are, in spite of all the devastation we manage to conjure up because of sin, in spite of our creative habit of inventing new ways to die and kill and run away from God-in spite of it all: He still loves us. The Hound of Heaven dogs our every step and won’t relent; pressing in on every side.

Dare we imagine a God, dare we submit to a God-this God of the Bible, fully come in Jesus Christ? Dare we love such a God who dared to love us?

Soli Deo Gloria!

“For all have sinned, and fallen short of the glory of God…” Paul to the Romans, chapter 3, verse 23

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life…” John the Apostle, chapter the third, 16th verse.

Today, my attention was drawn to this post at a certain ‘that which is not to be named’ blog. It is a serious blog post. It is seriously depressing. And it is seriously stupid. (I’m sorry if you had the unfortunate ‘pleasure’ of reading it. I wish I didn’t have to link to it, but you may need context for my words.)

There I said it: It is stupid. I’m sorry. I feel badly about writing it, but there is simply no other way to express my outrage and heart-brokenness.

I know that is harsh and mean and if anyone from ‘that side’ bothers to comment on this post they will most certainly point out that I ‘missed the point’ or that I am ‘ignorant of the facts’ or that I am ‘a stupid non-Christian who is so unconcerned about abortion and the plight of the unborn that I ought to be defrocked (even though I was never frocked to begin with) and run out of the church to the tune of tar, feathers, pitchforks, torches and labeled anathema.’ To be sure, ‘they’ will probably point out that Jesus does not approve of what I am about to write in this post because Jesus hates abortion.

There I said it: The post is stupid.

I am willing to run the risk that I might be labeled by others in order to point out the sheer stupidity of the post mentioned above.

Did I mention the post is stupid? It has been a long, long time since I read something so incredibly insensitive at a blog claiming to be a voice for the Kingdom of God. I’m sorry. I’m desperately trying to be objective and compassionate. Can’t. Can’t. Can’t. I have read the post four or five times now trying, searching, scanning for hope and I just cannot find it. The most hope we can expect out of this post is that we might enjoy some ‘hauntingly beautiful hymn-like‘ music. If an expectant single-mother or a suddenly pregnant husband and wife swimming in debt is debating her/their pregnancy right now read that post, she/they would be left despairing and hopeless; feeling nothing but condemnation.

There is nothing about the Gospel. Nothing about the hope of Christ. Nothing about the penal substitutionary atonement death of Jesus. Nothing about forgiveness of sins. Nothing about grace. Nothing about repentance. Nothing about the new heavens and new earth. Nothing about resurrection. For someone who writes so passionately, so wonderfully about the damnable offense that is abortion, I just cannot believe that there is no mention of hope for forgiveness. No mention of reconciliation. No mention of peace in Christ. No reconciliation. No ransom. No redemption. No substitution. Just condemnation. *Shakes head.*

For someone who so frequently castigates preachers and churches and bloggers for not including a (the) message of the Gospel, I cannot believe the best there is to offer in that particular post is that we might get some good music out of it at the end of the day. No mention whatsoever of how people who have had abortions can be forgiven and changed by the work of Christ Jesus. (As if a purely moralized America is equivalent to the Kingdom of God.)

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I’d like to begin by noting a few things for the careful reader of this blog. You may not agree entirely, but I’ll bet we are close. What I’d like to do, is offer the invitation here, at Life Under the Blue Sky, that was not offered at SOL. I begin, however, elsewhere:

  • It is wrong to steal.
  • It is wrong to have gay sex.
  • It is wrong to lie.
  • It is wrong to cheat.
  • It is wrong to fornicate.
  • It is wrong to commit adultery.
  • It is wrong to be racist.
  • It is wrong to get drunk.
  • It is wrong to be arrogant.
  • It is wrong to be prideful.
  • It is wrong to be gluttonous.
  • It is wrong to murder.
  • It is wrong to get an abortion.
  • It is wrong to lust.
  • It is wrong to lie about the preacher.
  • It is wrong to gossip.
  • It is wrong to abuse your spouse or children.
  • It is wrong to worship idols.
  • It is wrong kidnap.
  • It is wrong to disobey your parents.
  • It is wrong to swindle.
  • It is wrong to be greedy.
  • It is wrong to rape.

Yes. Yes. I could go on and on and on. I agree with the post at SOL: Abortion is a heinous, despicable, vile, disgusting offense. I don’t know anyone here who disagrees with that assessment. Those things mentioned above are wrong; they are sin, abortion included.

But it is not the unforgivable sin. Never has been. Never will be. In the crazy economy of the kingdom of God, a person could have 490 abortions in one day and repent and God, in his mercy and grace, would forgive that person because of Jesus Christ. I mean, why wouldn’t he since he expects us to do nothing less? I don’t think God expects people to do things that he himself isn’t willing to do. Thus, forgiveness.

Abortion is not an unforgivable sin.

None of the things I mentioned is the or an unforgivable sin.

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Friends, we have ample evidence in our world of all the things that are wrong with us and all the things we do badly and all the sin we have committed and all the idols we have worshiped and all the judgment we have invited into our lives and all the times we have crucified Christ all over again and again and again…

We have sufficient testimony to all the grievous destruction that our sin has wrought upon this earth.

We have enough people pointing out the sin that plagues the United States of America and Russia and England and Brazil and Antarctica and, well, you get the point.

Jesus did not tell us to go around moralizing did he? (This is not rhetorical.)

I’m not even sure he told us to go around pointing out sin, although, when the Gospel is properly preached I think that sin will necessarily be a part of the discussion. After all, it is terribly difficult to call folks to repentance if some mention of sin has not happened.

Jesus did tell us to go and preach the good news, the Gospel. “…He gave them power and authority to drive out demons and to cure diseases, and he sent them out to proclaim the Kingdom of God and to heal the sick…So they set out and went from village to village, proclaiming the Good News and healing people everywhere” (Luke 9:12, 6).

We have good news! We are told to preach good news! Where’s the Good News in the SOL post? A musical legacy? For one who spends a lot of time criticizing the lack of Gospel in churches and pulpits, the post is decidedly barren of any hope and Gospel. Shall we merely criticize and condemn those who have had abortions or shall we offer them the hope of Christ Crucified and Resurrected?

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Is there any hope for those who were the subject of the SOL post?

I hate to write this post, but the bottom line is that I have decided that I will make it my life’s ambition to teach the grace of God every chance I get. I want to find 100,000 ways to say: God forgives you in and because of Jesus Christ. I hate writing this post because some might conclude that I am not opposed to abortion, but that would be to miss my point. I am very opposed to abortion, but I also realize that people sin and that it was the sick, weak, broken, hurting, desperate sinners, like me, whom Christ came to save, redeem, ransom, and atone for.

Jesus didn’t come to condemn; why do we think he has assigned us that role?

The author of the SOL post did a great job pointing out a great sin, but the problem with the post is simple: She gave us a great picture of a moralized America where everyone plays in an orchestra or knits flags and worships at the throne of conservative politicians. It’s a powerful picture, but it is not necessarily one Christ has drawn. It is a terrible problem, but there was no solution offered. What’s the point of ranting about the problem when there is no solution offered at all?

She didn’t give us a picture of the Kingdom of God. She gave us a picture of her moralized America where there is condemnation for every perpetrator and no hope whatsoever.

The author would have us condemn all who have had abortions and reject them as mere weak Americans who lack courage and are interested only in their bank balance and credit card statements. Christ would welcome them into his kingdom as the very ones he came to save precisely because they are greedy, murderous, and lack the intestinal fortitude to be self-controlled–because they are sinners! Well, of course they are. That’s normally what happens when people do not know or have rejected Christ.

So here I offer what the author of Slice did not offer: Hope. If you have ever had an abortion or over-spent on your credit cards, if you have filed bankruptcy because you have no self-control, if you are a coward, if you are hopeless and think you are running on empty, if you have no where to go and you think you are out of options–there’s hope. There’s grace. There’s forgiveness of your sins. Christ has payed the price for your sins. There’s Good News! Christ has not rejected you. There’s still hope! There’s still a message of peace and forgiveness to you because of Jesus. Christ will take away your guilt. Christ will heal your wounds. Christ will save you from the hopeless, endless cycle of condemnation and death.

You can join us, all us sinners here, all us imperfect, unkempt, undone, depressed, forgiven-by-God sinners here. We welcome you to join in the story that Christ is writing and has written. We welcome you to taste and see that His Grace is Good. We welcome you to be forgiven in the Name of Jesus.

“…and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ.” The same Paul, to the same Romans, chapter 3, verse 24.

“…For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.” the same John the Apostle, the same third chapter, the 17th verse.

Friends,

I’d like to share a thought or two on the subject of Christian Unity. I am a preacher by calling, and as such, lately, I have been preaching a series of sermons to my congregation on this ever so strange idea of Christian Unity or as I prefer to call it, essential oneness. I have been preaching this series of sermons because my congregation has been going through some difficult times lately and we needed to be reminded of what Scripture says about our oneness in Christ.

It’s no small thing for a church to be one in heart, mind, and ambition. If you think about what Christ did when he brought us together it is really quite remarkable. He pulls people together who are different races (although we all belong to the human race), people of different colors, people of different nationalities, people from different religious backgrounds, people from differing social backgrounds (‘rich’ and ‘poor’), men, woman, young, old–the list could go on–and he throws us all into one great big bag that he calls ‘church’ and says: “Find a way to make it work.” Find a way to make it work?!? Seriously? Seriously.

Jesus knew, knows, what he is doing; doesn’t he? I mean, no two people come into the church with the same history or motivation or even theological ideas. For that matter, no two people ever even retain those original theological ideas. As few as 10 years ago, I would never have considered an Anglican preacher to be among my best of friends–simply because of theological ideas. You know what, today I can; and I am glad for it. The problem we have, I think, is that we in the church are far too concerned about the baggage that people carry with them after they become Christians. We sort of seem to think they ought to drop it all right away and get on board the Jesus train. When it takes longer, we get frustrated, irritated, angry, and begin to lack patience; love might slip.

That is, we think that people need to be remade into our image. You know what I mean, right?

That’s when problems creep into the church–when we forget to love. So we believe things like this:

  • Those people who are not maturing at the same rate as I am are bothersome.
  • Those people who are not thinking like I am theologically are weaklings.
  • Those people who do not see things the way I see them are troublemakers.

We think that anyone who is not ‘like me’ is, clearly, not a Christian at all. Or worse. You know what the problem with all this is? We are not being remade in the image of other human beings! That’s the glory of it all! I don’t have to stack up against other humans, because they are not the template; they are not the standard; they are not the goal. Jesus is. Paul wrote in Colossians 3 that we are being recreated in the image of our creator who is Jesus. And none of us is there yet. We are all still on the way. Only those who fail to recognize this ‘on-the-wayness’ lack the courage to be patient with others. Those who think all baggage must be left at the door are those who do not believe Jesus came to ‘save the sick’ and the ‘sinners.’ We might sing ‘just as I am’ but there are a lot people who don’t believe it for a minute. They think it is something more like ‘you better get the way I want you or even Jesus won’t help you.’

So, then, what does all this have to do with unity in the body of Christ? Well, consider these words from Paul’s pen to the Ephesian church:

As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called— 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

But to each one of us grace has been given as Christ apportioned it. 8This is why it says:

“When he ascended on high,
he led captives in his train
and gave gifts to men.”

(What does “he ascended” mean except that he also descended to the lower, earthly regions? 10He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.) 11It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Be patient with others. Be humble–they may be more advanced than you think. Work at unity in the body. It won’t be easy: work at it. And here’s the thing, if we have a proper view of ourselves (humility) and a proper view of others (patience and bearing with them) then working at unity in the body will be our goal. But if we are not working at maintaining peace, then are we working at war? Even a casual indifference (not working towards unity) is an example of not working at maintaining unity in the body. We must work at unity in the Body of Christ. Work. We cannot afford to not work for peace in the Body because if we don’t work at it war will break out among us.

Growing up is the goal: the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. Along with self-sacrificing efforts at unity comes maturity in Christ as we are patient with one another and understand that God has apportioned his grace to us. Unity in the body and maturity in the individual somehow go hand in hand. Then there’s that grace word again! It’s so intrusive isn’t it? So how do we ‘make it work’?

It’s not complicated. He says three times: Bear with one another in Love. Speak the truth in Love. Build up the Body in Love. Do you think we can overstate the case for how much we must love in the Body of Christ? Do we have enough room to love? Can we humble ourselves and love? For the sake of the essential oneness of the Body of Christ can we love one another? Can we recognize that all of us are ‘on the way’ and none of us has arrived?

It’s that love thing. It’s that grace thing. It’s that patience thing. It’s that humility thing. Paul wants us to grow up, yes, but he is saying to the people that growing up takes time. It is the goal. It is the point. But it is not accomplished overnight. And it is not done in isolation. Maturity is an ‘all’ issue. We work together in unity so that we might worked together for maturity. We do it! We won’t become mature on our own. We need each other and this is why we are patient, speak the truth in love, bear with one another, think of ourselves in humility, understand that grace has been poured out in Christ, he gave us teachers and preachers and prophets, and this is why we should make every effort to maintain peace in the Spirit.

Do you really think for a minute that people can grow up and mature in Christ when there is fighting and arguing and carrying-on happening in the church? Do you think God will tolerate new babies living in a hostile place, in an environment of warfare? I don’t think so. How can people who persist in immaturity think for a minute that God is going to entrust them with babies who need to grow up in their faith? Not. Gonna. Happen.

So we must work at unity in the Body of Christ for the sake of our maturity. Christians need an environment where healthy interaction can take place and folks can grow up in their faith–into the Head who is Christ. Love will go a long, long way towards this goal. If we truly desire unity in the Body of Christ, love is the place we must start. Apart from patient, humble, bearing-with-one-another love–maturity is not likely to happen.

Soli Deo Gloria!

My current reading project is Willimon’s Conversations with Barth on Preaching. It is a fascinating book for any number of reasons, but it is especially helpful if you happen to be, ahem, a preacher. I was warned as a young college student to be afraid of Barth and his strange version of unorthodox orthodoxy, and I’ll confess that even now I am only a very wet behind the ears sort of student of Barth. What I appreciate about Willimon’s reading of Barth is that he is so evenhanded: Critical when criticism is warranted; effusive with praise when it is praiseworthy. What I have learned about Barth from this reading so far is that a) he has a terrifically high view of Scripture; everything he wrote and preached is dependent upon, and infused with, and drawn out of Scripture and b) he has a remarkably, equally high view of the act and work of preaching. I commend this book to you.

In my brief period of reading this morning, I was in chapter 5, Word Makes World. Barth’s understanding of what happens in preaching is simply astounding. I don’t confess to understanding all of the epistemological and philosophical or even theological underpinnings of his ideas, but I did understand what Willimon was saying on page 120. I’d like to share several paragraphs with you followed by a couple of thoughts of my own.

“Christianity is born in an assertion that it is virtually impossible not to see God. Whereas Israel’s story is a long record of an attempt to be faithful to the first commandment, the church’s story is a long story of attempting to be faithful to the first commandment (the prohibition against images) by saying that we are not to make an image for God because we already have the supreme image for God—Jesus Christ.

“Yet Lash also notes that such statements do not do justice to the nuances of our claim of God in Christ. There is, amid Christian claims of unveiling, a strong claim of veiling that is tied, not to God’s inherent obscurity, but rather to the identity of the God revealed in it—the crucified, suffering servant, the weak and poor one from Galilee. In both the person and the work of Christ, we are struck by our unknowing. God came to us, in the flesh, and the way God came to us led us to say, in the words of the Spiritual, ‘We didn’t know who you was.’

“The Jewish challenge to Christian claims of knowledge rests not only in the unique and surprising person of Christ but also in his work. To put it bluntly, if Jesus is the Redeemer, the faithful Jew wants to know, then why does the world not look more redeemed? Why don’t we as Jesus’ followers look more redeemed? This is a serious question for the Christian. Undoubtedly, to persecuted Israel, our claims of the ‘now and the not yet’ quality of the kingdom of God seem a bit limp, and our pointing to the church as the foretaste of Jesus’ complete redemption seems, at best comical.

“Yet, while Christian theology must confess its uncertainty, the constant contestableness of its most cherished concepts, its inherently unstable affirmations, it would do better to admit to its dependency, to receive with thanksgiving the revelation it has, to dare, despite all we do not know, to testify to what we know. It is the nature of the Crucified Messiah to be veiled and unveiled at the same time.” (120)

I like Willimon’s point about the ‘Jewish challenge.’ However, and I don’t think he means to limit it, I’d like to expand that thought a little. I think that challenge is one we face from all people. As a preacher, I honestly have to spend quite a lot of my time convincing people who are redeemed that they are redeemed and that, as such, they ought to live that way. It’s no wonder we are challenged by others in this way who make no claim to faith in Christ. Could it be that we simply or profoundly do not understand the redemption life? Do preachers not do enough to, in the words of Paul, ‘portray Christ crucified clearly’?

It comes from everywhere. I think sometimes I ask myself the same question of the people in the pew (but only, please read this well, only after I have asked that question of myself first!!): Why don’t they (indeed, we) act and talk and treat one another in a redeemed sort of way? Why all the ‘past living’? Is it enough to answer that question with a mere ‘now and not yet’ sort of answer? No. If that answer isn’t good enough for Willimon’s Jewish challengers, I think it is, at times, even less sufficient for the preachers’ congregational challenges. I think it is comical to preachers as well, and I think we are doomed to failure if we don’t laugh. No one can take the church that seriously, and yet we must. Which leads into my second thought.

I love this idea of Barth’s paradoxical tension in the Christian faith and I think Willimon appropriately highlights it for us in Barth. But is this just Barth’s idea? No. This is a Scriptural idea that is only forgotten or misused or paid lip-service to. That is, preachers talk about paradox, but don’t really grasp it or live it or preach it. This does damage to the church because preachers are then held to a level of academic achievement that simply cannot be maintained: “What do you mean I am saved and will be saved? What do you mean the Kingdom is here and we pray the Kingdom to come? What do you mean God is seen and unseen?” But instead of always trying to answer those questions, perhaps it is best to let those questions simmer in the hearts of those asking the questions. Perhaps the answer is not an answer. Silence?

The Scripture is full of this radical, paradoxical tension and it is delightful to behold. Why? Because it destroys pretense and legalism. The greatest threat to the church is the idea that any one idea of any one person is THE idea. Willimon had written on the previous page (119): “Barth fulminates against taking the gospel, which ought to be ‘truth that is new every morning,’ and attempting to ossify it ‘into a sacred reality.’” I think what he means there is just this: The gospel must not be reduced to mere principle or idea or law. When Gospel is ossified, when it is no longer alive, we are doomed. There in that ossification is the death of all that creates life and sustains life because there is the death of grace. (Perhaps I carry this a bit far.)

So Barth rightly fulminated against the idea. Living in this paradoxical idea is one thing. Preaching it quite another, but there it is. It is the story of a God who takes things that are not and makes them into things that are. It is the yes and the no. It is the veiling and unveiling. It is the seeing and blinding. It is the Christus Victor and the Crucified Lord. It is the knowing and the unknowing. It is the glory and the travail. It is crucifixion and resurrection. This paradox is captured beautifully in the Revelation, “Then one of the elders said to me, ‘Do not weep! See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has triumphed. He is able to open the scroll and its seven seals.’ Then I saw a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain, standing in the center before the throne…” (5:5-6) That scarcely makes sense: A Lion who is a Lamb? A triumphant Lion who is a Slain Lamb?

There at once is the tension, the paradox; the Triumph and the Travail. But we have to live in this tension because it prevents us from becoming (too) dependent upon ideas and structures as opposed to being dependent upon God’s grace through faith. That is, it (paradox) enables, nay, demands that we live only in and by faith. It is only those who cannot live in this paradoxical divine economy who find themselves living opposed to God’s grace. These are the ones who must construct all sorts of rules, laws, and opinions and live by them strictly and force others into the same mold. They miss the new mercies each day. They miss the freedom of being set free. They have traded one form of law for another and become slaves all over again.

The paradox also keeps us alert and searching. There is nothing worse, in my mind, than people who refuse to grow and learn and seek and search. These are the ones who have all the answers, who know what the Scripture says and are, by God, going to let us know. These are the ones who have abandoned any idea of paradox and live only in the world of the black and white where there is no ambiguity—where ambiguity means ‘less than fully saved.’ These are the ones who have ossified God’s grace into another code of law where now there are numerous and multiple conditions placed upon the reception and practice and distribution of God’s grace. They are in heaven by themselves.

Paradox keeps us humble.

This is, then, a serious aspect of the preaching of the Gospel: not to avoid the tension nor to avoid the paradox; not to eschew the mystery nor vacate the majesty, but to preach them both, together, at once and with urgency. It is ours to proclaim, to announce the Kingdom in all of its mystery and majesty, crucifixion and resurrection, turmoil and triumph, slavery and salvation, loss and gain, death and life. It is rather strange, isn’t it, how the same Gospel both opens and closes eyes, unveils and veils God, creates and destroys, saves and condemns. And yet this is the Gospel we preach—Jesus Christ crucified and triumphant. The Triumphant Lion who is the Slain Lamb.
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“It must be so solely the truth and miracle of God if his Logos, as he does not regard the lowliness of his handmaiden…or view the unclean lips of Isaiah as an obstacle…does not think it impossible to pitch his tent in what is at best our poor and insignificant and stammering talk about God.” (Willimon, quoting Barth, 121)

Discern Your Doctrine (Mark Dever)

Trevin Wax: What is at stake in this debate over justification? If one were to adopt Piper’s view instead of yours, what would they be missing?

NT Wright: What’s missing is an insistence on Scripture itself rather than tradition . . .
Kingdom People (NT Wright) or here Unfinished Christianity.)

I spent some time yesterday, a little more than an hour, listening to a speech by Mark Dever. The speech was delivered at the 2007 New Attitude conference-a conference featuring the likes of Joshua Harris, John Piper, Albert Mohler, and CJ Mahaney, all well respected Evangelical Christians. Dever’s speech, or sermon if you like, is titled Discern Your Doctrine. It is worth the hour to sit and listen to it. I will provide a synopsis and attach a few brief comments before concluding with a call to love.

As most of you know by now, or have wondered, I am a member of the so-called Restoration Movement Church of Christ (not a Capella; that is, my church uses instruments in worship). Our ‘movement’ (we have eschewed such cumbersome boxes as ‘denomination’ or ‘tradition’ thinking them too slow or stagnant; we are a ‘movement!’). Our movement has, at least at its inception, been controlled by an unofficial creed, not called a creed, but a slogan. Actually, there have been several of them along the way, but I think the one I will mention stands as the most prominent. So it was much to my surprise when listening to this speech by Dever that I heard him quoting our slogan and then wrapping his entire speech, or sermon if you like, around it: “In opinions liberty, in essentials unity, in all things love.” Why you…that’s our slogan!!! (spoken as a remarkably Homer Simpsonesque threat.)

Well, it is a fascinating idea; although, it is necessarily, as I have read recently in a history of the Disciples of Christ (Disciples of Christ, a History, Garrison and Degroot) a flawed idea. But I digress. This slogan is the hub around which Dever built his speech even though he didn’t really get to the slogan until the end of the speech and then attributed it to some Germans (!) instead of to my beloved Restoration Movement forefathers. In leading up to this fascinating announcement of what should motivate all of our discernment activities, Dever makes six rather important points. I found that the first 2 were the most important and took the longest (if I recall he spent about the same amount of time on the last 4 as he did the first 2), but I will list all six points he made and offer only the briefest of points about each.

First, he asks: Do we follow commands in order to purify or unify? Here I found Dever’s most compelling argument. He notes that Jesus himself said we must ‘be on our guard’ against all kinds of teachings and teachers. In other words, discernment is not a bad idea. In fact, we should discern because if we don’t we are likely to fall into all sorts of dangers. Dever points out, however, that discernment always runs the risk of extremes and that there are basically (I hate the word basically) two opposite, but equally dangerous, extremes.

On the one hand, some tend to be too inclusive for the sake of unity. These are folks who ramble on about things like ‘no creed but Christ, no book but the bible’ (Ha! Another RM creed…slogan.) These are folks who think doctrine doesn’t matter all that much as long as we are united, answering Jesus’s prayer for unity (John 17), etc. Dever says these folks might be just as judgmental as anyone else because they tend to ‘undervalue God’s truth.’ Ooooh. That stings.

On the other hand, some tend to be too exclusive for the sake of purity. He says, “They are ready to quickly declare something wrong, or someone wrong or maybe even declare someone not a Christian. They neglect the wideness of Gods love that he shows in Scripture. They neglect seeing examples of his work when he has been at work.” He also said, that “we threaten our humility when we become self-righteous about this.” He noted that “truth and humility are not enemies” and that “knowing the truth will humble us.” He warned about those who are so exclusively concerned about purity that they think they have a “prophetic ministry of correction.”

In his second point he asks, “What are some common fights that we Christians have?” He goes on to note many and concedes that the list is virtually endless. I won’t bore you; his list is impressive.

In his third point he asks, “What are we together for?” In this point he notes that different levels of agreement are needed for different levels of cooperation and that agreement is not essential in all areas in order for Christian fellowship or evangelism to exist.

In his fourth point he asks, “What are the things we must agree upon?” That is, what are the essentials that we, as Christians, must necessarily agree upon to be considered Christians? I thought his best point here was when he noted that all of us will be “corrected at some level.” But I think the gist here was that there are some doctrines that can be dismissed (bad choice of words here) without sacrificing Christian orthodoxy or severing Christian fellowship.

His test pattern for discerning such agreement for essential doctrines is as follows:

1. How clear is this doctrine in Scripture? (I assume here he means ‘to me’.)
2. How clear do others think it is? (that is, other Christians)
3. How near is it to the Gospel? (that is, which instructs us about salvation)
4. What would be the doctrinal and practical implications if we allowed disagreement on this particular issue?

I think this is a fine test, and when it is done Dever concludes that there are three areas upon which we must agree as Christians: God. Bible. Gospel. Of course, within these terribly vague ideas he breaks it down even further. Not only must we agree about God, but we must believe certain things about God. Not only must we believe in the Bible, but we must believe certain things about the Bible. Not only must we believe in the Gospel, but we must agree what constitutes the Gospel. (Here I think the flaw of ‘in essentials unity’ becomes apparent.) Dever narrows the Gospel down to 1 Corinthians 15:1-9:

1Now, brothers, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain. 3For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve. 6After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. 7Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles, 8and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born. 1 Corinthians 15:1-9

He notes that for 14 chapters Paul had pointed out all the unnecessary things that divided the Corinthian church and points out that here, in chapter 15, is the one thing we should stand for: ‘Contend for this truth,’ Paul seems to be saying. Here is the Gospel in a nutshell, the essentials upon which we must agree. Thus Paul reminds the Corinthians of this core of beliefs.

In point five, Dever asks, “What are some things we may disagree about?” He cites Romans 14:22: “So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves.” He also takes four test cases and notes that we can indeed disagree about some things without compromising faith, the Gospel, or Christian fellowship. Encouraging indeed. (His section about ‘egalitarianism’ is rather brilliant.)

In his last point, Dever asks, “How can we disagree well?” Again, Dever makes two solid points to consider when having a conversation with someone with whom we disagree. I should ask: 1. What can I learn from this one with whom I disagree? Well, this requires a great deal of humility, and can be difficult to navigate since we may have to finally admit that we are wrong. 2. What do I owe this person with whom I disagree or who disagrees with me? Again here is required a great deal of humility. We owe them love. We owe them respect. We owe them the courtesy of making it evident that we care about this person and that we are not just trying to win an argument with them. In other words, we should try to understand what they are saying. I think this point often gets lost on me. Much of the time, I care more about winning an argument with someone than I do about the person. This is dangerous ground upon which to tread.

So what is the point here? I think the point is clearly this: Disagreement is not bad; discernment is required. Those who point out our errors are not our enemies. “The opposite of your friend is not your enemy, but your flatterer.” So it is good, it seems to Dever (and I agree), that there are those who are willing and able to engage one another in hardy, healthy debate and conversation. Disagreement is not the end of the world, and there are some areas where our error clearly needs to be pointed out in order that we might be saved (Jude). However, it is better to engage in debate and conversation with humility, with love, with an eye and ear for learning and not just winning. Best line in the speech was this, “We want to be known for what we are for rather than what we are against.” (Hmmm…someone recently wrote a post about this very point.)

Here’s what the apostle wrote to the church at Ephesus:

It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up 13until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. 14Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. 15Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. 16From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. Ephesians 4:11-16

If some are given to this and some are given to that, I think this means that the Lord fully expects we will correct and rebuke one another (and often Scripture may do that very thing). Scripture may bite hard, but we should not. (Although someone said to me the other day: “I’m not nice when it comes to gross misrepresentations of the genuine Christian faith. And, I’m not supposed to be.” Indeed!) This does not mean, however, that we abandon the overarching command to love. Love. Love. Love. This is what distinguishes the church from everything and everyone else in the world (as far as organized religion is concerned). If we are not known by our love for one another, then we will be known for something else. And if we are known by something else, can we legitimately call ourselves Christians? Can we who fail to love even begin to think we have a right to do evangelism and call people into this story? (I’ll say this, there are times when I know I am loved more by people outside the story than I am by those inside the story. There are times when I love those outside the story more than those inside it.)

So, “In opinions liberty, in essentials unity, and in all things love.” It seems to me that love can go a long, long way towards correcting our errors-and who among us desires to remain in error? Dever ends by quoting from John Wesley, “I shall thank the youngest man among you to tell me of any fault you see in me. In doing so, I shall consider him by best friend.”

It remains to be seen, however, if love will win the day, especially in the world of blogs where, for example, just the other day, a couple of the writers here were called Pharisees because we “make grace too wide.” It remains to be known if love truly conquers all. It remains hidden as to whether or not we can love. Maybe there is something to this slogan after all. It remains to be seen if we will be known by our love and not our hate. It remains to be seen if love can truly bring together those who are concerned with unity and those who are concerned with purity and conclude that the two need not be mutually exclusive. Maybe Alexander Campbell and Barton W Stone weren’t wrong to adopt this slogan and hoist it high even if the opinions and essentials part is practically impossible. And maybe, just maybe, if we pay attention, close attention, to love we will see that what matters most is not our opinions, not our essentials, but our love.* After all, Jesus himself said that it was by our love for one another that the world would know we are his disciples.

Not opinions. Not essentials. But love.

And so it remains, can we disagree and still love? Can we disagree and maintain Christian fellowship? Will we love? How will we be known? Can we discern with more concern for the person than for winning? I ask all who visit and read: Can we, will we, discern with love?

Will we love?

*Which is not to say that we abandon essentials at all, but does mean that we should be far more concerned about humility. Fact is, I could be wrong. We could all be wrong. And all theology is a matter of opinion. Maybe there is something to the vaguery of Dever’s ‘God, Bible and Gospel’ regardless of how we formulate our opinions about these essentials from Scripture. Maybe there is something to grace after all and its wideness is not the real problem, but its narrowness.

**word count 2494

On Grace and Law

pictureHT: Chris

Friends, I published the manuscript version of this Skycast earlier and it is also available at box.net. This sermon is based on Luke 15, but I drew heavily upon ideas that were developed in Tim Keller’s wonderful book The Prodigal God. I highly recommend this book. The sermon itself is based on the idea that God’s grace is big enough to save all who will be saved. However, there seems to be an important step: Recognizing sickness. As always, my sermon is formulated around God’s grace. I am also indebted to Jason Goroncy whose sermon The Scandal of Weak Leadership: 2 Corinthians 11:16-12:10 is a magnificent picture of God’s grace and which I quoted from near the beginning. I trust I haven’t done Keller or Jason an injustice in my use of their material.  It is from Luke 15 and Jesus’ parables, the ones he spoke to Pharisees and Teachers of the Law. Grace and Peace. jerry

The Older Brother, Luke 15

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Soli Deo Gloria!

The Real Older Brother

Luke 15

1Now the tax collectors and “sinners” were all gathering around to hear him. 2But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”

3Then Jesus told them this parable: 4″Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? 5And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders 6and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ 7I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

8″Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Does she not light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? 9And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ 10In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

11Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two sons. 12The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ So he divided his property between them.

13″Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant country and there squandered his wealth in wild living. 14After he had spent everything, there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. 15So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. 16He longed to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything.

17″When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired men have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! 18I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. 19I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired men.’ 20So he got up and went to his father.

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.

21″The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’

22″But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. 23Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. 24For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate.

25″Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. 26So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. 27′Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’

28″The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded with him. 29But he answered 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. 30But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’

31″ ‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. 32But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ “

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Last year when I took Doctrine of Grace, we were required to read a book by David A Semands called Healing Grace. I’m sure I have quoted from it before, and I have actually given away a couple of copies to people. He states his case early on as to what one of our major problems is in the church:

I am convinced that the basic cause of some of the most disturbing emotional/spiritual problems which trouble evangelical Christians is the failure to receive and live out God’s unconditional grace, and the corresponding failure to offer that grace to others. I encounter this problem in the counseling room more than any other single hangup. (14)

I read the sermon of a friend this week. The sermon was about being a minister in the church. He wrote that it is about grace:

Indeed, here is grace’s way – of Israel’s birth through a barren womb. Here is grace’s way – of the champion from Gath killed by Jesse’s youngest son. Here is grace’s way – of the Word taking on fallen flesh and stubbornly refusing to be fallen in it. Here is grace’s way – of ostracised women being commissioned as proclaimers of God’s good news. Here is grace’s way – that the deepest revelations of God are not given to the wise and understanding but to infants. Here is grace’s way – that God has a deliberate policy of positive discrimination towards nobodies, that the kingdom of God belongs to the poor and that the earth will be inherited by the meek. Here is grace’s way – love your enemies and bless those who make life hell for you. Here is grace’s way – of God making foolish and weak the wisdom and power of the world. Here is grace’s way – of God putting his treasure into jars of clay in order to show that God’s all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. Here is grace’s way – that only in humiliation do we find God exalting us, only in dying do we find God making us alive, only in throwing our lives away do we find God giving life back to us. Here is grace’s way – of power being brought to an end in weakness. Here is grace’s way – that we might actually be more use to God with our thorns than without them. Only when I am weak, am I strong.

These are beautiful words, grace words.

__________________

Jesus told four stories that day.

He told these four stories to a particular group of people: “Now the tax collectors and ‘sinners’ were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”

They were concerned because Jesus was doing, in their eyes, the wrong thing. Jesus was paying attention to the weak, the poor, the less than famous, the less than righteous. They were concerned because Jesus wasn’t paying enough attention to those who kept the rules, did all the right things, and demonstrated their exclusive righteousness before the world. Jesus actually went to the sick people, the weak people, the unrighteous people and this offended those who were well, who were strong, who were righteous. So Jesus told these three stories to those who grumbled.

Eugene Peterson notes for us in his book Tell it Slant that Luke is the only author in the New Testament to use this word ‘grumble’ or ‘mutter.’ It is a word similar to words used in Exodus 15:24 and 16:2 to describe the manner in which the Israelites were expressing their frustration with Moses and Aaron. Luke also uses it again in 19:7: “All the people saw this and began to mutter, ‘he has gone to be the guest of a sinner.’” This after Jesus went to the house of Zacheus for dinner.

____________________

This, then, is the context. And Jesus tells four parables.

In the first, there are 100 sheep. One is lost. So the good shepherd goes out to look for the one sheep. He eventually finds it and brings it home. And what happens? He calls his neighbors together and they rejoice in the Lord over the one lost sheep that was found.

In the second, there are ten coins. One of them is lost. So the woman sweeps and cleans and turns over the cushions and tears up the planks and digs through the garbage until she finds it. Eventually, she finds it. What does she do when she finds it? Well, she spends it on a lavish party and invites all her friends to come over and celebrate the one lost coin that was found.

In the third, there are two sons. One of them is lost. So the father stays at home and does nothing. He waits and waits and waits and waits. No one goes to look for the younger son. Not the father. Not the older brother. The father waits. The older brother goes about on his own…why? Well, frankly, because he has his share of the inheritance. Why should he expose himself, his inheritance, what is rightfully his to go out and look for the younger brother who has squandered everything? Tim Keller in his book The Prodigal God writes:

In the first two parables someone ‘goes out’ and searches for that which is lost. The searchers let nothing distract them or stand in the way. By the time we get to the third story, and we hear about the plight of the lost son, we are fully prepared to expect that someone will set out to search for him. No one does. It is startling, and Jesus meant it to be so. By placing these three parables so closely together, he is inviting thoughtful listeners to ask: ‘Well, who should have gone out and searched for the lost son?’ Jesus knew the Bible thoroughly, and he knew that at its very beginning it tells another story of an elder and younger brother-Cain and Abel. In that story, God tells the resentful and proud older brother, ‘You are your brother’s keeper.’ (81)

And Keller’s point is that it should have been the older brother who went out to look for the younger brother. And he also points out that to bring the younger brother back would have cost the older brother considerably. Remember, the property had already been divided. Jesus said in verse 12, “So he divided the property between them.” Keller notes that “every penny that remained of the family estate belongs to the elder brother. Every robe, every ring, every fatted calf is his by right” (82). This is why the father says at the end of the parable, “…everything I have is yours.”

Yet the father takes a ring, a robe, and a fatted calf from the older brother and gave them to the younger brother. To bring the younger brother back in involved a cost to the older brother.

Thus there is a fourth parable. In this parable there is one lost son. He is the older brother who had remained behind and done everything right. In his own words, “‘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.” Jesus certainly doesn’t argue with him. The father doesn’t argue with him. But that doesn’t mean, at any level, that the older brother isn’t lost. Jesus is ‘redefining lostness.’ He was pointing out to those who grumbled that the Son of Man came to seek and save what is lost and that the lost included them as well.

Keller goes on in his book to point out several characteristics of what he calls ‘elder-brother-lostness.’ I won’t list them all for you, but hear this one particular quote:

If such people [as the younger brother] wrong them, elder brothers feel their spotless record gives them the right to be highly offended and to perpetually remind the wrongdoer of his or her failure. [...] When the younger brother comes out of his denial, and the father welcomes him, the elder brother realizes that the pattern is being broken, and his fury is white-hot. [...] If the elder brother had known his own heart, he would have said, ‘I am just as self-centered and a grief to my father in my own way as my younger brother is in his. I have no right to feel superior.’ Then he would have had the freedom to give his brother the same forgiveness that his father did. But elder brothers do not see themselves this way. Their anger is a prison of their own making. (57)

It must be remembered to whom Jesus told this parable: It was to the Pharisees and those who grumbled that Jesus would dare go and look for the younger brother. They were angry because they knew Jesus was doing what they should have been doing-being their brother’s keeper, looking for the lost and the wayward. Jesus was the older brother. That’s why they were angry. They were angry that the father was so extravagant, gracious, and generous and forgiving. Keller nails it again:

The younger brother knew he was alienated from the father, but the elder brother did not. That’s why older-brother lostness is so dangerous. Elder brothers don’t go to God and beg for healing from their condition. They see nothing wrong with their condition, and that can be fatal. If you know you are sick you may go to a doctor; if you don’t know you are sick you won’t-you’ll just die. (66)

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And this brings us back to the point of the sermon which is God’s grace. And I suppose it is fair to ask this question: If your life has not been changed, radically altered at the core, do you understand grace? Or, let me state it negatively: If your life has ‘remained unchanged by God’s grace’ can you really say you understand the costliness of that grace?

Can you say you even understand the Gospel? Keller states, such people “have a general idea of God’s universal love, but not a real grasp of the seriousness of sin and the meaning of Christ’s work on our behalf. [...] If we say ‘I believe in Jesus’ but it doesn’t affect the way we live, the answer is not that now we need to add hard work to our faith so much as that we haven’t truly understood or believed in Jesus at all.” (123, 124)

That statement really made me step back, examine myself, and evaluate just exactly what I believe. That is a hard statement to accept. But the good news is that if the Father waited and waited for the younger brother to return, he went looking for the older brother, begging and pleading for him to come inside. In other words, he is not at all content that the older brother stay outside, missing the party. If the father made a fool of himself for running to the younger brother and robbing the older brother to welcome him home, he also made a fool of himself by begging and pleading for the older brother to come in.

The problem is that Luke 15, like the book of Jonah, does not have an ending. We don’t know if the older brother received the same grace from the father the younger received and went into the party. Did he go in and party and rejoice that the younger came home? Or did he stay outside unhappy and, frankly, unsaved?

Because those who are saved join the party. Those who have received God’s grace, join the party. Those who are join the party, are glad that the younger brother has come home.

Every single one of us, every single day, need to evaluate and re-evaluate and immerse and re-immerse ourselves in God’s grace. That God goes out of his way to search and welcome everyone home is an startling indication of the prodigal, spendthrift nature of God: he gives his grace away radically, freely, to everyone: To younger wayward brothers; to older self-sufficient brothers.

We are invited to examine ourselves. Three of the stories had happy endings. What of the fourth? How will the fourth story end? Did the Pharisees Jesus spoke to that day, the ones who grumbled and muttered, join the party? Did they go inside and rejoice and celebrate?

We are invited to stop and look at ourselves and ask a very important question: Which brother am I? And we are invited, before we too quickly associate ourselves with the younger brother, to stop and see if perhaps, just perhaps, we are the older brother.

[This is the text of the sermon I preached at the wedding of some dear friends. I trust they will not be angry that I have published the sermon here for others to benefit from. I admit that I took some liberties with my application of Isaiah 6, but not too many. I also confess to sneaking in a reference to David Crowder*Band song lyrics. I hope Crowder doesn't mind. Be blessed. jerry]

Marriage, Holiness and Grace

1 In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. 2 Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. 3 And they were calling to one another:
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.”
4 At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.
5 “Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”
6 Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. 7 With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.”

As far as I can tell, the Bible doesn’t have much to say, relatively speaking, about weddings or marriage specifically. I suppose our concept of marriage and weddings is somewhat foreign to Scripture. To be sure, God did say that for this reason a man would leave his father and mother and cleave unto his wife. And, furthermore, Jesus did perform his first miracle, changing water into wine, at a wedding banquet. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that in the book of Revelation the consummation of the church’s life and history is described in terms of a wedding between a man and a woman.

As images for the relationship between God and His people, Christ and the Church, marriage is an appropriate metaphor. It describes at once the beauty of intimacy, the glory of fidelity, the joy of friendship, and the grandeur of love. It at once shows us a picture of protection and comfort. We can speak on these things all day long if we like, but I’d like to talk about two other ideas that are married to the marriage and I think demonstrated for us here in Isaiah 6—a text that you may not normally associate with marriage and weddings.

These things might not normally be thought of in marriage. They might seem givens. They might seem irrelevant. They might seem out of date, but I believe that in a marriage that is blessed by Christ they will be evident and courageously practiced.

The first is holiness. I firmly believe that at the heart of marriage—given to us at the beginning by God—is about holiness. Most people get married in today’s world because they fully hope and expect to be happy forever. I’m not suggesting we should get married with the expectation of being unhappy as if unhappiness will make us holier. That’s not what I’m suggesting at all. But I am suggesting that in the divine economy, marriage is far more about your holiness in the Lord than it is about your happiness in each other.

This is why so many marriages fail, Christian and not-Christian alike.

It seems to me that after 17 ½ years of marriage I have had to learn that someone else matters in this world far more than I do and that as such there were aspects of me that were ugly, terribly ugly. We see that in the presence of God—our true selves, our true ambition. Marriage has a unique way of teaching us that we are not quite as important as we, in our own eyes, presumed. Marriage has a way of opening our eyes to the truth about ourselves.

To love someone else more than the self is, I believe, part of the essence of holiness. That doesn’t fully capture it, but it approaches it. Holiness means that we begin to shake off those parts of us that are imperfect, unrefined, and completely self-absorbed that we may give our whole self to another. Holiness means that we begin, actually, to be made complete. To be made holy means that we are at some level incomplete.

Marriage begins to make us whole—which is not to suggest that marriage is the only way to be made whole—but only to suggest that in marriage we are made whole.

Isaiah came into the presence of a holy God and was undone. I think as you wed today in the presence of God you are taking your first steps to being undone. Holiness is about God remaking what is broken and making you wholly alive, wholly other (as you two become one flesh), and whole.

This is what Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus: “Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing of the water through the word, and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Not to make her happy; but to make her holy.

The second is grace. Isaiah came into the presence of a Holy God and instead of that Holy God striking him dead, that Holy God cleansed him and made him pure.

If misconceptions about holiness and happiness cause the downfall of many marriages, lack of grace causes the downfall of most and the rest. We have created a culture where the sin of Genesis 3 and the blame of Genesis 3 have triumphed over the grace of Genesis 3. In other words: we find it much easier to sin and to blame than we do to assume responsibility and to forgive. Much of this has to do with pride. Marriage has a way of breaking down pride. Grace and forgiveness go a long way to humbling the arrogant and deepening the well of grace we can dispense to others. Marriage is a lifetime of grace and forgiveness.

You know, one of the things that bugs me about my own marriage is that it seems I am the one who always has to say I’m sorry. It seems that when there is an argument or a fight or a disagreement I am always the one who has to go to Renee and say, “I am sorry; will you forgive me?” I don’t know why that is. Oh, wait, yes I do. I am nearly always wrong. Seriously. A temper tantrum here, a harsh word there, a snide remark instead of a loving brush, and inconsiderate avoidance instead of a compassionate caress, or a selfish consumption of time instead of a generous display of affection.

But this has taught me about Christ, because I can honestly say that there is nothing that Renee hasn’t forgiven me. She has spared no amount of grace. She has reserved no amount of mercy. She has retained no right to double-jeopardy. She has always received my apologies with grace and kisses, with affection and quiet rebuke. Marriage is humbling. She has, time and time again, shown me the necessary grace to allow our marriage to grow in holiness. Time and time again, because of her grace, I have been undone.

If I put the burden of holiness in the marriage on the man, then I put the burden of grace upon the woman. I think this is why Paul told wives to ‘submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which is the Savior.” It is no secret, and I have bared my heart, that men are often in far more need of grace than women when it comes to marriage. Paul’s words here do not mean ‘be a doormat.’ They mean, be a savior; demonstrate grace; come under his care and protection; be an instrument of grace. If the husband protects the wife through holiness, the wife protects the husband through grace.

The man confronted with his burden, ‘woe is me,’ he cries. And there, in the marriage, he finds grace and salvation even as Isaiah found grace and salvation even as the church finds grace and salvation, even as you will find grace and salvation.

So I charge you today not with wishy-washy sentiments about the bliss and joys of marriage. Marriage is hard work. Holiness does not come in a day; it is a lifetime project. Grace is not a one time coupon; it is an every day project. I charge you today in the presence of God and these witnesses: [Man], protect and perfect holiness in your marriage. [Woman], proffer and practice grace in your marriage.

If you keep holiness and grace before you, you will constantly be undone. But if you keep them before you, what will happen to your love? Even though you are undone, your love with prosper, Christ will truly be honored, and you will become the One. When holiness and grace collide, it is a beautiful collision.

May all your collisions be for the glory of God.

I found this thought particularly helpful and encouraging:

If I ran a seminary, I’d make blogging a requirement.

What better way to practice finding something worthwhile to say every day?

If this is true, and I’m leaning towards it being so, then blogging should be required of every CHRISTIAN–not just those in seminary. Every Christian ought to find something useful, something praiseworthy to say every day. There’s far too much negativity and gracelessness among Christian-speak.

I’m guilty too, so please don’t think this is an accusation. There are so many words available that are constructive and worthwhile and encouraging and uplifting. I am ashamed of how graceless and tactless and discouraging I can be at times.

Source: 22 Words

Friends, here is the audio for the manuscript printed below (in the previous post). This is a sermon about God’s grace as expressed in the person of David, king of Israel. It is a sermon about the unmerited kindness that David demonstrated towards Mephibosheth, the grandson of David’s enemy, Saul. It is a picture of David adopting Mephibosheth into his family and seating him at the king’s table. Thanks for stopping by. jerry

You can download here: Filling a Cup from a Waterfall, 2 Samuel 9:1-21

or use the inline player below:


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Soli Deo Gloria!





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