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Theology and Experience

Hi all. I have not been blogging for some time now, but revisited one of my first posts this morning in preparation for a Theology lecture at Planetshakers College, and I thought it was worth sharing again. I hope it blesses you.

Theology Matters

My Experience

Several years ago, when I made the decision to leave a job in pastoral ministry to do further training in theology I came up against a common obstacle—particularly common, I might say, in the Pentecostal-Charismatic/non-denom world that I inhabit. Several people questioned (quite sincerely) the wisdom of doing a formal program of study at all. And there was good reason for it. Had we not all witnessed many young people who had once been so zealous for God that they had taken that fateful decision to go to Bible college? And had we not also witnessed these same zealous ones becoming jaded and cynical, losing their ‘edge’, and sometimes losing their faith? Why would anyone want to study theology? The sentiment was most succinctly, and perhaps best put by a good friend who simply said, “The world doesn’t need more theologians, Clayton.” In a sense of course…

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The Power of the Cross

This morning I’m teaching on the atonement. In preparation I was reflecting on the various ‘theories’ of atonement and was struck by the inadequacy of any single one of them to explain the wonder of what God has accomplished in Christ. I hope you are blessed today by these few lines I wrote in response:

If sin is a disease, the Cross is the cure,

If sin is a poison, the Cross is the antidote,

If sin is a stain, the blood of Christ washes clean,

If sin is a debt, the Cross is full payment,

If sin takes us captive, the Cross is the ransom,

If sin diminishes God’s honour, the Cross restores it.

Where sin leads us far from God, the Cross leads us back

Where sin separates us from God’s love, the Cross restores

Where sin corrupts, the Cross purifies.

Sin has muffled God’s voice, but in the Cross he speaks clearly,

Sin has obscured our vision, but in the Cross all becomes clear.

Sin has marred God’s image, but in Christ it is restored.

The Cross, the sacrifice of Christ, offered once for all.

Its reach is absolute, its mystery is infinite, its invitation universal.

It is complete. It is sufficient. It is final.


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Audacious Faith for Supernatural Solutions to Enormous Problems

If you are facing a seemingly insurmountable problem, then this is for you. I pray that it blesses and encourages you. 

1 Samuel 14:6

Jonathan said to his young armor-bearer, “Come, let’s go over to the outpost of those uncircumcised fellows. Perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf. Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few.”

Nothing can hinder God…

1 Samuel 13 describes in detail the pickle that Israel had gotten themselves into. In the first place, their God-anointed leader, Saul, had disobeyed God’s direct instruction through Samuel bringing judgment both on him and on the nation that he represented before God. In the second, with an army of only three thousand fighting men, Israel had managed to provoke the Philistine army, which was now making preparations to annihilate them. This army, we are told, consisted of six thousand charioteers, two to a chariot, and soldiers on foot ‘as numerous as the sand on the seashore. But the equation only got worse. When Israel saw the position they were in, the army went into hiding in “caves and thickets, among the rocks, and in pits and cisterns.” Most simply ran away in fear. In the end, there were only 600 men left facing a foe of tens of thousands. In the third place, only two men among those 600 carried with them weapons of war. The oppression of the Philistines was such that Israel had been prevented from amassing the necessary arms for the battle. Things could not have gotten much worse. Indeed their situation, had it not been so desperate would have been almost comical. It could only have ended with their doom, were it not for the miraculous power of God. And yet, not even those circumstances could hinder God from what he had chosen to do.

I challenge you today to line up your own circumstances with those Israel was facing. Let faith arise. Let hope arise. Let boldness arise. If God did it then, he can do it now. Nothing can prevent God from saving because saving is essential to his character. Its not about how big your circumstances are. Its not even about how much God loves you (though he loves you more than you can possibly imagine). When it comes to saving, its about God remaining true to his character.

…from saving…
God is into saving because he is a saviour. God is into delivering because he is a deliverer. God is into granting victory over impossible circumstances. Watch how he does it:

1. Audacious faith arises. 

Despite all that had happened to Israel, Jonathan still believed that Yahweh is a God who saves. So do we by the way. The very name of Jesus (Yeshua) upon which we call for our salvation literally means “Yahweh saves.” Indeed this was the purpose of the mission of Jesus to the earth: to reveal God as saviour by effecting our deliverance from the oppressive enemies of sin and death.

But notice that Jonathan’s faith, while audacious, is not presumptious. It does not manifest as a manipulative insistence on a particular outcome. Indeed, it begins only as a flicker of hope—”perhaps the Lord will act in our behalf”. Rather, his faith is manifest in a dogged refusal to allow the present circumstances to compromise the revelation of God as deliverer—”nothing can hinder the Lord from saving…”. This is the same kind of faith that his close friend David will show three chapters later when he confronts the giant Goliath. Like Jonathan, he has no way of knowing whether God would act in a particular way at that particular time. Like Jonathan, David takes what seems to be a reckless punt on God’s unchangeable character. And just as here with Jonathan, God responds, proving true to his character, and delivering not only David, delivering the nation through him.

2. Contagious boldness replaces fear.

Light is stronger than darkness. And in the same way that a little light dispels a lot of darkness, it only takes a little boldness to dispel a lot of fear. The few that were left of the army of Israel, were so afraid that they had taken to hiding in caves and pits and cisterns. And yet as Jonathan decares his faith in God’s character, boldness takes hold. It spreads first to his armour bearer who says in response “Do all that you have in mind…Go ahead. I am with you heart and soul.” It then spreads to the entire army who, emboldened by Jonathan’s success join in the pursuit. 

At any point the Philistines could have woken up to the situation and realised that logically they were the superior army. Their pursuers were far less in number and weaponless. But fear is a funny thing. A little boldness can turn the weapon of fear back on itself. Have you ever thought about that? Fear is one of our enemy’s most effective weapons. Have you ever stopped to consider why? Your enemy fears you. Because he knows that if you will but realise who you are—a son or daughter of the King of kings and thus invested with his full authority and resources; if you will but confess your faith in God’s unchangeable character—an all powerfull God of deliverance who cannot be hindered from delivering from our enemies; if you will but step out in obedient action, your enemy will be utterly defeated. All of the fear and intimidation that keeps you bound and keeps you from pursuing God’s purposes is nothing but a con. Its bluff. Powerful though he may wish you to think him, he knows well what we would do well to remember. He is a defeated foe. Let boldness arise! 

3. A supernatural strategy/solution emerges. 

The idea was so ridiculous that it just might have come from God. But he still wasn’t sure. Jonathan’s plan was to come out of hiding and show himself to an outpost of the Philistines. If the Philistines called out to them to “come up,” that would be the sign that God would give him victory over them. But notice that if they decided to come down to him, that would have meant destruction for him and his armour bearer since they had already given away their hiding place. In other words, once he had committed, there was no safe option. He and his armour bearer would fight for their lives either way.

To follow the traditional route of “inquiring of the Lord” before the battle would have required alerting others to his plan, which would certainly have prevented its execution. Sometimes faith requires us to commit to a course of action and ask God to direct rather than just sitting around and asking God what to do next. And sometimes faith requires us to put ourselves in a position where God has to ‘show up’ or we’re done for.

4. God brings supernatural multiplication.

So Jonathan and his armour bearer did exactly what Jonathan had suggested. They stepped out of their hiding place and challenged the enemy. From this point there was no turning back. And their enemies called out to them to “come up”—the sign. And so, with growing boldness, that’s exactly what they did. They had to climb with hands and feet to reach the Philistine outpost, which in itself would have been exhausting, and as soon as they got to the top, they had to engage in a battle where they were outnumbered at least ten to one. And yet, as they simply spent the energy that they had, God brought a multiplication to their efforts. He supplied what they needed for the climb and for the assault—surely no small miracle in itself—but then God brought a panic on the Philistines. They were in total confusion and began killing each other. Another miracle. And then there was a great multiplication of the resources as the other Israelites came out of hiding and joined in the pursuit.

…by many or by few
And so God brought about a great deliverance for Israel. It was miraculous from start to finish, but in order to accomplish it, he needed somebody to respond to him in faith; to declare the truth of God’s unchanging character, and then to prove that truth by his faith filled action.

Nothing can hinder the Lord from saving, whether by many or by few. In other words, God always acts in a way that is consistent with God’s character. And he is not limited by what we perceive as limitations. If your enemy is debt and you only have a few dollars, if your enemy is stress and you only have a few hours, if your enemy is the godlessness of a city or region and you only have a few people, nothing can hinder God from bringing victory over your enemies. God will deliever by many or by few. The question is, will he do it by you?


Grace #5: Confidence in God’s Grace

The importance of Confidence
Confidence is incredibly important. The world calls it self-belief. And though I often get frustrated when I hear successful athletes and others who seem to have ‘made it’ in the world’s eyes tritely exhorting others to ‘just believe in yourself,’ there is a kernel of truth in what they say. And this is it. Confidence makes things that seemed impossible possible, and gives us the energy and motivation to persevere, even when things look hopeless. Confidence stands up for truth, while others bow down to idolatrous lies. Confidence speaks up for justice while others tolerate the tyranny of the status quo. Confidence steps up for sacrifice, while others hold back in self preservation. Confidence starts up with optimism, while others surrender to the unhappy comfort of procrastination. The one thing confidence does not do is give up, which is why a confident person is so difficult to defeat. And that is where we Christians are at a huge advantage, because we do not have to believe solely in ourselves. We believe in a God who is infinitely greater, but more than that, who loves us, who has gone to extraordinary lengths to have relationship with us, and who empowers us by his Holy Spirit, to do good in the world. So while self-belief might be capable of winning games, God-confidence changes the world for eternal good. It is literally invincible.

Sin and the Grace Plan
Why is it then, that we sometimes lack the confidence to stand up, speak up, step up, start up for God? Why is it that at times we lack the confidence even to come into his presence? The answer: Sin. Or more precisely, the guilt and shame that is caused by sin. And I actually think that was the devil’s motivation for introducing sin into the world. His desire was not the sin itself, but the separation from the heart of God that the resulting guilt and shame would cause. The devil’s plan was to rob us of our sonship (forgive me – I haven’t found a suitable gender neutral term for this, but of course I mean sonship and daughtership – ‘childhood’ just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Suggestions?) and our confidence before God, and thus of our inheritance. He knows how powerful our confidence can be. In 1 John 3:21–22 we are told that

…If our hearts do not condemn us, we have confidence before God and receive from him anything we ask…

His strategy then, is a relatively simple one, and we would do well to be aware of it. All he needs to do is to get us to sin and our own hearts will do the rest through the condemnation of guilt and shame. If our hearts condemn us, we will be separated from God, not because he removes himself from us, but because we ourselves will shrink back from approaching him.
But the devil made one fatal error when he tempted Adam and Eve to sin in the Garden. He activated the Grace Plan. In its simplest form this plan can be found in Romans 5:20

“Where sin increased, grace increased all the more.”

This does not mean that we should “continue sinning so that grace may increase.” Romans 6:2 clearly excludes this—“certainly not!” What it means is that God’s grace is always more powerful than your sin. Sin was never going to win, and it it does not need to win in your life. Jesus has made provision. All we need to do is to turn to God and ask for the forgiveness that his grace has already guaranteed.

The throne of grace
The Grace Plan was not a Plan B. It was plan A. The Incarnate Son of God was already there hidden within the parents of humanity as the “Seed of the Woman.” God was always one step ahead. It was his plan that this Son was to come, not just to give his life as a sacrifice for human sin, but to live his life as an example for human behaviour, and then to ascend back to heaven to take his seat at the Father’s right hand, as the perfect advocate for humanity. So Jesus died in our place to take the punishment that we deserved. That is God’s mercy. And he lived the perfect life also in our place so that we might be accounted righteous before a Holy God. That is God’s grace. That is why the throne that he took at his Father’s right hand is know as the “throne of Grace.” From that throne, he makes intercession for us, representing us to the Father. This is why Hebrews refers to him as our “high priest,” for it was the priest’s role in the Old Testament to stand between God and man offering sacrifices for sins, and interceding for people before God.

Hebrews 4:14–15
Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has ascended into heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to the faith that we profess. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.

Confidence in God’s grace

So what has this got to do with confidence? Everything. It is with sin that the devil causes us the guilt that keeps us from God’s presence. But grace is greater. And so the next verse urges us to approach the throne of grace with confidence:

Hebrews 4:16
Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.

When is our time of need? Now! Specifically, any time when our hearts condemn us, when we are feeling guilty or ashamed on account of sin. In other words, the very time that we feel like running and hiding, that is the time to run into his presence, repent and receive forgiveness. The blood of Christ has opened the gates of heaven to us and spoken to the King of kings for us. I’ll finish with the words of an old song by Chris Christensen. Hard to believe its 20 years old this year!

“By your blood I will come boldly,
Run into your presence,
Bow in humble reverence before your throne.
For the blood of Christ has spoken,
The power of sin is broken,
The gates of heaven are open
By your blood.”

Come. Just come. Come now. And come boldly!


Asleep in the Storm

ImageI thought I might take a break from my grace series. This is a classic painting by Rembrandt of the account in the Matthew 8 (Mark 4) where Jesus calms the storm. As an introduction to my thoughts below, note where Jesus (our example) is in this picture and what he’s doing.

Following is an original poem  (my first!) which I hope will encourage you in any ‘storms’ you may be facing.











Asleep in the Storm

Clayton Coombs (February 26 2014)

“O you of little faith!” the sharp rebuke came.
I am the one who heals the blind and the lame.
Nothing at all is too difficult for me.
So what made you think you would drown in this sea?

“Let’s go to the other side.” Isn’t that what I said?
So what made you think this would end with you dead?
The Father has a plan for what we must do there.
And I want you with me, the experience to share.

My Father has not ordained that today I should die,
Though that day is coming, I feel it inside.
But today is the day for the King to confront legion
For a man to be freed; a seed sown in the region.
That is the reason for which we have come.
And we’re safe in His will ‘til His will has been done.

And so before I deal with the storm and the swell,
The storm within you is the one I must quell.

 Peace! Be still!

Suddenly all was completely becalmed.
How faithless we had been to think we’d be harmed.
For nothing, no nothing can resist God’s intention,
When its declared the circumstances don’t warrant a mention.

May I walk as Your son by faith not by sight,
In God’s spoken word not by power or might.
May my ear be attentive, and true to Christ’s form
May I sleep still and peaceful, whatever the storm.

(Feel free to share if this has encouraged you. For audio of a sermon I preached last year on this passage click here)


Grace #4: The wet man and the umbrella—Truth and Repentance and Faith

ImageI once heard a story about a man who, while walking along the street one day, saw a beggar. That particular morning, there was an ominous storm brewing and the man took pity on the beggar, since it was clear that the latter would not have any shelter. Stopping in a nearby store, he bought an umbrella, which he gave to the beggar with the assurance that it would keep him dry in the coming storm. “Sure it will,” said the latter, with a dubious expression. “Thanks.” But he was not convinced. The other reassured him and hurried on his way. But later in the day, when he returned by the same street after the storm had come and gone, he was dismayed to find the same beggar drenched to the skin, still clutching the gift, in almost the same position as when he had received it. “It doesn’t work,” he maintained stubbornly. He had, of course, failed to open the umbrella. Indeed, he had not even taken it out of its protective sleeve.
This is not a true story, at least as far as I know, but it illustrates well the point that I would like to make in this post. God’s grace is a free gift, but just as the umbrella needed to be unwrapped and put up in order to accomplish the purpose for which it is given, God’s grace must be unwrapped, as it were, and it must be activated.

How to Receive God’s grace
1. Grace and Truth: Unwrapping the umbrella
John 1:17 says:

For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

Grace and truth go together. Or rather, as the verse says, they come together through Jesus Christ. You cannot have grace without truth. And the truth is that since Adam and Eve’s Fall, human beings are born sinful. This means both that we are born under the curse of sin and the sentence of death, and that we are by nature predisposed to sin and thus justly stand condemned not only for Adam’s sin, but also for our own. This truth is known by theologians as “total depravity.” We are born sinners, utterly incapable of saving ourselves by our own effort; incapable even, as Augustine reminds us of willing and choosing to do what is right. That is the condition that God’s grace finds us in. That is the truth. And Jesus didn’t mind telling the truth. I don’t really know why it is that people these days have such trouble with the concept of sin, but I suspect that it has never been a popular message. It just happens to be the truth. When the woman caught in adultery (who I have already introduced in this series) encountered Jesus she encountered both grace “neither do I condemn you” and truth “go and stop sinning.”

2. Faith and Repentance: putting up and holding up the the umbrella
So at the risk of being repetitive, you cannot have grace without truth. Besides, it wouldn’t do you any good. If you don’t actually believe the truth that you are a sinner in need of saving, then God’s grace is really of no use to you. But here’s the deal. You cannot accept God’s truth while still holding onto your own.[1]  To believe God’s truth means to let go of my own, and any behaviour that is based upon it. This is called repentance. In short, repentance is confessing that God is right and I am wrong, and changing my behaviour so that it is consistent with that confession. In the Bible repentance refers to a change of mind resulting in a change of direction. It is in fact, the first word of the gospel “repent and believe.” We usually characterise this as an about-face; a 180 degree turn.[2] But in reality, repentance could also be a 20 degree turn, or a 5 degree turn—a definite, though almost indiscernible change in direction, in response to the Holy Spirit shining his light of truth on a previously dark area. In other words, while our initial appropriation of God’s grace and turning from sin may be dramatic, our subsequent and ongoing repentance will, at least in theory, be less so, though no less important.
If “repent” is the first word of the gospel “faith” (or “believe”) is the second. In order to appropriate God’s grace then, it is necessary that I believe God’s truth about my pre-grace condition. I must let go of whatever else I may have believed about myself and trust entirely in God’s gracious provision in the cross of Christ. When my behaviour matches my belief, I can be said to have repented. However, in order to  remain under God’s grace it is also necessary for me to believe God’s truth about my position in Christ—my under-grace condition, if you will. I am no longer a slave, but a son and an heir. I carry my Father’s royal authority. Actually grasping this truth, allowing it to penetrate our souls, and affect our behaviour, takes practice. And this is why both repentance and faith need to be ongoing. For we will often need to resist and oppose wrong thinking about ourselves, replacing it with God’s truth (we are forgiven, we are new creations in Christ, we are sons not slaves, God’s other children are our brothers and sisters and ought to be treated as such, etc.) in faith. And this will usually necessitate a correction in behaviour, hence ongoing repentance.
In summary, grace without truth is not sincere. Grace without repentance is not effective. Grace without faith is not lasting.

How long will we sit in the rain getting wet, holding the gracious gift that could keep us dry, yet stubbornly insisting that it is legalistic to put it up?

[1] This by the way is why the modern virtue of ‘tolerance’ can only ever be a veneer. It is simply insincere to say “well that’s alright for you” if you do not believe the veracity of the other’s claims. And when we declare that the behaviour, whatever it might be, of another ‘ok,’ we must also implicitly affirm that the truth claim on which that behaviour is based is correct. More on that in another post (maybe).
[2] By the way, from time to time I’ve heard preachers declare, with commendable zeal, that repentance means a “complete 360 degree turn.” It does not. I hate to be pedantic, but that is the only thing that it cannot mean. If you turn 360 degrees, you may be dizzy, but you will still be going the same direction. Trust me. You mean 180.


Grace #3: From slaves to sons and daughters!

For a while now, I have been thinking about the immense subject of God’s grace. My first post in this series outlined the need that I see to ‘beef up’ our teaching of God’s grace. The amazing grace of Jesus does not say to the woman caught in adultery, “neither do I condemn you, I couldn’t possibly,” as the emaciated and far less amazing modern virtue which we call ‘tolerance’ might have done. Neither does it say “go and leave your life of sin so that God can accept you,” as cold pharisaic legalism might wish. God’s amazing grace said then and says now “neither do I condemn you, go and leave your life of sin.” My second post introduced the idea of an obligation that a gift creates, even if freely given. I suggested that while God’s grace saves us freely, we are saved for a purpose, and thus God’s grace invites us rather than obligates us. However, I promised to wrestle further with the notion of obligation in the current post so, here goes. The question of obligation is essentially how ought we to live as a result of God’s grace? The answer to this question will be found in the answer to two more basic questions. What exactly is grace why do we need it?

What is grace?

The Greek word which is translated ‘grace’ in the New Testament is charis[1]. This word refers to favour, or to a favour, and calls to mind the ancient system of reciprocity that operated in the time the New Testament was written. This system is best understood as a never-ending web of mutual obligation, and although some of its unwritten rules survive even to our own day—if you do me a favour, I “owe you one” in return—it was a much more significant part of life in the Roman Empire at the time of Christ. Favours, when exchanged between those of equal standing, equal resources, or equal power, were returned in kind. It was this system that Jesus was referring to when in Luke 14:12–14 he urged his followers not to do favours (such as giving a dinner party) for people who could repay them, but instead for “the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind…”. Favour could, of course, also be shown by a wealthy or powerful person to somebody of little power. In this case, the favour is returned, though not in kind. A poor or powerless person, if shown such favour, returns the favour by giving honour, loyalty, service and gratitude to the person who showed them favour. This is why charis is also the Greek word for ‘thanks’ as in Romans 7:24, 25 “Wretched man that I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”[2] God’s grace to us is obviously in this latter category. We bring nothing to the table, but we remain indebted to him for the kindness that he has shown us.

Why do we need it?

Romans 6:15–23 characterises sin not just as acts that lead to death (cf. Heb 6:1), but as a master that we are obligated to obey. Here it is in full with the ‘grace’ language in bold:

15 What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace [charis]? By no means! 16 Don’t you know that when you offer yourselves to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness? 17 But thanks [charis] be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness. I am using an example from everyday life because of your human limitations. Just as you used to offer yourselves as slaves to impurity and to ever-increasing wickedness, so now offer yourselves as slaves to righteousness leading to holiness. 20 When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the control of righteousness. 21What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 22 But now that you have been set free from sin and have become slaves of God, the benefit you reap leads to holiness, and the result is eternal life. 23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift [charisma] of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.

In other words, we are born into servitude to a ruthless master called Sin. God sets us free from this slavery, not by merely turning us loose and allowing us to fend for ourselves. Such a heartless act would be unthinkable, for without a master we are without protection. Rather, he sets us free by purchasing us for himself. At great expense mind you—the exchange literally bankrupts heaven! Now that he has purchased us, Sin is no longer our lord and we are no longer its slaves. But Christ is our Lord, and we now belong to Him. We are no longer under (that is in bondage or servitude to) law, but under grace. That means that we are under the covering of God’s favour. It does not mean that we are now our own masters, free to do as we please. Our freedom is the freedom from our old master, but it comes at the expense of allegiance to the new master. But the greater truth is this. This master has not purchased us in order to subjugate us but to bless us. Because his purpose is to adopt us, who were both slaves and orphans, into his own family.

This means that we enjoy the privileges of the household, and the blessings of the Father’s love. But it also means that we ought to act like members of the household. Paul puts it this way in Romans 8:12 “Therefore brothers and sisters [that is, thos who like him have been adopted into the Father’s household] we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it.” 

Here are some other ‘obligation’ scriptures (note that obligation, owe, ought, debt all come from the same Greek root):

Romans 13:8 “Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another”

Romans 15:1 “We who strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak.”

John 13:14 “You also ought to wash one another’s feet.”

1 John 3:16 “…Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters.”

1 John 4:11 “Since God so loved us, we ought to also love one another.”

Ephesians 5:28 “Husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies.”

OK, this list is not exhaustive, but you get the idea. The obligations that we have are family obligations—to love as we have been loved; to forgive as we have been forgiven. For surely that is how a person who has been blessed and graced in this way ought to act. Love one another. Lay down your lives for one another. Love your wives. Wash one another’s feet. Walk as Jesus did—that is, using the blessings and privileges we have as sons and daughters of the Father, to bless and privilege others.

Bottom line. We have been shown incredible favour. We who were orphans and slaves have been invited to be part of a family. I don’t know about you, but I’m in. I’m grabbing this gift with both hands!

[1] Augustine (rightly, I think) understood the hope-filled answer to the apostle’s anguished cry as “The grace of God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”

[2] This is related to the verb charizomai, which means to give or to show grace towards, and hence also to charisma which is the word used of gifts of the Spirit in the New Testament. This is an important connection, though beyond the scope of the present post, because it reminds us that spiritual gifts, like the gift of salvation, are also operations of God’s grace.





Grace #2: An invitation or an obligation?

I have to be honest. I have really wrestled with this post. In my introductory post to this series, I suggested that the revival of interest in the subject of God’s grace which has occurred in the church over the last couple of decades was sorely needed. But I also suggested that we may be missing something. I don’t at all mean that we preach a half-truth when we say that God’s grace invites us to come as we are, and that there is nothing that we can do to earn or deserve it; it comes free of charge.

“So what’s the problem and why the wrestle?” you might ask.

Well, let me ask a question. How do you imagine the parable of the prodigal son ending? I mean, it doesn’t really end, does it? The younger son goes off into the far country and spends his inheritance on wild living—the inheritance that he had the gall to ask for while his father was still living. He recognises his mistake only when he runs out of money and comes back to the father’s house repentant, begging to be taken on as a servant. His father forgives him and reinstates him as a son. And that’s it—o, except that the older brother is annoyed and won’t join the homecoming party, even at his father’s invitation.

But how does it end? I mean the day after the party. Do you imagine the younger son waking up in the morning and asking for more money so that he can leave again? I imagine him waking up in the morning overcome with gratitude that he has been reinstated and, well, acting like a son again. Of course, if he did wake up and ask for more money and take off again, I’m pretty sure that the father’s heart would again be broken and the father’s arms would again be open. But the son would be missing out.

So here’s my problem.

We all know deep down that a gift creates an obligation. “But wait a minute?” I hear you ask. “That’s not always true. What about Christmas? Surely Christmas is a time to give without expecting anything in return?” Sure, but most gifts at Christmas time (I would say all, but I won’t argue with you if you disagree at this point) are given in the context of an expectation for a gift in return. That’s why so much work goes into arranging a ‘Kris Kringle.’ “Ok, I’ll get one for him, and you get one for me and he can get one for her.” And that’s why you are embarrassed when somebody who you had not thought to get a gift, gets you one out of the blue.

Sometimes this obligation works against us, like when marketers offer us something for ‘free’ in the hope of using the hook of reciprocity to persuade us to purchase something of far greater value. But sometimes the obligation itself works in our favour, like when our parents give us music lessons that obligate us to practice. And sure, as many of us have found, we don’t have to do the practice, but if we don’t, we haven’t really properly received the gift that we were given, have we?

Obligation is a dirty word. Maybe people in our generation are not motivated by duty as people used to be. I don’t know. But I do know that I hate being told that I have to do something, or even that I ought to (that I am ‘obliged’ to). I’d far rather want to. But is it the same with God’s grace? Does the free gift of God’s grace obligate us? In my next post, I am going to continue wrestling with this concept by looking at some scriptures that do seem to imply this. Rom 8:12 is a good starting point if you are interested in sharing your own thoughts in the comments. But for now, let it suffice to say that I believe God’s grace saves us freely, and yet saves us for a purpose. Paul says it better in Ephesians 2:8–10:

For it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith—and this not of yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.

Sure there are good works to do, but the gift of God’s grace is best seen as an invitation not an obligation. The Bible refers to this invitation as a ‘call’ or a ‘calling.’ God has chosen you. God has called you. God has a purpose for you. The question is not whether or not we want to do the good things that God has called us for. Philippians 2:13 makes it clear that God works in us to give us the power both to want what he wants for us, and to carry it out. The question is how we will respond to God’s gracious invitation.

I’ll continue this series in the New year (beginning late Jan). Thanks for reading, and for your comments and feedback thus far. God bless you this Christmas.


Grace #1: The Kindness and Severity of God’s Amazing Grace

Consider therefore the kindness and sternness of God: sternness to those who fell, but kindness to you, provided that you continue in his kindness. Otherwise, you also will be cut off. Romans 11:22

God’s Grace is Simple

Some people think of God only as wrathful and judgmental; others as infinitely loving and gracious. Indeed, these are the stereotypical extremes between which the pendulum of Church culture and practice swings, as from age to age and culture to culture, the Church does its best to preach and to embody the good news of God’s restorative love. Both extremes, while they have an element of truth, if taken by themselves are of course inadequate views of God—not perhaps heretical untruths, but lamentable and limiting sub-truths nevertheless. The whole truth is that God is Holy and Loving, Just and Forgiving.

Sometimes, because of the limitations of our understanding, we characterise God’s attributes as if they are in tension with each other. We might say for example, God is love, but since he is also a God of justice, he cannot co-exist with sin. And yet, as theologians remind us, God is simple—that is to say he is not composed of parts. What God is, he is entirely. In other words, though we may at times be, God is not confused. The various aspects of his nature are not in tension. That is (at least partly) why, I believe, the verse above invites us to consider both God’s kindness and his severity. We cannot properly understand one without the other. God’s grace then, is not merely an operation of his kindness, but rather it is an operation of God himself. It must flow therefore from his kindness and his severity, from love and from holiness, from compassion and justice.

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, or the big Marshmallow in the sky?

Over the last couple of decades there has been a (sorely needed) revival of interest in and emphasis on God’s grace throughout much of the Church. In part, I believe this has resulted from an increasing realization of just how broken the world is, and how the church has all too often prioritized conformity to a norm over genuine empathy and compassion. We badly needed a grace revival. Nevertheless, it is all too easy for a badly needed theological corrective to become and over-correction. To return to the analogy of the pendulum, I wonder if we are not beginning to swing ‘past the middle’ on this issue. If so, it is certainly not in our teaching of the historic truth of sola gratia (grace alone), but rather in our narrow definition of what God’s grace entails.

I can already hear the objection. “Surely its not possible to overemphasise God’s grace.” True enough. And yet the Scripture with which I began this post invites us to consider both the kindness, and the severity of God. If our proclamation of the gospel emphasises one of these elements at the expense of the other, it may well function as a prophetic message in a particular cultural situation where imbalance already exists, even though it is not the ‘whole truth.’ Jonathan Edwards’ now infamous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, is a great example of this. Edwards preached God’s wrath to a church that was complacent, proud, and dangerously apathetic, in order to provoke a response of repentance. We may well judge Edwards’ sermon (or its title—in my experience, most people who criticise it have never read it) from the perspective of a different cultural situation, as being lopsided, mean-spirited and judgmental. Edwards, it seems, considers only the severity of God, rather than also his kindness. His message is incomplete, but, I would argue, necessarily so. If an imbalance is to become balanced, it requires a counter balance.

In just the same way, however, the ‘grace message’ of today is in danger of considering the kindness of God only, at the expense of his severity. And while this message may perhaps function (or rather, may perhaps have functioned) as a necessary counter-balance in churches and cultures that are overly legalistic, it must be said that the contemporary Church, by and large, is currently somewhere near the opposite extreme. Furthermore, our western culture, into which this Church is called to be a prophetic voice; a culture whose central virtue is tolerance; could not be much further from the legalistic extreme that would legitimate a cheap-grace counterbalance. We need to be aware that a counter balance, if incorrectly placed may cause us to overbalance.

Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more

My point is that if we define God’s grace as equivalent only to his kindness, rather than flowing from his character, then we limit the operation of grace, which, in its fullest manifestation, both forgives and heals the sinner. The two sides of God’s grace are perhaps most clearly and simply seen in the response of Jesus to the woman caught in adultery: “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.” To respond to sinners with the second part of this saying only—go and sin no more—is clearly legalism, but to omit the second part is only license. True Grace responds with both parts.

It is vitally important that we teach the whole truth about God’s character and hence about his grace. This does not require ‘toning down’ the preaching about grace that has become so popular, but rather beefing it up. Surely if the truth sets us free, then the whole truth will set us completely free. For this reason, I have decided to do a ‘mini-series’ of blog posts on grace over the coming weeks. Stay tuned.


Finish this sentence: “A real Christian could never…”

Would you be prepared to die for your faith?

Around the beginning of the 2nd century (112 AD), Pliny (the younger), the Roman governor of Bythinia-Pontus, sent a letter to the emperor Trajan asking him what was to be done about the spread of Christianity. At that time it was already a capital offense to be a Christian, and one of the problems that Pliny was experiencing was that some people would inform on Christians for no other reason than that they bore them a grudge. Pliny had already executed some Christians, thinking perhaps to eradicate the religion. However, it soon became evident to him that great numbers of people of both genders and at every echelon of the empire professed the new faith.

In his letter to the emperor, a translation of which can be found here, Pliny described his practice of interviewing those accused of being Christians. In order to test the veracity of the accusations, Pliny would ask the defendant to make a sacrifice to the emperor, and to curse Christ, because, as far as he had heard, nobody who was genuinely a Christian could be forced to do either of these things. Can you imagine it? At any time, you could be going about your business and and you could be dragged off and brought before a court. The charges? You are a Christian. The trial could be very short—if you capitulated. “Are you a Christian?” If you said “no”, all you had to do to prove it was to make a sacrifice to the emperor and say “Jesus be cursed.” That would be the end of it…

But the trial could also be mercilessly long. If you said “yes”, you would be tortured to see if they could induce you to curse Christ or to sacrifice. If at length they could not. You would be executed.

Tonight in class, I was reminded of this correspondence and it got me thinking. What if the same were true today? What if it were a crime to be a Christian and the authorities needed some way of proving who was and who was not. We don’t have an emperor today, and we are not in the habit of making sacrifices (at least in the culture I am most familiar with) to idols or political leaders. So I wonder what the test would be. Obviously the ‘cursing Christ’ test would stand the test of time. A true Christian could never curse Christ. But what of the other test?

I’d like to conduct a poll of sorts. Please post your feedback as a comment below.

What is one thing that:

a) the culture around us routinely does and,

b) a Christian could never do?

One more consideration before you comment. Sacrificing to the emperor was not a grey area. It was not an issue of contention between fellow Christians. It was very clear cut. A true Christian could never do it, and if one could, that alone was sufficient proof that they were not a real Christian. I’m looking for a universally shared conviction here, not an opportunity to be judgmental of other Christians.

So here goes. Finish this sentence: “A real Christian could never…”