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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.


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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.


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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…”


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Contentment: Shhhh! Its a secret!

Content or discontent? You choose.

Php 4:11b–13 “I have learned to be content whatever the circumstances. I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do everything through him who gives me strength.

Discontent is a powerful temptation common to us all. A person who succumbs to it is characterized by restlessness (in the true sense of the word). Such a person lives their life in constant anticipation of elusive ‘if onlys’, which, even if they eventuate, never seem to satisfy the relentless longing for ‘just a little bit more.’  This restless discontent is an enemy of the soul. It shackles a person meant for eternity to the temporal, and yet it robs us of the beauty of the now. Here’s the alarming truth.

 So what’s the secret?

Have you ever wondered exactly what ‘the secret’ is that Paul refers to in Php 4:12? Actually the phrase “I have learned the secret” is a single Greek word that has the sense of being initiated into a secret, or into a secret society. You might not think that “the contentment society” is actually very secret. After all, can’t anybody tell who is content and who is not? Well no, actually. That’s just the genius of a secret society. Membership is obvious, but only to the initiated. Most people assume that you are happy because you have more than they do. So here’s the big secret. Contentment is an attitude you choose. Actually, so is discontentment. And both of them operate independently of our circumstances. It does not necessarily follow that a person the world judges to be ‘poor’ will also be discontent, any more than being rich guarantees contentment. That is because true inner prosperity is measured not by the gap between what I have and what others have—by such a measure I will always find a way of judging myself poor—but by the difference between what I actually need and what I have.[1] By this measure we Christians are rich beyond measure, because the one thing that we really need—friendship with God—is the one thing that nobody can take away from us (Rom 8:38–39).

The secret ways of the contentment society

So that’s the big secret. But how do you do it? How is it possible for Paul to claim contentment in any and every situation (well fed or hungry, living in plenty or in lack)? Here are the secret ways of this society:

1. Trust

True contentment begins with unconditional surrender to God and to his purposes in our lives. And this cannot happen without absolute trust in God’s goodness and love. It is that kind of prevailing trust that causes Paul to see past his circumstances, even in prison, and to rejoice (which as I said in my last post, is a key theme in Philippians). God is good. God loves us. God is in control. These are liberating truths.

2. Perspective

A contented person understands that they are on God’s team, not he on theirs. In 1Tim 6:5 Paul talks about a certain type of Christian that imagines that “godliness is a means of gain.” Paul’s answer (1 Tim 6:6): “Godliness with contentment is great gain.” In other words, God is not primarily concerned with you getting ahead, but rather with the advance of his kingdom in the earth. If by surrender (and surrender is the only way) we join him in this endeavor, we can be certain that all that we (actually) need in order to accomplish all he desires will be amply supplied. But we should also beware that God will at times use apparent lack in order to build our trust in Him, because God is more interested in the measure of our faith than he is in the measure of our possessions.

3. Gratitude

A contented person spends more time thanking God for the blessings that they do have, than they do petitioning him for the things that they do not.

4. Prayer

A contented person chooses prayer over anxiety. Php 4: 6–7 tells us that we need not be anxious (restless) about anything, because in every situation we can bring our requests to God in prayer with thankfulness. If we do this we can truly be at rest in the promise of His peace. This is a “peace that passes understanding.” It defies logic. And it is the legal right only of members of the contentment society.

So what is the secret of contentment? It is the deep conviction that God has supplied and will supply all that I need for all that he has called me to be and to do. This is a place of true rest, true peace, and great gain.


[1] For this insight I am indebted to the great 4th century preacher John Chrysostom of Constantinople. It is found in his second sermon in the series on the parable of the Rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:19–31). I am not sure of the copyright implications of reproducing the entire sermon (which is wonderful), but you can read the main points here. You can read much of it (see pp. 39–55) here.


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I can do all things through Christ! Right?

“I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation. . .I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Php 4:11–13)

 I can do all things. . .

The latter part of this verse has been used as a motivation for Christians of all stripes in their endeavours to accomplish all sorts of things. I am old enough to remember when  boxer Evander Holyfield had “Php 4:13” printed on his shorts for his bout with Mike Tyson (which Holyfield won). And anyone who follows American football (and possibly many who don’t) will be aware of the name Tim Tebow, a fine young man who lives  his very public witness for Jesus in the NFL arena, in ways including putting Scripture references such as Php 4:13 on his “Eye Black.”[1]

I need to be clear that it is not my intention here to oppose these sorts of applications of this verse. However, I do want to highlight what this saying actually appears to mean in the context of the book of Philippians, a meaning which need not tether the Holy Spirit’s application of the verse to situations beyond its context, but must surely inform it. Paul, the letter’s human author, is in prison—and not for the first time. In ancient times, prison did not merely entail confinement—the curtailment of certain freedoms, but also physical suffering. Since a prison sentence was considered more of an actual punishment, rather than simply a protection for the rest of society, it was important that there be this component of suffering. In more extreme cases, this involved the ongoing use of torture. The place of confinement was typically (though not always) a place without natural light—at times without any light. Sanitation was non-existent, and in many cases the meals and medical needs of the prisoner were not provided for. If they were to eat, or if they needed treatment of some kind, somebody outside the prison needed to provide for them. Prisoners were often chained hand and foot, were at times suspended from the walls, at times placed in stocks (hands feet and head placed through holes in a beam in order to keep the body in an unnatural position). In short, a normal and reasonable degree of comfort was usually impossible to achieve. The situation was calculated to produce a sense of hopelessness; to break the spirit of the prisoner.[2]

When Paul says “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” he is declaring in faith that he can endure his present suffering. He has confidence that whatever befalls him, his spirit will not be broken, and that he will continue to rejoice (a key word in Philippians) and speak of God’s goodness and grace to anyone who will listen. Even in the prison. He is declaring that God’s purposes for his life are not limited just because his physical body is confined to a dungeon. He can pray. He can rejoice. He can write. It is important to realise what Paul is applying this principle of “doing all things through Christ” to in order to see more clearly what he is not applying it to. Obviously, the thing that Paul would have wanted most, along with any prisoner would have been to get out of prison. But if he meant by his famous declaration what many today take him to mean, he would not have been in that prison for more than about five minutes. “I can do all things. . .” would surely have extended to finding a way out of the prison, which was Paul’s most pressing human need, and one that he would have been painfully conscious of every minute of every day of his incarceration. But he does not mean that. He appeals for help to Christ’s strength, not to change his present situation as if his own comfort were the most important thing, but to endure it for God’s glory. “I can do all things” says Paul—even this—“through Christ who strengthens me.”

Can I do all things?

So can we do all things through Christ’s strength? Yes. Absolutely. All of the things (and only those things) that Christ intends for us to do. What we cannot do is appropriate Christ’s power over all things in order to do anything that we might want to do. And what we should not do is to use Philippians 4:13 as some kind of magical incantation to be spoken over whatever difficulty we might encounter—as if God is not ok with taking us along a narrow and difficult path—and thus avoid any deeper work God may wish to do in and through us. Are you experiencing financial lack? “I can do all things” may mean simply believing God for more. But it certainly also mean trusting God that he may have a purpose in the lack. Are you experiencing physical suffering? “I can do all things” may mean trusting God to “get up, take up your mat and walk.” But it certainly means trusting his goodness, even though crippled on the mat until he so bids you. Are you experiencing relationship breakdown? “I can do all things” may mean go ahead and ‘fix it’ with the wisdom Christ provides. But it may also mean trusting God if he chooses to take a longer and more tortuous path to restoration than the one you might have preferred.

So I can do all things through Christ’s strength. As long as all the things that I choose to do flow out of my cultivated intimacy with His heart, my total trust in his character and my absolute surrender to his purposes. Anything I do beyond this, I do in my own strength. And that is not a place where I want to be.


[1]Thick black horizontal lines painted under a player’s eyes which are said to literally “draw light away” from the eyes in order to help a player see the ball better.

[2] This was precisely the type of imprisonment that Paul and Silas had experienced when they had first gone to Philippi, the time when, no doubt, the Philippian Church was established. Philippians was probably written during Paul’s Roman captivity, a period during which Paul (at times) enjoyed better treatment. Nevertheless, he refers several times in Chapter 1 to his ‘chains’ and to his ‘suffering,’ so it is safe to assume that the level of discomfort that he was experiencing ensured that his status, treatment, and condition as a prisoner were never far from his mind.


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Fathers Day Blessing: Rare and Beautiful Treasures

This one is for the Dads, and for the Dads in your life.

Proverbs 24:3–4 By wisdom a house is built,
    and through understanding it is established;
through knowledge its rooms are filled
    with rare and beautiful treasures.

Let’s be honest. All of us like a bit of treasure. For some of us that’s a bigger house or nicer car. For others, priceless artworks and rare artifacts. I, like most other men, particularly men my age (just south of forty), have certain ambitions. And I will admit that being in a ‘better financial position’ (whatever that means) is one of them. I think that is natural, and for the most part, God-given. We desire deeply to provide as best as we can for our families. But relentless focus on the destination can rob us of the beauty of the journey. And as my wife recently reminded me, focusing on the things that we do not have robs us of the blessing of the things that we do have.

My house may not be full of the sort of treasure that more money could buy. Maybe one day it will be, and maybe it won’t. But as a husband and father, my house is filled right now with five priceless treasures—my wife and four children! These are rare treasures indeed, because each of them is absolutely unique. One of a kind!

Dads, it doesn’t matter today whether or not you are ‘up to’ where you thought you might be up to at this point in your life. It doesn’t matter what your achievements may or may not be. It doesn’t matter how much you have or how little of what you want you now possess. You are a Father. You have been given by sheer grace, the gifts of your children. And regardless of how difficult they can be at times, they are unique, and incredibly valuable. You live in a treasure chamber!

Happy Fathers Day.


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Does any of it really matter?

 This semester I have the unspeakable privilege of teaching through the New Testament book by book. This week’s lesson was on the gospel of John. Of all of the things that could have ‘jumped off the page’ at me as I read the fourth gospel again in preparation for the class, it was the very last verse that struck me.

 John 21:25

And there are also many other things that Jesus did, which if they were written one by one, I suppose that even the world itself could not contain the books that would be written. Amen.

I must have read this verse hundreds of times, but this time, I got ‘stuck’ on it. Obviously the statement is hyperbole right (an intentional exaggeration employed to make a particular point)? I mean, I’ve been in some pretty large and impressive libraries during the course of studies. The biggest (and probably the best) of them was the Regenstein library at the University of Chicago. Indeed this library, is one of the largest libraries in the world. According to its own website, it holds 4.5 million(physical) volumes, which it has collected through a process of constant acquisition over many years. . .and yet, it takes up somewhat less than a single city block. Here’s a picture:

https://i0.wp.com/upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/d0/Regenstein_Library_entrance2.jpg

But as I thought about it, a well-known quote came to mind: “you are the only gospel that some people will ever read.” And it hit me. The world has indeed been filled with countless volumes that record the wonderful and miraculous works of Jesus. For just as God promised to write the words of the New Covenant on human hearts, so he has also been recording the works of Jesus onto the very lives of his followers ever since the apostle John penned the statement above. We are those books. And I daresay that if all of his followers over the centuries were alive today, the entire world could scarcely contain their number. And yet, God is not done writing. This very day, God continues to write his story onto the pages of your life.

So next time you are tempted to wonder what the point of it all is, consider this: the purpose of a book lies outside of the book itself. The purpose of the story that God is writing in and with your life, is that it would be read by others, and that in reading the story of your life, they themselves might become acquainted with the Author, enfolding their story into his and surrendering the pages of the coming chapters of their own lives to will of the greatest story teller of all time. As the Psalmist says, “my heart is stirred with a noble theme as I recite my verses before the King, my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer” (Ps 45:1).

In short, God has chosen to display his works in us, so that his own character and nature; his own glory and majesty; his inscrutable wisdom and relentless love may be clearly seen; heard; experienced, by others.

 

May his works be multiplied in your life today, that others may see Jesus in you.