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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.

IT IS FINISHED.


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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!


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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.

 

 

 


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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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Colouring in the Lines: Your Father is the Judge

In my last post, I wrote about the terrible coming Day of Judgment and why, terrifying as it will be, the Christian does not need to fear it. Nevertheless, that Judgment will be terrifying for the unbeliever, not just because of the power of the Judge and the finality of the result (not to mention the awful consequences of receiving an adverse judgment), but because in that Day every secret will be laid bare. Everyone who is not clothed with the righteousness of Christ will appear naked, as it were, before Him. No pretense. No hiding. No excuse. A terrifying prospect indeed.

Let me reiterate what I said in the last post: This judgment is not for the Christian. We have nothing to fear. Jesus, our Advocate, appears on our behalf, bringing with him to court the Book of Life, and reminding the Judge that our case has already been heard, and the verdict is “not guilty.”

And yet, Scripture also makes clear that we will be judged on the basis of what we have done in our lives. In Revelation 22:12, Jesus says

 Look, I am coming soon and my reward is with me. I will give to each person according to what they have done.

How then is that different from the “Great White Throne” Judgment where the dead are judged on what they have done?

Let me assure you, it is as different as night is different from day. To the believer, God is not a judge dealing out punishments to criminals. Rather, he is a Father who delights to hand out rewards to his children. In order to better understand the implications of this, I must take what appears to be an indulgent digression and use an illustration from my own (imperfect) experience as a parent.

What do you see?

Image

This is a colouring page that my 2 year old did. When you look at this, all you see is a mess. The colours do not always match what they are applied to, and there is plenty of scribbling outside of the lines. That’s because she’s not your daughter. Here’s what I see. She’s two alright?! I know where she’s up to. I know what she’s capable of. I’ve seen her work grow and develop since she first put crayon to paper. And I love it. I’m impressed by it. I don’t see all of the colouring outside the lines. That is not my focus. I don’t see all that she has gotten wrong; all that she has failed to achieve in this picture, and all that she should have done better. I don’t see what she hasn’t done. I see what she has done. I don’t see the scribble outside the lines. I see all that she has gotten inside the lines. I don’t see the places where she has gotten the colours wrong. I see the places where she has gotten the colours right. And that is what you’d expect. Because I’m her father. And because of that, she does not need to fear my disapproval when she brings me her work. I am delighted by it. She is assured of my approval because she is my daughter.

That is what it will be like at the ‘judgment’ of rewards. But unfortunately, even though most Christians have some idea of the assurance of their salvation—that they will ultimately be found to be not guilty—many still fear the exposure of that final day of reckoning. If we’re honest, we feel like, alright, its going to be ok. Its all going to pan out in the end, but what a terrible moment when the secrets of my heart are laid bare. How ashamed I will feel, even if only for a moment.

And yet, while your secrets will be revealed, it is not the secrets that you dread. No. They have been taken care of by the Cross. All of your darkest secrets, your hidden sins, your worst moments, your evil thoughts; those shameful things that only you on earth know about; all those things are called forgiven sin. God has promised that he will remove our sin from us as far as the East is from the West (Ps 103:12). Furthermore, he has promised to forget (Is 43:25; Jer 31:34; Heb 8:12). That does not mean that God chooses ignorance over knowledge. It means that God chooses never to call the sin to mind again; never again to raise the issue.

Yes, our secrets will be revealed, but not our dark ones. Jesus tells us, in the sermon on the mount what sorts of secrets will be revealed. All of your ‘acts of righteousness’ which only you and God know about.

Nobody sees when you pray in private. Nobody sees when you fast. Nobody knows the sacrifice of your faith-filled generosity towards others. God sees. God knows. And these things, he does not forget. Nobody saw what it cost you to choose to forgive that person. God saw, and Jesus tells us that “your Father in heaven who sees what is done in secret will reward you.” Nobody knows what it cost you to choose to be selfless in that situation. But God was there. He saw and he rewards.

In short, God, as your father, does not judge you for what is outside the lines. In the case of the picture that is our life, that is called forgiven sin and God chooses to forget.

Of course I am not at all saying that we should “continue in sin that grace may abound.” In the words of the apostle Paul, “God forbid!” But to the yielded and repentant heart that desires above all to please God, God’s heart is not to judge you for what you haven’t done right, but for what you have. He seeks not to expose your dark secrets, but to reward your secret righteousness.

Unfortunately, too many of us see even this judgment of rewards as some kind of a balancing of the good deeds that we have done against the bad. I need to be ruthlessly frank here. That idea is not Christian. God has taken care of the bad deeds on the Cross so that when we repent of our sin he forgives immediately, fully, and finally. He is looking to reward you for all of your good deeds. Whatever they weigh, you will be rewarded accordingly.

What a marvelous motivation to do that for which we were created—the “good works which God prepared in advance for us to do” (Eph 2:10). God is watching. But he’s not watching so that he may catch us out when we make a mistake (though be assured, if we are truly his children, he will certainly correct these), but to reward us when we act righteously.