Thursday, January 31, 2008

an understanding of grace Pt. 7

How does grace work?

I want to take a few minutes to explain my understanding of how grace works. I am not going to expound on the dozens of scripture passages that God has given us to enable that understanding. I trust that my ideas are rooted in biblical thought, but for the moment I just want to lay out what I believe.

God created mankind to live in a real and intimate relationship with Himself. When man rebelled against God in the garden of Eden, there was a break in that relationship. Adam and Eve were now separated from God, spiritually and legally. They had violated the one rule or law He had given them. They had sinned. And that sin has spread like cancer to all of mankind. God is love, and love has many attributes that are described throughout the Bible. One of those is His justice. He is the righteous Judge over all of creation. His desire from the beginning was to forgive and restore man's fellowship with Himself, but He had to do it in a way that also upheld the integrity of His justice. If He were to simply forgive us without the just penalty of our sin being paid, it would undermine that integrity. It would violate the absolute truth and wisdom of His ways. But God had a strategy to provide a way where He can forgive our rebellion and satisfy the just requirement of His truth about what is right and good for mankind.

God's teachings for our lives are not arbitrary. They are not some good ideas He came up with one morning over coffee. They are His perfect wisdom and understanding of the way man should live. The Lord knows that violation of these truths will result in pain and suffering and destruction. And seven thousand years of life on planet earth have proven that conclusively. In His righteousness and justice, He had to set a penalty for violating those laws that would reflect the absolute evil and danger that is set in motion when they are broken. In this penalty, all of creation, both now and throughout eternity, would have to understand the seriousness of sin and rebellion against His ways. In true justice, the penalty has to fit the crime. In His perfect wisdom, that penalty is spiritual death, separation from the One who created us. As the King of the universe, He cannot allow sin to go unpunished. It would be unrighteous. It would violate the perfection of love that is His heart. So, from before the foundation of the world, He had a plan. He had a plan that would allow Him to justly forgive our sin, while upholding the integrity of His justice.

It was the cross.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

an understanding of grace Pt. 6

So whats wrong with a little legalism?

As I have read through Galatians in the past week, I am again amazed at the vigor of Paul's opposition to legalism. Its not that I think he goes overboard or anything. Its the passion that I am impressed with. You would expect him to be strong in his stand against sexual immorality, or thievery, or maybe murder. Those are obviously sins that very few would argue for. But why the big deal about self-righteousness? A little legalism never hurt anyone did it? I mean, at least the folks are behaving properly. In Agape Force, when you were accused of being legalistic about something, a common reply was, “I'd rather be legal than illegal!” The idea was that being a little too strict in your pursuit of holiness was better than compromise with sin and “the world”. That can be tough to argue with. I guess I should define my terms here though. Some people define legalism in a way that makes any sort of adherence to a set of moral convictions as being “legalistic.” Others will apply that label to those who are committed to the practice of spiritual disciplines like prayer and fasting. Usually the disciplines or convictions of the person they are talking about make the person who is crying “Legalism!” feel as though they stand condemned if they don't follow the "legalist's" example. I am not talking about the personal disciplines or moral convictions of one's life. And I use the terms self-righteousness and legalism interchangeably. Its an approach to God where we are trying to earn his acceptance through our good behavior. If we will just keep all the rules, then God will like us, and let us share in His kingdom. Some refer to it as “works.” Very few people try to live from a pure form of legalism. Its almost always a mixture of grace and good works. Its the dance I was telling you about. We come to salvation by grace, receiving the gifts of forgiveness and righteousness. And then we subtly slip into this routine where we depend on our own good works in day to day life until we consciously sin in some way. Then we come back to Jesus for grace to be forgiven and restored. Shortly thereafter we begin to trust in our own righteousness once again. Anyway, I have explained that idea pretty thoroughly earlier. Its a trap that the enemy loves to get us into. Paul saw it as a genuine danger to our spiritual lives. And it is.

What is it that God is doing in our hearts? In II Corinthians we are told that,

“He died for all, that those who live might no longer live for themselves but for Him who for their sake died and was raised.”

That those who live might no longer live for themselves... Don't let the “might” fool you. Its not negotiable. Its His plan.

The first commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. The second commandment is to love your neighbor as yourself. God is love. Perfect, unselfish love. Agape in the Greek. That is what God is trying to do in our hearts. He wants to set us free from the selfishness that ruled us as rebellious unbelievers. He wants to reproduce His love in our hearts. He is not concerned with getting us to behave properly. I mean... He is concerned with that, but he wants it to be the by-product of His love poured out in our hearts.

When Samuel was examining David as the possible choice as king of Israel, God said to him, “Man looks on outward appearances, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Paul said that he wasnt concerned about what people thought of him because the Lord would one day judge the thoughts and intentions of a person's heart. God is after transformation of our entire being that starts on the inside. It begins when we are born again. Our spirit is made alive to God, and His Spirit comes to dwell inside of us. And then the transformation process begins. Step by step, He reveals the selfishness within us, and teaches us how to live in His love. Like a Master Potter, He is molding and shaping our hearts and we are being changed from the inside out. We are gradually conformed to the image of Jesus, His perfect love formed in us.

So... God is out to cleanse us from the selfishness inside. Well that's where the problem with self-righteousness comes in. Its that “self” part. When we are trying to earn our acceptance with God, that very pursuit itself strengthens the selfishness inside. Everything we do to win His love is motivated by this selfishness. We do all the right things for all the wrong reasons. And every “righteous” act sends those roots of selfishness deeper into our soul. That's why Paul despises legalism as much as the grossest sin you could think of. Its motivated by the same thing. Selfish people are motivated first and foremost by that which brings them happiness. If drugs and casual sex make them happy, then they do drugs and have as much sex as possible. If going to church and mowing the lawn of the widow next door makes them happy, then they do that. But if the “righteous” behavior loses its appeal, they may eventually turn to something less righteous. Not necessarily though. Their fear and guilt may not allow them to do anything really “bad.” It may feel better to deny their darker desires than to give in to them. But, at the end of the day, their driving motivation is that which makes them happiest. There's nothing wrong with wanting to be happy. Everyone wants to be happy. But when your own personal happiness and fulfillment is the primary motivation of your life, you are selfish. And the selfishness that makes a person do good things is the same thing that makes a person steal or kill or commit adultery. The murderer and the legalist are the same person. They simply find their fulfillment from different pursuits. The heart is the same. Its selfish.

Its sinful.

And He wants to set us free from it.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

an understanding of grace Pt. 5

On to Galatians

As I re-learned Philippians, I felt like the Lord directed me to begin to read through Galatians. Surprise, surprise... an even stronger argument from Paul against legalism. Not intellectually stronger, but more emotionally intense. In fact, you could safely say he was ticked off.

Gal 3:1-4 O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified.

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith?

Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

Did you suffer so many things in vain--if indeed it was in vain?

Twice here he calls them foolish. Why? Because they had truly received the gospel, and the gift of the Holy Spirit, and now were reverting to a righteousness maintained by keeping the works of the Law. Someone had come into their midst and persuaded them that they were “saved” initially by faith in Jesus, but after they received their forgiveness, they were dependent on their own obedience to the Law. Sound familiar? I was starting to see a pattern. Pretty perceptive, huh? That's exactly what I was doing. I had received this incredible gift of merciful forgiveness and new life in answer to a simple prayer, but now I was mostly depending on my own goodness to make me acceptable to the Lord. Oh, I trusted in His grace whenever I would “blow it”, but in between my failures I was depending on my own ability to do the right thing. Grace was my “Get out of jail” card that I would pull out and play whenever I needed it. But, in the walking out of day to day life, I unconsciously looked to my own obedience to His laws to make me righteous. Once again, if you had told me that this was what I was doing, I would have energetically denied it. I “knew” that salvation was by grace alone. I was blind to my own self-righteousness.

Paul didn't stop at calling them foolish. He was concerned that they may have suffered for the gospel “in vain.” He saw this shift to self-righteousness as a serious danger. And he had some really strong things to say about the teachers who were leading them in this direction. In fact, he makes one statement that is almost shocking to find in the Bible. He often uses the issue of circumcision as the example of trusting in our own works. The Jews had historically referred to circumcision as that which set them apart from the “uncircumcised” Gentiles. Its a pretty good example. A man allows himself to be cut in his most tender and private area as a sign of making covenant with God. And back then, they didn't have hospitals and anesthesia. I won't elaborate. So Paul is talking to the Galatians about these false teachers who are requiring Gentile believers to be circumcised and he says this,

I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!

Yikes! If you don't know what he is saying there... well... I will let you do your own homework. I will just say that Paul is obviously not very happy with the direction of their teaching.

Gal 5:3-6 I testify again to every man who accepts circumcision that he is obligated to keep the whole law.

You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.

For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.

Again, Paul is not just talking about circumcision. It represents the whole life of self-righteousness.

You who would be justfied by the law; you have fallen away from grace.

We don't need to get into the debate about what it means to have “fallen away from grace.” I will only say that it is NOT good. Can't be.

My hero Paul is deeply, almost violently, opposed to works-righteousness.

The Holy Spirit seems to be showing me that I have fallen into that trap.

This is not good either.

Monday, January 14, 2008

an understanding of grace Pt. 4

The Realization of my Self-Righteousness

I spent several weeks in the third chapter of Philippians. How could I have so misunderstood one of my favorite passages? Paul was trying to get free from self-righteousness and I was using his words to pursue my own. Just a little ironic. And then the Holy Spirit began to show me a pattern in my life. It was sort of a dance I was doing with God. I call it the Grace Works two-step. In the beginning, it was all about mercy and grace. I had been a foul-mouthed, immoral, drug dealer. I was a really nice guy, but I was also pure evil. A friend named Jay from college spent almost a year talking to me about Jesus whenever I would listen. At the same time, a girl at work was doing the same thing. It was like a 1-2 punch, day in and day out, and went on for almost a full year before I finally surrendered to the Lord. I went over to the guy's house one evening with the intent of getting started with this Christian thing. I didn't know what I needed to do, but I was ready to begin. There is actually a lot of really juicy details to that story, and God is the awesome hero, but I will tell it fully another time. Jay and myself and my best friend David spent the entire evening talking about the kingdom, and when it was about time for us to go home, I told them that I wanted to “do this thing.” Jay said, “I thought that was what you came over here for.” I bowed my head and closed my eyes, and he lead me in a prayer of repentance and commitment to Jesus as my Saviour and Lord. I had the single most powerful experience of my life as the Holy Spirit washed over me and filled my heart. (please forgive the religious language... I don't know how else to describe it.) It was absolutely overwhelming. I was speechless. And I was changed. A new man. Born again. It was amazing. I was a different person from that night forward.

I began to “learn” about the Christian life. I was really hungry for more of God, and His plans for my life. I went on a weekend retreat with a Christian group from our campus, and met some people from the Agape Force for the first time. I was deeply impacted by their teaching, and more than that, their passion for God. I wanted that, and at the end of the semester, I moved to Denver to work with one of their teams in the inner city. It was only supposed to be a summer, but ended up lasting almost ten years. It was the gift of God for me. I loved the people, and was totally excited about their vision of sharing the gospel with people who wouldn't normally hear it. It was really close to heaven for me.

But here I am, about five years later, and the Lord is showing me how dependent on my own works of righteousness I have become. I had learned a lot from His word, and the excellent teaching I was able to hear on a regular basis. I desired to live the radical Christian life, and I was getting really good at it. I didn't have any delusions of perfection, but somewhere deep down inside, I had an idea that I was headed down the fast-track in that direction. I had pretty well conquered most of the big sins in my life. I was really hungry and zealous for the kingdom of God. And I was working with this awesome ministry full of really godly people. Yep... I was feeling pretty good about the direction of my life.

But I lived my life in that dance I mentioned. The Grace Works two-step. It was a dance that I didn't even realize I knew.

I was constantly moving from the gift of righteousness to my own. On Sunday we would worship, and experience this great thankfulness for His salvation and His goodness to us. Then on Monday, I would get up and pray and seek after Him for the strength and wisdom to love and serve Him with all my heart. That's a good thing to do. But there was something wrong in my heart. My prayer on Monday wasn't always motivated by the same gratitude in worship I had experienced on Sunday. In fact, most of the time it was motivated by the desire to maintain His approval by my good behavior. I didn't want to fail Him, and possibly be rejected for it. If you had told me that this was what I was doing, I would have denied it. I knew in my head that He didn't relate to me in that way, but feared in my heart that He did. It was unconscious, but it was real. Deep down, I was driven by fear. I genuinely loved Him, and wanted to please Him, but didn't understand how that really worked. "Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness," but I had come to believe that God was measuring me by the quality of my own works.

So I would “try really hard” all week, going just as long as I could without committing any major sin. The longer I made it without any biggies, the better I felt about myself. It made me seem acceptable, like God could actually like me. (The little stuff like pride and envy didn't count.) And then it would happen. I would eventually give in to some sort of temptation, and I would sin. The gentle conviction of the Holy Spirit would settle over me, and I would turn to Jesus in brokenness and faith, asking for forgiveness. He would embrace me in a fresh expression of His "unmerited favor", and comfort and strengthen me. It's wonderful when He does that.

“If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

He is awesome, and my heart would overflow with fresh love and thankfulness for His grace. And then the next day I would begin the “works” step again. I would pray, and read my Bible, and make new resolutions to live for Him with all my heart. The longer I made it without any gross sin, the more lovable I would feel. And then of course, I would give in to another temptation of some sort, have to run to Him for mercy, and do the “grace” step one more time.

Works, grace, cha cha cha.... works, grace, cha cha cha... its a pretty easy dance to learn.

And its a really hard one to un-learn.

Friday, January 11, 2008

a grace thought

As I sat in the prayer room the other day, I felt like the Holy Spirit whispered in my heart,

"Grace is for every moment of every day, forever and ever."

The significance of that simple thought will become more clear as I develop my thoughts on this subject.

An understanding of grace Pt. 3

The First Step

It's really interesting how the Lord began this part of my journey in His Word. The third chapter of Philippians had always been one of my favorite chapters. Its like that for a lot of “radicals.”

Verse 7-10 But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith-- that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death... (ESV)

This passage is loaded with inspirational material for the person who wants to be a whole-hearted, totally sold-out lover of God. “I count everything as loss... I have suffered the loss of all things and count them but rubbish... that I may know him and... share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” Wow! Now that was an example I wanted to follow. I had read those verses many dozens of times in my devotional times. If you dropped my bible on the table, it would probably fall open to that page. I think most of it was underlined in at least four different colors. The different hues didn't mean anything in particular. I just wanted to underline it almost every time I read it. So, a day or two after my conversation in the van with Rexie, I return to this familiar passage. And the Holy Spirit was waiting for me. I started with the first verse, sort of skimming through that first part on the way to the good stuff. You know... the death to self, loss of all things, radical stuff. But then He stopped me. “Go back to the beginning.” So I started with the first verse again, reading a little more slowly and attentively.

Verse 1-7 Finally, my brothers, rejoice in the Lord. To write the same things to you is no trouble to me and is safe for you.

Look out for the dogs, look out for the evildoers, look out for those who mutilate the flesh.

For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh--though I myself have reason for confidence in the flesh also. If anyone else thinks he has reason for confidence in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless.

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.

I flashed back to the grace conversation. And I began to realize that I had been misinterpreting one of my most treasured passages of scripture. Now... I think its perfectly legitimate to use these verses in dedicating ourselves to whole-hearted discipleship. I am sure Paul would have included that in his heart cry to “count all things as loss.” But his primary intention in this passage is to dedicate himself to the grace of God. He begins with a bold declaration. “For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh.“ This makes his main point pretty clear. We put no confidence in the flesh. He then gives a fairly detailed description of his “spiritual pedigree” and finishes it with the amazing description of himself, “as to righteousnesses under the law, blameless.” That's an incredible thing to say. Did he mean it? Did he really believe that he was blameless under the law? There's nothing there to indicate that he was exaggerating or being rhetorical. He meant what he said. But he said it to make a point.

“Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ.”

Paul wasn't talking about earthly belongings or accomplishments. He wasn't talking about position or power. He was talking about anything that he might point to in making a case for his own righteousness. His bloodlines, his obedience, his zeal; all of it was loss. He was so determined to live by “the righteousness from God that depends on faith” that he considered anything that would distract him from that to be a hindrance. He didn't want his own righteousness. He wanted the gift of righteousness. He wanted to “be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God.” He was blameless before the law, but wanted nothing to do with that. He saw that the righteousness that comes from God through the cross was superior in every way to even the purest and best righteousness he could come up with through his own strength and efforts. He wanted to be absolutely dependent on God's mercy and grace for his right standing before His throne.

So how was I trying to live?

Thursday, January 03, 2008

An understanding of grace Pt. 2

How it began

I was driving down the highway, on the way back to our ministry headquarters in Lindale, Texas, after a time of outreach in a small town in Arkansas. At this point, I have been walking with Jesus for six or seven years, most of that in Agape Force (or AF as we usually called it). The rest of the team was in the back of the van, and my friend Rexie was “riding shotgun”. It was her job to keep me awake and alert so that we could all make it back in one piece. For some reason, on that drive, the subject of our conversation turned to grace. That sounds pretty normal for a couple of young people in a Christian organization, but it wasn't. We didn't talk about grace much in our ministry. We talked a lot about being totally sold out for Jesus, and prayer, and revival, and evangelism, and everything related to being radical for God; but we hardly ever talked about grace. Really. Hardly ever. It sounds odd, but looking back, I understand it. Grace was considered to be a given. Everyone understood grace. It was “unmerited favor”, God's Riches At Christ's Expense. “By grace you have been saved...” It was taken for granted that everyone understood grace. Or, it was assumed that they didn't understand it. We had a term for what we perceived as a wrong understanding of the concept. We called it “greasy grace”. We felt like much of the church was trying to “slide” into the kingdom without repentance or dealing with their sin in any way. Talking about grace a lot seemed to be a smokescreen for living in sin while wanting to claim a spot in heaven. We believed that what the church needed to hear about was repentance and holiness and living for God with all your heart. Not bad stuff. The mistake we made was to take the truths of grace, and justification by faith, and assume that we all understood those. To a very great degree, we did not.

So, Rexie and I are riding down the highway, talking about grace, and the Holy Spirit begins to stir a hunger in my heart for greater understanding of this truth. It was the beginning of a very focused three month journey that would change my relationship with God forever.

An understanding of Grace Pt. 1

How many people have tried to explain the grace of salvation? Probably too many. But I will make one more attempt. Why? Do I think I have an understanding that has eluded the saints down through the ages? No, not at all. So why take the time to put forth an explanation of my perceptions? If nothing else, it will serve to clarify and sharpen my own thoughts. Or, it might provide the means for someone else to point out and correct my misunderstanding. Or maybe... just maybe, it will be helpful in challenging someone else to pursue a clearer and stronger grasp of this all-important truth.

As a young believer, I spent almost ten years serving in a missions organization called Agape Force. It was a wonderful season of my life, living and working each day with other young men and women who were committed to serving the Lord with all of their heart, soul, mind, and strength. We lived together in community, sharing a life of prayer, worship, study of the scriptures, and bringing the gospel to the unchurched in many different ways. We were extremely zealous, sometimes referred to by other ministries we worked with as the Green Berets in God's army. We had as our theme song an anthem that included the line “to win the lost, whatever may be the cost.” We were in love with Jesus, and wanted to know Him, and to make Him known to others more than anything in life. This passion was also our Achilles heal. It was our strength, and it was our weakness. It was our point of vulnerability.

We live this life on a battlefield. Every day. John tells us, “The whole world lies in the power of the evil one.“ The kingdom of darkness is continually looking for ways to cause us to stumble and fall. There are really only two basic strategies. One involves getting us to fall into sin. He will tempt us with the pleasures of this world, and the appetites of our flesh. But, if he can't effectively capture us with blatant sin, he will put on his “angel of light” disguise, and come after us with religious lies and legalism. “If I can't get them to fall back into sin, I will just get them to fall on their face in legalism.”

Either way, we miss out on the kingdom of love that God has called us to.