To Please Or To Become Pleasing, That Is The Question



Photo: Three Crosses © Mellow Rapp | Dreamstime Stock Photos

The distinction I am making is between doing good works to become pleasing to God (works done because of law) and doing good works to please God (works done because of grace).

There’s nothing I can do to become pleasing to God. Not only would my motives be wrong in doing good, my efforts would be futile. My nature is sinful, and all the cleaning up I do amounts to rearranging dirt, not genuine washing.

For the person who believes, the work Christ did on the cross changes everything. Before, as Romans 7 says, the wanting to do good was in me, but the doing ended up being that which I hated—and that which God hates too, I might add.

Because of the new nature God gave me, because of the Holy Spirit in me, and because of the strength Christ provides me, I can now do the good I want to do. And why do I want to do good? To earn points with God? Get jewels for my future crown? Earn a spot closer to the throne?

No. The issue is still not about me becoming good or better or pleasing. Who I am in Christ is fixed. But because of what Christ has done, my response, as is true in any love relationship, is to want to give to Him in return for what He has been given to me.

In one of the most amazing aspects of God’s love for us, He who needs nothing from us, asks something of us so that we can joyously give to Him as an expression of our love. Hence, my desire—a growing desire, not a fully mature thing—is to please Jesus.

Here are some favorite verses that touch on pleasing God:

I Thessalonians 4:1 – “Finally then, brethren, we request and exhort you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us instruction as to how you ought to walk and please God (just as you actually do walk), that you excel still more.”

II Corinthians 5:9 – “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him.”

Colossians 1:10 – “so that you will walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God.”

Ephesians 5:8-10 – “for you were formerly darkness, but now you are Light in the Lord; walk as children of Light (for the fruit of the Light consists in all goodness and righteousness and truth), trying to learn what is pleasing to the Lord.”

Pleasing God, as I see it, is all about getting to know Him.

Young people in love do this same thing. Does he like his coffee black or with cream, pie for dessert or cake, the beach or the mountains, football or golf, Hondas or Chevys, and on and on.

Why learn all these things?

In order to provide him with what he wants, in order to choose his preferences, in order to please him as often as possible.

When I stand before God washed of my sins, that should spark in me a response—more and more I should like what He likes, do what He does, speak as He speaks. When I do, I am not more pleasing to God, but He is pleased.

From the archives: this post originally appeared here in August, 2015.

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Published in: on April 2, 2019 at 4:54 pm  Comments (4)  
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What Constitutes Sin?


Photo by Kris Schulze from Pexels

One of the tenets of Christianity that cause people to stumble, it seems, is the idea of sin. After all, according to the prevailing thought in our western culture, people are good. All of us. We might have an addiction or a mental illness or we might be coming out of a life of abuse. But none of that is our fault. Really, people only do bad things because we have been raised in a dysfunctional environment and have learned anti-social responses. If we simply teach and train a person what is beneficial for them and for society, we will eliminate the undesirable behavior. Like terrorism. And mass murders. And drug trafficking. And kidnapping. And fraud. And blackmail. And pornography.

Oh, wait. That last one has been moved out of society’s list of anti-social behaviors into the column of normal and … well, not “beneficial,” but at least “acceptable,” conduct.

I suppose, if the world lasts long enough, whatever a person wants to do, even if it does harm to others, will still be considered an expression of their self-hood, and therefore, acceptable. The point is, we are eliminating sin.

The Church ought to help here, but it seem we are emphasizing happiness over holiness, so we don’t talk much about sin. Sins are things that don’t make us happy. That keep us from our goals.

A six-year-old study by the Barna Group examined a women’s faith self-assessment, and discovered that most of those in the survey group reported spiritual fulfillment and an absence of anything the Bible identifies as sin. You know, things we once called “the seven deadly sins”: lust, gluttony, greed, sloth, wrath, envy and pride.

The Bible addresses all those things, but Jesus took the concept of sin a step farther in His Sermon On The Mount. He said that murder wasn’t just murder, but hatred or anger was also murder and just as deserving of punishment. Same with lustful or greedy thoughts. In other words, not just sinful actions deserve punishment, but sinful thoughts do, too.

So which of us is without sin?

But we’re like the guy speeding down the freeway at 85 MPH where the speed limit is posted at 70 MPH. He’s not worried about “getting caught” because everybody else on the road is going just as fast, or faster. If we’re all doing it, it must not be wrong, or at least it must not be a punishable offense, the reasoning goes.

God doesn’t work that way. He actually treats us like adults. He tells us what’s what and expects us to do the right thing. If we don’t, He may remind us, warn us, or let us suffer the natural consequences of our actions. But He doesn’t baby us. He also doesn’t spoil us. He doesn’t look the other way.

Because He doesn’t correct us immediately, a lot of people think God doesn’t care or that He must not have noticed our sin or that He doesn’t think it’s so bad. But no. Isaiah addressed this issue:

Why do you say, O Jacob, and assert, O Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD,
And the justice due me escapes the notice of my God”?
Do you not know? Have you not heard?
The Everlasting God, the LORD, the Creator of the ends of the earth
Does not become weary or tired.
His understanding is inscrutable. (40:27-28)

God knows and He understands exactly what we’re thinking.

In truth, God is gracious and gives us time to turn to Him. Another passage from Isaiah:

For the sake of My name I delay My wrath,
And for My praise I restrain it for you,
In order not to cut you off. (48:9)

In other words, He purposefully waits so that all who wish to come to Him, will have the opportunity.

In addition, He waits to bring judgment until the Church is complete. Think about it. It God had brought the world to an end 500 years ago, or 1000, a lot of believers would not have been born, let alone had the opportunity to come to God through Christ. No Billy Graham. No Martin Luther. No Jonathan Edwards.

How many of us would be missing from the banqueting table?

Among other metaphors, God compares the Church to a temple, whose cornerstone is Jesus Christ. But we are the “living stones” that go into the building. Think about that structure with all the missing stones if God didn’t wait patiently for us to come to Him.

The point is, delayed punishment for sin does not mean canceled punishment for sin.

Well, actually the debt of sin has been canceled by Jesus. But we must claim the free gift, and God waits for us to do that.

The fact is, He won’t wait forever. At some point a person who has chosen against God will die, and he simply will have run out of time to do an about-face. In addition, at some point God will bring this whole process to an end and say, Time to party, those who are My adopted children, those who make up the temple, those who have accepted the invite to the feast.

So what is sin? I guess the simplest way to understand it is, going my way instead of God’s. Going my way in my thoughts and my actions. Going my way in my desires and in my dreams.

The truth is we all sin, so we are all sinners. But the cool thing is, because of Jesus we who know Him, are sinners saved by grace. And that makes all the difference.

Published in: on February 13, 2019 at 5:57 pm  Comments (6)  
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God Is Greater


Corruption exists in any number of societal institutions here in the US.

When I was in high school and college, I learned about Big Business and its evils which required new laws to curb monopolies and to protect labor movements. Except, the results contributed to Big Government and Big Labor.

Now we also have Big Entertainment and Big Banking and Big Media and Big Education.

Honestly, it’s easy to feel squeezed, to feel defeated. Who can fight city hall? Or cable TV? Or union dues? Or bank foreclosures? Or the department of education?

Worse still is that the operating principle in each of these Big Systems is primarily greed—get mine and make it as big as possible. The idea of cooperation, the idea of working for the greater good—those are archaic notions, nostalgically remembered but no longer practiced apart from a few mom and pop stores and a smattering of charities.

Even medicine is trending toward Big and Profitable. The prescription drug industry is right there as well.

How odd that in a country build on rights and freedoms, there seems to be less and less within the individual’s control.

In many respects, our institutions operate much like mountain runoff. It starts as a pleasant and pure stream high above timberline where it waters meadows and wildflowers, but ends up funneled into a muddy and polluted river.

Rivers can be incredibly powerful. They can overflow their banks, sweep through an area, and wipe out homes and fields. They can carve canyons from stone and generate enough force to run electric plants.

But greater than any river is God who made them all.

Too often when we see news about shootings and clashes with the police and racial tension and young girls kidnapped and thousands of people trapped on top of a mountain and public beheadings, it’s easy to forget how great God is.

Things feel out of control.

Evil seems to be winning.

It’s easy to forget that God is greater. The truth is, He rules the universe, so it’s not much of a leap to realize He’s also in control of all our societal machinations. Psalm 37 says

Do not fret because of evil doers;
Be not envious toward wrong doers
For they will wither quickly like the grass
And fade like the green herb. (vv 1-2)

If we think of God as higher and over all the multiverse—and we should, because Isaiah 40 says He knows the stars by name, that because of the greatness of His might and the strength of His power, not one of them is missing—then surely God is over the climate change on earth and the clash between nations and terrorist plots and political intrigue and all the other problems we so often focus on or hide from.

God is in control.

Psalm 37 again.

The wicked plots against the righteous
And gnashes at him with his teeth.
The Lord laughs at him,
For He sees his day is coming.
The wicked have drawn the sword and bent their bow
To cast down the afflicted and the needy,
To slay those who are upright in conduct.
Their sword will enter their own heart
And their bows will be broken. (vv 12-15)

On the other hand, if we think of God as Ruler of the heart yielded to Him, what can’t He overcome? Greed? Not a problem. Pride? He abases the proud look and humbles man’s loftiness.

A few song lyrics are floating through my head as I think about God’s power over our sin. One is “Marvelous Grace Of Our Loving Lord,” which has this chorus:

Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that will pardon and cleanse within;
Grace, grace, God’s grace,
Grace that is greater than all our sin.

The other is “The Wonderful Grace Of Jesus” with this first verse:

Wonderful grace of Jesus, greater than all my sin;
How shall my tongue describe it, where shall its praise begin?
Taking away my burden, setting my spirit free,
For the wonderful grace of Jesus reaches me!

Yes, God is greater than any of the big institutions that crowd in on top of us and threaten to distract us from what has eternal significance. And God’s grace is greater than any of the sin that weighs us down and holds us captive.

God provides hope and help—release from sin; advocacy in our need. Once more from Psalm 37

For the Lord loves justice
And does not forsake His godly ones. (v. 28a)

Great is His faithfulness. Greater is He than . . . well, anything.

This article originally appeared here in August, 2014.

Published in: on January 30, 2019 at 5:11 pm  Comments (3)  
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The Christian Distinctive—A Reprise


When I read Kay Marshall Strom‘s Blessings of India books (The Faith of Ashish and The Hope of Shridula—see review here), what struck me so forcefully was the legalism of Hinduism. India of the 1940s was a society centered on the caste system and karma. Every social strata bowed to or benefited from the laws and traditions. They commanded attitudes toward children, gender, work, neighbors, food, and these all played out in prescribed actions.

Legalism, of course, was (and for those who are Orthodox, still is) endemic in the Jewish religion. Jesus constantly chastised the Pharisees for “straining at gnats but swallowing camels”–that is, they paid such close attention to the minutia of Jewish law and tradition that they missed the main things God asked of them–their commitment to Him and compassion for one another.

Consequently, when Jesus healed people on the Sabbath, the Pharisees criticized Him for breaking the Sabbath.

Jesus answered the charge by turning it back on them: To keep the Law, you all bypass compassion. He went to the Law itself to illustrate what He was saying, then pointed out how they treated their animals with more regard than they did hapless people who suffered from severe maladies for years and years.

Hindus and Jews aren’t the only ones who place a premium on obeying religious laws. Systemic to Buddhism is its path to liberation which includes following ethical precepts–not just by doing good deeds, but by doing them with pure intention.

Confucianism is another religious teaching that puts its followers on a path of doing:

Confucianism focuses on the cultivation of virtue and maintenance of ethics, the most basic of which are ren, yi, and li. Ren is an obligation of altruism and humaneness for other individuals within a community, yi is the upholding of righteousness and the moral disposition to do good, and li is a system of norms and propriety that determines how a person should properly act within a community. (from “Confucianism”emphasis mine)

Islam is another religion based on law.

Religious concepts and practices include the five pillars of Islam, which are basic concepts and obligatory acts of worship, and following Islamic law, which touches on virtually every aspect of life and society, providing guidance on multifarious topics from banking and welfare, to warfare and the environment. (from “Islam”)

All this law! No wonder a good number of people opt out of religion. They see the lists of do, do, do and decide that it’s too much to ask or that the rewards are too far off or that the requirements are too unattainable.

And then there is Christianity.

In a sense, Christianity agrees with all those other religions. Yes, there is a right way to behave. There are ethical ways of treating other people, and there are corrupt, nefarious, selfish ways of doing so. So Christianity’s distinction is not in doing away with a required standard of how to live.

Christianity also agrees with the secularist who says the standard is too unbearably high for anyone to reach. Rather than prodding Man to be better, to reach higher, to do more, Christianity says, no matter how much he might try to achieve the required ethical standard, he can’t make it.

It’s at this point that Christianity separates itself from all other systems of thought. Because of God’s great mercy, He mitigated the penalty for failure to live ethically and morally by taking it upon Himself.

Christian doctrine refers to this as grace.

What a huge difference to live under grace rather than under law. Rather than hoisting the burden of righteous living, a believer in Jesus Christ experiences God’s forgiveness, cleansing, redemption, and pardon.

The distinction, then, is grace—God’s free gift which He provided “while we were yet sinners.”

This post first appeared here in June 2012.

Published in: on June 11, 2018 at 5:59 pm  Comments Off on The Christian Distinctive—A Reprise  
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Christianity Starts And Ends With Grace


I was listening to a radio sermon today and the pastor said all of Christianity could be summed up in the word obedience—obedience to Christ, submission to His will. That caught me off guard a moment. It’s not the word that came to me at once.

I didn’t have to think very long before I came up with the word I’d say encapsulates Christianity—grace. Or maybe forgiveness.

Obedience? Especially obedience when it’s tied to submission? I wouldn’t say that pastor is wrong, especially in the context of the series of sermons he is airing. But obedience for a Christian is way different than it is for someone in a different religion or for someone outside of all religions,

For the Christian, doing what God wants us to do is like a wife making her husband his favorite dinner or a husband bringing his wife flowers. Maybe a better example is a husband shoveling snow so his wife won’t have to wade through it to get to her car. Or a child making her daddy a get-well card when he’s sick.

The point is, none of these things are mandated. The wife doesn’t cook the special dinner because she has to. If the government passed a law that all husbands brought their wives flowers every Tuesday, the bouquet would soon become meaningless. The wonderful thing about doing little acts of kindness is because they say so much, and one of those statements is NOT, “I’m doing this because I have to.”

Rather, a husband takes his wife’s car to get the oil changed, not because she’s incapable of taking it in herself, but because he wants to save her the aggravation.

He’s saying, I want to make your life a little easier, I’m thinking of what’s best for you, I want to care for you, I love you.

If the Department of Motor Vehicles required husbands to take cars for oil changes, would his actions say any of those things? Of course not. They would say, I’m doing this because I have to.

The point here isn’t really about husbands and wives or parents and children. The principle is true for donating to charities or helping friends. Do we cheerful pay our taxes or send money to victims of disasters? Do we joyfully go to the office party the boss requires us to attend or to our granddaughter’s soccer game?

Clearly, whether we give a gift of money or time or goods, the meaning behind it is greater and the attitude we have in the giving is dependent upon our freedom to give. If we’re simply meeting a requirement, or even an expectation, the statement is not so meaningful and the accompanying attitude is not so great.

But if the gift is given freely, if there is no expectation, then the act accomplishes a great deal, for both giver and receiver.

But what if the giving isn’t a one-time event? What if it becomes a habit? Everyday the wife gets up at 4:00 to make her husband breakfast. Everyday the friend takes the trash out for her neighbor. Everyday the husband scrapes ice off the windshield of his wife’s car.

Aren’t the habits of love and thoughtfulness and concern even greater than the one time surprise events?

Well, in some measure these human examples approximate a Christian’s relationship with God. First God showers us with His grace and forgiveness. In loving response—not because God commands it—we worship Him, we pray, we read His word, we attend church. Of course, we know those things, and any number of other things, like being honest, not swearing, being kind to one another, we know will please God because they are in His word.

We can actually look at those things as mandates. But if we love God, doing the things that will please Him becomes a joy. We want to do what He wants us to do. Not because we are under law but because we are under grace.

Someone who looks at God and thinks they have to obey Him to earn His favor might do the exact same things as someone who looks at God and chooses to do what will please Him because they are so grateful for His grace. The outward appearance might not differ at all, but the inner attitude of the heart, where God looks, is vastly different.

Sometimes it’s easy to understand why God wants us to be a certain way—loving to our neighbors, for instance. Other times, what pleases Him is hard to understand and hard to do—loving our enemies, for instance.

The secret to life in Christ is to create the habit of obedience, of pleasing God, not just when it makes sense to us and feels good, but when it’s hard to understand and hard to do.

Trust God through suffering? Yes, that pleases Him. But it’s not so easy. Doing so, not because He’s commanded it but because we love Him, now that brings joy.

Published in: on February 12, 2018 at 5:54 pm  Comments (1)  
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God Loves Us Because We’re Special?


George Herbert

George Herbert


This post first appeared here in June 2013 as part of the Evangelical Myths series:

– – – – –

Another myth that has crept into the Church is that God loves us because we’re special.

Western culture influences the evangelical Church. One evidence of this influence is in the development of a Man-centric worldview. Humankind has grown in importance, at the expense of God.

A literature professor of mine gave a generalized view of the philosophical shift that has taken place.

For centuries the culture was God-centric, to the exclusion almost of Man’s responsibility for his sin. God was over all, created all, engineered all, and Man was little more than a puppet or, as the hymn writer said, a worm.

During the Renaissance there was a shift toward valuing Mankind in a different way—in a balanced way. Writers such as John Donne, George Herbert, and a number of others known as the Metaphysical Poets wrote of God in a more intimate, personal way, and some also wrote of their own personal experience.

Today, the pendulum has shifted further so that Humankind is now the chief object of exploration, and God is less so, seen as a mere sidelight, or even thought to be dead or non-existent.

Evangelical Protestants have not been untouched by this change. Writing friend Mike Duran addressed this topic in his article “On Worm Theology,” in which he used the term “worth theology” to describe the current thinking (emphasis in the original):

On the other hand, consider that there is a movement afoot, both in Christian and secular circles, to overemphasize Man’s inherent goodness, giftedness, esteem, and worth. This view swaps worm theology for worth theology, defining God’s redemptive actions in terms of our intrinsic goodness and worth. Rather than self-loathing, worth theology affirms our nature, destiny, and latent abilities. Of course, it can also lead to ego-stroking, gauzy positivism, and an inflated sense of self. Not to mention, denial of the concept of “sin.”

As I understand the rationale for this “worth theology,” it revolves around sentiments like “God don’t make no junk” and “if we are to love our brother as ourselves, then we first have to learn to love ourselves.” Ultimately, we must understand how worthy we are because Christ died for us. Certainly He wouldn’t have died for us if we weren’t worth dying for.

Well, actually He did. He died for us while we were yet sinners.

As I understand Scripture, our great worth does, in fact, come from our creation. The “God don’t make no junk” idea is pretty accurate. We learn in Genesis 1 that all God made, including Humankind, was very good.

But if we go no further in our understanding, we are still not better than worms. What we’ve too often overlooked is that God elevated Humans in a way that forever separates us from the rest of the animal kingdom: He fashioned us in His likeness and breathed His breath into us. We, then, are God’s image bearers!

He also gave us dominion over the rest of creation—not for us to despoil or waste or misuse, but to enjoy, to maintain, to care for. It’s a high and holy charge that God has not rescinded, despite what Humankind did next.

In Adam, we turned our back on God. WE created a barrier between us and God; because of OUR sin and transgressions, God has hid His face from us so that He does not hear. We marred His image in us. It is this state—the absence of the presence of God, the spoiling of the good He made—that makes us wretched.

Some of us are conscious of our state and others deny it with their every breath—still fighting God for control. We want to prove we don’t need Him, that we can do life on our own.

Denial doesn’t change things.

The insidiousness of the “worth theology” is that Christians climbs into a position of control in a similar way as those who choose to deny Him. Individuals, like finicky cats, deign to respond to God’s pleading, as if we are adding worth to His kingdom by coming to Him.

Christianity, then, becomes all about our best life, our health, our wealth, our comfort and ease, our safety and welfare.

But that’s not what God intended.

Christianity is about God. That we have been created in His image is a reflection of His creative power. That He saved us is a reflection of His love and mercy. That we have the ability to walk in newness of life is a reflection of His grace and goodness.

Life, even life here and now, is not about us. It’s about God. And wonder of wonder, He turns around and includes us and blesses us and elevates us yet again.

– – – – –

    Love

    by George Herbert

    Love bade me welcome; yet my soul drew back,
    Guilty of dust and sin.
    But quick-eyed Love, observing me grow slack
    From my first entrance in,
    Drew nearer to me, sweetly questioning
    If I lack’d anything.
    ‘A guest,’ I answer’d, ‘worthy to be here:’
    Love said, ‘You shall be he.’
    ‘I, the unkind, ungrateful? Ah, my dear,
    I cannot look on Thee.’
    Love took my hand and smiling did reply,
    ‘Who made the eyes but I?’
    ‘Truth, Lord; but I have marr’d them: let my shame
    Go where it doth deserve.’
    ‘And know you not,’ says Love, ‘Who bore the blame?’
    ‘My dear, then I will serve.’
    ‘You must sit down,’ says Love, ‘and taste my meat.’
    So I did sit and eat.

Hagar


Not important enough to merit more than a black and white picture.

If the book of Genesis was a novel, Hagar would be considered a minor character. If it were a play, she’d be a bit actor. In truth, she has very few scenes and even fewer lines. And the thing is, the lines she does have, the scenes she is in, don’t show her in a very good light.

First off, Sarah gives Hagar, her Egyptian maid, to her husband to be a concubine. Stop right there. Hagar is of “foreign” descent. She’s a maid to a nomadic woman. I’m not thinking she has much standing in the world.

And then she becomes a concubine. As a servant, she apparently has no say in the matter when her mistress hands her over to the head of the house, Abraham.

But to Hagar’s delight, her union with Abraham bears fruit. In fact, she’s so delighted that she’s pregnant, she looks down on her mistress. That’s the start of some serious domestic problems. Sarah ended up treating Hagar so harshly, she ran away. To the desert. She had to be desperate.

There she encountered an angel who told her she was pregnant and should return and submit to her mistress. And here’s the turning point in her life:

Then she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, “You are a God who sees”

Just a servant girl, one who was apparently a bit haughty and given to flight, but God saw her.

She returned and gave birth to a son who she named Ishmael—God will hear.

Sounds to me like Hagar—the Egyptian, the maid, the concubine—had a relationship with God. She knew He saw her. She knew He heard her. At her lowest point, God came to her.

Well, maybe not her lowest point.

When her son was a teen, and no longer an only child—Abraham had a son by his wife Sarah—he did what boys will do. He teased, and probably bullied, young Isaac. So much so that Sarah persuaded Abraham to send Hagar and Ishmael away. All they had was a “skin” of water and some bread. And God, watching out for them.

When the water ran out, Hagar really did reach her lowest point. She couldn’t stand the thought of watching her son die, so she left him under some bushes and went off alone. Once again God rescued her. He opened her eyes so that she saw a well, and He gave her a promise that her son would also be the head of a great nation.

She gave Ishmael the drink that he needed to live and they settled there in the wilderness until he grew to be a man. Then Hagar arranged for him to marry an Egyptian, and he did in fact fulfill the prophecy God gave his mother during that “dark night of the soul.”

The main thing I learn here is this: in the midst of Abraham’s story and the promises and miracles God performed for the man who was later referred to as “a friend of God” (see James 2:23), God also took care of a lowly maid, someone not in the Messianic line. And as some would be quick to point out, a woman.

God is no respecter of persons. He really isn’t. I think it’s easy to lose sight of that because the Jewish nation is referred to as “the apple of His eye.” They are “the chosen people.” But in truth, God chose them, not because they were numerous or strong or great in any sense of the word, but because they were weak and few in number so that His grace could shine through.

He wanted the world to see Him through His relationship with the nation of Israel, just as He now wants the world to see Him through His relationship with the Church. The point is and always has been to give a picture of what everyone can have. After all, God didn’t just start loving the world when John 3:16 was written.

So in Christ’s genealogy there’s an adulteress, a woman who slept with her father-in-law, a foreigner from a nation that was banned from entering the temple, and an unmarried virgin. Why?

God wants the point to get through to us: salvation is not for an elite group of special people who do things just the right way. It’s for the Hagars of the world who reach bottom and who look up to the God who hears, to the God who sees.

He, in turn, pours out His grace and rescues those who recognize their need for Living Water.

Published in: on January 29, 2018 at 5:36 pm  Comments (2)  
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From The Archives: Holiness Means What Again?


Pole_vault_barThis article is a revised version first of one that appeared here back in May 2011 as part of a discussion with author Mike Duran about the meaning of holiness.

To understand holiness we need to start with God because He alone is holy. Jesus, who is the exact representation of God (“And [Jesus] is the radiance of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” -Heb. 1:3a), gave us the insight we need in His “Sermon on the Mount.”

In part He said the following:

You have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT MURDER’ and ‘Whoever commits murder shall be liable to the court.’ But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother shall be guilty before the court …

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL NOT COMMIT ADULTERY’; but I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

“Again, you have heard that the ancients were told, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MAKE FALSE VOWS, BUT SHALL FULFILL YOUR VOWS TO THE LORD.’ But I say to you, make no oath at all, … But let your statement be, ‘Yes, yes’ or ‘No, no’; anything beyond these is of evil.

You have heard that it was said, ‘AN EYE FOR AN EYE, AND A TOOTH FOR A TOOTH.’ But I say to you, do not resist an evil person

You have heard that it was said, ‘YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, …

Therefore you are to be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. [selected verses from Matt. 5, emphasis added]

raise the barThe point I’m making is that Jesus set the bar where it belonged—at perfection, starting not with our external actions but with our thoughts and intentions and desires.

In so doing, He exposed us all because none of us is perfect. We all know this, even the most convinced atheist who doesn’t even believe in a moral standard. But because our hearts are desperately wicked, because we are so easily deceived, Jesus laid it out for us.

Now we can’t think evil thoughts about another person, while on the outside smile and help him fix his flat tire, then come away with a sense of goodness. Those evil thoughts pin us to the wall. Sure, we might fool others, and even ourselves if we refuse to look closely, but we aren’t fooling God.

The very pride we might feel at living an externally moral life, or at pointing out someone else’s activities which we categorize as moral failings, shows the real problem: we are, at heart, people who want to be God. That’s the sin the Fall infected us with.

We Christians are missing the point if we look at drug addicts or homosexuals or rapists or corrupt politicians or corporate criminals and think their problem is their external behavior. No doubt their external behavior complicates their lives, but their problem is their rejection of the grace of God He has lovingly and generously supplied through Christ, that which would provide the forgiveness they need.

No amount of “clean living” will change what they need—substitutionary payment for the insurmountable debt they owe. Their lives are forfeit. Putting away cigarettes, unplugging from pornography, taking the four-letter words out of their vocabulary, or any other external and all of them combined, isn’t going to change their standing before God.

Or mine.

We can enter His presence, enjoy a relationship with Him as His child, by grace alone.

But what about holiness? That’s where this started. Holiness is my response to my holy God.

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For related posts, see “Holiness Is Not A Dirty Word” and “Inside Out – The Way Of Holiness”

Published in: on January 16, 2018 at 6:21 pm  Comments (1)  
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I’m Thankful For God’s Grace


Because I want to focus more on God this Thanksgiving, I considered which of His innumerable traits I could feature the day before the actually holiday. I settled on His grace and found an appropriate post in the archives which says a good deal about this quality.

I’ve edited and revised the article a bit. After all, this is an old one I wrote in the early days of this blog. I also added song lyrics and a video, which include God’s grace.

– – – –

In fiction, I think Christians often depict God as a God of grace, too often at the expense of His other attributes.

However, one Sunday, I realized that grace itself is not a “simple” trait, any more than God is a simple person. And certainly God’s display of grace is as deep as He is.

The sermon that Sunday was from John 21 (the story of the resurrected Christ cooking breakfast for His disciples while they fished) and highlighted some ways that God extended grace to Jesus’s disciples, especial to Peter.

First, God extended grace to them by humbling them. The account begins with a miracle—implied rather than stated—of closing the disciples’ nets to fish.

The context is this: after seeing the resurrected Christ and waiting around for a week or more, Peter had declared he was going back to work. As if that was something he didn’t need God for. As if that was what would give him purpose. Instead, these professional fishermen worked all night in a place of abundant fish and came up empty. By humbling them, God showed them their need.

God’s grace also sought Peter out—Jesus first went to the bank of the sea where the disciples were fishing, and later He pulled him aside for a private talk. Peter, much like Adam in the Garden after he sinned, seemed to be in “stealth mode.” After all, the last exchange before Jesus went to the cross was a look shared between them, right after Peter swore he didn’t know the Man. How much Peter needed to talk to Jesus! But he went fishing—went back to His pre-Christ life, back to making a living using a skill he was good at.

Having put the disciples in a situation to face their need, God’s grace guided them. It helped them with what they were trying to accomplish. Jesus told there where to let down their nets, and the result was a catch of large fish. Not just a few, not some large and some small. Large fish so numerous their nets started to break. This is the aspect of grace we see most often, but clearly not the only facet of it.

Jesus nwxt extended Himself to the disciples as a friend, as a servant. He cooked breakfast for them. So like Him—the Master who was willing to wash His men’s feet, the Messiah who sacrificed His life, Incarnate God who dressed Himself in the form of Man.

God’s grace then called Peter beyond earthly success to eternal significance. No more catching fish for Peter. His new job was to feed God’s sheep.

I’ve often wondered what happened to that incredible catch. They ate some for breakfast, but what about the rest? Did they leave them for the poor? Give them to the guys in the next boat? Stop by Peter’s house and tell cousin Daniel their were all his if he but cleaned them and hauled them away? Or did the fish stay on the bank and rot or become bird feed? Today’s fictionalized account would probably have Jesus release the unused fish back in the water. Whaterver.

The point is, the fish no longer mattered. Jesus was giving Peter something much more important to do. His grace lead Peter beyond “having it all.”

Once again, I find myself challenged to show God’s character—not merely by increasing the angles from which I look at Him, but by peering through the magnifying glass of Biblical study so that I can see more than the surface of His traits. His grace, like His love, is greater far than tongue or pen can tell.

1
The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled
And pardoned from his sin.
O love of God, how rich and pure!
How measureless and strong!
It shall forevermore endure—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
2
When hoary time shall pass away,
And earthly thrones and kingdoms fall;
When men who here refuse to pray,
On rocks and hills and mountains call;
God’s love, so sure, shall still endure,
All measureless and strong;
Redeeming grace to Adam’s race—
The saints’ and angels’ song.
3
Could we with ink the ocean fill,
And were the skies of parchment made;
Were every stalk on earth a quill,
And every man a scribe by trade;
To write the love of God above
Would drain the ocean dry;
Nor could the scroll contain the whole,
Though stretched from sky to sky.

Being Good Enough Isn’t Good Enough


When I was a teenager, I went through a period of time during which I questioned whether or not I was a Christian. I figured, if I was saved, I’d want to obey Christ. After all, that’s what the Bible says. But I continued to sin. Oh, nothing big and horrific. But I knew I wasn’t honoring my parents. I knew I was selfish and angry with my siblings. I was under no illusion that I was perfect. But why not? I considered that, just possibly, I didn’t really “mean” it when I “accepted Jesus into my heart.” So to be sure, I accepted Him again. And again. I even raised my hand and went forward in church. Just to be sure.

At one point, though, I realized that I had to take God at His word. So when He said, “Believe on the Lord Jesus and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31a) He actually meant it.

I now understand that what I experienced then, and continue to experience now, is God’s grace. I did not, do not, and will not measure up to God’s standards—His righteous and perfect standards. In short, I sin. I do so because I am a sinner.

I’m always a bit mystified when someone claims he doesn’t sin. I’ve been in discussion with a number of atheists who don’t think sin is a real thing. But so far, not one of them refutes the fact that nobody’s perfect. They have no answer to the fact that the Bible says, The wages of sin is death, and the correlative fact that one out of one persons dies. Conclusion: all must therefore be sinners.

Either all are sinners or death has a different cause, which, of course, is their position, though one I don’t understand. I mean, we are evolving . . . until we die? How does that work? But that’s a different discussion. Except that grace doesn’t really make sense if you don’t see the sin problem which leaves all of us stranded, separated from God with no possibility of reaching Him.

Grace simply means that since we can’t do anything about the gap between us and God, He did the work for us. He didn’t help us. He didn’t start the process. He did what we could not do for ourselves. He came to us. He died for us. He gives new life to us. It’s all God. And He extends His hand to us, so to speak, for no other reason than that He loves us. He didn’t pick out the best looking or the tallest or the smartest or the thinnest or the kindest among us. He picked those who believe in Him. That’s it.

I’m pretty convinced that we’re all a mixed bag of belief and unbelief. There’s a man in the Bible who approached Jesus and said, I believe, help my unbelief. I think he illustrates where we all are. God does not withhold faith from some people. In fact, Scripture says that He does not want any to perish.

Furthermore, I see people who don’t believe in God, exercising belief is something else. Many believe in evolution. Or the goodness of humankind. Some believe in a mystic religion or in some other god. What I have never encountered is someone with no belief in anything.

Oh, sure, some atheists insist that they don’t believe because they have science. But what they miss is that they are choosing to believe particular scientists, since they themselves have not conducted the experiments or done the observation from which the conclusions they espouse have been drawn. They believe in their source of information and in the conclusion that certain people in a particular field of study have reached.

So the real issue is not, do you believe, but in whom do you believe? Because we all believe. Just like we all sin.

Back to grace. Not only did God cross the gulf that separated us from Him, He paved the way for us to follow Him. In other words, He crossed once so that we all can cross in His steps.

One thing grace does not do: it does not force anyone to join God. Sadly, there are some who choose to be His enemy. They don’t see His love and forgiveness. They don’t want Him telling them what to do. So they pull away from Him instead of following Him. They spurn His grace.

Because grace is extended to us, not forced upon us.

Published in: on October 25, 2017 at 4:00 pm  Comments (15)  
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