The Grace Dilemma

original photo credit: zeevveez via photopin cc

The New Covenant is amazing! We are free from the requirements of the Old Testament Law and now have a profound measure of freedom under God’s paradigm of grace. I have, however, made it clear over my last several posts that grace is not a license to live in any manner imaginable, and that our Savior fully expects us to die to our old sinful natures.

The connecting point between freedom and obedience creates a huge point of confusion for many of us. If we are no longer under law because of grace, and if grace empowers us to a new lifestyle, how do we know exactly what’s acceptable to God and what isn’t? On the surface, it all feels very nebulous, but if we dig a little deeper, we can find a basic New Covenant framework to help guide our actions. We begin by examining God’s primary expectations under the New Covenant:

 Just as the Father has loved Me, I have also loved you; abide in My love.  If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love; just as I have kept My Father’s commandments and abide in His love. John 15:9-10 (NASB)

Photo by Sam Hakes
Photo by Sam Hakes

In a previous post, I laid out the two predominant commands of New Testament Christianity: faith and love. For the purpose of our current context, we’ll focus primarily on the Bible’s central command—to love God with all that we have and to love those around us (Matthew 22:34-40).

Love, according to the Scriptures, is so much more than our culture’s definition of love. How often do we see Hollywood celebrities getting married because they are deeply in love, only to hear of them filing for divorce a couple of years later?

I can’t help but contrast their example with that of my late neighbors, John and Roseann Palilla. As they aged well beyond the age of retirement, John and Rosanne continued to set a powerful example of faithful love, both as parents and as spouses. Sadly, Rosanne developed Parkinson’s disease, and although her mind remained sharp, her physical issues created a huge burden for both her and John. For as long as he was physically able, John faithfully cared for his frail wife’s every need—even to the point of exhausting himself. Eventually, they had to enter a personal care home where they lived together until death came knocking.

Love, in its very essence, is both free and constrained. John Palilla, for example, freely chose to marry Rosanne, but the strength of that love constrained him to be a one woman man—and a faithful one at that.

Palilla love, as opposed to Hollywood love, would undoubtedly be closer to heaven’s standard. Faithful, sacrificial, selfless love, according to the Scriptures is to be the driving force that governs our decision making processes. Thus, the one law that defines New Testament living is the law of love (Romans 13:8-10), which James also calls the law of liberty (James 1:25) and the royal law (James 2:8).

Dilemma
photo credit: zeevveez via photopin cc

Understanding these things doesn’t answer all of our questions, but it does point us in the right direction. In my next post, we’ll take a brief look at what I like to call covenant love and then we’ll address three specific applications that will help us to understand that our dilemma isn’t as much about confusion over what’s right and wrong as it is about a struggle between loving others and selfishly pursuing what we want.

Advertisements

The Church of Whatever We Want Jesus to Be

Paul's Letter
Valentin de Boulogne – Public Domain

If ever there was a person who was an authority of the Christian gospel, it was the Apostle Paul. Author of one-third of our New Testament, Paul penned letters to the churches in Rome and Galatia, both of which have become premiere sources for our understanding of the gospel.

Notice how Paul begins his letter to the Romans:

Paul, a bond-servant of Christ Jesus, called as an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God…. Romans 1:1 (NASB)

This verse provides a point of convergence for all Christians. Would any of us dispute Paul’s calling—or his authority for that matter? We all might also agree that the gospel (good news) is integral to the Christian faith. Even those who do not consider themselves to be evangelicals still revere the centrality of the gospel.

Christ's Resurrection
Noel Coypel – Public Domain

Professing Christians begin to diverge when it comes to the heart and purpose of the gospel. Jesus came to earth as God incarnate—that is God in the flesh, in human form. The Son of God walked amongst us as the Son of Man. After fulfilling a supernatural ministry on earth, Jesus suffered a torturous death on a wooden cross as a substitutionary sacrifice for the sins of all men and women. But death could not hold the Son of God! On the third day following, Jesus rose in power from the grave, never to die again.

Sadly, there are some professing Christians who would disagree with this Biblically-based representation of the good news of Jesus Christ. They might say, “Humans aren’t all that bad and are able to please God by being good people and doing nice things—like helping little old ladies across the street.” They might say, “Sure, Jesus was a great moral teacher, but he never believed himself to be God. A few misguided souls simply misunderstood his teachings.” Further still, they might say, “Jesus never performed any actual miracles and we all know the resurrection to be scientifically impossible.” “Of course, these things are recorded in the Bible, but the book is more of a teaching tool intended to help modify human behavior than it is the inspired word of God,” they might say.

It is not my goal to be rude, but I can’t, for the life of me, understand how such a perspective can be called “Christian” when it attempts to strike a dagger in the heart of the Christian faith. If we remove the reality of Christ’s miracles and His subsequent resurrection, we lose the power to transform human lives. Christianity, then, becomes more of a humanistic self-improvement project than the radical, life-changing movement it was intended to be.

I understand that some people find certain tenets of the Christian faith to be repulsive. Seriously, how many of us relish the thought of needing a Savior to remind us that we are thoroughly inadequate in heaven’s eyes? The picture of a bloody sacrifice does little to make me feel warm and fuzzy. And, of course, dying to my own selfish desires has never been at the top of my bucket list!

I disagree with the theology of Unitarian Universalists but I do respect them for their honesty; they don’t claim to be Christian. On the other hand, I really struggle with those who profess Christianity but deny the substance thereof. It is one thing to disagree about the meaning of Scripture. It’s a totally different issue to deny its authority.

Church of WhateverWe live in a world in which the title “Christian” means just about everything; therefore, it means nothing. What makes this state especially sad are the precious human lives adversely affected by such confusion. Would we, perhaps, be better to make a distinction between those who embrace the supremacy and authority of Christ, and those who would like to reinterpret the Bible according to their own desires? We could call one group the church of Jesus Christ and the other the church of whatever we want Jesus to be.

I realize that the abrasive tone of this post breaks from my usual pattern but I believe there are times when we sacrifice honesty for the sake of nicety. If you would like to make your own religion, have at it! Enjoy yourself! Do it up right! Create whatever makes you feel good. But let’s not forget that Jesus Christ is the head of His church and that He will form and shape her according to His desires—not ours.

Have You Seen God?

photo credit: Micah Boy via photopin cc
photo credit: Micah Boy via photopin cc

I’ve seen sunshine, rain, and snow, but in all my years I have never seen the wind. While I was hiking through the woods recently, a huge gust of wind picked up bunches of dry leaves along the trail and threw them swirling into the air. I’ve felt the wind and I’ve seen its influence; its presence is very real but the wind itself remains invisible.

None of us have ever seen God. Some would say that He does not exist. As with the wind, however, we can feel the presence of the invisible God and see various indicators that He is near.

photo credit: SJU Undergraduate Admissions via photopin cc
photo credit: SJU Undergraduate Admissions via photopin cc

The greatest evidence of God’s existence is that transformation that takes place in the lives of those whom He touches. The selfish become generous; the arrogant, humble; the insecure, confident; the hopeless, full of anticipation. When the Creator of the Universe touches a person’s life, those around can’t help but notice.

We dare not forget, however, that the fruit seen in the life of a professing Christian presents a two-sided coin. While a transformed life will attract others to God, an existence mired in the sins of the flesh will have the opposite effect—genuine seekers will be driven to unhealthy, and even dangerous, spiritual paths.

Hardly a week goes by when I don’t see or hear of someone being alienated from God’s love because a professing Christian, by virtue of ungodly behavior, called God’s goodness into question. Sometimes sharing my faith involves doing damage control more than it does speaking of the God’s goodness.

photo credit: Ryk Neethling via photopin cc
photo credit: Ryk Neethling via photopin cc

Grace is transformational, empowering us to rise above the corruption of this world to new heights in Christ. And how do we know when we are on the right track? The Bible provides us with guideposts along the way. By looking at lists of good and bad behavior found within the New Testament (1 Corinthians 6:9-11; Galatians 5:16-24, etc.), we can get a general sense of what many of those around us already know—whether we are living according to the flesh or according to the Spirit. I’m sure that we’d all like to think that we are living according the Holy Spirit’s ways but the human heart is deceptive; we need the objectivity that the Scriptures provide.

We each have our struggles against sin and anyone can go through a bad stretch, but over the course of time, a person’s lifestyle should begin to align with his or her profession of faith. A transformed life, brought about by His life-giving grace, provides irrefutable evidence of God’s good presence at work in this world!

The Twofold Beauty of Grace

Cosette
Drawing by Émile Bayard – Public Domain

Just about anyone who has seen Les Miserables—even those unaccustomed to spontaneously breaking out into song—can attest to the powerfully redemptive nature of the work. I can’t help but wonder, however, how many of the modern cast truly understand the faith-based intricacies of the story. Victor Hugo, the original book’s author, possessed a particularly clear grasp of the law/grace dynamic with which the Christian Gospel is interwoven.

One of the most powerful images of grace that I have ever seen can be found in the scene in with Monseigneur Bienvenu. Here the priest not only forgives Jean Valjean of his transgressions but also enables him to begin a new life with the gift of the silver place settings, including the candlesticks. Unmerited favor is indeed a proper definition of grace, but it is not the full definition of grace. The power of grace can carry us further than even many Christians realize.

How gracious would God be if He extended unmerited favor to His people, but failed to give them the ability to live according to His expectations? Not gracious at all. Like Jean Valjean, we need not only favor beyond what we deserve but also the power to live a new life. Favor alone will not free us from the trap of a sinful lifestyle–for that, we need the means to forge a new trail. Grace is the answer to our need in every imaginable way.

Whether or not we grasp the two-fold nature of grace can be a matter of life and death. In my day, I have met no small number of people who mistakenly assumed grace to be nothing more than a get out of jail free card. It really doesn’t matter how we live, they suppose, because God’s grace to forgive is always available in abundance. They fail to understand that grace is the pathway to a new life, not a stamp of approval on the old. Freedom from the Mosaic Law does not mean license. Freedom from the Law means freedom from the dominion of sin.

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its lusts, and do not go on presenting the members of your body to sin as instruments of unrighteousness; but present yourselves to God as those alive from the dead, and your members as instruments of righteousness to God. For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law but under grace. Romans 6:12-14 (NASB)

Downloading Grace
Image by Sam Hakes

Do you see it? Grace gives us the power to reign over the dominion of sin—not an excuse to be controlled by our fallen desires. The issue isn’t one of perfection but one of characterization. Are we children of God who sometimes sin but find the unmerited favor to start afresh, or are our lives characterized by the lustful desires of our old, fallen natures? Those who learn to operate by God’s paradigm of grace through faith in Christ will grow stronger and stronger in their ability to say no to sin’s desires. Herein lies the twofold beauty of grace: through the cross of Christ, we find an amazing measure of undeserved favor and the ability to live a new and better life.

There are many areas of learning that can occupy our energies but grasping the nature of grace is essential to life. To dig a little deeper, you can check out the following 15-minute video clip from my Search for Me identity series:

Chapter 6 – Section 1 – The Search for Me from Search for Me Ministries, Inc. on Vimeo.

God Values Life!

photo credit: Marxchivist via photopin cc
photo credit: Marxchivist via photopin cc

The story of Noah’s ark has long been a classic Sunday school topic for children’s curriculum. There’s something really cute about the idea of Noah building a big boat and gathering a diverse array of animals on board. What isn’t cute, however, is the idea of a devastating flood killing all human and animal life apart from those on the ark. In fact, many opponents of Christianity (and Judaism) point toward the story of Noah’s ark as an example of what they see as a cruel religion.

Several things stand out to me when I read Genesis 6-9 but I would like to highlight two things in particular. The first point of notice involves the state of the earth before the deluge.

Then the Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great on the earth, and that every intent of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. The Lord was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart. The Lord said, “I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, from man to animals to creeping things and to birds of the sky; for I am sorry that I have made them.” But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord. . . Now the earth was corrupt in the sight of God, and the earth was filled with violence. God looked on the earth, and behold, it was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted their way upon the earth. Genesis 6:5-8, 11-12 (NASB)

photo credit: expertinfantry via photopin cc
photo credit: expertinfantry via photopin cc

This passage explains, in human terms, how God felt about the human race at that point in time. The intent of every heart was evil and the entire world was filled with violence. When God violently flooded the Earth, He was simply giving the human race the fulfillment of its own actions—violence and destruction.

This destruction is the total opposite of God’s original design in the garden of Eden. Adam & Eve had been naked and unashamed, secure in God’s peace, and without fear of exploitation. When they chose the path of independence from God, however, everything changed—so much so that their firstborn son murdered his brother in a fit of envious rage. The level of violence only grew until God sent 40 days and 40 nights of nonstop rain.

I find it ironic that we want God to relate to us on our terms but we are repulsed when He actually does so. What we fail to see in Noah’s story is the second point I would like to highlight from Genesis 6-9: God values human life far more than most of us realize.

“Surely I will require your lifeblood; from every beast I will require it. And from every man, from every man’s brother I will require the life of man. Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.” Genesis 9:5-6 (NASB)

photo credit: chantel beam photography via photopin cc
photo credit: chantel beam photography via photopin cc

Human life is sacred in the eyes of God and the unjust shedding of blood deserves an appropriate form of judgment. Thus, It is entirely just for God to judge unrighteous acts of violence committed against those who have been created in His own image.

There is yet another important point to this story that we can easily miss: Getting a fresh start is not the formula for a better world. It’s like my high school friend, Chris, who always seemed to get himself in trouble. At least once a week, he was turning over a new leaf. Unfortunately, that leaf never stayed turned in the right direction!

What the human race really needs are the willingness and the ability to relate to God on His terms. Only then, will we be able to experience true peace. Before we go there, however, we need to look at one particular aspect of the Old Covenant that will help us to better understand the severe judgment seen in the Old Testament. Be sure to stay tuned!

The Violence Cocktail – Guns Are Not the Only Ingredient

photo credit: ~Steve Z~ via photopin cc
photo credit: ~Steve Z~ via photopin cc

Once again the liberal/conservative battle lines have been drawn. Adamant about the need for gun control, many liberals seem to believe that banning all gun ownership would lead to a peaceful and happy society. On the other side of the front, a lot of conservatives give the impression that if every American packed, violence would come to a virtual standstill. Once again, as is often be the case, both sides are completely missing the heart of the matter. If heaven were a giant GPS unit, the entire Earth would hear “RECALCULATING” sounding through the skies.

So, if the violence in our culture (and in our world) isn’t really about guns, then what is it about? The answer can be found in a common word ripe with profound meaning – identity. Almost all of the conflict on earth is the result of not knowing who we are in the eyes of heaven.

I am not saying that guns are irrelevant when it comes to the problem with violence but that there are deeper things happening beneath the surface—issues that we don’t understand or prefer not to touch. We tend to focus on what we know; that which we can see and touch; the things that relieve us of any personal sense of responsibility. Guns, then, become the primary issue, but listen to any expert talking about a mass shooting and you will find that they are always identity related.

Our problem with gun violence is actually the mix of a deadly cocktail with four primary ingredients—all of which are strongly influenced by our materialistic culture.

photo credit: jessgrrrr via photopin cc

1. Lost identity – In a general sense, children receive care and nurture from their mothers, but find their primary source of security and identity from their relationship with their fathers. Further still, wise and loving parents will learn how to shape a child’s heart so that he or she is tender-hearted toward God and entirely secure as a beloved child of the King of the Universe. The breakdown begins, however, when a father is harsh, distant, or entirely absent, resulting in what we might call an orphan spirit in the heart of a child. Generally, a young woman with an orphan spirit will look to a romantic relationship with a man to satisfy her need for validation, while a young man will seek out ways to prove himself.

photo credit: Robert Couse-Baker via photopin cc

2. A culture of violence – A young man looking to establish a sense of identity will pursue success as defined by the subculture that surrounds him. Most of the time, this means trying to prove himself on some type of masculine field of valor. When we add violent movies—and especially video games—to the mix, his heart is desensitized.

3. The loss of moral constraints – Through the influence of atheism and the erosion of traditional Judeo-Christian morals, not only is morality becoming meaningless, but so is the value of a human life.

4. The availability of guns – When we add easy access to high capacity firearms to the previous three ingredients mentioned, we cannot help but expect the types of mass shootings we saw at Columbine, Virginia Tech, and now Sandy Hook Elementary.

The solution to our violence problem has long been with us but very few recognize or appreciate its value. Two thousand years ago, ours was a world that had lost its way. Political, economic, and even religious leadership, had become entrenched with a self-absorbed elitist mentality—a mindset bearing the fruit of oppression and injustice. It was then that heaven send the most powerful “RECALCULATING” message ever known to mankind.

photo credit: lennyk410 via photopin cc
photo credit: lennyk410 via photopin cc

Jesus came not as a king but as a carpenter. Born in a stable through questionable circumstances, and to parents of lowly status, the very Son of God provided the means for every person on earth to find security as a much-loved child of God. His was—and is—the only sure and certain formula for true peace on earth. More powerful than any weapon of destruction ever envisioned by humankind, the Gospel of Jesus Christ remains the cure for all that ails us. If we truly care about the children of this world, we will seek to to rediscover the amazing power of the Gospel. What better time of the year to do this than at Christmas?

Why I Am Voting for Mitrak Obamney

Photo by Poster Boy NYC — CC BY 2.0

I for one am more than ready for this election to be over. However, it is not so much the election that bothers me—I consider voting to be a genuine privilege—as it is the low level to which political campaigning has now sunk. The continuous onslaught of vicious ads (filled with lies and half-truths) that we find coming from both of our major political parties has destroyed my confidence that major candidates from either party can be trusted.

As a conservative Christian, I also find it difficult to place the full weight of my confidence in either major party platform. Certainly, I do like the general Republican emphasis on morality and the right to life, but I also find their marriage to big business to be very disturbing, if not immoral. On the other hand, I think that the general Democratic concern for the poor is worthy of attention, as is the emphasis on promoting education. Other aspects of the Democratic platform, however, fly in the face of Biblical principles. Thus, I find it very difficult to choose either major party candidate, knowing that regardless of how I vote, I will somehow be violating principles that I hold to be valuable.

That is why I have decided to write in Mitrak Obamney for President of the United States of America. Yes, on November 6, I will be able to walk out of the voting booth with my head held high, confident that I was able to make my voice known according to my principles.

Now, I suspect that there are a few skeptics out there—those of you who think such an approach will amount to nothing more than a lesson in futility. You will tell me that even if I do write in Obamney for President, mine will be a wasted vote because in the real world such an option would be meaningless. You would, of course, be correct.

Photo by C.P.Storm — CC BY 2.0

How is it, then, that when it comes to religious beliefs, many rational, intelligent people feel that they can simply pick and choose what they like from various belief systems? As a case in point, I recently read an article in which the author spoke of a new and improved emerging form of Christianity—one which does away with unpleasant topics such as blood sacrifices and sexually immoral behavior. And while such approach may appeal to many people, it speaks of a religion that isn’t real.

You see, if Christianity is nothing more than a human construct, then we are free to mix and match and rearrange according to whatever seems right. After all, a religion invented by humans should serve to accomplish what humans desire it to accomplish—provide a sense of comfort and vague hope for the future. But if Christianity is real, if the Bible is truly the inspired Word of God, then we have absolutely no right to attempt to recreate the Christian faith according what we do or don’t like. The task, then, falls upon us to seek God in an effort to clearly understand what He desires to communicate through the sacred Scriptures.

Personally, I desire to whole-heartedly embrace the Christian faith, but not because I like its every aspect. In fact, I find concepts such as blood sacrifice, loving one’s enemies, and self-denial to be terribly unpleasant at times. No, I embrace the Christian faith because I have found the Bible to be true; and it has pointed me to a God who, even though terribly mysterious, loves every one of us beyond measure.

Photo by boellstiftung — CC BY 2.0

You probably figured out by now that I am not really voting for Mitrak Romney—no, I will choose a specific candidate for Tuesday’s election. The future of our nation is too important to squander. I ask you to please recognize, however, that the ramifications of our religious beliefs reach far beyond this life and into eternity. What we choose to believe matters too much to accept any type of buffet-style belief mumbo jumbo.