We Have It Backwards!

original photo credit: RBerteig via photopin cc
original photo credit: RBerteig via photopin cc

I am in the process of writing and publishing a book, Champions in the Wilderness, which is an adventure in and of itself. Communicating through the written word can be challenging–especially when attempting to convey a particular emphasis. If I write, for example, “Bill had a wallet full of cash,” the reader might be left wondering what point I was trying to get across. Would I be referring to Bill sitting on the curb sulking because of money he no longer has, or to a huge smile on Bill’s face because his wallet is bulging to the seams with an overabundance of greenbacks? Or perhaps, Bill is full of anxiety as he walks through an unsafe part of the city with a wallet full of money.

photo credit: David Salafia via photopin cc
photo credit: David Salafia via photopin cc

In such a case, one lone sentence can never suffice to provide a proper understanding of the circumstances. A writer’s intent must be established through the surrounding context. Taking this approach to understanding the Bible is all the more important—life and death issues are involved! Gross misunderstandings of the Christian faith abound in our world because of a failure to properly deal with issues of emphasis and context.

In visiting the topic of God’s grace over the past few blogs, I have come to the conclusion that the Western church has a reversed understanding of grace.

Read through the New Testament and you will find more than one application of grace. Grace as God’s unmerited favor is certainly emphasized by the Apostle Paul, but not nearly to the same extent as by the Western church. It’s not that this dimension of grace is unimportant to Paul, but through the entire context of his writings we find much more emphasis on the transformational nature of grace—something that I have highlighted through my recent posts.

photo credit: JessicaPreskitt via CreationSwap
photo credit: JessicaPreskitt via CreationSwap

For decades, if not centuries, the transformational aspect of grace has been virtually ignored. We have it backwards and the cumulative result of this reversal in emphasis is a current generation of passive, rather than active, people who profess a deep devotion to God. This error has been painfully destructive to individual lives, to the nuclear family, to the church as a whole, and even to the world in which we dwell.

I’ll close this blog series by highlighting an important reminder from Paul’s letter to the Colossians:

Just as in the entire world this gospel is bearing fruit and growing, so it has also been bearing fruit and growing among you from the first day you heard it and understood the grace of God in truth. Colossians 1:6 (NET)

If our understanding of the Christian gospel does not produce favorable changes in the lives of professing Christians, then something is grossly out of whack. God’s grace, when appropriately applied, will transform even the vilest of human hearts.  Let’s not deceive ourselves into thinking otherwise!

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What Does Obedience Have to Do with Faith?

I think I did a decent job of blasting theological liberals with my last post regarding the integrity of the Scriptures. There are times, however, when I find it necessary to be an equal opportunity offender; this week I will take a loving shot at some of those in the evangelical camp.

Eternal Fire insurance
Created by Sam Hakes

“What” I might ask, “was the apostle Paul’s primary mission in life?” The expected evangelical answer would be, “to help populate heaven by seeing lost souls saved.” It all sounds very noble—and very spiritual—but that isn’t quite what the Bible teaches. By no means am I saying that saving souls is unimportant. The Bible itself tells us that all of heaven rejoices when a person’s name is added to the Book of Life. But notice what Paul wrote in the introduction of his letter to the Roman believers:

. . . Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for His name’s sake. . . .  Romans 1:4b-5 (NASB)

Paul was stating that the primary purpose of both grace and apostolic ministry is to “bring about the obedience of faith.” This is no fluke as Paul uses the same terminology at the end of his letter (verse 26):

Now to Him who is able to establish you according to my gospel and the preaching of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery which has been kept secret for long ages past, but now is manifested, and by the Scriptures of the prophets, according to the commandment of the eternal God, has been made known to all the nations, leading to obedience of faith; to the only wise God, through Jesus Christ, be the glory forever. Amen. Romans 16:25-27 (NASB)

Paul's Letter to the RomansDo you see it? Paul’s letter to the Romans—the premiere book of the Bible that illuminates our understanding of the gospel—begins and ends with an emphasis on the “obedience of faith.” Salvation isn’t just about accepting Jesus so that we can join a heavenly chorus of believers. Genuine faith is revealed by very practical obedience to God’s commands.

Once again, we find ourselves exploring a deeper understanding of grace. If the grace of God is unmerited favor and nothing more, then we are excused to live as we please as long as we have made some type of decision for Christ. But if grace is something more–if grace enables as well as favors–then it makes perfect sense that a growing faith would lead to increasingly favorable life changes. It’s not about measuring up to some type of religious standard, but rather living by a new and different paradigm.

The Great Commission, in many evangelical circles, has been minimized to mean something very different than what Christ commanded His disciples.

And Jesus came up and spoke to them, saying, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:18-20 (NASB)

Our call, as recorded by Matthew, is to “make disciples” of Jesus. This means that our salvation message must go beyond God’s willingness to forgive our sins. We speak not merely of a salvation prayer, or of a decision for Christ, but of a changed lifestyle which faith and grace will bring about. Any gospel that fails to call for a total surrender of one’s life to Christ is, at best, only an incomplete version of the genuine article.

I believe we do a tremendous disservice to people when we undermine the credibility of the Scriptures with liberal thinking, but I am also convinced that evangelicals make a huge mistake when they simply regurgitate concepts that they’ve been taught by their religious leaders. It doesn’t take a PhD to understand the Bible but it does take effort to seek God’s wisdom for a clearer comprehension of Biblical truth.

Return of Christ
photo credit: Lord Jim via photopin cc

I know that most evangelicals are well-intentioned but so are most liberals. In light of Galatians 1:6-10, if there is one thing that requires extraordinary attention on our part, it is the gospel of Jesus Christ!

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.

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.

Why Gun Control Misses the Point

photo credit: John Steven Fernandez via photopin cc
photo credit: John Steven Fernandez via photopin cc

“The findings were disturbing….” So goes the beginning of a paragraph in an article about the Pulitzer Prize winning report (Assault on Learning) by the Philadelphia Inquirer regarding violence in the Philadelphia school system. After reading further, I could not help but agree—it is all very disturbing!

More than 30,000 serious incidents were reported in the district over a five-year period. On an average day, 25 students, teachers, or other staff members were beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted, or made victims of other violent crime. As large as those numbers seem, they didn’t represent the full gravity of the problem. Many violent incidents went unreported. Some attacks were carried out by children in the earliest grades.[1]

How many students are there in the district? According Susan Snyder—one of the lead journalists in the story—we are talking about only 146,000 students.[2] The significance of the problem becomes even greater when we recognize that schools are gun-free zones. In other words, very little of this violence had anything to do with firearms.

In one particularly sad case, more than 30 Asian students were brutally beaten by their fellow classmates—most of whom were African American. This type of situation was identity related and it stems from the third primary root of our fallen natures that contributes to violence—our quest for glory. Of the three roots mentioned—self-centered lust, the desire for control, and the quest for glory—the quest for glory is probably the most difficult for us to comprehend.

Adam & Eve had been created in the very image of God, and, being clothed in His glory, they were naked and unashamed. However, by choosing to seek a sense of goodness independent from their Creator, our ancient ancestors quickly found themselves naked and very much ashamed. Painfully separated from the King of Glory, the unhappy result was a glory deficiency which is now inherent to the entire human race.

Glory is fleeting . . .
photo credit: Brett Jordan via photopin cc

From a very young age, it becomes every person’s goal to find a sense of significance through his or her performance, appearance, possessions, etc. It is in the fickle court of human approval that we seek to find significance. As we enter the world of comparisons and judgments, our value as human beings depends upon our ability to measure up to the ever-changing standards of our individual subcultures. In the high school scene, for example, those who meet current standards of beauty and athletic performance become wildly popular, while those who fall far short of the standards find themselves condemned as objects of scorn.

The pursuit of glory is so ingrained in the human psyche that for the most part we find it to be entirely natural. But the division it creates and the destruction it wreaks! A group of black students viciously beat 30 Asian students in Philadelphia schools simply because the Asians did not meet the standards of a black identity. Ironically, it was the same mindset used by whites to justify the horrors of slavery for so many years. We can see that at its roots this type of violence has nothing to do with black or white or any other skin color—it’s rooted in an all-encompassing effort to achieve a glory-based identity.

The tree of identity-based violence springs from the seed of contempt. Any time we despise someone who fails to meet our particular standards we commit an act of spiritual violence toward that individual. Physical violence ultimately erupts as we nourish seeds of contempt with the right (or wrong, depending on one’s perspective) environmental conditions.

At its core, the Gospel is an identity message.[3] We find our true significance through our relationship with God, not by our performance, but in our lofty status as sons and daughters of the eternal King of Glory. To abide in Christ is to be clothed once again in God’s greatness, secure in identity and free to be humble.

photo credit: Good Eye Might via photopin cc
photo credit: Good Eye Might via photopin cc

 Will fewer people be killed if our government implements gun control measures? Possibly. Violence and its resulting pain, however, will continue to plague American society until we strike the problem at its evil roots. Once again, the Gospel of Jesus Christ provides the most powerful solution to what ails us!


[1] Susan Snyder, The Press, the Passion, and the Prize, as found in the IUP Magazine, VOL. XXX, NO.3, p. 17

[3] Check out our Search for Me Identity Study for a much more in-depth explanation.

It’s Time to Ban Dark-Colored Hoodies!

photo credit: Fayez Closed Account. via photopin cc
photo credit: Fayez Closed Account. via photopin cc

Having spent far too much time meticulously watching local news reports out of Pittsburgh, I have come to the conclusion that most of the reported crimes are committed by people wearing dark-colored hoodies. For the life of me, I can’t imagine why someone hasn’t moved to ban them. I think that light and bright-colored hoodies would still be acceptable—as long as criminals don’t begin to use them when the dark ones can only be found on the black market.

No, this isn’t a sarcastic statement on gun control—a little levity now and again can help us from being overwhelmed by the weight of such issues as violence. However, I do want to again emphasize that we rarely focus on underlying issues because we are the problem.

Over the next few posts, I plan to highlight each of the three primary roots of the human heart that create conflict between us. The only real difference between violence and conflict is that violence is somewhat further down the same tumultuous road. I’ll also highlight how the Gospel provides the only truly effective antidote for each deadly root.

photo credit: david_shankbone via photopin cc
photo credit: david_shankbone via photopin cc

Where do you think all these appalling wars and quarrels come from? Do you think they just happen? Think again. They come about because you want your own way, and fight for it deep inside yourselves. You lust for what you don’t have and are willing to kill to get it. You want what isn’t yours and will risk violence to get your hands on it.

You wouldn’t think of just asking God for it, would you? And why not? Because you know you’d be asking for what you have no right to. You’re spoiled children, each wanting your own way. James 4:1-3 (Message)

The Message Bible isn’t always the most accurate, but there are times when I think it does a great job of communicating the intent of the original writer. In this case, James was strongly challenging his readers that selfish lust is a primary source of conflict–even to the point of violence.

Nowhere is the contrast between a worldly and a kingdom mindset greater than when it comes to selfish desires. The message of our world is, “You can have it all! You deserve it! You owe it to yourself! Put yourself first!” On a daily basis, we find ourselves bombarded by thousands of advertisements intended to play upon the selfish tendencies of human nature, compelling us to spend our money on a vast array of products.

In contrast, the message of the Gospel is one of selflessness—of laying down our desires for the benefit of others. After all, isn’t that what the heart of love involves? Certainly, the Gospel is about God’s amazing love for us, but we dare never forget that we are called to deeply love God and others in return.

One of them, a lawyer, asked Him a question, testing Him, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” And He said to him, “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matthew 22:35-40 (NASB)

photo credit: hoyasmeg via photopin cc
photo credit: hoyasmeg via photopin cc

To our detriment, we have tried to shape the Gospel to fit our Western consumer mentality.  How can we expect people to be unselfish when all we do is proclaim what Jesus can do for them? How often do we hear altar calls in which potential responders are challenged to fully count the cost of becoming a disciple of Christ before making a decision to receive Him (see Luke 14:27-33)? Almost never.

Would fewer people respond if they were compelled to count the cost first? Absolutely! But in the process, the Church would begin to look much more like the Church should look. Rather than fighting amongst ourselves because of envy over who got the bigger blessing, we would be alive with the power and vitality to make a real impact in the world around us.

How can we influence the world around us to become more peaceful and loving when conflict due to selfishness so heavily colors the fabric of our churches? Love is the answer—not only God’s love for us, but our love for Him and others in response to all that He has done for us. May we never minimize love’s importance or fail to realize love’s amazing power to transform even those who wear dark-colored hoodies!

The Mystery of Violence Revealed

Wet Dog
photo credit: Hello Turkey Toe via photopin cc

World peace! It is a vision long held by many. Each New Year, it seems, we try to cast off the violence of the previous year like a dog trying to shake off water. Unfortunately, dogs are much more effective in their drying off efforts than we are in our quest to eliminate conflict between humans. Why is peace so elusive? Either we don’t understand the root issues of conflict, or we don’t care enough to change our behavior.

Did you know that Cain’s murder of his brother Abel was not the first act of violence recorded in the Bible? Somewhere in the recesses of time–or perhaps before time began–the greatest of angels, the one we call Lucifer, attempted a violent coup against the Creator of the Universe.

How you have fallen from heaven,
O star of the morning, son of the dawn!
You have been cut down to the earth,
You who have weakened the nations!
But you said in your heart,
“I will ascend to heaven;
I will raise my throne above the stars of God,
And I will sit on the mount of assembly
In the recesses of the north.
I will ascend above the heights of the clouds;
I will make myself like the Most High.” Isaiah 14:12-14

Three particular aspects of this attempted coup are extremely relevant for our purposes:

Pride
Photo by SfMe Ministries Inc.

1. Lucifer repeatedly uses “I” to define his self-centered quest. Mysteriously, while God willingly receives worship, He is not self-centered. Always motivated by love and compassion for others, the life of Christ serves as evidence of God’s other-centered heart.

2. Lucifer also adds the word “will” to each of his five uses of “I”. Thus, one of his primary goals is for power and control.

3. Lucifer’s ultimate goal is to be like the Most High (the King of Glory), to lift himself up above all others.

When Adam and Eve fell prey to the serpent’s temptation in the Garden of Eden, they inherited the same  three tendencies which collectively form what we call pride. (I sometimes call it “C-pride” or “collective pride”.) It should stand as no surprise, then, that Cain, the firstborn son of Adam and Eve, murdered his younger brother due to nothing more than jealousy. The rest, unfortunately, is history. Since that fateful day in the Garden, human activity has always been beset with violent sexual assaults, murders, and wars of all kinds.

I have written about much of this in the past, but it bears repeating in light of recent mass shootings in the U.S. When someone mercilessly kills 20 first-grade children, as happened at Sandy Hook Elementary, something is desperately wrong. But something has been desperately wrong almost from the beginning of time as we know it. Even societies that have all appearances of peace are not that far from being immersed in conflict. Like a virus waiting for an immune system to be compromised, the violent tendencies of human nature need only time and opportunity to fully run their course.

Really, only two options are possible for the violence to cease:

Fidel Castro
photo credit: Mr Jaded via photopin cc

1. We remove various layers of freedom until an authoritarian government removes all potential weapons of resistance and forces its citizens to get along. Of course, the very real danger is that the authoritarian regime will itself be violent, subjecting its people to all sorts of cruelty and injustice.

2. We provide people with freedom but change their hearts so that they are motivated by love rather than selfish hatred. Herein lies the foundation for a truly prosperous society, but eliminating the selfish, self-exalting tendencies of the human heart is no simple matter. Real change requires much more than wishful thinking.

Unfortunately, in our self-absorbed world, freedom eventually leads to moral decay, giving way to violence in the end. At the other end of the spectrum, those revolutionaries who rise up to break the grip of an oppressive regime will almost always become the oppressors themselves.

In prophesying the birth of Jesus, Isaiah called Him the “Prince of Peace”. As a revolutionary, Jesus rebelled against the oppressive, self-absorbed establishment, but He broke their power in a thoroughly mysterious manner. By suffering unjustly Himself, Jesus Christ provided the antidote for each of the root causes of violence. We call that antidote the Gospel.

Happy New Year!
photo credit: HackBitz via photopin cc

I, too, really would like to see world peace. In my upcoming posts I will highlight how the Gospel truly is the only lasting cure for deadly virus of violence, but until then, I want to wish you all a happy New Year! My hope is that it won’t be a year that goes to the dogs!