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!

Advertisements

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.

Got Grace?

Photo by contemplativechristian - CC BY-SA 2.0

Have you ever listened to a sermon and found yourself thinking that something just wasn’t sitting quite right? Perhaps some aspect of the message contained obvious errors, or maybe you were experiencing some Spirit-guided discernment.

Years ago I was listening to a message on grace being given by a young pastor. At the time I wasn’t able to articulate my concern, but something about it didn’t feel right even though his perspective was typical of the standard Christian teaching of the day. Just a few years later that young man was no longer in ministry, having divorced his faithful wife who had borne him three beautiful children. There was something about Christianity that he didn’t quite get.

Photo by Elias ATX - CC BY 2.0

Grace is one of the most significant, and yet most misunderstood, concepts of Christianity. If we don’t get grace, we’ll find ourselves continually sloshing through spiritual muck, viewing life as a heavy chore. Far too many of us see Christianity primarily as a list of burdensome rules that we need to trudgingly follow in order to appease an angry God. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Really, it doesn’t.

Your faith and love have arisen from the hope laid up for you in heaven, which you have heard about in the message of truth, the gospel that has come to you. 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 1:5-7 (NET)

Do you see it? Truly understanding grace is a prerequisite for spiritual growth. But one of the biggest mistakes Christians (like the young pastor I mentioned above) make with regard to grace is that they see it through only a one-dimensional lens. The Bible teaches in Ephesians 2:8-9 that we are saved by grace (God’s unmerited gift of favor that we can do absolutely nothing to earn) and not by works. This is entirely true, but God’s amazing grace is even more than unmerited favor!

As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. 1 Peter 4:10 (NASB) 

Peter is telling us that God’s grace is multifaceted. Twenty years ago when I first began to intently study grace, it seemed as though unmerited favor was the sum total of how the church defined the concept. Only with extra effort was I able to find a few commentators who described grace as a form of empowerment freely given by God to humanity. Thankfully, the tide has begun to turn–and none too soon. Many more Christian leaders are beginning to grasp the empowering nature of grace.

As an example, the chárisma (gifts of the Holy Spirit) are grace gifts that we do not deserve, but that empower us to do things we would never be able to humanly do apart from God. In a very real sense grace is the life-flow of God that enables humans to do whatever God calls them to do. In this we can find various expressions of grace such as grace for giving, grace for service and grace to overcome the power of sin.

It’s the missing link of this last aspect of grace, the power to reign over sin, that hinders so many professing Christians from growing to spiritual maturity. Try reading Romans 5:15 – 6:12 and substituting the phrase “the power of God to overcome sin and live the Christian life” wherever the word “grace” is mentioned. You’ll find that more times than not this definition is an excellent fit for what Paul was trying to communicate to his readers–that grace isn’t an excuse to sin, but rather the power to reign over sin. You see, salvation (and therefore grace) isn’t just about being forgiven and going to heaven. God’s desire is to free us from both the power and the penalty of sin.

Got Grace? There isn’t anything God calls us to do that He doesn’t provide the grace (ability) for us to actually do it. We desperately need to let the reality of the manifold nature of grace permeate our hearts and minds. If we do, we’ll  never be the same!

I Hate Hype!

By Daveynin - CC Attribution 2.0 Generic

Were you one of the 111,000,000 viewers who watched the Super Bowl on Sunday? I was. Not a bad game. Of course, it would have been better had the Steelers won, but overall we were entertained.

Professional football is now a multi-billion dollar business. Gone are the days of leather helmets and crumbling stadiums!  Let’s take a minute to peer into the reality of this football phenomenon.

As you read, please note that football is my favorite of all professional sports. I really do enjoy the games. My problem is that so many of us invest so much for such a small return.

How many hours of national media coverage do you suppose were devoted to Super Bowl XLV? How about local news time? How much money was spent on hats, jerseys and other paraphernalia? What did it cost the tens of thousands of fans who journeyed to Texas to watch the game? How many tons of shrimp, wings and nachos did those 111,000,000 million viewers consume? (I think I was personally responsible for eating about 50 pounds of shrimp!) Without question there was a massive amount of attention given to this GAME!

So what’s my gripe? All of the pregame glitter and hype promise the universe, but what’s left when the smoke clears?

From start to finish, a football game consumes about 3 hours of our time, but there’s an awful lot of filler involved. Did you know that the actual playing time amounts to only 11-12 minutes? Think about it! All of that time, money and effort for 12 minutes of Super Bowl action!

Hype promises us the world, but delivers little of substance. It’s all smoke and mirrors.

By theilr - CC Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic

How does all of this relate to my current Harassed at the Border blog series? Opposition isn’t the only enemy to change. Deception and distraction are equally effective at hindering our journey toward transformation.

But hype isn’t limited to just the world of sports. Plenty takes place within Christian circles. Each next great fad promises to provide the answer that will fix our ills and restore the luster of American Christianity. Too often smoke and mirrors with no real or lasting substance!

Now, I didn’t write all of this simply to air my gripes, or to condemn football fans or to bad mouth the American church. My point is that hype distracts us from the real power of transformation—God’s grace.

Grace lacks so many attributes of hype, but delivers the substance of change and fulfillment like nothing else can. We can’t boast in the unmerited favor of grace, but we can be transformed. Grace carries with it the ability to do all that God has called us to do.

Our problem isn’t that the Gospel is flawed or somehow lacking. We have simply allowed the hyped-up fads of our day to divert and distract us from God’s everlasting power of transformation—grace.

Looking for real and lasting change? You’ll never find it in a game. Learn to abide in God’s amazing grace!

Watch my clip on Vimeo to learn more about grace.