Is Your Faith Based on Circumstances?

“Rejoice always, pray continuously, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).

Matthew Henry tells us in Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible, “A truly religious life is a life of constant joy” (p. 1175). Paul was a living example of this. While under house arrest, he wrote his letter to the Philippians. Although he was living at home, he was chained to a Roman guard around the clock and was not able to go anywhere. He knew his trial was likely years away. Given that God had called him to preach the Gospel to the Gentiles, he was stuck in Rome unable to plant new churches or visit with those he was nurturing by letter. Certainly, he had every right to complain. He’d been beaten, shipwrecked, and persecuted for Jesus. Instead, his letter to the church at Philippi was filled with rejoicing. He wrote, “Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has actually served to advance the Gospel” (Philippians 1:12, NIV).

Eugene Peterson puts an amazing focus on Philippians 1. In essence, Paul is saying, “I want to report to you, friends, that my imprisonment here has had the opposite of its intended effect. Instead of being squelched, the Message has actually prospered. All the soldiers here, and everyone else, too, found out that I’m in jail because of this Messiah. That piqued their curiosity, and now they’ve learned all about him. Not only that, but most of the followers of Jesus here have become far more sure of themselves in the faith than ever, speaking out fearlessly about God, about the Messiah” (v. 12-14, MSG).

Paul essentially said his sufferings for Christ had furthered the Gospel by provoking others to zeal for Him. Paul focused on preaching the Gospel no matter the circumstances in which he found himself. He wanted nothing more than to worship God in Spirit, rejoice in Christ, deny his flesh, forge ahead toward the prize, looking only toward the Savior, striving to be an example for others. He added, “As long as I’m alive in this body, there is good work for me to do. If I had to choose right now, I hardly know which I’d choose. Hard choice! The desire to break camp here and be with Christ is powerful. Some days I can think of nothing better. But most days, because of what you are going through, I am sure that it’s better for me to stick it out here. So I plan to be around awhile, companion to you as your growth and joy in this life of trusting God continues. You can start looking forward to a great reunion when I come visit you again. We’ll be praising Christ, enjoying each other” (v. 22-26, MSG).

TRUST REQUIRES PATIENCE

Trusting God always requires patience, because God doesn’t work on our timetable. Patience allows us to enjoy life while we wait. No doubt this is a difficult proposition. We are, after all, only human. We measure success and failure, happiness and disappointment, in terms of emotion first and then in actual results. When we feel bad, especially when we really, truly hurt, we want a way out right away. For many, including me, that can include drugs and alcohol. I ran from hurt and pain for decades. I simply had no concept of or capacity for patience.

Quite often the reason God is requiring us to wait is simply that He is using our difficulty to work patience in us. Learning to be patient is important enough to God’s plan—for us and for those whom we will touch with our lives—that I believe he ordains everything we go through. He is not going to short-change His plans by giving us what we want the second we want it. Sadly, however, the desire for instant gratification causes many people to make snap decisions. Some get high or drunk. Some spend beyond their means. Others have sex without thinking. Some marry someone who is wrong for them because they’re not willing to wait for the right someone. The false belief that we should have instant gratification is at the root of our unwillingness to suffer through the bad times.

It’s not easy being a Christian in today’s pluralistic society where moral relativism, hatred, distrust, bigotry, and fear run rampant. There seems to be an increasing tension between Christians and non-believers. When we focus on others rather than Jesus, we see them as enemies instead of children of God worthy of our love and respect. Admittedly, culture has taken a dramatic shift recently. Religion is no longer seen as a social good. Instead, it is considered an old, awkward, worldview that is no longer relevant.

GOD’S VOICE IN OUR CIRCUMSTANCES

As Christians, we all want to hear from God. I’ve often dropped to my knees and begged Him to say something—anything—as long as it was aloud. I wanted to know if He was there. Was He listening to me at all? Did He care about what was happening to me? What did He want me to do? It is even more challenging to determine what God is not saying in any given situation. He spoke to the prophets in the Old Testament. He appeared before non-believers. He sent angels. He told people what to do. He even told them what not to do. And He often accompanied these directives with promises—blessings and curses. He was often extremely clear about His wishes.

Today, we tend to expect the grandiose voice of God—and sometimes God speaks that way. More often, though, His voice comes through more subtly. God often speaks to us through the quiet moments, through other people, and through life’s circumstances. It can be difficult to distinguish His voice from the chaos of our situation. In order to decipher what God is saying, it is important to know and understand His Word. Spending time in the Scriptures will help us hear His voice. He will never contradict Himself. He will never speak to us through our circumstances in a manner that goes against His written Word. The Bible must be our yard stick. And when He puts others in our path to guide us, we need to distinguish between those who practice seeking the heart of God from those whose ambition is to control and manipulate others.

It is extremely important to remember that one incident is not necessarily indicative of God’s intent for our entire life. One swallow does not a summer make. (Google it!) Never make a life-changing decision on one event or one set of circumstances because God may or may not be speaking through this particular event. We need to look over the span of months and years. It is critical that we ask ourselves, Where is God leading me? He chose us and ordained our lives even before we were formed in the womb. I met a recovered addict last summer while serving as on-site manager for a motel. He was working as an itinerant electrician at a new gas-fired power plant being built in my area. He said, “God wants me to tell you something.” My ears always perk up when I hear someone say that! “God says everything you’ve been through from the moment you were born until you met me right now, all the good and the bad, was ordained by Him to help make you into the man He needs you to be in order to fulfill your calling.”

We must never put God in a box. He is much more infinite and all-knowing than we can ever grasp. No matter what the dire, dreary circumstance, God can turn each into a hopeful future. He can reverse, restore, revive, and renew. We need only look for His plans that are already in motion right now, even in the midst of our difficult time. Trust Him. He can take any circumstance and use it for our good and His glory.

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Sin’s Lost Dominion

Romans

Paul began his letter to the Romans by setting forth the theme: The righteousness of God (see Romans 1:1-17). In this letter, Paul tells us how to be right—with God, ourselves, and others. Paul also explains to us how one day God will make all of creation right. This is what is meant by restoration, the biblical meaning of which is “to receive back more than has been lost to the point where the final state is greater than the original condition.” This type of restoration is broader in scope than the standard dictionary definition. The main point is that someone or something is improved beyond measure. Throughout the Bible, God blesses people for their faith and hardships by making up for their losses and giving them more than they had previously. Job comes to mind.

Romans was not written for daydreamers or religious sightseers. We have to think as we study Romans, but the rewards will be worth our effort. If we grasp the doctrinal message of Romans, we’ll have the key to understanding the rest of the Bible. Moreover, we will have the secret of successful Christian living. In fact, Paul sent this letter to believers in Rome in order to provide them with a clear declaration of Christian doctrine. We need to reexamine our commitment to Christ as we read Paul’s epistle to the Romans.

Chapter 6 is a crucial part of Romans. Paul wanted believers to understand that when we’re saved, we become new creations in Christ. We are granted access to the mind of Christ. In fact, we’re told to put on the mind of Christ. It is with this in mind that Paul says believers must die to sin and live to God. He presses the importance of holiness in the first two verses of Romans 6.

Freedom From Sin’s Grasp
Sin’s Power is Broken

“What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer” (Romans 6:1-2, NIV).

If God loves to forgive us and wash us in the blood of His Son, why not give Him more to forgive? If forgiveness is guaranteed, do we not have the freedom to sin as much as we desire to? Paul’s forceful answer, of course, is By no means! Such an attitude—deciding ahead of time to take advantage of the grace of God—shows that a person does not understand the seriousness of sin and its consequences. It is akin to premeditation. Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death. God’s forgiveness does not make sin less serious; His Son’s death for our sin shows us the dreadful seriousness of sin. It is not something to be trifled with. Accordingly, God’s mercy must not become an excuse for careless living and moral laxness.

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Paul does not explain away the free grace of the Gospel, but he shows that justification and holiness are inseparable. The very thought that sin should continue simply to ensure that grace might thrive was abhorred by Paul. He taught that true believers are dead to sin, meaning they’ve been freed from bondage through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul’s point was that although we cannot out-sin the grace of God, we must reckon our bodies dead to sin—we should no longer be dominated by it. After all, as Romans 6:6 says, “We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life” (NIV).

Buried With Him; Raised With Him

“That’s what baptism into the life of Jesus means. When we are lowered into the water, it is like the burial of Jesus. Each of us is raised into a light-filled world by our Father so that we can see where we’re going in our new grace-sovereign country. Could it be any clearer? Our old way of life was nailed to the cross with Christ, a decisive end to that sin-miserable life—no longer at sin’s every beck and call! ” (Romans 6:3-6, MSG).

The above translation is from Eugene Peterson’s The Message. It is quite compelling. When we’re a new creation in Christ we develop a desire to become one with Him. The best way to express that underlying desire to others is through a change in character and a modification of behavior. We become willing to follow His commands. Baptism teaches the necessity of dying to sin, and being buried from all ungodly and unholy pursuits. We rise to walk with God in newness of life.

Romans 6:10 tells us, “The death he died, he died to sin once for all; but the life he lives, he lives to God” (NIV). Martin Luther wrote in his Commentary on Romans, “From this we clearly see what the words of the Apostle mean. All such statements as: 1. ‘We are dead to sin,” 2. ‘We live unto God,’ etc., signify that we do not yield to our sinful passions and sin, even though sin continues in us. Nevertheless, sin remains in us until the end of our life, as we read in Galatians 5:17: ‘The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other.'” However, Luther adds, “But to hate the body of sin and to resist it, is not an easy, but a most difficult task.”

A Living Sacrifice

“Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourself to God as those who have brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace” (Romans 6:12-14, NIV).

The Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible footnote for Romans 6:12 says, “Having proved the sinfulness of both Jews and Gentiles and that both must be redeemed alike by Christ through faith and grace, Paul now takes up the argument of the divine method of dealing with sin and the secret of a victorious holy life… the questions come up that if salvation is free and apart from works—if the more heinous the sins the more abundant the grace to pardon—then may we not go on in sin so that the grace of God may become magnified? God forbid” (p. 287).

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Luther notes in his preface to Commentary on Romans, “This Epistle is really the chief part of the New Testament and the very purest Gospel, and is worthy not only that every Christian should know it word for word, by heart, but occupy himself with it every day, as the daily bread of the soul” (p. 101). He states in the body of his Commentary that we are not found in a state of perfection as soon as we have been baptized into Jesus Christ and His death. Having been baptized into His death, we merely strive to obtain the blessings of this death and to reach our goal of glory.

“What then? Shall we sin because we are not under the law but under grace? By no means! Don’t you know that when you offer yourself to someone as obedient slaves, you are slaves of the one you obey—whether you are slaves to sin, which leads to death, or to obedience, which leads to righteousness. But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. You have been set free from sin and become slaves to righteousness” (Romans 6:15-18, NIV).

Paul is describing licentiousness in the above passage. Literally, a license to sin. You’ll notice Paul asks the same question he put to the Romans in verse one, just in case they didn’t get it. This time he expands on the slavery example that he mentioned in verse seven. In verses fifteen through eighteen he states that the master you choose leads either to righteousness and life or to sin and death. One way or the other, we will serve somebody. The option to live life without serving either sin or righteousness is not open to us.

Eugene Peterson, in The Message, says “So, since we’re out from under the old tyranny, does that mean we can live any old way we want?” (Romans 6:15, MSG). This is a rather eye-opening interpretation of Paul’s words. Since we’re free in the sanctification of God, can we do anything that comes to mind? Hardly. I believe Paul’s intent is to clarify the fact that if we offer ourselves to sin it will be our last free act.

Paul is telling us the buzzword for this section of Chapter 6 is yield. It means “to place at one’s disposal, to present, to offer as a sacrifice.” The flow of Paul’s argument in Romans is to first set forth the fallen condition of all men, then the Gospel message of salvation by faith in Jesus Christ. Paul is appealing to the believers in Rome to offer themselves unto God, bowing to His will for them, because of all that God has done for them. Also, it’s important to note that Paul is focusing on “living sacrifices” instead of the dead sacrifices God required under the Law of Moses (see Romans 12:1).

Sin Shall Not Reign

Paul’s point is this: “That means you must not give sin a vote in the way you conduct your lives. Don’t give it the time of day. Don’t even run little errands that are connected with that old way of life. Throw yourselves wholeheartedly and full-time—remember, you’ve been raised from the dead!—into God’s way of doing things. Sin can’t tell you how to live. After all, you’re not living under that old tyranny any longer. You’re living in the freedom of God” (Romans 6:12-14, MSG). Luther writes, “This is understood not only of lusting after earthly goods and temporal possessions, but also of aversion to temporal affliction and adversity. He who has Christ by faith does not desire the things of this world, no matter how greatly they may allure Him” (p. 104).

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This doesn’t mean we become unaffected by temptation just because we’re saved by grace. We are susceptible to both pleasure and displeasure. The key is to refuse to let sin reign in our lives. Again, we are not under the Law but under grace. This is true because the Law has been fulfilled by the sacrificial death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus tells us in John 8:34, “Very truly I tell you, everyone who sins is a slave to sin” (NIV). Luther notes Paul’s point as follows. “The apostle here meets the objection: How can anyone resist the onslaught of sin and passion? To this he replies: Sin shall not have dominion over you nor triumph over you, no matter how fiercely it may tempt and assail you, provided you do not yield to it. But he who is without faith in Christ is always dominated by sin, even when he does good…” (p. 105) [Italics added].

Every man is the servant of the master to whose commands he yields himself; whether it be the sinful tendencies of his heart, in actions which lead to death, or the new and spiritual obedience implanted by regeneration. Paul rejoices in verse 18: “You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness” (NIV). We have a new Master if we want to obey Him. We became enslaved to righteousness. God gave us a new Master; not a license to sin. Paul told the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by the yoke of slavery” (NIV). As believers, we have been purchased from the bonds of slavery to sin.

Concluding Remarks

When we accept Christ as Savior and confess our faith in Him, our past is blotted out through His atoning blood. Regardless of the nature of our offenses. Our past literally disappears from the sight of God. Psalm 103:10-12 tells us, “He does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his love for those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far has he removed our transgressions from us” (NIV).

When we’re born again, we identify ourselves with Jesus in His crucifixion. We can honestly say, “I am crucified.” Surely, we have no nail holes in our hands and feet, no scar in our side, but in a “legal” sense, as God looks upon us, He sees us crucified with Christ. We are not only crucified with Christ in His death, we are raised up with Him in his resurrection, unto a new creation. When we die with Christ, we die to our anger and resentment. Illicit lusts and desires are dealt with. Unclean habits no longer hold power over us. But let us not forget that just because we are born again we are not incapable of sinning. It is imperative that we identify with the death, burial and resurrection of Jesus. We must decide that we have been quickened—raised up together with Christ in new life. Only then will we be able to face the demonic powers of Satan. Our mantra must be Sin shall not have dominion over me because I have been raised from spiritual death with Christ.

References

Kennedy, F., Germaine, A., and Dake, Jr., F. (2008). Dake’s Annotated Reference Bible. Lawrenceville, GA: Dake Publishing, Inc.

Luther, M. (1954). Commentary on Romans. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publications.

Christ Suffered and Died: To Make Us Holy, Blameless, and Perfect

DURING THE WEEK LEADING up to Easter I will present seven distinct reasons why Christ suffered and died, culminating on Easter Sunday with To Reconcile Us to God. Today we look at Christ suffering and dying to make us holy, blameless, and perfect before the Father.

He has now reconciled [you] in His body of flesh by His death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before Him. (Colossians 1:22)

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ONE OF THE GREATEST heartaches in the Christian life is the slowness of our change. We hear the summons of God to love Him with all our heart and soul and mind and strength (Mark 12:30). But do we ever rise to that totality of affection and devotion? We cry out regularly with the apostle Paul, “O Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). We groan even as we take fresh resolve: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own” (Philippians 3:12).

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That very statement is the key to endurance and joy. “Christ Jesus has made me His own.” All my reaching and yearning and striving is not to belong to Christ (which has already happened), but to complete what is lacking in my likeness to Him. One of the greatest sources of joy and endurance for the Christian is knowing that in the imperfection of our progress we have already been perfected—and that this is owing to the suffering and death of Christ. “For by a single offering [namely, Himself!] He has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). This is amazing! In the same sentence He says we are “being sanctified” and we are already “perfected.”

Being sanctified means that we are imperfect and in process. We are becoming holy—but are not yet fully holy. And it is precisely these—and only these—who are already perfected. The joyful encouragement here is that the evidence of our perfection before God is not our experienced perfection, but our experienced progress. The good news is that being on the way is proof that we have arrived.

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The Bible pictures this again in the old language of dough and leaven (yeast). In the picture, leaven is evil. We are the lump of dough. It says, “Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7). Christians are “unleavened.” There is no leaven—no evil. We are perfected. For this reason we are to “cleanse out the old leaven.” We have been made unleavened in Christ. So we should now become unleavened in practice. In other words, we should become what we are.

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The basis of all this? “For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed.” The suffering of Christ secures our perfection so firmly that it is already now a reality. Therefore, we fight against our sin not simply to become perfect, but because we are. The death of Jesus is the key to battling our imperfections on the firm foundation of our perfection.

Martin Luther and the Righteousness of God

It was 500 years ago this year when Martin Luther took a stand against the various aspects of corruption and misguided doctrine within the Roman Catholic Church, thus launching the Reformation. On the heels of my class on the History of Christianity at Colorado Christian University, I read an article in Christianity Today, January/February 2017, Vol. 61, No. 1, by David Zahl, titled, “Justify Yourself.” I find the Protestant Reformation to be a very engaging and fascinating topic, and, indeed, consider Martin Luther to be one of my heroes of the Medieval Church. It was an easy decision for me to do my final paper on Martin Luther.

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Zahl, wondering whether the Reformation is over, writes, “Don’t we get the message already? Aren’t we all on the same page when it comes to salvation by grace through faith? The short answer appears to be no.” This has been true for me personally, which is why I have struggled for decades with my will versus God’s, and with forgetting that I am nowhere near equipped to ever be justified by my own actions. I consider myself somewhat of an amateur scholar of the Apostle Paul, especially of his Epistle to the Romans. I find chapters six, seven and eight of Romans to explain the very essence of the Gospel. I relate fully to Paul’s commentary on warring with the flesh, especially having spent forty years in active addiction.

LUTHER’S BREAKTHROUGH

Martin Luther had an overpowering sense of his own sinfulness. He spent a great deal of time in confession, and often worried that he might have “forgotten” something he did wrong, thereby not making a thorough confession. He believed this would put him in jeopardy of losing the reward of being completely forgiven. As a monk, he was remarkably astute. He plunged into prayer, fasting, and ascetic practices – going without sleep, enduring bone-chilling cold without a blanket, and flagellating himself. As he later commented, “If anyone could have earned heaven by the life of a monk, it was I.”

Though he sought by these means to love God fully, he found no consolation. He was increasingly terrified of the wrath of God. Not knowing what to do, he began pouring over the first chapter of Romans. The 17th verse was literally keeping him up at night: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, the just shall live by faith.” (KJV) Luther had been trained in the Medieval understanding of Paul’s phrase the righteousness of God as being shorthand for the awesome holiness of God, before which all of mankind must quake in fear. Basically, Luther understood the verse to mean, “The Gospel reveals that God punishes sinners,” which, of course, is no Gospel at all.

In his article, David Zahl writes, “Brother Martin, you see, possessed what might politely be called an overactive conscience. Today he’d likely be termed a neurotic or ‘a real handful.’ Whatever the root of his sensitivities, they had already driven him into a monastery, where he hoped a life of radical service might bring him the peace with God he craved.” Finally, on this particular day, as Luther meditated on Romans 1:17, he had an epiphany. Zahl said this is how Luther described it: “I grasped that the righteousness of God is that righteousness by which through grace and sheer mercy God justifies us through faith. Thereupon, I felt myself to be reborn and to have gone through open doors into paradise.”

As Zahl explained in his article, Luther came to realize the difference between the righteousness of the law and the righteousness of the Gospel, or that which can be earned by man (although not really!) and that which is given by God. Prior to this point in this studies, Luther regarded both God’s law and His Gospel as the same thing, and held that there was no difference between Christ and Moses except their degrees of perfection. Luther said, “When I realized the law was one thing, and the Gospel another, I broke through and was free.”

RADICAL DISTINCTION IN AN UNDIVIDED WORD

It’s been said many times that there’s really nothing new under the sun. What was believed hundreds of years ago is often still considered true today. I, for one, believed for many years that the Bible is divided into two halves. There is the Old Testament (the Law of God) and the New Testament (the Gospel of God). Of course, this in effect shackles the Word of God. The distinction between the Law and the Gospel is less about imposing a doctrinal straight-jacket on the Bible than about engaging a living God over the entirety of an unfolding story. If anything, reading the Bible through the eyeglasses of “law” and “Gospel” safeguards the Word from being read predominantly as an instruction manual and more as a living instrument of the Spirit that proclaims God’s work in the world on behalf of sinners in need of saving. From cover to cover, the Bible is about creation, fall, redemption, and restoration.

As Zahl puts it, “Indeed, the distinction between law and Gospel is a powerful explanation of how the Bible doesn’t just sit there; it reaches out and grasps us, shakes us, transforms us, frees, us – it kills us and makes us alive. Luther said, “There is no man on living Earth who knows how to distinguish rightly between the law and the Gospel. We may think  we understand it when we are listening to a sermon, but we’re far from it.” Luther believed only the Holy Spirit knows how to make this distinction.

THE LAW

Luther believed that God has spoken to human beings and continues to speak to human beings in two words: law and Gospel. He believed these words are distinct from one another but not inseparable. The basic distinction is as follows: The law tells us what we ought to do; the Gospel tells us what God has done. The law shows us that we need to be forgiven; the Gospel announces that we have been forgiven. The law paves the way for the Gospel by revealing our predicament, and the Gospel proclaims the Good News to those struck down by the law.

What most of us think of when we think of “the law” in religious terms is, of course, the capital-L Law of God, the Oughts and Ought Nots that we find spelled out in the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount. We automatically think of the great commandments of God: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t worship idols, love God with all your heart. This Law shows us the true outline of holiness. And in doing so, it reveals us to be selfish, obstinate, self-centered people, fundamentally flawed, turned away from what is right, away from God Himself. Of course, the Law ultimately shows us our own mortality, for it reveals the wages of sin. (Romans 6:23)

I’m impressed by Luther’s description of the law as “a constant guest” in our conscience. Zahl puts it this way: “You might say that the little-l law is the air we breath as human beings, the default setting, the quid pro quo that characterizes our internal life and much of our external one as well.” In other words, to get approval, we have to achieve something. We have to do something. Behavior precedes belovedness: Climb the ladder, or else. Zahl makes an interesting comment that we could be walking down the street, mid-week, not giving any thought to last Sunday’s lesson at church, yet our behavior is governed by subconscious commands telling us, in much the same dogmatic fashion that was once reserved for religious commands, “Thou shalt be skinny, successful, independent, self-actualized.” We have grown accustomed to the internalized voice of a demanding parent; that feeling of never being quite enough, which drives us to the point of exhaustion.

THE GOSPEL

The second word, Gospel, means good news. News is not a command. Command comes in the imperative voice – “Do this” – and news in the indicative voice – “This has been done.” Look at it this way: We typically watch the evening news to hear what has happened or has been done. For Christians, of course, the good news is Jesus Christ, who died and rose again, taking the entirety of God’s wrath upon Himself and setting us free. The Gospel announces that because of Christ’s death and resurrection we are justified by grace through faith: not by what we do, or even by who are are, but by what Christ has done and who He is. Our guilt has been atoned for, and the deepest judgment satisfied, reconciling us with the Father. While the law is conditional – a two-way street – the gift of Christ is unconditional. Like all true gifts, we have to do nothing to earn it or deserve it. His affection cannot be bought or merited. It is a free gift with no strings attached. Jesus simply gave.

Much like capital-L and little-l forms of law, there exists a corollary between the capital-G Gospel of Jesus and little-g grace in human affairs. We see this played out in our own lives  and those of others around us. When it comes to lifting the human spirit, nothing is more potent than love in the midst of deserved judgments. This is sometimes referred to as unconditional love. Grace proves, time and again, to be the force that inspires service and creativity; hope and vulnerability; new life. Biblical figures like Zachaeus and Gomer, fictional ones like Jean Valjean and Ebenezer Scrooge, and historical figures like John Newton and Martin Luther King, Jr. testify to such human qualities.

A grace-centered view of the world takes for granted that we are all severely handicapped in our ability to love one another, and that we stand a better chance of loving our neighbor when we aren’t looking to them to do or be what they cannot do or be. Christian hope, therefore, lies in not having to generate love on our own steam but in prior belovedness, expressed in sacrificial terms, and in spite of our being undeserving. This, of course, is the very definition of divine love. It is known by its tendency to seek out and care for the unlovable. The law commands that we love perfectly; the Gospel tells us that we are perfectly loved. Consider, for a moment, how “humanly” impossible it is to love in the manner described in 1 Corinthians 13 (“The Message” translation):

Love never gives up.
Love cares more for others than for self.
Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have.
Love doesn’t strut,
Doesn’t have a swelled head,
Doesn’t force itself on others,
Isn’t always “me first,”
Doesn’t fly off the handle,
Doesn’t keep score of the sins of others,
Doesn’t revel when others grovel,
Takes pleasure in the flowering of truth,
Puts up with anything,
Trusts God always,
Always looks for the best,
Never looks back,
But keeps going to the end.

One of Luther’s earliest and most important expressions came in thesis 26 of The Heidelberg Disputation (1518). He wrote, “The law says, ‘Do this,’ and it is never done. Grace says, ‘Believe in this,’ and everything is already done.” As Zahl notes, “The pressure to self-justify has been removed, and it has been replaced with freedom: the freedom to die and yet to live, to fail and yet to succeed. The freedom to love, to serve, to wait, to laugh, to cry, to sit idle, to get busy – yes, even to play.”

One Day – From the Journal of Katie Davis (September 2, 2008)

Until very recently, I had forgotten about God’s unconditional and undying love for mankind. For me specifically, and for every man, woman, and child on the face of the Earth in general. I am reading a book I borrowed from an elder at my church called Kisses From Katie, written by a young woman who went from high school to Uganda at age 18 to care for and teach Ugandan children. The conditions in the villages are horrific and deplorable. Her love for the people blinded her to the filth and stench.

Katie Davis is a young woman who, at 18 years old, senior class president, and homecoming queen, left Nashville, Tennessee over Christmas break of her senior year for “a short mission trip” to Uganda. Her life was turned completely inside out. She found herself so moved by the people of Uganda and the needs she saw that she knew her calling was to return and care for them. And so she did after graduating from high school. Her book takes us on a journey that can only come from radical love. Katie chose to sleep on a tiny cot in an orphanage, delivering first aid to children who have lost their parents to HIV Aids, famine, and, too often, war and murder.

Katie stayed in Uganda for more than a year, where she moved off her cot and into a house large enough to start a small school and adopt nine orphaned children. Her ministry has grown into an NGO (non-government organization) that now operates a school program for hundreds of children.

In keeping with a promise she made to her parents, she returned to the United States in 2008 to start college. Almost immediately, she felt like a stranger in a strange land, longing to return to her adopted children and the ministry she started. The following is an entry from her journal, dated September 2, 2008, that brought me to tears and convicted me as to my life and my modicum of service to the Lord. It is a bit long, but well worth your time.

One Day – September 2, 2008

Ordinary people.

He chose Moses. He chose David. He chose Peter and Paul. He chose me. He chose you. Common people. Simple people. People with nothing special about them. Nothing special except they said “yes.” They obeyed. They took the task God assigned them and they did it. They didn’t always do it well, but they said “yes,” and with His help they did it anyway.

Extraordinary tasks.

Moses was a murderer, a shepherd just trying to mind his own business and move on with his life when he watched a bush catch fire and not burn up. God wanted to use him to lead His chosen people people out of Egypt. Moses was human and told God that He had the wrong guy. Moses wasn’t an eloquent speaker, and he was afraid. But he said “yes,” and God used him anyway. The Red Sea parted, bread fell from heaven, and people believed.

Jonah was an ordinary fisherman and God wanted to use him to set Nineveh free of its wicked ways. Jonah was human and quickly ran away, overwhelmed by the task God had given him. From the belly of a fish, he repented, he begged God for forgiveness. He said “yes,” and God used him anyway. The people of Nineveh believed in God, turned from their wicked ways, and were spared from destruction.

David was a shepherd boy, pretty much the runt of the litter, the very last thought in his father’s mind, and despised by his brothers. God wanted to use him to be the next great king of Israel. Though everyone doubted and watched in horror, David said “yes,” and God used him anyway. Little David used a stone to take down the giant Philistine. The Philistines  were defeated, and though David continued to make mistakes, God used him to make Israel a great nation and relay His words to many people.

Mary was a peasant girl, probably a teenager, getting ready to marry a local carpenter. God wanted to use her to carry His Son, hope for all mankind, into the world. She asked the angel, “Why me?” and “How?” Ultimately, though, she surrendered herself to His will. She said “yes,” and God used her anyway. A baby was born who transformed the world then, and still does today.

Paul was a young man who made it his goal to destroy Christianity, dragging believers to prison and even killing them. God wanted to use him to proclaim His name to Gentiles all over the world. Paul  had a violent history and initially other believers were afraid. But he said “yes,” he fearlessly proclaimed the Gospel, and God used him anyway. Paul performed and witnessed miracles, wrote close to half the Bible, and spread the Good News all over the world.

Sometimes, the everyday routine of my life feels so normal to me. At other times the idea of raising all these children seems like quite a daunting task. I realize that since I have chosen an unusual path it is easier for outsiders to look at my life and come to the conclusion that it is something extraordinary. That I am courageous. That I am strong. That I am special. But I am just a plain girl from Tennessee. Broken in many ways, sinful, and inadequate. Common and simple with nothing special about me. Nothing special except I choose to say “yes.” “Yes” to the things God asks of me and “yes” to the people He places in front of me. You can too. I am just an ordinary person. An ordinary person serving an extraordinary God.

Are You New?

Most people want to be someone new. This is why seemingly every cover of the most popular magazines and books, the topics of the most popular radio and TV shows, and the most trafficked blogs and websites are about one thing. Becoming a new you. Most everyone, even if they don’t use the biblical language of sin and redemption, knows something is wrong, that we’re not entirely who we could or should be, and that making changes would be a good thing. Using biblical language, we want to be “saved” from the consequences of our sin. We want to be “justified” or declared good by whomever or whatever we worship, which can range from Jesus to a false deity. We want our friends and co-workers to have a high opinion of us. We want approval from our parents, or even ourselves.

As humans, we are religious by fallen nature, which means we think we can be justified in one of four ways. First, loosely religious people assume they’re good enough and that no spiritual devotion or extra effort is required for God to be pleased with them. Such people make moderate life corrections and learn occasional new life lessons, but for the most part they believe that only really bad people (and not themselves) need to be made new. Basically, they’re already saved and justified in their own minds. Isaiah 64:6 says, “We are all infected and impure with sin. When we display our righteous deeds, they are nothing but filthy rags. Like autumn leaves, we wither and fall, and our sins sweep us away like the wind.”

Second, secular religious people work very hard at social causes because they think they’re good and need to overcome evil with their goodness. These people tend to see others’ problems more than their own and smugly think they’re God’s gift to the world, here to change it and make it new. They justify themselves by saving the rest of us.

Third, non-Christian spiritual people try to change themselves with vaguely spiritual self-help books and programs, wanting to become new but not understanding how to achieve that in Christ. They follow the trendy books and ideas about loving oneself as the means by which they can unleash their potential and change their life. For them, God provided principles to save and justify ourselves. They add something you will not find in the Bible: God only helps those who help themselves.

Fourth, devoutly religious people work hard at keeping the rules of a particular religion in an effort to justify themselves as good and obedient people in God’s sight. Such people try very hard to do the right thing so God will love them and be pleased with them. This thinking is pernicious, and likely most common for the kind of people who would read books by Christian authors rather than seeking a relationship with Christ.

Paul was a man just like this until he became a Christian. He put off his old religious identity and put on his new identity in Christ. Paul lists his “religious” credentials in Philippians 3:5-6. Paul’s point was that he had a perfect record. By the religious rules of his people, he would’ve been considered nearly perfect. Of course, inwardly he was filled with the sins of pride and self-righteousness. What exactly is self-righteousness? It means being convinced of one’s own righteousness especially in contrast with the actions and beliefs of others. This type of person is narrow mindedly moralistic. They are not willing to accept opinions, beliefs, or behaviors that are unusual or different from their own. They are completely confident of their own righteousness, especially regarding morals. A selfrighteous person acts superior to his peers because he believes his moral standards are perfect.

Though Paul looked perfect on the outside, he believed that his noble birth, impeccable education, tireless work ethic, clean lifestyle, and unprecedented religious devotion to be rubbish compared to his new identity. Having been made new, Paul had righteousness through faith in Christ. The Greek word for rubbish (skubala) means refuse, dregs, or dung. This tells us exactly what Paul thought about his former life. After having a new identity in Christ, Paul found every previous effort and accomplishment to be as worthless as stinky trash, and as disgusting as a steaming pile of dog dung.

Speaking from his own experience and identity in Christ, Paul explains how we live out our new identity in Ephesians 4:14-24, which says, “With the Lord’s authority I say this: Live no longer as the Gentiles do, for they are hopelessly confused. Their minds are full of darkness; they wander far from the life God gives because they have closed their minds and hardened their hearts against him. They have no sense of shame. They live for lustful pleasure and eagerly practice every kind of impurity. But that isn’t what you learned about Christ. Since you have heard about Jesus, and have learned the truth that comes from Him, throw off your old sinful nature and your former way of life, which is corrupted by lust and deception. Instead, let the Holy Spirit renew your thoughts and attitudes. Put on your new nature, created to be like God; truly righteous and holy.” (NLT) Repentance is explained in terms of walking down a different path than we have been, by putting off our old self and putting on our new self. One way to define repentance is a turning away from what was.

Practically, this means we no longer think, desire, or act according to our old identity as someone disconnected from Jesus Christ. Instead, we have a new identity in Jesus, and we become a new person, created according to God in true righteousness and holiness. Of course, we have to learn to walk in the Spirit and not in the flesh. Paul says this new identity has to be put on like clothing. Therefore, it is a good idea every day as we dress ourselves physically to also pray that God would dress us spiritually to live out our identity in Christ as we go through our day. But how do we put off our old self and put on our new self? The answer is found in the effects of Christ’s work on the cross. He made justification, regeneration, and glorification possible for us. Justification makes us externally new. Regeneration makes us internally new. Glorification makes us eternally new in Christ.

While we’re genuinely new in Christ, we’re not yet completely new in Christ. There is still a seed of rebellion in us. There are temptations all around us, and the snares of the devil have been set. In this life, we continually grow to live out of our new identity as new people in Christ through a process called sanctification. In this process, we learn more about Jesus and become more and more like Him by the power of the Holy Spirit as we believe the Bible truths I’ve talked about in this blog post.

One day, we will die. If we die in Christ, we’re made fully, completely, unchangingly, and eternally new. This is called glorification. On that day, your faith will be rewarded as you see the risen and reigning Jesus face-to-face. On that day, everyone in Christ will be made completely perfect as together we rise like Jesus to be like Him forever. In Christ, you are new.