The Power of “And” in God’s Promises of Blessings and Curses

When we make a promise we essentially give an assurance that we will engage in or refrain from a specific form of activity. These commitments are typically made between individuals, and can include quite a range of activities. Simple promises can be written or oral, and may be temporary or lifelong. Such gestures are often sealed by a gesture, such as a simple handshake or a solemn oath. Complicated situations often require a witness and legal ratification. However, a covenant should be distinguished from a contract because it is a personal relationship into which people voluntarily enter. 

Promises may also be between groups of people. Where important bodies are involved, such as government entities, such promises generally assume the form of treaties. Among honest individuals a promise includes an expectation that the promisor is both willing and able to fulfill the commitment to the promise, with the undertaking being accepted on the basis of good faith. Where groups of people are involved, litigation is often resorted to in order to resolve the damage occasioned by the failure of the promisor to fulfill the stated obligations. In the case of broken international treaties, appeal may be made to an international judicial body for some type of redress. In some instances, military action might even be undertaken by the aggrieved party.

Scripture records agreements between individuals in the second millennium BC in Mesopotamia. A classic example is noted in Genesis 31:43-55 regarding Laban and Jacob when Jacob was seeking his independence. A covenant was established between them in which the two men agreed not to act aggressively toward one another. Each man swore an oath by his god, and erected a stone marker to commemorate the occasion. On his deathbed, Jacob promised his twelve sons that the future would hold certain prospects for them, and according to contemporary custom this statutory declaration to each of them gave the pronouncements legal force (see Genesis 49:1-33).

“AND” IS NOT JUST A CONJUNCTION

So let’s take a few minutes to discuss conjunction. My 9th grade English teacher told me a conjunction is a word used to connect clauses or sentences or to coordinate words in the same clause. We all know the usual suspects: and, but, if. Fine, but why “conjunction?” Actually, these clauses are called conjuncts of the conjoining construction. Okay, right. We can take it a step further, noting coordinating conjunctions, subordinating conjunctions, and correlative conjunctions.

…and who could forget this?

God has made it clear that “and” is not merely a conjunction. He is not interested in grammar. Rather, He is intent on setting the operating principles for His many promises and covenants.

A promise meant to bring great blessing to humanity was made by God to Abraham in Genesis 12:2-3. God said, “I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all the peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (NIV). Abraham, although childless, was to become the progenitor of a great nation. God repeated this promise to Abraham in Genesis 15:5. By faith, Abraham believed God’s utterances. God brought His promise even closer to fulfillment by stating that Sarah would have a son (see Genesis 18:10). Thereafter, Abraham rested his confidence in God’s divinity, and lived to see the Lord’s assurances implemented in what Paul, millennia later, was to call the “covenants of the promise” (Ephesians 2:12; Galatians 3:6-17).

The word covenant is of Latin origin (con venire). It means “coming together,” and involves two or more parties who agree to an arrangement—promises, stipulations, privileges, and responsibilities. In Christian theology, it is similar to the word bond. The generally-accepted idea of a bond between two parties in a covenant implies that the arrangement is not unilateral. There are of course pronounced similarities between biblical and secular covenants. God is the originator of the concept of covenant. He used covenant relationships in His creation activity and handiwork. Covenant is an integral part of the patchwork of human life; it is God-implanted.

The basic elements of a covenant are embedded in the Genesis account. God, in His revelation of creation, presented Himself as the Creator. The historical record of what He has done was outlined in Scripture. He created His image-bearers by means of which He placed and kept man and woman in a close relationship with Himself and had them mirror and represent Him within the created universe. God clearly provided man with various stipulations or mandates. This makes perfect sense; as image-bearers, man is to maintain an intimate and obedient fellowship with God. The Sabbath was to enhance this. Humanity was to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth; this was to be done by establishing families; a man was to leave his parents and cleave to his wife (see Genesis 2:24). Becoming one flesh, they would bear offspring.

As families increased, communities were formed. This was the social mandate aspect of God’s covenant. The cultural mandate essentially involved man and woman cultivating (“subduing,” NIV) and ruling over God’s creation. When God saw all He had done, He confirmed it so, but not by expressing an oath or performing a ratifying ceremony. Rather, He declared all to be very good (see Genesis 1:31). He confirmed this by ceasing all aspects of creation and establishing the seventh day as a day of rest, sanctity, and blessing (see Genesis 2:1-3).

WHAT ABOUT THE TWO-WAY STREET?

God did more than just “create” and sit down. He spoke of assured blessings. He blessed Adam and Eve, giving them the authority to serve as His covenant agents. He provided for their sustenance (see Genesis 1:28-30). He also spoke of the possibility for disobedience if they ate of the fruit of the Tree Knowledge of Good and Evil (see Genesis 2:17). God clearly focused on the idea of blessing (life) and curse (death). God’s covenants were all-inclusive stipulations. Basically, He said, “Here’s what you can have if you obey my covenant.” God clearly wanted it understood that His covenants are two-way streets. We cannot pick and choose which aspects we’re going to obey.

His covenants were never terminated. Paul said, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever” (Hebrews 13:8, NIV). I love Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase of this verse: “For Jesus doesn’t change—yesterday, today, tomorrow, he’s always totally himself” (MSG). Jesus was quite clear: “For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:18, NIV). Frankly, God’s covenants are similar to a lateral contract. When you buy a house or vehicle, you enter into a contract that is essentially a two-way street. You get to keep driving the car or living in the house until all agreed-upon payments (terms) have been met. Title of ownership then transfers to you. You reap the benefits of upholding your end of the agreement. Miss a lot of payments (default on the covenant) and the benefits of ownership will not pass to you.

A PRIME EXAMPLE

Jesus told us in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others of their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (NIV). I’m aware that this doctrine causes many to doubt, stumble, question God. The going argument is this: But I thought all my sins were forgiven when I accepted Christ, and that He removed my sins from me as far as the East is from the West. It’s clear that the death of Jesus Christ was ransom enough to cover a multitude of sins. By God’s grace we are saved. Yet we remain in a fleshly body and are, therefore, prone to carnality. We’re likely to stumble, but hopefully we do not intentionally disobey God. To do so is a slap in the face of Jesus.

Believers are rather enthusiastic about grace. We’re quite excited about having been forgiven through God’s grace, extended to us through Christ. So why do many of us have a difficult time extending this same grace to those who have sinned against us? Bevere (2004), in his book The Bait of Satan, notes that there are two types of people: Those who have been offended, and those who think they have been offended. Forgiveness goes much deeper than merely receiving it for ourselves and going about living our lives. We’re commanded to forgive others. This should be part of our testimony. We’re to shower others with forgiveness even as we have been forgiven. Peter was concerned about how many times we should extend forgiveness: “At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, ‘Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?’ Jesus replied, ‘Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven'” (Matthew 18:21-22, MSG).

The true meaning of forgiveness is cancelling a debt. C.S. Lewis (1984) said, “Real forgiveness means looking steadily at the sin, the sin that is left over without any excuse, after all allowances have been made, and seeing it all in its horror, dirt, meanness and malice, and nevertheless being wholly reconciled to the man who has done it.” Forgiveness means releasing resentment. Frankly, suppressed resentment will never go away. It lies in wait, like a subtext, tainting our relationships and convincing us we’re right. It blinds us to seeing whatever part we might have played in a conflict. It’s like a smoldering fire inside a house. It can break out anywhere at any time.

Forgiveness means choosing love. When we choose to not forgive, we construct walls to safeguard our hearts and prevent future wounds. Remember the adage, Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me? Nearly all of us take that axiom to heart. This rationale causes us to become selective, denying entry to all we fear will hurt us. Unfortunately, these so-called walls of protection become a veritable prison. Our focus becomes, well, rather self-centered. Our focus is inward and introspective. It’s all about what the other person did to us. Our energy is consumed with making sure no one else hurts us. Bevere (2004) said, “If we don’t risk being hurt, we cannot give unconditional love. Unconditional love gives others the right to hurt us” (p. 16). Of course, that sounds rather counter-intuitive doesn’t it?

 Love does not seek its own, but hurt people become more and more self-seeking and self-contained. They do this in the interest of self-preservation. The offended Christian is one who takes in life but, because of fear, cannot share life. As a result, even the life that does come in becomes stagnant within the walls we build to avoid getting hurt. Bevere (2004) adds, “When we filter everything through past hurts, rejections, and experiences, we find it impossible to believe God” (p. 17). Let’s remember this: A minister or a Christian is what he lives, not what he says. If we are offended and in unforgiveness and refuse to repent of this sin, we have not come to the knowledge of the truth. We are deceived, and we confuse others with our hypocritical lifestyle.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

God clearly focused on the idea of blessings and curses. He was quite specific that His covenants are all-inclusive stipulations. He told us what we can have if we obey His covenant. He wants us to understand that His covenants are two-way streets. We cannot pick and choose which aspects we’re going to obey and still expect to be blessed. One of the best examples of this is His position on forgiveness. Jesus said, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44, NIV). He forgave the Jewish mob who demanded His crucifixion. He forgave the Roman soldiers who beat Him and nailed Him to the cross. He even forgave Judas Iscariot. He made no threats. Instead, he entrusted Himself to Him judges justly” (1 Peter 2:21-23).

We have to come to the place where we trust God and not our flesh—our emotions. We need to understand the quid pro quo of God’s covenants. Of His promised blessings. We must become willing to forgive, even as we have been forgiven. Only then can we walk in the freedom and the joy of God’s blessings.

References

Bevere, J. (2004), The Bait of Satan: Living Free From the Deadly Trap of Offense. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House.

Lewis, C.S. (1984). The Business of Heaven. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Press.

Peterson, E. (2006). The Message//Remix: The Bible in Contemporary Language. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress Publishing.

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The Peacemaker (Part 3)

The Peacemaker: A Biblical Perspective on Resolving Personal Conflicts and Letting Go of Resentment.

Blessed Peacemakers Matthew 5.jpg

The goal of a peacemaker is to magnify the marvelous undeserved forgiveness that God has given to us through Christ and to inspire people to imitate such forgiveness to others. Jesus told us in the Sermon on the Mount, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). As Christians, it is very important that we understand this verse correctly. Note we’re admonished to be peacemakers not peacekeepers. It would be a drastic error to misquote the Words of Jesus. Although it might sound like mere semantics, Christ urges that we make peace rather than keep the peace. The Gospel and peacemaking are interdependent. The Gospel is the very catalyst for peace. As believers, we are incapable of promoting real peace in the flesh. It requires the power of the Holy Spirit.

Peacemakers strive to make peace and attempt to reconcile things and people that are at odds with one another. Peacekeepers, on the other hand, strive to keep peace at all costs. Proverbs 10:10 says, “People who wink at wrong cause trouble, but a bold reproof promotes peace” (NTL). Peacekeepers, by not acknowledging wrongdoings in an effort to make peace, are actually winking at them. We must be about peacemaking as believers. My church contains in its bylaws language about peacemaking being part of our mission.

Speak the Truth in Love

Peacemaking does not—indeed, cannot—happen by accident. It is a purposeful act. In fact, peacemaking is a higher priority than worship. Of course, love is the underlying commandment. John 13:34-35 says, “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so must you love one another. By this everyone will know that you’re my disciples, if you love one another” (NIV). People should be able to catch a glimpse of the Father when they look at us.

Ephesians 4:15 says, “Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Him who is the head, that is Christ.” Words play a key role in almost every conflict. When used properly, words promote understanding and encourage agreement. When misused, they usually aggravate conflicts and drive people further apart. If your words seem to do more harm than good when you try to resolve a disagreement, don’t give up. With God’s help you can improve your ability to communicate constructively.

Bring Hope Through the Gospel

When someone has disappointed or offended us, our human reaction is to come at them with the law, lecturing them about what they have done wrong and what they should do now to make things right. This approach generally makes people defensive and reluctant to admit their wrongs, which makes a conflict worse. The Lord is graciously working to teach us a better way to approach others about their failures. Instead of coming at them from a position of legalism, we need to bring them the Gospel. In other words, rather than dwelling on what people should do or have failed to do, we must focus primarily on what God has done and is doing for them in Christ. This is commanded throughout Scripture.

When Jesus confronted the Samaritan woman, instead of hammering away at her sinful lifestyle (as many pastors sadly do today), He spent most of His time engaging her in a conversation about salvation, eternal life, true worship, and the coming of the Messiah (see John 4:7-26). The woman responded eagerly to this Gospel-focused approach, let down her defenses, and put her trust in Christ. Although Jesus changed this focus when rebuking hard-hearted Pharisees, His typical approach to bringing people to repentance was to bring them the Good News of God’s forgiveness (see Luke 19:1-10; John 8:10-11).

The apostle Paul had a similar approach, even when he had to deal with serious sin. In his first letter the Corinthians, he had to address divisions, immorality, lawsuits, food sacrificed to idols, and the misuse of the Lord’s Supper and spiritual gifts. But before addressing these terrible sins, Paul’s gracious greeting held out hope for forgiveness and change by reminding the Corinthians of what God had already done for them through Christ. What a marvelous way to set the stage for repentance and change. Paul always kept Jesus in the center of his instruction and admonishment by first providing the believers a detailed description of God’s redemptive plan. When Paul finally got around to addressing errors in the congregation, his readers were already standing on a foundation of hope and encouragement.

Paul took the same approach with the Philippians and Colossians, who also needed correction and instruction. He begins his letters to these two churches by drawing attention to what God has done in each of them. As he continued, he frequently referred to the Gospel as he moved from issue to issue. For example, look at what Paul writes in Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” Before admonishing these believers, Paul reminds them of who they are in Christ.

Be Quick to Listen

Another element of effective communication is to listen carefully to what others are actually saying. Knowing this is not in our human nature, James gave this warning: “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20, NIV). Good listening is particularly important for a peacemaker. It improves your ability to understand others, it shows that you realize you do not have all the answers, and it tells the other person that you value his or her thoughts and opinions. Even if you don’t agree with what others say or do, your willingness to listen demonstrates respect and shows that you are trying to comprehend their perspective. This typically helps create an atmosphere of mutual respect that will improve communication.

Waiting…

Waiting patiently while others talk is a key listening skill that is a must for all peacemakers. Without this skill, you will often fail to understand the root cause of a conflict, and you may complicate matters with inappropriate reactions. As Proverbs 18:13 tells us, “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame” (NIV). In other words, avoid jumping to premature conclusions about what others are thinking; give them time and hear them out. Discipline yourself not to interrupt others while they are speaking. Learn to be comfortable with silence and do not respond the moment there is a pause. Moreover, do not offer immediate solutions to every problem others bring to you.

Reflecting or “paraphrasing” is the process of summarizing the other person’s main points in your own words and sending them back in a constructive way. This is the very definition of active listening. Reflecting may deal with both the content of what the other person has said and the associated feelings. Reflecting does not require that you agree with what the other person says; it simply reveals whether you comprehend another person’s thoughts and feelings. Reflecting shows that you are paying attention and you are trying to understand or empathize with them. Besides, reflecting what others are saying can make them more willing to listen to what you want to say.

Engage Rather than Pronounce or Declare

One of the fastest ways to make people defensive is to abruptly announce what they have done wrong. If you launch into a direct and detailed description of their faults, they are likely to close their ears and launch a counterattack. It is wise to think carefully about how to open a conversation in a way that shows genuine concern for the other person and engages him in listening to your words without becoming defensive. If you are going to be candid—this is often doable when speaking to a close friend—you should first affirm your respect and friendship and then describe your concern in direct terms. If strong trust has not been built between you, however, or if the issue is likely to trigger defensiveness, you would be wise to broach your concern in an indirect way that engages the other person’s heart and mind without putting him instantly on guard.

Whatever approach you use, your goal should be to describe your concern in a way that captures others’ attention, appeals to their values, and gives hope that the issue can be resolved constructively. The more you engage another person’s heart and the less you declare his or her wrongs, the more likely he or she is to listen to you. Communicate clearly enough that you cannot be misunderstood. Many conflicts are caused or aggravating by misunderstandings. People may say things that are actually true or inappropriate, but because they did not choose their words carefully they leave room for others to misconstrue what they mean and take offense. Fewer factors can derail peacemaking than miscommunication.

Use the Bible Carefully

It is often helpful to refer to the Bible as a source of objective truth when you have a disagreement with another Christian. If this is not done with great care, however, it will alienate people rather than persuade them. Never quote the Bible to tear others down, but only to build them up in the Lord. Make sure to use Scripture passages for their intended purpose. Never pull a verse out of context and try to make it say something other than its clear meaning. It’s advisable to encourage others to read the passage from their own Bibles; then ask, “What do you think that means?” This typically yields far better results than imposing your interpretation on them.

It is also paramount that you know when to stop. If the other person appears to be getting irritated by your references to Scripture, it may be wise to back off and give him or her time to think about what you’ve presented to them.

Summary and Application

Effective confrontation is like a graceful dance from being supportive to assertive and back again. This dance may feel awkward at first for those who are just learning it, but perseverance pays off. With God’s help you can learn to speak the truth in love by saying only what will build others up, by listening responsibly to what others say, and by using principles of wisdom. As you practice these skills and make them a normal part of your everyday conversation, you will be well prepared to use them when conflict breaks out.  In developing the skills of loving confrontation, you can see for yourself that “the tongue of the wise brings healing.”

God bless and thanks for reading.

Join me next Monday when I wrap up this series on peacemaking. We’ll look at the importance of taking one or two others along when confronting others in the interest of peace. Matthew 18:16 says, “But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.

 

 

Jesus Calling

EXCERPT FROM JESUS CALLING: ENJOYING PEACE IN HIS PRESENCE
©2014 Sarah Young
December 16

I AM SPEAKING IN the depths of your being. Be still so that you can hear My voice. I speak in the language of Love; My words fill you with life and peace, joy and hope. I desire to talk with all of My children, but many are too busy to listen. The “work ethic” has them tied up in knots. They submit wholeheartedly to this taskmaster, wondering why they feel so distant from Me.

Living close to Me requires making Me your First Love – your highest priority. As you seek My presence above all else, you experience peace and joy in full measure. I also am blessed when you make Me first in your life. While you journey through life in My presence, My glory brightens the world around you.

The earth is filled with Your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees.

PSALM 119:64

The Sovereign LORD has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being taught.

ISAIAH 50:4

Yet I hold this against you: You have forsaken your first love.

–REVELATION 2:4

See, darkness covers the earth and thick darkness is over the people, but the LORD rises upon you and His glory appears over you.

–ISAIAH 60:2

 

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.

Luther

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.”

“Proof of Your Love (Monologue Mix)” By King & Country

If I sing but don’t have love,
I waste my breathe with every song
I bring; an empty voice
A hollow noise.

If I speak with a silver tongue,
Convince a crowd, but don’t have love,
I leave a bitter taste
With every word I say.

So let my life be the proof
of Your love;
Let my love look like You
And what You’re made of;
How You lived, how You died;
Love is sacrifice,
So let my life be the proof
The proof of Your love.

If I give to a needy soul,
But don’t have love, then who is poor?
It seems all the poverty
Is found in me.

If I speak with human eloquence
and angelic ecstasy,
but don’t love, I’m nothing but
the creaking of a rusty gate.

If I speak God’s Word with power,
revealing all His mysteries,
making everything plain as day,
and if I have faith that says to a mountain,
“Jump,” and it jumps, but I don’t love,
I’m nothing.

If I give everything I own to the poor,
and even go to the stake to be burned
as a martyr, but I don’t love,
I’ve gotten nowhere.
So, no matter what I say,
what I believe, and what I do,
I’m bankrupt without love.

Only love remains,
Only love remains.

Forgiven and Loved by Jimmy Needham

Tell me I’m forgiven and loved
‘Cause I hear it from the street corner priests
On how God is love and how man can be clean
But my joy has been on holiday
And my peace has almost passed away
Tell me I’m forgiven and free

O I tried and tried to rectify my hopeless situation
But I bought the lie I still have work to do
Now I’m working nine to five like I can earn my own salvation
But there is no condemnation in You

O whisper to me now that it’s for real
‘Cause in the silence of these walls righteousness lost its appeal
Dirty deeds have done me in
O but that can’t stop the faithful friend
Giving mercy once again as You heal
Here it is I’m feeling it

O He died, He died to rectify my hopeless situation
And His blood commands my guilt to leave
Now on Calvary I stand
Empty pockets, open hands
O there is no condemnation for me

Child, you’re forgiven and loved
Child, you’re forgiven and loved
Child, you’re forgiven
And child, you are loved
Child, you’re forgiven and loved

Attitude

Writing from a prison cell in Rome, the apostle Paul wrote about the attitude a Christian should have. “Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” (Philippians 1:27) He’s telling us that no matter what unexpected disruptions, frustrations, or difficulties come our way, we are to respond with a Christ-like attitude. Paul later writes, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Jesus Christ.” (Philippians 2:5) He also encourages us in Ephesians 5:1 to be “imitators of Christ as dearly beloved children.” As children love to imitate what they see and repeat what they hear, we also are charged to imitate and model Christ’s behavior and to be clear reflections of the Lord. (Matthew 5:16)

Jesus maintained a perfect attitude in every situation because He prayed about everything and worried about nothing. Reminds me of the saying, “If you’re going to pray, why worry? And if you’re going to worry, why pray?” We need to seek God’s guidance about every aspect of our lives and allow Him to work out His perfect will without interference. Jesus’ attitude was never to become defensive, discouraged, or depressed because His goal was to please the Father rather than to achieve His own agenda. In the midst of trials, He was patient. In the midst of suffering, He was hopeful. In the midst of blessing, He was humble. Even in the midst of ridicule, abuse, and hostility, He “made no threats . . . and did not retaliate. Instead He entrusted Himself to Him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23)

When Paul tells us that our “attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus,” he had summarized in the previous two verses what such an attitude was: selflessness, humility, and service. “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.” In other words, the attitude a Christian should reflect is one that focuses on the needs and interests of others.

Without question, that does not come naturally to us. We are wired to think of ourselves and our own survival first. Pride often dictates our behavior. When Christ came into the world, He established a whole new attitude to relationships with others. One day when His disciples were arguing among themselves regarding who was to be greatest in His kingdom, Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Jesus is teaching us that, when we become preoccupied with our own things, it can cause conflicts and other problems with people we know. Instead, God wants us to have an attitude of serious, caring involvement in the concerns of others.

Paul speaks more about this Christ-like attitude in his letter to the church in Ephesus: “You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; to be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” Many religions of today, including the New Age philosophies, promote the old lie that we are divine or that we can become gods. But the truth of the matter is that we will never become God, or even a god. Satan’s oldest lie was promising Adam and Eve that, if they followed his advice, “you shall be as gods.”

Each time we try to control our circumstances, our future, and the people around us, we’re only demonstrating that we want to be a god. But we must understand that, as creatures, we will never be the Creator. God doesn’t want us to try to become gods. Instead, He wants us to become like Him, taking on His values, His attitudes, and His character. We are meant to “be made new in the attitude of your minds; and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:23-24)

Finally, we must always keep in mind that God’s ultimate goal for His children is not our comfort, but the transformation of our minds into the attitude of godliness. He wants us to grow spiritually, to become like Christ. This doesn’t mean losing our personalities or becoming mindless clones. Christlikeness is all about transforming our minds. Again, Paul tells us, “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” (Romans 12:2)

It is God’s will that we develop the kind of mindset described in the Beatitudes of Jesus. (Matthew 5:1-12) He wants us to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23) God says we need to emulate the principles in Paul’s great chapter on love. (1 Corinthians 13) We strive to pattern our lives after Peter’s characteristics of an effective and productive life. (2 Peter 1:5-8) Remember this: Your attitude (that is, your approach) will determine your altitude (how far up you will go). Put on the right attitude and the sky’s the limit.