Is Christianity harder than than we pretend it is?

sisyphus_boulder

A very dear friend posted an article on Facebook (Christianity is Harder Than We Pretend it is) that tries to make the point that Christianity is harder than we pretend that it is. He quoted things we might say to that effect such as “It’s a free gift” and “The peace and satisfaction your heart desires.” I noticed that he calls these things “pitches”, like they are a sales pitch. He makes the point that in reality, we are let down by these false promises. As pastors and ministers we obsess over church attendance, and obsess over solving today’s problems, and are determined to find the perfect fix. He says that we are constantly analyzing church traditions, techniques, and theology, to troubleshoot and improve and enhance the faith. However, he says, the pitch we are using to sell Christianity ends up being an empty promise, because there are plenty of difficulties we still face. We still have disappointment, pain, suffering, confusion, and we still sin and live among sinning believers. All this happens while we are trying to put on a facade of happiness and bliss, pretending that nothing bad ever happens. He says that we need to start communicating reality and start owning up to our mistakes and doubts and failures and pain and sin. So there is, he says, a bit of a division between the happy message Christianity is selling and the reality of things.

Of course as soon as I started to read it, I had a contrary opinion, because I am just that kind of guy! He is saying that the “pitch” we are making needs to be changed, but the reality of the ugliness of our actual day-to-day faith needs to be owned up to. I see things a bit differently. I think that we need to go back and reexamine the awesome splendor of our “pitch”, the message of the gospel. The disparity comes because our pitch is not the gospel, it is personal transformation. I’m looking through the article to see what the real message is that he thinks we should be letting on about, and it is not the blood of Jesus and forgiveness. It is all about the realities of evil in the world and of our sin, and our powerlessness to truly change. It is about our responsibility to be authentic and transparent — not about His blood and its place in all of that. Anyone of any stripe can confess their errors and moral failure; the solution is in Christ and Him crucified. Let’s suppose that most churches do not preach the holly jolly Santa Clause “pitch” that he posits. They preach that when you come to Christ, you will still have problems, but you will be transformed and you will become an overcomer. You will become the kind of person who can do all things in Christ, and they mean it the right way — that you can have joy in bad circumstances as well as in good. This is not the gospel, and it is a horribly damaging message. It is much worse than he is saying. He mentions that salvation is a “free gift” as if that might be wrong — but it is not wrong. The problem is that we say it and then walk and talk as if it isn’t true at all. This is the big problem. We say that salvation is a free gift but we believe that salvation is in some subtle way about our works. So our whole Christian thing is based on unbelief.

The reality on the ground is that if we say that we have no sin (present tense), we lie. We, as a group, are a community of sinners who have mercy and grace in His blood. We are new creatures in Christ, but sin still lives on in us as a kind of living dead zombie presence. We should be very very clear that the heart of the gospel is not that we are personally transformed. It is that we are justified. We are redeemed. We are reconciled. His propitiation for us procured these kinds of things. It is not that sin is removed from our experience. It is that the love which God has for us persists beyond our sins. While we are yet sinners He loves us, while we were yet sinners He died for us. It really is a free gift! His command is to believe the love which He has for us. It is for us, so we are now able to see our brothers and sisters as greatly loved, and worth the death of the Messiah. It does not mean we will never have trouble, never have unanswered prayers, never have evil prevail over us. That wasn’t even Jesus’ pattern! He did indeed get rejected by His people, and die on the cross. Everything wasn’t happy forevermore, even for Jesus Himself! It wasn’t the pattern of any of the apostles either. We aren’t better than Jesus and we aren’t better than the apostles either. However, that doesn’t remove the truth that His yoke is easy and His burden is light. It doesn’t change the fact that His commands are not burdensome. In Him we are so profoundly beloved and so unbreakably accepted that we are said to have eternal life. It really is a free gift. We are not thus asked to solve each others’ problems; we are asked to love each other. In Christ, I can do this. This puts our present experience together into a very different light. When things are really bad for me, when I am on my deathbed, when my miracle truly isn’t forthcoming, when my church can’t “be there” for me to heal me, I have a confident hope that I will be OK. When I actually sin and prove that I need an Advocate with the Father, I have an assurance that His love defines me and not my iniquity. I have a real hope. I will be eternally loved and safe. I have a peace beyond my current doubts, that is beyond myself, that I am saved. This works a tremendous peace and love into my current predicament. Since this incredible hope and salvation is not our pitch, since we don’t preach the gospel but rather personal transformation and social action, we flounder. The gospel is not a sales pitch. It is a message of a free gift which can be received simply through hearing it and believing it. It is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes. I’m sorry but whatever you face, this is indeed very good news!

“Radical” Grace is the Only True Gospel

Helpless guy giving no assistance to his rescuers!

Helpless guy giving no assistance to his rescuers!

In his seminal book “The Cross of Christ”, John R. W. Stott points out that scripture gives us four images of the accomplishment achieved by the cross – propitiation, redemption, justification, and reconciliation. Scripture clearly teaches that the blood of Jesus, which signifies a violent and untimely death, as a substitute for us, is at the root of each of these images:

propitiation by blood
For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.
Romans 3:22-25 ESV

redemption by blood
knowing that you were not redeemed with corruptible things, like silver or gold, from your aimless conduct received by tradition from your fathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot.
I Peter 1:18-19 NKJV

justification by blood
For what the law could not do in that it was weak through the flesh, God did by sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, on account of sin: He condemned sin in the flesh, that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who do not walk according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
Romans 8:3-4 NKJV

reconciliation by blood
Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
2 Corinthians 5:20-21 ESV

Love and its wrath

In other words, these are not alternative ideas to the penal substitutionary death of Jesus on our behalf, they are images of the results of Jesus’ penal substitutionary death.

I’ve noticed that the drive to obviate the need for the wrath of God lies at the root of the resistance to penal substitutionary atonement. The wrath of God is seen as evil because it is seen as mutually exclusive to the love of God. However, the wrath of God is not antithetical to His love, because the love of God is the genesis and source of His wrath. Wrath is not synonymous with hatred. Love and hatred actually are mutually exclusive. If someone I love is threatened or harmed, I have serious feelings to not only protect them, but to see justice executed on the perpetrator. If my loved one is actually the source of their own threat and harm, I have a deeper problem, because I have love and I have wrath towards them. However, I do not have hatred, I have enduring transformative love for them. If I truly hated them, I would have apathy about their self-destructive nature; I would be happy to let them go on their own and destroy themselves. Wrath says that we matter, that there is a very fierce and passionate care towards us. If your child is a meth addict, you don’t love them by celebrating their destructive addiction! You at least express your displeasure at the thing that is destroying them. This is far different than hating them!

In the end, we will see that the most devastating thing about the wrath of God towards our sin will not be how angry it is, or how powerful He is to execute it, or how certain it is. It will be how resoundingly right and true it is. The frightening thing will be how much our heart and mind and conscience genuinely agree with and even celebrate His wrath. We will see how greatly it is born of love. We will see that our sin is not just a violation of arbitrary moral rules, but is a violation of love and dignity and beauty and freedom. No one will gnash their teeth because they are being punished. They will gnash their teeth because in their heart they will know they should be punished. They will agree that it is just.

So even if you affirm the truth of God’s wrath as a point of doctrine, you must come to the place where you celebrate it. You must see that He loves dearly and so He stands passionately and completely against anything that would harm us. You must come to see that His wrath is beautiful and right and lovely. Even when it stands directly against you personally, you must worship Him in His beautiful and loving and holy rightness. He only wants the best, and that is no euphemism. In that you have fallen short of glory, in His love for you He is raging and hot under the collar.

So, where we have cut ourselves off from the very source of life – yes, He is displeased. Where we have become slaves of judgment through sin – yes, He is displeased. Where we have offended the universal good of justice and rightness – yes, He is displeased. Where we have been cut off and isolated and made alone through our assertion of our godhood and selfishness – yes, He is displeased. Where we have remained steadfast and faithful to these destructive beliefs – yes, He is angry! How could He be otherwise than wrathful if He loves us? It is nonsense.

So stop distancing yourself from the wrath of God. Stop downplaying it. Stop pretending to believe that God should have this vapid love that your very conscience knows is wrong. Then you will see how true and right and perfect it is that you are cut off from God’s favor, a slave to guilt and secret shame, on the wrong side of justice, and exiled from the company of the righteous. Admit the truth — you are prayerless, helpless, guilty, and lonely. These are the very things the cross of Christ restores to you! Your favor and prayer with God, your release from your helplessness, your justification, and your fellowship are restored to you through Christ’s blood when His wrath is acknowledged by you to be satisfied by His death.

If we say that God is love in a way that is antithetical to wrath, it means that God’s love is ineffectual and out of touch with the real world. The cross says that God not only has an answer for the evil in the world, but that He has an answer for my evil. He loves me even while I am yet a sinner. Evil has been denounced as worthy of great wrath at the cross, and so we have entered into a world where our sin is already judged and we have become the free recipients of the favor of God.

“Hyper-grace” is the Simple Gospel

People accuse believers in “radical” grace or “hyper” grace of being light on sin. On the contrary, I maintain that we fully and deeply embrace the outstanding and passionate wrath of God against sin. It is actually the “Lordship Salvation” or “mixed-grace” believers who water down or downplay the wrath of God. We simply see it more truly — it is beyond our ability to repair. Without a miracle, our cause is hopeless. You can’t “repent” your way out of your sins because you already sinned. When you think your “repentance” has some place in your salvation you make the blood of Jesus useless. It is while we were yet sinners (we were unrepentant) that Christ died for the ungodly (Romans 5:8). Your redemption is of inestimable worth. You think you can pay for or deserve Jesus’ blood with your little promise to stop sinning? You won’t even be able to keep your promise! It is a FREE GIFT (Romans 3:24-25). As “radical” grace believers, we are simply those who actually believe the blood of Jesus is the one and only thing that saves us. We really believe in the gospel. We don’t believe in the gospel with caveats. We don’t downplay the power or scope or scandal of our forgiveness. We only trust Jesus to save us and we despair of our own righteousness. This gives us a platform to love, to walk in community with other redeemed sinners. We believe that our righteousness is all forged by God, and is not the invention or work of ourselves. If that is radical or hyper then call me radical and hyper. I seriously don’t flipping care, because I am my beloved’s. I believe in Jesus Christ as the Lord of my salvation. He is my propitiation, my redeemer, just and the justifier, and my reconciliation to God and to others. I have nothing of my own to offer — nothing but my sin. This isn’t some weird sentimental 18th century flowery hymn, this is fundamental truth. You either believe the radical hyper grace of the gospel and come to your ideas about “sanctification” through that door, or you live under wrath and hell (John 3:18).

Don’t tell me any more that “hyper” grace preachers are soft on sin (2 Corinthians 10:5). Anything but. It is the “mixed-grace” “Lordship” believer who is soft on sin. Your “commitment” and “repentance” and “integrity” are a sham and they won’t work. Because fake-grace believers don’t fully believe in mercy, they can’t go to the true scary places in themselves to confess and be cleansed (1 John 1:8,9). The solution, according to the Bible, is belief in Christ (1 John 1:7). You either believe Christ saves you or you believe you save you. There is no “mix” or “balance” or “middle ground.” Do you believe the blood of Jesus plus nothing saves you? Or do you trust in your works and your flawed holiness? Choose Christ!

Images of Atonement

‘Images’ of salvation (or of the atonement) is a better term than ‘theories’. For theories are usually abstract and speculative concepts, whereas the biblical images of the atoning achievement of Christ are concrete pictures and belong to the data of revelation. They are not alternative explanations of the cross, providing us with a range to choose from, but complementary to one another, each contributing a vital part to the whole. As for the imagery, ‘propitiation’ introduces us to rituals at a shrine, ‘redemption’ to transactions in a market-place, ‘justification’ to proceedings in a lawcourt, and ‘reconciliation’ to experiences in a home or family. My contention is that ‘substitution’ is not a further ‘theory’ or ‘image’ to be set alongside the others, but rather the foundation of them all, without which each lacks cogency. If God in Christ did not die in our place, there could be neither propitiation, nor redemption, nor justification, nor reconciliation. In addition, all the images begin their life in the Old Testament, but are elaborated and enriched in the New, particularly by being directly related to Christ and his cross.

John R. W. Stott

We’re Starting a Church!

Logo On Banner

I want to take a few minutes to let you know that we are starting a new church in Whatcom County WA, called Bread and Wine Fellowship! The first service will be Sunday July 6th at 10:30 AM. I wanted to share a bit of the vision for the church and also explain what that means for the future of Therefore Now Ministries and thereforenow.com.

Bread and Wine Fellowship

Yes, it really looks like this in Whatcom County WA! This is Mt. Baker.

Yes, it really looks like this in Whatcom County WA! This is Mt. Baker.

Bread and Wine Fellowship is the name of the new church. It is a gospel/grace centered church that is right in line with the theology that has been articulated over and over on thereforenow.com. It is also on the charismatic side of the aisle, so have lots of hand-raising and even dancing, and when we’re praying you might hear some strange tongues going on.

We not only do communion every week, we make communion and prayer the central focus of the service. We look at communion as the Lord’s way of having us remember His body and blood shed for us (which is focused internally on believers) and to proclaim His death (which is focused externally on non-believers). We will be largely doing expository preaching, going straight through the Bible one book at a time, with occasional pauses for topical messages. Betty and I have teamed up with some incredible musicians and if our rehearsals are any indication the music is going to be out of this world! Betty and I have also been heavily involved working with children so I think the children’s program is going to be fantastic. Through object lessons, games, stories, crafts, and whatnot, we are having the children go through the same passages as the adults, so parents will know exactly what their children are learning. As the senior pastor I take a large interest in the teaching that the children are receiving so that parents can rest assured that they will be getting a very accurate biblical education in the ways of the gospel.

We are also partnering with a shelter for battered women and some other similar ministries in the area to see the message of the glorious grace of God in the gospel of Jesus Christ go out to those who really need it badly. We are very excited to see the power of forgiveness and persistent love reach through to “bruised reed” people to bring light and healing. It is a huge part of our identity.

Therefore Now Ministries

From time to time I and others will be blogging on the Bread and Wine web site, but that material will always be directed towards Bread and Wine members; think of these things as announcements or very directed teachings for the church. We will be continuing to do all we can to expand the reach of Therefore Now Ministries as well; we see these two ministries as being very closely tied. All new study and speculation and out-loud thinking over theological issues will continue to happen on thereforenow.com, which is my main personal blog. We have been invited to minister to a number of churches to share music and teaching, and we continue to hope that opportunities will grow for that. A new book on 1 John called “Grace in Community” is coming out August 25, and I have more books in mind! During this time, we really do need your prayers and support to help get this whole thing off the ground! We are SO GRATEFUL to all of our friends and faithful readers. Blessings and grace and abundant life to you all!

Jim McNeely


Donate to Therefore Now Ministries! When you do you help further the reach of the outrageous grace and love of God!

Shared Grace Is the True Transformation!

Shared-Vision

I’ve been thinking again a lot more about the power of the pure gospel of grace and forgiveness to transform us. The goal of the gospel of Christ and Him crucified is not to transform us, but to save us. It is “the power of God for salvation for all who believe” (Romans 1:16). Apparently the idea of salvation was exciting enough for Paul to put it front and center in his premier letter which explains the Christian faith, the book of Romans. Perhaps we too should forego our neglect of the central importance of salvation (Hebrews 2:3). It is indeed powerful, as foretold! In fact, although the power of the gospel is not primarily meant to transform us but to save us, it is the only path to genuine transformation.

How does this work? I’ve been thinking again about this passage:

5 This is the message we have heard from Him and announce to you, that God is Light, and in Him there is no darkness at all. 6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 7 but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10 If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar and His word is not in us.

Simple Forgiveness is the Transformative Doorway

When we come to believe that the blood of Jesus has the power to cleanse us from all sin, and when we understand this not as demanding a behavioral change but rather as forging a lasting forgiveness, there is a fundamental shift in the way we are able to approach God. If we think that we must stop our sinful behaviors before we can approach God, we must in isolation from Him craft a plan for behavioral change before we come to Him. This supposes that there are certain areas of sin which are too much, which we can’t approach God with until we have designed a promising path to permanent change. What this ends up meaning is that you can’t really confess because you don’t really have a certainty that there is complete forgiveness. So the scary underworld of the inner proclivities and evil attractions that drive these behaviors cannot be confessed unless there is a genuine belief that the blood of Jesus is sufficient to forgive all sin. The underlying sin that really drives these behaviors remains active, unconfessed and untouched if we believe that approach on the basis of a successful veneer of behavioral transformation.

When we have done with pretending to reform before we approach God, and we come in full faith that the blood of Jesus is completely sufficient. When you come with this assurance of a full and powerfully sufficient forgiveness, you can confess everything! You can’t confess everything until you are convinced that everything is forgivable. If there are things that might be beyond the possibility of forgiveness, then if you suspect you might have some seed of that lurking in you you will refrain from bringing this to God. In the end you either bring everything to God or you bring nothing to God, because you can’t really divorce your sinful behaviors from the sin which indwells you.

The Question of Honor

For instance, take the commandment to honor your father and mother. You might think that a young person could repent of this by stopping disrespectful argumentative speech with their parents. However, this does not reach down into the root of the issue. You can’t just stop arguing, you have to “honor” them even when they are imperfect. If you only honor them when they seem honorable in your eyes, there would be no need for the commandment. Honor is proven when honor is challenged. That means in your secret thoughts and in your speech with friends and others you never even want to say something which does anything but honor them, even when they seem to challenge your idea of honor. This might be something which seems impossible to promise and to repent of. It is impossible! That’s why the traditional fleshly notion of repentance doesn’t work. You can’t think that you are gaining favor with your parents just because you have promised to not argue with them any more; if you still despise them and walk around silent and resentful and sullen and you gossip about them and turn your siblings’ hearts against them, you have not really repented. The thin veneer of the promise to change means nothing to the parents, and even more the thin veneer of our “repentance” means very little to God.

Darkness and Unbelief

Walking in the darkness of the pretense of righteousness is closely linked with an underlying lack of belief in the power of Jesus’ blood to forgive sin. This lack of belief prevents us from true confession with God or with each other. It is a problem if you try to make the word “wash” mean something else than “forgive” or “justify”. If you try to read behavioral change into the idea of “wash” you have just robbed yourself of the ability to truly confess. Do you see that? It is utterly clear from Paul’s writings that the blood of Jesus justifies us. We mustn’t muddy the water by reading some kind of works into this, or we are suddenly back sewing fig leaves in order to approach God.

Radical Grace: The Welcome Sign to Genuine Confession

So the total washing from guilt that we have through Jesus’ blood is the gateway to genuine confession. This ability to truly confess gives God deep access to us to administer grace and revelation and power to change. It also gives Him leeway to change according to His agenda. When Israel was looking for the coming of the Messiah just prior to His appearance, they had a certain kind of person they were expecting. They were expecting a conquering hero, a political and military leader who would throw off Roman tyranny. They were not looking for a baby in a manger, or a wandering homeless healer who told strange stories. In the same way, we have strong expectations for what we want God’s work and cleansing to look like in our lives. We want old-covenant law-style success. If it doesn’t look like this we believe He hasn’t come to us, that our confession isn’t working. If we trust the power of Jesus’ blood, we are able to let go of these expectations. He may want to change our deep inner motivations and long-standing strongholds of mistrust even if we don’t initially care about these things. He may want us to fail until we despair of our efforts to reform ourselves, so the power can be seen as being all His. He may see that if we succeed in our promised behavioral repentance, like the builders of Babel we will only use our success to rebel and to bolster our own arrogance. Our failures may be the hammer and anvil that strip our fleshly and shallow notions of repentance away from us and bring us truly to the the foot of the throne of grace. This is true cleansing, and the confession of Christ as our savior is the true confession. When we despair of our own genius and power and control, and depend only on the power of Christ and Him crucified for pure forgiveness, we can begin to live from the simplicity of being loved instead of the complexity of proving and earning our worth.

True Transformation is Relational

In the end the important transformation is that we enter the community of the beloved and redeemed. Anyone can be personally holy if they section themselves off from all society and influence. Anyone can say they are holy and call others to holiness when they themselves are not holy. We are not called to the darkness and isolation of theoretical holiness, we are called to the light of relationship with real imperfect people. This overcoming persistent one-way love is the light by which we see each other, and our sanctification is to learn to live in persistent edifying overcoming togetherness. It is the new commandment to love one another which begins to welcome us into interpersonal safe confession. This is the wandering story-telling disappointing miracle He has brought us: each other. It is a far greater gift than we could possibly know.

New Series: Book of John

Gospel of John

I’m starting a new study of the Gospel of John, so I thought I may as well post some of my work here as I go. This is just an outline and some other stuff like that. Nothing earth-shattering — yet! I hope this is helpful to someone out there, though.

Outline of the Gospel of John

  I. Jesus’ Introduction to the World 1:1-18
    A. The Logos 1:1-4
    B. John the Baptist’s Identity 1:5-8
    C. The Word made flesh 1:9-18
    D. John the Baptist’s Testimony 1:19 - 34
    E. Jesus calls His disciples 1:35 - 51
  II. Jesus’ Manifestation to the Nation 2:1-12:50
    A. Beginning Public Ministry
      1. Miracle 1: Water to Wine 2:1-12
      2. Jesus cleanses the temple 2:13-25
      3. Discourse 1: with Nicodemus 3:1-21
      4. John the Baptist exalts Jesus 3:22-36
      5. Jesus and the Samaritan Woman 4:1-45
      6. Miracle 2: Jesus Heals an Official’s Son 4:46-54
    B. Contentious Public Ministry
      1. Miracle 3: Healing at the Pool 5:1-47
        a. Miracle 5:1-47
        b. Discourse 2: Sent from the Father 5:19-47
      2. Miracle 4: Jesus Feeds 5000 John 6:1-71
        a. Miracle 6:1-15
        b. (Miracle 5: Disciples and Jesus cross lake) John 6:16-21
        c. Discourse 3: Bread of Life 6:22-71
      3. Discourse 4: Living Water (at Feast of Booths) 7:1-53
      4. Woman Caught in Adultery 8:1-11
      5. Discourse 5: Light of the World 8:1-59
      6. Miracle 6: Blind Man Healed 9:1-41
      7. Discourse 6a: The Good Shepherd 10:1-21
      8. Discourse 6b: I and the Father are one 10:22-42
      9. Miracle 7: Lazarus Raised 11:1-57
    C. Final Public Ministry 12:1-50
      1. Mary Anoints Jesus 12:1-8
      2. Murderous plots 12:9-11
      3. Triumphal Entry 12:12-19
      4. Discourse 7: Lifted Up from the Earth 12:20-50
  III. Jesus’ Final Teaching to Disciples 13-17
    A. Foot Washing 13:1-20
    B. Jesus’ Departure 13:21-38
    C. Jesus, the Way 14:1-14
    D. Promise of the Holy Spirit 14:15-31
    E. Vine and Branches 15:1-17
    F. World hates you 15:18-16:3
    G. The work of the Holy Spirit 16:4-15
    H. Coming changes will turn out joyfully 16:16-33
    I. Jesus intercession 17
  IV. Jesus’ Passion and Resurrection 18-20
    A. arrest 18:1-11
    B. trial and denial 18:12-19:16
    C. crucifixion 19:17-37
    D. burial 19:38-42
    E. resurrection 20:1-29
  V. Epilog
    A. Purpose of book 20:30-31
    B. Breakfast with Jesus 21:1-14
    C. Peter restored 21:15-23
    D. Ending statements 21:24-25

Jesus’ public discourses in the Gospel of John

Discourse Audience Subject Reference
1 Nicodemus New Birth 3:1-21
2 Jewish Leaders Jesus sent from Father 5:19-47
3 Hungry Followers Bread of Life 6:22-71
4 Jewish Nation Living Water 7:1-53
5 Jewish Leaders Light of the World 8:1-59
6 Jewish Leaders The Good Shepherd 10:1-42
7 Jewish Nation Lifted Up from Earth 12:20-50

I think it is very helpful to have a big picture understanding of a book as you study it, so you can see the relation of the details to the larger picture better. Also, it is nice to ponder the overall flow of a book and the reasons why one section leads to another. There are only 7 miracles mentioned in Jesus’ public ministry in John’s gospel, and we know from the text that he picked a few for specific reasons (John 20:30). So this is a clue that we can ask why these particular miracles were included in the flow of the book. That is the kind of thing I’ll be looking for as we go.

The Love of the World vs. the Love of the Father

If I dress up maybe no one will notice how fat I've gotten!

If I dress up maybe no one will notice how fat I’ve gotten!

15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. 16 For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh and the lust of the eyes and the boastful pride of life, is not from the Father, but is from the world. 17 The world is passing away, and also its lusts; but the one who does the will of God lives forever.

1 John 2:15-17 NASB

Why is love for the world so antithetical to the love of the Father? If you love the world it means the opinions and judgments of others are more important to you than the confession of your very humble true self. Loving the world means inflating the value of your false persona while hiding the shame of your true self. It means you try to medicate the pain of your true self’s guilt by inflating the value of your false self. In the end it means you seal yourself off from the compassion and grace of the Father. It means you, the real you, the hiding and scared you, are isolated and alone, in darkness. It means you prefer the positive judgements of your falsely significant self to freedom and cleanness of the disclosure of your true self. It means fear of the judgment of others rules you because you will pretend success and holiness and significance rather than suffer the rejection of other judging people. If you think about it, it literally means that you live under the fear and threat of judgment instead of the compassion and forgiveness of love.

At its root therefore, the love of the world is a belief that the opinions of people are more substantive than the opinions of God. Love of the world is a rejection of the standards of God and of the grace of God. It is the direct result of not believing in the power of the propitiation of Christ. The cross of Christ declares that you are significant despite your deeds, because your deeds warranted His death but still He loved you. The love of the world says, “no! Your deeds define you!” The world says that you are not worthy of love unless you prove it — through morals, through money, through power, through fame. These are all relational currency. The cross says you don’t need currency to maintain relationship, because He paid everything. So the love of the world and the love of the Father are completely antithetical. They are opposite views of love.

Sin, Punishment, and Christian Living

ideas_in_the_shower

I had another revelation in the shower this morning. I get all my best stuff in the shower. At least, it seems like great stuff to me! Maybe this is obvious to all my esteemed readers. I really am a theological simpleton.

Sin and Punishment

Now, every Christian persuasion teaches that when we believe in Christ, the threat of punishment for our past sins is forgiven. The threat of punishment has been removed, because Christ has died for our sins. However, from that point forward there is some disagreement. There are two logically possible viewpoints, as illustrated in the diagram below. We’ll explore these one at a time.

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Christianity as an Introduction to Law

Some would say that the threat of punishment from the point of conversion forward is over, because we have become new creatures and the performance of sins worthy of punishment far less likely. For the past, we are free from the threat of punishment for our sins because Christ has died for us. In the present and the future, we are free from the threat of punishment for sins because we are new creatures and we simply don’t sin like that any more.

So going forward we avoid punishment by being so renewed and different that we are able to suppress any behavior or thought that would warrant the threat. The threat still remains, but we become the kind of people that the threat wouldn’t apply to. This is the commonly held “mixed-grace” conception of Christian living.

There are several problems with this. For one thing, it isn’t biblical. John is quite clear in 1 John 1:8,10 that if we say we have (present tense) no sin, we lie. Paul says in Romans 7:14-24 that we as Christians still have powerful struggles with sin:

14 For we know that the Law is spiritual, but I am of flesh, sold into bondage to sin. 15 For what I am doing, I do not understand; for I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate. 16 But if I do the very thing I do not want to do, I agree with the Law, confessing that the Law is good. 17 So now, no longer am I the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me. 18 For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh; for the willing is present in me, but the doing of the good is not. 19 For the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want. 20 But if I am doing the very thing I do not want, I am no longer the one doing it, but sin which dwells in me.

21 I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good. 22 For I joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man, 23 but I see a different law in the members of my body, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin which is in my members. 24 Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?

In the stream of his thought, he is talking about Christians. He would not say in Romans 8:1 that there is therefore now no condemnation if our sinful behavior was completely in our past and as Christians we were largely sinless, because there would be no need to say so.

In fact, the whole point of the book of Galatians is to refute this very thing:

1 You foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you, before whose eyes Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified? 2 This is the only thing I want to find out from you: did you receive the Spirit by the works of the Law, or by hearing with faith? 3 Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?
Galatians 3:1-3

Another problem is that it simply doesn’t fit with experience. As Christians, we still sin. It is as simple as that. Romans 7 rings true because it reflects real life. It is ridiculous to pretend that right upon entering faith in Christ for the first time, from that moment on we cease to sin. No one believes that. The staunchest and most rigid “Lordship Salvation” proponents would hesitate to propose such a doctrine. Unfortunately that means their entire theological edifice fails.

In the end, this way of thinking about Christian living ends up making the gospel to be an introduction to living under the law instead of an introduction to living under grace (Romans 5:1-2). Since it is an introduction to law, it has the effect of nullifying grace (Galatians 5:21), since it is clear that such a belief holds that less than perfect success at living according to the law can trump Christ’s blood and destroy one’s salvation. It is basically saying that the effect of belief in Christianity should not be an assurance that you are saved by Christ, but rather that you are placed even more severely under the law, but that you should be much better at keeping the law. It isn’t a message of grace at all.

It is ironic that if it were true that in coming to Christ we were so changed that we avoided threat through behaving well, there would not need to be all of these New Testament imperatives. However there are NT imperatives, because even as Christians we still gravitate towards sin. Paul is telling us what to do and what not to do all over the place. That is because as believers, the dynamic of our relationship to God has changed, but it isn’t the change the “mixed-grace” crowd would have us believe.

Christianity as an Introduction to Grace

Instead, the true New Testament conception of Christian living is that we sin, and through Christ’s blood, the punishment for sin is taken away. We sin before conversion, and at conversion all of our prior guilt and the threat of all judgment is taken away from us because of Jesus’ propitiatory death. Post conversion, we may sin less, but we still sin, and the punishment for our sin is taken away. We sin after conversion and the threat of condemnation is still removed from us. The threat is removed for all of our sin, past, present and future. So we may still sin as in Romans 7:14-24, but there is always “therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). The message of so-called “radical grace” or “hyper-grace” is the simple belief that Jesus has died for all of our sins, and that we have an assurance of eternal life. It is the belief that Jesus actually saves us through His blood. It is the belief that He conquers our sin and condemnation, not that we conquer our sin for Him.

How do we live as Christians? Do we just sin all the more?

The person who is thus under the law, and basically worships the law, feels their god being blasphemed when they hear the simple gospel. Their heart bubbles and gushes over with the Romans 6 question: “What then? Shall we sin all the more that grace may increase?” Their flesh recoils at the possibility, so they go back and water down the gospel of Christ and Him crucified to the point of meaninglessness, in order to remove this question. In so doing, they nullify the gospel. To them, this is the successful Christian life.

So, I’m telling you who read this who think that Christian conversion constitutes an introduction to a more severe law, you are going to hate my answers. Unless there remains a threat of punishment and condemnation, you will not be satisfied, because you do not really believe that Christ saves us. You believe adherence to the law saves us, because you are not under grace, but under law (Romans 6:14). You twist genuine gospel teaching around in your head until you think it means saying that sin is good (1 John 2:1-2). You believe that saying you can sin and be forgiven constitutes antinomian heresy, and in your worldview it does because you don’t believe that Jesus saves us, you believe our obedience and personal holiness saves us. Of all the things in the world, I stand most surely against this: that in the name of Christ you nullify grace and so teach others. I intend to offend you. However, I invite you to read on because it might spark faith in you, and you may really come to faith in Christ instead of living in the darkness and pretense you’ve been living in.

The nature of the fall is that our sense of the good has been divided. It was when Eve saw that the forbidden was desirable (Genesis 3:6) that she took and ate; before that they had assumed that the forbidden was also undesirable. When it came to us that the forbidden could be desirable, it opened the door to the need for moral good: the press and threat of guilt and punishment to corral us into obedience since our sense of aesthetic good alone could not lead us there. Because we flagrantly see attractiveness and beauty in evil, and we see colorlessness and futility in the moral, we need threat and coercion in order to do good. Thus was born the conscience, and thus we love the law because it represents the comforting threat we need to do right.

So we come to Christ and we think that we continue to operate under threat in order to do right. We think that “sanctification” involves a continued threat of punishment, and better mechanism to somehow obey or fulfill the law. In fact what has happened is that since the threat of condemnation has been taken away in Christ, just by simple belief we have landed ourselves back in a unified conception of the good. We have died to the law in Christ (Romans 7:4), so that since there is no longer any threat or coercion, we only have the aesthetic good left. As Paul says, “All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.” (1 Corinthians 6:12) It is no longer an issue of fear of condemnation, but of what is profitable or desirable.

Do you see what I am saying here? Because the threat of punishment is genuinely removed through simple faith in the power of Christ’s blood, all things have become permissible. It is not a question of what things you can do without being condemned. In Christ you cannot be condemned. The whole appeal of the forbidden is over with. It becomes a question of what is best. In Christ you can think your own thoughts. Like the woman caught in adultery, there is no one on earth who can condemn you, and even God does not condemn you though you are genuinely guilty. What is left is your freedom. Go your way and sin no more. If it isn’t your way, it is still sin if you act from coercion and threat. Your heart must choose being mastered by the good or it isn’t really good! You now have the freedom to choose what is best because it “masters” you – you choose the good because you love it. This is the only true virtue anyway. When you choose sin you choose the lesser of aesthetic goods, and because there is no condemnation you are able to easily confess and repent without regret (2 Corinthians 7:10), and receive experiential cleansing in order to choose the right way from the heart.

Finally, through the blood of Jesus the law is fulfilled, and the Holy Spirit is thus able to bless us with His presence. We have the unction and empowerment to walk in powerful gifting and revelation and supernatural truth. We have a Helper. The whole Christian life becomes, not a question of lawfulness, but of love and gifting and service for the good of the body (Romans 12:3-8). If we think that we gain access to the unction and presence of the Holy Spirit by a sinless avoidance of threat, we err. The Holy Spirit honors Jesus’ blood in coming to us, not our flawed filthy-rags righteousness. In Christ we can always expect the favor and help and kindness of God poured out over us despite our daily need of mercy and grace. We have daily mercy and grace, and so the Holy Spirit is poured out within us day by day.

The Cross of Christ Declares that We are Greatly Loved (Part 3)

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It is the glory of God to conceal a matter,
But the glory of kings is to search out a matter.
Proverbs 25:2

Surprise!

betty_bonnieAs I write this, today is my wife’s birthday, and I have been concealing a very big secret. Her sister flew in from North Carolina all the way to Bellingham WA just for her birthday! I also planned a surprise birthday party, but I know that she is way too smart for me to keep the entire thing secret. So although I really wanted it to be a surprise, I really used the party as a decoy surprise to draw all of her suspicions, so that her sister’s arrival would be completely shocking. It worked! When we drove up to the spot where we agreed to pick her sister up, she was not expecting anything to happen, and when her sister suddenly showed up, she screamed, waved her hands in funny little circles, and started crying when she ran out to hug her neck! What a joy!

In a previous post we considered the threefold nature of a good gift: it is sacrificial, it is appropriate to the receiver, and it is surprising. We looked at the sacrificial nature of the cross of Christ, the appropriateness of the cross of Christ to our need and desire, and how that makes it a powerful gift to us. Now we look at how the cross is a surprise.

The idea of surprise is steeped in grace. If a gift is truly a surprise to someone, it means they didn’t plan it or ask for it or even remotely expect it. Yet, unbeknownst even to them, it is something which truly befits them and which they would have badly wanted if they could have thought of it. Since it is a surprise, it is something which is all done on the initiative of the giver. The receiver not only didn’t earn, they didn’t even think to ask for it. It is tremendous blessing that comes at you out of the blue, out of love and a desire to bless. Once Paul has outlined a torrent of amazing things about our identity in Christ in the first three chapters of Ephesians, he ends the section with this:

20 Now to Him who is able to do far more abundantly beyond all that we ask or think, according to the power that works within us, 21 to Him be the glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen
Ephesians 3:20-21 (NASB)

The Cross as a Surprise Gift

AngelsLongThomasHawkI think it is fair to say that while the Jewish nation at the time of Jesus was on the alert for the coming of the Messiah, they were not expecting what they got. Even the wisest and best of them were expecting a figurehead and a political leader of some kind. They were not expecting God Himself to come in the flesh; in fact whenever you see the subject broached in His dialogs with the religious leaders, they enter directly into a murderous rage. I certainly doubt anyone could have conceived that God would come in the flesh and personally die for our sins. Sometimes as Christians we become numb to how shocking these things are. The exact nature of the coming of Christ was kept secret for millennia:

10 As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, 11 seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. 12 It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you, in these things which now have been announced to you through those who preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven—things into which angels long to look.
1 Peter 1:10-12

I think it is safe to say that the nature and power of our redemption ended up being much more far-reaching and amazing than we would have thought. Many of the reasons people balk at grace is that they want to soften the shocking degree of forgiveness and blessing. The degree of love and the cost of it all seems too good to be true. It really does seem foolish and offensive to human nature to say that if you simply believe it and receive it, you have eternal life and you are forgiven everything forever. I think a lot of people would be very surprised to find out that this is what we are saying! I think that a great number of people would be inclined to say, “This is what you meant by all of this preaching? Why didn’t you come out and say so? This is absolutely tremendous! Thank God I know that! I never knew what it felt like to be released from the burden of my very conscience! Thank you!” It is shocking to say that we are so beloved of God that He would incarnate and die for us. We can also know that the surprises aren’t over; there are many glories to follow! Expect God to surprise you over and over and over for the rest of eternity!

Christ our Advocate!

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My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; 2 and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only, but also for those of the whole world.
1 John 2:1-2 (NASB)

An advocate is someone who is on your side, pleading your case. Think of the woman caught in adultery. She was actually guilty. So He isn’t just pleading your cause when you are in the right. He is especially pleading your cause when you are wrong, when you have sinned. He is your advocate when you most need one and when you least deserve one.

In the book of Job, it is Satan who is before the Father accusing us. The Father is only seeking justice; but that is a problem if you are the sinner! Without Jesus, the guilt is going to stick to you. In Jesus, we can say that we love the person but hate the sin, because that is what the Father does when He listens to the Son as our advocate.

The Father is going to listen to Jesus! Jesus is saying, “Yes, all those accusations are true, and I died for them. Are you going to say that my death was to no account, Dad?” And the Father will say, “Of course not!”