The state of utmost bliss.

bliss

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.
Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.
Blessed are those who have been persecuted for the sake of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you, and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of Me.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward in heaven is great; for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

 – Matt 5.3-12

Jesus began His most famous sermon with this interesting list of blessings.  It has often been called the beatitudes, and as a child and young person, I assumed that “beatitude” was a fancy way of saying “attitude” – and therefore I perceived the focus to be on the first half of the declaration of each phrase.  The term beatitude, however, means “supreme blessedness” or “a state of utmost bliss”.  The beatitudes, therefore, by their title – and more importantly for our instruction – are the blessings that are granted.  It is the highest blessing to receive the Kingdom of Heaven, to be comforted by God, to inherit the Earth, to be satisfied by God, to receive mercy, to see God, to be called a son of God, to be given the Kingdom of Heaven and to receive a great reward in Heaven!

Throughout His Earthly ministry, Jesus regularly exhorted the disciples and hearers of His sermons to focus on eternity.  He spoke much of Heaven, He spoke more of Hell, and He encouraged believers to remember that while God does meet our Earthly needs, it is of more benefit to earn treasures that will last throughout eternity than here on the Earth.  In short, it is better to use the finances that God has given us on Earth to meet the needs of the poor and be rewarded in eternity than to buy a toy that will rust, rot or cannot be taken into eternity.  It is better for us to invest our time in making disciples and reap a great harvest that will enter into God’s presence forever than to entertain ourselves or work ourselves into the ground to make money.  It is better for us to keep sober about Heaven and Hell than to numb our minds and forget what is coming.

And thus we understand the beatitudes.  Those who are poor in spirit are those who have the kingdom of Heaven.  What does it mean to be poor in spirit?  In short, it is to be humble.  Understanding the Gospel necessitates that one recognize his sinfulness and inability to save Himself, and thus turn to Jesus. He who understands that it is God alone who saved by grace alone through faith alone can never be proud.  And it is he who will enter into God’s rest eternally.

Much has been said about “mourning” that will receive the comfort of God.  Does it mean mourning over one’s sin?  Mourning over the loss of a loved one?  We know that everyone mourns at one time or another, and not everyone receives the comfort of God.  We also know that death has lost its sting by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (1 Cor 15.55).  But we can be confident that all who are in Christ and mourn will be comforted by God.  He is the God of comfort (2 Cor 1.3).  And we also know that we will not mourn as those without hope (1 Thess 4.13), but yet we mourn over our sin and breaking the heart of God.  As Christians, we should mourn – especially over our sin and the lost – and God will comfort us.

Blessed are the gentle.  Films made about Jesus often portray Him as a pansy and effeminate.  He is portrayed as so “gentle” and sensitive that He gives the impression of being weak.  But Jesus is not weak.  He is the Son of God who created the world and who will destroy it in the end.  He had the power to do anything He wanted, and He often performed miracles that blew the minds of onlookers.  Not only that, but His anger was exemplified at times – such as when He bound a whip and chased the vendors out of the temple – throwing over tables at the same time.  But yet He restrained Himself.  He came with a purpose and everything He did was intentionally serving that purpose:  saving the lost.  He knew what was required to accomplish that goal, and it required Him restraining His power.  Thus, it has been said, that meekness or gentleness can be defined as “restrained power”.  We are not glorified for being pansies and push-overs, we are glorified for putting other people before ourselves and serving one another vigorously.  When we do so, we will inherit the Earth.

The merciful will receive mercy.  I have written much on this topic, but Jesus ominously warns us that those who do not forgive their brother will not be forgiven (Matt 6.15).  We do not earn God’s forgiveness by forgiving other people, but rather the one who has been forgiven by God cannot help but forgive his brother.  It is the natural overflowing of grace poured into one’s life that he pours grace out into other’s lives.  You cannot receive God’s grace and not be a stream of life and grace flowing to others.  That is simply how it works.  Thus, we can test our salvation and our hearts by the simple observation:  Am I forgiving others?  Is grace and life flowing out of me into others?  If not, you should examine your own salvation carefully.  You can read more about that here.

Peacemakers will be called the children of God.  God is love (1 John 4.8).  He is also the God of peace (Heb 13.20).  God sent Jesus to the Earth to appease His wrath for our sins and to make peace between us.  He gives us inexplicable peace and rest through salvation (1 Peter 1.8, Matt 11.28).  Similarly to forgiveness and mercy being the natural outpouring for those who are saved, we are also peacemakers.  It is our highest calling and ultimate goal to be peacemakers between people and God:  to preach the gospel and make disciples.  But it is also an outpouring of our faith and identity in God to help make peace between people.  We reveal our identity as Christians by firstly helping people make peace with God and secondly to make peace with one another:

“Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us; we beg you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.”

– 2 Cor 5.20

Lastly, we are most gloriously blessed when we are persecuted for the sake of righteousness and the sake of Christ.  Often times we deceive ourselves to believe that God’s blessing on our lives is a nice house, a good job, and a comfortable life.  Scripture teaches quite the opposite, however:  that those who desire to live godly lives will be persecuted and that we should seek to walk after the manner of Christ, dying to ourselves and not accruing comfortable lifestyles here on the Earth (2 Tim 3.12).  We also know that it is the will of God that we suffer, and that we suffer for doing what is right in order that our faith will be purified and strengthened (1 Peter 3).

The highest blessings of God, and our utmost bliss or peace comes when we humble ourselves, when we mourn over our sin and over the lost, when we submit ourselves to one another and are gentle, when we pursue God and die to our sin, and when we suffer for doing what is right.  The God of peace, comfort and hope will establish our hearts and reward us as we mature in those characteristics.  We will be children of God, we will be comforted, we will inherit the Earth and the Kingdom of Heaven.

To forgive the inexcusable.

forgive

I was raised in a household that was relatively consistent and God-focused.  We had rules, we had expectations, we had family devotions, and doing the right thing – the God-honoring thing – was praised.  I experienced the loss of a few friends in High School, and learning how to process death and eternity only helped me to develop a more eternal focus as a young person.  The grace of God was praised and understood to be the greatest gift possible, but it was not until I was in my mid twenties that I first-hand understood the expectation, ability and grace of extending the grace that had been given me.

In order to become a Christian, in order to “be saved” or to “be born again”, we must first understand that we are sinners and the eternal consequence of our sin is death and damnation.  That is the very reason that we need a savior.  We will understand that fact on various levels when we come to faith.  A child might understand that disobeying his mother and lying to his friends is sinful and that God is angry about that sin.  An eighty year old man might carry the weight of a lifetime of one particular sin or set of various sins ranging from pride to theft, adultery or even murder.  Regardless of our life experience or age, we must understand the simple fact that we are hopelessly separated from God because of our sin.  This is why Jesus said,

“I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.”

– Luke 5.32

Jesus is not stating here that there are righteous out there, He is making the point that there are none who are are righteous on their own and His purpose is to draw sinners to repentance.  No matter what sin, no matter what age.  If you feel the conviction of the Spirit in your life pointing out sins and drawing you to change, then you are a child of God.  Jesus’ death and substitution in our place is adequate to cover any and all sins, we need only confess them and repent from them.

As we grow in our faith and get to know God more intimately, we will realize progressively the depth of our sins.  Even the eighty year old man who understands a lifetime of sin will walk through a process of maturation and understanding with God after he repents of his sins and begins walking in faith.  And the more we understand our guilt, the more we will understand God’s grace and the depth of His forgiveness.  To this experience, Jesus states:

“For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.”

– Luke 7.47

If you do not understand your sin, your sinful state, and the punishment you deserve, then the grace of God is of little or no consequence to you.  It is no big thing for God to welcome you into Heaven eternally because you think you deserve it, or you only committed small offenses which God could overlook or forgive easily.  The one who is forgiven little loves little.  This means he cannot love God, and he cannot love others.  He will be unwilling to forgive others who offend him, he will be unwilling and unable to offer grace, because he himself has not received it.

The one who has been forgiven much, conversely, loves much!  This person recognizes his sin guilt, is amazed at the grace offered, and responds in gratefulness and love.  This person, in return, can turn to others and graciously love and forgive others who offend him, because he understands the grace that has been given.  And the more deeply we understand the weight of the cross, the depth of our sin, and the measure by which we have been forgiven, the more deeply we will love and forgive others.

“To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.”

-C.S. Lewis

It is not every day that someone sins against us in what we would naturally consider an “inexcusable” way.  Different cultures respond to offense differently, and while there are some who tend to harbor grudges and allow feuds and multi-generational hatred develop, every culture and every person has forgiven someone something on some level.  Perhaps someone stepped on his foot, told him a white lie, ate his left overs or borrowed his car and did not fill up the gas tank.  These are easily forgivable offenses for most people.

But consider that God calls our focus and service to self adultery.  He has forgiven us the sin of adultery.  How many people would forgive their spouses the sin of adultery?  And not just a one-time offense, but serial adultery?

God, being holy in nature, cannot overlook any sin, and all sin is punishable by death and damnation.  Adam and Eve brought the curse upon all of creation by eating a piece of fruit that God had forbidden.  Have you ever eaten a forbidden cookie?  God’s holiness will not excuse that, it will only punish it.  If you have confessed your sins and asked Jesus to place that sin under the fountain of His blood, then that sin has already been punished and you are considered redeemed.  All sin will be punished.  Either in eternity through damnation, or in the death of Jesus Christ.  We cannot and should not seek to add to God’s wrath.  Rather, we are commanded to love as He loved us.

Thus, C. S. Lewis states that it is not an option for us to love and forgive, but it is the very mark of a Christian.  If you have been forgiven, Jesus says, you will forgive and love in like manner.

So how is your grudge level today?  How is your forgiveness level?  Are you resting in and praising Jesus for His grace and forgiveness?  Are you pouring out grace and forgiveness in the same manner you are receiving it?  Let us learn to love like Jesus, so much so that we will be known by our love and forgiveness.

There but for the grace of God go I.

stake

John Bradford was an English, Protestant reformer who was burned at the stake by command of Mary Tudor at the age of 45.  After being raised in an established family, studying and working his way up to paymaster of the English army, he entered law school and there met a Christian.  John was converted and left law school to study theology.  At the age of forty he was ordained a priest and worked as a roving chaplain, and during his service in the Church he was known for regularly affirming his dependence on the grace of God and not his own morality for salvation.  When he would see criminals being led away to their death, he would say:

“There but for the grace of God go I.”

– John Bradford

We are quite versed in the art of self-deception, believing that we are not truly wicked at the core.  We believe that our human nature is neutral and that God only needs to help us out in those areas where we struggle.  But Scripture teaches us that we are depraved, that our very nature as human beings is wicked.  We are under the curse, we are enemies of God, and apart from Him we can go nothing good, and we would never seek God.  But we are quick to observe one another’s sins, hold grudges, and walk with condemnation.  We forget that our very faith and salvation is a gift.  Paul addresses this heart sternly:

“Therefore you have no excuse, everyone of you who passes judgment, for in that which you judge another, you condemn yourself; for you who judge practice the same things.  And we know that the judgment of God rightly falls upon those who practice such things.  But do you suppose this, O man, when you pass judgment on those who practice such things and do the same yourself,that you will escape the judgment of God?  Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?”

– Rom 2.1-4

It is the kindness of God alone that leads us to repentance.  We cannot and we never will come to repentance on our own accord.

“No one can come to Me unless the Father who sent Me draws him; and I will raise him up on the last day.”

– John 6.44

Therefore, we must be diligent to remember that everything we have is a gift from God.  Even our faith.  Even our repentance.  And when we see someone in sin or suffering the consequences of sin, let us practice humility.  Let us preach the Gospel to such a one, let us hold a brother accountable, but let us turn back to God in praise and with guarded hearts to petition God to keep us from sin.  Because it is the grace of God alone that draws us and keeps us from sin.  But for the grace of God, there go you and I, too.

“Pray, then, in this way:
‘Our Father who is in heaven,
Hallowed be Your name.
Your kingdom come.
Your will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And do not lead us into temptation, but deliver us from evil.  For Yours is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.’”

– Matt 6.9-13

Why Should I Obey?

river of life

Have you bought into the lie that since we are saved by grace through faith, it makes no difference what we do?  Or are you still living with the notion that you are a pretty good person and if you are good enough God will let you into Heaven when you die?  Grace and obedience often get muddied in the fields of our hearts because we struggle to focus on God, who is outside of us, but constantly revert to focusing on ourselves.  We look in, not up.  So grace either gives us freedom to do whatever we want to do, or we want to prove ourselves and make ourselves worthy of our own salvation.

Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant Reformation, grappled with this very question, and answered it quite profoundly:

Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy, so that from now on I need nothing except faith which believes that this is true. Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches?

– Martin Luther, The Freedom of a Christian

Grace has given us salvation that we do not and cannot deserve.  We will never be good enough to earn or merit salvation by our actions, because we are wicked from the core.  All have sinned, and any sin is enough to separate us from God for eternity.  Remember Adam and Eve?  But yet, by grace God has provided a way for us to be saved, by the work of Jesus Christ and not of ourselves.  Our response to being given such a glorious gift is to freely and joyfully do those things that make Him happy.  Not out of a spirit of requirement but out of a desire to please our Heavenly father.

Jesus takes the conversation a step farther, however, to say that it is indeed the mark of the one who has been saved by grace to obey (Matt 7.15-20), and James states quite clearly that faith which has no works is dead:

What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?  If a brother or sister is without clothing and in need of daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and be filled,” and yet you do not give them what is necessary for their body, what use is that?  Even so faith, if it has no works, is dead, being by itself.

– James 2.14-17

Obedience does not save us.  But if we do not obey, we prove ourselves to have never been saved.  Obedience is the mark of those who have been saved.  Not out of obligation, but out of joyful response to a loving Father.  Does your faith have works?  Is there an outpouring of grace that has been poured into you?  Do you have a river of life flowing out of you from God and to others?

“He who believes in Me, as the Scripture said, ‘From his innermost being will flow rivers of living water.’”

– John 7.38

Christian Narcissism

As our society continues to deteriorate by political correctness, tolerance, individualism and self-help-ism, Christianity is taking on a new face.  And it is not Christianity.  Knowing Jesus is about dying to self.

“And [Jesus] was saying to them all, “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross daily and follow Me.  For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake, he is the one who will save it.”

– Luke 9.23

We have turned Jesus into our cheerleader.  He accepts us unconditionally, He loves and affirms us no matter what we do, He is on my side.  We sing songs like “I am a friend of God”, we write books about who we are in Christ, and we tell ourselves over and over again that we are loved.  Jesus loves me, this I know.  We use Jesus to help boost our self esteem.  He came to save us, He exists for us, He adores us.

This is a mutilation of one of the most precious truths in the world.  Yes, Jesus does love me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!

Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends.”

– John 15.13

God so loved the world that He sent Jesus to die on the cross and raise again, paying the punishment for our sins so that we can be forgiven and spend eternity with Him.  But what is the end goal here?  Did Jesus do that because we are so precious and He wants to affirm us and make us happy and comfortable in our own skin?  Or did Jesus do this in spite of us, to make great His own glory?

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

– Rom 5.8

God did not send Jesus to die because of our worth.  He sent Jesus to die in spite of us.  We were His enemies.

For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life.

– Rom 5.10

And although you were formerly alienated and hostile in mind, engaged in evil deeds, yet He has now reconciled you in His fleshly body through death, in order to present you before Him holy and blameless and beyond reproach—

– Col 1.21-22

And this magnifies God’s greatness, His grace and His mercy.  People, in their self-righteousness, might be tempted to lay down their lives for a loved one, a good man, or even a king or nation.  But God sacrificed His only son for wicked people.

For one will hardly die for a righteous man; though perhaps for the good man someone would dare even to die.

– Rom 5.7

In clear, unashamed terms:  God has created us for His glory.  He does not exist for ours.

But now, thus says the Lord, your creator, O Jacob, and He who formed you, O Israel, “Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name; you are Mine! When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they will not overflow you. When you walk through the fire, you will not be scorched, nor will the flame burn you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior; I have given Egypt as your ransom, Cush and Seba in your place. Since you are precious in My sight, since you are honored and I love you, I will give other men in your place and other peoples in exchange for your life. Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring My sons from afar, and My daughters from the ends of the earth, everyone who is called by My name, and whom I have created for My glory, whom I have formed even whom I have made.”

– Is 43.1-7

What does this mean?  It means that our women’s Bible studies should not be focused on looking inward and building ourselves up as adored by God.  It means that we should be looking outward to God.  Being a Christian is not a self-discipline of believing good things about ourselves, it is dying to ourselves and believing great things about God.  Is it true that we are friends of God?  Yes!  By all means:

“No longer do I call you slaves, for the slave does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I have heard from My Father I have made known to you.”

– John 15.15

But the glory here is not who we are, in being a friend, the glory is that the God of the universe accepts us.  Therefore, we should not boast in our proximity to God, we should boast in God.  It’s not about me, it’s about Him.  John the Baptist stated most clearly our example of how we should react to our salvation:

“He must increase, but I must decrease.”

– John 3.30

Do you examine the Scriptures looking for promises to boost your self esteem and worth?  Or do you examine the Scriptures to get to know more intimately who God is, and to make much of Him?  Is God on your side, or are you on God’s side?  The “What Would Jesus Do” phenomenon swept youth groups in the late 1990’s, and people began to answer the question by their own perspectives and not Biblical ones.  Jesus would accept everyone, love everyone, affirm everyone, and let us just be ourselves.  Right?  I saw a meme on the internet recently that might shock some:

wwjd

Jesus made a whip and chased people out of the temple who were selling and exchanging money.  Did Jesus accept and affirm them?  Or perhaps most commonly misrepresented is the adulteress:

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, and having set her in the center of the court, they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in adultery, in the very act.  Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women; what then do You say?”  They were saying this, testing Him, so that they might have grounds for accusing Him. But Jesus stooped down and with His finger wrote on the ground.  But when they persisted in asking Him, He straightened up, and said to them, “He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Again He stooped down and wrote on the ground.  When they heard it, they began to go out one by one, beginning with the older ones, and He was left alone, and the woman, where she was, in the center of the court.  Straightening up, Jesus said to her, “Woman, where are they? Did no one condemn you?”  She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “I do not condemn you, either. Go. From now on sin no more.”

– John 8.3-11

Jesus did not get on her side.  He told her to go and sin no more.  Adultery was not acceptable to Jesus, He told her, I forgive you, now go and change.  He invited her to get on His side.

Let us be careful to remember that this is not about us.  Yes, God promises us peace, rest, and eternal salvation.  Life in the fullest!  But that is all ultimately to His glory.  In order for us to have life in its fullness, we must die to ourselves, we must look to Him.  We must get on His side, join His team, follow Him and make much of Him.  Let’s stop trying to build up our self esteem, because we are sinners and we will fail continually.  But let us glorify the one who saves us in spite of ourselves, and rest in His goodness and mercy.  Let us focus on Jesus today, not on ourselves.

To strive or not to strive, that is the question.

Strive

There is a teaching in popular Christianity today that basically goes like this,

“It’s all grace, so quit striving.  You cannot earn God’s love.”

This is an extremely dangerous half truth.  Yes, it is a glorious truth beyond description:

For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; not as a result of works, so that no one may boast.

– Eph 2.8-9

We are utterly sinful and unable to earn salvation by any merit of our own.  That was the entire purpose of the Old Testament Law:  to define sin and show that there is no human being who can keep the Law perfectly.  God has defined what perfection is, and we are incapable of doing it or attaining it.  Therefore we deserve damnation.  But God gives us a free gift of faith, which we do not deserve (grace), and it is not based on any thing that we will do or not do.  It is based on God alone.

But there is a tension in the Christian life of which we must be aware.  Jesus Himself said,

Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”

– Matt 11.28

Jesus promises rest.  When we are in Him, we can have peace and comfort to know that our eternity is secure.  We can enjoy His presence.  We can trust Him.  This is the glorious result of grace.  But yet, He also solemnly commands us:

Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”

– Luke 13.24

Strive.  Work.  Be diligent.  Many are going to seek to get to Heaven and fail, therefore work hard at it!

Now, many who are found in this “grace camp” will tell you that your actions make no difference, that it is the Holy Spirit at work in you to complete your salvation, quoting this verse:

“…for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

– Phil 2.13

But that does not mean we are off the proverbial hook.  We are not Christian fatalists who believe that the clock is in motion and therefore we have no responsibility for our actions!  We cannot assume that since the Holy Spirit is at work in us, that He will make us holy apart from our efforts in the battle.  Jesus said we must fight.  And if we read the whole of Paul’s admonition, we observe more fully this tension:

“So then, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed, not as in my presence only, but now much more in my absence, work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.”

– Phil 2.12-13

Obey!  Work out your salvation with fear and trembling.  Why?  Because God is the power enabling you to work out your salvation.  You cannot work out your salvation, you cannot obey, you cannot strive unless God is giving you the strength, conviction and will to do so.  It is human nature to desire to avoid pain and trials.  Hell is not desirable, and many will try to avoid eternal damnation by a variety of ways.  Some will even attempt to obey the Bible in their own strength.  But we can only love God and keep His commandments through His strength.  Therefore we must strive to love Him, and strive to die to our flesh.

Now, some might say that we should only strive to love God.  If we keep Jesus in our cross hairs, then everything else will fall into place.  Again, this is a half truth.  Jesus did indeed teach that the greatest commandment is:

‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’

– Matt 22.37

And he followed that up with the second greatest commandment:

“The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’

– Matt 22.39

He concluded that the entire Law is built upon these two commandments (Matt 22.40).  But notice that these are two separate commandments.  Loving your neighbor as yourself is not part of loving God with everything you have.  You can only love your neighbor by loving God, but they are, actually, two separate commandments.  We also learn in Scripture definitively what the deeds of the flesh are, and the deeds of the Spirit, and we are to put to death the deeds of the flesh:

“Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.  If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit.”

– Gal 5.19-25

“…for if you are living according to the flesh, you must die; but if by the Spirit you are putting to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”

– Rom 8.13

We are not passive agents in this life.  God has enabled us to strive, and we must strive.  But we see the fruit of our striving and have rest, knowing that the fact that we are striving is the proof that our salvation is secure.  If you are not striving, putting to death sin and deeds of the flesh, then the Spirit is not at work in you, and it is likely that you are not saved.

“…for the tree is known by its fruit.”

– Matt 12.33

Scripture even takes it one step further:

Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.

– Heb 12.1-2

Not only should we fight against sin, we should lay aside any distraction that keeps us from running at full strength.  Does the TV suck up much of your evenings?  Does a video game keep you from praying?  Does your intramural sports team compete during church hours?  These things are not sinful, but they are distracting and can dominate our time and keep us from fighting well.  We are instructed to run so as to win, not just run or dilly dally or meander.  Athletes regulate their food, their training, their rest.  Are you regulating your time and energy Spiritually?  Or are you just coasting?

When we do sin, we are not losing our salvation.  Jesus stands before God to intercede for us and declares our sin “paid for” as we stumble through life.  But we must strive to not sin, we must strive to glorify God in our lives, and we must strive to put away those things that distract us.

“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…”

– 1 John 2.1

So let us not cheapen grace by making room for sin in our lives and thinking that it does not matter.

Act as free men, and do not use your freedom as a covering for evil, but use it as bondslaves of God.

– 1 Peter 2.16

And rest in the peace and comfort that Jesus provides.

But please, if anyone tells you that you do not need to strive, that you do not need to make an effort to die to your sin, that you do not need to intentionally serve God, remember what Jesus said:

Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able.”

– Luke 13.24

Jesus said strive, and He is the one who knows the way to Heaven.  Your striving will prove that the Spirit is at work within you.  Fight the good fight, do not try to coast.  Rest in His peace and fight for righteousness.

What is your disposition?

the narrow parth

Each of us are created with strengths and weakness, and each of us are given different personality types.  Imagine this situation:  You are at a party, and there is a big, beautiful crystal bowl full of jelly bellies on the end of one of the tables.  You are standing there talking to someone and as you use your arm to paint a picture describing your story and your elbow knocks the crystal bowl to the floor and it shatters into a million pieces.  One person runs over and immediately starts scooping up the broken glass and spilled jelly bellies, another reaches over and pats your arm and says, “Don’t worry, it could have happened to anyone!” and the third (probably echoes of your father ringing in your ears) says to you, “You know, you should probably watch what you are doing and be more aware of your surroundings”.

Three perfectly normal responses to the same exact situation.  No one is right, no one is wrong.  The first person is a servant; he sees a need or a problem and wants to help make it better.  The second person is a person of mercy; he sees the shame and embarrassment of the offender and wants to comfort.  The last person is a teacher (or prophet, in Biblical language); he sees the cause of the problem and wants to help the person learn and grow how to not make the same mistake again.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.  And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord.  There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.  But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.  For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues.  But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills.

– 1 Cor 12.4-11

We see that God creates us all with unique personalities and He gives us outpourings of gifts in the Spirit.  Most importantly, we see that He gifts and prepares us differently for the common good (1 Cor 12.7).  When someone breaks a beautiful piece of china, he will be embarrassed and needs to be comforted, the mess needs to be cleaned up, and he needs to learn how to be more aware.  Now, this is a weak example because most of us are aware of our need to not knock over expensive bowls, but in a situation of moral dilemma or sin, the teacher/prophet has a substantial role.  All three dynamics are helpful and necessary for the growth, development and health of the Church.

And He gave some as apostles, and some as prophets, and some as evangelists, and some as pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ; until we all attain to the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a mature man, to the measure of the stature which belongs to the fullness of Christ.

– Eph 4.11-13

All three dispositions have strengths and weaknesses.  The servant is typically not outspoken and can grumble while down on his hands and knees thinking, “Why am I the only one cleaning up this mess?!”  The merciful one can be so concerned about others’ feelings that they excuse sin and hinder moral and Spiritual growth, and the prophet can be oblivious to feelings and deeply shame or hurt someone by only seeing the black and white.

But the three traits can help comfort, teach and serve the body.  We are not created to live in a vacuum.  We are created to help one another along the way, as iron sharpens iron (Prov 27.17).  We are to help one another find the narrow path that few find (Matt 7.13).  And God may give us different gifts and different times.  The gifting and enabling of the Spirit is not static.  Just because you are given mercy to handle one situation does not mean that you are forever only gifted in mercy!  There will and should be times that the Spirit empowers you to be the prophet or humbles you to be the servant.  He enables us and empowers us for the moment.

So let us seek to understand how we are wired.  Let us realize the weaknesses encompassed therein, let us pray for strength against those weaknesses, and let us pray for openness and awareness when the other traits need to be exemplified.  Let us strive to use our gifts, abilities and dispositions to build up the body – the Church – to unity, peace and love.  And let us rejoice in the strengths of our brothers and sisters in Christ.

Do we still have laws?

ten commandments

When Jesus brought salvation to the world through grace and fulfilled the Law, did He take away all expectations of how we are to live?  Do we still have instructions for our lives?  Christianity seems to take two extremes these days: legalism and unconditional acceptance.  I realize I have been on this topic for the last few days, with the different conversations floating around in our culture at large and American Christianity, but today I have been meditating on this well balanced instruction from Paul:

      “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice, acceptable to God, which is your spiritual service of worship.  And do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you may prove what the will of God is, that which is good and acceptable and perfect.

      For through the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think more highly of himself than he ought to think; but to think so as to have sound judgment, as God has allotted to each a measure of faith.  For just as we have many members in one body and all the members do not have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.  Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness.

      Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good.  Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.

      Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.  Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.  Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation.  Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men.  Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God,for it is written, ‘VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,’ says the Lord.  ‘BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.’  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.”

 – Rom 12

What grabs my attention in this passage is the level of love to which we are called.  We all can spout out the commandment to “love thy neighbor as thyself”.  But when was the last time that someone persecuted you and you blessed them?  Someone cut you off in traffic and you said, “I hope you get wherever you are going safely”?  Someone stole your wallet and you prayed for them that they would have food to eat that night?  And to be the person to suffer the offense for the sake of peace?  We all know the fairy tale ending of the suffering hero, the one who sacrifices himself for the princess or the kingdom, but is that how you live?

We are incapable of living that way, without the hope and humility exemplified in this passage.  Until we realize our guilt before God and grasp the weight of our forgiveness, we are incapable of forgiving others.  But the moment we realize what we deserve and embrace the grace of God that leads us to salvation, we are no longer capable of expecting anything from others.  He who has been forgiven much loves much.  Having been forgiven much makes us humble and thankful, and that is why Paul tells us to not think of ourselves more highly than we ought.  

But knowing that we have been forgiven does not always appease our desire for justice when we have been sinned against.  We can be humble, but still get angry over injustice.  And in this we trust the promise of God that He is going to handle that sin.  All sin will be punished.  God is not mocked, and He does not excuse any sin.  Either Jesus paid for it on the cross, or the offender will pay for it in eternity in Hell.  Would you take away from the crucifixion?  Or are you capable of adding to eternal damnation?  God knows His perfect plan and will handle each sin appropriately.  It is not for us to interfere!

If you trust God to handle your sin, why not trust Him to handle someone else’s?

Yes, we have commandments.  Live peaceably with everyone – so much as it depends on you.  Abhor what is evil, cling to what is good.  Don’t be a hypocrite.  Be transformed by renewing your mind (learn the Scripture, cling to the promises, remember your sin and your own forgiveness and be humble, fight your sin).  Pray.  Rejoice in tribulation.  Bless those who persecute you.  Return good for evil.  

This commandment is infinitely more difficult than the Old Testament Law, which required an eye for an eye!  But God provides the strength, the desire and the ability.  Cling to Him.  Trust Him.  And make every effort to obey Him.

Unconditional Love does not mean Unconditional Approval

approval

As we Americans continue full steam ahead down the path of tolerance and acceptance, denying the existence of absolute truth and empowering everyone to be god and authoritative in his own eyes, we are losing all sense of accountability.  While one can still go to jail for murder or grand larceny, the pool of excuses is broadening.  Mental illness, duress, self defense and situational considerations allow the guilty to walk freely.  We have philosophized ourselves into a corner where everyone has their freedom to choose every aspect of their lives, and no one has the right to judge, or even look funny at another because of his choices.

I have heard it said that God made man in His image, and now we are returning the favor.  We value tolerance, acceptance and self determination so highly that we attempt to force these attributes onto God.  We read books like “Redeeming Love” and we listen to our best friends who say, “I will support whatever decision you make” and think that we are eternally in the clear.  Because God serves us.  Right?  This is how we end up with situations like the coming out of Vicky Beeching and her self justification, “God loves me just the way I am”.

Is God’s love truly unconditional?  We need to consider carefully what we mean by the notion and what Scripture has to say about it.  When it comes to the offer of salvation, yes, that love is unconditional.  I cannot merit God’s salvation by doing something, and I cannot be so wicked that He would withhold it from me.  The act of justification is God paying the penalty for my sin, apart from anything good within me.  It is by faith, through grace, and not of works so that no man may boast (Eph 2.8-9).  But His saving grace does require obedience.

“Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?”

– Luke 6.46

“If you love Me, you will keep My commandments.”

– John 14.15

“He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me; and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him…If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our abode with him.  He who does not love Me does not keep My words; and the word which you hear is not Mine, but the Father’s who sent Me.”

– John 14.21-24

The mark of the one who has been saved, the mark of the one who loves Jesus is the one who obeys Him.  If we do not obey Him, them we prove ourselves to not love Him, to not be saved.  God’s saving grace is unconditional to earn, but conditional to maintain.  He will not smile on or approve of the one who continues in sin after hearing of grace:

For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.

– Heb 10.26-27

So how does that work?  We like to talk about the love, grace and mercy of God, but it is less fun to talk about His righteousness, wrath and judgment.  A.W. Tozer makes this very clear observation:

All of God’s acts are consistent with all of His attributes.  No attribute contradicts any other, but all harmonize and blend into each other in the infinite abyss of the Godhead.

– A.W. Tozer

God’s wrath, grace, judgment, mercy, love and anger are all perfectly working together to create the infinite, perfect sovereign over the universe.  His grace freely forgives all who ask, and His wrath fully punishes all who do not.  We are all guilty before Him, as He is the perfect, all knowing judge who can see not only our actions but our hearts, and He Himself wrote the book on sin.  If it were not for the Law of God, we would not know sin (Rom 3.20).

God does not accept our ongoing actions unconditionally.  He hates sin.  He will not tolerate it.

I listened to a beautiful testimony yesterday, I highly recommend it to you:

Christopher says, “God did not call me to be heterosexual because He is heterosexual.  He called me to be holy because He is holy”.  God does not come to us in the filth and mire, save us and then leave us there.  He comes to us in the filth and mire and rescues us.  He pull us out of the mud, He washes us clean, He set our feet on solid ground and gives us a new heart and a new mind and the ability to obey and love Him.  His grace and love cause us to be a new creation, set on His ways and intentions.  He expects love, obedience, faithfulness and holiness from us in return.  Yes, He forgives us when we mess up, but He empowers us to change and expects us to put to death the deeds of the flesh.

We are not earning your salvation by obeying.  We are proving ourselves to be saved by obeying.  Be holy, for He is holy.

Let’s Compare Scars

I was young, maybe four years old.  My family had just moved to a new (old) house in Philadelphia and my parents were practically refinishing the entire house.  It was old, stone, with two story porches on the front and back, but needed some serious TLC.  One night my family was out and my mom was working down in the basement and I was down there with her.  She was on a ladder and wanting to be up high too, I climbed up on an old hutch.  When I got a few feet off the floor, the entire hutch fell forward, crushing me between it and the cold, concrete floor.  My eye was perfectly aligned with the rusty hinge where the door had been, and part of the nail punctured my skin and went down into my eye socket, perfectly dividing my eyeball and bone.  My mom says that as she pulled the cabinet off of me, tears and blood were running down my face and she “just knew” I had popped my eyeball and would be blind in my left eye.  Fortunately, and by the grace of God, there was no damage to my eye!  The nail had missed my eye, and I was left with a gnarly black eye and stitches.  The scar is still quite visible just at the corner of my eye.

Do you have a better story?  A bigger scar?  Americans tend to take a little bit of pride in our war stories as we laugh at ourselves, or take ourselves too seriously when we sit around and compare battle scars with one another.  “Wait until you hear…” is a favorite line for children and adults alike.  We often do not even listen to the completion of the story being told for readiness to tell our own tale of adventure or woe.

Sometimes Christians do the same with our sin.  We glorify the past, think of the days of old, or give credit to someone’s faith because of the extent of the transformation that has happened in his life.  When I was in High School I regularly felt like a lesser of a Christian, incapable of relating to others and having a weak testimony because God called me to salvation at a young age and I never had a season of extended darkness or intense rebellion.  Sure, I made mistakes and had much to repent of, but I did not have a dynamic story of salvation from the pits.  My scars could not compare.

Not only that, but we require others to have experienced what we are experiencing to be able to hold us accountable.  We proclaim tolerance and justify our sin to the point that no one may speak into another’s life unless he has walked there.  “You just cannot understand” we mutter as someone calls us to repentance, “You don’t know what it’s like”.  And thus we make peace with sin.

“It is actually reported that there is immorality among you, and immorality of such a kind as does not exist even among the Gentiles, that someone has his father’s wife.  You have become arrogant and have not mourned instead, so that the one who had done this deed would be removed from your midst.”

– 1 Cor 5.1-2

But this is taken only to an extent.  There are sins that we are unwilling to forgive or even listen to the details of.  Sins that do not enhance our testimony before one another.  And each denomination has one or two for which they assign a scarlet letter.  For the Catholics the hardest one might possibly be abortion; the Baptists, divorce.

Yes, abortion and divorce are heinous and ugly sins.  God hates them both.  But if a person has repented, Christ died on the cross and paid the punishment for that sin.  Who are we to then judge again that which has been forgiven?  And worse yet, when a person was an unwilling participant in such an event, why would we condemn and ostracize one in a season of pain and need?

Sin is ugly.  Every sin is damnable.  It dishonors God and disgraces the one who did it.  And salvation from the bondage to sin in any life is a miracle, a marvel and a beautiful story.

I once knew someone who claimed to be a Christian but whenever he met someone with a dynamic testimony, he only wanted to hear the depth of depravity of the former life.  He wanted to hear about the drugs, the alcohol, the jail time, the darkness.  In contrast, I once had a coworker who had lived as a hippy during the 70’s and indulged the full extent of that lifestyle.  After God called her and her husband to repentance, she refused to dwell on the sin and only praised God saying, “Praise God for that from which He saved us!”  She would not tell the stories of the darkness.  She would tell the stories of redemption.

This is the goal.  To praise God.  Giving thanks always, in all things (1 Thess 5.18), and making great his name!

Experience with a sin in the past can certainly lend one valuable for advice and wise counsel in combating that particular sin.  If you are caught by a sin of habit, it is wise to enlist the help of a mature believer to help you conquer said sin in your life.  However, The battle against sin is both deep and broad, and all Christians are heavily engaged in it.  Do not justify your sin and refuse to let others speak truth into your life for their lack of experience in it.  If you are an alcoholic, someone who is passionately in love with God who has never had a sip of alcohol can lovingly speak truth and hold you accountable.  He might have fought the battle of addiction to pornography or pride.  If you hate your wife and are setting your plan to leave her, someone who has never been married can understand God’s hatred of divorce and encourage you to love selflessly and choose to obey God’s Word.  He might fight to love and respect his boss or co-worker.

Let God’s word define sin in your life and let His grace lead you to repentance.  Embrace the help and counsel of any in your life who love you and would seek your maturity and growth.

And let us not harbor ill will towards one whom the Lord has forgiven!  When one has repented, God has forgiven him.  We may not inflict greater judgment than God has already poured out on Jesus Christ.  And if we do, we nullify the cross and dishonor Him.

Let us quit comparing scars.  Let us praise God for the beautiful work that He is doing, and look only at those beautiful scars that establish our hope and eternity.

“For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, who committed no sin, nor was any deceit found in His mouth; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.  For you were continually straying like sheep, but now you have returned to the Shepherd and Guardian of your souls.

– 1 Peter 2.21-25

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