Posts Tagged ‘Grace’

So many ‘Christian Living’ books and courses seem to fit the ‘Self Help’ genre more than the ‘Discipleship’ genre.

Most are written by people who are successful at the aspect of Living they are teaching about. They generally have a thriving marriage and obedient children who are planning to be missionaries. They read their Bible meaningfully every day, have overcome mental illness, know how to be positive in every situation, normally share the Gospel with strangers, especially those next to them in the aeroplane, and are by-and-large healthy, happy and good looking. Often they will also have some kind of secular high level degree – normally in the medical or scientific field, showing they must know more about Life than those who have only studied their Bible. Those who are also pastors seem to be whimsical communicators, lead one of the country’s fastest growing churches, and have an endorsement by at least 3 other celebrity pastors.

The message this sends is, ‘If you do what I did, you can have what I have.’ This helps us to conveniently forget the truth that they only have what they have as a gift of God’s grace, not because they did what they did. Sure, what they did was involved in the whole process of God giving them what they have, but because it’s a gift, He deserves all the credit for freely giving them what they have. And because He is free to give, He is also free to decide who gets what, and who doesn’t get what.

If I think that by doing what they did I will get what they have, I am treating grace as a commodity, dispensed from the divine vending machine I call ‘God.’ My actions determine what God does and what He gives, and unless I put the coin in the slot and push the button, God won’t give me what I think I need.

Not only does this belittle God, but it exalts me. It makes my Christian Living into something that is based on strengths, when it should be based on weakness.

‘…to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’

(2 Corinthians 12:7-10)

Whatever Paul’s ‘thorn’ was – a besetting sin, a physical disability, a spiritual attack, or whatever – chances are someone somewhere has written a book about how to overcome it. (And it’s a pity they didn’t write it back in AD 50, as Paul’s ministry would have been so much more effective!). The Lord’s answer to Paul wasn’t to give him a book or a course or 5 easy steps to removing the thorn. He’d already enabled Paul to see that if the thorn was to be removed, it would have to be the Lord who did it (hence his asking). But in this he was teaching Paul that knowing His sovereignty wasn’t just about accepting whatever comes our way in some kind of fatalistic surrender. It’s about knowing His sufficient grace in times of rock-bottom weakness, even when it seems as though that weakness is here to stay.

I think Paul came to realise that as long as he was trying to deal with and overcome his thorn (or to work out how to teach others to live victorious, thorn-free lives) his focus remained on himself, and he was not able to get on with the high calling that God had put on his life to make the power of Christ known to the nations. It is possible to be so focussed on cultivating the most godly, disciplined and holy spiritual life, that we never get around to seeking our highest calling – giving glory to Jesus Christ by declaring his praises among the nations.

If we take our cue from the world, and make the Christian Life a strengths-based exercise, we will never be content – as Paul was – with weakness. If we think that simply doing what they did we will have what they have, we will end up either prideful (if we succeed), or disillusioned (if we fail), and neither of these bring glory to God. We either pat ourselves on the back for our correct operation of the Divine Vending Machine, or we make God out to be unreliable or weak because He didn’t let us have what they have, even though we did what they did.

This has implications too for how we read and apply His word. A strengths-based Christian Life will treat His commands as instructions – guidelines and principles to be applied to our lives to make us successful; they become a means to achieving personal holiness.

However, someone swimming in grace in the midst of weakness will hear Jesus’ commands and they will fill them with joy – to think that He would consider such a broken clay vessel to be the custodian of such a great treasure! This person will see that the commands of Jesus are not about  making us powerful, but about displaying His power; and the weaker we are, the more His power becomes apparent, because our ongoing failure to perfectly keep His commands shows that we live by His grace, not our works.

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"Let there be no compulsion in religion" - Sura Al-Baqara (The Cow) 2:256 Is one of the most quoted verses in the Quran. It could be argued that the phrase was actually originally coined by the Christian apologist Tertullian in the second century.

Sura Al-Baqara (The Cow) 2:256 Is one of the most quoted verses in the Quran. It could be argued that the phrase was actually originally coined by the Christian apologist Tertullian in the second century.

This week at Flinders is Islam Awareness Week. It’s kinda like the Muslim Association’s equivalent of our Jesus Week which Flinders Evangelical Students held in August. So, I thought it would be appropriate to be aware of Islam (more that I am normally) by seeking to reflect on what is being communicated by our Muslim friends, and to give some responses and some questions from a Christian perspective. I will be making a few posts over the next few days.

What – or Whom – are we promoting?

One thing that has struck me in observing the activities of Islam Awareness Week is a key difference between Christian and Muslim ‘evangelism’.

For Muslims, what they are promoting is Islam. Their large glossy posters outline the things that Muslims must do, why their system is superior to others, how they promote peace and elevate the status of women, etc. In essence, they are calling people to a religion, a way of living, a belief system.

While they affirm a certain amount of propositional ‘truth’ – statements about Allah and his revelation through Muhammed – the heart of their religion is what they are required to do in order to be a true Muslim – ie. one living in submission to Allah. The path to peace and righteousness, acceptance by Allah, and a civil society is through the faithful observance of the arkān al-dīn, or ‘Pillars of religion’:

Shahadah: declaring there is no god except Allah, and Muhammad is Allah’s Messenger
Salat: ritual prayer five times a day
Zakat: giving 2.5% of one’s savings to the poor and needy
Sawm: fasting and self-control during the holy month of Ramadan
Hajj: pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime if one is able

This faithful observance, along with obeying the other rules of Islam, will (they hope) increase their Sawāb, or merit before Allah.

Good news, not good rules

By contrast, Christian proclamation is about calling people to a Person – the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a way of life that will flow out from a relationship with Jesus, but the focus is on a relationship with the Person, not the religion he taught. Hence, Jesus’ teaching emphasises that those who trust in him will know God as their Father, not merely a sovereign Creator.

When a person becomes a Christian they repent and believe – which is a far cry from taking on board a new set of beliefs or actions. Repentance is recognising that all my actions are actually like filthy rags, and that I can do nothing to earn merit before God – in fact my actions only bring me the condemnation I deserve. And faith is trusting that what I am unable to do myself, Jesus has done for me on my behalf, and he gives me merit before God as a free gift of grace (also known as justification). So, while the heart of Islam is the 5 Pillars – a list of what I must do, the heart of Christianity is the Gospel – an announcement of what Jesus has done.

This is succinctly summed up in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4: ‘…that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures.’

Or in 1 Timothy 3:16: ‘Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh, vindicated by the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory.’

Or 2 Timothy 2:8: ‘Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel.’

All of these are statements, using slightly different phrases, of what Jesus Christ has done for us, not what we must do for him. That makes a huge difference to how we go about evangelism. It is also, I believe, why Islam seems much more culturally bound to Middle Eastern and Arabic thinking and practice, whereas cultural diversity abounds within world-wide Christianity.

This different also has a massive implication for the seeker of truth. Even if, as our Muslim friends insist, Islam is a logical and rational religion; even if the Quran is coherent and unique and reliable; even if Islamic societies are peaceful, and a dedicated Muslim finds a sense of peace and fulfilment in observing their religion, none of that actually proves the truthfulness of the religion nor compels me to even begin to consider becoming a Muslim.

Islam cannot bring me into a personal relationship with God where I know myself to be His beloved son. Islam cannot give me the absolute assurance that my sin has been dealt with and forgiven once and for all time. Islam cannot save me from the burden of trying to make it myself, and to never be sure if I will be good enough. And Islam cannot give me a sure hope for myself or this world.

Only Jesus does that. The Person, not a religion, is the only one who can deliver. He is the Author and Finisher of my faith; all I can do is fix my eyes on him.

charlton-heston-as-moses-in-the-ten-commandmentsLaw – delight or…?

The law of the Lord is perfect,refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy, making wise the simple.
The precepts of the Lord are right, giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
The fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever.
The decrees of the Lord are firm, and all of them are righteous.
They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb.
By them your servant is warned; in keeping them there is great reward.
Psalm 19:7-11(ESV)

I suspect that many Christians would be happy to echo and affirm these words, while at the same time feeling an uncomfortable tension. We know that we are saved by grace, not by works of the Law. But what does that actually mean? Does it mean that grace has replaced law as a way of salvation? Does it mean Christians can disregard the law, and not bother about reading those tedious bits in the Old Testament about sacrifices, cutting the sides of your beard and boiling a goat in its mother’s milk? And what about the Sermon on the Mount – are these a new set of laws for Christians to follow, or something else? Are there things a Christian has to do in order to be – and stay – Christian, or does ‘Once saved always saved,’ mean we can live as we please and still have our ticket to heaven secure?

So many questions. I think, to be honest, many Christians are actually confused about the place of the Law in their lives. To be honest, sometimes I get confused – until I pull myself back to the Word of God and the Gospel.

I think there are two main errors we slip into, which show our confusion:

1. We think that somehow our salvation is based on our performance – legalism. This leads to all kinds of hangups; from judgmentalism, to guilty burdens, to spiritual pride.

2. We get fed up with all those stuck up legalists, and slip slowly but surely into libertarianism. This leads to pushing the boundaries in all kinds of areas, all the way from morality, to doctrine, to methodology.

We make a mistake in thinking that we somehow need to find a ‘balance’ between these two extremes. But why should we try to balance between two bad things? We actually need a completely other way to look at the issue.

I’m going to be making a series of posts here and there that will explore these questions, and seek to unpack this ‘other way’ – the Biblical truths about the Law of God and its place in the Christian life.

Stay tuned (all 3 of you).