God’s grace from start to finish

Now those who had been scattered by the persecution that broke out when Stephen was killed traveled as far as Phoenicia, Cyprus and Antioch, spreading the word only among Jews. Some of them, however, men from Cyprus and Cyrene, went to Antioch and began to speak to Greeks also, telling them the good news about the Lord Jesus. The Lord’s hand was with them, and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.

News of this reached the church in Jerusalem, and they sent Barnabas to Antioch. When he arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts. He was a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith, and a great number of people were brought to the Lord.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. So for a whole year Barnabas and Saul met with the church and taught great numbers of people. The disciples were called Christians first at Antioch.

Acts 11:19-26

I particularly would like to dwell for a moment on one part of this passage.

When [Barnabas] arrived and saw what the grace of God had done, he was glad and encouraged them all to remain true to the Lord with all their hearts.

God’s grace is God’s gift given to those who are undeserving. By simple faith it is received. That gift is in Christ, in God’s salvation in him, forgiveness for our sins through Christ’s death, and new, eternal life through his resurrection.

God’s grace is what we have to depend on. It never ever for a moment depends on us. We can live in this new life only by God’s grace. We are completely dependent on it. In that grace we find the sheer goodness of God, and that God keeps his promise in Christ to those who we no longer depend on themselves, but on Christ.

Of course we can’t merit this gift. As Paul points out in Romans 4, it would no longer be a gift if we could.

Later we read concerning another missionary venture by Paul and Barnabas:

…many of the Jews and devout converts to Judaism followed Paul and Barnabas, who talked with them and urged them to continue in the grace of God.

Acts 13:43b

It is God’s grace, his gift in Christ that we’re always and forever dependent on. Revolutionary to the Jews during that time, who supposed the Law of Moses remained binding on them as God’s people. But still revolutionary in our day. Really in every time and place. We’re to continue and indeed can only continue in the faith through that grace/gift, and nothing else. In and through Jesus.

vindication from God our Savior

Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord?
Who may stand in his holy place?
The one who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not trust in an idol
or swear by a false god.

They will receive blessing from the Lord
and vindication from God their Savior.
Such is the generation of those who seek him,
who seek your face, God of Jacob.

Psalm 24

When I read in the psalms about God vindicating his people, I think how undeserving I am of such vindication. And this is a psalm of David, who doesn’t seem that worthy of vindication when you consider his great sin of adultery and murder. But maybe that is meant to be an encouragement to the rest of us who, while we may have not committed such an act, still know we’re so undeserving because of what we have done, left undone, and because of grievous attitudes in our heart at times.

Just to make it clear what vindication means, it involves someone being proven to be in the right. When one thinks about that, one can’t help but think of God’s grace without which none of us would ever be in the right in the first place.

What especially stood out to me today in reading this great psalm is the line: “They will receive…vindication from God their Savior.” I think that helps us understand how God’s people are vindicated. It’s not because of them, but the God who saves them.

N. T. Wright helped me see from the psalms how God’s righteousness is tied to God’s salvation of his people. God’s saving act includes vindicating his people, who apart from that would never be vindicated. Of course this goes beyond what we deserve, because when we read all of the psalms and the rest of Scripture we understand that no one deserves vindication in themselves. We’re all sinners.

We receive vindication from God because of our faith and the difference God makes in our lives. We are different through and through, not wanting to do what is wrong, but wanting to do what’s right, even while we do fail along the way. It’s God’s working that makes us want to face our true selves, repent, and walk in God’s way, and keep doing that again and again with our ongoing confession of our sins, and endeavor to walk anew and afresh in God’s will for us in Christ.

And so we can be encouraged with this thought. God’s vindication of us is completely not because of us, but because of God, as by faith he credits righteousness to us, and helps us to want to live accordingly, even in the midst of our inevitable stumbling. God will vindicate us, yes, each one of us, in and through Jesus.

 

forgiving others

“If your brother or sister sins against you, rebuke them; and if they repent, forgive them. Even if they sin against you seven times in a day and seven times come back to you saying ‘I repent,’ you must forgive them.”

Luke 17:3b-4

Then Peter came to Jesus and asked, “Lord, how many times shall I forgive my brother or sister who sins against me? Up to seven times?”

Jesus answered, “I tell you, not seven times, but seventy-seven times.

Matthew 18:21-22

In the sometimes rough and tumble existence of life, there’s forgiveness needed, yes, on all sides. But especially so when sin is especially evident, say in one’s attitude or action toward another, sometimes in angry words spoken.

Jesus told his disciples to hold each other accountable for their sin, and forgive them when they repent (see Luke passage above).  And he made it clear that forgiveness is ongoing, that there’s no limit to how often we forgive the same person (see Matthew passage above).

Jesus told a parable in the Matthew passage which makes the point that we forgive because we’ve been forgiven. And forgiven for a worse offense than what was done to us. We might say that sin against God is worse than sin against us, though it’s true that all sin is essentially against God. God has forgiven us because of Jesus’s death for our sins. So we in turn must forgive others. And that if we don’t forgive, we’re handed over to the torturers, so that in essence, we’re only hurting ourselves.

People do need to know they’re forgiven, and frankly, we all need it along the way. So let’s freely extend it to others, yes holding them accountable, but when all is said and done, wiping the slate clean, as if nothing has happened at all. And as necessary, doing it again and again. In and through Jesus.

I’m not referring to abusive relationships. We should forgive, but keep our distance. And also try to hold them accountable, so that they will get the help they need.

 

faith not works puts us right with God

Now to the one who works, wages are not credited as a gift but as an obligation. However, to the one who does not work but trusts God who justifies the ungodly, their faith is credited as righteousness.

Romans 4:4-5

It seems ingrained in us humans that being right with God depends on us, specifically on what we do. We think somehow that we have to earn so as to deserve God’s acceptance and favor. Paul here puts the kibosh on that. Of course we find this elsewhere in Scripture, even as this passage from Paul makes clear (click Romans link above).

No, faith puts us right with God. We’re justified by faith, not ever by our works. Works follow, and justifying faith does work for sure. But it has to be in that order. If we’re struggling to be accepted by God, we’re wasting time and effort. We need to stop and simply trust God, believe God’s word, God’s promise to us in Christ.

God has done what needs to be done for us to be accepted by him. We simply have to accept and receive that. And only then do we receive the forgiveness of sins and new life which opens up an entirely new way for us. Certainly filled with love and good works. In and through Jesus.

the blessing of the biblical accounts: David

God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’

Acts 13:22b

The biblical account of David (1 Samuel 16-2 Kings 2; 1 Chronicles 11-29) like the gospel accounts is theological in the story it tells. It doesn’t diminish David’s failures or hide his blemishes. This is in large part why the Bible is so believable. David is a man after God’s own heart, but not perfect by any stretch of the imagination.

This encourages us, because this too is where we live in Jesus. We are forgiven for sure, through Jesus and his death for us, but we’re not without fault. We still have our sins, and our lives can be messy at times. Of course we’re always in need of God’s grace, not only for forgiveness, but to live in the new life God has for us in Jesus.

But back to David. We can learn much from his account, which of course is what is intended in one way or another through all the Bible. Things that will both resonate with us and can help us. His is a story worth reading through, reflecting on and studying. Remarkably many of the psalms are in David’s name.

God did not put him on the shelf because of the great sin he committed, but David is on the shelf so to speak for all to see and learn from. That we might see the good we can emulate, and the bad we’re to avoid. Along with the grace that is ours. In and through the son of David, Jesus.

 

God’s grace helps us where we are

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age, while we wait for the blessed hope—the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.

Titus 2:11-14

Sometimes we think we have to be in a certain place before God’s grace works. But actually apart from God’s grace we can’t do anything that will be helpful. Grace might be nudging us simply to realize that. Grace here is meant God’s gift of forgiveness and new life in Christ. God’s grace helps us exactly where we are. And we’re enabled by that grace to do better, indeed we grow in and through that grace.

We need to remember this. All depends on God’s grace to us always. We not only go from there, but continually live from that. In and through Jesus.

what is most basic to us?

I am writing to you, dear children,
because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.

1 John 2:12

It seems like in this day and age, or surely any day and age for that matter, but maybe more so now in some ways, we Christians can forget and come to neglect and even rather think light of basics which are central to our lives as believers and followers of Christ. Perhaps a good example is the passage cited above. We might come to take for granted that our sins are forgiven, and even hardly think of that at all since we’re so caught up in other things.

Right now in the United States Christians are often very much caught up in politics, or maybe something of the culture war, or whatever cause it might be. Some of that might be good in its place (maybe some of it not), but we need to get past the “ho-hum” attitude we often have about what we might call “first things,” and what is beyond that.

We need to live in the world of Scripture, the story that God portrays. And then see everything from that light. And not let the world direct us as to what’s important. And if there’s some overlap between what we think and what others might be thinking, all well and good. But our hearts and lives are on a different course entirely. As we dwell on the basics and go deeper. And refuse to consider basic to ourselves anything else, at least not in comparison. In and through Jesus.

a reviving hope

Why do you complain, Jacob?
Why do you say, Israel,
“My way is hidden from the LORD;
my cause is disregarded by my God”?
Do you not know?
Have you not heard?
The Lord is the everlasting God,
the Creator of the ends of the earth.
He will not grow tired or weary,
and his understanding no one can fathom.
He gives strength to the weary
and increases the power of the weak.
Even youths grow tired and weary,
and young men stumble and fall;
but those who hope in the LORD
will renew their strength.
They will soar on wings like eagles;
they will run and not grow weary,
they will walk and not be faint.

Isaiah 40:27-31

It is easy in this world given all the sin, our own included, simply to lose hope. We fail along the way, or have failed. Others let us down. The circumstances of life weigh heavily on us. We lose hope.

Something like that had happened to Israel of old. They were guilty to be sure. They had not listened to God, had not been faithful to God. And yet God was moving in judgment and salvation to call his people back to himself. That in itself is a note of hope.

Israel might have felt they were past the point of no return. Not true with God. There is not only hope in this life, but we find that hope in God. We may think we’re undeserving, and that’s certainly the case, or that we may have crossed a line outside of God’s mercy and grace. That all there’s left for us is judgment. But God has something different to tell us.

We’re to hope in God and not give into despair based on our own limited understanding. When we put our hope in God, certainly waiting is part of that, but it’s more like God meets us then and there at least to strengthen us to carry on, as we await God’s good work. What we can count on here and now. In and through Jesus.

 

one of the law’s important functions

We know that the law is good if one uses it properly. We also know that the law is made not for the righteous but for lawbreakers and rebels, the ungodly and sinful, the unholy and irreligious, for those who kill their fathers or mothers, for murderers, for the sexually immoral, for those practicing homosexuality, for slave traders and liars and perjurers—and for whatever else is contrary to the sound doctrine that conforms to the gospel concerning the glory of the blessed God, which he entrusted to me.

1 Timothy 1:8-11

I don’t think we would think well of a road in a mountainous region which had no guardrails near a steep cliff. That is one important way to appreciate the role of God’s law in Scripture. It is not meant to keep us from enjoying ourselves, but rather, to keep us from harming ourselves. It is also meant to point us to the necessary correction we need.

While the law tells us what’s wrong, only God’s grace in Christ can help us repent of our sin, and turn in a different direction, toward God, and toward pleasing God. We can’t do it ourselves simply by checking off the right boxes, and changing our behavior. We need God’s grace in Christ for the forgiveness of our sins, and for the new life through which we can see change occurring in our lives through a changed heart and a renewed mind.

Not easy, but given to us day after day in and through Jesus.

 

genuine repentance

See what this godly sorrow has produced in you: what earnestness, what eagerness to clear yourselves, what indignation, what alarm, what longing, what concern, what readiness to see justice done.

2 Corinthians 7:11

This point is made to the church, not to any one individual. Yet it is the appropriate response to sin in both the church and an individual.

Of course confession of sin is at the forefront, but one needs to be sorry as well, not about the consequences, but about the sin itself.

Repentance means a change of mind, heart and life. It involves turning from that sin to God. The godly sorrow Paul mentions here, evident in the church at Corinth in dealing with sin in their midst is important, indeed necessary for change. We have to sorrow over our sin, or over the sin of others to be truly repentant. Of course we need to see to ourselves; we can’t be responsible for the behavior of others. At the same time the church is responsible to hold a sinner accountable, to help them toward forgiveness of sin and restoration.

The deep seated desire for change is part and parcel of God’s grace at work in our lives, or in our churches. Grace too often is viewed as passive, that we simply receive God’s gift and that’s that. But the reception of that gift brings not only forgiveness of our sins, but a new life. We may possibly fall into serious sin along the way, but God’s grace will give us the wherewithal to not only hate and renounce our sin, but change over time, so that we over and over put the stops on to be sure it doesn’t happen again. But no one should think that just because they’ve been through that, with a thorough repentance, that it couldn’t happen again. So we must beware.

But back to the point of the text and this post: This begins by taking sin seriously. Not excusing it for any reason at all, certainly not sweeping it under the rug and forgetting about it. No. A sign that we are experiencing the godly sorrow which leads to repentance is that we’re indeed worked up over it and intent on day to day change, confirmed over time in real life. In and through Jesus.