grace instead of law: “I want to” compared to “I have to”

The law is not a necessary evil in scripture. The evil lies in us (Romans 7). The law tells us what we ought and ought not to do. The law is from God and is good.

What we need is grace, which amounts to God’s undeserved favor given to us in and through Christ. It is a gift that we receive, pure and simple. Through Christ’s death for us on the cross, we are forgiven of our sins when we repent and believe as in entrusting ourselves into God’s hands, and committing our lives to him.

Law necessarily condemns, but in grace there is never any condemnation. Christ has taken all the condemnation on himself at the cross. The Spirit is given to us, and we have the assurance that we are once for all time forgiven. But that doesn’t mean that the law no longer applies to us.

By grace through the Spirit we actually fulfill the requirement of the law, which in shorthand amounts to love, but not without details spelled out in scripture. For example, we don’t love our neighbor as ourselves when we commit adultery, or either do, or fail to do a number of things.

If we’re living under God’s grace, then we’re made both willing and able. And we in Christ are under grace, not under law (Romans 6). Law comes to us in a coercive way: we have to or else. Grace comes on us in a compelling way: we want to, period. Yes, out of love in love. And it’s a want to placed in us by God. As those who are forgiven and given new life in Jesus. To follow on and be victorious. In and through Jesus.

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Paul’s chronic condition: the thorn in the flesh

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

Yesterday I was thinking about the passage I really don’t like to go back to, but find that I should at times, this passage right here. The point I would like to make today for myself, and for anyone who might read this, is that Paul’s condition here was indeed chronic. It’s not like every moment he was tormented, not at all. But that he carried with him some condition which at any moment could be the source of experiencing that torment.

My own “thorn in the flesh” I think is at least largely anxiety. Which is the root of various manifestations. Your’s could be something else entirely different. Sometimes we can’t figure out why we struggle the way we do. Different factors are involved, surely complex. But the reality of our struggle cannot be ignored. We are all creatures of experience. Our life is lived there, of course. Not in thoughts, or things in our head, though they factor in for good or for ill.

Again, Paul’s condition was chronic. He couldn’t wish it away, ignore it, or even pray it away, as we see in the passage. It was present for a reason. The bottom line is that he had to learn to trust God in it, yes, in it. And that ended up being the source of great blessing to and through him for others. Notice too that Paul factored in with that thorn every weakness or problem in his life. Ironically the very problems that could have been his downfall ended up being his strength through God’s grace.

This is an encouragement to me. Instead of resisting it in the form of seeing it as practically choking the life out of me, which I think is at least half my problem, I want to increasingly learn to trust God in it, seeing it in fact as part of God’s grace to me. And not necessarily in the sense of passing through and out of it. Paul surely had that thorn his whole life long. The idea being that God sees us through with it to the very end, bringing good and blessing out of it for others, as well as for ourselves. In and through Jesus.

the thorn in the flesh: my reluctant go-to passage

I must go on boasting. Although there is nothing to be gained, I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows— was caught up to paradise and heard inexpressible things, things that no one is permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. Even if I should choose to boast, I would not be a fool, because I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain, so no one will think more of me than is warranted by what I do or say, or because of these surpassingly great revelations. Therefore, in order to keep me from becoming conceited, I was given a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me. 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 about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

2 Corinthians 12:1-10

One of my favorite parts of the recent Paul, Apostle of Christ film was their treatment of Paul’s thorn in the flesh, and showing how it tormented him all of his life as a Christ-follower. And how that was addressed immediately after he was beheaded. Love is the only way I can describe my reaction to that. What they chose as his thorn in the flesh was a possibility I had never heard of before, and was rather compelling, at least for the film. But the main point is beside the point of what it actually may have been. The fact of the matter is that everyone who seeks to follow Christ will be living in opposition to the world, the flesh, and the devil, and we will experience opposition in terms of what is expressed in scripture from the devil, the demonic. And like Paul, these are actually allowed into our lives to keep us from becoming proud, which for reasons far less than Paul’s we are all too prone to become. To keep us humble, and dependent on Christ, and I would add, interdependent on each other.

I am faced with this myself, maybe not as much as in the past, yet it seems to come crashing in on me just as hard, usually in one form in my life. I think there is genius so to speak behind the concealing of what specifically Paul’s thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment him, was. We simply can’t say for sure. There has been more than one reasonable answer. That means whatever it is that torments us as we seek to follow Christ, we can chalk up as something of the same, in fact our thorn in the flesh. Flesh could mean physical weakness, but in scripture it’s most basic meaning is one’s life. It may involve some physical debilitation or weakness, but doesn’t have to, and I would go so far to think, most often doesn’t. What it doesn’t mean is out and out sin. We deal with everything, and especially our sin through Christ’s death for us, confessing it, and receiving God’s forgiveness and cleansing as part of our ongoing walk in Jesus.

Who likes to be tormented? In the film as I recall Paul seems to be frequently tormented in his thoughts, and clearly in his dreams. And yes torment is a good word to capture this experience. I don’t so much dread it, myself, as simply hate going through it. Going through it is a good way to describe what it’s like for me. For Paul it may have been more chronic, ongoing, something present with him all the time. I tend to think so. My weakness which gives rise to this activity in my life is certainly as close to me as the next thought, which could hit me at any time when all was well, or okay before.

It’s the experience part which frankly I hate. Life is hard enough in itself, without having to feel miserable, yes tormented inside. But it seems in part what at least some of us who are believers in Christ will be up against in this life.

The necessity of hanging in there by faith, and knowing that Christ’s strength is made perfect in our weakness is key here. We realize that God is at work in this malady, even when the source of it is from the evil one, the demonic. The world and the flesh in the sense of unredeemed humanity and creation included.

To come back to this passage, and yes, the entire book of 2 Corinthians, but especially this passage is always helpful for me. To remember that the Lord in love is at work in our lives in a way that helps us live as he did, in weakness, even the weakness of the cross (see the end of 2 Corinthians). Not where we want to go, except that there we find the Lord’s power at work in our own lives, and through us into the lives of others.

Maybe someday I’ll be able to say to some degree along with Paul that I have learned to embrace my weaknesses at least much more since in them I find Christ’s grace and power, and learn to be strengthened in that awareness and reality. In and through Jesus.

what the United States needs from us in Jesus, from the church

This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says to all those I carried into exile from Jerusalem to Babylon: “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce. Marry and have sons and daughters; find wives for your sons and give your daughters in marriage, so that they too may have sons and daughters. Increase in number there; do not decrease. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

Jeremiah 29

God was at work through the mess of that time, judging his people, and sending them into exile into Babylon. And like all the empires of that time, Babylon was given to idols. And it was not the poster boy of virtue. Perhaps not as much a terror as the Assyrian empire which had preceded it, but still a terror to those who would not surrender and bow down to its sovereignty. Actually, when thinking about Babylon and the Babylonian exile of the Jews, one can turn to Daniel, the first five chapters, to see something of what it was like.

The nation where I live, and am a citizen of is a far cry from Babylon. The United States of America has become the world power. It doesn’t impose its will on the rest of the world like Babylon did. Yet it has been the major player in many places, usually linked to its own national interests, but not without some great sacrifice for the good of others, such as in World War II. I’m thinking especially of the Normandy invasion. The United States has had its sins from the beginning and throughout, just like any other nation. And it has done great good as well.

What I want to focus on to some degree might be applied by Christians of any nation, except for nations which practically outlaw the faith. But even in those cases, Christians can hope and pray for change, such as what may be and to some extent has occurred in China. It’s the idea that we’re to pray for the city, and by extension I would say the state/nation in which we reside, because their good will be our good.

“….seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the Lord for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”

The church and we as Christians are to be a witness to the gospel, the good news in Jesus, come what may. That’s our calling. At the same time, we can hope and pray for the good of the nation in which we reside, and advocate that, provided we don’t get swallowed up in an agenda contrary to the gospel. Not an easy track or task for sure.

Right now in the United States we’ve reached a danger point, I believe, with a growing rift politically, which at the extremes is becoming more and more hostile. There seems to be no middle ground in which people who differ can stand and attempt to reason, and work through differences, to arrive to at least some conclusion, which in the nature of the case would ordinarily always be ongoing. I think this was what the Founding Fathers of the United States wanted as the ideal. Not that the U.S. has always lived up to that well.

The church needs to stand in that gap, regardless of where we are politically as individuals. This especially needs to be church led, and Christians should be part of it, of course. It is the salvation through the gospel, and the healing that comes with it that is needed today. What I said on Facebook yesterday:

What the church in large part needs to be here and now is a healing presence through the gospel. Salvation where needed, and the healing that comes with it, in and through Jesus. Across the political divides, and every other divide. What I want to major on and be part of.

We must confess where we’ve been part of the problem. And there is a time to speak up, don’t get me wrong. But how we do it makes all the difference in the world. If we demonize our opponents, and make it a good versus evil contest, then we fail to recognize and acknowledge our own part we’ve played in the breakdown, both in what we’ve done and left undone.

The gospel in and through Jesus is cross-centered, and we’re all included in the sin that Jesus took on himself there. We’re no better than anyone else; we’re all in need of God’s grace. Before there can be better solutions to problems, which are more God-honoring, there has to be a change in our hearts. And it must begin with us. We are the ones that must lead the way.

For it is time for judgment to begin with God’s household; and if it begins with us, what will the outcome be for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And,

“If it is hard for the righteous to be saved,
    what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?”

1 Peter 4:17-18

We must do so in the utmost humility, removing the plank from our own eye, before we even dream of trying to remove the speck from someone else’s eye. Not disengaging necessarily, unless what we’re doing is not helpful toward healing the divide, and ultimately, for the good of others through the gospel. How we do that will depend on God’s wisdom given to us, unique to each one of us, and worked out in accord and agreement with the church.

We step back, take a deep breath, pray, and then proceed. Together. Hopefully what can become a groundswell that can help bring the salvation and healing on so much that is broken. With no final answers, except the good news and what’s in harmony with that, in and through Jesus.

 

neither underestimate nor misunderstand the grace of God (nor think we can comprehend it)

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

We find again and again in scripture that God’s grace is key in our lives, in the lives of others. There are differences in teaching on this, as one might and should expect. There is what theologians call “common grace,” in which God pours down his blessings on all, in sunshine and rain, and provisions for life and more. This is not the grace described in this passage which brings salvation, according to scripture.

This is a big subject, but this post will touch mainly on one aspect of it, while addressing one common misunderstanding. God’s grace is alive and well in the world, and there is the light which enlightens every person (John 1). But the goodness and kindness of God is meant to lead people to repentance (Romans 2). There is no salvation apart from faith in Christ. It’s not just that somehow in an inexplicable, mysterious way that in the end all are saved through Christ. The NIV avoids this misunderstanding in the translation above, even if less literal. God’s grace is at work in all kinds of ways, but the special grace of salvation is always linked to repentance which means a turning from sin to God, and to faith, which means a trust in God and in God’s word, the message of the good news in Jesus.

Theologians also refer to “prevenient grace” which means the grace by which people receive the good news of the gospel for themselves by simple faith and trust in Jesus. Through Jesus’s death for our sins, and resurrection. We trust in what God has done for us through Jesus’s death, and receive forgiveness of our sins and new, eternal life.

So the grace which saves, to which the passage above refers, is not a cheap grace by which people get in with no change of life. Not at all. But at the same time grace is at work in spite of us, not because of us. That’s not to say that our efforts toward understanding and entering into this grace are a waste of time. Grace termed as prevenient by theologians might well include some of this striving, making every effort to enter into God’s rest (Hebrews 4). But also we have to remember that we still sin and have indwelling sin (1 John 1). And that is all the more true of those who have yet to cross over from death into life. They are sinners, period. Maybe Christians are both sinners and saints (Luther), depending on what you mean by that. God’s grace at work in people’s lives is in spite of so many things. God in his grace accepts us completely exactly where we’re at, but in God’s good grace, he certainly doesn’t leave us there.

Grace means we’re satisfied with nothing less than God’s salvation, which doesn’t mean only the forgiveness of sins, but also new life, a new way of living. By the Spirit in the love of God. Which means a changed life, a transformation both complete at conversion, and incomplete until Jesus returns (Philippians 1:6), meaning there is a process involved.

This grace gives us hope, and helps us to get out of God’s way, simply presenting the gospel, and trying to be responsive to God’s word. But this grace teaches us, teaches others. God’s full, unmerited, undeserved favor in helping us in ways beyond us, but in ways that indeed reach us in and through Jesus.

fights or grace?

What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You desire but do not have, so you kill. You covet but you cannot get what you want, so you quarrel and fight. You do not have because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.

You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

“God opposes the proud
    but shows favor to the humble.”

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil,and he will flee from you.Come near to God and he will come near to you.Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

James 4:1-10

Jeff Manion at Ada Bible Church gave another helpful message (they’re all good from him, as well as from others there) on this passage (not yet available online, but it will be the fifth in the series).

Conflict is a fact of life. Over and over again we encounter it here and there. I’m thankful to experience little of it, but it does occur at times. Sometimes we hold it in, but that can’t last forever. One way or another, for good, but mostly for ill, it will come out. If we can let it out to God like the psalmists of old, that is good. And sometimes after we let it cool down, we might be able to address the problem, first in ourselves, and then maybe we can help someone else.

James points out that our problem is desire, maybe the desire to be right, respected, things that may or may not be legitimate, but certainly out of place here. At the heart of this is pure idolatry. James calls those who fight and quarrel adulterers, certainly meaning in a spiritual sense. His hearers/readers were at least primarily Jewish, steeped in what we call the Old Testament, in the scriptures, and knew the theme of spiritually adultery in God’s people departing from God to serve and worship other gods, which were no gods at all, but idols.

When God is God to us, then we are enabled by grace to love the God who loves us, who is love, and to love our neighbor as ourselves. But when other things become our gods, idols in our hearts, which includes a whole host of possibilities, really anything, even including ourselves, we find that getting along with others can be a challenge, or maybe not on the table at all. God brings his people together in harmony, in contrast to idols which divide, in significant part due to the demonic influence behind them, which is bent on division and destruction.

Jeff Manion’s message is much better than what I just shared, a bit of what I’ve said reflected from it. The part that especially hit home for me from what he said is how God is the God of grace, who loves to give and give and give some more. How after these strong words, it is made clear that God gives more grace. What we need to do is ask in prayer, and not to fulfill our pleasures, either. God wants to give generously, over and over again.

Then there’s a list of what we’re to do, one thing after another, at least eight in all depending on how you count. We are to respond to this word, to take action, the starting point, submitting ourselves to God, after which we can resist the devil and do all the rest. We are to get serious about our own problem, rather than focusing on the problems of others. Coming near to God with the promise that as we do so, God will come near to us.

Grace from God to help us live in submission to him in our every day lives with others. In and through Jesus.

head knowledge is not enough

Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.

James 1:22

Bible listening or hearing in scripture means obeying. This is especially clear in the Old Testament. One doesn’t really hear God, unless they’re intent on following through with what God has said. Samuel is a case in point. “Speak Lord, for your servant is listening.” (1 Samuel 3). And with one intent only: to serve, to obey.

James makes it clear that we can deceive ourselves into thinking that we’re alright, “religious” (verse 26), just because we know truth, or have it in our heads, having heard it through our ears. But has it reached the heart, and worked its way into our lives, is the question. Are we attempting by God’s grace to put it into practice? Do we at least want to, even if it’s a struggle to us, sometimes even over our desire?

It’s about “getting down to brass tacks,” the essentials. If our Christianity is not something we practice, then it’s of no value at all. It helps neither ourselves, nor anyone else.

We need God in this. It’s not some personal self-help endeavor or project. God must be in this, or it won’t work at all. And God is at work in this way in his grace in and through Jesus. But it’s up to us to do it. God won’t do it for us. But God makes it possible for us to hear and follow through so that we not only hear the word, but do it. In and through Jesus.