breaking through from unbelief to faith in the trials of life

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

James 1:2-4

There are certain go-to texts we would rather not go to. But we live in the real world, with all of its issues, and we’re smack dab in the middle of it with issues of our own. I can’t think of a better example of that than this passage in James, though there are probably better examples I’ve essentially screened out.

Part of maturity, and specifically Christian maturity is to learn to accept each new situation or trying circumstance as an opportunity for growth in the Lord. That can get old and humdrum to us, but maybe that’s because we’ve not learned our lesson well, yet.

In this James passage, we find that difficulties, even trials or temptations can either end up working for our good or ill, depending on our own response. Maybe there’s some muddled up middle gray area since even with faith, we can still struggle in not really entering it as completely as we should. Scripture seems to make the case and it seems clear in this passage (click link above for the context) that we either enter into this blessing, or we don’t, one or the other. Ordinarily I think we might kind of live in the in-between realm, which means we don’t really enter into the “promised land” God has for us.

A side note, yet interesting, and surely pertinent in creation: neuroscience today is helping us understand the plasticity of the brain, and how it can be reshaped even in older age. And how it essentially is always being impacted by life.

This word of God from James puts forward to me a new challenge, maybe renewed, but coming across to me as new. I am personally weary of the same responses I have over and over again to trouble, especially in the form of threatening circumstances. My gut reaction is ordinarily always negative and I end up steeped in fear and anxiety. I am used to it. And I usually get over it more or less fairly soon, probably an improvement over the past. But that seems to indicate that I haven’t learned at least well enough to step past the line from unbelief to faith when it comes to such circumstances.

That is what by God’s grace I would like to change. Yes, according to this passage it’s up to me, not God, who has already done and is doing his part. God’s word of grace is present for me, God’s reality and truth. It’s up to me to learn to grasp and hold on to that. And thus be a doer of the word, and not just a hearer (James 1:19-27). In and through Jesus.

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the righteousness of Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount and “hyper-grace”

“Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:17-20

There are some within what is called the hyper-grace camp of the church who relegate Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount to his ministry to the Jews and as a function of the Law, simply to condemn them in their sin. Ironically what Jesus actually is doing is talking about a righteousness which can only be realized by grace, and comes from the inside out.

There are aspects of the old covenant in the sermon, such as Jesus’s reference to offering gifts at the altar. But the heart of the sermon is plainly the difference in the righteousness that comes with Jesus and the gospel of God’s grace and kingdom in him. Of course this is fully realized through Jesus’s death and resurrection followed by his ascension and the pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. But to relegate the Sermon on the Mount to the old covenant and the Jews, and essentially what we’re delivered from is a misreading of scripture, and a terrible loss.

And for that matter there is much that is rich for us in the Old Testament. God has always had his people, a remnant by grace (Romans 11:1-6). Abraham and David are held up as exemplars for us of God’s grace through their faith (Romans 4). Abraham who God promised to be the father of many nations is called the father of us all by his faith as both an example to us, and the one through whom would come God’s blessing of the Seed who would bless the world, the Messiah, Lord and Savior Jesus (Romans 4; Galatians 3).

The Sermon on the Mount is a centerpiece, perhaps the centerpiece of Jesus’s teaching in the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, the Sermon on the Plain in Luke 6 the parallel to it, and Jesus’s Upper Room discourse the eve of his crucifixion also central to his teaching. Of course his teachings are sprinkled all throughout the gospels as in his parables (like the Good Samaritan, and the Lost/Prodigal Son), separate sayings, and his teaching on the destruction of the temple and the end times.

We read to some extent how Jesus’s teaching is fulfilled in the letters which followed after Pentecost. But Jesus’s words stand on their own, as well. To miss them by waving them off as a function of the law is a great loss to the church, not only in terms of losing the teaching, but in the failure to handle accurately the word of truth. Something we all have to keep working at, and hold each other accountable to, in and through Jesus.

grace is the answer, period (in Jesus, of course)

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

Much much Christianity, I’ve seen over the years. And grace has been sprinkled on all of that. First though, it would be good to give a definition or description of grace. Grace is God’s gift and favor to those who don’t deserve it, and could never earn it. Back to the original thought: Christianity is New Testament Christianity insofar as it is imbued with grace. And to understand that, we need to contrast it the same way the New Testament itself contrasts it: with law.

The law condemns us, because none of us lives up to its demands, or even can do so. The law ultimately points us to our need for a Savior. And that’s where God’s grace come in through Jesus and the cross, Jesus’s death. It is on the basis of Jesus’s death, by that and that alone by which we can be saved. And that is God’s gift of grace to us received by us through faith (Ephesians 2:8-9). And as the Titus passage above makes clear along with the Ephesians 2 passage, that opens us up to a new life. But grace alone is the means to forgiveness and new life in and through Jesus.

hanging in there with each other

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good,to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.

Romans 15

Weak and strong have to do with the changes that were taking place with the coming of the new covenant in which many rules, even the schema of the old covenant, was being put aside since the fulfillment of it in Christ and through his death, had already come. It was not an easy time, a time of change. It was not like Christians at that time had to put all the old practices aside. But they had to accept the new reality that other Christians were not going to practice them, and would still be completely accepted by God, so that they too would need to accept them. They were the majority at first, but in a matter of a relatively short time would become the minority as more and more Gentiles would come to the faith.

We can apply this passage in a looser sense with strong and weak perhaps signifying scruples and religious practices. What might be out of bounds for some, might not be any problem for others. Of course I’m not talking about out and out sin, but rather things that might lead some, the “weak” into sin. What might not be a problem for me might be an occasion of stumbling for them, so that I won’t be acting in love if I flaunt my freedom in their presence.

Also I need to be careful not to judge others on things which in themselves are not sin, covered by God’s grace. I might possibly be termed as “weak” in those situations. God looks at the heart. Some practice might be better than others, and maybe it doesn’t matter. But oftentimes what we know is best for us, or what we’re accustomed to, we impose on others, and judge them according to those standards. Which might in fact not be helpful to them, even if they might possibly learn something from our own practice.

We must accept one another fully, even as Christ has fully accepted us, that we together might bring glory to God. A big part of that is simply learning to get along well with our differences, some of that contrast perhaps being uncomfortable to us like the sound of chalk on a blackboard. For this to happen, we need to pray, and be open to the work of the Spirit in drawing us together in harmony, so that in that, we might bring praise together to God. Getting along with each other is a high priority to God. And the essence of what it means to be “in Christ.” Of course as those who are seeking to live in the grace and truth of our Lord. In and through Jesus.

scripture is rooted and grounded in the gospel

You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge another, you are condemning yourself, because you who pass judgment do the same things.

Romans 2

I am tired of Bible Christians who have all the answers and judge everyone else, especially those who don’t fall in line with them. Why do I say that? I know a good number of Christians who aren’t that way at all. But there are too many who seem more than willing to judge others, and whose judgments don’t really pass muster when given the test of the very scripture they use to judge. Why?

Because scripture is rooted and grounded in a gospel which is as alive and active and might I add as challenging as the Jesus whom that good news essentially is. There aren’t many cookie cutter easy Sunday School answers to life’s hardest questions. If you don’t believe that, then read and read Job and Ecclesiastes. And we need to keep reading the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Along with the rest of scripture.

I have heard the idea that “I read the Bible or heard it once, and I don’t need to go over it again.” But scripture is meant to keep us in an interactive relationship with God through the gospel. And in that dynamic relationship, there will be plenty turned on its head, just as Jesus did when he was present, both in terms of his society at large, and even his own disciples.

The good news is as big as all of creation both in its expanse, and in its depth, penetrating to the core of our being, and never finished in changing us in this life. But we derive not only a kind of proper understanding, but actual experience of that gospel, only as we remain in an active interrelationship with God through scripture and in the fellowship or communion of the church. That is what changes our lives, and what we are a witness to. A grace which is as discomforting as comforting in and through Jesus.

God is delighted in change

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.

Acts 9

I think it’s both interesting, and actually not authentic, as in corresponding to the truth, and not real when someone seems to think or act as if they have it all together. Change is something which is to occur not only at the outset of our journey of faith, but ongoing, throughout that journey. Scripture bears witness to that again and again, both in precept and in story. We as evangelicals emphasize conversion as being at the point of salvation, and there’s plenty of truth in that. But actually, I think it’s a process which extends from before salvation, and continues on afterward to the very end of one’s life, if I read the pages of scripture correctly.

I believe from scripture and from what I see and experience that God in his grace through Jesus delights in the smallest, real change in us for good in making us more like himself, more like his Son, Jesus. And I’m thinking of change in just any one area, when plenty of other areas in our lives may and will still need some serious work, God’s working of course, along with our active compliance. It’s not like God shakes his head and says something like, “Well, that’s good, but he/she still has a long ways to go.” No. I believe without a doubt in the God who delights in any change in his children, which brings them somehow closer to him, and to his family likeness.

And just as much as that, I also believe that it comes primarily through us praying. Paul’s case (then called Saul), quoted above, is interesting, as he was in the midst of an epic, earthquake-like life changing experience, and in the midst of it, he is praying. I think without a doubt that if we take what is wrong in our lives seriously, and quit excusing it, we will start by confessing it as an actual sin to God, and then begin to pray, seeking him for the needed change, however that should be played out. Certainly a change of heart to begin with, and a change in our lives.

We can’t do this on our own, and we won’t, even if we think somehow that we are. We should take heart that God is bringing us along, and wants our communion with him through prayer, as he continues to make us like his Son, and brings the one family in him more and more into the light of his love and life. In and through Jesus.

the oneness of all who are in Christ and therefore his church

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17

When I read or hear of the divisions within Christendom, or I mean the traditions of Christianity, then I want to think of it as something less than Christianity. Conservative Lutherans within a denomination which ironically is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals don’t consider themselves in full fellowship with Reformed people, since the Reformed supposedly divide Christ in their view of the Eucharist, not accepting the body and blood of the Lord in it. And therefore they won’t participate with them publicly. The Eastern Orthodox Church won’t seriously consider uniting with Roman Catholics, even after the overture for such from the latter. I wonder if all such in reality are the ones who are sinning against the Lord in not discerning his body (1 Corinthians 11).

I might hold myself to something of what Anglicans hold to in Holy Communion, that according to the teaching found in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, something of the body and blood of the Lord is present in the Eucharist. And I might especially like John Calvin’s explanation of that more in terms of the Spirit’s presence in it, of course the Son and the Father also then being present by the Spirit. So that this presence is indeed spiritual, as opposed to physical. Hence I suppose the Lutheran charge that the Reformed reject Christ’s humanity in the Eucharist. I see Holy Communion myself as a sacrament, and more than just a symbol, and wish the Bible church where we’re taking our grandchildren, and where we’ll probably become members would hold to the same view, and practice Holy Communion once a week rather than once a quarter.

But regardless of our views on the Lord’s Table, all who are in Jesus by faith are one with him, and with each other by the Spirit. We are one, period. How dare we deny that oneness for the sake of tradition, or our interpretation of scripture? I notice that churches like the one we’re attending do not at all deny the oneness of all who are in Christ, and would fully participate with such, or at least let any professing believer participate in Holy Communion with them.

Also while I understand the view by which neither the Lutherans mentioned above, nor Roman Catholics (and I’m guessing neither the Eastern Orthodox) don’t allow Christians who don’t hold to their view of Holy Communion to participate with them in it, I am with the Christians who believe this is a case of tradition gaining the upper hand on scripture, and actually nullifying the word of God. Or what do the Lord’s words in the prayer quoted above mean?

This leaves me with an empty feeling as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Roman Catholic church in Wittenberg. And it makes me less apt to want to attend a Roman Catholic service. And in some ways even less interested in attending an Eastern Orthodox one. And I feel sad over all of this. Because I believe every person who by faith, and we might add baptism (the New/Final Testament essentially does not divide the two, but I would settle for by faith) are one with Christ, period. And therefore ought to be treated as such, especially in the sacrament in which this oneness is celebrated, remembered, and in a sense renewed, Communion. Christian traditions ought to figure out how to lay aside their tradition in honor of that oneness, yes, during the Eucharist, so that all in Christ can participate in that. The only explanation needed would be the reality of the grace of God in Jesus.

Until they do, I for one have a hard time taking them completely seriously. They see other Christians as sinning against the body and blood of the Lord, when the great sin in 1 Corinthians 11 was the failure on the part of some Christians to act as if other Christians were members of Christ’s body. Enough. Christ is not divided, period. Nor his church. They should adopt grace as overriding the letter of their tradition, even while they still hold to it. Are traditions set in stone? I believe in the gospel, and in the written word of God. I’m sure some Christians would pick at that statement. Regardless, let’s quit doing this, would be my plea, and let’s fully accept all who name the name of our Lord Jesus, and hold to that gospel as given to us in scripture (example: 1 Corinthians 15). Otherwise we fail to live according to our Lord’s words in his great high priestly prayer prayed on the eve of his crucifixion and death.