paying attention to God’s commands

Blessed are those whose ways are blameless,
who walk according to the law of the LORD.
Blessed are those who keep his statutes
and seek him with all their heart—
they do no wrong
but follow his ways.
You have laid down precepts
that are to be fully obeyed.
Oh, that my ways were steadfast
in obeying your decrees!
Then I would not be put to shame
when I consider all your commands.
I will praise you with an upright heart
as I learn your righteous laws.
I will obey your decrees;
do not utterly forsake me.

Psalm 119:1-8

It seems hard and almost old fashioned, at least open to question nowadays, the necessity or even importance of keeping God’s commands. For one thing we live in a relatively Bible illiterate day, when it seems like year after year, people who attend Bible teaching churches know the Bible’s content less and less. At least that has been the case. And we live during a day when there’s a major cultural shift arguably accompanied with a hermeneutical shift, how Christians interpret the Bible. With the obvious changes from the Old (or First) Testament to the New (or Second, we could say Final) Testament such as found in Leviticus, for example the prohibition of sowing two different fabrics together to make clothes no longer being in effect comes the protests that sexual mores have now been changed as well. The idea that sexual relations are confined to a woman and man who are married is considered odd and a thing of the past, almost taboo at least among many in their practice.

Among Christians who fall prey to none of that, there can be such an emphasis on grace, that keeping God’s commands is nearly beside the point. Impossible since that is considered falling under the law, which is only meant to indicate that we’re sinners, incapable of keeping the law. With others it might be a decided shift in emphasis due to priorities which determine more what we’re to do and not do than Scripture itself. It’s almost like Scripture is present to help achieve what is considered most important, often referring to priorities in one’s personal life, or from the political sphere.

May I just suggest that I think all of us Christians and churches ought to stop, back up, and go to square one. We need to return to the plain words of Scripture, of course read faithfully and in light of God’s revelation given to us in Scripture of Christ. We might be surprised at just how traditional it might come across. Not the air of today’s “brave new world” but the fulfillment of the old creation in the new creation in Jesus as spelled out in the Final “New” Testament itself. Something to which we should aspire, even as with the psalmist we lament in not arriving to perfection in this life. In and through Jesus.

law or grace?

No matter how you shake it, and it’s not an easy passage to interpret or understand, Romans 7 makes it clear that there’s a strong human tendency to buck law, especially when it’s in your face, or one’s well aware of it. Law in Scripture is given for the good of people to show them how they ought to live in a flourishing free way, but it also serves to show people their sin and therefore their need of God’s grace. Grace here I refer to as both forgiveness and new life as in ability to keep the law. And by keeping the law, I’m referring to keeping the requirements of the law not by law keeping, but by a life which in a way is above the law in that it transcends mere law keeping, the life naturally doing what God requires.

One of the most memorable portions of Philip Yancey’s classic book, What’s So Amazing About Grace is the story about the man who sought to escape the evil of western society to what he saw as a society in which law and therefore righteousness could flourish. The only problem was that he got entangled and overcome by his own sin in stark, dark and troubling ways. His Christianity fell by the wayside because it was not formed by grace, but simply informed by law.

Law is important in its place, and in societies good laws are needed, for example against the taking of life, or practices which might endanger life such as driving when intoxicated. Law as mentioned in Scripture serves to convict one of sin, though the Spirit is needed to make that conviction more than condemnation and instead a life changing repentance.

I remember Christian schools that made a lot out of rules to the point of more or less micromanaging the students’ lives with the presupposition that such would keep them out of harm’s ways, curb their sinful tendencies, and even form them into godly people. The only problem is that it is grace which changes us, not law. Though it should be noted that God’s grace changes us through the law. God’s grace does the changing apart from law, but uses the law to help us see our guilt, need, and utter helplessness.

Grace and law in Scripture are not easy subjects. But having lived through some sad scenarios in the Christian world, I would say that one has to be aware of the place of both. And how our lives are truly transformed only by grace, God’s gift to us of forgiveness and new life. And how this is both in terms of a point of conversion and ongoing conversion in a process by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

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.

grace changes

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

I don’t like talk against religion, and comparing that to relationship, because it seems to me that religion properly understood is what God put in place to bring about relationship, all through God’s grace in Jesus. But we can contrast law and grace, and see from places like Romans 7, compared to Romans 6 and 8, that the law helps us see our need, but ultimately can only condemn us. What we’re in need of is grace (Romans 6) and the Spirit (Romans 8) through Christ. And this grace changes us, in contrast to law. We can’t do it on our own.

It offers, or more literally brings salvation to all people. In other words, this grace is tied to salvation. We can’t do it on our own for sure. We need Christ. Or what we evangelicals like to call “a personal relationship with Christ.” We need to keep reading the entire Bible on what it means to know God. It is quite down to earth, and not just about “me and God.” Yet it is personal and relational. God loves us as if we were the only being that exists, because God is pure love. God can love each and every individual that way, and does.

So that God sent his Son. Remember, God did not hate the world so much that he sent his Son, but loved the world in this way, or so much, that he sent the Son (John 3:16). And while God loves the sinner, when one repents and believes through the gospel, the good news in Jesus of Jesus and his death and resurrection, than one enters into a relational, saving love, which helps one navigate life in such a way as not to please themselves, but God. And paradoxically end up pleasing themselves in the process. Whereas those who live to please themselves, will in the end be displeasing to themselves and others. Or, to get to Jesus’s point: Those who seek to save their lives will lose them, while those who lose their lives for him and the gospel, will actually find them. We begin to find our true selves as God created us, in and through the new creation in Jesus (Titus 3:3-8).

And so we’re all in need. And the answer is to live in God’s grace by the Spirit, a grace available to us all in the salvation of God in Jesus.

 

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.

Jesus, or Moses?

For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.

John 1:17

Law and grace is a theological theme from scripture. It is interesting how both John in John’s gospel account, and Paul handle this theme (see Paul’s treatment in Romans 7 for one example of his teaching on it).

The Law/Torah ends up being preparatory for the grace that would follow in Jesus. Essentially the Law is both directive, put in place for a new nation, Israel, certainly for individuals as well as the nation as a whole, and the Law was the means of convicting the people of their sin, that they are sinners, and thus the preparation needed for people to receive the needed salvation in Jesus. So the Law is important in its function and place. Another example from Paul, the Law a temporary guardian/disciplinarian to lead us to Christ (Galatians 3:24), and see the entire book of Galatians.

We may think this is not an issue for us today. After all, aren’t we Christians, and not Jews? How could we be followers of Moses rather than Christ? Inadvertently so, I’m afraid. It’s our tendency to think that the answer is to know more and do more, and that’s essentially the effect of the Law front and center. And again, it’s needed in its place to convict us as sinners (Romans 3:20).

This is a big subject, a glimpse of it here, hopefully. Christ brings the grace and truth which Moses evidently didn’t and indeed couldn’t. Truth follows grace, which I think is a hint that what we’re talking about is more than truth as knowledge, but truth in life, ultimately found in Jesus himself (John 14:6) and yes, in his death. By his death we die as well, so that our salvation not only from, but to and for is begun only in and through Jesus.

grace strengthens our hearts (but the law doesn’t)

Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings. It is good for our hearts to be strengthened by grace, not by eating ceremonial foods, which is of no benefit to those who do so. We have an altar from which those who minister at the tabernacle have no right to eat.

The high priest carries the blood of animals into the Most Holy Place as a sin offering, but the bodies are burned outside the camp. And so Jesus also suffered outside the city gate to make the people holy through his own blood. Let us, then, go to him outside the camp, bearing the disgrace he bore. For here we do not have an enduring city, but we are looking for the city that is to come.

Through Jesus, therefore, let us continually offer to God a sacrifice of praise—the fruit of lips that openly profess his name. And do not forget to do good and to share with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.

Hebrews 13

The language of grace is different than what we’re accustomed to, in fact I would say it’s largely foreign to us. We tend to fall into one extreme or another: into living an obligatory life in trying to please God (law), or less likely for myself and people I know, simply believing that we can’t not sin in this life, so we might as well get on with it. But if we’re to learn the language of Paul, we’ll have to learn another tune altogether than either one of these.

It’s true that someone other than Paul most likely wrote the letter to the Hebrews. But that person was certainly in sync with Paul and the message of grace found in Paul’s letters. It’s a message that is radically simple, and simply radical. What we could never do ourselves, Christ did for us through his appearing (the Incarnation), his teaching (pointing us to the kingdom come in him, the fulfillment of God’s promises to Israel for the world), and his death and resurrection.

Particularly through Christ’s death, as the book of Hebrews makes clear, our sins are forgiven, and we live in a new realm, the realm of grace. This might be a hard one to wrap our heads around, since most all of our lives we’ve been accustomed to living in the default of law, or obligation. Where we’ve lived is tricky. We believe and feel that we’re obliged to do something for the one who gave his all for us.

That’s tricky and even a bit deceptive since in reality we certainly can’t add a thing to what Christ has done for us. Nor can we delete a thing from it, either, by what we do or fail to do. Of course we can sin against that sacrifice, even as Hebrews itself warns us (see Hebrews chapters 6 and 10). We can treat it in a contemptuous or careless way.

The heart is not strengthened when it is under the constraint and obligation of law. See Romans 7 for the clearest indication of that. There Paul is referring to life under the law apart from grace (Romans 6) and the Holy Spirit (Romans 8). Our only hope for beginning to live the new life is the very same grace through which we entered into that life in the first place. Our own effort, or prescribed works (or proscribed as in forbidden, for that matter) will not carry us into that new life, in fact cannot be a part of it. But on the basis of God’s grace to us in Jesus, we indeed are put into a realm in which there is a new life to be lived, but a life never dependent even on our own faithfulness, but only on that of the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20; see the CEB and context).

That is what I’m working on now. To better understand so as to begin to more fully live in the grace of God in Jesus. And by that live a life in which the heart is strengthened to carry on well in and through Christ himself from the Father by the Spirit.

“let go and let God” -really?

This past summer we enjoyed a wonderful concert by Michael Card at the Maranatha Bible and Missionary Conference Tabernacle. At the front on top in the center, I noticed a small sign in large letters, “LET GO AND LET GOD.” In light of my recent read of The Cure, referred to yesterday, and the recent emphasis on trying to better understand and live more fully in God’s grace in Jesus, I thought I would consider this slogan, and its viability in light of scripture and the gospel.

To begin, I have noticed critiques of this saying, which cast it on its head as something to be either thorougly rejected, or at least held at arm’s length as incomplete. I think misunderstandings of it are certainly not only possible, but probable, and almost endemic (a given), due to the lack of Biblical, theological knowledge so many people have, even within the church. And even if there is some significant knowledge and understanding gathered from a good number of years of being in the church and reading scripture, I fear that the possible truth behind this slogan can be all but missed, so that in our life and practice, we completely miss whatever might be true in its meaning.

First of all, what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean that we’re saved now, and that’s all that matters, so that we shouldn’t be concerned about our lives, or what’s going on around us, that we can let all of that go, and let God take care of it. Since after all, God is on the Throne, and whatever happens here doesn’t change his rule, or will one iota, as if God’s will will be carried out regardless. That’s subtle in that there’s some truth in it, but misses an important point. And it doesn’t mean that what we do, or fail to do doesn’t matter. However that’s tricky, as well, since we often live as if that’s all that matters, or at least is key.

I think what it is getting at is in terms of the teaching of grace as opposed to law. Not a grace that is in opposition to the Law of God, but a grace by which one can fulfill the requirement of that Law, which essentially is to love our neighbor as ourselves. Scripture makes it clear that we can’t fulfill God’s Law, by that Law itself, a repeated theme. We were never intended to be able to do it on our own. The grace of God that is in Jesus is key here, that grace being proclaimed in the gospel. It is only through what God has done in Jesus, in Jesus’s death and resurrection, that we can have life, and really live. It’s not in our own efforts either before, or after coming to Christ for salvation.

Letting go means that faith itself, the faith by which we began the new life in Christ, is necessary in continuing to live in that new life. And it’s a faith that is not in anything at all about ourselves, nor a faith which becomes dependent on ourselves in any way, shape, or form, at any time. It’s a faith only in God’s word in Christ in the gospel, so that the life which we do live is lived only in God’s grace, “by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me” (Galatians 2:20).

We will fail. Let that be in not only large letters, but bold ones. We will fail. If it depended on us, this Christian life, then we can sign, seal and deliver that we won’t make it, and not only that, we won’t really even begin to be settled in it, even if God in his grace allows us to have a good taste of it in our lives. No. What we enter into by sheer faith, must be lived out by sheer faith in the grace of God in Jesus. Through his death, death and sin and condemnation are done away with, once and for all. Insofar as we’re settled on that, we’ll begin to experience the difference that should make. The Christian life doesn’t depends on us even a little, but on Christ, and the good news in him. The source for our new life and living, is completely in him, not in ourselves. Even though we find it in his union with us, and the change that brings.

Once we begin to live in this grace, we act not within the constriction of law, as a duty, but the compulsion of grace, as a response to God’s love and gift to us in Jesus. We let go of our own self-effort to commend ourselves to God, knowing that we’re already complete and have fullness in and through Jesus. We are in him, and he in us, and community in Jesus through the church is certainly a part of that. Our identity to find our true selves is in Jesus, not in us. We are identified in him, in his death and resurrection, even in his ascension.

But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, and say more than any of us can really take in, not that we’re meant to understand all of that right away anyhow, we need to settle in again, on the slogan itself. Do we really believe the good news is in Jesus, and God’s grace in him? Are we willing to proceed with a blind, and naked faith, depending only on God’s word to us in Jesus? Will we step across that line, with a commitment to not turn back, or at least keep coming back when we most likely inevitably do return to our former and dead end way of living?

These are questions which remain, at least for myself. I want to break through into a new sort of life in Jesus, which I have already tasted many times through a good number of years, for sure. But which I’ve at least in large part failed to be settled in. The theme of God’s grace, which has come to my attention in recent weeks, has taken on a new focus, which while not really new in knowledge, may become new in understanding as in application for me, something I hope to better live in and be a witness to in whatever coming days and months and years may remain, in and through Jesus.

radical trust

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
    and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
    and he will make your paths straight.

Proverbs 3:5-6

Yesterday I finished a book (except for the endnotes), The Cure, by John Lynch, Bruce McNicol and Bill Thrall. I’m not sure how Bible scholars would view the book, and it actually is not a scholarly book. But that doesn’t at all mean that it wasn’t written from sound scholarship. While it might present an important aspect of something within what ends up being more complex, I think it’s worth one’s while to read it, and consider its thesis. I for one, am favorably disposed. I received my copy from our church’s small group leader, and we are set to go through an interactive study of it. The group leader says it changed his life. I tend to be skeptical of any such claim, remembering how books used to impact me in earlier years, but how such effects would wear off usually sooner than later. What seems to me to be in this book’s favor is that our group leader himself is an older, mature Christian, and that the lead author of the book, John Lyynch, does not seem to me to be a fly-by-nighter, an older man himself with decades of pastoral experience.

One of the leading theses of the book (and believe me, don’t think the book is either simplistic, or reductionistic as in thinking there’s an easy answer and fix) is that we’re not to be about pleasing God, but instead, trusting him. And then the pleasing part will come out of that trust. I would like to call it a radical trust in keeping with the message of scripture, and the gospel, and quite evident in the passage quoted above (click the reference above to get some other interesting translations of Proverbs 3:5-6). The book is wise and avoids at least one pitfall I can think of: an individualistic approach, which misses the central place of community in the spiritual life, and I can think of another I won’t add here. And I’m confident there are more.

This book is very much in keeping with what has come to my attention as of late, a needed emphasis that in some way may be lacking in my life: grace, and in particular, God’s grace. It is a grace which not only forgives, but puts us into the place not of law and duty, but of love and its compelling dynamic. I can see where the book could well be misunderstood by reviewers and readers, although I think in such cases, it would be a misreading of the book to come to such conclusions. When there is an emphasis on grace, it is easy to think that there’s a skirting of law, but I think the book captures well something of what Paul was getting at in his writings, how the law itself does not help us to keep it, hampered by our sinful flesh, and the reality that we were never meant to live as self-sufficient creatures to begin with. But that we’re dependent on God’s grace in and through Jesus, and Jesus’s death and resurrection, as well as on the gift of the Holy Spirit, to begin to mature in this new life. Another key thesis of this book is that we’re to live our of what we already are through our identity in Christ.

I think the book provides a good mix of solid biblical, theological truth, with wise pastoral understanding. We work through such truth in the gospel with fits and starts, steps backward after making progress, etc.

So I’m looking forward in the context of our small group, in seeking to better understand and apply the truth of the gospel from this book into my own life. And sharing facets of that truth with others, including any readers of this blog.

But for now, I’ll end this post with the thought, God in Jesus through the gospel is completely committed to us in an unwavering love which doesn’t love us either more, or less, because of anything we either do, or fail to do. We need to let the truth sink in of the radical nature of the gospel, before we can apply it radically to our own lives, as followers of the one who not only loved us, but loves us. And longs to be in close fellowship with us. And is united to us: we in him, and he in us, to the very end.

grace, grace, grace

Our pastors, Jack and Sharon Brown have hammered home again and again our need to live in grace in the sense of not working, not striving, but resting. Well, I can’t speak for them, but I share my impressions of what they have told us. Sharon leads us in prayer most Sundays and she is always helping us toward being open to God’s light to shine on our darkness, so that we might know and acknowledge our sins, and confess them to God. With the reminder that as we do our sins are forgiven, that there is indeed no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

They both have what I consider to be a strong Lutheran leaning with regard to grace and works. I appreciate that, but given my Anabaptist, Mennonite upbringing, I often have wanted to push back with some emphasis on what we do, our works. They certainly see works as important, but that we need to rest as those who in Jesus are nothing less than God’s beloved, fully and greatly loved by God just as we are.

Recently I had a personal revelation of sorts, something which came in the midst of great, prolonged internal pressure over problems and issues which seemed to need resolution from what I could do. Through the help of wise counselors here and there I was able to see more clearly. And then I seemed overcome by the sense to simply let go, do nothing, and rest. And God’s peace seemed to accompany that.

Of course that doesn’t mean that I never do anything, or that there might be something I need to do in a given matter. I contend that we certainly need to keep God’s commands given to us in and through Christ. But we need to do so as those who stand in grace, who have learned to rest in God’s promise in Christ through Christ’s finished work on the cross. We don’t want to live lives worthy of condemnation, though simply falling short at all in Biblical terms means being worthy of being condemned. And none of us in any given day, or even hour lives in complete perfection. We have to live as those who have no condemnation because we are in Christ. We are to live in and from God’s grace in Christ. Grace meaning gift, the gift of forgiveness of our sins and new life in and through Jesus.

That was a revelation and a weight off my shoulders then. But life goes on and it exacts its pounding in a number of ways. The question will become for me, will I learn to recognize the true grace of God in Jesus and live in that? In the midst of all the difficulties, uncertainties and trials that come my way. It is first and foundationally important not what I do, but what God has done in Christ. I can say I believe that, but do I actually think and live that way? Some things to ponder.