the only way to fulfill God’s law

But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.

Galatians 5:18

At this odd date in history, the thought could easily be mistranslated into if you are led by the same spirit that animates others in a common cause, then you can flout the law. Of course that is not even remotely related to what Paul is saying here. In Christ the law is fulfilled. It was never fulfilled by human understanding and effort, anyhow. There was a large prescribed way that became cumbersome because of all the add-ons by the religious leaders. But still, God intended the Law to be an important backdrop both for the life of Israel, and most importantly as a preparation for the fulfillment to come in Jesus. Of course the way that took place, Jesus’s actual fulfillment of the law and the prophets was unexpected, counterintuitive and contrary to those expectations. They began to see how this idea of embracing the cross, even dying on it was actually a fulfillment of the law. That is rather hidden in the First/Old Testament narrative, but you can see it after the fulfillment.

Being led by the Spirit as itself a fulfillment of the law (Romans 8:4 and context) is another way of saying that one is not under or subject to (NRSV) the law.  This is really about the law of Moses as it’s called, what was given by God through Moses at Mount Sinai. It was directives, really orders for their lives individually and as community. But it ended up being an important means of showing them their sin, and need for a Savior, indeed for the shedding of the blood of animals for forgiveness to be later fulfilled in Christ’s death on the cross.

Paul’s emphasis on being led by the Spirit, walking in the Spirit is contrary to our normal impulses. We want to do it ourselves, and in so doing, we automatically think of our efforts as fulfilling God’s law, what we understand God to be telling us as to what’s right and wrong. When we do that, we’re not living in the new life and the new freedom that new life brings us in Christ. We are either led by the Spirit, or we fall back into a practice that contradicts who we are as children of God. We are no longer in the flesh, according to Romans 8, so we need to live accordingly. Our desire and effort should be to walk in the Spirit, to be led by the Spirit. Out of that, the Spirit will bear the Spirit’s fruit in our lives:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.

Galatians 5:22-23

To be led by the Spirit doesn’t mean we’re above the law so that we can flout it. It is more related to Augustine’s words: “Love and do what you please.” What he meant is the love that comes from the Spirit through Christ.

But back to the main point: Being led by God’s Spirit means, as a friend said this morning to “have the grace of God allow us to walk in the Spirit’s guidance.” Paul’s letter to the Galatians here is all about living in God’s grace rather than under God’s law. And that’s done by the Holy Spirit. May God help us, help me to more fully enter into this reality and experience in and through Jesus.

a new political imagination

After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”

Mark 1:14-15

In Jesus’s time there was a profound, eager, if somewhat hushed among many expectation that the Messiah would at long last come and God’s kingdom with him, specifically to overthrow the Romans, whose grip on the people of God held them in a kind of exile in their very home. That’s where we have to begin if we’re to bring forward what Jesus’s words above mean in the present day.

We need to go on and read the rest of Mark’s gospel account, and along with that, the other synoptic gospel accounts, Matthew and Luke, with the final gospel account, John. Only then will we begin to understand the kingdom that God brings in Jesus, invading the world now, and ultimately destined to take over the world.

From this can come a new political imagination as we see the fulfillment of God’s promises to the world in Jesus, in King Jesus and God’s kingdom come in him. If we think it’s just about personal salvation and getting others saved to go to heaven someday, then we’ve missed the point. Yes, it’s in terms God reconciling the world to himself through the death of Christ, forgiveness of our sins and new life in Christ. But that includes the reconciliation of all things to himself and new creation. A kingdom no less is now present.

At the heart of that, or we could say inside of this reality in Jesus is a new way of life, a new way for humans to live not just individually, but with each other. Yes, a whole new way of life. One that we see in the New Testament fulfills God’s passion seen in the Old Testament for the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, those in chains and suffering, somehow as we find in Jesus’s teaching and what follows including even God’s enemies.

We know that God is at work even in what we call the state, nations and governments, kingdoms of this world. But we also know that God’s own kingdom work in Jesus is elsewhere and different. And that the kingdoms of earth will be ultimately judged and destroyed, exposed as the beasts they really are.

What can help us see and understand this new political imagination better is to understand the idolatrous hold nationalism can have on us. We American Christians ordinarily see politics in terms of left and right, conservative and liberal (and moderate), and whatever else might be floating out there. But surely God wants us to see through those paradigms for whatever usefulness and good they have in this world through the lens of God’s kingdom come in Jesus. We as Christians are called to be about that, and nothing more nor less.

That doesn’t mean that we can’t participate in one way or another in the world’s political system. It does mean that we do so essentially as outsiders, those of another political realm. Taking seriously the politics of this world, but only in terms of the politics of Jesus which has invaded the world, indeed the politics of the world to come. In and through Jesus.

Thanks to Stephen Backhouse whose work is renewing in a fresh way my own thought on this.

continue in God’s grace

As Paul and Barnabas were leaving the synagogue, the people invited them to speak further about these things on the next Sabbath. When the congregation was dismissed, 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 13:42-43

If there’s one thing I would want to press home to myself and others, it’s the importance and necessity of simply remaining in God’s grace through Jesus. There’s nothing more essentially basic than that. If we have any hope at all of actually having faith, and living in it, and by that I mean, beginning to see, understand and experience what God has for us, then it’s all because of God’s grace.

By God’s grace, I mean God’s gift in Christ, received by faith. It’s never something we could ever earn or deserve. Based on Christ’s sacrificial death for us through which we receive forgiveness of our sins and his resurrection life, beginning now.

Yes, it was especially crucial to the Jews of that time with the big change in place. But God’s grace is always radical in any context. Somehow we think it depends on us. It’s not like we’ll end up inactive, but what activity we have that’s actually Christian will be solely because of God’s grace, his gift to us in Christ by the Holy Spirit.

Yes, that’s the message I need day after day. Simply to continue on in the grace of God. 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.

 

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.

fresh starts

Create in me a pure heart, O God,
and renew a steadfast spirit within me.

Psalm 51:10

Psalm 51 is the great penitential psalm written in light of David’s great sin (2 Samuel 11). There had to be repentance for restoration, and deep contrition over time for needed change. There’s no two ways about it. We can’t think that confession and a wave of the hand changes everything. All of us in some way need a new start.

What we’re in need of is God’s grace for the forgiveness of our sin, for the cleansing needed in our lives, and for new life and direction. We need to be determined to continue in that grace, and when we get off track to be able to quickly get back on. To continue in the way God sets before us, with all its turns and changes along the way and daily renewing. And when need be, more fresh starts. 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.

 

loss

Loss is a part of life. In games, yes. But more seriously loss of spouse, marriage, child; job, career, dream; friends; reputation, status, opportunity. You name it.

Loss in life can make one jaded. You don’t trust others; you know they won’t accept you because you won’t, you can’t measure up. And this is a world often bereft of grace. But sadly it seems all too oftentimes that even the church isn’t grace-filled. Grace meaning acceptance as human beings and individuals into a fellowship/communion of truth and love.

I think one has to lick one’s wounds and go on. You have to find a church that does seek to uncompromisingly live in God’s grace. This is messy since we’re all a mess. None of us have it all together, and we will at times fail at each other’s expense. Hopefully we’re not referring to major failures, but sin is sin. It divides us, and if we let it, apart from God’s grace, it conquers us. Confession of sins and forgiveness and cleansing always available to us in Jesus.

Not only do we need to find a church that is faithful as a witness to the gospel, but we also need to plug into a small group in which we can pray for each other, help where needed, and hold each other accountable.

And we need to remain in the word, in Scripture, ourselves. Loss occurs in everyone’s life, and sometimes significant loss can seem to mark us, that we are a failure. That we didn’t live up to others’ expectations, who never knew us in the first place. Or for that matter, far more seriously, the Lord’s expectations.

There may be plenty of truth in that, indeed there’s some, but in Christ there’s always and forever God’s grace offering forgiveness and new life. Life out of death. Redemption from “determinism” or the inevitable, from the addiction one can’t break free of.

And there’s restoration. To the God-given special place for each one of us, helping us find and settle into the goodness God has for us in the good life and good works given to us. In and through Jesus.