This gospel wants to entice us to faith, above all else. But no one canaccept this gracious Christ unless he believes that he is a man and adopts the opinion of him that the evangelist gives. He is presented as sheer grace, humility, and goodness…Look at him! He rides no stallion, which is a war animal, and he comes not with fearful pomp and power, but sits on a donkey, which is no war animal but which is ready for burdens of work that will help human beings. Thereby he shows that he does not come to terrify people, to drive or oppress them, but to help them, to carry their burdens and take them on himself.
It’s easy to be religious. All we have to do is count ourselves as better than others and we have it made! Well, we also have to try harder, do things better, smile a little bigger, and see how our neighbors are actually terrible people. That actually sounds pretty exhausting.
You know what’s difficult?
To hear that I am flawed and evil. That I have a heart that can conceive of vile adultery and the cruelest of hatred. It’s difficult to hear that I am remarkably judgmental of other people, but that’s the honest truth.
Tim Keller would say that the good news of the Bible is that we are more sinful, wicked, flawed, and broken than we could ever imagine. At the same time we are more loved, accepted, and desired after than we could ever hope for. I think Keller’s right. The story of Jesus is so counter to our own initial beliefs.
The story of Jesus shows us who God is. As he said in John, if you’ve seen Jesus, then you’ve seen the Father. In fact, the writer to the Hebrews would say that Jesus is the exact same as God (which is contrary to the beliefs of Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Muslims, to name a few)— same essence while also being distinct within the Trinity.
The story of Jesus shows us how he came to bear our burdens and came to remove the pettiness of our hearts and restore life. As Paul wrote to the Romans, we are dead in our sins, and only through the work of the Holy Spirit can we be brought into life.
Jesus does not come to conquer, but he comes to remove the yoke of suffering and religion in order to replace it with something far lighter. His yoke is light and his promise to us his life. Won’t you hear him today?
(for another side to the argument, see my post It’s A Religion, Not Just A Relationship)
I mentioned recently that God is both the embodiment of love and justice. I wanted to take it a step further and convey that we are able to see God’s love for us in his justice. Please hear me out.
In an ancient world marked by child sacrifice and appeasing the gods with human sacrifice, the God revealed through the story set forth in the Bible set himself apart from the other gods. In that day, people could please their respective gods through crass commercialism. Perform X (sacrifice this child or these animals) and you would receive Y. These gods were made in the image of their creators, crafted out of wood, stone, or metal.
Compare the bad tempers and capricious acts of the deities with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob who is characterized as slow to anger and quick to forgive. He defends the weak and wants his people to choose justice. Reading through the Minor Prophets (Amos, Micah, etc.) will reveal how much of an issue this is to the character of God.
God physically stepped into history
Keep in mind though, the God revealed to us in Scripture does not send us happy thoughts and a celestial thumbs up. Instead, God invests in his broken creation through the incarnation when God became man. He chose to come down, endured injustice firsthand and was tempted in every way.
The Book of Hebrews would record, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” In light of this reality, we can boldly draw near to the throne of grace, and can find grace in our time of need.
Yes, the Old Testament is full of sacrifices that covered over sins and also gave thanks for God’s provision. The New Testament follows this line when he chose to once and for all cover the sins of humanity.
The love of God is seen in the propitiation for our sins and the absorption of God’s justice. Indeed to make your headspin, God took on God’s wrath through the sacrificial death of Jesus (remember, Jesus is fully God) for our sins. He demonstrated his immense love for us that while we were sinners, he chose to die for us.
How do you hold onto the tension of justice and love?
What makes Christianity different from the other great world religions?
Theology and dogma?
Christian author Philip Yancey suggested the major the thing separating Christian faith from the other major world religions was its emphasis on grace. If you think about it, there are moral codes shared with other religious books and there are certainly many helpful proverbs and comforting sayings, but Christianity is different. The central theme of Christianity is something that is strangely other. It is the theme that God restores and renews, even when we do not deserve it.
To borrow from the English poet John Milton, Christianity tells a story of how paradise was once lost and how the creator of all things did not stand idly by as paradise descended into chaos. Instead God went after his creation as a hound follows after the scent of a lost child. Paradise indeed would be recovered and will be restored under the umbrella of grace.
I love being immersed in the stories of the Bible where imperfect people lived imperfectly for God through grace. Even the great heroes and heroines of the faith had prominent flaws for all to see. Moses murdered a man and had a hot temper, David was an adulterous murderer, and Rahab was a prostitute.
These heroes of the faith had issues!
The redemptive narrative found in the Bible is one filled with grace. The stories that are on the pages of Scripture are filled with flawed people who rested in the flawless One, the provider of grace. With the exception of Genesis 1 and 2, the rest of the Bible unpacks the “covenant of grace,” where humanity received the opportunity of reconnecting with God through the completed work of Jesus. This covenant of grace is something that God initiated and God provides, there is simply no way that we could ever earn it.
My friends, God is indeed love. God is also holy and just.
He hung out with hookers, scoundrels, and crooks. While his cousin John the Baptist would be marked as a man who fasted and lived meagerly, Jesus seemed to be characterized as an eater and drinker who liked to hang out with the wrong sorts of people. At first glance, it seems as if Jesus marches to the beat of his own drum.
The funny thing about this description is that Jesus was a good Jew. He kept the Law (loved God and neighbor) and was steeped in the Hebrew Scripture. I remember a class discussion about Jesus and the Law that led me to the realization that he was close to the Pharisees in terms of doctrine. But here’s the thing: Jesus would drop the hammer on this group many times because they burdened people with more laws than could ever be kept. These people ate the bread of law when they should have been drunk on God’s grace.
Years later, the Apostle Paul dealt with many issues as a church planter. While Paul wrote to Corinth repeatedly about so many problems, he never went off on them the way he did on another church. Paul just about flipped out over the choices of another church plant in Galatia. What did they do? Instead of reveling in God’s ineffable grace, they chose to follow rules and laws. They craved the rules that burdened so many people in the past instead of basking in a life rooted in grace and freedom.
The Galatians didn’t realize that the Law of God was given to point out our need for a savior.
Paul would tell them how the Law acted as a teacher, and it stood as a guardian over humanity. Yet Jesus came and he kept the Law, and he led us into glorious grace through faith in him. Now, my friends, if we put our trust in him, we are able to absolutely revel in God’s grace instead of constantly cowering in fear of messing up. Quite simply, we get to be hammered on grace.
Friends, a spiritual to-do list will not help us reach God; it will only lead to exhaustion – I know it utterly exhausts me! Instead, we need to grasp that peace is found only in the completed work of Christ. The truth of God’s sacrifice for us is that we don’t need to “be good” on our own. Heck, we don’t have to follow a to-do list! Instead, we need to get drunk on God’s grace and follow Jesus.
Care to get hammered on grace?
Many people who have heard the name Francis of Assisi associates the man with the phrase, “Preach the gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” I heard this phrase many times in my undergrad education and decided to adopt it for a period of time. I thought it was brilliant and that it captured the essence of Jesus’ message.
But you know what? I soon found out a secret. That line was more than likely never uttered by Francis.
And then I came to the conclusion that that line is actually very dangerous. Let me unpack that.
If that above phrase is only used to mean “preach the gospel and back up your words with your actions,” then that is a very helpful phrase. But if we mean that the good news of the Kingdom of God coming through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus will be preached through our actions alone and never communicated through words, then I think we venture into dangerous territory.
Paul wrote to the church in Corinth about this good news, saying:
that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.
Yes, giving a cup of water to a thirsty migrant is very important and powerful, but this summary Paul gave cannot be communicated through that act. Helping people is very huge, but the good news of Jesus comes through a verbal (or written, in this instance) witness.
Let me be clear, our words need to have actions that back it up. If we say we ought to be loving because Christ loved us, then we ought to demonstrate love as well. But if I say we need to live peacefully with my neighbor, but drive in a constant state of road rage, then there is an obvious disconnect (I can neither confirm nor deny that I drive in a state of perpetual road rage. All I’m going to admit is that I listen to the classical radio station for a reason).
If you don’t read anything else though, read this: You are not the gospel. Your actions, as pure as they might be, are not the gospel. The gospel comes to those through the Holy Spirit’s application of the words into the life of the individual. The Spirit applies the message we proclaim, as the good works we do help verify the hope that lives within us. As Pope Francis once said, “if we don’t proclaim Jesus, something is wrong. We would become a compassionate NGO & not a Church which is the bride of Christ.”
Let’s do good, and talk about the Good One.
There was a guest post over at Between Two Worlds blog today where Jared Wilson wrote about the importance of brokenness and joy. The first step towards real joy, he argued, is when we are encountered by despair over our failings. However, once that despair has occurred then we are given freedom to laugh and rejoice.
But once we have despaired of all sin and the gods at their genesis, we are free. Really, truly free. To eat fat juicy steaks and drink rich red wine.
In fact, we cannot really enjoy the good gifts God gives us until he as their Giver is our greatest joy. Until he as their Giver is our greatest joy, we will left trying to enjoy his gifts for things they are not, rather than the things they are.
This another reason why I personally enjoy liturgical church services. The Anglican church I attend will lead us through these two steps every Sunday. We are reminded about our sins, both those mistakes we have done and left undone, then after we have repented, peace is declared to us. We are reminded that in Christ we have been forgiven and enlivened. It is a reminder that we should never stay in a position of perpetual sadness and being a spiritual Eeyore, instead we ought to enjoy life. For if “I believe in the gospel, I can finally enjoy the chocolate-ness of chocolate and the coffee-ness of coffee. Only the gospel frees me to enjoy things as they truly are and as they someday will be.”
And that, my friends, is a promise and hope you can count on!
“Preach the gospel always, If necessary use words."
-St. Francis of Assisi
It embarrasses me how often I have used the quote from St Francis to mean that we should just live the gospel and not say anything to anybody, ever. The gospel becomes more like good advice, the gospel is twisted into a self help message, transforming into, Become a Better You: 7 Keys to Improving Your Life Every Day. If my life’s transformation is the good news then I am afraid that that good news is incredibly lame! If we consider and accept that our default condition in this world is one of being removed from God’s presence and from even desiring God (such as Total Depravity explores, our inability to reach out to God), then what happens to me is not the good news. It may be a byproduct of the acceptance of this good news, indeed my life should rightly be transformed through sanctification, but the good news I ought to proclaim is that God became man, lived, died and rose again for my justification. In this context, good advice would be to accept the good news!
The Apostle Paul picks up this theme in one of his epistles. Paul writes to the Galatians in chapter 1,
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.” (1:6-7, ESV)
Paul seems to make the point that there is no such thing as an alternative gospel. The thing that is preached by other people is the Law, not the Gospel. The Law is about doing something and the Gospel is about something that has been done. The Gospel message is that through faith in Christ, we can be reconciled to God and be justified. If an angel or another human preaches an alternative message than they should be eternally condemned (see Gal 1:8-9). The gospel is too great of a message to be about me and my life.
I read a past issue of Modern Reformation and read an excellent article on “The Law and the Gospel.” In it Sean Norris mentioned about his past in the typical realm of relational Christianity. Everything was based on stirrings and emotion. I had similar experiences where I craved the emotional status of quiet times, youth camps and moments of crying. While these are good, it was rooted in temporary experiences. I had to do “x” so I could feel “y”. However, it was the If-Then moments that I craved. Little did I know that my efforts weren’t good enough.
My stirrings were meant to show that I wasn’t good enough. The Law (pointing out my sin) that I strove against was there to demonstrate that I was sick. It was the salt that was poured into the wound signifying my problem. Fortunately, that was only part of the drama.
Part two dealt with the ramifications of my depravity. While the Law was the hammer that crushed me, grace was the thing that restored me. My entire being was the problem and my external actions that sought to live up to the standards was not the tool to solve the problem.
Since Christ died and rose again on my behalf (indeed for the sins of the world), the problem has been solved. I have now been restored to the proper standing before God. The free gift that paid my debt is not conditional upon my actions, present or future. The Law points to the cross and the cross demonstrates the gospel (the good news) that humanity can be justified to God.
Norris explained that “the if/then conditional nature of relationships ends and because/therefore wins out.” No longer would I have to partake in the “if I focus enough on God, then I will be at peace.” No, it is because Christ died, therefore I have peace with God through Jesus (Romans 5:1). What a breakthrough! The gospel is the answer to any accusation we receive from the Law.
Thanks be to God.