“It Was Not Me.”

Before launching into Chapter Eight of The Cross of Christ (entitled “The Revelation of God,” I think it is important to orient ourselves to where we are in the overall book. 

John Stott says the “heart of the cross” is the fact that Jesus Christ substituted Himself for us on the cross.  His self-sacrifice and His self-substitution made all the difference in the life of man, but what did He accomplish with this act?

In Chapter Seven I commented on one accomplishment: “The Salvation of Sinners.” 

Now we turn to another accomplishment: He discloses Himself or reveals Himself [hence the title of Chapter Eight is “The Revelation”].

“Just as human beings disclose their character in their actions, so God has showed Himself to us in the death of His Son” [Stott, 200].

How hard could this be?  Have we not already discussed this ad infinitum? 

In some respects maybe some of us have looked at this sacrifice and we have drawn our conclusions.  “Let’s move on” some might say.  “I understand this already.”

But let’s dig a bit deeper at how Jesus came into this world and how He left it.  That is the confusing part.

It is all about glory.  Glory?

We gloss over that part because it is so hard to comprehend. 

What is a definition of glory?  Definitions are “high renown or honor won by notable achievement” or “magnificence or great beauty” or to “take great pride or pleasure in”.

As a “baby” born again Christian, I don’t know that I even wondered how a Divine infant born in a stable could constitute a “glorious” entrance into this world as a human being.  I am not sure that I also considered a gruesome death on a cross as a glorious way to exit this earth.  Like many, I focused on the active ministry of Christ and all the wonderful things He said and the miraculous things He did.  At that time in my spiritual growth I sought consistency and I thought I found it.  That was good enough for me.

Now I wonder if I really found answers in the “easy” information that I digested at that time.

As one really considers some of the messages of Jesus, they can be pretty confusing at times and in many respects, they seem to “turn this world upside down”.  One can turn to the Sermon on the Mount and analyze His admonitions and be quite perplexed if you take them literally.  The “poor in spirit” will experience the kingdom of heaven [what about all of us who are not downtrodden?  Do we have a chance?].   The meek will inherit the earth.   What about those of us who are not meek; after all, meekness is not valued in the world today is it?  When others insult you, persecute you and say evil things about you, you will be blessed.  In our world, insult is met with counterattack; to “turn the other cheek” is never encouraged as a strong move.  Then I turn to the Apostle Paul in 2nd Corinthians 12 when he says “But He [God] 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.”

No piece of Scripture has meant more to me in recent years than Paul’s words in 2nd Corinthians.  For in those words, I began to understand the Divine concept of glory.

Jesus used the word glory several times on the brink of His crucifixion.   When some Greeks asked to see Him in His last days He responded “the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified.”   When Judas left the last supper and went out into the night, Jesus said “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in Him.”  When He began His prayer in the upper room with His disciples, He used the following words “Father the time has come.  Glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify You” [John 12: 20-28].

Glory?

What is God saying when He puts His only Son in this world to have Him suffer such an ignominious end?  Stott feels that the message is this:  to be a Christian, one must humble oneself.  To be a Christian one must give of oneself.  It was necessary for the Lamb of God to take the world’s sin on His shoulders.  It was necessary for the Good Shepherd to lay down His life for His sheep. 

Stott quotes John Calvin on this matter:  “For in the cross of Christ, as in splendid theatre, the incomparable goodness of God is set before the whole world.  The glory of God is set before the whole world….If it be objected that nothing could be less glorious than Christ’s death…I reply that in that death we see a boundless glory which is concealed from the ungodly.”*

Still it is hard to understand how this crucifixion could be considered a glorious end to Jesus Christ’s life on earth

I return to the words quoted above from the Apostle Paul:  “My power is made perfect in weakness.”  Weakness is not a quality often desired in our world today yet when Jesus went to the cross, He did not strenuously object to the improper charges brought against Him.  When He went to the cross, He did not ask for protection from an army of angels.  How many times do you recall someone saying my goal in life is to be “weak”?  If we take the world’s view, Jesus’ attitude is totally wrong.  However, to be a believer is to not be part of this world.  Again Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians “But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables Him to bring everything under His control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like His glorious body” [3: 20-21].   Then why weakness? 

Countless times God shows His power through the use of the most unlikely people to do His work.  Old Abraham becomes the father of Israel despite his advanced years.  Arrogant Samson is given the Holy Spirit so much that he selflessly rains down destruction on himself and the evil Philistines.  Moses is the coward and murderer who leads the Israelites through their most perilous times.  Peter the impulsive Disciple becomes a bold leader for the early church.  All these people have serious imperfections; serious weaknesses: yet God chose them for a reason.

God is sending a message to you and to me.

“Look what I can do.  Look what can be done with the lowest people on the face of the earth.”  When a person with weakness performs mighty deeds, one has to wonder where they get their strength, their wisdom, their perseverance. 

The simple answer is, they get it from God.

God does not expect us to do great things alone.  He expects us to turn to Him and ask for His help.  If our reasons are pure and our acts further the work of His Kingdom, you can expect that He will help you.  In fact, you can count on it.

I know a pastor who preached a powerful and inspirational sermon at her father’s funeral.  As I heard her words, I kept asking myself how she could stand up at a moment like this, much less lead a church full of people to see Jesus Christ in her comments.  After the service, I had a moment to ask her how she rose to the occasion and I will never forget her response.  Like my understanding of Paul’s words in 2nd Corinthians, her words helped me so much: “It was not me.”

I was thunderstruck but years later I still know this was a turning point in my understanding of God’s glory.  Yes Jesus’ death was not “glorious” in a worldly sense.  My pastor’s preaching was not “glorious” in a worldly sense.

It was the SOURCE OF POWER to do the undoable that was glorious.  She could have said, “I am a wonderful writer of sermons, I am extremely strong because I work out all the time or I have a very stable emotional makeup but she didn’t.  She said “It was not me.”

It was God almighty doing His work in this world.

Showing the power of humility and the power of selflessness.

Using my pastor…

*from John Calvin. Commentary on the Gospel according to St. John

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“Worth the Effort”

At times it is best to be honest or maybe a better way to express this is, we need to be frank.  In this context “frank” is best defined as “direct in speech or writing, especially when dealing with unpalatable matters.”

We prefer the easy way.  We would rather not make the effort.

Before I go too extreme I have to admit that sometimes we do need easy answers to our questions.  When I first read John Stott’s book Basic Christianity in the mid-1980s I needed basic, easy information about coming to Jesus Christ.  He provided what I needed.  I could not have understood his book The Cross of Christ at that time in my life.

Now The Cross is less intimidating and with my growth in my faith, my study of the Bible, my study of other spiritual growth resources, I can understand it more.  At least I think so.  The “proof is in the pudding” so to speak. 

If I can explain Stott’s more complex ideas to you (the reader of this blog) than I have accomplished  my purpose.

But as I travel through each section of each chapter of The Cross, something else is happening:  I am growing too. 

Stott published a small booklet entitled Your Mind Matters in 1972.  In that booklet he makes the case that Christians should be challenged to use their minds.  We should not always seek out “easy” answers.  In his booklet he argues that we were created to think, we should attempt to understand God’s thoughts as much as we can, we benefit from the renewing of our minds, and we will be judged by our knowledge or lack thereof.

He has a point.

I like a challenge; maybe you do too.

As we turn from Basic Christianity to Chapter 8 in The Cross of Christ, we leave the basic answers of one book and turn to complex questions and complex answers in the other. 

It won’t be easy, but I am convinced that it will be worth the effort.

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“I Sin Frequently”

On February 10, I began a series of discussions about the consequences of sin based on Chapter 6 of John Stott’s book Basic Christianity.  Since then, I have commented on how sin alienates us from God, sin enslaves us to sin and sin encourages us to be so selfish that we find ourselves in conflict with others and God.

When I began this series, I introduced it with a post entitled “Social Comparison: A Waste of Time for the Christian.”  I conclude this series with a post designed to give the reader some answers about sin, for you see I have a problem with it.

For you see, I sin quite frequently.

And yet I call myself a believing Christian [a note for all you folks who are really “into” social comparison, I have broken a cardinal rule of living the Christian life].  I readily admit to having a sin problem.  I am not trying to present a Christian façade.

What am I going to do?

That is what this post is all about.

I have been reading a very good book by the Franciscan Priest Richard Rohr where he makes a statement that riveted my attention: “Jesus is never upset at sinners (check it out!); He is only upset with people who do not think they are sinners.”*  Christians who refuse to accept their own darker moments of sinning don’t understand God’s message.  God knows we are all destined to fail at “spotless living.”  If God had wanted a perfect man or a perfect woman, He would have created automatons instead of human beings with the power of choice.

Let’s begin there.  All of us sin [even though some don’t want to admit it].

As we have referenced alienation from God, enslavement to sin and conflict with others born out of our own selfishness, let’s admit that these “consequences” are really not pleasant.  Most people would prefer not to live life like this.

What do we do to avoid it?

First, we must be honest and accept who we are (I think I did that above).  I have accepted Christ in my life already (anyone who has read my blog will know that).  Now I have to admit that I don’t have the power to sin less by my own power.  So many people today turn to gimmicks, expecting some self-help guru or some huckster’s device to rid them of their troubles.  Some think that they can rid themselves of sin with sheer will-power.

I am here to tell you, none of this will work.

What we need is not will power but a “higher” power, the power of God and His Son Jesus Christ to help us with our sinning.  In particular we need the power of God’s Holy Spirit working in our lives.  God’s design is for the Holy Spirit to flow out through me to others.  I have been locked in a battle with sin for many, many years and I have never made any headway against sin on my own.  Any progress against sin has been made possible by the power of God working in me through the Holy Spirit.

“You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.  But if Christ is in you, then even though your body is subject to death because of sin, the Spirit gives life because of righteousness. And if the Spirit of Him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, He who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies because of His Spirit who lives in you. Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it.  For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God” Romans 8: 9-14.

The Bible is not an easy read, but what the Apostle Paul is telling us is that when you accept Christ into your life, the Spirit gives you a chance to have a victory every once in a while over the problems we all have with sin.  We still have “mortal bodies” but we can begin to have a power that can diminish our sinning [our flesh] and reveal our Spirit-filled goodness [“put to death the misdeeds of the body”].

Will we fail from time to time even though we are attempting to “live in Christ?”

Yes…

When we dedicate ourselves to Christ, we may see some changes that are instantaneous, but other habits are extremely hard to break.  Improvement is a journey, a process.  We may prefer to pray and the sin goes away immediately but it will not work that way most of the time.  For example if you stand in judgement of people that you find “stupid,” that sinful judgement may not go away quickly, especially if you have had it in place for your whole adult life.  You know it is wrong but certain people’s actions trigger that response.  God will not force you to get rid of these thoughts, but over time, if you keep asking Him for help, He may see fit to give you Holy Spirit power over the sin and it may go away.

In the meantime, we need to repent of the sin.  When I write the word repent, I mean that I am truly sorry that I have sinned.  Going through the motions of saying “I repent,” knowing that I intend to sin again is not really repenting.  If I am truly sorrowful, God will cleanse me of my sin.  Note that I did not write “rid me of my sin.”  I  may indeed fall again.  Romans 3: 23 “For all have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.”  Falling short is so common in life but God may have an eventual victory plan for some of our sins.  I have to wait for this victory.  It will come in His time, not mine. 

I want the Holy Spirit to minister to my needs.  I  need forgiveness.  Too many times in my life I have wallowed in guilt as I have not been quick to accept God’s forgiveness.  God does not want me to be defeated by sin.  He has much bigger things for me to do with my life.  To stay defeated is to give in to the dark powers of evils, to prefer alienation, enslavement and selfishness to freedom from some sins.  I have written this before but He wants us to “get back up, dust ourselves off and try to move forward.”

The Holy Spirit gives us the grace to move forward, the strength and ability to resist temptation in the future.  It will not be by our willpower that we will do this; we know we won’t be able to resist temptation on our own.  Christians know they  are not alone in the world anymore.  We have God to help us.  We have the Holy Spirit living in us to help us with temptations.  God does not expect us to clean ourselves up so we can prove to others that we are “good” Christians.  God does not expect us to be good enough so He can love us and accept us.  “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; He will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, He will also provide a way out so that you can endure it” [1 Corinthians 10: 13].

Sins have one purpose.  They exist in my life to convince me that I need Jesus Christ.  I need His understanding, I need His forgiveness, and I need His advocacy on my behalf at the right hand of God as I live my life and face God’s judgement.  John Stott writes “We shall never put our trust in Christ until we have first despaired of ourselves” [80].  Jesus says “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick.  I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners, to repentance” [Luke 5: 31-32].

“When we have realized and faced up to the seriousness of our illness will we admit our urgent need for a cure” [80].

Remember, I sin quite frequently.

My only hope…

Help me God!  Help me Jesus!  Holy Spirit, do a work within me!

*Richard Rohr  Falling Upward, 59.

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Consequence Number Three: Conflict with Others

When I was a baby, I reportedly had a visit from my great aunt Effie Thompson.  According to family legend, this wise, venerable lady leaned into my bassinet and declared “his ears are close to his head; he is going to be selfish.”

When I was told this story later in life and I understood it, I was a bit uncomfortable.  I did not really want that “selfish” label attached to me.

But there it was.

One of the most common expressions that you will ever hear a Christian say is “I am putting God first.”  We are prone to counsel other Christians to “make sure God has first place in your life.”

But today, are we really successful in doing this?

Where does this idea come from?  Most point to Matthew 22: 37 when Jesus boils down all the commandments to “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and all your mind.”  He said this is the great and first commandment and the second is “You shall love your neighbor as yourself”.

So there we have an order.  God first.  Neighbor second.  Self third.

These words do not bode well for all the selfish people of this world.

In our world today it seems to me that selfishness is the norm; caring for God and others is the exception.

John Stott, in his book Basic Christianity, writes that selfishness is very related to consequence number three of sinning because selfishness is the root cause of consequence three.  The consequence I refer to is “conflict with others”.

When we put self first, neighbors second and God last, we find ourselves always trying to manipulate others to get what we want.  We never do anything that needs to be done because someone else needs help; we are always looking for credit for good deeds and some angle where we can profit from our “generosity.” We don’t really care about others; if they have a problem, that is too bad.  This shows a lack of empathy.  We are conceited; our opinion is the only one that counts and it should be valued above all others.  We are not willing to share.  We cannot accept criticism.  Lastly, we believe our needs are the most important and they have to be met before others.*

One can look at this laundry list of selfish characteristics and see that selfishness can cause conflict.  Stott says that selfish people do not find it easy to adjust to others.  They either despise them or envy them; they have feelings of superiority or inferiority. 

This makes life so hard because relationships with others are complex. It takes constant work to have good communication between parent and child, husband and wife, family member to family.   In order to have a livelihood, good relations between employer and employee must be maintained.  Stott goes on to state that juvenile delinquency is caused by selfish children who put their needs above society’s.  Divorce is common because marriage partners are not humble enough to admit fault in the relationship.  “Whenever couples have been to see me because their marriage was threatened, I have noticed that each tells a different story—a story sometimes so different that one would not guess they described the same situation unless one knew” [Stott, 78-79].

As I consider Jesus’s “greatest commandment,” I am reminded of some key communication concepts that aid in being less selfish.**  One is other-centeredness.  This is the opposite of self-centeredness and is based on the idea that to be an effective communicator we need to be aware of the needs of others.  The more we can anticipate those needs and meet them, the more we will be liked, we will achieve success in our relationships and have others around us who are happy and therefore we are happy.   Another key idea is self- awareness.  If a person is self-aware, they are prone to “take stock” of their behavior and can adapt to various communication contexts.  Selfish behavior is not appropriate for most settings.  People do not like it.  No one likes to be manipulated or overlooked; no one likes to spend time with a conceited person. Yet people who lack self-awareness cannot monitor their selfish behavior.  It emerges from them naturally and it can easily spoil communication with others.

Stott says the “human sin of self-centeredness is the cause of many of our problems.  It brings us into conflict with each other.  If only the spirit of self-assertion could be replaced by the spirit of self-sacrifice, our conflicts would diminish.  Self-sacrifice is what the Bible means by ‘love’.  While sin is possessive, love is expansive.  Sin’s characteristic is the desire to get; love’s characteristic is the desire to give.

Let’s go back to Matthew 22: 37 and consider the Scripture more.  If we put God first in our lives as Christians, everything else will fall in place.  There was a time in my life when I knew I had to make a financial commitment to my church, but I did not have a habit of doing that.  In fact, I did not tithe at all.  I felt like my family needed every penny just to pay the bills; we did not have any extra money for God.  It was not long after I made a commitment to follow God that I encountered the idea that Christians are expected to give one tenth of their income to the church.  One can research this topic and find all kinds of opinions on tithing, but instead of doing that, let’s just say that the church encourages Christians to share what they have with those less fortunate.  In tithing, we support the church and its programs that are in place to help the world. 

It is an unselfish act.

I remember when my wife and I decided to tithe.  I don’t want to sound too “supernatural” but we soon found that we could tithe and still do well.  Did lack of selfishness pay off?  Let’s not say that because it would send the wrong message about tithing.  What did happen is that we supported the church and did not lack for anything.  I am reminded of the Old Testament story of the Prophet Elijah who visited the home of a poor widow who was down to her last meal which she was preparing for herself and her son.  Elijah sensed her concern that there was not enough food for her visitor.  After this meal, there was no more food and she faced the possibility of starvation.  Elijah told her to feed him with a loaf of bread and there would be more for herself and her son.  Indeed there was, for the woman and child never lacked food from that point on: “the jar of flour was not used up and the jug of oil did not run dry.”*** 

Stott says that humans need a lot of help with selfishness.  It is our nature to be selfish, to put ourselves above others and above God.  “What man needs is a radical change of nature” [79]. 

Most of us do not live the “ideal” Christian life.  We fall far short of selfless service to God that flows from our love for Him and all His people. 

To live that kind of life we need to pay attention to the needs of others, we need to take stock of our behavior.  If alienation and enslavement are consequences of our sinning, conflict with others is a dire consequence also.

What does Stott say is the root of most conflict?

Selfishness…

“Man cannot work it within himself [to go from self to unself].  He cannot operate on himself…he needs a Savior” [Stott, 79].

*From The Learning Mind Website “Selfish Behavior: 6 Examples of Good and Toxic Selfishness” accessed on March 3, 2022.

**I hold a Ph.D. in interpersonal communications from the University of Kentucky, 1993.

***from 1 Kings 17

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Consequence Number Two: Enslavement

I am going to be honest.  There are some subjects that are terribly hard to discuss.

The fact that human beings can become slaves to sin is one of them.

Most of us don’t want to even consider we are slaves to anything.  We prefer to think we have some control over life.  However, if we are slaves, we have little control.  If we are slaves, we are the legal property of another and we have to obey their commands.

In the previous post I wrote that alienation from God is one consequence of sinning; now we learn that enslavement can be another.

It says in God’s word that one of the most egregious things about being a human is that we are in a constant battle against the power of sin.  To be a human being is to be in a “natural state” of sin.

John Stott* refers to this problem as “bondage to self.”

He thinks of this consequence as an“inwardness.”  “It is more than an unfortunate outward act or habit; it is a deep-seated inward corruption.  In fact, the sins we commit are merely outward and visible manifestations of this inward and invisible malady, the symptoms of a moral disease” [75].

This is harsh language for us to consider, especially for human beings who don’t want to own up to the fact that they sin at all.

Also some are confused by the Apostle Paul who opens Romans by saying that he is a “slave of Jesus Christ” [Romans 1: 1].  Paul begins the Book of Titus declaring himself a “slave of God” [Titus 1: 1].  James opens his book the same way, declaring that he is “a slave of God and the Lord Jesus Christ” [James 1: 1].

Many hate the idea of being a slave to sin, but also does that mean we have to be a slave to Jesus?  I can imagine that many say “I don’t want to be a slave to anyone or anything”.

Jesus tells the self-righteous of His day [the Pharisees] in John 8: 34 “Truly, truly I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin.”  In Mark 7, 21-23, Jesus speaks to ordinary man’s nature by saying “For from within, out of the heart of man, come wicked thoughts, fornication, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, foolishness.  All these evil things come from within, and they defile a man.”  Stott cites the Apostle Paul who has a similar list in Galatians 5: 19-21; Paul refers to deep-rooted sin as “the flesh.”  “Because sin is an inward corruption of human nature, we are in bondage.  It is not so much certain acts or habits which enslave us, but rather the evil infection from which these spring.  So many times in the New Testament we are described as ‘slaves.’  We resent it but it is true” [Stott, 76]. 

I have a very good friend who went through a serious time in her life as she struggled with sin.  She was doing things that she said were “out of character.”  It was a long process but eventually she found her way to Jesus where she came to Christ in repentance, she received forgiveness for her sin and experienced the power of the Holy Spirit which came to live within her.  One day she reflected back on this period of “out of character” sinning.  She told me that she felt that she was a good person when sin reared its ugly head.  Goodness was going to be strong enough to ward off sin.  It wasn’t.  She needed more.  She needed Jesus.

It is by the power of Jesus that we throw off the shackles of sinning and take on the title “slaves of righteousness.”  We no longer belong to ourselves or as I quoted Stott, we no longer are in “bondage to self,” we belong to Jesus and our main desire in life is to do things to please Him.  We have a desire to obey Him and as we do that, we experienced some freedom from habitual sin.  in John 8: 36 it says “if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

We live in an age of “self-help.”  Many think that we can will ourselves to do anything.  The problem is that we have “high ideals but weak wills.  We want to live a good life, but we are chained in the prison of self-centeredness.  However much we may boast of being free, we are in reality but slaves….It is no use giving us rules of conduct; we cannot keep them.  Let God go on saying ‘Thou shalt not’, yet we shall to the end of time” [Stott, 77; italics mine].

We just can’t do better with sin all by ourselves.  We need a Savior to help us.  Even with that Savior, we can only “do better”, because we never will live a sinless life.  The Apostle Paul writes of this extensively in Romans.  His words ring so true when he wonders why he can’t do what he wants to do; he does what he does not want to do instead.  Even though we are set free from sin, we still live in a world where sin is ever-present.  From time to time, we will fail.  If we are truly believers, our resolve to sin no more will grow as we live our lives.  We are the adopted children of God and He will save us from the pull of sin.  This seals us in Christ as a pledge of our inheritance as God’s children.  As Christians we are supposed to grow in faith and come to live with God more and more each day.  As a muscle develops as it is worked out, our faith will become stronger as we use it and we will be able to resist sin, not give into temptation and live more and more by the word of God.  Our habitual sins become more obvious to us and we realize that they alienate us from a relationship with God.  We begin to love God so much that we don’t want to hinder our communication with Him.  Sin can certainly get in the way of communicating with God. 

The Apostle Paul admits the struggle with sin but turns the struggle over to Jesus in these words:  “Wretched man that I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!  So then, I myself serve the law of God with my mind, but with my flesh I serve the law of sin.  There is therefore no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” [Romans, 7: 24-25-8: 2].

Paul can’t do it on his own.  We can’t throw off the shackles of sin on our own.  We need a Savior.  We can read books until we go blind.  We can listen to lectures until we have maximum knowledge.  Relying on mind power or “goodness” power pales in comparison to the power of sin.  We need Spirit power.  Only Spirit power can help us gain freedom from sin. 

Yes, Christians say they are “slaves of righteousness,” and that word slave seems pejorative, but if this kind of slavery leads to freedom from sin and a stronger relationship with all-powerful God, I choose to be a slave to righteousness. 

Let my life be an effort to please God because in that effort I will gain strength over sin and demonstrate that I no longer have sin as my master.

I have my loving God as my master.

That’s what I truly want…

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Consequence Number One: Alienation

“I know there are consequences for our sinful actions but is it possible to escape the consequences if we start living differently?”  from “B.L.” to Reverend Billy Graham

“Sin is a terrible and destructive thing, and sometimes we have to pay the consequences for our foolishness and rebellion against God.”  Reverend Billy Graham’s response*

In Chapter 5 of John Stott’s book Basic Christianity, we discussed the fact and nature of sin, its universality and every one of God’s guidelines for human behavior, also known as The Ten Commandments.  God has certain expectations for every one of us and sometimes we fail to live up to His expectations.

Human beings have a sin nature that stems from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden; we have a “bent toward” doing wrong.   Stott writes at the beginning of Chapter 6, “We should like to leave this distasteful subject [sin] and pass on immediately to the good news of Christ’s salvation, but we are not ready to do so.  We need to grasp what the results of sin are before we can appreciate what God has done for us and is offering to us in Christ” [Stott, 71].

What he is really saying is we need to pause and consider the consequences.

“Is sin really so serious?”

It depends…

How do you handle alienation from God?  How about bondage to self or maybe conflict with others?

In this post we will concentrate on alienation from God.

Let’s be honest, if all of us have a sin nature, we all sin [duh!].  I admit it and depending on the nature of the sin, I can feel so guilty that I feel cut off from God.  I can’t pray to Him.  I can’t hear His voice.  I don’t notice His presence in my life.  My highest destiny [says Stott] is to know God, to “be in personal relationship with Him.  Our chief claim to nobility as human beings is that we were made in the image of God and are therefore capable of knowing Him” [71].

“Personal relationship” is a comforting phrase but many misunderstand what it means.  The idea sounds like God and human beings can be best buddies but that is not quite correct.  God is a righteous Being, infinite in His moral perfection.  The Bible is full of instances when humans tried to physically approach God but it was not really possible.  Moses hid his face, Job sees God and despises himself, Isaiah has a vision of God and feels lost, Ezekiel received a vision of God and fell on his face, Saul of Tarsus was blinded by God’s bright light on the road to Damascus and John on the Island of Patmos describes God having eyes like a “flame of fire.”

Stott writes “If the curtain which veils the unspeakable majesty of God could be drawn aside for a moment, we too should not be able to bear the sight” [73].

The problem is that sin cuts us off from a perfect, all powerful God.  Too many pastors preach that God is love and neglect to say that God hates sin.  God despises sin in every form and that is what we do.  Let’s return to some of the writings of Billy Graham.  “We live in an age when sin is winked at; where God is indulgent, softhearted and tolerant of those who break His commandments.  People find it difficult to believe that God hates anything, much less sin….Some people may be pretending that sin doesn’t exist, but sin is present all around us.  When left unforgiven, sin sends men and women into a timeless eternity in Hell.”**

Stott agrees: “Hell is a grim and dreadful reality.  Let no man deceive you.  Jesus Himself spoke of it.  He called it ‘outer darkness’ because it is an infinite separation from God who is light” [Stott, 73].    There is no need to let sin get this far, so far that we turn our backs on God and we act like we are not committing sin when we are, so far that we know we are sinning and cannot talk to God in prayer.  Many of us have had first-hand experiences where we knew that God was with us, times when we could see His power at work in our lives but I have also had times when I felt so wretched that I could not speak to Him due to the guilt I was experiencing.  I need to own my sin so I will not feel alienated from God.  Stott writes “Until our sins are forgiven, we are exiles, far from our true home.  We have no communion with God.  In Biblical terms, we are ‘lost’ or ‘dead’ through the trespasses and sins which we have committed” [74].

Ok, if we are bound to sin, what are we going to do when it happens?  God can use anything to teach us, even our experiences with sin.  God’s ways are not our ways; He is truly beyond human understanding.  Some of my most important lessons are from healing and restoration brought about by owning up to my sin, repenting from my sin, seeking forgiveness and asking Him to heal me and restore me.  At times like these, my relationship with my Lord has been restored and I feel His love for me.  It says in Romans 5: 8 “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

From my discussion of The Cross of Christ we understand that we have a chance to get right with God and that chance comes through our acceptance of Jesus as our Savior.  That is our reconciliation with Him.  We cannot get “closer” to God without that sacrifice of His Son taking responsibility for our sin [a responsibility that He did not need to take for He was sinless].  Jesus broke down the sin barrier between God and man, that sin barrier that was symbolized in the construction of the Tabernacle and the Temple; the shroud that separated the inner Holy of Holies from the outer Holy Place.  No one could pass into God’s presence except the High Priest, but when Jesus went to the cross, that barrier was torn in two and man could pray directly to God without a High Priest intermediary.

Why would we want to be alienated from our Father when we can have direct access?  It is hard to explain but it may have something with that phrase that I quoted from Reverend Graham: “sin is present all around us” and we get weak and give in to it.  We forget what is important, we get tempted and we don’t have enough mindfulness to stave off bad behaviors. 

When we are reconciled with God and have a relationship, He restores our souls, He brings peace into our lives and we experience the joy of a lifted sin burden, a canceled debt.

Let me ask one simple question.

Who would not want that?

I do…

*Billy Graham died on Feb 21, 2018.  This information was obtained from his newspaper column based on his writings.

  ** from the writings of Billy Graham “God does not take sin lightly”

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Social Comparison: A Waste of Time for the Christian

Social comparison is a term that emerged from the study of social psychology in the 1950’s.  Social comparison is what we do when are trying to get some sort of evaluation of our station in life.  We compare ourselves to others to see how we “stack up.”  Should we do this? Probably not.  When it happens, we discover there are always people who doing more than we are doing, accomplishing more than we are accomplishing, or we think they are more gifted than we are, so why go through all the frustration of comparing ourselves to the “more” people?  Conversely there are always people who are doing less than we are doing.  I used to joke that when I am having a “down day,” I would turn on the Jerry Springer Show where I could find Mr. Springer shining the light on folks who were having a difficult time in their lives [unsure about the paternity of their child, involved with an unfaithful significant other, indulging in some sexual orientation other than heterosexual].  Let’s go no further.  You get the picture.  My joke was at least I was not one of Jerry Springer’s people!  Why be elated because we are above the “low bar” that some people set.

Do Christians indulge in this social comparison thing with other Christians? 

You bet they do…

Here is how it works. 

“Am I where I should be in my walk with Jesus?”

We compare ourselves to people we admire, people who seem to have it all together, people who say they read the Bible all the time, never miss Sunday school or church, volunteer for everything going on at church, are reputed to tithe large amounts of money and most importantly they have a “pious” attitude when they are in the presence of others.  We think they are “super Christians.”  We think we pale in comparison to them and it causes us to question our qualification for even referring to ourselves as Christian.

Then we look around and see individuals who are struggling; they don’t darken the door of church much at all and their problems are well known.  Maybe they have a family member who is dealing with substance abuse.  Maybe they have been accused of criminal activity or possibly they just don’t have enough acting ability to fake “pious.”  They just seem weak in their faith.  So we fall into the trap of judging them as “less than” us.   I once heard a self-righteous friend refer to this “type” of Christian as a CINO [Christian in name only].

Social comparison is very real.  It keeps us from searching for an authentic version of ourselves.  We think we have to copy someone else in order to be real.  We measure our own effectiveness by looking at the accomplishments of others.  If we are capable of buying what others buy, eating what others eat, wearing what others wear, we are ok.    All of us have holes in our soul and instead of trying to be authentic with God, we play games with the many others around us and we copy what they do, even in our walk of faith.

This is such a waste of time.  Only God knows our hearts, and only He knows whether a person has sincerely put their faith in Christ as their Lord and Savior. Jesus warned, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” [Matthew 7:1].  All human beings are capable of doing great good in this world but they are also capable of doing great evil.  Judging others (in my mind) is a great evil. 

Regarding where we are in our walk, since October of 2020 St. John Studies has been a study in extremes.  Beginning in October of 2020, I began commenting on one of my favorite writers John R. W. Stott.  Early in my life as a Christian, I discovered his book Basic Christianity; depending on where a person is in their life, Basic may be perfect for them.  The Cross of Christ is a different matter.  That book is dense with theological discussion as Stott explores the many meanings of the cross for the life of the Christian.  Needless to say, it is not a book that I would have appreciated in my early life as a Christian.  I would have not understood it or appreciated it.

This brings me to this point: what can the readers of this blog get from this discussion of extremes?

Some readers will enjoy the straightforward discussion of the fundamental ideas of the faith that can be seen in Basic Christianity.  I needed that information when I was a seeker.  As a new Christian, I entered a different world and I did not understand all that was happening.  I had little idea about my new commitment and how to move forward with my life.  I was confused about where I was going to get the power to be the person I felt I needed to be.   John Stott broke all of this down in his little book.

Other readers have known The Lord for many years.  They are beyond the beginning stages of their faith commitment.  As the Apostle Paul says, they began with a diet of milk but now they are ready for meat.  They realize that the cross is a multifaceted symbol that is the most significant sign of an ancient act and is relevant today in contemporary faith.  As I am challenged to discuss The Cross of Christ, they are ready for consideration of Stott’s topics and they are ready to understand the book and also my comments.  It really does not matter to me; it is just my prayer that you get something you need, wherever you are.

We are all on the “pathway” of the Christian life and wherever we are, the main point is we are hopefully trying to grow in righteousness.  I use the word righteousness to mean the state of life where we have faith in Jesus Christ and we are growing through that faith.  We cannot be righteous on our own.  The Apostle Paul states “Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin” [Romans 3: 20]. 

As I wrote above about social comparison, I alluded to how we compare ourselves to others in the secular realm and in the realm of faith.  In either area, it can be a fruitless exercise as we come to realize that it does not matter where another person is in their walk of faith.  God knows how authentic a person really is; no one else can know.  We only make guesses.   

But I also want to point out that as we move from The Cross to Basic, we move from Chapter Seven of The Cross that is entitled “The Salvation of Sinners,” summing up what Christ accomplished by His self-sacrifice.  I wrote about Stott’s ideas on reconciliation, that man needed to be reconciled to God through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross.  In Basic we are in Chapter Six entitled “The Consequences of Sin.”  In upcoming weeks, we will explore the price we have to pay when we stray away from God for we know that God takes sin seriously. 

There are consequences for our sinning and they are very real.  Are they any other person’s business?  Not really.  They are between you and God.  We are human.  We know we will sin.  When we do, we know we need to turn to God and confess our sin.  We know He will restore our souls and bring peace and joy into our lives. 

As we accept His gracious mercy, we move forward in life, trying not to repeat our sinful acts. 

That is growth in Christ [not social comparison].

It is between you and God, not you and other humans.

You and God…

That is all…

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The Shrine, The Market, The Law Court and Now, The Home….

On January 6, 2022 I began a discussion of Chapter Seven of John Stott’s The Cross of Christ.  Chapter Seven is entitled “The Salvation of Sinners” and it is the first of three chapters designed to sum up what Christ accomplished by His self-sacrifice.

On January 6, I commented on Stott’s ideas on propitiation, on January 13, I focused on redemption, on the twentieth and twenty-seventh I explained the idea of justification.  Today we come to the last idea on salvation.

The idea of reconciliation.

I think it a bit odd that Stott has used images to explain his ideas;  propitiation is the shrine, redemption is the market, justification is the law court and reconciliation is the home.  These images structure Chapter Seven in the Cross of Christ.

I have not addressed the use of images before but when it comes to reconciliation, the idea of “home” is very useful and some would say appropriate.  People who sell property know the connotation of words, especially the words house and home.  Many words have feelings associated with them, some more than others.  A house connotes a structure, a box that people live in for shelter from the elements.  A home is more than a structure; it is where life occurs, where memories are made, where people go to get comfort not only from the home itself but also from the people who are living in the home.  

Reconciliation is restoration.  After a fight between two people, if there is a restoration of positive feelings between those people we call that reconciliation and they may desire to be in each other’s company (maybe in a home).   Reconciliation can come after a period of alienation, where people are alienated from each other.  As we read the Bible, most theologians would say the Old Testament is the story of man’s alienation from God due to his sinning.   From Genesis (when Adam and Eve introduce sin) to Malachi, God is trying to find a way to reconcile with man.  It is only when Jesus makes His sacrifice do we see some reconciliation.

Stott says that the positive benefits of this reconciliation are overwhelming. 

First of all, man is adopted in the family of God.  Stott calls this “the emergence of a single, new, unified humanity.”  Former enemies [e.g. Jews and Gentiles] are reconciled to God and to one another.  “They are now fellow citizens in God’s Kingdom, brothers and sisters in God’s family.”  Stott writes “This complete equality of Jew and Gentile in the new community is a ‘mystery’ which for centuries had been kept secret but which now God had revealed to the apostles, especially to Paul, the apostle to the Gentile (Eph. 3: 4-6)” [Stott, 192].

Secondly, the reconciliation we can experience due to salvation gives us access.  What that means is we can have what Stott calls “active communication” with God, essentially we can pray directly to Him.  For Jews of Jesus’ time, the act of personal prayer directly to God was unknown.  The chief rabbi in the temple prayed for all the people but people were not encouraged to pray directly to God.  It is only when Jesus died on the cross that the “veil” in the temple was torn from top to bottom which signified that communication between God and man could happen.  Note that it was torn from the top to bottom, not from the bottom to the top as a man would tear it.  Ephesians 3: 12 states “we may approach God with freedom and confidence.”  Hebrews 10: 19-22 says “Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith.”

The third and possibly greatest benefit of reconciliation is man’s chance to become the “righteousness of God”.  When Jesus went to the cross He was punished for our sinning.  In this process man received the gift of standing righteous before God.   I have to admit that this seems too good to be true, but it was necessary for reconciliation.  Sin was/and is the major barrier between God and man and despite God’s many admonitions in the Old Testament; man was never able to control his penchant for sinning.  Are we able to lead sinless lives after we acknowledge God’s effort at reconciliation?  Are we able to turn our backs on sin after we understand Christ’s sacrifice for us?  The answer sadly is no, but God knows we can’t lead sinless lives and He loves us anyway.  He knows we don’t achieve perfection: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” ( Romans 3:23).  I think it is telling that Stott quotes Martin Luther who is writing to a monk who is is distressed about his sinning: “Learn to know Christ and Him crucified.  Learn to sing to Him and say ‘Lord Jesus, you are my righteousness, I am your sin.  You took on You what was mine; You set on me what was Yours.  You became what You were not, that I might become what I was not.”

In many respects man cannot grow in righteousness until there is reconciliation with God.  After that happens, our lives can benefit God here on earth if we follow Him.  Stott says “If God is the author and Christ is the agent, then we are the ambassadors of reconciliation” [198].   God has taken His steps toward us and Jesus has served as the sacrifice in our place but not only do we need to come to be saved, but our human actions can inspire others to come forward also.  It is humbling to think that we are the personal envoys of Jesus Christ but we can be if we try to live a righteous life.   All Christians are called to speak on Jesus’ behalf as He makes His appeal through us.  Stott says “It is remarkable that the same God who worked ‘through Christ’ to achieve the reconciliation now works ‘through us’ to  announce it” [198]. 

As we close our discussion of Chapter Seven we return to those images of the shrine, the market, the law court and the home.   All four images were used to highlight the “substitutionary” sacrifice of Christ.  Romans 3: 25 says “God presented Him as a propitiatory sacrifice, through faith in His blood.”  In Him we have redemption through His blood” [Ephesians 1:7].  “We have now been justified by His blood” [Romans 5: 9] and “You who once were far away have been brought near [i.e. reconciled] through the blood of Christ” [Ephesians 2: 13].  This is wonderful news people, and as God’s witnesses, it is our work to express it to people who need to hear it. 

May God extend His grace to us as we try to do His work.

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Ok I’m Saved but What About My Predilections?

In the post “Justified… ‘Accepting Membership in THE Club’” [January 20, 2022]  I admitted I had more questions about my “new life” so as promised, I will continue discussion of justification in this post. 

By way of review, justification is to be made right with God or as many prefer to say, “to be saved.”  That happened to me as I recount on 1/20/22 but I have also made reference to this event several times in this blog [just type “being saved” on the search bar]. 

After being saved, I had to “reenter” the world which means I had to find a way to operate as a baby Christian in an environment  that was not on the same “wavelength” as me.  I was trying to find my way with new values, new commitments and a newfound love for my Savior.  Others did not have that attitude; in fact, some seemed opposed to the new David.  They were the same; I was the one who had changed.  Family members did not know what to do when I droned on about Jesus.  Friends continued in their habits of behavior even though I was trying to change my habits [more in tune with “Christian” values].  Work continued on with secular interests, not spiritual [college teachers have never been encouraged to elaborate on their faith, except those professors in the Religious Studies Department]. 

And most importantly, I still had my old sinful predilections [what a nice sounding word for something so bad]. 

I write all this to introduce the biggest question I had after I was saved.  What was I to do when I continued sinning?  I was saved but sinning had not gone away.

John Stott* refers to this problem when he writes “We put on Christ’s righteousness like a cloak which conceals our continuing sinfulness….Are you not claiming to be changed when in fact you are not changed?  Is not your doctrine of ‘justification by faith alone’ a thinly disguised free license to go on sinning?” [185].  

I have known many Christians over the years and some don’t worry about this; they answer this concern by responding “once you are saved, you are always saved” no matter what you do.  Others are “saved” and that is the end of their worries about their Christian life.  They don’t seem interested in doing anything better [they are made right with God and that is enough]. However, I have to admit that I don’t know peoples’ hearts; only God does.  These are only my suspicions.

What I am getting at is the idea that If “once saved always saved” is true, does that mean we can live our lives any way we want to? 

My experience tells me that the answer is yes.  Jesus sacrificed Himself for us sinners, knowing that we would sin after we received Him as our Savior, BUT a person who has truly received Christ as his/her Savior will not want to continue their ways of sinning.  Accepting Christ into your life is a transformational experience [you are a new creation in Christ].  “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” [Second Corinthians 5: 17].  When God justifies sinners, He is not declaring them perfect.  He is saying they are righteous [free from the penalty of their law-breaking].  Jesus has borne the penalty for their law-breaking.

IF the transformation is truly a transformation, over time a man or woman will make an effort to live a better life.  Jesus refers to people who have faith in Him as people who bear fruit.  Over time there will be evidence of God working in your life.  The wonderful metaphor of fruit is that God is the vine, we are His branches and when we perform righteous acts, we bear good fruit (visible acts of good work).   Stott cites Titus 2: 14 and 3: 8 that transformed Christians are “eager to do what is good,” eager to devote themselves to good works [i.e. fruit production].  By these signs, we will see evidence of Christian transformation.

This is a trite expression but Christian transformation is “a process.”  It does not happen overnight.  It is naïve to expect instantaneous change from merciless sinner to Godly person.  In real life, we make two steps forward and three steps back but God expects that and Satan wants us to give up, turn our back on God and quit trying to be a better person.  In my experience,  I had a mentor who told me to claim God’s grace, repent as sincerely as you can and get up off the ground [so to speak].  He will forgive you and help you move forward again.  Romans 3: 23 says  “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and we always will; it is in our sin nature [thank you Adam and Eve]. 

Many years ago, I read a Christian author who touched my life with a metaphor that worked to explain things for me.**   He told of his family’s cottage on a lake and how every summer they went to spend time there.  His dad had a chore that had to be performed every summer; rocks needed to be removed off the bank leading down to the lakeshore.  Every summer the rocks that could be seen would be dug up and hauled off.  The problem was after staying away for a year, erosion would reveal new stones as soil washed down the bank; the author’s family would return next summer to see more stones that had to be removed.  The Christian’s life is like that rocky bank.  As we live life, we see things that need fixing, habits that we need to break, problems that need to be addressed.  We are always working to make things better.  We know that we will never get things perfect but we attend to the flaws that need improvement because we have a heart that leads us to do that.  Being saved makes us want to try to do better.  Being saved makes us want to produce fruit.

In my January 20, 2022 post about accepting membership in “THE Club,” I made reference to my Methodist faith and the use of the grace words [prevenient, justifying and sanctifying].  Prevenient means that God loves us and gives us His grace before we make our decision to declare Him our Savior.  Justifying is to be saved.  Sanctifying grace is the path we can take after we accept Christ as our Savior, God transforming our lives into the likeness of Jesus.  He transforms our heart, transforms our actions and transforms our relationships.

If we believe in Him.

If we listen to Him.

If we allow the changes to occur.

There is nothing that says we have to be transformed.  In fact, we can stay just as we are after we are saved.  God will still love us and forgive us our sins.  However many Christians who feel a great love for God are listening to Him as He communicates to us via our Holy Spirit.  He  wants us to “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” [2 Peter 3:18].  We are told in Romans 8: 15 that we are adopted into His family.  Rather than making life decisions to please ourselves we want to make decisions to please God [Second Corinthians 10: 31].

If we are justified in Christ, we have a personal relationship with Jesus and by faith in Him we have a chance to live a better life.  Stott says we are members of the “Messianic community of Jesus.”  If we are in Christ and therefore justified “we are also the children of God and the true (spiritual descendants of Abraham)….this new community—which Christ gave Himself on the cross to create—is eager to do what is good” [Stott, 188-89].  Will we sin?  We do, even after we have come to know Christ, but Christians do not have a desire to persist in sin.  Whenever we do it, we grieve and repent “for the whole tenor of our life is against sin and toward holiness.”***

*From his book The Cross of Christ                                                                               

**I apologize, I will never forget the metaphor but I can’t remember the author and where I got the metaphor.                                                                                                   

***  from  “The Challenge of John” in John Stott’s Through the Bible Through The Year , 158.

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Justified…”Accepting Membership in THE Club”

The Christian “club.”

Every “club” has its own unique language.  I always went to church as a child.  My parents made the effort to take me there.  They took me to Sunday school to learn about Jesus.  I was baptized around the age of ten.  It was expected.  I did it, but I was not in the “club.”

I never received my membership in the Christian “club” until I was born again…

Justified.

I was “justified” when I was forty-seven.  I have written about being born again many times on this blog.  It was  dramatic.  Being dramatic, it is memorable.  It was my initiation into the Christian “club.”

I am seventy now and I am well-versed in the language of Christianity.  Over the years, I have made an effort to learn the “lingo” because I just love to learn.  I like studying the Bible, reading about the Christian life, and I still teach [from full-time teaching at a college in 2014 to teaching an adult Sunday school class today].  Most of my friends are Christians so I hang around folks who speak Christian language.  I am very active in a Methodist church.  I have kept my faith in God these past twenty-four years.  John R. W. Stott writes about “The Salvation of Sinners” in chapter 7 of his book The Cross of Christ saying “the salvation of Christ is illustrated by the vivid imagery of terms like propitiation, redemption, justification and reconciliation.”

I have commented on propitiation and redemption.  Today’s post will be a discussion of Stott’s ideas and my ideas about justification.

Another word for justification among evangelical Christian circles is the word “saved.”  When someone “finds Jesus” they are “made right with God.”  They “come to the altar” and confess their sins.  Their sins are wiped away as God extends His grace to them; they emerge from the experience as a “babe in Christ,” one who must be nurtured in their new-found faith so they will turn from the destructive nature of life [sinning] to what is good [a life in Christ].* 

When I “emerged” from my justifying moment I went back to my Methodist church and I began to learn that Methodist theologians like to toss around terms like “prevenient grace,” “justifying grace” and “sanctifying grace.”  Of course I did not know what those terms meant.  I was a babe in Christ.  I just knew that something had happened to me and I felt I was on the road to a new life but I certainly did not know the terminology of Christian living.

Justification or justifying grace was hard for me to grasp until one day I had someone explain justification as being made “right” with God, like what a computer does to the margins of writing when a writer composes on the screen.  The margins are justified, or made right.  Everyone has a way of understanding and that was mine.  I finally had a metaphor for justification; I understood it.

But my questions about justification did not just stop there.

How did I deserve to be justified?  Why would God save me?  What had I done to deserve this “new life”? 

Christians told me, you did nothing to deserve being saved.  God saved you because He loves you; He has always loved you even though you may not have loved Him [I hadn’t].  That revelation was hard to deal with; in our world of payment upon receipt, I could not understand “free”.

Now I felt that I owed Him something.  He had given me something, something I did not deserve so He must expect me to repay Him.

Ephesians 2: 8-9 “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

I encountered Christians who did not seem to understand this Scripture.  Their orientation was working to be good, working to repay God, working to earn their future spot in heaven.  I encountered another term—“legalistic.”  I began to try to figure out that word since more mature Christians seemed to toss it around so much regarding these “workers.”  A life in Christ is not a competition, where we all try to compile as many Godly deeds as we can.  When we get together, the one with the longest list of Godly deeds wins the title of Brother/Sister Super Christian.  It does not work that way.  It is ludicrous to think we can work to repay God for His grace.  We did not deserve it; He gave it to us.  We should just be thankful.

I encountered “babes in Christ” like me who were struggling with their newfound experiences.  They knew that their internal life had changed but when they looked around them, the world had not changed.  “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—His good, pleasing and perfect will” [Romans 12: 2].  I felt called to live a different life, a better life, a life more dedicated to Christian values, but I found myself surrounded by people who thought I had lost my mind.  I was in love with Jesus, but sadly I found myself in the minority in my world.  I knew I had to change my ways but old temptations were still in my life.  I felt the pull to return to the mistakes of the past.  Those were the mistakes that led me to the altar, as I tried to give them to God.  He forgave me and I emerged from my experience washed clean of my sins.  Old habits are hard to break; new habits are not in place.  New language is not in place; old words are still ingrained in one’s vocabulary.

I heard about the “old man.”  That expression became a way to describe the sinful habits that still have a hold on us.  They don’t go away immediately when we are saved.  They are still there.  One Christian mentor told me we stuff “the old man” in a bag and carry him on our backs; at times the old man escapes from the bag and we find ourselves falling back into sin.  That is normal.  That is to be expected.  It is a common experience among babes in Christ.   I needed that bit of wisdom; I needed that metaphor to help me understand what I was going through.  I needed to begin to understand that if I could hold onto my faith that I was no longer in this world; I belonged to another world.  Jesus told Pontius Pilate that “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world” [John 18: 36]. 

I began to understand that when I was justified I became a member of God’s kingdom, which is “not of this world.” I began to realize that my new citizenship is in heaven. “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ” [Philippians 3: 20].   It says in Titus 3: 7 “so that, having been justified by His grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life.”

John Stott describes justification in these words “When God justifies sinners, He is not declaring bad people to be good, or saying that they are not sinners after all; He is pronouncing them legally righteous, free from the liability of the broken law, because He himself in His Son has borne the penalty of their law breaking.”

The journey of the Christian life begins with justification.

Nicodemus (the well-known Pharisee) questioned Jesus about what a man must do to be close to God and Jesus replied, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God”  [John 3: 3].

Justification is the start of the Christian life, but it only begins there.  There are many more things to happen in a life with Christ.

I had many more questions about justification and my new life.

(“More Questions” about justification to be continued in next week’s post)

*Asterisks denote common Christian idioms.

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