Tag Archives: grace

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The reason is ‘Because’!

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A Righteousness by Faith #33: The reason is ‘Because’!

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death. Romans 8:1-2

I looked back to the first blog of this series and I find we are back to where we started. It was about the picture of the t-shirt which declares: “I am righteous! Even if I . . .” 1) habitually lie; 2) get drunk regularly; 3) cuss like a sailor; 4) sleep around with any willing partner—you get the drift.

Does God’s ‘no condemnation’ mean it doesn’t matter how we live? Is this a get-out-of-jail-free card? A free pass to engage in whatever behavior we-know-we-shouldn’t-but-do-anyway without any consequences?

This very belief was verbalized by a woman who came to me to explain why she was abandoning her marriage. She had found someone who she felt cared more deeply about her and her emotional needs. As I pointed to the damage her decision would bring to her personally and to her relationship with God, she admitted that I was right. But, she added, though they were doing wrong, they would get married after her divorce was final and then come back to church, because God was supposed to forgive them.

What she so boldly expressed is the false belief in the passivity of God. That He spends His days waiting around to forgive us again with a kind of a sorrowful expression on his face, wishing that we would take righteousness seriously. And because God is trapped by His promise to forgive us—it’s in the contract!—we can count on this ongoing ‘no condemnation’ clause to allow us freedom to live any way we want, as long as we tack on an “I’m sorry,” when we are done sinning.

‘No condemnation’ goes much deeper than that. And it is wrapped up in the “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

If you have been fuzzy in your thinking about ‘no condemnation’, here are three realities you need:

  1. God is active. He is not waiting for us to repent, to see the error of our ways, all the while wringing His hands. He has made a new covenant with us, writing His law on our hearts and minds. Not stopping there, He gave us His Spirit to set us free.

Know this. At any moment, God is either orchestrating your transformation through His Spirit or actively pushing you towards the pit so you will look up and acknowledge His right to reign over you. He is never a passive bystander in your life. You are going to be transformed because. You can go willingly or kicking and screaming, but you will go—because you belong to Him.

  1. No one is righteous. Everyone has to be rescued from the law of sin and death. No one is capable of becoming righteous in their own strength. Our flesh wants us to give in and wallow all over again in stuff that messes up our lives. So finger pointing and a judgmental attitude is not just a waste of time, it is counterproductive. As people bitten by the same bug, we should restore others with the compassion born of, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.”

In Romans 7, Paul shows us that even the props we use to stave off sin reveal us as frauds. The Jewish members of the Roman church thought they were making a stand for righteousness by expecting everyone to keep the Law. What Paul exposed through his own miserable run at this was that the law they were really living out was the law of sin and death. To become the righteous people they wanted to be would be by the same ‘because’ as their Gentile co-believers.

  1. God is taking the long view of our transformation by giving us the Spirit. Not one of us has surrendered everything in a day, a week or even in a year. Righteousness by faith is a life-long journey, during which we are led by the Spirit to uncover the hidden secrets of our souls and to find how hard it is to give them up to God, even though He already knew about them all along.

But here is the good news. The ‘no condemnation’ of the ‘because’ actually means we will never be lost again. God placed us in Christ Jesus, making covenant with us all the while knowing that we will regularly fail to surrender; will turn to sin for comfort; will wander. Giving us the Spirit means that God committed Himself to make us righteous because of our inability to be righteous no matter how hard we try. And when He is done with us, we will find ourselves conformed to the image of Jesus (Romans 8:29).

-Steve Smith


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What are ya thinkin ?

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Now if we have died with Christ, we believe that we will also live with him. We know that Christ, being raised from the dead, will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him. For the death he died he died to sin, once for all, but the life he lives he lives to God. So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. Romans 6:8-11

What our minds focus on matters in our faith journey. When God drew us to Jesus, our minds were not healthy places. Like all people who have been affected by the Fall, we all accumulated a pack of lies that we called ‘truth.’ Some of these lies came from our futile beliefs that we could reign over our own lives better than the Father who created us. Some of them came from the enemy, who continually misrepresents God to us. Our whole belief system had to be shattered by God—just to bring us to faith.

Yet lies die a long death. All of us still harbor thoughts that need to be transformed by the renewing of our minds. And one of those lies is about our freedom from sin. Satan would have us continue to believe we are merely forgiven—which is good news in itself—but still doomed to live out a miserable life, sinning as regularly as those who do not believe. I have met believers who obsess over this. They are overwhelmed with this lie. They talk desperately about wanting to stop sinning, about how much they are either disappointing God or how expectant of His judgment they are.

But there is no disappointment. There is no judgment. Paul earlier in Romans tells us that because we are in Christ, we have not only died with Christ, we get to live with him as well. He not only lives in us—we also get to live his life. —The life of the person who was tempted in every way we are, yet never gave in to sin (Hebrews 4:15). —Our example, in whose steps we should follow (1 Peter 2:21).

Going forward, we need to ‘reckon’ ourselves dead to sin and alive to God. I grew up with the word ‘reckon,’ which in this version is translated ‘consider.’ But the older word, used in earlier translations, makes a better point. ‘Reckon’ was used in the financial world, where you reckoned up the books. In other words, you gave an account of what you had received. So when Paul says ‘reckon yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus,” he speaks of what is real, true. You have received this from God by faith. You can count on it to be true for you, no matter how convincing the lie of the enemy seems.

Paul builds on this truth. In verse 12, he urges us to refuse to let sin control our choices. You might be wondering how this works. This is possible because the Spirit is leading us. He empowers our minds to realize that we do not need to sin.

Instead, we are to ‘offer’, which is another word for surrender, every part of ourselves to God. I know this sounds to some as a simplistic solution for resisting sin, but I find that it is the only thing that works for me. I tried resisting sin and it beat me every time. I would find myself crushed by my lack of control and embarrassed that others would find out. But then I finally humbled myself and started surrendering whenever temptation was putting pressure on me. I would say “God, I can’t beat this. Help! Take charge!” I have to admit some of my prayers were very weak. But I leaned into Him and God rescued me every time.

This is what reckoning yourself dead to sin is all about. You have received grace from God into your account’s plus column. Sin has been removed as your master. It no longer has power over you. If you believe it still does, you are believing a lie. Begin to think this way and you will live out the freedom you already have. Don’t make it complex. It’s all a matter of trust which focuses on God and not on yourself.

 


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Becoming Fit

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A Righteousness by Faith #28: Becoming Fit

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us. Romans 5:1-5

I was thinking this week about Shia Labeouf and Justin Bieber as brothers in Christ. They have both professed faith in Jesus in the last several years. It is no stretch to say that they are not the poster children that we wish they were for the coming generation of believers. Why can’t they be more like Steph Curry or Tim Tebow?

And there, in a nutshell, is the situation that Paul is addressing in his letter to the Roman church. It’s the Kiss Me Kate song sung by many a frustrated believer to the immature—“Why can’t you behave? Oh, why can’t you behave? After all the things you told me and the promises that you gave—oh, why can’t you behave?”

Their names popped into my head as I processed what Paul means by ‘this grace in which we now stand.’ Grace, he says, is what we have gained access to when we put our faith in Jesus. But what is it exactly? John Barclay whose extensive work, Paul and the Gift, researched how this word was used by various people using this word in Paul’s time. Grace, he noted, comes from a root word meaning gift. If we think of God as the giver, then grace is God’s gift to us—revealed in the passion of Jesus, who triumphed over sin and death.

Gift giving in the first century had serious cultural implications. For most of the Roman world, giving gifts was a way of bestowing favor and gaining allegiance from those who could come to your aid in times of trouble, whether you needed a militia or a loan. If you were smart and adept, you gave to people who could give back. Gifts like these were called ‘congruent’—given to people that were in harmony with your beliefs and worthy of receiving your gift.

Here is the difference between the various cultures Paul lived in—Roman and Jewish—and his understanding of God’s gift. God gave grace to people who had no claim on Him, could not pay Him back and could barely hold themselves together behaviorally. Think of the woman at the well. Think of Zacchaeus. Think of Peter, John, and James. Think about yourself! God giving us grace was incongruent—a gift to the ridiculous and unworthy.

This reality was so different from the Jewish believers’ thinking about God’s gift. God who had made a covenant with them through Moses. For them, God’s blessings went to the obedient and curses went to the unfaithful. It was all right there in the Law. It was clear to them that God intended the Gentiles to live under this kind of righteousness. Otherwise, they just could not be part of the covenant people.

But incongruent grace is the reality of the new covenant. This covenant revealed that the believing Gentiles had the same righteousness by faith as the believing Jews had, even if they were still behavioral problems in the eyes of their siblings.

What does this mean for the Shias and Justins? Grace is the reason for hope. Why? Because grace is more than an incongruent gift. Grace accomplishes all that God gave it for. His design in saving anyone was not to allow them to languish in their mess, but to conform them to the likeness of Jesus. Grace is Paul’s shorthand for the empowering work of God by the Spirit in His people to do for them what they cannot do for themselves.

Grace is what Shia and Justin—and we—now stand in. None of us are finished products yet. By grace, God is at work stripping away the effects of the Fall on us. Paul sees this as a lifelong journey—“We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.” For Paul, suffering is God’s pruning process. It produces perseverance—trust in God’s faithfulness to His promises even when we cannot foresee the outcome. As we persevere, the Spirit shapes our character so that it aligns with the righteousness of God. And so we come full circle back to hope. God does all this in us because of His glory.

If you ever wonder how anyone is ever going to become fit to live the faith life, this is it. This is the journey everyone is on. Its beginning and end have already been finished by God because He is committed to His own glory. You, Shia, Justin, along with everyone who has put their faith in Jesus will become righteous because it is His will to make you righteous and His grace makes it happen.

-Steve Smith


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Grace and Truth revisited

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The Transformational Gospel of Jesus #6: Grace and Truth Revisited

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. John 1:14

Over the past couple of decades, a number of scholars have again tried to decipher the historic Jesus. The book versions of their conclusions include portraying Jesus as an apocalyptic prophet, charismatic healer, cynic, philosopher, Jewish Messiah, and prophet of social change— none of which has generated strong scholarly agreement. Somehow, each portrait misses the essence of Jesus, whose death and resurrection changed the world.

But one eyewitness to the historic life of Jesus shared a personal understanding of him. The apostle John introduces Jesus as the Word becoming human, full of grace and truth. Why is this portrait so powerful for those who know Jesus even to this day?

This picture of Jesus is all about why he is the good news. He is the God-Man. His existence did not start with the virgin birth, but before eternity with God—as God. Yet he was born within time, at the right time, to bring God near to those whose whole existence was to be God’s chosen people, then to us who were—as Paul put it in Ephesians 2—far away. And it was what Jesus exuded that makes this statement so much more remarkable. He was full of grace and truth.

Somewhere along the way from the first century to today, the meaning of grace got hijacked. If you read comments on this verse, you will find teachers referring to this as an indication of Jesus being gracious. Others suggest that this means Jesus is merciful, forgiving and compassionate. Jesus is certainly all this and more, but that is not what grace meant to the earliest church.

To them, grace is a word referring to the empowering work of God. Paul shares the conclusion of his thorn-in-the-flesh moment with this bit of conversation with the Father: “But He 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.” (Corinthians 12:9) In other words, grace was about God exercising His power in Paul’s life to accomplish much through him despite his ‘thorn.’

When we weaken the meaning of grace, we miss the point of the word ‘truth.’ Jesus being full of truth was more than a comment on one of his virtues—like he was a truthful person. Truth is about the whole gamut of what Jesus reveals. As the Word, he reveals the truth about God. His hearers thought they knew God, thought they spoke for God, but were dead wrong about God and didn’t know it until Jesus showed up as God.

But the truth of Jesus reveals even more. As the last Adam, he reveals the truth about man. We had no idea what the image of God in Adam was supposed to look like until Jesus lived this out in front of us. Without sin. Intimate with the Father. So obedient as to be willing to lay down his life for the sins of the world.

The grace and truth of Jesus continues to transform the world. As we put our faith in him, we are transformed by the empowering work of the Spirit from the broken people we were (grace) back to the people we were created to be before the Fall, hungering again for the reign of God over our lives (truth). If I have to choose a portrait of Jesus, John’s is the one that catches his essence.

Steve Smith


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Spiritual Transformation Part 3 – Why the Obedience Model Doesn’t Work

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So back to the question: Why do we choose pathways that lead us to being much less than we could be, pathways that lead us to destruction?

There is not one among us who does not, on our best days, want our lives to line up with the life God has promised us in Jesus. But we find that we are trapped in the same vicious cycle that Paul speaks about in Romans 7. We discover that we cannot do the things we want to do and do what we hate with an astonishing regularity that is wrenching. Sin permeates us and seems to resist our commitment to change and thwart our best efforts to be obedient. This is never clearer in us than when we seek to address unfinished business, which always has deep connection to this sin out of which we are being rescued.

There is a difference between change and transformation. Most people are told they need to change from the time they are old enough to take responsibility for their actions. And so most of us try to change when we are unhappy with some aspect of ourselves. This can be an effective strategy if the change sought is within our reach. For example, we can change our negative attitude towards something, like school or work or a person, by practicing positive thinking techniques. We can learn to like what we did not like. We can eat that broccoli. We can discipline ourselves from bad habits if we decide fitting in with the rest of the world outweighs being excluded. These changes are not necessarily easy, but can be achieved. We call this kind of change ‘reformation.’ We become re-formed characters. The root of reformation is truth – that the change will bring us to a better life if we will exercise our personal willpower. The emphasis is on the ‘if’ because many people live life like the pledge of the Men’s Club on the Red Green show: “I am a man and I can change…if I have to…I guess.”

This is the part of the obedience model we all understand. And when we are not speaking of unfinished business, we are pretty much on our game in the obedience realm. We can change and adopt good habits. Performing a number of the religious requirements can be within our reach. We can be ‘obedient’ in dealing with stuff that does not have its hooks in our soul and helps us fit into our community. For example, I have never used alcohol. So obeying the biblical directive not to become a drunkard – I can handle that hands down. In addition, I have never killed anyone and am not currently planning to, even though there are people in my world that really tick me off. So it appears that I have won the obedience game once more.

But here I run into the truth about the limits of obedience. Jesus put his finger on this in Matthew 5:21-23. He ups the obedience bar. He reveals that the commandment, ‘Do not murder’ includes the probability that you are murdering people by your anger. Count me among those deserving death row. I was an angry man for many years and figuratively left dead bodies in my wake all the time. And if that wasn’t enough failure, Jesus ends his insightful look at the Law with, ‘Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.’ (Matthew 5:48) How will you and I ever achieve that by the obedience model?

The answer is in the promise of deep inner transformation by God. Transformation is different in that its power source comes from outside us. It addresses the parts of us that are unchangeable by the exercise of our personal willpower. For example, when I was an angry man, I could, by working at it, control my yelling at my wife. I could go for a walk. I could do something physical like chopping wood to drain off the anger. I could use anger management methods and reroute the anger. But I found that I could not stop being angry. It was beyond my ability to change. I needed power from outside of myself to become a peace-filled man. This is what transformation is about. It is also rooted in truth – that God has called us into a relationship with Him that will bring us to a better kind of life. But in this case, the power source is the empowered presence of God in my life. A shorthand for the difference between these two is:

Reformation = Truth plus trusting in your own strength.
Transformation = Truth plus trusting in God’s strength.

But how do we get there? One of the dividing issues for those who follow Jesus well comes down to how we understand grace and mercy. I find that even many teachers I respect have difficulty making the distinction clear between the two. Because we use these words almost synonymously, one can get the impression mercy and grace are the same. “Have some grace on that person” we say when we mean ‘mercy.’ Yet in Hebrews 4:16, the writer clearly sees the two as different gifts from God. We ‘receive mercy and obtain grace’ for our time of need. This difference is our lifeline to the life Jesus promised.
Mercy happens when God withholds judgment that we deserve. And do we ever deserve justice. Everyday. Often. Without end. But for those who belong to Jesus, there is now no condemnation (Romans 8:1). This is where God meets us in our wretchedness and makes it possible for us to come back. We prodigals would never be able to return to our Father if He did not open His arms to us.

Grace is different from mercy. Grace is about God’s empowering presence in us in the person of the Holy Spirit to transform us from what we were, to conform us to the image of Jesus. Grace is how God does in me what I cannot do in myself no matter how hard I try. You can see this in the latter half of 1 John 1:9. As we confess our sins, God is faithful and just to forgive our sins (mercy) and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness (grace). The forgiving and the cleansing are diverse works of God in our lives, both absolutely necessary and yet different. Grace is not dependent on our obedience, but enables our obedience as we trust Him.

Chew on these questions for a while. Do I feel safe enough to ask God to do a ruthless search in my life? (Psalm 139:23) Am I at a place where I trust Him enough to allow His mercy and grace to address my unfinished business?

 


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