Tag Archives: spiritual transformation

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Why Do Obedient Christians Still Fail?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 3: Why Do Obedient Christians Still Fail?

Is your church focused on teaching people how to deal with their symptoms OR, to deal with their unfinished business? If you asked me when I was part of the reformational church what I was learning about my inner mess, I would have said that they were nailing me. They were putting their finger on every symptom, every sinful flaw, every wayward tendency in me. They offered me a place of repentance and were willing to help me through accountability and by prayer.

But they never got down to asking where these symptoms were coming from. Nor were they showing me how to be healed and delivered from them—so I wasn’t.

Many biblical churches fail to disciple believers to look deep enough. We all know the story of the Fall of Adam and Eve. We learned that this was the genesis of our separation from God. We also know the gospel is the cure—the bridge over which God, in mercy, brought us back from our self-imposed exile. But the often overlooked consequences of the Fall still beckon each of us to personal destruction. We cannot by our own strength close our ears to their siren song because they are rooted in our hearts.

The first of these consequences is the hurts we have accumulated from living in a world where everyone has been affected by the Fall. As each of us lives our unconscious version of being god—determining what is good or evil for ourselves—our decisions inflict pain on the lives of others around us. These blows rock those we love—or don’t love—and act as a painful bone spur in their souls. Those people do it back to us as well. And none of it heals with time. Right now, you are possibly unaware of the multiple hurts guiding your life decisions.

The other consequence in your heart is sin living in you. Paul talks about this disconcerting truth in Romans 7. He is confused about why he does not do the good he wishes, instead doing stuff he’d be ashamed for his mother to find out about. When he sorts out the cause of his addictive behaviors, he finds his choices are coming from sin in him. Paul uses his own experience to explain why all believers continue to struggle with obedience. We all have sin present in us.

Here is the outcome of the presence of hurt and sin in our hearts. We were not created to live with pain. Therefore, when we hurt, we look for comfort. Sin offers an emotional release from the pain, so we choose it over being healed from the pain by God (remember, this is the result of our personal godhood myth). We do this unconsciously when we are young, but as we age, we can be very deliberate about this choice. The outcome is that our hurt and our sin choice bond together, becoming inseparable in terms of how we live. This bonding produces the destructive outward actions or symptoms that everyone can see.

I grew up in the reformational church. They were all about obedience to rules. They recognized that these symptoms were destructive. They preached hard against these symptoms, calling the symptoms out for what they were. People “Amen’ed” this kind of preaching.

What I and others who grew up in a reformational environment experienced was hopelessness. We lacked hope we would ever really do much more than manage these symptoms. One young disciple I know pushed back at his pastor with, “I sense you are saying that not only are we required to follow Christ’s commands, we are obligated to do them perfectly even though we don’t. We aren’t commanded to try really hard. We are told to live a life worthy of the Gospel. I feel like you’re pressing me to repent of some sin that I’m not aware of, and to start getting my act together ‘or else.’” He ended up leaving this church in despair of ever being able to be obedient enough for God.

Churches without a culture of transformation are, lamentably, a culture of disappointment and quiet desperation. They teach the biblical truths of how God has designed His people to live. They challenge people to reform—to stop acting out the symptoms and start acting on these truths until they reform the pattern of their lives. And so often that is what people in these churches do—they put on an act.

Transformational churches seek to address the root issues of believers’ unfinished business. They do this not just through sermons, but by discipling people to pursue intimacy with God so that their inside issues will be addressed by Him through the empowering presence of the Spirit. They counsel people that it is their unfinished business, not their symptoms that is wreaking havoc with their lives, their marriages, their children, their future. Transformational churches have a culture that communicates that believers are changed from the inside out by the Spirit instead of by modifying their behavior. This is the good news of the gospel, that where the Spirit of the Lord is, people are being set free (2 Corinthians 3:17).


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Is Your Church Reforming or Transforming?

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Two Kinds of Churches Part 2: Is Your Church Reforming or Transforming?

There’s a big push among North American churches to be transformative because leaders realize how spiritually impoverished the country has become. Both newly started and established churches are adopting the adjective ‘transformational’ as part of their current label: “We are a transformational church.” “We exist to transform people.” “We exist to bring transformation to our community.” Conferences are convened and seminars are offered to teach churches how they can have a transformational impact on their neighborhood. “And after all,” we might think, “where there is all this smoke, there must be fire.”

Or is it just smoke and mirrors? Maybe it’s just a lot of talk. You cannot have transformational churches if they are not producing transforming disciples. If you consider the kind of disciples being produced, it is not hard to see that transformation may not be what many churches actually are pursuing.

There are two kinds of churches. One is the reformational church, where people are taught God’s truth and encouraged to obey it without being taught how the Spirit, who is in them, is empowering their obedience. These kinds of churches present a reform-yourself-into-the-image-of-Jesus approach, which puts the entire obligation on the believer to be obedient.

In contrast, a truly transformational church, while teaching God’s truth, knows and teaches that no one can obey God in their own strength. This is why God gave the Spirit to everyone who puts their faith in Jesus. It is by his empowering presence that believers are conformed into the likeness of God’s Son. Because of our inability to be good for God in our own strength, transformational churches disciple people to keep in step with the Spirit—to surrender to his work.

All churches have the potential to be transformational because of the presence of the Spirit. But regrettably, they don’t necessarily focus their teaching and discipleship with this in mind.

Transformation is the practical application of this gospel we proclaim—that God sent Jesus to die and return to life in order to restore us who put our faith in him back to the persons we were created to be. Paul said this eloquently in Romans 8:29. “For those God foreknew He also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of His Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers.” Paul’s point is that Jesus is the second Adam—completely human in the way that was lost when Adam and Eve chose the lie of the enemy over the truth of God. Though the effects of the Fall in Genesis 3 were potent, the gospel is more potent still. No one who humbles themselves before God and receives what He offers should remain broken, rebellious, deceived, confused and soul sick. Instead, we are becoming the person we were created to be all along. We progressively become like Jesus. The topper to all of this is that God already planned to do this in every believers’ life and whatever He has planned, He will do—whether we go willingly or kicking and screaming.

The temptation at this point is to present a superlative description of the ideal transformational church. But the truth is that transformational churches are just as messy as any other living church body. If you look closely into one you will see lots of people making bad personal choices. You will see people who need restoration. You will see the mud that was thrown at others recently. These churches attract a lot of ‘extra mercy’ required people. The sinful nature shows up. Transformational churches are full of people who have a long way to go before they ‘reflect God’s glory with unveiled faces’.

Consider the Corinth church. In his two letters, Paul writes some of his most stirring transformational words—“by the grace of God I am what I am.”—“and we are being transformed into his likeness with ever increasing glory.”—“where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.”—“But He said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”—to a church that was full of factions and doctrinal confusion. Packed with believers who were taking each other to court and others having to be told that their freedom in Christ doesn’t stretch to cover having sex with temple prostitutes! Where the church bumper sticker might have proclaimed “I have the right to do anything!” Corinth was a transformational church in process, not a finished product.

If Corinth can be described as a transformational church, can’t it be argued that all churches are transformational? That’s a pretty good question, because ‘transformational’ is the trendy word for the church today.

In practice, many churches essentially follow a reformational model. In the reformational model church, people are encouraged to be submissive to Jesus and live out the Christian life laid out in the Bible. These churches—and they are legion—emphasize personal obedience and sincere effort, which has a strong flavor of rightness about it, but misleads people away from the essential core of the gospel as Paul characterizes it in Romans chapter 8. The gospel is not just about obedience. It includes a core change that takes place in us by the Spirit. We become like Jesus, demonstrating his character. Obedience is a by-product of that.

So is your church teaching people to reform or to be transformed?

-Dr. Steve Smith

 


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Who’s Minding Your Mind?

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A Righteousness by Faith #35: Who’s minding your mind?

The mind governed by the flesh is death, but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace. Romans 8:6

Something has happened to you because of righteousness by faith. You think differently. Your mind has begun—and will continue—to line up with what God wants for you, which is life and peace.

It is so tempting to read serenity into this statement about the mind. So many people are looking for peace of mind in their harried and harassed world. Ideas like safe places, positive thoughts or mind vacations express our longing to escape the twin demons of anxiety and fear so we can relax and breathe.

But this word picture in Romans goes much deeper than just a temporary reduction of your personal angst. It tells you that what controls your mind has changed: that you are being guided toward life and peace by the Spirit. That no matter what your world throws at you, you will be progressively becoming whole. And you will see this because the Spirit has been given to you.

The word ‘flesh’ depicts what it means to be outside of the new covenant God offers people through Jesus. It includes both those who had no religion and those that did. Both the Jewish and Gentile believers in Rome at one time lived under the governance of the flesh. So whatever their minds had guided them to do—whether to live in strict adherence to the holy law or revel in a hedonistic life—they had been living out death.

This is what Paul means by “the mind governed by the flesh is death.” It’s not about thinking about death all day, picturing tombstones and caskets in your mind. The mind controlled by the flesh means that a person is trying to live out his or her life on their own terms, believing that what they choose to do gives them significance. They are playing out the godhood myth of the Fall: “We can reign over our own lives. We can make the decisions that will shape our world and make our mark in it!”

The lie of this slogan wears thin in time. All that people gain from doing their own thing this side of the grave is temporary honors, fleeting satisfaction, but nothing that smacks of eternal glory. Everything that people pursue to give their lives meaning is, in the words of The Preacher in Ecclesiastes, ‘vanity.’ You think getting what the flesh has put into your mind is going to make your life worth it all—like that once in a lifetime vacation or seeing a statue built in your honor. But when you have it, it does nothing eternal for you. It has filled a little of your earthly journey’s time, but when you are gone, you leave it all behind.

Listen to how the Preacher of Ecclesiastes ends his book on this note—‘seek the Lord while you are young, before the days of troubles come.’ Like Paul, he learned that security and finding wholeness in life is rooted in living with God in charge of your choices and life direction.

But unlike the Preacher, Paul—and you—live on the other side of the resurrection. You have the Spirit, which is God’s empowering presence within you. When you were in the flesh, you were convinced in your mind that you could make a difference. Now you know the truth. The goodness of life and peace are had by those whose minds are under God’s reign, who now live in the relationship that all humans were made for. Your significance is not found in the things you do, the things you produce, or even the exemplary life you live. By the Spirit, you now are able to live out the image of God in which you were created. When you go to work, you bring God’s reign with you. When you gather with your family, His reign shapes your home life and fills it with His love. When you are tempted by the lies of the enemy, your mind can say ‘No’ to ungodliness and worldly passions, and live a self-controlled, upright and godly life in this present age because your mind is governed by the Spirit.

-Steve Smith


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Expecting condemnation?

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A Righteousness by Faith #32: Expecting condemnation?

Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus . . . Romans 8:1

No other verse of Scripture, apart from John 3:16, has changed my life as much as this one. I was still in the early days of my transformational journey with God when Romans 8 began to become meaningful to me. Already in ministry for two years, I had been on a rollercoaster ride of trying hard to be good for God and sliding back down into the pit of despair as I failed again. I knew little to nothing about the empowering work of the Spirit. And even had I known it, I was unsure about God. Still expectant of His righteous judgment, knowing that I deserved it. Afraid that I would be publicly exposed as the failure I was.

All the false things I thought about God not only influenced how I pastored people, they kept me from becoming free. Those thoughts were like virtual reality glasses, making me think that life defined by the enemy was real.

Then one day I realized that I could not go on living a double life ‘spiritual’ on the outside and dark on the inside. In my first moment of honest humility, I prayed, “Lord, unless you take charge of my life, nothing eternal is going to come out of it.” Although I did not know where that prayer would lead me, God understood its meaning better than I. I have been on that journey now for 33 years, some of which has been very painful as God stripped away and pruned stuff out of my life that I was content to live with. At all times, God has guided me with His infinite kindness.

I found as I started on this journey I had a lot to learn about how much I needed the Spirit to empower my obedience. I was like the parachutist who kept insisting he could jump out at 3000 feet without a chute and land safely. I would jump out to do something for God or resist sin or grapple in spiritual warfare, only to crash and burn over and over again. And then I would be embarrassed.

This brings me to Romans 8:1. I would say to God, “I’m sorry. I failed again to be good for you.” And the Father would reply, “I knew you’d never succeed without my power. You’re forgiven. Go forward by trusting the Spirit.” And it was through this all too frequent conversation with God that I began to learn what Paul meant in saying that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. You see, I was raised in the church and had seen plenty of condemnation. Shame and guilt were the tools used for keeping believers on the straight and narrow. Only they didn’t work.

Study Jesus’ life. You’ll see him actively forgiving and restoring people. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more,” to the woman caught in adultery. “Peter, do you love me more than these. Feed my sheep,” to an insider who had denied him at a crucial moment. “Father forgive them, because they do not know what they are doing,” about those nailing him to the cross.

‘No condemnation’ is about forgiveness. About how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ’s love for me. About how forgiving is the Father towards me and those who belong to Him. Consider Jesus’ exchange with Peter in Matthew 18. “How many times should I forgive someone? A (generous) seven times?” to which Jesus countered, “Not seven but seventy times seven times!” meaning every time someone asked for forgiveness, give it. Now where did Jesus come up with such a standard? —From his Father. Jesus could not have upped the ante so high if God did not practice it Himself.

We know God does practice this because we see it in Jesus while he lived as God among us. Since Jesus told us that when we see him, we see the Father, I began to get an inkling of how deep this God’s ‘no condemnation’ ran.

And it ran deeper than I thought.

More to come…

-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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Why we don’t have to live with shame

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A Righteousness by Faith #29: Why we don’t have to live with shame

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 5:5

Few of you who read this have not experienced a sense of shame sometime in your life. You may live with it every day, for that matter, always feeling disappointed with the person you are. You never will get it right. You will always fall short. Even your successes are short lived moments of happiness followed by gnawing awareness that you will never measure up.

What makes this worse for us is the lie that God joins us in this ritual of self-censure. He doesn’t, but a lot of us think He does. Why is God’s view of us so different from our own?

Partly because we view ourselves through the lens of the Fall instead of the Creation. We are a mess. We see our mess. We focus on our mess. We magnify our mess. Then we feel overwhelmed by our messiness.

Some teachers, seeking to restore some balance to our inner peace, tell us that God believes in us, so we can believe in ourselves. But this is not the hope of which Paul is reminding us in this passage. Hope does not put us to shame because it is rooted in God’s glory, not ours. Nothing we essentially are is the product of the Fall. God created us. Not with the left over parts that He found in the box after assembling everything else. He made us in His image. He put His personal stamp on us. We were made to reflect His glory from the outset.

What’s more, God does not believe in you or me. We will mess up because we have been affected by the Fall. We cannot be trusted to hold it together long enough to limp into eternity. No, God believes in Himself and what He is able to do through the Spirit in our lives. This is the hope which is drawing us toward living out a righteousness by faith.

Paul wanted the Roman church to understand this truth. What held Jews and Gentiles to this way of righteousness was not the fear of condemnation. Shame will not produce righteous behavior or promises that ‘next time we will do better.’ It is the pouring out of God’s love that will draw us to righteous living.

The word meaning ‘poured out’ is directly related to Joel’s prophecy about God lavishing the Holy Spirit on His people in the last days. Peter quoted it during his sermon at Pentecost—“In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people.” The result would be visions, dreams, and prophecy so that men and women would call on the name of the Lord.

But Paul points to something more.—that, through the Spirit, our hearts will be filled with God’s love. That we will be secure in His ‘agape’. Agape, as I have mentioned before, is a different kind of love than what we expect from others in our world. Agape is not a friendship love or family love or the love of a lover. These three kinds of love all had their own defining word in Paul’s day. But God chose to reveal His love through the word ‘agape’—the love given by the will of the lover. This lover will not be put off by rejection or the mess found in the life of the one He loves. His love is beyond belief, never dependent on our perfection.

I learned the reality of this much later in life than I wish I had. I often found myself licking self-inflicted wounds. I mourned my life failures with a passion. During one emotionally wrenching session, while I was again reminding myself how true Satan’s lie about me was, the Spirit broke into my circular conversation. He reminded me that God loved me beyond my brokenness, even in the middle of my pity party. My recitation of my shame stopped cold and I was flooded with relief. Yes, that was it. God’s love for me trumped what the Fall had done to me. I have not been the same since.

It is not our shame but God’s love that determines who we are. His love is the evidence of the hope that we will live out a righteousness by faith, even when we believe we cannot hold on as we persevere through the sufferings of life. His love has already been poured out. It will not be taken away. It shows us how much we are valued by God. It puts shame to death.

-Steve Smith


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What is ‘hope in the glory of God’?

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A Righteousness by Faith #27: What is ‘hope in the glory of God’?

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 find this one of the most beautiful passages in the letter. I read it often and share it in the classes I teach on transformation—that we have hope in the glory of God. What a leap from Romans 3:23 where Paul reminded both Jews and Gentiles that before faith, everyone fell short of this glory.

Because of the prominence of the doctrine of justification in the first part of Romans, the glory of God can seem merely like an important subtext. But it is much more than that. It is the theory of everything. It explains to us humans why God embarked on the whole incarnation-to-the-cross journey. Why we exist. Why God seeks to redeem us. Why there is hope. It is all about God who cares for His glory. A glory we who are created are missing out on. Why? —Because our willful rebellion robs us of the opportunity to be full of awe and wonder at the glorious God who made us.

Everything God does is for His glory, yet there’s so much about His glory we will never be able to comprehend—it is beyond us. But this is what all believers need to know—When Jesus sacrifices himself by being nailed to the cross, he does it to uphold the Father’s glory. Before Adam and Eve took that first wrong bite, God knew He would take their death upon Himself. Not for the sake of humans, mind you, but for the sake of His glory. Jesus ultimately answers Pilate’s question, “What is truth?” with his passion. The truth is that you can trust God to redeem what we messed up because of His glory. This is how Jesus glorifies the Father—He paid the death price for us. This clears the backlog of judgment God withheld over those who deserved it, in spite of what Satan might have thought of His delay. And that is a truth we would never have known if God had not revealed it to us.

Up to that point in our history, no one—not Abraham, not Moses, not David, not Jeremiah nor even John the Baptizer—had any tangible hope in the glory of God. They had amazing faith as described in Hebrews 11. But they all died not having seen the full righteousness of God revealed in rescuing people from sin and hell. And righteousness is an essential aspect of God’s glory. When God acted to redeem people according to His glory, what He is doing is righteousness is an unexpected way. He is, as John boldly says, faithful and just (righteous) to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. There it is. God is not only righteous but also by His power and will He is making us righteous in ways we are not able to achieve in our own strength.

Before we came to put our faith in Jesus and receive the Spirit, we had no hope that we would ever live out our lives in the righteousness of God’s glory—it was beyond us. Now that we belong to the new covenant, now that we have been given the Spirit, now that we know God as our Abba, we have hope like never before. This is GOOD news.

Who is this ‘we’? It is not just the committed ones. This includes the careless, the casual and the confounded nuisances. They need to be beckoned on to this hope as people who have the Spirit, instead of driven toward it like cattle. They need to hear that God knows them and they have a new name given to them by the Father. Every believer needs to hear regularly that they have hope no matter how badly they have messed up. They need to hear that there are mercy and grace to be found in God’s presence for their time of need. They need to hear that restoration in the face of their rebellion and sin choices is God’s preferred way of dealing with them, even if they do not at this moment desire restoration. They need to hear that the empowering presence of the Spirit is in them to do for them what they cannot do for themselves. And that salvation from the power of sin is not up to their best efforts but comes to those who humble themselves instead of pridefully believing it depends on their own efforts and obedience.

And also hear that they will definitely become like Jesus before they reach the judgment throne. This is what hope in the glory of God is all about.

-Steve Smith

 


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Aren’t we better than those disgusting people?

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Righteousness by Faith #26: Aren’t we better than those disgusting people?

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. Romans 3:21-24

While searching for the right picture for this blog, I came across a poster showing a collection of women with messages on their T-shirts telling us what we could do with our morals and also claiming freedom for their bodies. They were young females with a no-holds-barred approach to cultural warfare.

It is so easy for me to view these women with an air of superiority disguised as sorrow for their brokenness and willful rebellion…They are young…They will eventually learn the error of their ways when life turns out to be more complex than their simple slogans suggest…They are foolish…Someday they will regret the shallowness of their thinking as they see their children make the same mistakes they are making now.

Except…they may not. And more to the point, I may not regret condemning them. I may secretly feel that I am taking the high road of one who is secure in his faith by not letting my disdain for them be seen by others. I can just shake my head and ‘pray’ for them.

If this makes sense to you, then you will get Paul’s point in these verses. His audience is made up of Jews and Gentiles. It was so easy for his Jewish readers to see themselves as superior to the Gentiles. In terms of belief in God, they had a longstanding covenant with Him, dating back over 1500 years.

But it really did not matter. No one has standing with God. In their own cultural ways, they have all rebelled against God. And for the Jews, it is their blindness to their own depravity that keeps them shaking their heads over the Gentiles all the while heading down their own path to destruction.

Sure, the women I mentioned are on their way to destruction. But so are the moralists. And the right- and left-wingers. And people who never miss a worship service. We are all in the same boat of rebellion, bailing out the water flooding our end of the ship while hoping the other end sinks, proving we were in the right.

If you were a Jew reading Paul’s words when they were hot off the press, you would have been more than a little peeved with him. He had started so well, pointing out how right God was to have wrath towards the Gentiles. They were, as Paul puts it so eloquently, “senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (Romans 1:31) “Those Gentiles are definitely lost,” they must have thought as they shook their heads and ‘prayed’ for them.

But then, as the saying goes, Paul went from preaching to meddling. He exposes Jewish rebellion against God’s holiness, ending with the lament, “There is none righteous, not a single person.” (Romans 3:10)

In the past, I failed to see the power of that indictment. We are all included in the ‘unrighteous’ with all those who we secretly or not so secretly look down on. I get how the Jewish readers must have chafed at this truth. They were His chosen people, How could they be considered to be on par with the Gentiles? Yet, Paul is not accusing them. He is pointing to what God said across the pages of the Hebrew Scriptures.

In other words, there are not two ways to righteousness, one for Jews and the other for the Gentiles. Every judgment you throw at them boomerangs back on us. Both groups enter into this righteousness by faith by the same door, which is the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Almost all who read this passage today descended from the Gentiles. We may feel that Paul was right to stick it to his Jewish readers. But any sense of moral superiority—that somehow today we know better—is quite wrong. Furthermore, since we have been saved from condemnation, we who live out righteousness by faith need to remember that we are not superior to those who are still lost. Without the grace of God, we would be just as defiantly rebellious as anyone we shake our heads at.

-Steve Smith


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God and the Cultural Wars

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Righteousness by Faith #25: God and the Cultural Wars

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”  Romans 1:17

Social media can be brutal, and reading comments from the multiple views of people engaged in cultural war can be draining. I find that my ‘brand’ of Christianity is unfit for political office, that we are ‘oppressing people’ by our beliefs and that we ‘hate’. I recognize that this is the way humans weaponize language in order to destroy opponents. Sadly, these comments are not just coming from those who have no faith. Within the body of Christ can come some of the most killing comments.

Before I sign off on the topic of cultural wars and pursue what else Romans says about righteousness by faith, I want to explore one critical issue. What about God’s righteousness? Where do we find it? And how does it inform our approach to the issues being fought out in the current cultural wars?

Paul’s next sentences give us a starting place. The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. (vs. 18-20)

Paul’s assertion shares a common idea with verse 17. Something is being ‘revealed.’ Only this time, it is not God’s righteousness. It is His wrath.

Why wrath? Paul points out that God revealed His glory—divine nature and eternal power—when He made everything. We should be in awe of Him, but instead, we rejected His reign and even reduced Him to something less than ourselves. We have no excuse for this unrighteous behavior. This rejection brought us the penalty of death, aka wrath. Not just an ending of our earth life. It killed our relationship with Him. Ever since we have been busy reworking the meaning of life and rewriting the truth about God.

Our tendency to reject or reinvent God has provided us all with numerous ideas about what God’s righteousness is. We think it is whatever we want it to be! We can shape moral codes and laws to fit our current version of what is good or evil based on what we decide it is today. This is our depravity at work through us. Human history continually shows this to be true. It reminds us that cultural wars checker our past as well as mark our todays.

Where can we go to discover what God’s righteousness really means?

I remember an intense conversation I had with someone over same-sex marriage. I was asked to sort out whose interpretation of various Old and New Testament scriptures was correct. Instead of grappling with them one by one, like Paul I pointed to the creation account. What creative purposes did God disclose in Genesis 1? What kind of world did He intend? What did He desire for the first humans? What does His creation reveal about Himself?

Secondly, what does the Fall reveal about the human ability to reject and twist the creative purposes of God? Not just the obvious things like breaking the Ten Commandments, but themore subtle ways we displace God’s righteousness with our own version. Like when we believe our own press? When we reject love, joy, justice, kindness and so on? When we reduce others to objects instead of bearers of the image of God?

I continued by saying that believers’ inclination to judge and condemn others living lifestyles which do not reflect God’s creative purposes was wrong. I, too, am broken and unrighteous. We are all in need of God’s reign to restore righteousness in us. I am no better than any person who takes the opposite view in the cultural wars. We went on to other topics, but that conversation continues to remind me why I need God’s righteousness. It isn’t just a matter of warring over the culture mess. I am a contributing member of this mess.

This is why God promised a Redeemer in Genesis 3:15. It is here that is God reveals His righteousness again in creation—showing His glory. God alone is the one who can redeem us out of the mess our lives have made of our culture.

But in the meantime, we still live within the mess by faith.

-Steve Smith


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Living by Faith & the Cultural Wars

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Righteousness by Faith #24: Living by Faith & the Cultural Wars

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.” Romans 1:17

Believers get caught up in fighting the culture war because they want America to be a righteous nation. They want to see God still blessing America and to live free of fear. They work to get just laws passed, hopefully by ‘righteous’ leaders, because they know that “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin condemns any people.” (Proverbs 14:34) There is no harm in doing so because the voice of those who believe needs to be heard as much as any others as laws which affect the lives of people are being formed.

But if you are engaged in such activities, keep this in mind: Laws do not make people righteous.

Years ago Becky Pippert wrote about an encounter with a Black woman on a bus. The woman declared the need for changes in the law to put an end to racism. Becky gently responded that she knew people who would still think of the woman as a racial slur no matter what the law said. “Right on,” responded the woman through angry tears. Then the woman observed that the real change needed to take place at a much deeper level inside people, though she did not know how it could happen.

This brings us to Paul’s point. We would like to see people who hold different views about a myriad of social issues from ours overpowered by our logic as well as our political power. This is, after all, how America’s government works. But deep change that is brought about by the good news about Jesus can never be delivered by passing a legislative bill.

Furthermore, other believers—and I am not talking about quasi-Christians, but real members of God’s family—may not see every issue the way you do. Their cultural background and personal experience can vary greatly from yours.

Paul is leading the Roman church away from looking to the Jewish Torah as the standard for righteousness. But he is not directing this congregation of Jew-Gentile believers to embrace an ‘anything-goes’ culture in its place. Paul knew that all cultures were developed by people affected by the Fall. All were tainted with pride, prejudices, and preferences having nothing to do with righteousness, no matter how nicely packaged.

We need to take this to heart as we live out righteousness by faith when cultural beliefs clash. When Paul speaks of the righteous ones living by faith, he means faith in the faithfulness of God. God can be trusted to guide us to righteousness. More than that, He has taken it upon Himself to produce this righteousness in us.

First, we need to trust the Father instead of depending on laws to fence in bad behavior. When we reduce righteousness down to law, we are putting our faith in law over the One who makes humans righteous. Instead of living by faith, we are living out our unspoken distrust that God actually can change the lives of people by the resurrected life of Christ.

If we are going to navigate our way in a time of cultural clashing, especially one within the Body of Christ, then we need to point people to the Father. This is at the heart of the righteous ones living by faith. God is the only one who stands above the cultural confusion. He is the standard for cultural righteousness.

We need to trust that He will unclutter our thinking and allow Him to bend our hearts toward true just living. We do this by pursuing intimacy with Him, spending time with Him, listening to Him, surrendering to Him. And by deepening our relationship with Him, our understanding of how to live righteously in unrighteous times increases. We find ourselves not looking to the law to gauge our righteousness. Instead, we look at our relationships with others—even those whose views cause us deep concern—to discover how well we are being righteous.

Does that last statement resonate? It should. Because when Jesus was asked in Matthew 22 which was the greatest commandment, he quickly identified two – love God with everything you’ve got and love others as yourself.

More to come…

-Steve Smith


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