Thursday, March 12, 2015

Andrew Farley on Growing in Grace

Over on our Growing in Grace podcast we posted the first of three podcasts with special guest Andrew Farley.  Check it out here.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Prostitutes, Heaven, Faith and Works

Jesus said to them, "Assuredly, I say to you that tax collectors and harlots enter the kingdom of God before you.  For John came to you in the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him; but tax collectors and harlots believed him; and when you saw it, you did not afterward relent and believe him. (Matt 21:31-32)
The "them" that Jesus was speaking to were the "chief priests and the elders of the people" in the temple in Jerusalem.  They were the holy people.  The set-apart of the set-apart.  And while it's true that some of them were corrupt, these priests and elders may very well have been as squeaky clean as they come.  And Jesus is telling them that women who sell their bodies enter the kingdom of God before them!

Why is that?  Is it that God loves it when women prostitute themselves?  Is He happier when people commit harlotry than He is when His own chosen (holy, set-apart) priests and elders do their holy, set-apart jobs?  Of course not.  So what's the deal?

The deal is that entering the kingdom of God isn't about the things that a person does.  It's not about a person's good and righteous deeds, or lack thereof.  Rather, it's about a person's belief (or lack thereof).
Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt.  But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. (Rom 4:4-5)
But isn't faith without works dead?  James is the one who said that, and he gave two examples of what he meant.  The first example was Abraham offering his son Isaac on the altar.  Here's the second example:
Likewise, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out another way? (James 2:25)
What were Rahab's "works"?  Was it that she turned around and changed her behavior and gave up harlotry and started following God's law?  Now, of course it would be a great thing for Rahab to turn around and change her behavior and quit harlotry.  But that's not her "works" by which she was "justified."  (The word "justified" in this case doesn't mean "made righteous," but rather "shown to be righteous.")  Rahab's "works" were that she hid spies and lied to those who came to her house to find them!

Her "works" were the result of what she believed.  What did she believe and why did she believe it?  She told the spies that her people had heard of, and feared, the great works of the Lord, and that He was giving their land to Israel.  She told them, "the Lord your God, He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath." (Joshua 2:11).  She believed God.  That's why she did what she did.  It's not that she was made righteous by what she did, but rather what she did showed that she believed, and that's why she was credited with being righteous.

That's why harlots can enter into the kingdom of God before God's chief priests and elders.  It's not about what any of these people do or don't do.  It's about what they believe

Tuesday, March 03, 2015

God's Law and the Crowd-Thinning Words of Jesus (Part 2)

Wow, do I love the gospel!  The good news!  When Jesus was born, a scene appeared in the countryside in which "a multitude of the heavenly host" was praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!"

Who had "goodwill toward men"?  God did!  And what "peace" was this? God's peace! (Rom 5:1, 10:15, Eph 6:15).  In Christ, God would be reconciling people to Himself, not counting their sins against them (2 Cor 5:19), and anybody ("whosoever") could receive all of this as a free gift, by God's grace, through faith (John 3:16, Rom 3:22).  What's revealed in the gospel is God's very own righteousness given as a free gift to sinners - not through anyone's law-keeping or good works (Rom 1:17, 3:21, Eph 2:8-9, Titus 3:4-7).  That's the gospel! That's the good news!

As I mentioned in Part 1 (please read it before reading Part 2), God's good, holy and just law is not the good news, although it did have a lofty God-ordained purpose.  The law's purpose was to minister death, bondage, guilt and condemnation.  Anytime death, bondage, guilt and condemnation is produced, that's not good news!

So why is it that Jesus, whose coming was highlighted with a trumpeted declaration of "good news," is often found speaking to people with words that don't sound like good news at all?  If Jesus said He didn't come to condemn people but to save them (John 3:17), then why did His words often bring condemnation upon people?  If the good news is that sinners gain a righteousness that is a free gift by grace through faith, and not at all according to their own good works or law-keeping, then why did Jesus raise the bar and call for even greater works than the law called for as a means of people gaining entrance into the kingdom of heaven? We'll get to that.

But first I'll ask a few more questions that will hopefully spark our thinking about why Jesus said the things He said.  Was it was actually the gospel that Jesus was preaching in these crowd-thinning sermons that caused many people to turn away and leave.  When He said "cut off your hand" and "pluck out your eye" if they cause you to sin, and when He warned of hell fire in the Sermon on the Mount, was this in line with the angel's prior declaration of good tidings and great joy?  In saying, "Your righteousness must surpass that of the scribes and Pharisees, or you won't enter the kingdom of heaven," was Jesus delivering the message of the gospel?

Have you ever considered or wondered about these things?  Has it ever occurred to you that these particular words of Jesus were not good news.  They were not the gospel.  So what did Jesus mean to accomplish with His "bad news" words?  If the gospel is good news, and God's intention was to draw sinners to Himself and save them, not according to their works and law-keeping, then why did Jesus speak such hard words to them about their works and law-keeping that ended up driving them away?

The Bible says that Jesus was "born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law..." (Gal 4:4)  Jesus first had a ministry to those who were under the law.  This ministry to the Jews - those under the law - was a law ministry.  It wasn't a "good news" ministry.  Jesus was using the law with law-people for the very purpose for which the law was intended to be used.  Romans 3:19 says that the law speaks to those who are under the law, for the purpose of 1) stopping their mouths and 2) making them guilty before God.

In His ministry to the people of Israel, Jesus not only taught the law but He put a magnifying glass on it.  He amplified it.  "You have heard that is was said... But I say to you..." (Matt 5:21-22, 27-28, 33-37, 38-39, 43-45).  "It's not just the act of adultery, it's looking at someone with lust." (Matt 5:27-28)  If those under the law thought they were righteous because of their law-keeping, Jesus was showing them just how unrighteous they really were.  His teachings brought out their guilt and it stopped their mouths!  He was preaching the bad news to them, showing them that the law was far more severe than they had previously thought.  These teachings weren't able to help them live right any more than the Law was able to.  He was actually making it even harder for people to enter into the kingdom of God through their own works.

One time Jesus told His disciples that it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.  The disciples reacted with great astonishment, saying "Who then can be saved!"  Notice that Jesus' words caused them to think that it's impossible for anyone to be saved.  After all, how possible is it, really, for a camel to go through an eye of a needle?  So the statement "it's easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God" isn't good news.  It's bad news.

However... Jesus then adds something.  He says, "With men this is impossible, but with God all things are possible."  The former declaration  - "this is impossible" - is bad news!  But when "it's possible for God" is added, it turns into good news!  Do you see it?  Light at the end of a very dark tunnel!  When a person comes to truly understand, through the bad news, that he falls short of God's glory and that it's impossible for him to save himself, it makes him feel hopeless.  But that all changes when he finds out the good news that what's impossible for him is possible with God!  The bad news points to, or leads to, the good news.

Can you see, then, that Jesus had good reasons for preaching the law to those who were under it, even when His ultimate aim was to get them out from under it?   Can you see why He preached the ministry of death and condemnation, even when He came not to condemn but to save and to give life?  We know that Jesus said He didn't come to abolish the law, but to fulfill it, and that's exactly what He did.  And all the while, we also see Him preaching it for the exact purpose for which it was given.

Part of the confusion regarding these particular words of Jesus comes from the fact that He didn't come right out and say what He was doing: preaching the bad news in order to show man his need for the good news, so they would repent of their self-righteousness and turn to God instead, by faith alone.  He let people (especially those who trusted in their own righteousness) go away sad, angry and confused, without filling them in on the grand scheme.  He left it to them to work it out in their own hearts.  But as we saw in Part 1, years later Paul did come right out and lay out the law's purpose in great detail, leaving nothing for us to guess about.  Paul helps us to understand why Jesus said the things He said.

So you can see from all this that we're not neglecting the words of Jesus.  We don't discard any of His words.  We don't run away from the words of Jesus.  To the contrary, we highly respect the words and the entire earthly ministry of Jesus, and we take His words very seriously.  To take His words seriously is to pay close attention to the context, to who He was talking to, and what His purpose was in saying the things He said.  Understanding the purpose for the harsh sayings of Jesus helps us to love and appreciate the gospel all the more!

Monday, March 02, 2015

God's Law and the Crowd-Thinning Words of Jesus (Part 1)

Why was God's law given?  Many think that the law is meant as a way to help us live right.  It's natural to assume that the law was given to provide a way for people to live godly lives.  But in the New Testament epistles (not my own words, but the words of Paul, etc.) a completely different picture is painted to reveal to us why God gave the law.  In God's grand scheme to redeem people, His law has a huge purpose.

Contrary to helping people live right, here are scriptures (again, not my own words) that talk about the actual ministry and fruit of the law:

-It was enmity with us (Eph 2:15)
-It was against us and contrary to us (Col 2:14)
-It condemned people (2 Cor 3:7-9)
-It put people in bondage (Gal 4:24-25)
-It made people guilty (Rom 3:19)
-It "stopped mouths" (Rom 3:19)
-It imputed sin to man (Rom 5:13)
-It aroused sinful passions that bore fruit to death (Rom 7:5)
-Through it, sin abounded (Rom 5:20)
-Through it, sin revived and we died (Rom 7:9-11)

Have you ever realized that all of this came through the God's law?  Because of all this, you won't see Paul expressing a desire to see believers (those who have new life and who live by faith) trying to keep it.  It's quite the opposite.  Paul says "the law is not of faith" (Gal 3:12) and he says that there is no life in the law (Gal 3:21), and in fact it only brings death (Rom 7:6,10).  For these reasons, he tells his fellow Jews that they must die to the law and instead by joined to Christ.

The Law was, of course, given to the Jews.  God knew that the people of Israel were failing miserably at keeping it, and it's interesting how He handled that.  He didn't then say to them, "Boy, I see you're having a really hard time keeping my laws!  But come to Jesus and I'll help you keep them."  What God actually said (through Paul) was, "Therefore, my brethren, you also have become dead to the law through the body of Christ, that you may be married to another — to Him who was raised from the dead, that we should bear fruit to God."  The way to "bear fruit to God" isn't to have God help you keep the law, but rather to the contrary, to die to the law and be joined to Christ instead.  The result of dying to the law and being joined to Christ is "life" and "bearing fruit to God."

We know that the law is good, just and holy (Rom 7:12), so the problem isn't that the law itself is bad.  Rather, the problem with the law is that it's so good, just and holy that no one can bear up underneath the weight of its demands!  Under the law, God only finds fault with people (Heb 8:7), because even if you keep all the law and stumble in only one point, you are guilty of all! (James 2:10).  As the scriptures above say, the result of a person being under the law is increased sin, aroused sinful passions, enmity with God, guilt, condemnation, bondage and death.

So is this the end of the law's story?  Did God give the law so that people would be left in this sad state?  Fortunately, after all this, the law does one final important thing.  Ultimately, the law was a tutor to lead to Christ.  The law was added "because of transgressions, till the Seed (Christ) should come..." (Gal 3:19).  The tremendous, unbearable weight that people find themselves buried in under the law is meant to lead them to a place in which they realize that they truly have fallen short of the glory of God.  They realize that they can't do a thing to justify themselves in front of God, and so they turn from the very thing that caused guilt, condemnation, bondage and death (the law), in order to be joined to the only One who provides them with exactly the opposite: sin taken away, no condemnation, freedom and life!

At this point, the law's job is now done.  It has led the people to faith in Christ, and they are now cut free from the guidance of the law.  Again, as Paul worded it, they have died to the law and are now joined to Another, who provides them with something far greater than what the law ever could do.  Being joined to Christ, they can now bear good fruit unto God, which was impossible to do under the law.  "Dead to the law" really does mean "dead to the law."  When you die to something, you don't go back to it, especially when you've now been joined to something (or Someone) else far greater!

So we find that the law has no purpose in the life of a person who has died to it.  Yet Paul says, "we know that the law is good if one uses it lawfully."  What's the lawful purpose of the law?  Well, go back to the beginning of this post and read up to this point again!  Its use is to produce guilt and condemnation in unbelievers (who have not yet received the righteousness of God as a gift, by grace through faith), for the purpose of leading them to Christ.  At that point, again, its job is done!

So as believers, how can we possibly live holy lives without having God's law to live by?  Again, Christ gives us something so much better!  What He gives us is His very life in us.  "For I through the law died to the law that I might live to God. I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me."

Again, we see that dying to the law results in "living to God."  Being joined to Christ means that we no longer live but it's Christ who lives in us and through us.  No law could ever provide us with what the life of Christ gives us.  The fruit of living under the law is made clear in the scriptures above.  But now, in Christ, we see the fruit of the Spirit that is produced apart from law: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Wow!  What wonderful fruit!  Talk about "bearing fruit unto God!"  We can't produce these things by following the law, but in Christ we find that these things are the Spirit's natural fruit in us!  These things come as a result of living by the Spirit, not living by the law.

Will living by the Spirit cause us to want to commit adultery?  To murder?  To steal?  To sin in any way?  Of course not!  It is safe to live by the Spirit, but it's not safe to live by the law!  Look one more time at the scriptures above to see the fruit of living under the law.  In Christ we have it so much better!

Speaking of Christ and the law, we read some pretty harsh words coming from Jesus from time to time in Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  Some unbearable words at times!  A friend recently noted that Jesus would sometimes pull out a "crowd thinning sermon" and many people would leave Him.  Were these words of Jesus "the gospel"?  Didn't Jesus say "come to me and I will give you rest"?  I'll address this and more in Part 2.

Wednesday, January 07, 2015

Grace Makes People Free

There are many reasons why people preach and teach the gospel of God's grace and peace, and why people want to evangelize the church with the message of God's grace and peace. One of the big reasons is this: It makes people free. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, and yet many believers are bound up and are far from free in Christ.

Next month marks the 10th anniversary of the weekly Growing in Grace podcast that I do with Mike Kapler. The reason we've continued to do it each week is because it continues to help people find and stay in the freedom of Christ. Over the years we've received many emails and comments from people, sometimes simply asking questions about grace and other times pouring out their hearts and souls to us. In this video I share a couple of these emails, as they go to show the bondage that people have found themselves trapped in through what they've been taught in the church, and then the freedom that they've found through hearing the good news of God's grace and peace!



Thursday, December 18, 2014

Do We Need to Preach the Law to Lead People to Christ?

"But before faith came, we were kept in custody under the law, being shut up to the faith which was later to be revealed. Therefore the Law has become our tutor to lead us to Christ, that we may be justified by faith." Gal 3:23-24

The above verse has often been used to promote the idea that we need to preach the law to unbelievers in order to lead them to Christ.  But is that really true?  Do the people of the world, especially Gentiles (everyone who isn't a Jew), need the Jewish law to be preached to them to show them their need for the Savior?  It's important to know some basic things about the Law (the Old Covenant) and to whom it was given (and why), and since the church has been mixing the old and new covenants for so long, it really can be confusing to try to work through things like this.

So I like to back up and take a look at things from the perspective that the Jews and Gentiles in Bible times would have seen things in (as best as I can) to clear things up and get a better understanding of this. The Jews would have (obviously) known that they are the ones who had the law, and they knew the Gentiles of the world were excluded from it and that they probably had no clue what was written in it.

So when it came to understanding the gospel of Christ, and the need for faith rather than the works of the law, Paul and the other Jewish apostles could tell the Jews, in essence, "Hey, look at our own law! Don't you get it? We've tried for hundreds and hundreds of years to keep it, but we've only ended up falling way short of it! This is why we need Christ, our Messiah." (See Acts 15:5-11, Rom 3:19, Heb 8:8).

But to the Gentiles they couldn't say that. "Law? What law? How could I know that I've fallen short of God's law when I didn't even know it existed?"  Or, "How could the law point me to Christ when I was excluded from it and didn't even know what it said?"

The law was never meant to be the measuring stick through which Gentiles understood their sin or their need for the Savior, because the law wasn't given to them and was in fact kept from them.  The "measuring stick" for the Gentiles is their own conscience. In Romans 2, Paul is telling the Jews that just because they have the law, it doesn't mean that they are righteous, because only those who keep the law are righteous (from a law-based perspective). They (the Jews) are the ones who have the law... but they don't keep it! Gentiles, on the other hand, could be said to be righteous if they "by nature" do the things that are in the law, even though they don't even have the law. Paul says that it's "not the hearers of the law who are just in the sight of God, but the doers of the law will be justified." (See Rom 2:12-13)

He says all this to show the Jews just how serious the law was, and that they shouldn't be judgmental and self-righteous just because they have the law. They are only fooling themselves, because they fall short. In fact, he goes on to say that "ALL" (both Jew and Gentile) have sinned fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23). So in the end, whether it's the Jew who has the law or the Gentile who doesn't have the law, they all fall short and can only be saved by grace, through faith.

So how does the Gentile then understand their need for the Savior, if not by law? Again, it's through their own conscience. Romans 1:19 and beyond says that what may be known of God has been revealed to everyone. It's all clearly seen through creation. Everyone has a general idea of "right and wrong," but... they "suppress the truth in unrighteousness." (Rom 1:18). "Although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God..." (Rom 1:21).

If we read the list of "ungodly" and "unrighteous" behavior that Paul goes on to write about in the rest of Romans 1, these are all things that most Gentiles would agree are "wrong." Internally, people have a sense of right and wrong, even if not everybody agrees on the specifics, and even if not everybody cares what's right or wrong.

So, while the Jews had a specific set of laws that turned out to be a tutor that would lead them to Christ, I don't think the law was ever meant to show Gentiles their need for the Savior. Most people would agree that they have "good" and "bad" in them. What we really need to show them is that the gospel reveals that their good isn't good enough to make them right with God and their bad isn't bad enough to keep them out of God's grace shown to us in Christ Jesus.

Now even with all of that said, in today's world there is enough of a familiarity, even among Gentile unbelievers, with this thing called God's law or "the Ten Commandments," that I can see how it would be possible, on rare occasions, to use it as a "tool" (or a "tutor") - particularly among self-righteous people or people who somehow think that their good deeds are enough for God - to show them that even with all their goodness, they still fall short and need the Savior. But for the most part, it's my feeling that most people 'get' that they've fallen short somehow, and our job really is to simply tell them the good news of Jesus Christ!

Tuesday, December 09, 2014

That Christ May Dwell in Your Hearts Through Faith

For this reason, I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name, that He would grant you, according to the riches of His glory, to be strengthened with power through His Spirit in the inner man; so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; and that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be able to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled up to all the fulness of God.
Eph 3:14-19 NASB

I find it interesting that after Paul had written quite a bit to the believing Ephesians about their solid identity in Christ, their acceptance in Christ, the life that they have in Christ, how they are partakers in Christ and the unfathomable riches that they have in Christ, in his prayer for them he prayed "that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith."

I mean, from the very beginning, when they first believed, didn't Christ already come to dwell in their hearts?  Wasn't it true that as Ezekiel foretold, in the New Covenant they would be given a new heart and a new spirit (Ez 36:26), and didn't Paul write elsewhere in various different ways that Christ already dwelled in them?  So why would he then pray that Christ would dwell in their hearts by faith?

Well, it is true that as believers, we have become new creations in Christ and we have a new heart and a new spirit that is unlike the old heart and spirit that was replaced.  Christ does dwell in us, and He will never leave us nor forsake us! (Heb 13:5)  It's by grace, through faith that we died with Christ and are hidden in Him (Col 3:3) and we rose again with Him (Eph 2:6, Col 3:1) and we are one spirit with Him (1 Cor 6:17).  These are done deals.  They are always true of us at the core of who we are, in our spirit.

But there is a soulish realm that differs from the spirit realm.  While our spirit doesn't change and remains fully alive and regenerated and filled with the life of Christ, and is born again once and for all, our soul is constantly being renewed and transformed.  In the context of the passage that I started with, that is what the heart is.  It's our mind, will and emotions.  It's the part of us that thinks, believes, feels, understands, etc.  (Example: Rom 10:9 says "Believe in your heart..."). Whereas our spirit was forever changed in a one-time event, our heart/soul is constantly going through changes.

Our spirit has been forever sanctified and established in Christ, and "born again of incorruptible seed" (1 Pet 1:23), and at the same time in the heart and soul realm we are constantly going through a renewal process.  "It is good that the heart be established (or 'strengthened') in grace" (Heb 13:9).  This verse shows that the believer's heart goes through a process of being established and strengthened.  A little earlier in Hebrews, the writer encouraged the believers to "draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith" (Heb 10:22).  Do you see how it's possible for the heart to fluctuate, while all along the spirit remains as it was from the time we first believed!  This is why Paul prays for the hearts of the Ephesians - that Christ may dwell there.  There's no fear here of Christ ever actually leaving them, or not dwelling in their spirit, but Paul wants them to be assured and rooted and grounded in the truth and reality of it all.  And how are they to be rooted, grounded and assured?  By faith.  That is, by having faith in Christ.

This isn't the faith of Christ.  This is our faith in Christ.  Faith is "conviction of the truth." (See here).  To have faith is to be persuaded of the truth.  We are exhorted to walk by (our) faith, not by (our) sight.  To be convicted of the truth, and to be rooted and grounded in God's love, we walk by faith, which is "the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen" (Heb 11:1).  Our circumstances in life (what we "see") - good or bad - do not generally give us a good picture of the reality of Christ, because He is not seen and known through what we see and experience!  We know Him through what we do not see.  He "dwells in our hearts," not through what we can see and experience in our daily circumstances, but through faith. That is, through believing the truth about Him whether our circumstances seem to be a good demonstration of the truth or not.

We already have all the love of God, all the grace of God, all the fullness of God and "every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ" (Eph 1:3).  These things are our reality.  Even though we can't "see" them, they are far more real than everything that we can see!  And yet we are exhorted to grow in grace (2 Pet 3:18), and in the beginning passage Paul prayed that they may be "rooted and grounded in love" and "filled up to all the fullness of God."  So is all of this contradictory?  We have all the love, grace and fullness of God and yet we're to continue to be filled with it?  No, it's not contradictory.  These things simply refer to two different parts of who we are.  The first is the spiritual realm; the second is the realm of the heart and soul.

We are filled, and yet we're to continue to be filled.  We have all of God's grace and yet we're to grow in it.  We have all of God's love and yet we're to continue to be rooted and grounded in it.  So again, how does all of this work?  How does all of this happen?  By faith.  By believing.  By being continually, over and over again, convicted and convinced in our hearts of the truth of what is already true and real about us.  It's about grasping and comprehending the truth.  It's about repenting - that is, changing our minds - and believing the truth of the gospel.  It's about renewing our minds day after day to the truth of the good news, so our hearts may be filled with the fullness of Christ.