Please God or suffer the consequences

My wife is coming back today from a mission trip to Costa Rica. Knowing that she’s coming back, I tried to do a bit of straightening up around the house. I’m laundering not only my clothes but the sheets and towels as well. And I’ve got a brisket in the crock pot, so she won’t have to worry about cooking for a couple of days.

I do all of that, of course, because I’m afraid she’ll divorce me if I don’t. That’s the only reason people in a loving relationship think about pleasing the other, right? When she gets home, she’ll take care of many of the chores around the house, knowing that I’ll toss her out on the street if she doesn’t.

Hopefully by now you realize that I write in jest. Yet this reflects the way many talk about our relationship with God. Those who believe in salvation by works often say that if you take out that element of fear of condemnation, people won’t want to do good things. Some who are assured of their salvation will mock any attempts to discuss what is pleasing to God, saying that the only thing that matters is that we have eternal life.

For many, that’s the bottom line: am I going to an eternal reward or eternal punishment?

Just as the relationship I described in the first two paragraphs is far from healthy, so such an attitude toward God is sick. Back in January, I wrote:

Neither do I believe in a mere transactional relationship with God. That is, I think that my relationship with God isn’t just about getting what I want from Him (in this case, salvation). In a relationship of love, you seek to please the other, not because of what you might get by doing so, but because you love the other.

And I fully agree with myself. :-)

I seek to know God’s will, to know what pleases Him, not because I’m afraid He’ll toss me in the lake of fire when this life is over. I do it because I love Him and want to do what He wants. I want to be like Him, more so every day.

Am I misguided in this view?

The pursuit of holiness

Regarding what we discussed yesterday about good and evil, I think that a big problem that Christians have is that they have no sense of the need to pursue holiness. Part of that goes back to something I referred to before, the transactional view of God. That is, people only see their relationship with God in terms of what they can get from Him, the primary “good” to be gotten being salvation. All that matters is whether or not your are saved or lost, according to this view. Therefore, the only concern about sin is whether or not it will “keep us out of heaven” or not.

It’s that viewpoint, for example, that fears teaching about grace. If people are only focused on doing enough to get saved, then any teaching about grace will remove their motivation for doing what’s right. You’ve got to preach fire and brimstone, or people will become complacent.

The New Testament, of course, teaches that grace motivates us to work all that much harder. Because of the grace we’ve received, we pursue holiness. Even as we acknowledge that we will never be perfect, we imitate He that is perfect, becoming holier in the process.

With that sort of view, we begin to look at right and wrong in a different way.That’s where a study of the Old Testament concept of holiness becomes helpful. We choose to do things not only because they are prescribed or proscribed but because they reflect the nature of God. Admittedly, it’s an advanced way of thinking, one that’s not easy to teach to children, for example. But as we mature, I think we have to start looking at things in terms of holiness.

Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ. As obedient children, do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance, but as he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1Peter 1:13-16)

Created For Good Works

I believe that we are saved by the grace of God, through faith in Jesus Christ. I don’t believe in earning salvation, though I acknowledge that my understanding of an active faith is different from that of some. I do believe that faith that doesn’t respond in some way isn’t really faith at all.

That being said, I often find that when I mention things that I believe the Bible says we should do, someone says, “Ah, you believe in salvation by works.”

No, I don’t. Neither do I believe in a mere transactional relationship with God. That is, I think that my relationship with God isn’t just about getting what I want from Him (in this case, salvation). In a relationship of love, you seek to please the other, not because of what you might get by doing so, but because you love the other.

It’s interesting in the book of Titus that Paul twice tells Titus to emphasize grace in his teachings. The first time, he concludes that section by saying that God saved people by grace “to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good.” (Titus 2:14) The second time, Paul concludes by saying, “And I want you to stress these things, so that those who have trusted in God may be careful to devote themselves to doing what is good. These things are excellent and profitable for everyone.” (Titus 3:8)

In Ephesians 2, Paul emphasizes in verses 8 and 9 that we are saved by faith and not by works. Then he says in verse 10: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10) Not saved by works, but saved for works.

Talking about himself, Paul says, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them — yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (1 Corinthians 15:10)

You see, a proper of understanding motivates us to work harder than a sense of legalism ever could. When motivated purely by a desire to please God, we won’t be nitpicking over exactly what we have to do to be in sin. I’m not just trying to be “good enough.” I’m trying to be like God. Christlike. Perfect. Holy.

Will I achieve that on my own? Of course not. But I echo the words of Paul: “Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect, but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:12-14)

Call it legalism. Call it liberalism. Call it what you want. My aim is to please God, and I want to learn more and more about what please Him and what doesn’t. Not to try and make myself “good enough” to be saved. I do it to try and be the person my God and Savior wants me to be.

We’ll get back to our discussion of the Sermon on the Mount next week. I just thought it was an appropriate time to clarify some things.

Rock of Ages

(I’m finishing up a trip to the Northeast; let me post a bulletin article I wrote a few years ago)

When it comes to church music, I have to admit that I favor the old songs. Generally speaking, the older the better. These are the hymns that have endured, that have stood the test of time. I’m moved by today’s praise songs (like “Awesome Power” or “Highest Place”) and enjoy singing the toe tappers of the 20th century (like “Gloryland Way” or “Just A Little Talk With Jesus”) but the old hymns are the ones that tend to touch me deep inside with their elegant music and reflective words.

One such hymn was written in 1776 by Augustus M. Toplady. The words preach a sermon in and of themselves:

1. Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee;
let the water and the blood,
from thy wounded side which flowed,
be of sin the double cure;
save from wrath and make me pure.

Toplady begins with the sacrifice of Jesus. This is the basis of all gospel preaching. We preach Jesus, not ourselves. We preach his sacrifice, not our works. Paul said, “For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.” (1 Corinthians 2:2). Our preaching should imitate his.

2. Not the labors of my hands
can fulfill thy law’s commands;
could my zeal no respite know,
could my tears forever flow,
all for sin could not atone;
thou must save, and thou alone.

Here is a key thought that must be brought to the minds of all men, especially those of us who have come to know Jesus. In our zeal to obey Him, we can sometimes forget that our obedience does not work our salvation. We are saved by grace, not by works. Jesus’ words should ring in our ears: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”” (Luke 17:10)

The Christians of Galatia became confused about this. They began to think that salvation came through works and not through faith. Paul called this a “different gospel” and condemned it. He wrote: “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified. I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by observing the law, or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort? Have you suffered so much for nothing — if it really was for nothing? Does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the law, or because you believe what you heard?” (Galatians 3:1-5)

3. Nothing in my hand I bring,
simply to the cross I cling;
naked, come to thee for dress;
helpless, look to thee for grace;
foul, I to the fountain fly;
wash me, Savior, or I die.

How hard it is to put all of our trust in Jesus! Especially in a country which stresses independence and self-sufficiency. We are taught to believe in ourselves and our own accomplishments. Yet Jesus calls us to believe in Him and His accomplishments.

4. While I draw this fleeting breath,
when mine eyes shall close in death,
when I soar to worlds unknown,
see thee on thy judgment throne,
Rock of Ages, cleft for me,
let me hide myself in thee.

In the end, all that will matter is whether or not we are in Christ. If we have surrendered ourselves to Him, burying our old selves in the waters of baptism and rising to a life dedicated to Him, we need not fear those final moments. We will be able to approach God’s judgment with joy, knowing that our salvation depends not on ourselves but on Jesus and His blood.

If you find yourself feeling anxious as you think about that final judgment, it may be that you are trusting in your own works and not in Jesus’ all-sufficient work. Surrender yourself to the Rock of Ages. Only He can save your from sin and make you pure in His Father’s eyes.

Bounded vs. Centered Sets

Last week, Leadership Journal ran an article by John Ortberg where he discussed a concept made popular by Paul Hiebert: bounded vs. centered sets. Hiebert was sort of the Yoda of missionary anthropology, so I’ve read lots of his writings, included his discussion of this concept. But I hadn’t really thought of it in the way that Ortberg applied it.

The idea is that instead of looking at our salvation as a bounded set (saved, not saved), we should look at it as a centered set, the center being Christ. What happens is that we start with salvation by grace, then begin to act as if we were saved by works. In Ortberg’s words:

If we treat Christianity as a bounded set, there will always be a disconnect between the gospel and discipleship. The gospel will be presented as something to get you “inside the circle.” Once you’re inside, we don’t want to say you have to do anything to stay in (that would be salvation by works). But we don’t want to say you don’t have to do anything (the triumph of entropy, or, to use a biblical word, being lukewarm, or to use a theological word, antinomianism). So we don’t know what to say.

However, if we treat Christianity as a centered set, the relationship between the gospel and discipleship becomes much clearer. The gospel is the proclamation that life with and through Jesus is now available to ordinary people. It is a free gift of forgiveness and grace that cannot be earned. If I want it, the way that I enter into it is by becoming a follower of Jesus and orienting our lives with him at the center.

There have been times on this blog where I’ve presented an idea and someone says, “So if we don’t do that, we’re lost?” That’s bounded-set thinking. We need to understand that sanctification is a continual process, the process of becoming like Christ. We should ever be working to be more like Jesus.

Now before someone points it out, yes, I do believe there is a difference between saved and not saved, that there is a boundary. The idea of the bounded set is not totally wrong. But it’s less than helpful as we examine the concept of sanctification.

I found Ortberg’s article to be thought-provoking. I hope you’ll read it.