unChristian: Is Christianity’s Image Hurting Christ’s Image?

unChristian

Byron Barlowe reviews the book unChristian, based on research on what young people think of evangelicals and born-again Christians: that they’re hypocritical, judgmental, too political, exclusive. He calls out Christians to improve the reality behind the image to better reflect Christ.

Section Synopsis: A recent book entitled unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters uncovered overwhelmingly negative views of evangelicals and born-again Christians, especially among young generations. In some ways these views are warranted, in some ways they are not, but Christians do well to take them as a wake-up call for the sake of those God wants to save and mature.

download-podcastThe meaning of gospel is literally “good news.” The book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity . . . and Why It Matters{1} is a book of bad news—that half of those outside the church have a negative perception of Christianity. And that’s even true of many young people inside the church.

Evangelical Christians by definition consider Jesus’ charge to present the biblical gospel message to the world a mandate. Yet many of the very people who they reach out to are rejecting the messengers. Researchers with the Barna Group found that a majority today believe that evangelical and born-again Christians are sheltered from the real world, are judgmental, way too political, anti-homosexual (to the point of being gay-hating), and hypocritical.

These are widespread perceptions, especially among sixteen- to twenty-nine-year-olds, even those who go to church. To many people, perception is ninety percent of reality. So whatever your opinion of the study, this is the feeling out there.

Barna’s survey results and commentary have been making a stir through unChristian since its release in 2007. It’s not a deep theological or philosophical book. It contains statistical interpretation broken up by commentary from every stripe of evangelical Christian. It is a sobering cultural assessment that calls out believers to be more Christlike.

The authors’ applications are not always solidly based. They seem a little dismissive of valid objections to their analysis and conclusions. Also, confusion among unchurched respondents about the meaning of the terms “born again” and “evangelical” leads one to ask, How seriously do we take survey-takers’ critique of Christians if they don’t even know who or what these Christians are? That is, many times the people being surveyed couldn’t clearly define what “born-again” means or what an “evangelical” is, so how much stock should we put in their criticisms?

Yet, the stats are stark enough to be alarming: of those outside the church, fully half had a bad impression of evangelicals. Only three percent had a good impression! Are Christians so bent on moral persuasion that we’re alienating the lost with a lovelessness that really is unChristian? Or is this just a case of the unsaved experiencing the gospel as a stumbling block, as Jesus said would happen? The authors say it’s mainly Christians’ fault; I agree but suspect there’s more to it.

Here’s a modest proposal: even if respondents were biased or misled, why don’t we in the church humble ourselves, listen, and change where we need to? In the spirit of King David, when Shimei cursed him loudly, we may need to simply say, “Let them critique. The Lord told them to.”

Some question whether perceptions of outsiders should shape the church’s behavior. Co-authors Kinnaman and Lyons make the case that the church needs to be thoughtful about our responses to homosexuals, less trusting of political action as the way to change culture, and more humble and open to people who have not yet experienced grace. If outsiders feel that we are running a club they’re not invited to, where is Christ in that? they ask.

According to the authors, “Theologically conservative people are increasingly perceived as aloof and unwilling to talk.” But those under 30 “are the ultimate ‘conversation generation’.” Those outside church want to discuss issues, but see Christians as unwilling. Have you recently had a spiritual dialogue with a young unbeliever? How’d it go?

“Christians Are Hypocritical”

Section Synopsis: unChristian documents a heavy bias against Christians as hypocritical, a charge which is in part true, admit many. But it’s also an unavoidable reality of a grace-based religion, which if explained, goes a long way towards mitigating the charge and explaining the gospel message.

One overwhelming opinion among the survey group is that Christians are hypocrites and this keeps people away from church.

In fact, the survey on which the book is based reveals blatant legalism among believers, that the top priority of born-again Christians is, “doing the right thing, being good, and not sinning.” This do-your-best value topped biblical values like “relationships, evangelism, service and family faith.” In another survey, four out of five churchgoers said that “the Christian life is well described as, ‘trying hard to do what God commands’.” {2} Such a primary focus on lifestyle and sin-management as a measure of spirituality leads to what they call a “false pretense of holiness,” that is, hypocrisy.{3} It’s often like we Christians are living for others’ approval and forgetting about grace.

This isn’t lost on younger generations. “Like it or not, the term ‘hypocritical’ has become fused with young peoples’ experience of Christianity,” say the authors.{4} Eighty-five percent of “outsiders” and half of young churchgoers say so. The book offers story after painful story of sometimes breathtaking hypocrisy based on lengthy interviews. This adds weight to the conclusions drawn by Kinnaman and Lyons. The research was not simply based on surveys (quantitative) but also on in-depth interviews (qualitative).

There may be a silver lining here. The charge of hypocrisy offers a handy starting point for turning around negative perceptions and explaining grace. Pastor and author Tim Keller admits that we Christians actually are often hypocritical and need to be humble about it. Unrepentant hypocrites don’t admit mistakes, so we immediately challenge a perception by owning up to it.

But the other unavoidable fact is that non-Christians assume we are trying to live like Jesus to get into heaven, like the good-works motivation of other religions and cults. So, when they find out we’re not perfect people, they critique us as hypocrites. In contrast, an old saying captures the biblical worldview: “The Church is a hospital for sinners, not a museum for saints.”{5} Unbelievers simply cannot understand this; we have to be patient with that, says Keller.

You could respond to the accusation of hypocrisy like this: “I have a relationship with Christ not because I’m good but precisely because I am not good. He rescued me from myself and the ruin I was causing. But He’s changing me. I’m still a mess, but I’m God’s mess.”

In an age of Internet image-making and advertising, young outsiders are cynical about finding anybody who’s genuine. Christians need to genuinely repent of hypocrisy. Meanwhile, we can explain that grace means our imperfections are covered by God during the process of spiritual transformation. Maybe outsiders will opt for grace once they see more of it.

“Christians Hate Homosexuals”

Section Synopsis: Evangelical and born-again Christians today have a well-deserved but understandable reputation as anti-gay, but attitudes can go so far as being gay-hating. Balancing conviction about the broader gay agenda and the personal sin of homosexuality with a humble compassion for gay individuals who are made in God’s image is key, especially as we model for younger believers.

The guys in my Bible study group were discussing gay marriage and the upcoming elections. The lively banter stopped when I dropped a bomb. “You know,” I said, “when most non-Christians under thirty-years-old find out we’re evangelicals, we may as well be wearing a sandwich board emblazoned with ‘God hates gays.’” I’d been reading unChristian, and it was sobering.

According to the authors, if we’re raising kids to “shun their peers who are ‘different,’ we are actually limiting their . . . spiritual influence” and may lead them to question their own faith.{6} Why? Because they’ll probably have friends who identify as gay and other sexual identities. As Probe colleague Kerby Anderson says, “One of the biggest challenges for churches and individual Christians who reach out to homosexuals is keeping two principles in proper tension: biblical convictions and biblical compassion.”{7}

An emerging adult generation accepts homosexuality, often without thinking, even those who grew up in church. Only one-third of churched young people believe homosexuality to be a “major problem.”

And, only a small percentage of young adults “want to resist homosexual initiatives” in society. This is alarming, given America’s softening of sexual morals, mainstreaming of gay culture and the redefinition of marriage. But the issue addressed in unChristian is that in our battle against a few agenda-driven radicals, we’ve regularly forgotten that our fight is not with same-sex strugglers, but with unbiblical ideas.{8} We’re called to love, not condemn, the people made in God’s image who are caught up in sin, even while we stand up as Christian citizens.

Barna’s survey shows just how unbiblical self-identified Christians can be. Over half said homosexuality was a problem, but only two out of six hundred people said anything about love or “being sympathetic” as a potential solution. A mere one percent say they pray for homosexuals! “We need to downgrade the importance of being antihomosexual as a ‘credential,’” of our commitment to Christ, say the authors.{9} That is, we need to repent if we believe that it’s a spiritual badge of honor to be anti-gay.

If a certain brand of sin is disgusting to us, why should that get in the way of communicating the love of a forgiving God? We need to keep in mind that all sin is disgusting to God, even our pet sins. This is the kind of challenge the book unChristian does well. Yet, scant mention is made of the greater consequences of sexual sins, including sickness and the desperate need for repentance and recovery among same-sex practitioners. Perhaps that would have been off-point for this book.

Kinnaman observes that younger generations are “hard-wired for relational connections” and view the church’s lack of spiritual solutions as uncaring and insincere. If we lose our audience due to heartlessness it won’t matter how much truth we proclaim.

“Christians Are Judgmental”

Section Synopsis: “Christians are judgmental” is an accusation coming from young people inside and outside the Church today. Believers need to learn to retain the biblical mandate to judge the fruits of ideas and behaviors while going out of our way not to condemn people who’ve never (or seldom) experienced God’s grace.

One of the most troubling perceptions that a watching world has of “born agains” and “evangelicals”, especially among the under-thirty crowd, is that we are judgmental. The book unChristian cites findings that ninety percent of “outsiders” believe this. More than half of young churchgoers agree!

It’s not compromise to graciously work with disagreements. Sometimes the need to be right and “stay right” cancels out the truth we’re trying to defend. To use the old saying, “People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” This seems to be the main finding the research revealed.

The authors credit young generations with insightfulness into peoples’ motives since they’ve been endlessly targeted by marketing, lectures, and sermons. (Most have spent time in church, by the way.) They don’t want unsolicited advice, say the authors. But that makes them resistant, not unreachable. Another factor is that younger generations reject black-and-white views. “They esteem context, ambiguity, and tension. . . . How we communicate [to them] is just as important as what we communicate,” according to the book. {10} One popular author is seeing fruit among younger people by focusing on God Himself as the original community, the Trinity, and giving credence to our need for community.{11}

Well, aren’t unbelievers the ones judging believers? Aren’t Christians just standing up to sin? In-depth interviews showed that many respondents “believe Christians are trying . . . to justify feelings of moral and spiritual superiority.”{12} My opinion is this: If we think we’re better, we need to revisit Amazing Grace! Arrogance is the charge; are you guilty of it? I know I’ve been.

What does it mean to be judgmental? People are stumbling over stuff like this:

• Judgmentalism doesn’t stop to ask why people do the things they do and why they are the way they are. That is, it just doesn’t care.

• Judgmental minds see everything in terms of rules kept or rules broken.

• A judgmental heart maintains the us-them dichotomy, keeping people at a distance from us. Holding people in contempt is easier when we lump them into categories.

• The core belief of a judgmental spirit is, “I’m right and I’m better.”

It’s true, the worldview of young generations in America has shifted in recent years to include a “do-it-yourself” morality and this is deeply troubling. Youth apologist Josh McDowell notes that seniors have the emotional maturity of freshmen today. Many suffer from broken families.{13} Still, an entire generation—churched and many formerly-churched—doubts our motives. Yes, they are judging us! But if our attitudes truly are stiff-arming people, shouldn’t we start sympathetically inviting them into God’s fellowship?

Christ-followers have a very hard time distinguishing between judging people and judging what they do. Scripture teaches us clearly not to condemn people to hell. Paul the Apostle taught that he didn’t even judge himself, much less outsiders. Yet we are told to judge fruits, which consist of what people do. That way, we know if we’re dealing with an unbelieving person, a confused believer or a mature disciple of Christ. If an unbeliever commits sin, we can see from it how to minister to them.

We church folks say, “Love the sinner, hate the sin.” Those studied said they experience hate of the sin and the sinner. Much of church peoples’ discomfort and judgmentality stems from cultural and generational sources. If something like tattoos gets in the way of a Christlike response, maybe we need to take a fresh look at our attitudes.

How Can True Christians Constructively Respond?

Section Synopsis: Repairing a damaged image is a worthy goal for Christians so that critics can see Christ instead of negative stereotypes. We can tear down stereotypes by being Christlike and then we have a chance to tear down deeper misconceptions about God, the Bible, and faith.

The panhandler touched Dave’s heart with his honest appeal. “I just want a burger.” Throughout the meal, Dave talked with him, finding out about his life and views. He didn’t try to cram the gospel in or argue. Dave later overheard the man say to his homeless companion, “Hey that guy’s a Christian and we actually had a conversation.” Dave wondered what kind of negative interactions with Christians from the past prompted that response!

The authors of unChristian uncovered a low public opinion of evangelicals and born-again Christians among outsiders. They may be biased, but it’s helpful to know what people think.

One of the most important ministries you can have these days is to tear down negative stereotypes of Christ-followers simply by being Christlike. That may set the stage for tearing down myths and lies about God, the Bible, and Christianity.

We need to seek common ground to begin a dialogue with those outside the faith. We all respond to agreement better than arguments, so affirming is a good start towards persuading. I recently saw a bumper sticker on the truck of a worker. It said in effect, “Jesus loves you but I think you’re a jerk”, although in more colorful language! After I chuckled about how God loves “jerks” like me, we spent forty-five minutes discussing his views, mostly on God and religion.

At one point, he proclaimed, “I like to think of God as feminine.” I explored his reasons, which included the presence of beauty in the world. I affirmed that observation far as I could and expanded his thinking. I said, “What if God is so big and complete that He embodies perfect femininity and masculinity?” The door opened wider. But what if I’d acted offended by the cuss word on the sticker or been put off by his distorted theology? I’m sure he would have been put off and the conversation would have been aborted.

Again, we also need to admit mistakes and problems, say the authors. Youth today emphasize “keepin’ it real,” being genuine. “Transparency disarms an image-is-everything generation.”{14}

Lastly, the authors urge us to respond with truth and love to gays and their friends. Speaking out against homosexual sin and harmful politics may be our role. At the same time, Kerby Anderson points out that Christians “should lovingly welcome those who struggle with homosexual temptations and dedicate [ourselves] to meet the emotional and spiritual needs of” homosexual strugglers.{15}

Our tone of voice, demeanor and facial expression are much more important than we think. As Tim Keller says, “You actually have to embody a different kind of Christian than the ones that they’ve known in the past or they’re simply not going to listen to what you’re saying.”{16}

Notes

1. David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…And Why it Matters (BakerBooks: Grand Rapids, MI, 2007).
2. David Kinnaman and Lyons, 51
3. Ibid, 49.
4. Ibid, 42. 5. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (Dutton/Penguin Group, New York, New York: 2008), 54.
6. Kinnaman and Lyons, 99.
7. Kerby Anderson, A Biblical Point of View on Homosexuality (Harvest House: Eugene, Oregon, 2008), 82.
8. Ephesians 6:12 (NASB). See: www.BibleGateway.com.
9. Kinnaman and Lyons, 105.
10. Ibid, 183.
11. Tim Keller, interviewed by Ed Stetzer, researcher, blogger and host of Inside Lifeway, posted April 24, 2008, lifeway.edgeboss.net/download/lifeway/corp/IL_Evangelism_and_Keller.mp3.
12. Kinnaman and Lyons, 182.
13. Josh McDowell, as quoted by Charlie Mack, staff representative of Faculty Commons (Campus Crusade for Christ) in a PowerPoint® presentation presented to professors at Michigan State University, Spring, 2008.
14. Kinnaman and Lyons, 56.
15. Kerby Anderson, 83-84.
16. Keller, “Inside Lifeway” interview.

© 2009 Probe Ministries International


The Glory of Grace

The Glory of Grace

Sue Bohlin explores God’s marvelous grace as the unending flow of His power, presence and favor in our lives.

I bet you recognize “grace” as a theology word. Many of us are quick to say, “Oh yeah, I know what that is. We’re saved by grace through faith.” Or we know of churches with the word “grace” in their name. But many of us don’t have a real handle on it. Often that’s because we haven’t seen it modeled in our families, our churches, or our communities. We’re too focused on trying to prove ourselves good enough, too busy trying to keep God from getting mad at us.

download-podcast But this misunderstood blessing of grace is hugely important. It’s one of the big things that sets Christianity apart from all other religions! Any other world religion involves performance-based works. Biblical Christianity says, “We’re messed-up broken people before a holy God, and there’s nothing we can do to earn His approval. But He loves us and delights in us despite the fact that we don’t deserve it.” With all other religions, the emphasis is on “do.” Because of grace, in Christianity the emphasis is on “done.”{1}

One of the most powerful elements of grace is simply acceptance. The book of Romans assures us that we are accepted by both the Father (Romans 14:3) and the Son (Romans 15:7). We can do nothing to earn Their acceptance; it’s a gift. The Father says, “I accept you just the way you are, but I love you too much to leave you that way. Come to Me: My arms and My heart are open to you because of what My Son did in His incarnation, crucifixion, resurrection and ascension. I have always loved you, My precious child. I chose you before the foundation of the world, to adopt you into My family.”{2} I love to think of God stamping our foreheads with an invisible tattoo that says, “Accepted in the Beloved” (Ephesians 1:6, KJV).

Pastor Mark Driscoll has an especially great definition of grace. Instead of the one we’ve heard for years, “God’s undeserved favor,” Mark calls it “ill-deserved” favor.{3} But my all-time favorite definition comes from John Ortberg: “Grace is the offer of God’s ceaseless presence and irrational love that cannot be stopped. It’s the flow of God’s power and presence and favor in your life from one moment to the next that enables you to do whatever it is God has for you to do.”{4} I want to focus on God’s power, presence, and favor, as well as giving some real-life examples of what grace looks like.

Power

A little boy was playing in his sandbox one Saturday morning when he discovered a large rock in the middle of it. The boy dug around the rock, managing to dislodge it from the dirt. With a little bit of struggle, he pushed and nudged the rock across the sandbox. But then he found that he couldn’t roll it up and over the little wall. The boy shoved, pushed, and pried, but every time he thought he had made some progress, the rock tipped and then fell back into the sandbox.

All this time the boy’s father watched from his window as the drama unfolded and his son burst into tears of frustration.

As the tears fell, a large shadow fell across the boy and the sandbox. It was the boy’s father. He asked, “Son, why didn’t you use all the strength that you had available?”

The boy sobbed, “But I did, Daddy, I did! I used all the strength that I had!”

The father corrected kindly, “No, son, you didn’t use all the strength you had. You didn’t ask me.” With that, the father reached down, picked up the rock and removed it from the sandbox.

Experiencing God grace means depending on Him to provide the power for our lives, whether it’s dislodging a big ol’ rock in our sandbox or simply making it through the day.

I like to think of the power of God’s grace as electricity that is available twenty-four hours, seven days a week. God’s grace is always available to us at every moment of our life, and because of His goodness and faithfulness, we never have to fear a power shortage of God’s grace.

The key to experiencing the flow of God’s power is what Jesus called abiding, choosing to remain in a state of trustful dependence on God. Jesus said in John 15:5, “I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing.”

I love to illustrate this by turning on a shop light that’s plugged into an electrical outlet. When I press the switch, the light goes off, even though the power is still flowing and available. We can shut off the expression of grace, the flow of God’s power, by quenching the Spirit—by actively disobeying God, or by passively ignoring Him. But His power can shine in our lives again as soon as we open ourselves up to Him, asking for His help, intentionally depending on His power and not our own. Grace is the flow of God’s power in our lives.

Presence

One morning, as I swam laps in the health club pool, I was meditating on these three aspects of grace. I said, “Lord, what do You want me to know about Your presence?” At that very second, I “just happened” to see a large sign on the wall right in front of me: “WARNING: NO LIFEGUARD ON DUTY.” I literally laughed out loud, realizing that this was code for “You’re on your own, buddy.” God’s grace means we never have to fear that there’s no lifeguard on duty, that we’re on our own, because He has promised to never leave us or forsake us (Deuteronomy 31:6, Hebrews 13:5). The Lord Jesus’ last promise was, “I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).

My favorite illustration of grace as God’s presence is the building of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. Dwight Edwards relates that during its initial stages of construction, “Twenty-three workers fell to their deaths. Finally, halfway through the project, a large net was put in place beneath the bridge. From then on, only ten men actually fell—all caught by the net. Plus, the workers’ productivity was raised by twenty-five percent. Assured that their safety was no longer in question, they pursued their work with far greater freedom and effectiveness than before. This is exactly what God has done for us. Stretched wide beneath us, extending from eternity past to eternity future, is God’s perfect grace, assuring every believer that we can never fall from His favor. No matter how badly we falter or fail, we can never plunge past the grace of God.”{5}

Think of grace as the hand of God ready to catch you when you fall. Because God is good and He is sovereign, that means nothing can happen that He cannot redeem. There is no such thing as an unrecoverable disaster. Even when we sin deliberately and stupidly, we cannot jump beyond the bounds of His grace. Now, His grace usually involves painful discipline, because God disciplines those He loves (Hebrews 12:6), but we cannot out-sin God’s love and grace.

Recently, a friend of mine was anguishing, “Why did God allow me to wreck my marriage and family? I wouldn’t let my children run out into the street and be hit by a car, why did He let me go that far?” As I turned to the Lord for an answer, He whispered, “I’m always protecting My children, but you don’t see the disasters I avert.” Part of God’s grace is the safety of His protecting presence.

Favor

One important element of grace is favor. One dictionary defines favor as “an attitude of approval or liking.”

Five-year-old Matt got up from his nap one day and said, “Guess what, mommy, I just had a dream about Jesus!” The mommy asked, “Well, what did Jesus say to you?” “Nothing.” “Well, what was Jesus doing?” “Nothing.” “Now Matthew, you just said you had a dream about Jesus, he MUST have said or done something!” Matt was quiet for a moment, and then with a wiggle and grin he looked up and said shyly, “He just stood there and liked me.”

When somebody likes you, their eyes light up when they see you. Did you know God’s whole face lights up when He looks at you? The Bible talks about His face shining on us.{6} God doesn’t only love us, He likes us! Experiencing God’s grace means He showers not only love but like on us, and His face reflects His heart of favor toward us.

Every child needs to receive the “3 A’s” of favor from his daddy: attention, affection, and approval. The Father poured out the 3 A’s on the Lord Jesus at His baptism when He said, “You are My beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”{7} Those words are like gold, and we can receive them into our own hearts as well.

I love the way one daddy blogger expresses grace toward his daughter. He writes,

I love you. I love the way your hair rolls into ringlets and falls into your eyes. I love the way you read yourself books, even though you can’t read. I love the way you dance and twirl around the kitchen. I love the way you wave at cars that pass on our walks. I love the way you scream “Dad” in the middle of the night. I love the way you say “do it again” when we do something fun. I even love the permanent marker custom design you put on my new Mac. But as much as I love you, Jesus loves you more. I sacrifice a lot because I love you, but Jesus sacrificed everything because he loves you. So if somewhere along the way you fail a test or love a boy who does not love you back or have a mastectomy or develop Alzheimer’s or gain some weight or lose a job, you will still hold infinite value because Jesus loves you. No matter what. You are loved exactly as you are. Always.{8}

Oh yeah. That’s the beauty of grace.

What Grace Looks Like

I want to share some examples of what grace looks like, both the way God showers grace on us, and the way people share His grace with others.

God has poured grace on me in a huge way when traveling internationally. Because of a schedule change, I found myself flying back to Dallas from Germany just in time to speak at a weekend women’s retreat. I arrived home from the airport with just enough time to repack my bags and pick up my speaking notes and props. I then drove two hours to the retreat facility, arriving while the women were still singing. I literally got out of the car with my notebook in hand, walked in the door and up to the stage to start speaking. With the time difference, my body felt like it was five o’clock in the morning and I’d been awake for twenty-two hours. But God not only kept me alert, He filled me with His energy, and the women couldn’t tell any difference.

When we’ve received God’s grace, we are able to turn around and give it to others.

Grace means responding with patience when someone forgets they already told you something, or that you told them something, and just going with the flow. Grace means lifting off the burden of needless “shoulds” that weigh people down. One grace-filled speaker invited people to respond in song at the end of her message, saying, “If you’d like to sing, great! Join us! If you need a rest, feel free to just listen.” She removed any pressure to perform. At our church, a couple of pastors managed to deliver a message on giving and stewardship without even a hint of shame, or condemnation, or pressure. That’s what grace looks like.

When my friend’s mother contracted Alzheimer’s, she told her daughter early in the progression of the disease, “If I get to the point where I don’t recognize you, don’t take it personally.” She was expressing grace in being more concerned about her daughter’s hurt than her own loss of memory.

Another friend needed eye surgery to keep her from losing her sight. Her friend Angela, who has been blind for a number of years, told our friend, “Don’t be concerned about talking about your vision to me—I am so over that!” That’s what grace looks like.

One of my favorite stories happened one night to my dear friend who was starting to realize what monsters her abusive parents were. She had always patterned herself after her mother, and suddenly realized she had even chosen the same dishes as her mother’s when they got married. Suddenly she couldn’t abide the thought of keeping them in the house a moment longer. She grabbed a plate out of the cupboard and hurled it to the floor, smashing it to pieces. Her husband heard the noise and came to see what was going on. When she explained the connection between their dishes and her mother, her husband calmly said, “Have at it. Tomorrow morning I’ll take you to get new dishes.” Not only did he clean up the mess when she was done, but all those shards damaged their kitchen floor—and he never once mentioned it. That’s grace.

Notes

1. See, for example, John 15:5; 19:30; Colossians 3:4; Ephesians 2:8-9.
2. Ephesians 1:4-5
3. marshill.com/media/religionsaves/grace
4. This quote came from a sermon preached at Pastor Ortberg’s church, Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, California, 2003. When I emailed him asking for a specific citation, his answer was, “I have no idea, Sue.”
5. Dwight Edwards, Experiencing Christ Within Workbook: Passionately Embracing God’s Provisions for Supernatural Living (Colorado Springs: Waterbrook Press, 2002), p. 105.
6. Numbers 6:25
7. Matthew 3:17
8. jeffdlawrence.com/2011/12/23/some-thoughts-on-how-to-talk-to-little-girls/

© 2012 Probe Ministries


Mister Rogers and the Hunger for God

“You’ve made this day a special day by just your being you. There is no person in the whole world like you, and I like you just the way you are.” —Mister Rogers, to every person as we watched his show.

With the news that a documentary about Fred Rogers (Public Television’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood”) will be released this summer, and a movie about him starring Tom Hanks will be in production soon, there has been a good bit of buzz in social media recently. I keep coming across articles about him and links to videos that often move me to grateful tears for this amazing man.

“Mister Rogers” had a heart for children that is unlike anything I’ve ever seen. His TV program ran for 33 years, from 1968 to 2001. My children grew up watching Mister Rogers, and I often sat with them, equally enthralled by his gentleness, his predictable routines (such as changing out of his jacket into a cardigan sweater and a different pair of shoes every single show), and his ability to speak straight to the heart of the audience. Except it wasn’t that we were part of his audience; Mister Rogers communicated in such a powerfully personal way, with such soothing, calm tranquility, that we knew he was speaking to US. Individually.

Even before I learned he was an ordained Presbyterian minister, I sensed there was something deeply spiritual about his message and the way he communicated respect, genuine caring, and encouragement to his “neighbors.” As Jonathan Merritt wrote in The Atlantic,

“Fred’s faith surfaced in subtle, indirect ways that most viewers might miss, but it infused all he did. He believed ‘the space between the television set and the viewer is holy ground,’ but he trusted God to do the heavy lifting. The wall of his office featured a framed picture of the Greek word for ‘grace,’ a constant reminder of his belief that he could use television ‘for the broadcasting of grace through the land.’ Before entering that office each day, Rogers would pray, “Dear God, let some word that is heard be yours.”{{1}

I once heard a wise man say that since we are made in the image of God, everything we do and say either tells the truth about God, or it tells a lie about God. It seems to me that Fred Rogers showed millions of children what Father God is like. I am especially reminded of God’s own statement about Himself in Exodus 34:6:

The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth . . .

For decades, Mister Rogers demonstrated compassion: for people with different skin than his, for people with disabilities, for people going through hard times, and especially by showing unrelenting respect for children—their fears (such as haircuts and being sucked down the bathtub drain) and their pains (like divorce), and their celebrations.

Grace was a huge part of Mister Rogers’ worldview. He bestowed dignity and value on everyone because of his belief that all people deserve dignity and appreciation as God’s creations, made in His image. Who know how many little hearts God healed through the song “It’s You I Like”? In fact, when Joan Rivers had him as a guest on the Tonight Show, you can see grace wash over her like the warm blessing that it was:

God is slow to anger, and His servant Mister Rogers showed an amazing degree of patience and self-control in his shows. He always moved and spoke slowly and deliberately, as an antidote to the barrage of “Hurry up, hurry up!” children often hear from their frazzled, impatient caregivers.

God abounds in lovingkindness and truth, and apparently so did Mister Rogers. One of his quotes:

“There are three ways to ultimate success:
The first way is to be kind.
The second way is to be kind.
The third way is to be kind.”

This is a great quote, but countless people report that Fred Rogers lived it. He was the epitome of kindness—to everyone. One journalist reported a typical scene when he walked on the streets of New York:

“. . .but every time [the show’s producer Margy Whitmer] turned around, there was Mister Rogers putting his arms around someone, or wiping the tears off someone’s cheek, or passing around the picture of someone’s child, or getting on his knees to talk to a child. Margy couldn’t stop them, and she couldn’t stop him. “Oh, Mister Rogers, thank you for my childhood.” “Oh, Mister Rogers, you’re the father I never had.” “Oh, Mister Rogers, would you please just hug me?” {{2}

In the wake of the #metoo movement, ugly truths are emerging about certain celebrities. It’s good to be able to highlight one of the good guys, who shone his light to the glory of God as he nourished the souls of millions of children and anyone else who watched his TV show.

I think we are all hungry to know that we are loved, especially by God. I look forward to meeting him in heaven one day. I will close with this story I found on Facebook that powerfully expresses Mister Rogers’ legacy:

“A good portion of my pro-bono work is defending abused children. It’s a cause close to my heart. In the course of my work I met a man who was an adult survivor. You wouldn’t have known it looking at him. He was this gigantic Polynesian guy. Wild curly hair. I think of him every time I see Khal Drogo on GoT. He was counseling some of the little kids, and doing a fantastic job of it.

“I visited his home to get his opinion on something and I noticed a little toy on his desk. It was Trolley. Naturally curious, I asked him about it. This is what he told me:

“‘The most dangerous time for me was in the afternoon when my mother got tired and irritable. Like clockwork. Now, she liked to beat me in discreet places so my father wouldn’t see the bruises. That particular day she went for the legs. Not uncommon for her. I was knocked down and couldn’t get back up. Also not uncommon. She gave me one last kick, the one I had come to learn meant ‘I’m done now’. Then she left me there upstairs, face in the carpet, alone. I tried to get up, but couldn’t. So I dragged myself, arm over arm, to the television, climbed up the tv cabinet and turned on the TV.

“‘And there was Mr. Rogers. It was the end of the show and he was having a quiet, calm conversation with those hundreds of kids. In that moment, he seemed to look me in the eye when he said ‘And I like you just for being you’. In that moment, it was like he was reaching across time and space to say these words to me when I needed them most.

“‘It was like the hand of God, if you’re into that kind of thing. It hit me in the soul. I was a miserable little kid. I was sure I was a horrible person. I was sure I deserved every last moment of abuse, every blow, every bad name. I was sure I earned it, sure I didn’t deserve better. I *knew* all of these things … until that moment. If this man, who I hadn’t even met, liked me just for being me, then I couldn’t be all bad. Then maybe someone could love me, even if it wasn’t my mom.

“‘It gave me hope. If that nice man liked me, then I wasn’t a monster. I was worth fighting for. From that day on, his words were like a secret fortress in my heart. No matter how broken I was, no matter how much it hurt or what was done to me, I could remember his words, get back on my feet, and go on for another day.

“‘That’s why I keep Trolley there. To remind me that, no matter how terrible things look, someone who had never met me liked me just for being me, and that makes even the worst day worth it to me. I know how stupid it sounds, but Mr. Rogers saved my life.’

“The next time I saw him, he was talking to one of my little clients. When they were done with their session, he helped her out of her chair, took both of her hands, looked her in the eyes and said: ‘And remember, I like you just for being you.’

“That, to me, is Mr. Rogers’ most powerful legacy. All of the little lives he changed and made better with simple and sincere words of love and kindness.”

1. www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/11/mister-rogers-saint/416838/
2. www.esquire.com/entertainment/tv/a27134/can-you-say-hero-esq1198/

 

This blog post originally appeared at
blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/mister_rogers_and_the_hunger_for_god
on May 1, 2018.


Shame-Based Families, Grace-Based Families

Rick Smith family - Banner

The messages of a shame-based family:
“Don’t talk, don’t trust, don’t feel.”
“Everybody has to put their needs aside so we can tiptoe around _____ and not make them mad.”
“Why did you do that, you dumb b*tt?”
“If you disappoint me this much, how much more are you disappointing God?”
“Oh please, you’re not wearing that, are you?”
“Loser . . . stupid . . . such an embarrassment . . . I hope nobody knows you’re my daughter . . . You’ll never amount to anything . . . I wish I’d never had you . . . You’re so fat. And ugly.”

Every message of a shame-based family is an arrow into someone’s heart. Left there unacknowledged and not pulled out with truth, it starts generating lies and pain that can last a lifetime.

Lots of people grew up in this kind of family, but we are not sentenced to repeating it into the next generation. We can put on the brakes and steer our families in another direction altogether-the direction of grace.

Rick Smith FamilyGrace-based families also have messages:
“You are loved and valued, no matter what you do.”
“When we disagree, you never have to worry that I will stop loving you.”
“I was wrong and I am sorry. Will you forgive me?”
“Did you do your best? You’re the only one who can know.”
“Let’s talk about why you did that. What other choices did you have? What can you learn from this?”
“Can you help me understand what happened, what you were thinking or saying when you ____?”

The underlying message of a shame-based family is, “You are not acceptable and you risk being rejected and abandoned.” The underlying message of a grace-based family is, “You are an important and cherished part of this family and you will always be loved and accepted, even if we need to discipline you for wrong choices.”

Shame-based families shame out loud through name-calling, deadly comparisons (“Why can’t you be like ____?”), and anything that indicates the person is not good enough. Grace-based families affirm out loud with uplifting expressions of belief in each other, appreciation for each other, and affectionate use of each other’s names. Each person feels that their name is safe in everyone else’s mouths—but most especially mom and dad’s.

The focus of shame-based families is on performance, looking good and being good on the outside. It’s all external. Not embarrassing the family is huge. The focus of grace-based families is on the heart, remembering that character is shaped and developed in the family. The child’s value—which never changes—is separated from his or her behavior, which is eminently changeable. These families remember that God is not real pleased with our choices sometimes, but He never stops loving us.

Shame-based families specialize in unspoken rules and expectations. They are discovered when one gets broken. Often, one of the unspoken rules is that no one is supposed to notice or mention problems; if you bring a problem into the light by asking, “Hey, what about this?”—YOU become the problem. When one of my friends told her parents that her brother had been molesting her, her father threatened, “Don’t you ever talk about this again. It is over.” When the abuse continued and she told her youth pastor, her father responded that his daughter was mentally ill, a pathological liar, and not to believe her.

There is often a “can’t-win” rule in effect: children are taught never to lie, but they are also not allowed to tell Grandma her cooking tastes awful. Or children are taught that smoking is bad, but if they point out that mom or dad smoke, they are shamed and shut down.

In grace-based families, rules and expectations are clearly spelled out. If an unspoken rule comes to light because someone broke it, it gets talked about without shaming the one who broke a rule they didn’t know was in place. If someone notices or mentions a problem, the problem is addressed instead of attacking the one who brought it up. In grace-based families, the problem is the problem, rather than the person who identified it.

Shame-based families often use coded messages to communicate, saying one thing while intending that their audience read their minds and respond to the actual message they wanted to give without coming right out and speaking it. Someone might say, “I have such a headache” and the second person replies, “That’s too bad” or “Sorry”—and then continues to do whatever they were doing. The first gets upset that the other person didn’t offer to get them a pain reliever. The one with the headache used to be me, until a wise mentor responded with, “Would you like an Advil? Healthy people ask for what they need and want. Just ask me if I have one.” Whoa. That was a game-changer for me!

The communication in grace-based families tends to be clear and straight. It’s about saying what is true and what is actually meant. Scripture calls that “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:15). And healthy communication does not involve an unnecessary third person, a term called “triangulating.” If someone complains about another person, or gives a message for another family member, a wise person redirects them to the one they actually need to communicate with, refusing to be the third person in a two-person communication. Another wise person has said, “If you don’t have a dog in that fight, stay out of it.” That works!

Shame-based families are preoccupied with fault or blame. They are always looking for where to place—or shift—the blame when something goes wrong. Then the culprit can be shamed, humiliated, and made to feel so bad they don’t do it again.

In grace-based families, the emphasis is on responsibility and accountability. People are responsible for their choices and held accountable for their behavior. Grace-based parents try to remember that all of life is training for a child, and it takes many, many times to learn wise and healthy behavior. So while a child may be disciplined, they are not punished for not getting something right. Instead of being shamed for slamming the door, they may be instructed, “OK, I guess you need practice in closing the door without slamming it. So you’ll be practicing 25 times in a row, starting right now.” Another way that grace-based families can build responsibility and accountability is by using natural consequences without anger: “Since you left your bicycle in the driveway again, you will lose the privilege of enjoying it for a week.” And sometimes, discipline without punishment means talking about what happened without shaming, by asking good questions: “So what can you learn from this?” “What can you do differently next time?”

Family is meant to be God’s safety net underneath is, the safe place to fall when we make mistakes and learn painful life lessons. By His grace and through being intentional, shame-based families can become grace-based families as we reflect on how God, the perfect Parent, loves us perfectly and unconditionally-yet teaches us to be responsible as we grow up to maturity.

Note: the grace-based family in the picture are my friends Rick and Abbie Smith with their sons Noah and Jaxten. If you want a blessing, check out their story of grace at noahsdad.com/story.

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/shame-based_families_grace-based_families on March 8, 2016.


“I’m a Mormon and I Have Questions about Your Article”

I read your article A Short Look at Six World Religions and it said that many of Joseph Smith’s prophecies never came true. Which prophecies are those?

I also read, “Both of these religions teach salvation by works, not God’s grace.” I have been a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 8 years of age, and I have always been taught that we are saved by the grace of God. However, salvation is not free. For example, if one chooses to not live the commandments that God has given, then how can he be worthy to live in the presence of God? Here is a quote from the Book of Mormon: “For we know that it is by grace that we are saved after all that we can do.” (page 99-100). Jesus Christ paid the price for our sins, but we must do our part to accept his atonement and live his commandments. Accepting his atonement is not enough. Through the grace of our loving Savior we can be redeemed from our sins and return to the presence of our Heavenly Father clean from all sin, again if we keep his commandments the best we know how. God the Father and His Son Jesus Christ are the perfect examples of mercy.

Have a good day and thank you for teaching the gospel of Jesus Christ, who is my best friend.

Hello ______,

Jesus is my best friend too! <smile>

I read your A Short Look at Six World Religions and it said that many of Joseph Smith’s prophecies never came true. Which prophecies are those?

I cited a few of them in a response to an e-mail about my article. Your question prompted me to add a link to that article at the end of the one you read, but here’s a direct link for you.

I also read, “Both of these religions teach salvation by works, not God’s grace.” I have been a member of the Chruch of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints from 8 years of age, and I have always been taught that we are saved by the grace of God. However, salvation is not free.

I would agree that salvation was not free for God, for whom it cost Him EVERYTHING. But it is a free gift for us. Please note Ephesians 2:8,9:

“For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.”

This scripture is diametrically opposed to Mormon doctrine. We cannot do anything to contribute to our salvation. Isaiah 64:6 says that all our righteousness is as filthy rags; what can we possibly give to God that will overcome the heinous sin of requiring the death of His Son to be reconciled to Him? If someone came in here and murdered one of my sons and then said, “Hey, I don’t want you to be mad at me. . . let me do something to help me get myself in your good graces. Here’s a nickel. . .”—Well, guess what? That wouldn’t work! And it doesn’t work with God either.

______, I pray the Lord will open your eyes to see that trying to earn salvation with our paltry efforts—even WITH His grace—is a slap in the face of our God. He wants us to come to Him with empty hands and the realization that we do not deserve and cannot earn the gift of eternal life that comes ONLY through trusting in the Lord Jesus.

Warmly,

Sue Bohlin
Probe Ministries


“I am a Christ-Believing Hindu”

I am a Hindu by birth. A Christ-believing Hindu (we will get to that a little later).

I was just reading your write up on “Do Hindus believe in Jesus.” And I am writing to thank you! Thank you for not calling Hinduism a religion creating by Satan as some do, for not outrightly dismissing our faith as pagan or evil. Thank you for the open mind with which you view Hinduism. And thank you for not considering Jesus a western God.

But the article talks about the Jesus of the Bible and the Jesus that the Hindu man believes in. Being a Jesus lover myself (don’t get me wrong, I mean I love Jesus absolutely, unconditionally, and like crazy, talk to Jesus 24/7 and try to listen to what He tells me), I can tell you that Jesus is God according to Hinduism as He could be according to Christianity. This is because Hinduism lets you choose your path to salvation. It lets you believe in any Ista of God or all of it. And I have chosen Jesus and His path to salvation.

And yes, my Jesus is the Jesus of the Bible. I read the Bible as often as I can. I was introduced to Jesus by the Bible and I know no other Jesus. There is nothing just nothing in the Bible that does not fit into the Hindu scheme of things. Yes, John 4:16 says Jesus only! But so does every scripture of Isha. Scriptures will tell man that following God/Jesus/Allah/Krishna is the only way of attaining God! This is because there is just One God. So there can be only one way. And that is to follow God.

It is important that people of God (I will happily claim that I belong to the group) accept that there is just one God. Different people choose different ways to reach God. But so be it. As it is stated in Romans 14:4, who are we to judge another, it is before our master, that we stand or fall. Our Master is one. He is the same to a Muslim who believes in Allah, to a Christian who believes that Jesus is the only way to heaven, to an atheist and to a Christ believing Hindu who believes that loving Jesus is the awesomest thing ever.

Good day
Bless the Lord

First of all, let me thank you for contacting Probe Ministries with your thoughts on Jesus. We must confess that your letter was thought-provoking and deserves a reasonable response. Hence, let me point out few things to shed some light on few things mentioned in your letter.

I agree with you that we have no choice when it comes to our birth. However, we all have the privilege of making a choice on what to believe and what to reject.

Regarding your comment on Jesus, we agree that Jesus is “not a western God.” In fact, Jesus, in his incarnation, was born in the Middle East. So, when it comes to region, He was more eastern than western. However, we must clarify that God, the Creator of the whole universe, is not limited to a region. He is not a foreigner or alien to any country or culture.

We are pleased to know that you have a loving relationship with Jesus. That is wonderful. We hope that this relationship will help you to listen to Him better and understand Him better and to follow Him better. In fact, Jesus said that “If you love me, you will obey my commands” (John 14:15).

While we respect your freedom to believe in Jesus or not to believe in Jesus, we want to point out a couple of things that Jesus taught. The first thing to keep in mind is that the information about Jesus as God is available only in the writings of the disciples of Christ. Hindu literature does not speak about Jesus. In the writings of the disciples of Jesus, it is made very clear that Jesus made some exclusive claims. For example, Jesus claimed “I am the way, the truth and the life.” The definite articles in these claims make it clear that they are exclusive claims. He also claimed that “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). The Bible is unambiguous in making exclusive claims. Exclusive claims of truth are logical. Truth by definition is exclusive—truth excludes what is false. It is from this kind of a worldview that the followers of Jesus, who loved him, believed His claim that He is the only way to the Father and therefore the only Savior of the world (Acts 4:12).

We agree with you that there is only one God. On the other hand, if there is only one God, it is reasonable for us to leave it to God to decide how many ways are there to reach Him. In fact, you might have heard of a religion known as Satanism. It will be injustice to the followers of Satan if we claim that their religion will lead to God. Don’t they have a right to pick their destination? Won’t it be cruel to them if we or God refuse them their right to follow someone other than God? If God has given that freedom to men, let us respect that freedom.

We agree with you that we do not have to judge others. And we do not. Jesus will be the judge during the final judgment. We just believe Jesus’ claim that He is the only way to the Father, and teach that belief, as an expression of our faith in Christ and as a response to His love shown to us on the cross. In fact, if there were another way for mankind to be saved, the death of Christ was futile or meaningless. We hope that you will find meaning in the death of Christ on the cross for you and me and will show your love to Jesus by believing in His claims. For a factual belief in Jesus, read the writings about Him and His teachings recorded by His direct disciples who saw His death and witnessed His resurrection and ascension. If you really love Jesus, you will believe His claims and obey them. I am sure that you do not want to love someone who taught wrong things, right? Jesus was either right in making those claims, or he was a liar or lunatic (to die for those claims). You must make a choice!

Rajesh Sebastian

 

Grace and peace of God be with one and all. Thank you for considering my mail and send such a beautiful reply.

Just two things. One, Lord Jesus Christ has been mentioned in the Hindu scriptures. So has Noah, Adam and Eve. Besides I see no reason why the holy Bible would not qualify as a Hindu scripture.

And second, Mr. Rajesh spoke about the option to choose your destination. If there can be two destinations, can’t there be two paths to a destination?? Why did the holy Bible give us the laws but later God blessed us with the Grace through Lord Jesus Christ? That’s two paths, right? And accepting that Jesus Christ is the path does not mean that we deny the laws.

Lastly, the very thought of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ going meaningless sends a chill down my spine. For He has done so much for me and to save me. But trust me, as long as all the sheep get home safely, my Shepherd will be glad. That’s all that matters to my Savior.

May the Grace of Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with us all.

Happy Sabbath.

 

Greetings in the name of the Saviour.

You brought up some interesting topics for discussion. Let me quickly respond to a couple of them that might be beneficial to you.

You mentioned that “Lord Jesus Christ has been mentioned in the Hindu scriptures. So has Noah, Adam and Eve.”

You are right. It is true that Bhavishyapurana mentions the names you have mentioned above. However, there is nothing to wonder about that. It also mentioned the names of Muhammad, Sankaracharya, Babar, Akbar, East India Company, Queen Victoria etc. Guess the date of its composition!

As mentioned to you earlier, let me repeat that the only source of reliable information for the teachings of Jesus Christ are from the writings of the disciples who gave their life for following those teachings. Almost all of them were killed for their faith in Christ by followers of various religion. St. Thomas was killed in India.

You also stated that “Besides I see no reason why the holy Bible would not qualify as a Hindu scripture.”

On the other hand, will you have a problem if Hindu Scriptures are considered as Islamic or Christian or Jewish? Each religion and their texts present different and competing worldviews to people. They are mutually exclusive. While Christianity believes in One personal God, Hinduism offers One non-personal Brahman (Nirguna Brahman) as the ultimate reality. Both views can not be right at the same time in the same sense.

Regarding your question “Can’t there be two paths to a destination?” We would prefer to say that it is for God to decide how many ways are there to reach Him. We also believe that, if there were another way, the death of Christ would have been unnecessary. Moreover, what God has revealed to us in the Bible is that there is only one way to Christ. Jesus and the writers of Bible are unambiguous about it.

Regarding your comment on law and grace, let me clarify that Bible clearly teaches that the giving of the law and the sending of Christ were both actions of grace. While the law was helpful in preventing sin, it was not enough to save sinners. So, as planned in advance and promised in advance, Christ came to make the sufficient incarnation and sacrifice once and for all so that whole mankind can be forgiven through his sacrifice. Law is never presented as a path of salvation in the Bible.

As you wrote, we hope that you will find your trust in the True Shepherd and Savior. He is the way, the Truth and the Life.

Rajesh Sebastian

Posted March 2014
© 2014 Probe Ministries


Glimpses of Grace: Knocking Down Mental Walls

One of the most spiritually dangerous mistakes we can make is to compartmentalize our thinking into separate sections: Facts/values. Sacred/secular.

Worst of all, God/real life.

If Jesus truly is Lord—and His word says He is—then there is not so much as a solitary atom, much less an entire compartment, where He does not belong. So I love, love, love it when writers and speakers help us tear down mental and spiritual walls to help us live life as a unified whole. And now there’s a new voice to help women think biblically and rightly about how we glorify God in our homes.

This week marks the release of Gloria Furman’s book Glimpses of Grace: Treasuring the Gospel in Your Home. I’ve never read a book that so thoroughly explores the way God’s grace can so fully and vibrantly radiate into even the most mundane and seemingly unimportant parts of life.

This, on top of the fact that Gloria is a mom of three little ones with a fourth on the way, a pastor’s wife, living in Dubai—and her husband Dave’s physical strength is severely compromised, which of course means life is harder for Gloria. So yeah—I’m impressed. But Gloria’s bio doesn’t hold a candle to her wisdom, her grasp of theology, and what I especially appreciate, a breathtaking level of transparency and authenticity that eloquently communicates, “I’m messed up and I desperately need Jesus, but let me show you how He’s so good!”

Her great, dry sense of humor is studded throughout the book, such as: “I need God’s grace and something baked with peanut butter and chocolate.” What’s not to love?

Some of my highlighted passages, which I wanted to share with you:

• When I attended a marriage conference taught by Paul Tripp, he said something that devastated me. Tripp said, “If God doesn’t rule your mundane, then he doesn’t rule you. Because that’s where you live.”

• God can use the ordinary moments in your life to glorify himself by conforming you into the image of his Son. That is precisely what he intends to do. Dirty dishes in the sink or red crayons smushed into an electrical socket by a curious toddler are not just worrisome ordeals in your otherwise uneventful day. They’re opportunities to see glimpses of grace.

• Jesus apparently believes that the most satisfying thing for us in all eternity is to behold his glory in his very presence. He is not absent from our noisy, chaotic lives. He is with us, even to the end of the age (Matt. 28:20). And if he’s with us even to the end of the age, then he is with us even to the end of our carpooling route. He’s with us even to the end of the meat in the fridge when grocery day isn’t for another four days. He’s with us even to the end of a long night of waking with a crying baby. He’s with us even to the end of a party that we’d rather not be at or be hosting, for whatever reason. He’s with us even to the end of a hectic morning of rushing around trying to get out the door. He’s with us even to the end of a dreadful day when nothing seemed to go as planned.

• God’s efficacious grace could be described in terms of the different ways you put pajamas on a baby. My son prefers to streak after he takes baths. He even tries to climb out of the tub early before everyone is soaped up and rinsed in order to increase his odds of getting to run around in his birthday suit. . . . But it’s all fun and games until a naked baby has an accident on the carpet, so I quickly chase him down to put on his diaper. Some nights he runs away shrieking and hides under tables and behind chairs trying to avoid the inevitable. Some nights he quietly lies on the bed while I diaper him, and he might even stretch his legs into the pajamas I hold up. Either way, whether I have to wrestle his clothes onto him or he peacefully submits to the work I am doing, that boy has never gone to bed without a diaper and pajamas on. Of course, we should love to submit to God’s efficacious grace as he purposes to make us more like Christ! But sometimes we’re like a naked baby hiding behind the couch, reluctant to hold still and thankfully allow God to work in our hearts and get us ready for what he has next.

• We’re destined for joy forever because of Christ’s exquisite hospitality in opening a way to God through his own body. We can serve others with gladness, knowing that the carrots we peel and the diapers we change are as unto the Lord. . . . When we show hospitality in this way, we can see how “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may about in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). Our role is to serve with the strength God supplies, and it’s God’s role to do with our service whatever he pleases. He supplies the strength, and in his abundant hospitality he also gives us joy! God’s grace in Christ is for us to enjoy and share with others. When I have this grace in mind, I can see my possessions and others’ needs in light of eternity.

• My disgusting kitchen floor and its propensity to absorb filth is a picture of our hearts. No matter how hard we scrub, we cannot erase our iniquity. The shame of our sin is like the phantom stain on a shirt that reappears after you’ve dried it. The stain is deep in the fibers of the shirt, and when the right temperature of heat is applied, the stain rises to the surface of the fabric. The stain is permanent.

• Not making an idol out of our homes is tricky. I’ve personally experienced what it feels like to be obsessed with the idea of organization in my home. I thought I was being driven by the maxim “God is a God of order and not chaos.” I thought that if everything had a place, then my heart would feel at peace because strict orderliness is godly. But instead of worshiping God, I just wanted to be in control. I was worshiping my image and thought it wouldn’t be so bad if others admired me, too. . . .I’ve also had struggles with the idol of self-expression, seeing my home primarily as an extension of myself. If something was out of place or not just so, then I felt it reflected poorly on my personhood or character. Again I was serving my own image—not God’s.

• Jesus is the sovereign Lord over every square centimeter in your home—from the pipes to the television to the mattresses. He is Lord over it, and he desires that you use what he’s given you to glorify him. That doesn’t mean that your home needs to be perfect by the world’s standards or even by your own personal standards, but consecrated by God’s standards. . . . In Romans 12:1-2 we see a description of what it means to set ourselves apart for God: “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.” Since Jesus is lord over all things and God is subjecting all things under his feet (1 Cor. 15:27), including our homes, by his grace we use our homes to worship him.

See why I loved this book? Let the gospel permeate every square inch of your heart and your home. I bet Glimpses of Grace can help.

 

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/glimpses-of-grace-knocking-down-mental-walls/ on June 4, 2013.


Law and Grace: Combating the American Heresy of Pelagianism

The American Church has fallen under the error of Pelagianism. Law and Grace do not represent two plans of God, but two phases of the same plan of redemption: preparation and fulfillment.

“For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ.” (John 1: 17, NASB)

A young college student once told me that a pastor’s son argued with him that no religion—and especially not Christianity—was about faith in any God, but rather the good works that we do for others. Christianity, so the preacher’s boy said, concerned doing to others what we would have done to us; it does not even matter if God exists or not, only the good we do for people counts—philanthropy, morality and being a good person matters  most, not faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God.

What the young theologian argued was that all religions are basically the same. They are moralistic[1], which means they inspire people to do good works and that any metaphysical aspect, such as who God is or what he may have done for humanity is irrelevant. Similarly, we often hear that people choose to do evil and that they are not born that way, it is the environment that makes us corrupt—that we are not corrupt by nature.

This all sounds like common sense, but amounts to a denial of the central Christian belief in salvation by grace through faith alone. If we are not sinners by nature but only by choice than we can conceivably make more good choices than evil ones in order to redeem ourselves and then there would be no need for faith or a savior. Good works and keeping either the internal law of conscience or the old Mosaic Law would suffice.

Salvation by Grace Through Faith Alone

Salvation by grace through faith provides the great distinctive of the Christian faith compared to the other world religions. In contrast, the monotheistic religions Islam and Judaism both present a path of works salvation through obeying either the Torah or the Qur’an. The pantheistic religions, like Buddhism and Hinduism, believe in a rigorous path of enlightenment. While they subscribe to a unique theological heritage and may even be saved, many within the Christian sphere tend to under–appreciate and even unintentionally deny God’s free and eternal gift of salvation through a well–meaning but misdirected emphasis on the Mosaic Code, also called the Law (or the Ten Commandments) or other moral and legal codes that operate in a similar fashion, as measuring sticks for salvation.

Christians continually misunderstand and misuse the Law, thus placing themselves and others in bondage to a de facto works salvation mentality. The Apostle Paul argued that we did not begin with the Spirit in our salvation only to be perfected by “the flesh” in the works of the Law (Galatians 3: 3). Paul repeatedly identified legalism as a work of the flesh or sinful human nature and worldliness. He spoke of “the elemental principles of the world” (Galatians. 4: 3 and Col. 2: 8, 20) not as secularism, or so called “worldly” practices such as dancing, smoking or movie attendance, as Christians do today. Rather, worldliness according to these passages was the religiosity of the Judaizing heresy that imposed legal  restrictions on believers such as circumcision (as seen in Galatians) or dietary restrictions, festivals and Sabbath observance or angel worship (in Colossians). Paul rejected his great religious inheritance, status and fame as a Pharisee, considering it all a work of the flesh, so that his righteousness would not derive from the Law, but from Christ (Philippians 3: 1–9). Religious legalism represents as great a threat to grace in the New Testament than any libertine license for sin.

Works salvation indicates a profound insecurity concerning individual freedom in the world’s religions and a desire to impose an authoritarian structure. Christians are not guiltless either, as they harbor the same tendencies to impose the Mosaic Code or some form of it on Christians and non–Christians alike. For example, Torah Observant Christians, Reconstructionism, Theonomy, and Covenant Theology all hold to a continuity between law and grace that brings Christians back under the legal and moral requirements of the Mosaic Code. The persistence of Christians who want to commit themselves to the Law, even after 2000 years of Christian history, indicates the Church’s misunderstanding of the role of the Law after Christ and the Church’s uneasiness with its own belief in grace.

The Role of the Law Today: Instructive, not Operative

Preachers and theologians are known to say “We are still under the 10 Commandments” or “The moral law is still in effect, but the rest has been fulfilled by Christ.” Although, these explanations offer some guidance on what to do with the 800 pound gorilla in the room— with the theology of grace—they ultimately cannot avoid inconsistencies either with the Law or with the New Testament principle of grace, God’s unconditional love.

The Mosaic Law was given to Israel on Mount Sinai as their Constitution and guide to holiness; it was never capable of bringing eternal salvation, but served as a teacher to the preservation of Israel in the Promised Land while demonstrating God’s righteous character. It was a temporary operating system, so to speak, that was necessary in order to display human sinfulness and point to humanity’s need for grace. But, crucially, it was destined to pass away or be retired once the plan of God came to fruition in the Life of Christ (Galatians 3). It showed only humanity’s guilt, yet foreshadowed in its practices the promise of God’s ultimate work of grace (Hebrews 8: 5; 10: 1). Once grace arrived in the work of Christ, the Law was no longer necessary (Hebrews 8: 6). The Law only pointed to human need for grace or the presence of sin. The Law shows people their unrighteousness. God demonstrates his mercy only after explaining and portraying his righteousness. God gives the Law first to demonstrate sin and then sends his Son to reveal His love and grace.

The Mosaic Law functions similarly to natural law or general revelation in demonstrating humanity’s need for God, the absence of God from the human heart (Romans 1 & 2). The Law and general revelation both perform a preparatory role: either telling humanity it does not know God, as with general revelation, or revealing humanity’s sin, as with the Law (Romans 3). They give no saving knowledge, but function only to condemn and never to save. Law and Grace do not represent two plans of God, but two phases of the same plan of redemption: preparation and fulfillment.

One Law, Indivisible, With Grace for All

There is only one Law, which must be accepted as a whole. The unity of the Law applies equally to either its total fulfillment in Christ or to the possibility that the Law remains operative after Christ. The Law cannot be subdivided into different sections such as moral, ceremonial and civil that were applicable before Christ and those sections still applicable after Christ. Any theological approach to the Law that states its partial effectiveness misunderstands the unity of the Law and the work of Christ that has already fulfilled the Law in its entirety. One either keeps the whole Law or does not (Galatians 3: 10; James 2: 10; Matthew 5: 19; Deuteronomy 27: 1; 28: 1; 30: 8). Likewise, either Christ fulfilled the Law or he did not. Nowhere in the New Testament does it say the Law was partially fulfilled in Christ, leaving the Church to fulfill the rest. A change in one aspect of the Law, such as the Old Testament Priesthood, necessitates the inauguration of a new law and not merely a partial change in the old law (Hebrews 7: 12). Paul argued against the Judaizers, who imposed legal restrictions on Christians, that if they accepted one part of the Law they were “under obligation to keep the whole Law” (Galatians 5: 3).

Any return to the Law rejects faith in Christ and even creates a hindrance to the progression of the plan of God in history. The Book of Hebrews gives a dire warning to all who return to these former elements: “For if we go on sinning willfully after we receive the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a certain terrifying expectation of judgment.… Anyone who set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much more severe punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled underfoot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified and has insulted the spirit of grace?” (Hebrews 10: 26–29).

Does Retirement of the Law Mean God Changed?

The problem many express with notion of the Law’s retirement is based on this conclusion: God cannot change, so how can He, in effect, repeal his own law? The Law was given in order to maintain Israel as a separate people who would act as a conduit through whom God would send his Messiah to reach the whole world. “When the fullness of time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law” (Galatians 4: 4). The Law was by its very nature temporary and conditional to Israel as an operative system in the history of God’s plan of universal redemption. Once the Law and Israel achieved their purposes, or were “fulfilled” in Christ they became obsolete (Hebrews 8: 13). The Law had an expiration date, a shelf life that only lasted until Messiah arrived. The Law played a preparatory role for the coming of Christ; it never had the power to save, but only to condemn in identifying and demonstrating human sin and inadequacies. Its function was to ready mankind for salvation. The Law is good and holy, but it is also obsolete and incomplete (Romans 7; Galatians 3).

Good News! The Law is Fulfilled in Christ

The Law was not abolished, repealed or revamped in any way in the new age of grace. Jesus himself says that he did not come to destroy [katalyō] or subvert the Law, but to fulfill [plēroō] it (Matthew 5: 17), which means to complete, to finish, accomplish or expire. Paul repeats Jesus’ declaration by stating that “Christ is the end [telos] of the law,” meaning he is the termination or conclusion of it (Romans 10: 4). Jesus does not change the Law nor add to it which he himself admonishes against (Matthew 5: 17–19). The Law was fulfilled in Christ, meaning he met all of its requirements and standards as well as the subsequent punishments for failure. He lived the Law for humanity, keeping it perfectly as our representative before God, and died for all of us, meeting its requisite punishment for sin. Jesus’ last words on the cross “It is finished [teleō]” (John 19: 30), marks the completion and fulfillment of the Law and effectively completes all of its requirements, obligations or demands for us. Any attempt to place believers back under the Law, even partially, amounts to a rejection of the work of Christ. “You have been severed from Christ, you who are seeking to be justified by law; you have fallen from grace” (Galatians 5: 4).

The Law is no longer operative because all its demands were satisfied. Its expiration date has matured and it is no longer in effect since the death of Christ. The Law then has no direct application in the new age of grace. The Law is to the Church what the Articles of Confederation is to the United States. They serve great historical value in providing a history that led to the creation of the U.S. Constitution and contain pertinent principles of government decentralization to learn from—but no one is obligated to abide by them any longer. As a system of government it has been retired. The Mosaic Law, like the Articles of Confederation, today serves a strictly instructive role; it retains an honorary position as system emeritus.

Although, the Law as a binding system has been retired in the plan of God’s redemption, it serves an important role in the advice and instruction readers learn from it. The Law offers examples of righteousness and models of holiness. Paul noted that “whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction” (Romans 15: 4). He adds that the history of Israel serves as an example of learning for the Church today (I Corinthians 10: 6) and that “All Scripture is …profitable for teaching … and for training in righteousness” (I Timothy 3: 16). The Church looks back to the Law for guidance and for the meaning of holiness and righteousness, but never applies the Law in the same way as Israel did as a civil nation. The New Testament writers use the Law as examples of righteousness in the reiteration of the Ten Commandments (Romans 13: 8–10; James 2: 8–11). The Law must be used “lawfully” (I Timothy 1: 8) as instruction and not as a binding operating system.

To argue for subdivision in the Law such as ceremonial, dietary, moral, sacrificial, etc., in essence denies the Law’s instructive capacities today. The Law is either obsolete in its entirety or it is operative in its entirety and if it is obsolete yet still instructive, it is instructive in its entirety today. The Law has not been abrogated, as if God somehow made a mistake. Again it was fulfilled, and hence has accomplished its purpose; its telos and reason for existence has been realized. The Law was then retired; it serves now only to instruct in righteousness and to demonstrate sinfulness.

The Law never comes to the Church today unmodified from its original context in ancient Israel. If the so–called “moral law” was binding, then its enforcement and punishment must also be binding. Partial Law advocates must change the meaning of the Law to make it palatable. Every system that adopts an operative role for the Law modifies it to some extent through illegitimately subdividing the Law into convenient sections, in a clear case of selective morality, where only some principles from a given system are conveniently chosen and partially applied through abandoning its original meaning and context to fit a contemporary understanding. For example, Sabbath observance is now on Sunday instead of Saturday or the commandment against adultery applying to a monogamous Christian context instead of its original Hebrew polygamous one.

Without enforcement of the Law there is, in reality, no Law. The Church cannot honestly say it is somehow under the obligations of the Law if also does not keep its enforcement. This is where the entire operative approach to the Law breaks apart into utter incoherence in relation to the New Testament principle of grace. The penalty for most infractions against the Law was death by stoning and was often administrated by a civil and religious authority (Deuteronomy 17). Since the Church does not inherit Israel’s civil authority, enforcement of the Mosaic Law becomes impossible[2]. (See my article on the prophetic voice of the Church here.)

As the premiere Law of all time, greater than the Code of Hammurabi, greater than the Qur’an, greater than Roman law (Galatians 3:21),  the Mosaic Law offers itself as instruction and example for individual morality and civil society, but requires no uncontestable obligation regarding its adoption and enforcement. The Law ceases to be a legalistic code that must be enforced to the letter upon pain of death. Instead, it speaks as the Word of God. It now brings life instead of death. In Christ “the ministry of death” transforms into “the ministry of the Spirit” and life” (2 Corinthians 3).

A New Commandment

Though the Law was fulfilled, accomplished and expired in Christ, and its requirements and penalties no longer directly apply today. This does not mean the Church lives lawlessly and without moral standards. The fulfillment of the Law in Christ means the fulfillment of the Law in his Body, the Church. Jesus and both the Apostles Paul and James stated that the commandment of love fulfills the Law (Matthew 22: 37–40; Mark 12: 29–31; Romans 13: 8–10; Galatians 5: 14; James 2: 8). “Love … is the fulfillment [plērōma] of the Law” (Romans 13: 10) The Church, as well as Christ, bring a completion and conclusion to the Law. Jesus left the Church with a new commandment of love that fulfills the old Law. Just as the old Law marked the distinction of Israel as a holy people from the rest of the pagan nations (Deuteronomy 28: 1–2), so the new commandant of love distinguishes the Church from a hostile world system: “A new commandant I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 14: 34, 35).

The old Law was not a failure, so that God had to begin again with a New Commandment of Love. The Law was as Paul said, “weak … through the flesh,” (Romans 8: 3), meaning it was simply incapable of producing anything other than the recognition of sin and condemnation (Romans 7: 7–13). It could never save and transform humanity. For that purpose God sent his Son and “condemned sin …in order that the requirement of the Law might be fulfilled [plēroō, completed, finished or accomplished] in us who do not walk according to the flesh [sinful human nature] but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8: 4).

Because believers now have the Holy Spirit, they are new creations (2 Corinthians 5: 17) and the Law is accomplished in them. This does not mean Christians live perfectly as Christ did, but that there are no moral or legal requirements that they must meet as a sign of their acceptance by God; instead of living up to a standard, they live out of the sufficiency of Christ. They are guided by the Holy Spirit to accomplish the New Commandment of Love, also called “the law of the Spirit” (Romans 8: 2), “the law of faith” (Romans 3: 27), “the law of Christ” (Galatians 6: 2) and “the royal law” (James 2: 8), reflecting the image of God in Christ. Jesus did not leave a legal code to regulate every aspect of life, like Moses; instead he gave the Church an orientation of love and freedom. Law compels obedience through fear of punishment. It dominates the individual’s will so that his choices are not his own. Grace inspires obedience through the revelation of God’s love; “the goodness of God leads to repentance” (Romans 2: 4). Law is for the immature or those who cannot act responsibly without it. They need to be told what to do in external and institutional codes. Grace is for the mature who act according to the Law of the Spirit or the spirit of the Law residing internally in every believer. They live by the Spirit at a higher standard of personal accountability to God and not according to the letter of the Law (Matthew 19). Law is for the lawless, not the righteous (I Tim 5: 5-10).

The Internal Law of the Spirit

The Law of the Spirit expresses the fulfillment of the Old Testament promise that the Law will be written on the hearts of God’s people in a new covenant after God fills them with his Spirit and forgives their sin (Jeremiah 31: 31–34; Ezekiel 36: 24–27; Hebrews 8: 7–13; 12: 24). Believers are not accountable to the Law, but may approach God through Jesus Christ, the Great High Priest and Mediator between God and man (I Timothy 2: 5; Hebrews 4: 14; 7: 18-19). Grace supplies believers with a greater righteousness and accessibility directly to God, in contrast to the Law of Moses, because as grace fulfills all the requirements of the Law, it also provides both personal transformation and purity of heart through faith. It is not enough to simply not commit murder or adultery. One must not harbor hate or lust also (Matthew 5). The Law—is now internalized in believers through the Holy Spirit.

The new Law of the Spirit (i.e., the Law of Love) continues where the old Law left off. But this new law is different from the old because it can only be accepted by faith, a committed trust in the unseen Word of God (2 Corinthians 4: 16–5:7; Hebrews 11: 1–12: 3) as a gift of God’s grace, which makes the old Law a law of works, not a law of faith (Romans 3: 27). Abraham understood that “the just shall live by faith” (Romans 1:17). Anyone living righteously knew it even when they were under the Law—that keeping the Law was impossible, requiring grace (Romans 4). The Law required moral and legal perfection, complete and total obedience or works, requiring human effort in order to achieve acceptance with God. Any attempt to work one’s way back to God on the basis of keeping the Law disqualifies one from salvation by grace through faith (Romans 3–5). “I do not nullify the grace of God; for if righteousness comes through the Law, then Christ died needlessly” (Galatians 2: 21).

Christians are not justified by grace through faith, only to be sanctified by works either the works of the Law or any other code of conduct. Theologically, Evangelicals typically divide the term salvation into three stages:  justification, a positional salvation that can never be revoked; sanctification, a lifestyle that reflects justification, and glorification, the end result of salvation when believers are restored to the complete image of God in the eschaton[3]. The Church often struggles the most with the middle stage of sanctification, asserting the need for a code of conduct as many Evangelicals do or even a sacramental merit system as Roman Catholics accept that measures the believer’s progress and growth towards Christlikeness. Although most Evangelicals will hotly deny that they are setting up a new works salvation system in their codes, the practical effects are the same: justification is by faith and sanctification is by works.

The Ontology of Salvation

Grace represents a temporal discontinuity in the plan of God within an overall eternal continuity. The coming of Christ was a radical disruption in the nature of things (ontology) and punctuated history with grace. The new age of grace, only foreshadowed and hoped for in the previous time, was always in view in God’s plan of redemption. But until the coming of Christ there was no tangible mechanism to dispense Grace to humanity. Law never acts as a means of salvation, even if there was someone who kept it perfectly, such as Saul of Tarsus (Philippians 3: 6) .

Good behavior does not eradicate the guilt of original sin, simply doing more good works to outweigh our evil ones will do nothing to accomplish salvation, which is the whole substance of the ancient debate between law and grace from Jesus and the Pharisees, to Paul and the Judaizers, to Augustine and Pelagius to the Reformers and the Catholics. It manifests today in the Free Grace Gospel versus Lordship Salvation position as well as the numerous attempts to reassert the principle of law in the Church to act as a hedge against antinomianism and moral libertinism.

The human condition remains so stricken with sin that only a divine intervention will save people from condemnation. No amount of good deeds—even if they were perfect—could erase the curse of sin inherited from the First Adam (Romans 5: 12–21 ). Salvation must be ontological and not simply moral. There must be a change in being and not merely a change in doing. This means there must be a change in the spiritual condition of people and not simply a moral or behavioral change. God does not forgive sin without compensation for sin. Salvation requires more than just a divine act of will to rescue humanity, which then translates to morality and law (or contemporary manifestations of moralism and legalism). This bears out in the New Testament in the struggle between law and grace or works and faith. One position focuses on ontology (the transformation of the spiritual condition or essence) and the other on morality (human effort or works). Salvation focuses on either God or man; either God saves humanity by grace or humanity contributes through its merits to its own forgiveness and restoration.

Human nature tends to self–righteousness and belief in its own ability to earn the grace of God expressed in morality and law, or what Paul called “works.” Morality means the choices people make based on what they think is right or wrong. Law, that is “Policy” in human terms, is the morality of a few people enforced on the majority, through institutional and legally binding codes of behavior. The modern world has adopted a humanistic perspective that sees humanity as preeminent, not God; it has abandoned ontology and metaphysics.[4] In lieu of metaphysics, the modern world uses morality and law as a guide to life; it creates an understanding of God in its own moral image as glorified law–giver and not the Spirit who changes hearts, minds and lives. Thus Christianity and all religion are reduced to morality as opposed to faith, which is irrelevant to the modern world.

Christianity appears increasingly moralistic and legalistic where a code of behavior replaces living faith in God. This manifests in everything from health and eating rules and dress codes, to Prohibition and club or church membership; middle class family values become identical with Christianity: ideals such as a high work ethic, patriotism, and belief in Christian America. Voting becomes a sacred duty, keeping the Ten Commandments becomes emphasized, along with political activism, and so forth. None of these are bad, but they are never a replacement for faith. Yet, they often are made the test of faith and their presence is often mistaken for a vital life in Christ. These things represent morality and even Christian morality, but morality should never be confused with faith and salvation. Salvation is not morality, it is an ontological change in the condition of the human heart and its relationship with God through the Spirit that is freely given and accepted by faith alone. Morality does not constitute the elements of faith, it follows faith as a natural consequence (Ephesians 2: 8–10), and must never be the measure of faith (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8; 10: 12–33).

Moralism: The American Heresy

The common sense approach to religion in America argues that people are responsible for their own actions and therefore can make amends for their misdeeds with good deeds. Although, this position is not false, we need to seek to correct and learn from our mistakes, it makes no difference to one’s spiritual condition, which can only change by faith in the person and work of Christ.

Theologically speaking, most of the American Church has followed the classic heresy known as Pelagianism,[5] a belief that denies the inherent sinful condition. Pelagius the fourth century monk and arch opponent of St. Augustine argued that original sin does not exist as the guilt humanity inherits from the First Adam and that Adam’s sin was his own. The human race cannot be held accountable for a sin they did not commit. People are born innocent into a corrupt environment and only become sinful after they have sinned. On the surface this doctrine appears rational and fair, but cuts the heart out of the principle of grace and throws all religion back into a legalist and moralist mode. Without a notion of original sin, today called “radical evil,” or “total depravity,” or simply the “sinful human nature,” it makes perfect sense that the way back to God is through being a good person or moral reformation. As theologian Paul Tillich noted “[Pelagianism] … is always effective in us when we try to force God down to ourselves. This is what we usually call ‘moralism,’…. Pelagius said that good and evil are performed by us; they are not given [or an ontic condition, meaning we are not born into a state of sin; rather we become sinners through our own misdeeds or sins]. If this is true then religion is in danger of being transformed into morality.”[6]

The principle of grace advocated by the Apostle Paul, St. Augustine and the Reformers radically opposes moralism and makes salvation a matter of a divine intervention in the human condition that can be received only by faith. Works do nothing to alter the human condition of sin and condemnation. No moral or legal remedy exists that will change our basic sinful selves. Moral transformation (works) follows faith, but has no causal effect on salvation or loss of salvation. What God gives in grace he will not revoke (Rom 8: 26-39; 11: 29). Grace is not an excuse or license for sin. Those who argue that way simply do not understand grace and its transforming effects on moral character, nor have they ever participated in it (Rom 6). “For sin shall not be master over you, for you are not under law, but under grace” (Rom 6: 14)!

Endnotes

1. For an article on how Millennial generation Americans display, among other traits, a tendency to be what sociologist Christian Smith dubs moralistic therapeutic deists, see:  www.probe.org/is-this-the-last-christian-generation/

2. Lawrence Terlizzese, Romney vs. Obama and Beyond: The Church’s Prophetic Role in Politics, Probe Ministries, 2012, www.probe.org/romney-vs-obama-and-beyond-the-churchs-prophetic-role-in-politics/.

3. The time when God completes His plan of redemption.

4. Martin Heidegger. Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row, 1962), 44.

5. Paul Tillich, A History of Christian Thought (New York: Harper & Row, 1968), 124-25.

6. Ibid., 125.

© 2013 Probe Ministries


Are You a Safe Person?

Dec. 19, 2012

We all want people in our lives that we can be real with, people we can trust with our hearts and our struggles, people we can risk opening up to. But it is foolishness to share the treasure of our hearts with unsafe people who will judge us, shame us, or condemn us.

So what does a safe person look like? How do we recognize them? And more importantly, how do we become one?

Being a safe person starts with owning your own brokenness and need for Jesus. It means admitting you’re not perfect. Beyond that, it means dropping the unrealistic hope of perfection in this lifetime and the pretense that you’ve got it all together. It means being open about your hurts, your temptations, your failings, your humanity. A safe person gets that “there but for the grace of God, go I.”

A safe person is humble, which means being right-sized. Not pretending to be bigger than they really are, and not thinking they are less than they really are. Right-sized! Humble people don’t look down on others from their “superior” position, but they don’t put others on a pedestal either. They understand that the ground is level at the foot of the cross.

A safe person understands grace and gives it to others. I love Pastor John Ortberg’s delightful definition: “Grace is the offer of God’s ceaseless presence and irrational love that cannot be stopped. It’s the flow of God’s power and presence and favor in your life from one moment to the next that enables you to do whatever it is God has for you to do.”

Grace is acceptance. It looks at others and communicates, “I accept you just as you are.” Acceptance doesn’t mean agreeing about everything, or condoning others’ foolish or sinful choices; it means not denying reality, and respecting other people’s right to make their own choices. God accepts us just as we are but He doesn’t agree with our sin. When a friend’s daughter confessed she was pregnant and unmarried, it was a painful struggle for the mom. One day she protested in her prayer time, “Lord, I suppose You want me to help put together a shower for her?!” She was taken aback by the gentle response she received: “Every child deserves to be welcomed and celebrated.” Chastened, she helped organize a shower for a little girl who has been nothing but a blessing and an unimaginable joy from the day she was born. My friend learned to live out the grace of acceptance without compromising on the sin that created the situation in the first place.

Safe people encourage others, by their example of transparency and authenticity, to be the same person on the outside that they are on the inside.

Safe people remember there are two sides to every story, and they wait to make a judgment till they hear the other side.

Safe people seek to maintain a non-judgmental attitude toward others. They don’t shame others. They don’t criticize others.

Safe people are honest people. They speak the truth in love (Eph. 4:15) as a way of life. Safe people teach themselves to be good listeners. When the other person is talking, they’re not thinking about what they are going to say when the other’s done; they simply receive their words with respectful attentiveness.

Safe people love with God’s love. By abiding in the vine (John 15), they stay yielded to God, and His love flows through a pipeline from the Father’s heart to others’ hearts.

Safe people are forgiving people. They extend to others the forgiveness they have received from God and from others.

Safe people seek forgiveness when they blow it. They confess their specific faults, acknowledge the effects of their actions on others, and ask for forgiveness.

It’s especially wonderful when safe people become leaders, because they understand that brokenness and struggles are a normal part of growing and of the sanctification process. They know there will be stumbles and falls. They expect it. They’re not shocked when it happens. So when it does, they recall their own desperate need for Jesus and His grace, and they extend it with sorrow rather than judgment, and compassion rather than criticism.

How safe a person are you?

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/tapestry/sue_bohlin/are_you_a_safe_person


What Does Grace Look Like?

Grace is one of those theological words that we think we know and understand, but many people don’t really grasp because they’ve never seen it modeled. Grace is what Mark Driscoll calls “ill-deserved” favor; it is the display of unwarranted kindness and love.

I’ve been writing a radio program (the transcript of which will become a web article) for Probe Ministries on grace. So for the last few months I’ve been paying attention to people’s stories of grace, jotting them down so I wouldn’t forget (because I leak!). What a blessing it has been to record these stories in my Day-Timer, of receiving grace from God both directly, and from Him through other people.

Personal Grace Straight From God

• The rain holds off till the second you get in the car, when a torrential downpour starts.

• Traffic lights turn or stay green, one after another, when you’re running late. Especially when the timing of traffic lights doesn’t usually work like that.

• You “just happen” to notice the stove burner still on when you’re about to head out the door.

• You leave your car keys in the ignition, with the car still on, as you go into church—and the car is still there when you get back.

• You are rejected by the only college you wanted, scrambling to find a second choice and not enjoying that field of study, only to be directed to a completely different academic discipline that gives you the “a-ha moment” of realizing this is what God made you for.

• Your flight to Australia is delayed by 24 hours and you arrive at your destination two hours before a conference, in just enough time to change clothes, wash your face and brush your teeth—and then God provides a full complement of energy and clarity to speak all day.

• You are so traumatized by your parents’ emotional and sexual abuse that you splinter into several different internal parts or personalities, but that splintering keeps you from going insane. As those parts integrate after years of therapy, you realize that God’s grace enabled some of them to release (forget) memories that you didn’t need to know.

God’s Grace Through People

• You learn that the person in front of you has paid your toll.

• You don’t nag or react with exasperation when someone forgets something you told them, or that they already told you, because you remember you’re a fallen, faulty creature too.

• Giving people a safe place to be real, to express doubts and fears, to confess they messed up, and be met with loving acceptance without shame or condemnation.

• Not writing people off when they make a mistake.

• Lifting off the burden of needless “shoulds” and “oughts” that weigh people down. One grace-filled speaker invited people to respond in song at the end of her message, saying, “If you’d like to sing, great! Join us! If you need a rest, feel free to just listen.” She removed any pressure to perform.

And one of my all-time favorite stories of grace:

• My dear friend had always patterned herself after her mother, who purported to be the ultimate Christian wife and mother. In therapy because of how her life was falling apart, she was starting to realize what monsters her abusive parents were; horrific memories began to surface and the pieces started to fit together. One night she realized that when she got married, she had even chosen the same dishes as her mother’s. Suddenly she couldn’t abide the thought of keeping them in the house a moment longer. She strode into the kitchen on a mission, grabbed a plate out of the cupboard and hurled it to the floor, smashing it to pieces. Her husband heard the noise and came to see what was going on. When she explained the connection between their dishes and her mother, her husband calmly said, “Have at it. Tomorrow morning I’ll take you to get new dishes.” Not only did he clean up the mess when she was done, but all those broken shards damaged their kitchen floor—and he never once mentioned it.

Now that’s grace.

This blog post originally appeared at blogs.bible.org/engage/sue_bohlin/what_does_grace_look_like on February 14, 2012.