Results That Last

I don’t know about you, but I want my life work to succeed and to last. I want it to remain long after I’m gone, continuing to bear good fruit. I would hate to discover that, shortly after I get to Heaven, my life’s impact on the world fizzles and dies.

Worse yet, I would really hate to get to the end of life and find that I’ve had a negative impact on the world–that it would be better off if I had never been born.

My friend Jesus also has the same desire. Back a couple thousand years ago, He said, “You didn’t choose me, but I chose you, and appointed you, that you should go and bear fruit, and that your fruit should remain; that whatever you will ask of the Father in my name, he may give it to you.” (John 15:16)

But how is that going to happen?

One thing is for certain: our fruit will only remain if it’s Jesus’ fruit.

Not Even Hell Can Prevail

When Jesus came into the coasts of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, saying, “Who do men say that I, the Son of man, am?”

And they said, “Some say that you are John the Baptist: some, Elijah; and others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”

He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?”

And Simon Peter answered and said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

And Jesus answered and said to him, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood has not revealed it to you, but my Father who is in Heaven. And I also say to you, that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it.
(Matthew 16:13-18)

Jesus is the One who builds the church that Hell cannot destroy. Not me. Not my ideas and plans.

In addition, He is the One who reveals the truth to others. I find it very interesting that He did not say that Peter believed that Jesus was the Christ because he had seen all the miracles Jesus had done. He says that Peter believed because God had revealed it to him.

In other words, all church-building and all truth-revealing must come from God in order to be effective.

Blessed Are the Poor in Spirit

Jesus started the Beatitudes by saying:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 5:3)

Jesus says that in order to gain the Kingdom of Heaven, we need to be poor in spirit. We need to realize that we are weak, helpless, and poor, and need Jesus’ riches and filling. We have to realize that, on our own strength, we can do nothing.

The Laodicean church was just the opposite:

“…you say, ‘I am rich, and have gotten riches, and have need of nothing;’ and don’t know that you are the wretched one, miserable, poor, blind, and naked…” (Revelation 3:17)

When we think that we don’t need God and can depend on ourselves, that is when we are the poorest. In order to be truly rich, we have to be poor in spirit and realize that, however smart, rich, wise, or accredited we may be, we will never accomplish God’s will on our own. It is when we allow God to fill us that we become rich–not in money and stuff, but in the things that truly matter: love, joy, peace, righteousness, and the power of the Holy Spirit.

And when God is working through us, then He is the One building His church, not us.

You Can’t Win Today On Yesterday’s Victories

Not that I have already obtained, or am already made perfect; but I press on, that I may take hold of that for which also I was taken hold of by Christ Jesus. Brothers, I don’t regard myself as yet having taken hold, but one thing I do. Forgetting the things which are behind, and stretching forward to the things which are before, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus. Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, think this way. If in anything you think otherwise, God will also reveal that to you.
(Philippians 3:12-15)

Paul first says that it is not as though he was already perfect (verse 12). Then he says, “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect…”, classifying himself with the perfect. God is telling us that, however mature or complete we may think that we are, we must never rest on our laurels and feel like we’ve come far enough. Even more importantly, we must never stop relying on Him.

Part of not looking backwards is that we do not rely on our past accomplishments, but rather on God. We must not look to see how much we’ve already done, but how much God still calls us to do—“the high calling of God”. This keeps us humble.

Conclusion

Coming back to where we started at the beginning, God is the One who reveals the truth to people. God is the One who makes the changes. God is the One who brings conviction. God is the One who builds the church that the gates of Hell cannot overcome.

Because of these things, God needs people who are poor in spirit and rely on Him rather than themselves. People who, however much training and skill they have, realize that they can never accomplish God’s work without His power. That they will never achieve that prize that God offers them, unless they totally rely on His power instead of their own.

It is God Who equips us for the work that He gives us. All that we have, we have received from Him. Let’s totally rely on Him and seek His power to accomplish His will!

Don’t Be a Radical

I don’t want you to be a radical.

Now, that may sound like a strange statement on a blog called “A Radical for Jesus”. Especially when I have no plans of changing the blog name anytime soon.

But I still don’t want you to be a radical, because it’s spiritually dangerous.

Radicalized Islam Christianity

At age 20, Jonathan Hollingsworth boarded a plane for Africa.

He had already given away his possessions, started sleeping on the floor, begun reaching out to the homeless, and taken a mission trip to Honduras. Jonathan had taken a path of radical Christianity. And now he was headed to be a missionary.

But six months later, he was back home, crushed, disillusioned, and questioning his faith. The mission agency had turned out to be a disreputable organization, and they had prevented Jonathan from ministering as he had desired to do. They controlled every aspect of his life, even what he wrote on his blog.

And then, when Jonathan came home, his church didn’t want him to share his story, and they forced him and his parents into silence.

That only made matters a lot worse.

In retrospect, Jonathan realized that his desire to be radical and do radical things had set him up for being used and abused. As he told Boz Tchividjian:

…the unfortunate paradox of spiritual abuse, I think, is that the more devout you are, the more susceptible you are to it. My church leaders knew me inside and out. They knew I would do anything to please God, help the church, support missions, etc. So when I made the incredibly difficult decision to end my mission in Africa, they knew exactly what to say to keep me quiet and ashamed. They used my own spiritual values to beat me into submission…

There are a lot of people out there willing to exploit those who give up their whole lives for a cause. For every radical who gets on a plane, there’s a con artist waiting for him on the other side. And sadly, sometimes that con artist is a church or a mission agency. Before I left for Africa, everyone told me to watch out for kidnappers and hustlers and pickpockets, when in reality, it was the people I least expected who posed the biggest threat.

The danger of being radical

I read about Jonathan’s story a few months ago, and it resonated with me. Fortunately, I never went as radical as he did, but I had certainly adopted some of the same “be a radical” mentality.

I was struck by his point that those who desire to be radical are more likely to be used and abused. Such people believe that obedience to Jesus means doing something radical, and they are willing to do crazy things because they think Jesus is leading them to do it. Or because someone put a guilt trip on them to do it.

So often, I think, we “radicals” have been driven by fear. We’re afraid that we’re uncaring, unloving, too rich, too happy, too fun-loving, whatever. We’re afraid that we aren’t making God happy enough. We’re afraid that, unless we act more radically, we don’t love God enough.

Or that God won’t love us enough.

And when we turn to the Bible, we find plenty of verses to back up our fears. “Take up your cross and deny yourself.” “Be not conformed to this world.” “Forsake everything you have.”

But as time has gone along, I’ve discovered that I didn’t really know God during those “radical” days. I have come to realize that, while God may call us to do radical things, He has not called us to be radicals.

Jesus calls us to follow Him

We need to look at the rest of the passage where Jesus said to take up our crosses:

He said to all, “If anyone desires to come after me, let him deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Luke 9:23)

Jesus doesn’t just call us to take up our crosses. He calls us to follow Him.

We do have to deny ourselves and take up our crosses (in other words, present our bodies as living sacrifices [see Romans 12:2]) in order to follow Him. But that is the means to the end, not the end itself.

We can deny ourselves and take up our crosses all we want, and yet never follow Jesus. Unless we actually follow Him, we gain nothing from denying ourselves.

Led by the Spirit

More and more, I am convinced that what we lack the most in the church today is the working of the Holy Spirit.

We each need to be filled with the Spirit and be led by Him, because the Holy Spirit will guide us into all truth.

And not only that, He is the antidote to our toxic, radicalizing fears.

For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are children of God. For you didn’t receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” (Romans 8:14-15)

The Christian life is not merely a life of “not-doing”: not doing what we want to do. The Christian life is a life of doing: doing what God wants us to do.

But how do we know what God wants us to do? That’s where the Holy Spirit comes in.

For who among men knows the things of a man, except the spirit of the man, which is in him? Even so, no one knows the things of God, except God’s Spirit. But we received, not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit which is from God, that we might know the things that were freely given to us by God. (1 Corinthians 2:11-12)

A true radical for Jesus–the kind that God is looking for–is filled by the Holy Spirit and led by Him.

To those of you who are trying to be radical to please God and be good enough to make Him happy with you, I have a simple word for you:

Relax.

Get to know your Father and His great love for you.

Be filled by the Holy Spirit and ask God to teach you to know when he is leading. Because, in my experience, Satan loves to hijack our thoughts, our feelings, our dreams, and any other means by which we think we can hear God. And when we have been “radicalized”, we come to expect a different message from God than what He actually wants to give us.

Be radically devoted to Jesus.

But don’t be a radical.

The Significance of Christmas

It’s Christmas Day. We’re celebrating the coming of Jesus. The King of Kings who, though He was equal with God, and was God, laid aside His Heavenly splendor—even His very maturity—and came to earth, not even as a man, but as a helpless baby.

Imagine that for a moment. Imagine being a king who owned the entire world and everything in it, and then imagine shrinking down to almost nothingness again, to be implanted in the womb of a young woman.

But not only that. For all your prior existence, you have been served like no one else. You have been waited on by millions of angels. And now, you have to serve. You become a small child who must submit to his parents. Few people do anything for you.

And not only that. You have come with a mission. You are going to love these people. Teach them the truth. Heal their sicknesses and diseases. Gain a huge following. And then be condemned and killed in one of the most barbaric methods possible.

And in that death, you will carry something that no one can imagine: the sins of the whole world. Your loving Father will forsake you. You will die an agonizing death under the weight of your cruel burden—a burden so great that you will agonize for hours beforehand at the prospect, and die of a literal broken heart.

But you will not only carry the sins of the world to that cross. You will also carry something else: their pain. Their hurts. Their griefs. Their sorrows. And you will nail it to that cross and kill that pain, that grief—on your shoulders.

This, of course, after you suffer your own share of woe and sorrow. You will start your ministry and your own family won’t believe. You will be led by your father to the wilderness to be tempted by your worst enemy for over a month, surrounded by wild beasts. You will heal many people and attract great crowds—only to have them leave you when you say some things that they don’t like. You’ll be betrayed by someone who you hand-picked to be part of your ministry, denied by one of your staunchest disciples, and forsaken by the rest in your darkest hour.

But then, when you return to your heavenly palace, yet in an indescribable way remain with those you love, you can say: “I know exactly how you feel. I have been there too.”

“I, too, suffered the pain of being forsaken by all who I loved.”

“I, too, experienced the hurt of being rejected by my own family.”

“I, too, was homeless and hungry.”

“I, too, was strongly tempted to sin by the Devil himself.”

“I, too, was misunderstood and reacted against by those who should have understood.”

“I, too, was stripped of my clothes, and I was hung up for everyone to gawk at.”

“I, too, was beaten and suffered abuse.”

“I, too, was a human, exactly like you. I can totally identify with how you feel.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is the significance of Christmas. It’s the story of a loving God who came, not merely as a human, but as a human baby, that He might experience everything that a human experiences. That He could be, not only like us, but one of us. Sinless, yes. Divine, yes. But still one of us.

And not only one of us, but one with us, that when He judges the world, He can say:

“What you did to this person, who is my brother or sister—you did it to Me.”

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.

For both he that sanctifieth, and they who are sanctified, are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will declare thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise to thee.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I, and the children which God hath given me.”

Since, then, the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them, who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.

Therefore in all things it behooved him to be made like his brethren; that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.

For in that he himself hath suffered, being tempted, he is able to help them that are tempted.

(Hebrews 2:9-18)

Merry Christmas!

 

Sexual Abuse Recovery: Why We Help the Abuser and Shoot the Victims

It was a meal together after a funeral. I was sitting at a table with a couple of my great-uncles, and the conversation turned to dealing with sexual abusers. As we talked, it became clear that their first priority was how to deal with the abuser and help him to be able to get back to a more-or-less normal life. For some reason, they didn’t have much to say about helping the victim(s) to find healing from their trauma.

Since then, I have observed this same phenomenon with others. They will talk about the dreadful effects that sexual abuse had in the life of the abuser, when they face the punishment for their acts, but fail to give equal thought to the effects on the victims. Why?

There are three reasons that I see:

Age

In the case of child sexual abuse, there is a good chance that the abuser is a grown man–or woman, for that matter. (Actually, there is also an excellent chance that the abuser is a teenager, but we will leave that age group for right now.) If the abuser is a church member, all the adults in the church are peers. The abuser may even be a leader of some sort in the church and well-respected. Contrary to what you might think, an abuser is often not someone who you would suspect as an abuser. They might be friendly, outgoing, respectable people–who do terrible things.

So when the well-respected peer is convicted of sexual abuse, the people around them are naturally going to think of their friend first. They may feel that he/she was unjustly accused or given too harsh of a sentence. They want the abuser to be able to come clean and return to normal life.

The child victim, on the other hand, may be someone they don’t even know. At the very least, they probably don’t know the child as well as the abuser, even if it is the abuser’s son or daughter. If they’ve never met the victim, but know the abuser well (or at least respect him/her), they can easily forget about the needs of the faceless victim.

Especially if they have…

Ignorance

Many people are unaware of the effects of physical, emotional, and sexual abuse. This includes many victims.

The trauma of abuse causes many effects on the victim, especially when it is repeated and comes from someone they trust, such as a family member. The victim may “shut down” emotionally or develop certain coping habits or thought patterns. They may blame themselves for the abuse. And they may “act out” in ways that appear rebellious, irresponsible, careless, or sinful. Those who don’t realize what is happening will react improperly and condemn the victim for their behavior, further traumatizing and alienating them.

The potential effects and results of sexual abuse include:

  • Guilt
  • Fear
  • Helplessness
  • Anger
  • Loss of trust
  • Poor school performance
  • “Spacing out” and daydreaming to disassociate from the abuse
  • Eating disorders
  • Withdrawal and isolation
  • Running away
  • “Acting out”–rebellion, crime, cruelty to animals, sexual promiscuity, drug use/abuse, physical aggression to others
  • Self-destructive behaviors–cutting themselves, slitting wrists, burning themselves, suicide
  • Confusion about what is healthy sexuality
  • Depression
  • Substance abuse
  • Shame/shaming others
  • Over-responsibility and perfectionism
  • Promiscuous behavior

(Taken from Helping Victims of Sexual Abuse by Lynn Heitritter and Jeanette Vought)

It is important that we understand the true effects of abuse on its victims so that we are able to empathize with them, understand why they do what they do, and help them to find healing. They need safe people to talk to, people who will care about them, listen to them without condemnation, blaming, or shaming, and respect the privacy of the victim by not sharing the information with others. They need people who are filled with the Holy Spirit and can help them to find true healing through the power of Christ.

Some people, though, will still not care enough to help, because of a…

Lack of Christ-likeness

Jesus defined His ministry early on by reading in the synagogue of Nazareth:

“The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to heal the broken hearted, to proclaim release to the captives, recovering of sight to the blind, to deliver those who are crushed, and to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” (Luke 4:18-19)

The Scriptures foretold:

“[Jesus] will not strive, nor shout; neither will anyone hear his voice in the streets. He won’t break a bruised reed. He won’t quench a smoking flax, until he leads justice to victory. In his name, the nations will hope.” (Matthew 12:19-21)

Jesus has a great heart of compassion for those who are hurting. He came to earth and gave His life for us because He cared so much for us.

Jesus also expects us to have the same heart for those around us. He tells us that in the judgment, He will separate those who serve others from those who don’t.

“Then the King will tell those on his right hand, ‘Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry, and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty, and you gave me drink. I was a stranger, and you took me in. I was naked, and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me.’

“Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you; or thirsty, and give you a drink? When did we see you as a stranger, and take you in; or naked, and clothe you? When did we see you sick, or in prison, and come to you?’

“The King will answer them, ‘Most certainly I tell you, because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” (Matthew 25:34-40)

Notice that this is not about preaching a gospel of good works. The righteous were not doing these things because they were trying to earn their salvation. They didn’t even realize that they were helping Jesus. It was just part of who they were as God’s children. They had compassion on their brothers in Christ (“the least of these My brothers“) and ministered to them.

Jesus wants us to reach out and help the hurting, especially those within the church. If we lack this desire and compassion within our hearts, could it be that we lack the love of God?

But whoever has the world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and closes his heart of compassion against him, how does God’s love remain in him? My little children, let’s not love in word only, or with the tongue only, but in deed and truth. (1 John 3:17-18)

But Don’t Throw the Abusers Under the Bus

From what I’ve read, 40-50% of sexual abusers have been abused themselves. Their actions can be part of their “acting out” and trying to cope with their abuse.

This does not excuse their abusive actions, but it does bring something to the forefront: the abusers need help too!

Christians have something to offer that no one else has: the power of the Holy Spirit to enable people to lead holy, righteous lives, free from abuse and other sins. While the world can only offer prison and therapy, Christ has the power to actually change people from the inside out. He has the power to heal the hurts, the wounds, the pain, and to take away an abuser’s desire to abuse others.

However, there is one catch: it only works if the person actually wants to be helped. It only works if they are willing to repent and accept the working of Christ. Jesus does not force anyone to accept His forgiveness and cleansing.

As long as an abuser is unwilling to fully repent, be cleansed by Christ, take full responsibility for his/her actions, and pay any necessary criminal penalties, he or she will never find true freedom from their sin. There are many people, unfortunately, who will never experience true freedom in Christ because they are unwilling to do one or more of these things I just mentioned.

Before I wrap this up, one more important point: sexual abuse is a crime. It doesn’t matter whether it was full-blown rape or “just” some inappropriate touching. Both are traumatic to the victim, and both are criminal. Some people, such as pastors and counselors, are required by law to report sexual abuse to the authorities. If they do not, they themselves will be held accountable by the state.

We want people to find repentance and cleansing through the power of Christ. But the law has been broken, and the penalty must be paid. The church is not capable of handling abuse “in-house”.  It must be dealt with in a court of law.

And all Israel shall hear, and fear, and shall not do any more wickedness like this among you. (Deuteronomy 13:11)

 

Jesus is the God of justice,
And He wants us all to be made free.
Let us follow in His footsteps,
Bring the world His liberty!

Bind Up the Wounds

Learning to Know Our Father, Part 5: Responding to God’s Love

In our study of God’s love so far, we’ve seen that God is love, and that He doesn’t want us to be afraid of Him. We’ve seen that we need to understand His nature, including His love, in order to not be afraid of Him. We also need to glorify Him and seek His help, so that He has the opportunity to demonstrate His love for us. And when we don’t understand His love, we need to ask Him to show us what His love is really like.

As we learn to know our Father better, and His love fills our hearts and lives, how do we respond to that love? And how can we find others who truly love Him?

Since God is love, part of the evidence of His love in our lives is when we have love for each other.

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love has been perfected in us. (1 John 4:10-12)

You would think, perhaps, that God would say, “Since I have loved you this much, you ought to love Me in return.” But instead He says, “Love one another.”

Jesus says, “Because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40) When God adopts us into His family, we become brothers of Jesus. In fact, Jesus dwells with each of God’s children, and so, when we show love to one of God’s children, we are showing love to God!

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. Whoever loves the Father also loves the child who is born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is loving God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world: your faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:1-5)

I used to read these verses and believe that it was my job to keep God’s commands on my own, with His help. I thought that anyone who was saved got as much help from God to keep His commands as any other Christian. In other words, I believed that all Christians, including myself, were receiving God’s help to obey Him, and if I had trouble following Him, I needed to try harder.

Brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work that way, for two reasons. One is that some of us need more help than others, and some of us need help in different areas than others—for example, overcoming an addiction. The second reason is that God doesn’t help us unless we allow Him to do so.

God is not a control freak. He does not force us to do what He wants us to do. Nor does He force us to accept His help. He definitely gives us guidance, changes circumstances, and works all things together for good. But He knows that, if He were to control us into doing the right thing, it would not lead us to truly love Him. We would just be robots.

Forcing people to do the right thing can actually be detrimental. When a person has a personal drive to do something, they will work with a will and try to accomplish the task. However, if someone forces them to do it, or bribes them to do it with some sort of reward/punishment system, it kills the person’s inward drive. This, I believe, is one reason why some homeschool families have fallen apart, despite looking so good when the children were young. Because the well-meaning parents tried to control their teenagers into doing the right thing, it actually turned their children against the parents and against the “right thing”.

Spiritually abusive systems, which stress human effort to achieve a man-made standard, prevent us from receiving God’s love and help, while loading us down with guilt and shame over our inability to follow God (and the pile of human commands the system gives us). This is one reason why you may have to change your beliefs about God and His nature in order to receive His love. If you’re always trying to live the Christian life on your own, God never has a chance to demonstrate His love to you!

The truth is that, when we put our faith in God, realizing that on our own strength we will never measure up to His standards, He gives us the victory to overcome the world and keep His commandments.

Jesus said, “One who has my commandments, and keeps them, that person is one who loves me. One who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will reveal myself to him.” (John 14:21) In other words, when we love God, we will naturally want to keep His commands. I used to think this was run in reverse: you keep God’s commands, and then He loves you.

The truth is that we love God because He first loved us. If we don’t know the love of God, we will not love Him in return. If we think He is just a hard taskmaster who is burdening us down with a grievous load, we will never love Him, and we will despise the very commands we are endeavoring to keep.

What Jesus is saying is that, when we know God, receive His love in our hearts, and love Him in return, we will also love His words and keep them. This is not a “if you really loved me, you would do…” guilt trip.

God is love. Therefore, without God, we will never have true love. Moreover, since we cannot manufacture God, we also cannot manufacture love. If you find yourself unable to love others properly, don’t just “try harder” to love them. That will never work. Ask God to fill you with His love and give you love for others!

So what does that look like? What are loving actions, anyway? We already saw part of the answer to that question earlier: God’s commands explain what loving actions are. They were written in love, and they are our guidelines for walking in love. Someone who claims to love Jesus, yet fails to obey Him, does not love both Jesus and his fellow men.

Not only that, though, God shows us from day to day how to love one another:

But concerning brotherly love, you have no need that one write to you. For you yourselves are taught by God to love one another… (1 Thessalonians 4:9)

With God’s love ruling in our hearts, He will teach us how to love one another. He will guide us how to help one another in the most beneficial way. He will show us areas where we lack love for one another or are treating one another unlovingly.

Remember, love for one another is the result of God’s love first dwelling within our hearts, and then overflowing in love for others. It is not something that you can create on your own!

If you would like to study God’s love some more, I recommend the free e-book He Loves Me! by Wayne Jacobsen. I do not endorse this book completely; I believe that Jacobsen downplays the fear of God too much. God does tell us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), and unless we recognize that He is also holy, just, righteous, and all-powerful, as well as loving, we will not serve Him or even love Him as we ought. However, I recommend this e-book for those who have heard much about the fear of God, yet do not understand the love of God. It will help to shift your thinking in the proper direction.

God’s blessings to you as you learn to know Him!

Photo © Can Stock Photo Inc. / grace1221

Warning: Your Misunderstanding of Grace is Killing You

Last week I wrote one of my longest posts ever, on the subject of grace. I also believe it is one of the most important posts I have ever made, because the Christian life revolves around God’s grace. Without His grace, Christianity is just another idealistic religion.

But maybe you don’t have time to read a 3,000+ word article. Maybe you missed an important point among all those words. So I want to emphasize something that I only briefly touched on in the middle of the article.

As we saw in “What is Grace?”, grace is much more than just “God’s unmerited favor”. Instead, it is the power of God working within us. But make no mistake: grace is not “the desire and power to do God’s will”, as Bill Gothard defined it. He was 90% correct. But the fatal error is the belief that God empowers me to do His will. On the contrary, grace is God working in me. In Bill’s definition, I do the work and get the credit. In God’s definition, He does the work and gets the credit. As Paul said:

But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

As God says, “…not of works, lest any man should boast.” (Ephesians 2:9)

Since grace is the power of the Holy Spirit working within us, we can understand Romans 8:13: “For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” Ignore this verse, and you will end up spiritually dead. Why? Because we are saved by God’s grace, and without His grace, we cannot and will not fulfill His will.

There are two ways that a misunderstanding of grace can kill you.

Misunderstanding #1: It doesn’t matter what I do

The first way is when you think that grace is “God’s unmerited favor” that saves you regardless of what you do. You “say the words” and go on your merry way, doing whatever you want. This is “living after the flesh”, as Romans 8:13 says. You are doing what your flesh wants to do, instead of what the Spirit of God wants you to do.

Jesus did not die on the cross merely to forgive your sins. He didn’t need to do that. In the Old Testament, God forgave people’s sins without Jesus’ death:

“Thou [God] hast forgiven the iniquity of thy people, thou hast covered all their sin. Selah.”(Psalms 85:2)

“For thou, Lord, art good, and ready to forgive; and plenteous in mercy unto all them that call upon thee.” (Psalms 86:5)

Jesus came and shed His blood, died, and rose again, not just to forgive you, but to kill you—your sinful self with its sinful desires—and then raise you to life again as a new creature, purified from sin (singular, not plural). He wants you to be righteous and holy, just as He is, but He knew that the only way to truly conquer sin was for Him to put it to death—so He died for us.

Jesus didn’t come to hide your sin with a robe of righteousness. He came to take away your sin and replace it with righteousness—on the inside.

This is why you are saved by grace—because you are incapable of changing yourself on the inside and killing your sin. God’s grace is so much better than just allowing you to do what you want. He gives you the power to live a righteous life!

Misunderstanding #2: It really matters what I do, so I need to work really hard!

The flip side will also kill you. This is when you believe that God’s grace gets you Skull on Stonessaved, and then it’s up to you, with the help of God and your church/friends/parents/accountability group, to live a life of obedience to Christ. You implement various formulas and five-step plans to help you do what’s right. If you stumble and fall into sin, you pick yourself up and resolve to do better next time. Just like the person who doesn’t care what they do, you are walking in the flesh.

If we could implement Jesus’ commands on our own strength, He didn’t need to die. If the Bible is just a self-help book that gives us high ideals for how to live, God could have given these new ideals to His prophets—or just put them in the Law of Moses to begin with!

We all realize (I hope) that we need to be born again in order to obey Jesus. We need to also understand that it is only by the grace of God that we can live for Him on a daily basis. He is the One who enables us to live for Him, and manmade plans, formulas, and steps of action will not give us God’s grace. Instead, they give us pride—which causes God to withhold His grace. Oops!

When you realize that you are not living as God wants you to live, you need to humble yourself before God, repent, and ask Him to give you the grace to obey Him and be the person He wants you to be. Remember, grace only comes to the humble. “…God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble” (James 4:6).

Sin in your life is a sign of a lack of God’s grace. Don’t become defensive and try to excuse or ignore the sin. Repent, and ask God for the grace to stop! It’s so much better to get rid of the sin instead of hiding it.


“Grace” photo © Can Stock Photo

What is Grace?

3 CrossesGrace is one of the most fundamental, yet most misunderstood doctrines of Christianity. God tells us, “By grace you are saved…” (Ephesians 2:8a). In other words, grace is part of the very foundation of our salvation. Therefore, it’s important that we understand what grace truly is and how it works in our lives.

For years, I struggled to live the Christian life and be the man that God wanted me to be. Over and over, I resolved to do better—resolutions that didn’t last. I saw a little improvement, but I was still wallowing in failure. Try as I might, I could not shake off my old habits and walk in wisdom. What was I to do?

It all ground to a halt when my dad asked me a simple question: “Do you realize that you cannot change yourself on your own?”

That day, God began teaching me about grace. It was a major turning point in my life. He taught me—well, let’s just start digging into it.

Four misconceptions about grace

The first misconception is the definition of grace. Grace has been popularly defined as “God’s unmerited favor”. This is a poor, Old Testament-based definition.

The second misconception is actually about salvation. Salvation is a two-part process. Part one is when we accept Christ as our Savior and receive the seal of the Holy Spirit on our lives. We become new creatures and are saved from sin, Satan, and the Law of Moses. But we do not receive the second part—our eternal salvation—until we get to Heaven and are saved from the second death of Hell. One of the clearest passages is Romans 5:8-11:

But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. (9) Much more then, being now justified by his blood, we shall be saved from wrath through him. (10) For if, when we were enemies, we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, being reconciled, we shall be saved by his life. (11) And not only so, but we also joy in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom we have now received the atonement.

For more on this, I recommend our article at Biblical Research Reports, “A New Look at Predestination and Once Saved Always Saved”.

What does this have to do with grace? It gives a whole new meaning to the idea of being “saved by grace”. We are not merely redeemed by grace, but we also need grace in order to reach Heaven. More on this in a little bit.

The third misconception is that grace is automatic. We believe that God will shower us with grace and we won’t have to do anything to receive it.

The fourth misconception is that grace is a license to sin or to “fudge the rules a bit”.

Both of these last two misconceptions result from a wrong definition of grace, so let’s look at what grace is.

An Old Testament Definition for a New Testament Doctrine

This morning, God showed me that the idea that grace is “God’s unmerited favor” is actually Old Testament-based. Throughout the Old Testament, grace is almost exclusively used in this manner: “But Noah found grace in the eyes of the LORD” (Genesis 6:8). Usually, in the Old Testament, “grace” is about finding favor in somebody’s sight.

Another example: “And [Esau] said, What meanest thou by all this drove which I met? And [Jacob] said, These are to find grace in the sight of my lord” (Genesis 33:8). In other words, Jacob was giving Esau a present to try to obtain favor from him.

Throughout the Old Testament, God used many external forces to motivate His people. He gave them detailed laws. He gave them a list of blessings and cursings for obeying and disobeying His Law. When they disobeyed Him, He used other nations to discipline them and help them to return to Him. They largely followed their leaders and did whatever the king said to do.

But in the prophets, God said that He was going to change His ways and do something new.

“Behold, the days come, saith the LORD, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt; which my covenant they brake, although I was an husband unto them, saith the LORD: But this shall be the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel; After those days, saith the LORD, I will put my law in their inward parts, and write it in their hearts; and will be their God, and they shall be my people. And they shall teach no more every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the LORD: for they shall all know me, from the least of them unto the greatest of them, saith the LORD: for I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

God prophesied that He would start working from the inside, changing the hearts of the people and placing His commands within them.

Things changed on the Day of Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit was given to the disciples. The world has never been the same. This, too, was something that God had prophesied. To quote Peter’s sermon at Pentecost:

“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my handmaidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy” (Acts 2:16-18).

It is important to realize that things changed between the covenants. God is not working the same way that He did in Noah’s day. Grace is no longer merely finding favor in God’s eyes.

Problems

If we define grace as “God’s unmerited favor”, it creates a problem. It makes utter nonsense of verses like these:

Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, [God’s favor] did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might [God’s favor] reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 5:20-21)

And he said unto me, My [favor] is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:9)

[In the context of spiritual gifts] But unto every one of us is given [God’s favor] according to the measure of the gift of Christ. (Ephesians 4:7)

Note: would this mean that God loves and favors some people more than others?

Whereof I was made a minister, according to the gift of the [favor] of God given unto me by the effectual working of his power. Unto me, who am less than the least of all saints, is this [favor] given, that I should preach among the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ; (Ephesians 3:7-8)

If when sin abounds, God’s favor abounds even more, then God must like sin! Nope. He spends the next chapter (Romans 6) explaining that it doesn’t work that way.

The catch is that grace can mean “favor” or “graciousness”. And in some cases, depending on how we define the idea of God’s favor, one could argue that the word “favor” works.

So what is grace?

We need to look more closely at some other verses in Scripture to understand better what “grace” is.

And the hand of the Lord was with them: and a great number believed, and turned unto the Lord. Then tidings of these things came unto the ears of the church which was in Jerusalem: and they sent forth Barnabas, that he should go as far as Antioch. Who, when he came, and had seen the grace of God, was glad, and exhorted them all, that with purpose of heart they would cleave unto the Lord. (Acts 11:21-23)

And now, brethren, I commend you to God, and to the word of his grace, which is able to build you up, and to give you an inheritance among all them which are sanctified. (Acts 20:32)

Now to him that worketh is the reward not reckoned of grace, but of debt. (Romans 4:4)

For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith. (Romans 12:3)

Having then gifts differing according to the grace that is given to us, whether prophecy, let us prophesy according to the proportion of faith… (Romans 12:6)

But by the grace of God I am what I am: and his grace which was bestowed upon me was not in vain; but I laboured more abundantly than they all: yet not I, but the grace of God which was with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)

Do ye think that the scripture saith in vain, The spirit that dwelleth in us lusteth to envy? But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:5-7)

These verses, and others like them, show us that:

  1. Grace is a gift from God
  2. Grace helps us to do what is right
  3. Grace enables us to reach the lost
  4. Grace works through us to accomplish God’s purposes

In short: Grace is God’s power working in us. In some ways, I believe that it is “shorthand” for the Holy Spirit and His power.

Going further

With this understanding, and the understanding of the two parts of salvation, we can now examine a few verses for some new insights.

Now therefore why tempt ye God, to put a yoke upon the neck of the disciples, which neither our fathers nor we were able to bear? But we believe that through the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ we shall be saved, even as they. (Acts 15:10-11)

This is James, the brother of Jesus, speaking here. He is already a believer. Yet, he puts salvation in the future: “we shall be saved.” And it is only through God’s grace, not by his own keeping of the Law. In other words, it is by God’s grace that we will be able to follow Christ and receive eternal salvation in Heaven.

Ephesians 2:8-9 is a very familiar passage:

For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9)

Taken with the idea of grace being “God’s unmerited favor”, this passage says that we are saved by God being nice to us and saving us, and that nothing we do can ever affect that. But let’s look at the context:

But God, who is rich in mercy, for his great love wherewith he loved us, Even when we were dead in sins, hath quickened us together with Christ (by grace ye are saved), And hath raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus: That in the ages to come he might shew the exceeding riches of his grace in his kindness toward us through Christ Jesus. For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: Not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath before ordained that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:4-10)

God tells us here that His grace—His power working in us—brings us to life. He has incredible riches of grace to give us because of His great kindness to us.

We are not saved by our own efforts—ever. Not before conversion, and not after. But, that does not mean that we are free to do whatever we want and “God’s grace” will cover it. On the contrary, God’s grace gives us the power to walk in the good works that God created us to perform. Since it is God’s grace that gives us the power to live for Him, we cannot boast in our own ability to obey God. None of us will ever be able to meet God’s standards on our own power.

In fact, everyone who tries to live the Christian life on their own power will die spiritually. God tells us:

But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you. Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live. (Romans 8:11-13)

The only way to stop fulfilling the lusts of the flesh is to kill them by the Holy Spirit. That is the power and grace of God! We can never kill sin on our own. If we could, Jesus would not have had to die to put sin to death. It’s not a matter of squashing sin, denying ourselves, or trying harder. Without God’s grace, we will die!

God tells us further, in Titus 2:11-14, that His grace teaches us how to live righteous lives:

For the grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, Teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously, and godly, in this present world; Looking for that blessed hope, and the glorious appearing of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ; Who gave himself for us, that he might redeem us from all iniquity, and purify unto himself a peculiar people, zealous of good works.

In other words, God’s grace will lead us to greater holiness and more obedience and righteousness.

Due to the common misconception of what grace is, I believe that we need to be careful in talking to others about grace, so that they correctly understand what we are saying. I often use the term “the power of God” instead of “the grace of God” so that others know what I am referring to.

Grace is not automatic

This probably sounds like heresy. But I can tell you, both from my own experience and the word of God, that grace will not automatically work in our lives.

Going back to Romans 5:20-21, we read, “Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound: That as sin hath reigned unto death, even so might grace reign through righteousness unto eternal life by Jesus Christ our Lord.” In other words, where there is sin, there is also the grace of God—the power of God to forgive and cleanse—even greater than that sin, capable of completely cleansing the sinner from his sin. But obviously, if sin is abounding, God’s grace is not stopping the sin. Why?

God gives us an answer in James 4:6-7: “But he giveth more grace. Wherefore he saith, God resisteth the proud, but giveth grace unto the humble. Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you.”

If I am proud, resist the offer of God’s grace, and try to stop sinning and clean up my life by my own efforts, God will not give me His grace. He can’t. I’m not accepting His grace. If He gives me grace, I will take the credit and boast in my own ability to change myself.

When we humble ourselves, acknowledge that we can’t fix our problems on our own, submit to God, and humbly ask Him for grace, God can then work in our lives, by the power of His Spirit, to purify us and cleanse us from all sin. That is truly grace! And it removes my ability to boast about how I helped myself.

When I realized that I couldn’t make myself into a Godly man, and turned to God and asked Him for grace, God began a great work in my life. I am amazed at what He has done. It is not something I can take credit for. It wasn’t the result of successfully following somebody’s five-step plan, or speaking positive words to myself. No, it was God, working all things together for good, to accomplish His will in my life and purify me to be one of His special people, zealous for good works. It is not yet complete, nor will it ever be on this side of Heaven. But one thing I do know: God is doing it, not me!

Grace is not a license to sin or “fudge the rules”

Because of the false definition of grace, many people view grace as a way to relax and stop trying to measure up to God’s standards. False! But true! Indeed, we do stop trying to follow God on our own efforts. But that does not mean that we can then do what we want!

Make no mistake about it: if your version of grace says that it doesn’t really matter how you live, it doesn’t really matter how well you obey God, it doesn’t really matter whether you live a righteous life or not—it isn’t grace. God is holy, and He wants us to be holy as well. God’s grace will always lead us into greater obedience to Him and greater holiness, not less.

Of course, this is obedience and holiness as defined by God, not by us, our pastor, our church, or the book on the coffee table. God is not going to lead you to do a better job of keeping manmade traditions or guilt trips. As you follow God’s grace, you will find that the modern-day “Pharisees” will be unhappy with you.

But remember: if you are living life by your own leading, and not by the Holy Spirit’s leading, you are not walking in grace. You are walking in sin.

Grace is not a license to sin.

Conclusion

God’s grace is truly amazing. It has the power to change us, and to change others through us. It gives us the ability to serve God and obey Him. It gives us the power to reach the world. It gives us love when we cannot love others, strength when we’re weak, cleansing when we repent of sin.

And though it is available to everyone, we can only receive it when we humble ourselves, acknowledge that we can’t follow God on our own efforts, and ask Him for His grace.

The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen. (Philippians 4:23)