Monday, June 30, 2014

Stop Feeling Guilty

More and more Christians today seem to be feeling guilty. In a politically correct culture that's pegged us as bigoted, narrow-minded, judgmental, and unloving, we all-too-often find ourselves hanging our heads in shame and pleading "guilty." If you hear something bad about yourself enough times, maybe you start to actually believe it. And so we apologize for ourselves and try to reinvent ourselves in a way that will garner wider-appeal. We strive to be relevant in a world that seems to be evolving rapidly without us. We downplay biblical truth and talk innocuously about "love" conveniently avoiding its true meaning and Godly origin.

And so, we want to be liked by the world.

We're aghast at the sinful behavior that so often creeps into our community. We're ashamed of our broken churches filled with broken people. We wince at the hateful behavior of Westboro Baptist Church types (who, despite their tiny numbers, get way more media coverage than the vast majority of compassionate Christians do). We squirm at the problematicsometimes violenthistory of the church. We find ourselves sinking in a pit of generational sin. But instead of rejoicing that despite being sinners, our righteousness is in Christ, we seem to be morbidly more comfortable with clinging to the guilt.

And so, we want to be forgiven by the world.

With the move away from the fire-and-brimstone preaching style of yesteryear in which guilt and fear sadly dominated our faith, we've ended up losing much of the accountability, but we're still hanging on to all of the guilt. Satan is the "great accuser," and we're willingly giving him our ear. We believe too many of the lies we hear about ourselves and we lament the way the world sees us.

And so, we want to be accepted by the world.

And to all this, add the tendency of many Christians to beat ourselves up for not being good enough. Often, we seek our identity in our spiritual successes and consequently lose our identity in our failures. Instead of placing our identity in Christ, we mirror the worldly pattern of self-centeredness.

But Christians need to stop with all the guilt!

Okayso we're sinners. Yeswe get it wrong some of the time. Absolutely—we make mistakes. Hands down—we're far from perfect. But, we are children of the living God. We are justified by faith, not by works. Our righteousness is in Him. And many of us are sincerely trying to live in obedience to Him. And so, we need to...

...Stop feeling guilty when we want to express our Christian faith in a culture that claims to be "tolerant."

...Stop feeling guilty for believing that Jesus is the only way, the truth, and the life.

...Stop feeling guilty for the times when pleasing God means displeasing people.

...Stop feeling guilty for holding to absolute truth in a secularized culture that believes everything is either relative or bigoted.

...Stop feeling guilty for saying, "Merry Christmas," at Christmas.

...Stop feeling guilty for believing in God's design for marriage.

...Stop feeling guilty when our hearts are grieved at seeing 8-year-old Shiloh Pitt's gender-bending garb.

...Stop feeling guilty for identifying wrong as wrong and right as right in a world where anything goes.

...Stop feeling guilty for believing that the Bible actually has it right.

...Stop feeling guilty for making counter-cultural choices, like how to educate our kids and what values to instill in them.

...Stop feeling guilty for bursting the bubble of selfism that teaches everyone that they are perfect just as they are.

...Stop feeling guilty for speaking the truth in love that we are all sinners who fall short of God's glory and we all need a Savior.

We have been set free from sin and are now slaves to righteousness. (Rom 6:18). So, then, l
et's stop feeling guilty and start feeling grateful!

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Radical or Relevant?

Over the years, I've encountered many different interpretations of what it means to live life as a Christian. When confronted with the vast array ofoften conflictingopinions on how we as believers should live out our faith, I've often been left scratching my head, and asking myself: so, are we to be counter-cultural or culturally sensitive? How much in the world can we really be without being of it? Are we to be radical or relevant, or somewhere in between? 

The perennial question, how in the world should I live? is one which continues to occupy my mind even now in my thirties. Living in the culturally diverse DC area, I've observed a wide variety of takes on the Christian walk, many of which bear surprisingly little resemblance to one another. For example, here are two Christians I have known...

"Jim" is the first. He lives out his faith in an "out-there" kind of way, wearing his convictions unashamedly on his sleeve. Jim personifies what could be seen as radical. Everyone in the office at work knows he is a Christian. He talks openly about his relationship with the Lord, prays before eating his sandwich in the lunchroom and reads his bible on the metro. Everyone likes him well enough, but in all honesty, no one seems to take him all that seriously. He might be a little unrelatable.

On the flip-side, there's "Rob." You would never guess Rob was a Christian if you bumped into him at one of the heavy-drinking get-togethers he frequents. He doesn't use Christianese. He has swagger. He wears believably edgy clothes. He only listens to secular music. You might say that Rob is relevant. He's a fixture at the bars, but you'll often find him at church on Sunday as well (with a bit of a hangover sometimes, let's be honest). If you get to know him, he'll tell you what he believes. And you might say: wow, normal, fun people like you can be Christian? Maybe there's something to this Christianity thing after all.

Rob and Jim may seem like over-generalizations, but I think many of us have known some version of a Rob or Jim at one point in our lives or another. We may even identify certain characteristics of Rob or Jim in ourselves. Both Jim and Rob sincerely believe in Jesus, but they each have a different idea of what it means to live out their faith. 

I have been fascinated by people-watching in the Christian community for years. I noticed that those who are more like Rob often seem better positioned to reach out to unbelievers than the Jims seem to be. This is because the Jimsinadvertently perhapsmight operate in more of a Christian bubble than the Robs. The Robs tend to have a lot of friends (in some cases the majority of their friends) who are not Christians. Some of the Robs may even date unbelievers. But the Jims may struggle to relate to unbelievers on a personal level because they're so different from them, culturally as well as spiritually. So, which type of Christian is getting it right, and which one isn't...or are they both acceptable?

This is an important question. Jesus' last, and arguably His most important, commandment before His ascension was to go and make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19). A friend once said to me, "the only thing we can't do in Heaven is evangelize." He was right. And we are each called to be witnesses (Acts 1:8). So how do we best do this? Many would argue that people like Jim aren't very effective in this endeavor. After all, how could unbelievers possibly relate to him? 

But I think one of the biggest mistakes we could make in discerning how best to live out our faith and witness to others, is to look to the world first for the answers. The reality is, even if we try to fit in with the world, the world may reject us all the same. How many celebrities have we seen rise and fall in popularity? How many people who were once idolized have we seen plummet from fame? The world is ruthless and fickle. But the love of God endures forever. In light of this, we should seek to please God first, not people first, in how we live—even if doing so might not win us popularity or make us more relatable.

Furthermore, if we base the way we live on worldly opinions, we will find ourselves being blown about by every wind of teaching. We'll find a lot of different theories, strategies, and lifestyles out there and many of them won't be consistent with Scripture. It's when we turn to God's Word, however, that things start to become clear.

Rather than feeling pressure to fit in with contemporary culture or the worldly status quo, then, Paul says we should "come out and be separate from the world" and not be unequally yoked with unbelievers (2 Cor 6:14-14-18). The bible says that believers are to live as foreigners in the world (1 Peter 2:11). Foreigners tend to stand out from the crowd, not blend in. Sometimes, they are rejected by people just as Jesus was rejected by the world. As Jesus said, "If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you." (John 15:19)

And so, Paul admonishes us not to conform to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewal of our minds (Rom 12:2). And he further explains that we, "must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart." (Eph 4:17-18). In all honesty, it's hard to break free from the deceitful patterns of this world, if we fellowship with darknessif we live life in close partnership with those who worship the things of this world.

Ultimately, living an authentic life as a Christian is the best witness to those around us. If we're disingenuous about how we live out our faith, we'll likely end up being exposed as hypocrites or fakes. Instead of trying to be like the world in order to be accepted by it, I think it's important to keep our identity firmly rooted in Christ, remembering that it's the role of the Holy Spirit to convict hearts, not ours to finesse our faith and tweak the gospel to make it more culturally acceptable.

The truth is, Christians are called to believe a foolish message and live a foolish lifestyle. But, God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise (1 Cor 1:27). Although Jim's faith may appear foolish at times to his colleagues at the office, after a time, they may come to respect him. They may notice that he is a man of his word and a man of integrity. Deep down, they may admire the fact that he turns down happy hour to go home to have dinner with his family and that he's conspicuously absent from the office drama or water-cooler gossip sessions. They may notice that he's quick to speak words of encouragement rather than criticism. Ultimately, they may see the light of Jesus in him.

So, in light of Scripture, who's got it right? Jim or Rob? I would say, actually, neither. Again, I think the answer lies in Christ, not in man.

The bottom line is this: each believer needs "to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in us to will and to act according to His purpose." (Phil 2:12-13) The Greek verb, "work out," means "to continually work to bring something to completion or fruition." We do this by actively pursuing obedience to God as part of our sanctification process toward the goal of becoming more like Christ. The “trembling” Paul describes is the attitude Christians are to have in pursuing this goal—a healthy fear of offending God and an awe and respect for His majesty and holiness. Basically, it's about living in reverence to a holy God.

The way this looks for you might be a little different from the way this looks for me. Each believer in the Body of Christ is spiritually wired in a unique way. Just as we each have a unique finger print, we each have our own gifts, our own part to play, our own personalities, and we each relate to God individually in our own personal relationship with Him. 

More importantly, however, we are one in Christ and we are each a new creation in Him. (2 Cor 4:17). It is no longer we who live, but Christ who lives in us. (Gal 2:20). Therefore, if our identity is rooted in Christ, we will begin to die to self and live in reverent submission to Him.

So is this radical Christianity? Living life as a radical Christian, like perhaps Jim intends to do, will hopefully involve a reverent faith. I liked much of what David Platt had to say in his hard-hitting book, Radical, for example. In it, he challenges Christians to live for the gospela gospel that not only saves us from our sins, but also compels us to lay down our lives gladly for God’s glory in a world of urgent spiritual and physical need. He unflinchingly calls out Christians on cheap grace, easy-believism, and consumer Christianity. It certainly convicted me in several areas of my own life.

But setting out to live life as a radical Christian can put us in danger of placing too much emphasis on what we are doing and how well we're doing it. Being a radical Christian is a good thing, but if it becomes an ultimate thing, then that's a bad thing. This can produce self-righteousness, pride, and an over-emphasis on works. If the focus becomes on how holy we are, as opposed to how holy God is, then we have a problem. Our identity is no longer in Christ, but in being "radical."

An extreme example of this recently unfolded in the highly publicized Bill Gothard sexual-misconduct scandal. Gothard's Advanced Training Institute (ATI) created a radical Christian culture of "quarantined Christianity" in which the sinful and demonic forces of the outside world were shut out in an effort to preserve an oasis of Christian perfection within their community. While the original aim was to live Gothard's interpretation of a radical Christian lifestyle, however, this soon morphed into an attempt to create an earthly utopia. The ATI culture was insularnot missionaland sin was treated as an external force, rather than an internal heart-problem. According to reports from insiders, self-righteousness was rife in the community, which distracted from the need for believers to seek their righteousness in Christ alone. As a result, the ATI community inevitably cracked under the weight of sin and scandal.

It's important, then, that not conforming to the world isn't confused with conforming instead to some type of conservative Christian subculture. To do so, would merely be exchanging one man-made system of living for another. The answer is not in a system, but in a Savior. And while it might be tempting to use the "unequally yoked" passage as an excuse to retreat into a holy huddle, this isn't what Christ calls us to. We're called to be salt and light in the world, not shut to ourselves off from the world. Making disciples can't be achieved inside a Christian bubble.

So what about relevant Christianity? At least this is outwardly focused, not insular. Again, however, I think it's missing the markand perhaps even more so.

A good example of the widespread effort over the last decade or two to make Christianity more relevant (i.e. more relatable) to younger generations can be seen in the Emerging Church movement—a broad, yet controversial, movement that seeks to use culturally sensitive approaches to reach the postmodern, un-churched population with the Christian message. Emerging churches often promote a feelings- and experience-based relationship with God, while downplaying the need for sound doctrine and a cognizant understanding of His word. Polarizing and inconvenient biblical truths are often glossed over in an effort to be "seeker-friendly" and to make everyone more comfortable.

Relevant Christianity is certainty outreach-mindedBut if it leads churches to mirror secular culture as opposed to presenting a counter-cultural worldview, then it looks to the world first, not Scripture first, for the answers on how best to live out the Christian faith. As a result, the gospel message is marginalized in a church culture that primarily caters to human needs. It focuses on people first, not God first and thus de-emphasizes the Lordship of Christ. Relevant Christianity tends to downplay the gravity of sin to make everyone feel better about themselves, but as a result God's grace doesn't seem so amazing anymore.

So, then, striving to be either relevant or radical in our Christian faith can actually lead us away from being reverent. Living out our faith reverently, though, is what really matters. Living in submission to Christ and dying to ourselves daily, will keep our eyes fixed on Jesusnot on ourselves or on the world around us. Living in reverence takes the pressure off us and allows us to enjoy our true freedom in Christ. And living out our faith reverently will actually have greater impact on the world around us, because the gospel of Christ will remain our focus and our motivation.

We don't have to over-complicate things and confuse ourselves (and others) by trying to be radical, relevant, or somewhere in between. Instead, we can simply aim to be reverent, seeking to glorify God in how we live out our faith.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Why Grace Isn't So Amazing Anymore

The word, grace, pops up quite a lot in church these days, doesn't it? We often hear about the need to act with grace toward others to help foster healthy relationships. And, it's become common to say things like: "I need to show [insert name here] some grace." Perhaps one of the more comical usages of the term, grace, would be "EGR"—an abbreviation for extra grace required, which is apparently Christianese for dealing with "a person in church whose ongoing spiritual and emotional needs frustrate the efforts of others to interact with that person or minister to that person." I'm pretty sure a lot of us can relate!

Comical as this may be, it actually points up a real problem: when we use the term, grace, we often do so in a way that isn't really consistent with how it's used in Scripture. It's a good thing that we're talking about grace more often. But, the things is, we've developed a tendency to over-use the term without giving much thought to what it actually means. And as a result, we end up trivializing it and obscuring the powerful meaning behind it. In other words, grace doesn't seem so amazing anymore.

Having used the term quite liberally over the years myself, I've recently been pondering, what does it really mean to "show grace" to someone, anyway?

Interestingly, in the New Testament, the word gracecharis—is not as often used to describe the way in which we should treat others as it is mentioned in direct relation to the gospel. In other words, grace isn't presented nearly so much as something we do, as something we have received. This is because grace isn't self-generated, it is God-given. And so, grace itself points us to the gospel of Christ because He is its source and His work on the Cross is its purest expression. In fact, the Apostle Paul used the terms "gospel" and "grace" interchangeably (Gal 1:6). And he made it clear that grace is at the very heart of the gospel when he wrote, "For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast." (Eph 2:8-9).

But worryingly, it seems that, of late, the idea of "showing grace" is being applied in a way that actually marginalizes the gospel message. Over time, grace has taken on new meaning among Christians, diverging from Scripture, to describe a purely human action or behavior rather than an unmerited gift from God. As Robert Girdlestone puts it, "We have gradually come to speak of grace as an inherent quality in man, just as we talk of gifts; whereas it is in reality the communication of Divine goodness by the inworking of the Spirit, and through the medium of Him who is ‘full of grace and truth.’”[1]

Furthermore, when we talk about grace these days, it seems like we're less often referring to salvation from sin and more often to tolerance of sin. It seems that "showing grace" is increasingly confused with overlookingeven enablingsin in our culture, sin in others...and by extension, sin in ourselves (which is perhaps the underlying reason for why this application has become so popular). "Showing grace," it seems, has morphed into a tendency to brush sin under the rug in an effort to smooth things over and keep the peace. In other words, it is a biblical principle that is misapplied when it is motivated by a desire to please people rather than God. Acts of "grace" that are of this world, will mirror the patterns of this world. And "grace" doesn't so often mingle with truth in this context.

But because authentic grace comes from God, and is not of this world, it is counter-cultural. And as a result, grace will be undervalued in a worldly culture. To authentically show grace to others isn't always going to be the popular thing to do because it will ultimately point them to Christ and away from themselves. Showing grace, then, will not always please people. 

The prevailing culture of political correctness and moral relativism that dominates our society at large has seeped into our churches (just as culture tends to do!). And because of this, it's becoming less and less socially acceptable to call sin, "sin," and to differentiate between right and wrong, even in the Christian community. We're so often told, these days, that acknowledging the existence of sin and distinguishing right from wrong is to be judgmental or to be a guilt-tripper.

But distinguishing right from wrong as a Christian isn't about feeling guilty, or guilt-tripping others; it's about God's forgiveness of us and our forgiveness of othersFor why would we ever seek God's forgiveness and His righteousness, if we haven't confronted the reality of our own sinful nature? And how can we forgive someone for something that we haven't recognized as wrong in the first place? 

In other words, it's not about being judgmental; it's about being discerning. It's not about accusing others, record-keeping, or burdening ourselves with a lot of emotional baggage; it's about simply acknowledging that we are sinners and humbly, joyfully standing in God's grace, knowing that when we are weak, He is strong. And it's about encouraging others with the same good news.

...But it's only good news if we realize our need for a Savior.

So, what then is it to "show grace"? If grace is unmerited favor, showing grace to others is loving, forgiving, and blessing them when they don't deserve it, because this what Christ did for us. The purest, most powerful example of being loved and blessed when we don't deserve it, is Christ's death for us on the Cross. Think about that for a second: we don't deserve it...Why don't we deserve God's grace to us? Because we are sinners. Yet while we were sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:8). He didn't die for us because we had done pretty well that week with our devotions or shown kindness to others that day. His grace to us was unearned, unconditional, and unmatched. Even if we accomplished some monumental life's work for His glory, we still wouldn't deserve His grace.

In fact, if we believe the bible, we know that what we actually deserve is eternal separation from God. But it's not so popular to talk about such inconvenient truths these days, is it? In a culture that believes we deserve to be happy, we deserve to be loved, we deserve the very best life has to offer, there is no real room for grace. If we inherently deserve all these good things, the very nature of grace is nullified. And if we deserve to be saved, then what is grace? As Paul said in his letter to the Romans, "if [salvation] is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace." (Rom 11:6).

It is true that love covers a multitude of sins (1 Pet 4:8), but at the same time love rejoices with the truth (1 Cor 13:5). To truly love one another is not to gloss over sin, it is to encourage one another with the truth that we are justified in Christ and our sins have been washed away. And by speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of Christ (Eph 4:16). Failing to acknowledge the truth about how sinful we are, is to downplay the surpassing power of the gospel of grace.

Grace, then, must go hand-in-hand with truth, or it's no longer grace. The other day, Kevin De Young tweeted: "We need to be grace people and truth people. Not half grace and half truth. But full on with both all the time." And in the gospel of John, we read that "the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth … From the fullness of his grace we have all received one blessing after another. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” (Jn 1:14, 16-17). Grace is synonymous with the truth of the gospel.

While our culture will encourage us to be proud of ourselves, to promote ourselves, and to seek worldly status, pride is actually our biggest hurdle to salvation by grace. The bible counters that we need to let go of our pride. To brush sin under the rug is prideful because it tries to elevate the self to a holier status that it deserves. And enabling sin is not acting in line with the truth of the gospel (Gal 2:14).

Living in God's grace, then, involves neither ignoring sin nor sinking in sin; Paul made this clear when he said, "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?" (Rom 6:1-2). And if we are to die to sin, we have to recognize what it is before we can walk away from it. Standing in grace is to reject self-righteousness and embrace our righteousness in Christ, for it is in Christ that there is no condemnation (Rom 8:10). Standing in grace is to rejoice in the hope of the glory of God (Rom 5:2)—this is the crux of the gospel.

Peter tells us that we should use our gifts to serve others as faithful stewards of God's grace (1 Peter 4:10). Authentically showing grace to others is an outworking of God's grace to us and will be inherently self-sacrificial, unconditional, and unearned, just as modeled by Christ. It isn't motivated by self-gain or people pleasing. 

The bottom line is this: Christ is what makes grace so amazing. Let's not forget to make Him central when we act with grace towards others.

Robert Girdlestone, Synonyms of the Old Testament (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1871), p. 179.