Theology

Preaching God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel

Preaching God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel

I was invited to speak at the “Preach the Word” conference at Living Stones Church in Reno, NV, and was assigned “Preaching God’s Two Words: Law & Gospel.”

I can think of no more important thing to get straight before one preaches than the distinction and relationship between God’s Law and God’s Gospel. We are talking about the character and holiness of God and the pleasant pardoning and love of God. Because we are sinners, the law is God’s “No!” and curse to us and the Gospel is God’s “Yes!” To confuse them is to corrupt the Christian faith at its core. Martin Luther says, “The whole of the Scriptures and the whole of theology depends upon the true understanding of the law and the gospel.”

In Galatians 3:1-3, 10-14, St. Paul writes:

O foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly portrayed as crucified. Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?…For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, “Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them.” Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for “The righteous shall live by faith.” But the law is not of faith, rather “The one who does them shall live by them.” Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree”— so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.

Almighty God, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for 
our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, 
and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever
hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have
 given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with
 you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. (Proper 28, Book of Common Prayer, pages 236)

 

When My Dad Loved Me At My Worst

When My Dad Loved Me At My Worst

Many of us think (whether we admit it or not) there must be some breaking point where our Father God gives up on us. Even if we successfully avoid believing this fallacy, others’ overzealous cries still reach our ears: certainly there must be some sin or amount of sin that is just too much.

THE FLOOD

My understanding of unconditional love and its implications deepened when I was 10 years old. Our neighbors had moved and they were trying to sell their house. One day I broke in through the back door and closed all the drains in all the sinks and tubs and turned on all the faucets. Then, I just sat there and watched the water run. I let it keep running when I went home for dinner, only finally returning a few hours later to turn it off. I flooded the entire house.

THE FEELING

I knew right away that what I had done was wrong. I was shocked that I just wanted to do something so destructive. Our neighbors saw the damage the next day while showing the home to prospective buyers. They came to our house, and asked us if we had seen anyone around their place recently. On top of what I had already done, I lied to our neighbors and my parents.

I felt completely messed up. I was destroying stuff for the sake of destroying, and then I lied blatantly to everyone. I had heard about asking God’s forgiveness (my dad had taught me the Lord’s Prayer), so I begged God to forgive me.

But I was worried that he wouldn’t. Surely something so deliberate and cruel was just too much to forgive.

THE FORGIVENESS

After a month of an uneasy conscience, I was finally found out. Another neighbor had seen me sneaking around and told my parents. My father called me in from playing outside with my friends and asked me if I remembered anything important about the flooding incident. I knew something was up, but I felt like I had to stick with the lie at this point.

Finally, my dad told me that I was busted. I experienced an overwhelming sense of shame and guilt for my sins, and intense fear of the consequences. I sobbed and muttered, “Dad, I’m so sorry. I’ve been asking God to forgive me for so long for this and I don’t know if he ever will.”

In a moment of parental love and great wisdom, my dad said, “If you asked God to forgive you, then you are forgiven. You deserve to be punished, and this will cost lots of money to fix. But, son, you are forgiven. Go back outside and play.” In that moment, the reality of forgiveness and gratuitous grace powerfully moved me.

Instead of experiencing my fears unfold, I knew I was safe with my dad and I finally understood what he told me growing up: “I love you unconditionally.”

THE FAITH

Now when I confess my sins, I think of that experience of absolution. My dad didn’t take grace “too far.” He saw that my misunderstanding and fear of God’s wrath and my dad’s discipline threatened to crush me. He took on the consequences of my sins and literally paid for them for me.

I know there was nothing I could do to cause him to love me less. And I also know there was nothing I could do to cause him to love me more.

He loved me because I was his.

God the Father loves you like that. It’s gratuitous grace, the only kind there is.

 

A version of this story appears in Judgment and Love, a 35-story collection from Mockingbird.

What Is Grace?

What Is Grace?

“The very center and core of the whole Bible is the doctrine of the grace of God.”
J. Gresham Machen

“Grace” is the most important concept in the Bible, Christianity, and the world. It is most clearly expressed in the promises of God revealed in Scripture and embodied in Jesus Christ.

Grace is the love of God shown to the unlovely, the peace of God given to the restless, the unmerited favor of God.

What are some ways people have defined grace?

  • B.B. Warfield: “Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving.”
  • John Stott: “Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues.”
  • Jerry Bridges: “[Grace] is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against him.”
  • Paul Zahl: “Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it.”

Grace Gives Life

Grace is most needed and best understood in the midst of sin, suffering, and brokenness. We live in a world of earning, deserving, and merit, and these result in judgment. That is why everyone wants and needs grace. Judgment kills. Only grace makes alive.

A shorthand for grace is “mercy, not merit.” Grace is the opposite of karma, which is all about getting what you deserve. Grace is getting what you don’t deserve, and not getting what you do deserve. Christianity teaches that what we deserve is death with no hope of resurrection.

Judgment kills. Only grace makes alive.

While everyone desperately needs it, grace is not about us. Grace is fundamentally a word about God: his un-coerced initiative and pervasive, extravagant demonstrations of care and favor. Michael Horton writes, “In grace, God gives nothing less than himself. Grace, then, is not a third thing or substance mediating between God and sinners, but is Jesus Christ in redeeming action.”

All Is Grounded In Grace

Christians live every day by the grace of God. We receive forgiveness according to the riches of God’s grace, and grace drives our sanctification. Paul tells us, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:11). Spiritual growth doesn’t happen overnight, but we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 2:18). Grace transforms our desires, motivations, and behavior.

In fact, God’s grace grounds and empowers everything in the Christian life. Grace is the basis for:

  • Our Christian identity: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 1:10).
  • Our standing before God: “. . . this grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2).
  • Our behavior: “We behaved in the world . . . by the grace of God” (2 Cor. 2:12).
  • Our living: Those who receive “the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 5:17) by the “grace of life” (1 Pet. 1:7).
  • Our holiness: “God called us to a holy calling . . . because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Tim. 2:9).
  • Our strength for living: “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:1) for “it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace” (Heb. 13:9).
  • Our way of speaking: “Let your speech always be gracious” (Col. 4:6).
  • Our serving: “serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet 1:10).
  • Our sufficiency: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 2:9), and “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 2:8).
  • Our response to difficulty and suffering: We get “grace to help in time of need,” (Heb. 4:16) and when “you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace . . . will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 1:10).
  • Our participation in God’s mission: As recipients of grace, we are privileged to serve as agents of grace. Believers receive grace (Acts 11:23), are encouraged to continue in grace (Acts 13:43), and are called to testify to the grace of God (Acts 20:24). Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you” (John 20:21). God’s mission is to the entire world.
  • Our future: God, and his grace, is everlasting. “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).
  • Our hope beyond death: “Grace [reigns] through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:21).

The gospel is all about God’s grace through Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul calls it “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) and “the word of his grace” (Acts 14:3).

Grace Is The Message

The gospel of the grace of God is the message everyone needs. The word of grace is proclaimed from every page of the Bible and ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ. The last verse of the Bible summarizes the message from Genesis to Revelation: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (Rev. 22:21). Through Jesus “we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16)—the gratuitous and undomesticated grace of God.

 


 

This post is excerpted from my latest book, On the Grace of God. It originally appeared on Christianity.com.

 

Grace Is the Opposite of Karma

Grace Is the Opposite of Karma

A Q&A with Justin Holcomb on the release of his newest book, On the Grace of God.

 

Question: So let’s start with the big idea. Give us a quick summary of what the Bible says on the grace of God.

Justin Holcomb: “Grace” is the most important concept in the Bible, in Christianity, and in the world. The shorthand for grace is “mercy, not merit.”

Grace is getting what you don’t deserve and not getting what you do deserve. Grace is the opposite of karma. Grace is the love of God shown to the unlovely, the peace of God given to the restless, the unmerited favor of God. Grace is free sovereign favor to the ill-deserving. Grace is unconditional love toward a person who does not deserve it. Grace is love that cares and stoops and rescues. Grace is God reaching downward to people who are in rebellion against him. Grace is one-way love.

Question: “The opposite of karma.” That’s good. In fact, that all sounds pretty good. And yet in the book you talk about how grace is actually offensive. Can you explain why a concept that involves unconditional love could make people mad?

JH: Unconditional love is a difficult concept to wrap your mind around. Many of us think (whether we admit it or not) there must be some breaking point where God gives up on us. Certainly there must be some sin or amount of sin that is just too much. Our natural human tendency is to establish negotiated settlements with God through religion, but grace undermines our religious attempts. As Jacques Ellul said, “Grace is the hardest thing for us to be reconciled to, because it implies the renouncing of our pretensions, our power, our pomp and circumstance. It is opposite of everything our ‘religious’ sentiments are looking for.”

“Karma is all about getting what you deserve. Grace is the opposite.”

Religious people don’t like grace because it messes up their gig: giving advice, telling people what to do and not to do, parenting, marriage, being a boss. Grace undermines condemnation and fear, which are the best tools for religion.

In the Christian tradition, there are many adjectives that have accompanied the word grace: amazing, free, scandalous, surprising, special, inexhaustible, incalculable, wondrous, mysterious, overflowing, abundant, irresistible, costly, extravagant, and more. John Calvin calls it gratuitous grace. Gratuitous is the idea of something being unwarranted or uncalled for. Though we yearn desperately for grace, the beautiful extravagance of God’s love in Christ is utterly uncalled for.

Question: Many of those words aren’t generally associated with the concept of grace outside the church context. How do you think people in general define grace?

JH: I actually bought a shampoo one time called “Amazing Grace.” I couldn’t resist. The description on the bottle was the best example of a bad definition of grace I’ve ever seen. I had to write it down:

Life is a classroom. We are both student and teacher. Each day is a test. And each day we receive a passing or failing grade in one particular subject: grace. Grace is compassion, gratitude, surrender, faith, forgiveness, good manners, reverence, and the list goes on. It’s something money can’t buy and credentials rarely produce. Being the smartest, the prettiest, the most talented, the richest, or even the poorest, can’t help. Being a humble person can and being a helpful person can guide you through your days with grace and gratitude.

This may sound nice, but it turns grace into a chore and a platitude. In our culture, the word grace has a lot to do with charm, elegance, beauty, or attractiveness. This has very little to do with how the Bible uses the word. Grace isn’t a personal virtue at all; grace is unmerited favor or a kindly disposition that leads to acts of kindness. Grace is a gift.

Question: Which of course raises the same question Paul talks about in the book of Romans. If grace is a gift that we receive freely—if our acceptance is based on grace and not whether we obey God’s law—what’s to prevent people from abusing the gift and ignoring God’s commands? How do you tackle this issue?

JH: When it comes to grace and law, it’s not a matter of keeping them in balance, but using them correctly. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus intensified the law when he took the Ten Commandments and told us that it’s not just about our outward behavior. If you sin inwardly you have broken all of the law. Then, in Matthew 22:36–39, he summarizes the law with two prongs. He’s asked, “What is the greatest commandment?” He replies: “Love God with all your heart” (which sums up the first four commandments), and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (which sums up the last six). Jesus made the law even more dangerous and intense than it was in the Old Testament. He wasn’t just explaining an ethical code for his followers—he was freaking people out so they would know their need for a Savior.

“Grace is the end of religion.”

The law is a mirror. It reflects to us our problem, our condition, our need, and our death. The law is good because it shows us reality. Like a mirror, the law shows us our problem. But a mirror can’t change what it shows us. It reflects our problem, but it can’t fix it. The law cannot generate what it commands. When applied to sin, the law curses us with judgment. In the presence of the law, only a holy substitute can save us. Look at what the Apostle Paul says: “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do” (Rom. 7:24–8:3).

Jesus died on the cross in our place to take away the curse we bear for breaking God’s law. Galatians 3:13 says, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.” Because of the cross and resurrection of Jesus, there is an answer to the disciples’ question, “Who then can be saved?” The good news comes when Jesus says, “With man [salvation] is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God” (Mark 10:27). That’s the point of the law and the gospel: with us, salvation is impossible (law), but for God, everything is possible (gospel). It’s when we face the impossibility of doing anything to save ourselves that the grace of God floods in.

Question: Talk more about the difference between grace and religion. How do you distinguish the two?

JH: “Religion” is shorthand for the human propensity is to establish negotiated settlements with God. Robert Capon explains: “The world is by no means averse to religion. In fact, it is devoted to it with a passion. It will buy any recipe for salvation as long as that formula leaves the responsibility for cooking up salvation firmly in human hands.”

Grace reveals our natural pride of self-sufficiency, as well as the pride of spiritual progression. God’s grace pushes us to recognize our sinfulness and reject all confidence in our abilities and ourselves. Grace is the end of religion because the secured promise of the gospel frees us from the supposed promises of our religious self-reliance, self-sufficiency, and self-justification.

“The cross is a coup de grâce, a ‘stroke of grace.’”

In religion, you get what you deserve. It is the same with karma. Karma is all about getting what you deserve. Christianity teaches that what you deserve is death with no hope of resurrection. Grace is the opposite of karma. While everyone desperately needs it, grace is not about us. Grace is fundamentally a word about God: his un-coerced initiative and pervasive, extravagant demonstrations of care and favor. The cross is God’s attack on sin and violence; it is salvation from sin and its effects. The cross really is a coup de grâce, meaning “stroke of grace,” which refers to the deathblow delivered to the misery of our suffering.

Question: That’s a great way to put it. Grace not only trumps religion, but also evil and suffering. What are some other ways that God’s grace can influence our day-to-day lives?

JH: God’s grace is overflowing and abundant. It is also powerful: grace motivates changed lives, as Paul writes: “The love of Christ compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14, NIV)! Similarly, “God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). The principle that grace motivates ought to permeate our lives, work, and leadership.

For leaders, this means that when you want to see better performance from your staff, don’t threaten demotions or probation; instead, provide security, offer freedom for self-direction, and help them see the larger significance of their work.

For parents, if you want your children to be more obedient (not just compliant), don’t give them threats, but talk about Jesus’ obedience on their behalf and dazzle them with grace.

For pastors, when you want to see more faithfulness in your congregation, don’t just hammer them with the demands of the law; rather, tell them about Jesus’ faithfulness on our behalf, even and especially when we are faithless (2 Tim. 2:13). You will be amazed at the fruit the Holy Spirit produces when you focus on grace, rather than threats and incentives. Grace motivates.

 




Do you want more? Grab a copy of On the Grace of God by Justin Holcomb today.

The Places Grace Empowers Us

The Places Grace Empowers Us

Christians live every day by the grace of God.

We receive forgiveness according to the riches of divine grace, and grace drives our sanctification. Paul tells us, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives” (Titus 2:11–12).

This doesn’t happen overnight—we “grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 3:18). Grace transforms our desires, motivations, and behavior.

Grace is the Basis

In fact, God’s grace grounds and empowers everything in the Christian life. Grace is the basis for:

  • Our Christian identity: “By the grace of God I am what I am” (1 Cor. 15:10).
  • Our standing before God: “. . . this grace in which we stand” (Rom. 5:2).
  • Our behavior: “We behaved in the world . . . by the grace of God” (2 Cor. 1:12).
  • Our living: Those who receive “the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ,” (Rom. 5:17) by the “grace of life” (1 Pet. 3:7).
  • Our holiness: God “called us to a holy calling . . . because of his own purpose and grace” (2 Tim. 1:9).
  • Our strength for living: “Be strengthened by the grace that is in Jesus Christ” (2 Tim. 2:1) for “it is good for the heart to be strengthened by grace” (Heb. 13:9).
  • Our way of speaking: “Let your speech always be gracious” (Col. 4:6).
  • Our serving: “Serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace” (1 Pet. 4:10).
  • Our sufficiency: “My grace is sufficient for you” (2 Cor. 12:9), “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8)
  • Our response to difficulty and suffering: We get “grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:16), and when “you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace . . . will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Pet. 5:10).
  • Our participation in God’s mission: As recipients of grace we are privileged to serve as agents of grace. Believers receive grace (Acts 11:23), are encouraged to continue in grace (Acts 13:43), and are called to testify to the grace of God (Acts 20:24). In John 20:21, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” God’s mission is to the entire world (Isa. 49:6; Matt. 28:19; Acts 1:8; 13:47).
  • Our future: God, and his grace, is everlasting. “Set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 1:13).
  • Our hope beyond death: “Grace [reigns] through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 5:21).

The gospel is all about God’s grace through Jesus Christ. That’s why Paul calls it “the gospel of the grace of God” (Acts 20:24) and “the word of his grace” (Acts 14:3; 20:32; cf. Col. 1:5–6).

Gratuitous Grace

The gospel of the grace of God is the message everyone needs. The word of grace is proclaimed from every page of the Bible and ultimately revealed in Jesus Christ. The last verse of the Bible summarizes the message from Genesis to Revelation: “The grace of the Lord Jesus be with all” (Rev. 22:21). Because of and from Jesus “we have all received grace upon grace” (John 1:16)—the gratuitous and undomesticated grace of God.

 


 

This post was adapted from On the Grace of God, by Justin Holcomb, copyright © 2013.

“Gratuitous” Grace

“Gratuitous” Grace

The following is an excerpt from On the Grace of God on John Calvin’s understanding of “gratuitous” grace.

In the Christian tradition, there are many adjectives that have accompanied the word grace: amazing, free, scandalous, surprising, special, inexhaustible, incalculable, wondrous, mysterious, overflow- ing, abundant, irresistible, costly, extravagant, and more. My favorite is from John Calvin—”gratuitous” grace. Gratuitous is the idea of something being unwarranted or uncalled for. Though we yearn des- perately for grace, the beautiful extravagance of God’s love in Christ is utterly uncalled for. Gratuitous. In his Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin writes: “We make the foundation of faith the gratuitous promise, because in it faith properly consists. . . . Faith begins with the promise, rests in it, and ends in it” (Institutes 3.2.24).

In Calvin’s theology, the knowledge of God the redeemer focuses on the “gratuitous promise” as the main theme of Scripture. The gratuitous promise in Christ is the substance of Scripture. The various terms denoting the gratuitous promise of God exist throughout Calvin’s writings in countless variations: “gratuitous mercy,” “gratuitous favor,” “gratuitous goodness,” “mere good pleasure,” and “gratuitous love” (Institutes 2.7.4; 2.16.2; 2.17.1; 3.21.5; 3.21.7; 3.31.7)  These expressions are also found throughout his commentaries, especially his Commentary on Romans and Commentary on Genesis.

God loves you with gratuitous grace, the only kind there is. God’s grace is unconditioned and unconditional.

Why the Rising Social Awareness in the Church Should Encourage Us

Why the Rising Social Awareness in the Church Should Encourage Us

Recently, we have begun to see an encouraging trend in Christian circles: a greater awareness of violence and oppression (such as human trafficking), as well as an increased concern for rescuing and caring for victims. We are seeing an explosion of attention to social justice issues in organizations like Passion, International Justice Mission, and the World Evangelical Alliance, and with the publication of books like God in a Brothel and The White Umbrella. Everywhere you look, churches, parachurch organizations, and individual Christians are waking up to the hidden world of injustice, violence, abuse, and slavery around us—and taking action.

The Bible does not hesitate to depict the harsh reality of violence and oppression, and in fact God’s people are clearly called to fight for justice and mercy for all people. Throughout the entire Bible, God is portrayed as one who is just and merciful in his dealings with humanity. Psalm 68:4-5 says, for example, that God is “a father to the fatherless, a defender of widows.” Theologians from a wide variety of backgrounds—from Gustavo Gutierrez to Nicholas Wolterstorff to Tim Keller—have concluded that God has a special place in his heart for the poor and vulnerable. Indeed, part of Israel’s vocation was to enact social justice, not for its own sake, but because in so doing Israel would reveal the character of God to the surrounding nations, as a city set on a hill.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in him:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:17)

In this declaration and his ministry, Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is crucial to his divine mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his substitutionary death and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet his teachings and his example show us that proclaiming the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible acts of love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus’ example revealed God’s heart for the despised, the weak, the abused, and the vulnerable. Jesus spent significant amounts of time with children, women, the poor, the diseased, Samaritans, and other outcast and disliked groups, valuing and loving those who were excluded by the society of his day. This paradoxical approach to the power structures of the world is echoed by Paul when he writes, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Cor. 1:27-29).

Apologetic of Mercy

Historically, the Christian church has, at its best, been known for exemplary love and sacrificial service to the poor, oppressed, and marginalized. Such service has provided a powerful apologetic for the gospel. The fourth-century church provides just one example:

“In his attempt to reestablish Hellenic religion in the empire, [the Emperor] Julian instructed the high priest of the Hellenic faith to imitate Christian concern for strangers. Referring to Christianity as “atheism,” he asked, “Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done most to increase atheism?” He therefore instructed the priest to establish hostels for needy strangers in every city and also ordered a distribution of corn and wine to the poor, strangers, and beggars. “For it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg, and the impious Galilaeans [Christians] support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute to public service of this sort.”

Similarly, in more recent history, Christian churches of the 18th and 19th centuries led the charge for the abolition of slavery, again providing a strong apologetic for the Christian faith and visibly embodying Jesus’ mission to proclaim liberty to captives.

Social action is an opportunity for Christian churches to take the gospel to those who are most in need, provide an alternative community centered on Jesus (the church) to the marginalized and oppressed, and show the transformative power of the gospel to the watching world. Moreover, responding to oppression and social injustice in our world and our communities is a way the church can practice the charge of Jeremiah 29 for God’s people to seek the welfare of the cities where God has placed us, and to obey the call of James to practice “pure religion” (James 1:27) by caring for the most vulnerable.

In light of the theology of justice that permeates Scripture, we should give thanks that the renewed emphasis on care for victims and the oppressed has helped many Christians better realize a neglected aspect of our calling in the world. As Christopher J. H. Wright says, “Mission that claims the high spiritual ground of preaching only a gospel of personal forgiveness and salvation without the radical challenge of the full biblical demands of God’s justice and compassion, without a hunger and thirst for justice, may well expose those who respond to its partial truths to the same dangerous verdict. The epistle of James seems to say as much to those in his own day who had managed to drive an unbiblical wedge between faith and works, the spiritual and the material. If faith without works is dead, mission without social compassion and justice is biblically deficient.”

As we preaches the gospel of Christ’s atoning work, leading to liberation from sin, we must also apply that liberating and atoning work to the evils of this world. Otherwise we are like the person to whom James refers in his epistle: “and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace, be warmed and filled,’ without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that?” (James 2:16)

Put simply, without embracing both the physical and also spiritual aspects of redemption, Christians will have an incomplete concept of God’s mission for the world.

Creeds and Deeds

As we celebrate the church’s reawakening attention to oppression and emphasis on action, we must watch out for our historical tendency to swing between extremes. One side focuses exclusively or primarily on meeting material needs—this could be labeled the “deeds not creeds” extreme, with its focus on action at the expense of proclamation. This approach, frequently but incorrectly labeled “social gospel,” reduces human beings to merely material beings and ignores the need for spiritual new birth and forgiveness of sin through the work of Christ, received through faith by hearing the word of God’s grace.

Fearing this pitfall, we sometimes swing to another extreme, the “anti-social gospel,” which could be dubbed “creeds not deeds.” This extreme emphasizes sound doctrine and focuses on proclamation, but meets only “spiritual” needs while ignoring or minimizing tangible action. As Michael Horton argues, a “creeds not deeds” approach fails because it is actually incompatible with biblical doctrine:

“While it is certainly possible to have a church that is formally committed to Christian doctrine—even in the form of creeds, confessions, and catechisms, without exhibiting any interest in missions or the welfare even of those within their own body, I would argue that it is impossible to have a church that is actually committed to sound doctrine that lacks these corollary interests. With respect to individual Christians in their common vocations, the mercies of God in Christ propel a profound sense of obligation and stewardship. God has given us everything in Christ, by grace alone, so our only “reasonable service” is to love and serve our neighbors out of gratitude for that inexhaustible gift.”

To avoid the pendulum-swing between extremes, the church must emphasize both creeds and also deeds, recognizing that Good News results in good deeds. Without that theological center, the church will be tempted to spin off into either deeds only or creeds only. God’s grace motivates repentance and change, and only by proclaiming God’s gracious, merciful response to our sin and failure will we find the fuel for loving and serving our neighbors in action and in truth.

The rise in awareness of oppression and concern for victims from the church should encourage us. Because of God’s lavish grace toward us through the work of Jesus, we are motivated to be agents of his grace to others, especially the vulnerable and oppressed. By responding to oppression and injustice, the church has the opportunity to be a light to the nations and to participate in God’s mission by welcoming the weak and powerless to find grace, mercy, and rest in Jesus Christ.

Grace All The Way

Grace All The Way

We must always hold Ephesians 2:10 together with 2:8–9.

Some of my friends and others who reviewed my book On the Grace of God have told me that the fifth chapter was their favorite. So, I thought it would be a great idea to give it away for free! You can download a copy of chapter 5 here. In the meantime, here’s a post adapted from the chapter.

High-Octane Gospel of Grace

Ephesians 2 is filled with the high-octane gospel of grace for both our justification and sanctification. It begins with how believers were dead in their sins, then moves to how God loved us and rescued us from this death by his grace, bringing salvation to all in Christ, uniting Jews and Gentiles as one people in which the Spirit of God dwells.

The first half of the chapter focuses on God’s rescue operation for his people, which delivered us from our sin and God’s wrath, and ends with verse 10, which centers on how God’s deliverance means we are created anew for lives of righteousness. As one commentator notes, salvation has already been described by Paul as “a resurrection from the dead, a liberation from slavery, and a rescue from condemnation”; he moves now to the idea of a new creation.

Grace Takes Center Stage

The theme of Ephesians 2:8–9 is clear: grace. This theme was already mentioned in verse 5, but what was then more of an “undercurrent” now becomes the main point. We are saved by grace, not anything we have done. The passage is a traditional one used to support the idea that justification before God is by grace alone, and not anything we do—and for good reason.

Good works can’t be the cause of our salvation—they just don’t work like that.

The verses strike with great emphasis the note of salvation as a complete “gift of God.” We have done nothing to bring it about that could lead us to boast about it. And yet it is nearly impossible not to boast in the radical love of God when we grasp this reality.

We now move to Ephesians 2:10 with its focus on “good works.” It is tempting at first glance to think that verses 8 and 9 are about grace and verse 10 is about works. But this would be to miss something very important that we easily neglect: everything is grace. Or, as one scholar puts it, “It is grace all the way.”

So what does that mean exactly?

Walking In Good Works

Notice how God-centered Ephesians 2:10 is. In the Greek, the first word in the sentence is “his,” which is an unusual placement and puts the emphasis squarely on God. We are “his workmanship.” We “are created [by God] in Christ Jesus” for good works. These good works were those “that God prepared beforehand.” Clearly works are important to Paul, but his emphasis here is on God bringing them about within us.

Notice that this verse does three important things:

  1. It gives the reason why Paul can say in verses 8 and 9 that salvation is a complete gift of God: because we are his workmanship, re-created in Jesus Christ.
  2. It points forward to other places the new creation idea is found in the epistle (Eph. 2:14–15; 4:24).
  3. It completes the section of Ephesians 2:1–10 in a fitting way by using again the idea of “walking,” which contrasts with verse 2 where Paul talks about how we used to “walk” in sin, following the “course of the world.” Now we “walk” in good works God has set before us.

The Goal, Not The Cause Of

Ephesians 2:10 continues, saying that we have been created in Christ Jesus “for good works.” So we are saved for the purpose of walking in good works. Good works are never the ground or cause of our salvation. They can’t be—they just don’t work like that. They are not the cause but the “goal of the new creation.” And God has already prepared them for us ahead of time.

We must always hold Ephesians 2:10 together with 2:8–9. The Bible paints a holistic picture of the believer as one whose life is continually lived in grace that bears fruit, fruit that is used by God to bless others.

 


 

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This post was adapted from On the Grace of God, by Justin Holcomb, copyright © 2013.

What Does Jesus’ Resurrection Have to Do with Me?

What Does Jesus’ Resurrection Have to Do with Me?

The cross is God’s gracious response to our own sinful and willful irresponsibility, choices, and actions. We sin. We are perpetrators of evil—and this separates us from God. It is this aspect of sin that has been dealt with by the vicarious sacrifice of the atonement.

But we are also victims of sin. We have enemies who harm us. We are victims who have been sinned against in numerous ways. Because of sins done to us, we are also captive, held in bondage by powers in some sense external to us and greater than we are. Or we may be held in bondage to our own desires or fears, our self-centeredness or despair. Sometimes the Bible describes the human problem as suffering, being in bondage, slavery, or captivity, each and all of which separate us from God.

What we need in this regard is for God to fight on our behalf, against our enemy, for our freedom from bondage. This is what God did in the Exodus for his people. The clearest and most powerful manifestation of God doing this for us is Christ’s victory over death in the resurrection (Eph. 1:19–20). In this victory over principalities, powers, and death, the Son reclaims creation for the Father and freedom for you. “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Col. 2:15)

In answering the question, “How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?” the Heidelberg Catechismanswers: “First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he won for us by his death. Second, by his power we too are already now resurrected to a new life. Third, Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of our glorious resurrection.”

God accomplished redemption in Christ’s victory over sin and death, but the effects of that victory have yet to be fully realized. So while the ultimate outcome has been assured (Rom. 8:18–211 Cor. 15:51–57; Revelation 21), the struggle between life and death, good and evil, continues. However, the shalom (i.e. peace in its fullest sense), freedom, and rest of redemption will one day be fully realized when Jesus returns.

Jesus was physically raised from death as “the firstborn from the dead” (Col. 1:18), securing a future resurrection like his own for all those who are united to him through faith. Through his triumphant resurrection, Jesus opened the way for us to experience resurrection and eternal life in the new earth when he returns instead of the death we deserve.

Christ’s victory gives us back our identity and restores our meaning. We recognize, and may truly know for the first time, that we have a future that ends in peace, as well as a past that can be healed and forgiven, and now live in the hope of the gospel. Christ opens up for us a new identity because he himself remained always true to his identity, a share of which he offers to us.

In Christ’s victory, fear and shame are banished, to be replaced by profound joy that we are no longer strangers to God and to one another, that we are no longer so utterly isolated and alone.

Adapted from On the Grace of God