God's grace

One Throne—One Gospel

Christ before Pilate-Mihaly_Munkacsy-public domain

Christ before Pilate-Mihaly_Munkacsy-public domain

It's easy to oversimplify and generalize truth. Doing so can make it seem shallow or trivial. But my observation is that teachers who teach well take difficult to understand truth and make it simple. This enables people to gain a good understanding of what's taught and internalize it.

My basic philosophy of learning is that unless a person (myself included!) struggles to think something through, they won't fully understand it or internalize it. Simple questions and challenges to see truth from different perspectives are useful in stirring up productive thought.

I've been writing on a certain track of thought with previous posts (see links below) and want to bring it to a conclusion—there is only one throne and one King of Kings believers need to submit their life to and this is based on the simplicity and depth of the gospel of Jesus.

Believers need to submit their life to only one throne and one King of Kings

A short review

The presentation of gospel truth—the good news of God's redemption for all humanity—is most often given in bits and pieces within a western cultural context. I wrote about this earlier.

A cursory reading of the New Testament (NT) reveals the gospel is presented in five narratives—4 Gospels and a history of the early church (Acts).

The remainder of the NT books explain this gospel narrative and give an understanding of how the truth of the gospel and its theology impact daily life within the church and among people outside the church. 

The larger narrative of God's Story, as it unfolds throughout the Bible, is important for those unfamiliar with the theology of redemption. Even Revelation, the last book of the Bible, is a heavenly narrative of how God's Story will conclude at the end of the Age.

The larger narrative of God's Story is important for those unfamiliar with the theology of redemption

Worldviews and the gospel

Consider again how truth is processed by different people with different world-views. Generally speaking, western thought presents bits and pieces of information strung together until the whole picture is seen.

In MOTROW, information and truth are understood as a whole, while bits and pieces are only seen as part of the whole. When the truth is presented in bits and pieces a disconnect between what is believed and how one lives often happens.

The post-modern mindset is similar to MOTROW when it comes to understanding truth. This mindset may still approach things in a linear fashion, but there's a freedom to associate other truth or information to a belief. This leads to a belief system like Moralistic Therapeutic Deism mentioned in a previous post.

Are you performing well?

A common emphasis in American Christianity is on what is termed a performance-based Christian faith. This is the idea that I need to do something as proof of believing in God or being a Christian. I need to give something to show my commitment to God.

This is often spurred on by well-intentioned calls to the altar—to accept Christ, to recommit your life to Christ, to serve Christ, and so on.

As mentioned in an earlier post, altars are for offering sacrifices and gifts. I see this as an expression of self-focused performance, especially when repeated many times in different services.

Are these responses or calls to some altar of self-sacrifice genuine? Yes, often they are. But the question ought to be, are they necessary?

A common emphasis in American Christianity is termed performance-based Christian faith

Only 2 vows necessary

I realized long ago that there were only two vows a person ever needs to make—one to follow Jesus and the other being joined in marriage. Both are all-inclusive and exclusive. Neither requires any additional commitments because they are all-inclusive commitments.

The call to follow Jesus is simple and requires no further clarification—Matt 16:24; Luke 14:26-27, 33. God's view of marriage, repeated four separate times in the Bible, is just as simple—Gen 2:24; Matt 19:5; Mark 10:7, Eph 5:31.

Some may argue, "But there's more to it than that!" But I ask, does God see it that way?

Reading through the book of Hebrews, I'm reminded of the great access provided for believers in the New Covenant established by God's grace—direct access to God's presence.

This access requires nothing of ourselves as believers—no giving, no doing, just coming into His presence—

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:16)

There are no minimum requirements for entering and remaining in the Kingdom of God. The only thing God asks is that we come to Him—Matt 11:28-30.

Access to God requires nothing of ourselves as believers—no giving, no doing, just coming into His presence—His throne of grace

What compels you to seek God?

So, back to the question—altar or throne? How are you compelled to come to God? Are you offering Him something rather than yourself? Or, are you coming to Him in all circumstances, good or bad?

When my children were young and I was a young pastor, I had an open door policy for my children and wife when I studied for messages. I can become so absorbed in studying that I block everything and everyone out.

My wife would remind me of my need to make myself accessible to my children and her., so I didn't elevate my work or my interests over them.

This is how I see a believer's access to God's presence. I can come at any time, in any condition, in any situation and His door is open. I don't need to offer anything or ask special permission.

The Lord Jesus and the Holy Spirit are our promised intercessors (Rom 8:26-27, 34) ready at all times to hear us and be our advocates. Nothing and no one stands between believers and God.

How are you compelled to come to God? Are you offering Him something rather than yourself?

Guilt or grace?

Even as a young believer, I felt manipulated to respond to altar calls. I don't like being manipulated with emotion, nor do I want to just do something because it's expected or because I feel guilty about something. 

I'm not against altar calls per se, just the manipulative way they can be used and the assumptions made based on responses to these calls. I'm especially concerned about the self-effort I see people exerting to get into God's good graces. It's just not necessary.

God didn't ask Abraham to offer his son Isaac more than once. God accepted it and declared Abraham as righteous by faith (Gen 15:6; 22:1-18). Jesus only died once to justify those who trust in Him (Heb 9:12-14), this is made clear in several places in Hebrews.

Is there any need for doing something additional? If you think so, you don't understand God's grace. God doesn't manipulate us nor does He use guilt or shame to bring us to Him.

God doesn't manipulate us nor does He use guilt or shame to bring us to Him

Confidence in God and His grace

I laid my life at God's altar and I made a vow to my wife over 45 years ago. I don't need to make any more vows or make any sacrifices to gain the Lord's acceptance.

I approach God's throne with confidence when I am in need, though I still fall far short of perfection. My perfection—my sense of completeness—is only found in my Lord and Savior Jesus. I had nothing to offer long ago and still don't, but He has all I am.

What about you?

Are you going to God's altar and waiting for Him to accept you? Or, are you going boldly before His throne of grace at any time whatever your need? (Heb 4:14-16)

Jesus calls each of us to deny our self and take up the Cross, and then follow Him in faith. He doesn't ask us to make more vows at an altar of self-sacrifice. He invites us to come to Him because of His grace, and as the traditional hymn declares—Just as I am.

God doesn't ask us to come to an altar of self-sacrifice but invites us to come to Him because of His grace

Links of previous related posts—

Many Altars but One Gospel

Altar or Throne?

Missing the Point

It's easy to get lost in details and not see the bigger picture or miss the main point of a story or message. It happens more often than not. How often have you done a search on the internet, or wandered around on YouTube or FaceBook and forgotten what you set out to find?

This type of thing happened a lot with Jesus and His teachings. He didn't get lost or miss the point, those who heard Him did. Even when He told parables, those simple stories, they were either misunderstood or those who should understand completely missed the point.

Ironically, in the time of Jesus, it was the educated and religious leaders who most often missed the point of Jesus' teaching and miracles. Funny thing, it's still that way more often than it should be.

Parables and the main point

The parables Jesus told in the Gospels were, for the most part, true-to-life stories intended to teach one simple truth. They're not allegories, although many people try to interpret them as such. They are figurative stories like extended metaphors.

Some are longer than others and appear allegorical, and some are quite short. All have one simple truth or main point. Most of the time this is made clear by the context of the parable—it's cultural and chronological setting.

So we need to understand the parables of Jesus from the original hearer's point of view, as well as how Jesus intended them to be understood.

5 simple keys to understanding parables

  1. Immediate Context— This includes the surrounding Scripture text where the parable is found and its setting, including the cultural and historical context. Here are 3 specific things to look for—
    1. Occasion— understanding the situation of the parable provides insight into why the parable is told.
    2. Setting– this includes the basics of who, what, where, when the parable is told and how it's expressed.
    3. Historical setting– hear the parable through the ears of those who first heard it.
  2. Interpretation— Did Jesus interpret it?
    1. If He did then this is the interpretation! You don't need to make one up or look any further for more interpretation. Look at the context before and/or after the parable text to see if it's interpreted by the Lord.
    2. If it's not interpreted, rely on the context, details in the parable, and look to see if the parable is told in another gospel.
  3. Central Point— This would be the main focus or subject of the parable.
    1. Look for a constant element within the parable. Ex– the seed in the Parable of the Sower.
    2. Seeing the Central Point is key to understanding the one simple truth of the parable.
  4. Major Details— These are the most important parts of the parable that point to the Central Point. They are more important than other minor details that help tell the story.
  5. The Simple Truth— This is the reason why the parable is told. It's the point of the story and is usually indicated by the immediate context (see below for a downloadable guide).

3 linked parables

In Luke Chapter 15, Jesus tells three related parables. Each one focuses on what is lost (the central point). The first one tells of a man who seeks and finds a lost sheep (Luke 15:4-7). The second features a woman searching for a lost a coin (Luke 15:8-10).

They are also linked by the setting of the immediate context—

By this time a lot of men and women of doubtful reputation were hanging around Jesus, listening intently. The Pharisees and religion scholars were not pleased, not at all pleased. They growled, “He takes in sinners and eats meals with them, treating them like old friends.” Their grumbling triggered this story. (Luke 15:1-3 MSG)

All three parables have the same simple truth—rejoicing over a repentant sinner (Luke 15:7, 10, 24, 32). The implication is that there is greater rejoicing over the repentant sinner than those who seem to need no repentance (Luke 15:7) and who are not sinners.

But the third parable in the chapter has an extended story with much greater detail than the first two. The target of these parables becomes more apparent as the third story unfolds.

Parable of the lost son

The lost son is the main focus of the parable (Luke 15:11-32) but two other main characters—the father and an elder son—bring the story home, so to speak. 

There's an obvious tension between the religious leaders and many of those who followed and listened to Jesus—the sinners (Luke 15:1-2). Neither one trusted or respected the other but for very different reasons.

This reflects the current tension between what are called the churched and the unchurched and de-churched. Those of us in the church see others as outsiders needing to repent or at least get into church fellowship.

Here's how the story plays out for each of the 3 main characters in the story.

The younger son

This is the primary story (Luke 15:11-21). The younger of two sons asks for his share of the family's inheritance in advance and heads off to a country far away. He quickly wastes his father's wealth living in rebellion to how he was raised.

Things deteriorate quickly when a famine grips the land. The son finally lands a job feeding pigs (an unclean animal under Jewish law) and wishes he could eat the pig's food because he's so destitute.

Here the story turns as he realizes his pitiful situation—

“When he came to his senses, he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare, and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son; make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (Luke 15:17-20a NIV)

The father

The father of these two very different sons is somewhat of an enigma. He willingly gives into the young son who makes a complete mess of his life. When this rebellious failure of a son returns home, he doesn't scold or condemn him but celebrates his return with great fanfare.

But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.
The son said to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son."
But the father said to his servants, "Quick! Bring the best robe and put it on him. Put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found." So they began to celebrate. (Luke 15:20-24 NIV)

For a third time the same simple truth is stated—For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.

I love how the father lets his son confess his sin but moves right past it to a celebration! No wonder the son returned home. He knew the nature of his father. He knew how gracious he was! But the other son, well that's the other side of this story.

The elder son

The son who stayed home and worked in the father's field hears the celebration and is puzzled by it, so he calls a servant over to fill him in on what's going on. When he finds out he goes into a sulk and refuses to join the celebration (Luke 15:25-28).

Once again we see the nature of the father who goes out to his oldest son and pleads with him to join them. But this son will have none of it!

But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (Luke 15:29-30 NIV)

The eldest son was angry, resentful, selfish, self-righteous, stubborn, and defiant towards his gracious and patient father. Obviously, this reflects the attitude of the religious leaders who criticize Jesus for associating with all these sinners (Luke 15:2).

But wait! It sounds an awful lot like you and me.

How often I've found myself angry or resentful and complaining to God about others while God is dealing with my hardened heart. As believers, we are too often more like the elder brother than the younger, and not much like the father. We miss the point of God's gracious nature!

We all have difficulty grasping the enduring mercy and far-reaching grace of God. We like and want God's mercy and grace for ourselves but often think they should be limited when it comes to others. I addressed this somewhat in a previous post.

Personal application

Once we understand a truth we need to apply it in our own life. With parables, once we understand the parable from the point of view of the original hearers then we can look at how it can apply to our life in our present time and culture.

I can relate to the younger son, especially in my younger years. But I can also relate too well to the elder son and more often than I'd like to admit. Who I need to relate to is the father who's just like my Lord Jesus.

I don't always understand how and why God shows such mercy and grace as He does, but I'm thankful for Him doing so. His mercy and grace will always be greater than my sense of justice and righteousness (James 2:13) and I'm glad for that!

Do you have disdain and disgust for some people while denigrating others?

Then it's time to repent and ask God to soften your hardened heart!


Here's a simple guide for understanding and studying parables— Study Guide for Parables


This post is linked to a message I preached along with a couple others that will be posted in the coming weeks. You can find them at– Calvary Chapel Crossville/teachings

The Power of Mercy and Love

 

3 Basic Elements of a Relationship with God

I've heard people share their life stories about coming to know God many times. They usually make the distinction between knowing about God and personally knowing Him.

I recently heard a young woman from Switzerland share this during a class I taught in a DTS course with YWAM-Jax. I was so encouraged as she told her story with such freshness and sincerity.

So, what is the difference between knowing about God and knowing Him in a personal way?

An Unimaginable Gift

unsplash.com_PLastra
unsplash.com_PLastra

"I can't believe I won!" As the winners shriek with surprise and jump up and down with joy, some of us watch it all with skepticism, while others may wonder, "Why can't this happen to me?"

I'm talking about those ads showing sweepstakes winners, and even those more sedate, even secretive lucky lottery winners.

This scenario is somewhat representative of a spiritual truth often met with skepticism or qualifications.

Hard to accept

One of the more puzzling paradoxes within the Christian faith is the response of people to the grace of God—God's unearned kindness, forgiveness, acceptance, and approval.

Many people have a hard time accepting the truth of Sola Gratiaby grace alone—because it seems "too good to be true." Granted, some people get it right away and are thrilled beyond belief. Others however, accept it, but later doubt their own worthiness to fully embrace it.

Then there are those who claim to believe in God's grace, but have a plethora of reasons why others don't qualify for this unimaginable gift of acceptance and favor. These same responses to God's grace are seen throughout the gospels and epistles in the New Testament.

Seen it all before

The Pharisees, and later those called the Judaizers, play the role of the spoil sport and point out how grace goes too far. They challenged Jesus during His ministry on earth, especially when He healed people on the Sabbath (Luke 6:6-11).

Those in the margins of society—the sinners, prostitutes, tax collectors and such—were delighted with God's gracious acceptance and favor they saw in Jesus (Luke 19:1-10).

The early church leaders also struggled with how far God's grace extended and who qualified to receive it. But in a sovereign way God revealed how far His grace reaches, when He poured out His Spirit on a Roman centurion and his household (Acts 10:45; 11:18; 15:6-11).

Then, the redemptive message of God's grace (the gospel) began to spread through non-Jewish (Gentile) people, as it did in Antioch (Acts 11:19-24).

The great shocker of all was the supernatural conversion of a radicalized rabbi (Acts 9:1-16). The radical rabbi Saul became the apostle Paul, who explained the theology of God's grace in Galatians, Romans, Colossians, and the book of Hebrews.

Though Paul vehemently stood against the truth of God's grace, he became the great teacher of the Gentiles, who explained the grace of God better than anyone since Jesus.

Why we struggle with grace

I'm thankful for my first pastor, Chuck Smith at Calvary Chapel Costa Mesa, back in the early 70's. I didn't have preconceived notions or teaching about grace, so I accepted what I read in God's Word and how it was confirmed by Pastor Chuck's teaching.

I don't remember if he said this exactly, but his attitude was that he'd rather err on the side of grace than legalism or judgment.

Over the years, I've watched people struggle with the simple but powerful truth of God's grace. We all do, even though we believe in it. There's a myriad of reasons why, but here's some that come to mind.

  • It seems to good to be true— human skepticism, even to the point of cynicism fueled by the world around us, is the biggest reason. It all started back in the garden when the first humans believed a lie rather than trust their Creator (Gen 3:1-7).
  • Looking for exceptions to the rule— this reason extends from the "too good to be true" attitude, but is characterized with "what ifs" and other limitations imagined or passed on by others, who contrive various scenarios where God's grace can't be applied.
  • Beyond the reach of God's grace— this is rooted in shame and the closed loop of unresolved guilt. Surely, we reason, there's some limit to God's grace, either because we've benefited from it so often or done something deemed so terrible.
  • Who qualifies to receive it— this includes various religious and moral hurdles church leaders and people contrive, similar to objections brought up to Jesus and the early church leaders (see earlier section).
  • You've gone too far— limits are put on how many times a person has appealed to God for His grace because of repeated failures. Also, the dreaded "blasphemy of the Holy Spirit" (Mark 3:28-30), which gets interpreted various ways according to a person's situation.

Here's what I've learned through the truth of Scripture in my own life of faith—

God's grace is greater than our failures, fears, doubts, and expectations of others.

Tying it all together

How do the first three foundational Solas work together?

  1. Grace and faith—Sola Gratia and Sola Fide– One of the clearest expressions of how grace and faith fit together is in Ephesians 2:8-9—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.
    • This should free a person from a performance-oriented Christian life, since personal effort (good works) is of no value for gaining favor with God.
    • Grace is the great equalizer when it comes to faith, and humility is the true evidence of experiencing God's grace.
  2. Faith and Scripture—Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura— Paul reminds believers that faith comes from hearing the truth of God's Word (Rom 10:17).
    • Genuine Christian faith needs to be grounded in the truth of the Scripture through the work and witness of God's Spirit (Gal 3:2-6).
  3. Grace and Scripture—Sola Gratia and Sola Scriptura— our understanding of God's grace needs to be grounded in the truth of God's Word, not human reason (dogmatic beliefs) or emotion (shame or guilt).
    • This is spelled out in many places, especially in the epistle of Romans— Romans 5:8-10; 12, 15, 18-21.

Don't complicate the simplicity of God's grace, and don't despise its simplicity. The depth of God's truth isn't complicated, it's simple.

When you begin to doubt the truth of Sola Gratia, I encourage you to read through the epistle of Galatians, especially chapters 3–5, also chapters 5–8 of Romans.

What exceptions or exclusions have you seen people make about God's grace?

How has God's grace overwhelmed your failures, fear, and unmet expectations?


This is the 5th in a series of posts to consider the 5 Solas of the Protestant Reformation. Here are the previous posts—

 

Why Do You Believe That?

God Won't Fit In a Box, Nor Will I

Sola Scriptura—A Simple View

Gateway to God's Heart

 

Understanding terms—

Many of the theological terms used by Christians become like a foreign language to nonbelievers. Believers need to understand these terms well enough to put them in their own words, or as I call it IYOW (In Your Own Words).

I've tried to give some simple clarification of terms in these posts, but I encourage you to make your own effort at understanding these terms so you can explain them IYOW to others.

If there's a specific theological term that proves hard to grasp, let me know. I'll at least point you in the right direction for an answer, if I can't help you with my own explanation.