depth

The Power of Story

unsplash.com_HVuMinh

unsplash.com_HVuMinh

Stories are powerful. They engage our imagination and emotion. Stories can transport us to faraway lands and imaginary settings, and they convey truths in subtle yet powerful ways.

But when it comes to communicating biblical truth stories may seem too simple. How ironic since most of the Bible is composed of stories!

Throughout the Bible, there's a narrative arc that conveys the message of God's redemption of the human race. Each story reveals facets of the whole redemptive narrative.

Stories are a powerful way to engage people who haven't experienced God's redemptive grace.

God's redemptive story and us

If we don't understand the depth and fullness of God's redemptive story it's hard to make sense of everyday life. Not that we'll understand every event in every day of our life, but when we understand more of God's redemptive narrative we'll begin to see how it connects with our life.

Sometimes we look too hard at all that goes on in our life and try to figure out each detail fits into God's plan. As the saying goes, we can't see the forest for the trees. All we see are trees and we forget the larger context of the forest.

A western mindset tends to over analyze every detail and misses the larger picture, while eastern thought sees the whole but may not see how each detail fits into the picture and why they do. This is an oversimplification but the point is that we need both views to see the full picture.

Looking at the whole biblical narrative and how each of the various stories fit together enables us to see the depth and fullness of God's redemptive story. As we look at our life story arc with the biblical narrative in view, we should see how much of our own story matches the stories of other people in the Bible.

We need to understand the depth and fullness of God's redemptive story to make sense of everyday life

Back to the beginning

We’ll understand the Bible's narrative when we see it from the beginning

But first things first. How can we hope to understand the Bible's narrative unless we see it from the beginning? Going back to Creation we find the all-important why of redemption—why it is necessary.

The story of humanity begins with the creation of "the heavens and the earth" and nothing—the earth was a big blob, empty and dark with God's Spirit covering over it like a mother bird protecting her nest (Gen 1:1-2).

Then God begins the creation process by proclaiming, "Let there be light." So there was light and darkness was separated from it and the first day came to be (Gen 1:3-5).

On five successive days, God brought life and light into the dark, empty orb of the earth floating in the universe (Gen 1:6-25). After each day God was satisfied and said it was good.

On the sixth and last day, God said—

“Let us make humans in our image, in our likeness. Let them rule the fish in the sea, the birds in the sky, the domestic animals all over the earth, and all the animals that crawl on the earth.” So God created humans in his image. In the image of God he created them. He created them male and female. (Gen 1:26-27 GW)

This is the heart of why God sent His Son Jesus as the Redeemer of the world—for all people everywhere. Because He created us in His image.

All humanity is embedded with the image of God

Looking ahead

Next post I plan to unpack the beginning story of humanity's need for redemption. If we go too quickly to the usual beginning point of the redemption story, we miss the heart of why God went to great lengths to redeem the human race.

There's more to redemption than, "Jesus died for your sins." This is a true statement, but it only tells part of the story. We need to see things from the heart of God and His intended purpose for those whom He created.

Over the next several posts (perhaps with some interruptions), I plan to look at five representative stories in the Bible.

Each story holds an important place in the story of God's redemption of humanity. Each one reflects a facet of the full picture of God's redemption. Each should help reveal the full purpose of God's redemption. Until then...

What is your own recollection of the story of Creation?

How do you understand God's redemption story?

Can you share either of these with someone else in your own words (IYOW)?

Let me know your thoughts on all this!

 

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.

How Did Jesus Teach?

MtTalinis_Dgte
MtTalinis_Dgte

Our family moved to the Visayan region of the Philippines, in the summer of 1990. I joined an existing ministry that trained pastors and leaders how to study the Bible inductively.

My wife had vision to care for abandoned babies and children, which became Rainbow Village Ministries. Although I planted and pastored a church in Southern California for twelve years prior to our move, I learned how to teach in the Philippines.

Learning to teach

I was challenged to reexamine how I taught after several months in the Philippines, while traveling and teaching seminars. How I learned to teach before wasn't wrong, but it seemed less effective than in my pastoral experience in the US.

I stumbled into a new way to teach without any strategy for learning it. This pretty well sums up my learning style for most everything I've done in life, including marriage and parenting.

All I know is, the more I became engaged in the learning process, the better I learned to engage others in teaching. At the same time, I developed a passion for simplicity. The challenge was finding a way to teach in a simple way without compromising the depth of truth in God's Word.

Little by little, I learned how to teach in a more simple, effective way. Studying and teaching through the gospels was critical to my learning process, as I saw how Jesus taught.

Little by little, I learned how to teach in a more simple, effective way

Jesus' style of teaching

How did Jesus teach the crowds, His followers, and even those who opposed Him?

Yes, of course, the Holy Spirit empowered His words and enlightened the people. But even when the people and His disciples didn't understand what Jesus taught, they marveled at it. Even those who opposed and challenged His authority had to marvel at Him (Matt 22:15-22).

So, what was it about Jesus' teaching that carried so much authority?

If we look at the greater context of Matt 7:28-29, we see Jesus taught on many subjects. It's called the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew Chaps. 5–7). Much of this teaching seems to be a reframing of the covenant law to its original intent. Jesus would say to the people, "You have heard... But I say to you..." (Matt 5:21, 22).

It's a great example of what's commonly called exposition.

Some basic observations

Two things stand out to me about Jesus' teaching—He told a lot of stories (parables) and taught in an interactive way with His disciples.

A friend shared an article with me that sums up what I learned in the Philippines, and what I see in Jesus' teaching.

Jesus provoked thought so that truth could be understood and internalized

I've come to value biblical storying for its simplicity and power. Two sources helped me gain this insight—a Filipino pastor whom I've mentored for many years, and ministries connected to the International Orality Network.

My Filipino brother is planting churches and training leaders using the training he received from Simply the Story. This pastor trains people who are well-educated and those without education.

One of his students, who is an oral learner (non-literate), pastors a church he planted in a remote mountain area. My friend trained two other leaders to be missionaries in Hong Kong. Their method of evangelism and discipleship is biblical storying. I could go on, but you get the picture (I hope).

Interactive discipleship

We gain insight into how Jesus trained His disciples within the narrative of the gospels. Sometimes He explained parables to them (Matt 13:10-17), other times He used situations and simple illustrations (Matt 18:1-6), and chided them when they lacked understanding (Mark 8:14-21).

Jesus interacted with people, He didn't just lecture them

This became a major change point for me. I began to be more interactive with students, whether in a seminar, classroom and in more informal settings. I probably learned more from my mistakes than my observations of Jesus' way of teaching.

Several years ago, a missionary friend shared another valuable piece of my learning process. He shared on several things, but one stuck with me—how Jesus learned as a young man.

The example of young Jesus

Let's go back to the time when Jesus was young. In Luke 2:41-52, we find Him in the temple with the Jewish teachers. They were all amazed at His understanding and answers. What does it say He was doing? He was "listening to them and asking them questions" (Luke 2:46).

Early on we see the foundation for Jesus' interactive style of teaching

A few weeks ago, I shared something similar with some alumni from the Bible college I founded nearly 20 years ago. How did I do it? Interactively, of course—I asked questions! They were familiar with that, but then I shared something else.

I asked them, "How do you think I develop my questions? How do I ask questions that engage people so they will answer?"

Then I told them that I need to listen to those whom I'm teaching. I need to see if I'm connecting with them and if they are understanding what I'm trying to explain.

It's my responsibility as a teacher to communicate the truth so those who hear it can understand it.

Are we listening?

I have a couple of questions for pastors, leaders, and teachers to consider. 

Are we listening to the people we are serving, or are we too busy speaking?

Are we asking questions only to answer them ourselves?

These are questions I had to ask myself and still do.

In last week's post, I expressed the concern that something was missing in spite of all the resources available for Christians. I don't know that it's just one thing, but I'm concerned that inner, personal transformation is one thing that's missing.

I believe that intentional, personal, and interactive discipleship is essential to meet this need. And, it's how Jesus taught and discipled people.