Posts Tagged 'Grace'

The Gospel: Grace

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However, I consider my life worth nothing to me, if only I may finish the race and complete the task the Lord Jesus has given me–the task of testifying to the gospel of God’s grace. (Acts 20:24 | NIV84)

Human beings are God’s ultimate creative expression and His only creation made in His image.  All other aspects of creation were created by God to serve the needs of human beings just as human beings were created to serve God. In that sense, all people are theocentric. Being created in God’s image, is it any wonder why He went to such great lengths to save man?

The apostle Paul was such a man. He was created in God’s image but as it has done to all men, sin yanked Paul farther and farther away from his creator, distorting God’s image within his heart to the point where even though Paul became a master at handling the Scriptures, he neither understood them nor resembled his Creator in any way.

It took a shocking encounter with the risen Lord for Paul to be convinced to his lost condition:

As he neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” “Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.” The men traveling with Saul stood there speechless; they heard the sound but did not see anyone. Saul got up from the ground, but when he opened his eyes he could see nothing. So they led him by the hand into Damascus. (Acts 9:3-8 | NIV84)

And it was while he was cooling his heels in Damascus that Paul received his commission from the Lord:

But the Lord said to Ananias, “Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name.”. (Acts 9:15-16 | NIV84)

Saul spent several days with the disciples in Damascus. At once he began to preach in the synagogues that Jesus is the Son of God. (Acts 9:19c-20 | NIV84)

And so the “Gospel of grace” did to Paul what it does to everybody who hears it and accepts it: It radically changed his life and set him free to do the same for others.

Let’s look a little closer at this “Gospel of grace” and discover what it’s all about.

The image of God in man

Grace, we’ve been taught, is “God’s unmerited favor,” meaning that God treats those who have placed their full faith and trust in Him better than they deserve. That’s a good definition, and if that’s all you know about grace, it will serve you well. But for those of us who think too much, we wonder about the whole issue of God’s grace. For me, I wonder what it is about sinful, rebellious human beings that moves God to treat them with grace. The answer is simplicity itself, and it all boils down to these two verses:

Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground.” So God created man in his own image,in the image of God he created him;male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:26-27 | NIV84)

Human beings – men and women – were created in God’s image. Both as individuals and corporately, we have been created in the image of God. Actually, if you read Genesis 1:26 a little closer, we see that men have been created in the image and likeness of God. While that sounds like human beings “look like God,” that’s not what’s being taught in those verses. Men and women, because they have been created in the “image” and “likeness” of God, share His morality, His ability to be rational, to be thoughtful, and especially to be able to relate to Him and other human beings on a spiritual, emotional, mental, and intimate level. Beyond nebulous things like those, there’s really no single aspect in any human being you can point to and say, “That looks like God.”

Psalm 8 gives us a sense of what being created in God’s “image” and “likeness” means:

what is man that you are mindful of him,the son of man that you care for him? You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honor. You made him ruler over the works of your hands; you put everything under his feet: all flocks and herds,and the beasts of the field, the birds of the air,and the fish of the sea,all that swim the paths of the seas. (Psalms 8:4-8 | NIV84)

Those verses could never be applied to any other thing God ever created. Only men and women have been created in God’s “image” and “likeness.” Contrary to what too many people think, the Bible teaches equality between the sexes; neither sex is given prominence over the other. This fact should be obvious since both men and women have been created in God’s “image” and “likeness.” Now, of course, there are different roles assigned to each sex and men and women are different; they are not the same and should never be regarded as the same or treated as the same.

While it’s true we are all created in the “image” and “likeness” of our Creator, sin has marred and seriously distorted that image. It has become so warped that you’d be hard-pressed to find God’s image in sinful man. For example, man’s dominion over the earth has been challenged because of sin. Apart from Jesus Christ, human beings cannot live at peace very long with anybody. That’s why we fight and argue and “discuss” with the very people we claim to love! And that’s why no human being can ever hope to relate to God outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ. No matter how good a person tries to be, he can never be good enough – he can never be clean enough – to come into God’s presence.

All of us have become like one who is unclean,and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags; we all shrivel up like a leaf, and like the wind our sins sweep us away. (Isaiah 64:6 | NIV84)

But God still sees His image in every human being, no matter how good or how sinful they may be. And that’s why He yearns to repair the damage caused by sin.

How serious was sin of Adam and Eve? What they did was no moral lapse – a mistake in judgment – but outright, deliberate rebellion against the will of God. They deliberately rejected God’s way for another. They day they disobeyed God, they began to die. The consequences of that rebellion – not the guilt – were passed on to the descendants of Adam and Eve. Consequences like these:

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness… (Romans 1:18 | NIV84)

Therefore no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of sin. (Romans 3:20 | NIV84)

God’s crowning achievement – man – created in the very “image” and “likeness” of his Creator, now lost and hurting, not knowing how bad off he is, unable to help himself, is actively pursued by God so that He may repair His “image” and “likeness” within that man, thereby restoring that man to his rightful place as a son of God (not THE Son of God).

That’s the Gospel of grace; the same Gospel that changed Saul, the persecutor of Christians, into Paul, the man who would preach that Gospel of grace that changed him so that others may be changed as he was.

Why everybody needs to hear this Gospel of grace

And this is why everybody – EVERYBODY – needs some kind of “conversion experience.” No church can educate anybody’s sinful nature out of them. The apostle Paul spent three years alone with the risen Lord in the desert, learning from Him, but that was AFTER his conversion experience. Going to church won’t save you. Having a “church-going” spouse or parents won’t do you a wit of good. Every human being, like Paul, needs a change. A change that occurs from the inside out, not the outside in.

Because of the sinful nature we inherited from Adam and Eve, we are by nature as hostile to God and as rebellious as Adam and Eve were. Our sinful nature colors every decision we make and influences every relationship we have. That sinful nature makes us sinful people who cannot change on our own. We may, from time to time do the right thing, but we have wills that generally won’t obey God, eyes that cannot see, and ears that cannot hear the truth because we are dead to God. That’s why no human being who has ever lived has “found God” because he was looking for Him. He wasn’t. No human being is looking for God because he can’t. He may be looking for goodness and justice and peace – all the things that come from God – but that sinner isn’t looking for God Himself. Man’s depraved nature – our gift from Adam and Eve – forbids us from looking for God. Being totally depraved does NOT mean we are as bad as we could be, but rather it means that every good thing we may do, while it may help other people, can’t help us with God. We need something else, outside of our tainted, untrustworthy, deprived sinful nature to point us to God. That “something else” is God’s grace. It is God’s grace that draws sinners to Himself. Jesus put it this way:

But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself. (John 12:32 | NIV84)

Salvation – coming to Christ in response to His call – is a gift from God that has nothing to do with our behavior but everything to do with God’s grace:

for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. (Romans 3:23-24 | NIV84)

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God– not by works, so that no one can boast. (Ephesians 2:8-9 | NIV84)

This Gospel of grace is the most remarkable thing! No sinner can lose when he responds to God’s grace. Don’t’ misunderstand what I’m saying here. God does all the work in saving a sinner; He takes the initiative. When people receive the grace of God, their lives necessarily change and that is a testimony to the power of God’s grace. But when they reject God’s grace, that is also a testimony – a testimony of a hard, sinful heart that refuses to accept the best gift they’ve ever been offered.

God’s grace comes to us while we are still sinners and once accepted, that “image” and “likeness” of God becomes more defined and obvious. God does not accept us because He sees us making an effort to change. Grace comes into our lives while we are at our worst, and as we allow God’s grace to work in us, He changes us. God takes us, just as we are because He is a merciful God.

Ephesians, Part 3

grace

The grace of God is one the greatest doctrine of the New Testament.  Augustine, in the fourth century, was one of the earliest Christian thinkers to view the entirety of Christianity through the lens of God’s grace.  For Augustine, the only reason for the existence of the Christian faith is the fact of God’s radical grace demonstrated in the work of Christ on the Cross for the benefit of sinners.

Our survey of Ephesians takes us to the second chapter, which contains these famous verses –

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  (Ephesians 2:8, 9  TNIV)

If you were to ask the average person, “Do you want to go to Heaven when you die?”, most would answer that they do.  Who would want to go to the other place?  But just how does a person go to Heaven when they die?

Well, according to the Bible, nobody gets into Heaven based on the good things they did while they were alive.  Salvation isn’t attained by works so a person can brag about it.  No, a person gets into Heaven based on what God did for them.  And this is what Ephesians 2 deals with.

Saved By Grace: Regeneration, Ephesians 2:1 – 10

In the first chapter, Paul had laid the foundation for this discussion on the regeneration of believers by explaining God’s plan of salvation and His mighty power which enacted that plan through Christ.

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath.  (Ephesians 2:1 – 3  TNIV)

The second chapter actually begins with the conjunction “and,” so it’s a continuation of Paul’s line of thought in the previous chapter.  He ended that chapter with the idea of God’s mighty power that raised Jesus from the dead.  In chapter two, this exact same power made us, when we were dead in our sins, alive in Christ.

This paragraph, the first three verses of chapter two, describes the true condition of every human being.  Notice it’s all written in the past tense.  We “used” to be like the people in those three verses.  Every single human being who has ever lived, who is alive today, or who is yet to be born, is absolutely dead in sin.  The virus of sin has been passed down from generation to generation at the moment of conception.

It was G.K. Chesterton who responded to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?”, this way:

Dear Sirs, I am.  Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.

That’s the truth, as only Mr Chesterton could write it!  Paul would have agreed with him.

…for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God…  (Romans 3:23  TNIV)

The very language Paul used to describe the unregenerate life reminds us of an episode of “The Walking Dead,” and that’s the prefect way describe a sinner, lost in his sins:  a zombie husk, dead but still walking around.  Oh, they may be breathing and eating and functioning day-to-day without Jesus Christ, but they are dead on the inside – spiritually lifeless.  No zombie sinner can ever cure himself of his dreadful condition without the spiritual intervention only God can provide.  The intervention is called salvation, rescue, or even deliverance in the Bible.  And no zombie sinner can earn it or pay for it.  It is offered by God, free for the taking.

But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. (Ephesians 2:4, 5  TNIV)

God made “us,” both Jews and Gentiles alike, “alive in Christ.”  The same power that raised Christ from the dead also raised sinners from their spiritually dead, zombie-like existence.  And, our regeneration is also an act of God’s grace, not just His power.  He exercised that mighty power because of His grace.  That’s the power of the word “but.”  It’s a small word but an important one.  He exerted salvation power only because of His love for us – His mercy and His grace.  Mercifully, not because we deserved it, God saved us.

That phrase, “rich in mercy,” is a profound one because it expresses a fundamental truth about God.  Man is a complete and utter failure apart from Jesus Christ.  That’s the evident truth of the first three verses.  The contrast to the mess man is, is God, who has all this love for man and who is “rich in mercy.”  He’s everything man is not, and God has enough mercy for any sinner.  He doesn’t have just enough mercy, God is drowning in it!  He has a surplus of mercy – He has exactly the mercy any sinner needs.  He has what you need!

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus, in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.  (Ephesians 2:6, 7  TNIV)

Verse six is another stunner.  Jesus Christ was not only raised from the dead, He actually left the tomb and appeared to His disciples.  Forty days after the resurrection, Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father.  Both of these events have their counterpart in the life of the believer.  As Jesus was raised from the dead, so we are raised from our spiritual death.  As Christ ascended to Heaven and is enthroned there, so we are enthroned in Christ.  This is a concept difficult to wrap our minds around.  In some way we can’t comprehend, God the Father sees us in Christ, so that Christ’s experience is ours.  He is with the Father, as we are.  Bruce wrote this –

Believers are viewed as being already seated there with Christ, by the act in the purpose of God.  Temporarily, indeed, we live on earth so long as we remain in this body; but “in Christ”; we are seated with Christ where He is.

Now, we were told just a couple of verses back that God made us alive in Christ, but here we are given some more details as to the real reason behind God’s acts of mercy and grace:  “in order that in the coming ages He might show the incomparable riches of His grace.”  That’s right, everything God did for us in Christ, He did to show in successive ages the vast wealth of His grace.  Think about what that means.  In an eschatological terms, our salvation – and we could say everything God ever did for us – will serve as an eternal witness to God’s endless supply of grace.

All from God, Ephesians 1:8 – 10

This marvelous paragraph brings us back to something Paul mentioned in passing back in verse 5.  Believers owe their whole salvation experience to God.  As A. Skevington Wood so astutely wrote –

Grace is at once the objective, operative, and instrumental cause.

He’s right about that.  Man plays no part in his own salvation other than responding in faith to the call of God.  Our salvation from the bondage of sin springs from God’s grace and appropriated by faith is a gift from God that cannot be earned in any way.  Grace means says that salvation is a work of God from the very beginning to the final end.

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast.  For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.  (Ephesians 2:8 – 10  TNIV)

From conception to realization, salvation is work of God and a gift from God.  It is not the result of works, which is another way of saying it is “not from yourselves.”  There is just no possible way that any kindly person can do enough good work to move the meter one iota.  Or, another way of putting it, there is not the slightest reason for any man to be glorified apart of a work of grace.  Faith is the complete opposite of works.  It’s not that good works are bad or to be avoided.  Here’s the problem: man is so prone to sin that if works were involved in salvation, man’s predilection toward boasting would ruin everything.  God, being perfect in every way, could never allow even the slightest risk of causing man to sin, so His plan of salvation has nothing to do with man.

If verses eight and nine put forth the fact that God is the author of our faith, then verse ten emphasizes this remarkable fact:  God created us.  No, it’s actually more than that.  The Greek word behind our English “workmanship” or “handiwork” is poiema, or “poem.”  We are God’s poem, or as J.B. Phillips says,

We are God’s works of art.

This idea is both personal and corporate.  Individuals may be considered to be God’s works of art, but taken collectively the church, the Body of Christ, is a work of art created by God.  That’s more than a beautiful sentiment.  It shows the great care and precision with which God created us and re-created us at salvation.  We are not merely creatures.  We are works of art.

But we were saved (“created in Christ Jesus”) for a purpose:  “to do good works.”  By the time we reach the end of this little letter, Paul will tell us how to do this in a way that is acceptable to God.  We may be seated in Heaven with Jesus Christ, but for now we are living on the Earth, and we should be living in a way that glorifies God.

While we don’t do good works to get saved, once we have accepted God’s gracious, free gift of salvation, we are to do good works.  The order is vitally important: salvation first, works second.  But, and here’s how much God cares about us:  Since we’re on the hook to look for opportunities to do good works, and because of our tendency to sin, there’s that risk of boasting again.  God in no way wants us to sin by bragging about all the good works we’ve done.  This risk is eliminated because – and this is remarkable – God has planned and set up opportunities for us to do good works.  Do you see what that means?  Whatever good works may follow our regeneration, they are the result of the One who created us.

It’s really simple from Paul’s perspective.  We tend to complicate everything, including the Christian life.  But it’s not complicated at all.  Our responsibility is to follow God’s plan for our lives, responding to the impulses of the Holy Spirit as He gently moves us to fulfill His will.  All the good works we need to tend to were planned by God in eternity past.  We just need to keep our eyes open and be obedient.

Exceeding Abundantly Above, Part 2

hands of jail holding prison bars

It would do every Christian well to memorize Ephesians 3:20 because it says a mouthful –

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us… (Ephesians 3:20. KJV)

What that verse tells us is powerful: Whatever we need, God is able to provide it in abundance. In fact, He can provide more than we can possibly imagine. No child of God ever needs to live with any lack in his life.

Previously, we looked at Romans 5:20 with the truth of Ephesians 3:20 in mind –

Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound… (Romans 5:20. KJV)

Sin may “abound” all around you, but God’s grace is more plentiful. The context of Romans 5 is peace, therefore, thanks to God’s abundant grace, we may be at peace with God and with the world around us because of the abundant peace God gives us. That means that God’s peace is without end. God has more peace than the world has strife. It doesn’t matter how much turmoil there may be in your life, God has more peace for you.

Now, let’s take a look at something else God gives in abundance: Pardon.

Let men cast off their wicked deeds; let them banish from their minds the very thought of doing wrong! Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy upon them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon! (Isaiah 55:7. TLB)

General context

In the book of Isaiah, Jesus Christ – the Messiah – is sometimes referred to as “the Suffering Servant” in the latter chapters. In chapter 53, the work of the Suffering Servant makes salvation possible.

But it was the Lord’s good plan to bruise him and fill him with grief. However, when his soul has been made an offering for sin, then he shall have a multitude of children, many heirs. He shall live again, and God’s program shall prosper in his hands. And when he sees all that is accomplished by the anguish of his soul, he shall be satisfied; and because of what he has experienced, my righteous Servant shall make many to be counted righteous before God, for he shall bear all their sins. (Isaiah 53:10, 11. TLB)

That’s a general statement about the salvation provided by the work of Jesus on the Cross. In the next chapter, chapter 54, the invitation to appropriate this salvation is extended to Israel

O my afflicted people, tempest-tossed and troubled, I will rebuild you on a foundation of sapphires and make the walls of your houses from precious jewels. I will make your towers of sparkling agate and your gates and walls of shining gems. But in that coming day, no weapon turned against you shall succeed, and you will have justice against every courtroom lie. This is the heritage of the servants of the Lord. This is the blessing I have given you, says the Lord. (Isaiah 54:11, 12, 17. TLB)

And here in chapter 55, this abundant salvation is offered to the whole world. That’s how God planned it, by the way. The Gospel went out first to Israel, and then to the world of the Gentiles. That’s what Paul meant when he wrote this to the Roman church –

For I am not ashamed of this Good News about Christ. It is God’s powerful method of bringing all who believe it to heaven. This message was preached first to the Jews alone, but now everyone is invited to come to God in this same way. (Romans 1:16. TLB)

The invitation of salvation is for all who hear it and respond in faith to it. God’s offer of salvation is the greatest offer ever extended to sinful man, but it’s not guaranteed. God offers it, but it must be accepted. Man’s sinful condition makes it impossible for him to seek out God. But, we read this is Isaiah 55:1 –

Say there! Is anyone thirsty? Come and drink-even if you have no money! Come, take your choice of wine and milk-it’s all free! (Isaiah 55:1. TLB)

Of course, we’re reading some poetic statements here. The thirst the prophet writes about is no ordinary thirst, and here’s the point. Sinful man may not be out there looking for Jesus Christ, but he may be looking for something else that draws his attention to God’s gracious offer. Jesus talked about this “thirst” in Matthew 5:6 –

Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled. (KJV)

Man without God is not only lost, but he has a gaping, aching void that can only be filled with the Lord.

The call to salvation

As we see in Isaiah 55:1, God’s provision of salvation is absolutely free of charge. Nobody can buy salvation – not with good works or tears. Salvation is free. The words of President Benjamin Harrison’s favorite hymn come to mind:

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked come to thee for dress,
Helpless look to thee for grace;
Foul I to the mountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I’ll die

The greatest gift to man is God’s free gift of salvation. It’s there for the taking. But not only is the gift of salvation free, it’s free for anybody! Isaiah’s wording is clear and precise: “Is anyone thirsty?” “Anyone” means just that. The words of John 3:16 echo this idea –

For God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son so that anyone who believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (TLB)

Who could resist what the Lord offers? Apparently most. Sinful man is running around looking for what God is offering, but they’re looking in the wrong places.

Why spend your money on food that doesn’t give you strength? Why pay for groceries that do you no good? Listen and I’ll tell you where to get good food that fattens up the soul! (Isaiah 55:2. TLB)

Isn’t that exactly what people are doing today? Isaiah used symbolic language to describe man’s fruitless and futile search for what only God can provide. It’s a fool’s errand, looking for satisfaction outside of a relationship with Jesus Christ because you were created with that need; it’s part of who you are. The problem is, we try to meet that need with anything or anybody other that the Lord. You’ll always come up short. Hospitals, divorce courts, psychiatric wards, and prisons are full of people who searched for what only God can supply in abundance.

That reminds me of a song written by Ken Hirsch and Ron Miller. Most people are familiar with a version of the song from the late 1970’s and early 1980’s that Charlene made famous. It’s a song about a woman who had lived a hard life, drifting in and out of romantic relationships looking for happiness and finding nothing but emptiness and regret in the end. What most people don’t know is that “I’ve Never Been to Me” was originally written from the male perspective, about a man on the same search. Among the lyrics, are these:

I’ve even been to marriage
Had children cryin’
for someone they couldn’t find
Never knowin’ that I was searchin’
For things I left behind

I thought my heart could wait
But I learned too late
Only love can make people free.

Regardless of which version you prefer (I prefer the male version by The Temptations), it’s a cheesy song but it captures the common experience of human beings all over the world. Just think about the years, the emotions, and the money we wasted looking for the very things that cost nothing because God gives them to us out of the abundance of His love, mercy, and grace.

George Adam Smith, writing about the Jews, could have easily written the same things about modern Christians:

Born to be priests, the Jews drew down their splendid powers of attention, pertinacity, and imagination, from God upon the world, till they equally appear to have been born traders.

Indeed. Selling our souls for what junk the world offers us, man has become a “trafficker in trivia,” not knowing the richness of God’s provision is there for those who “hear” the call.

Come to me with your ears wide open. Listen, for the life of your soul is at stake. I am ready to make an everlasting covenant with you, to give you all the unfailing mercies and love that I had for King David. (Isaiah 55:3. TLB)

Now, Isaiah has the final restoration of Israel in sight, but the call of salvation – the reality of God’s exceedingly abundant provision is for all people everywhere. Salvation is God’s gift to sinful man. It’s free, it’s full, it’s satisfying, and it lasts forever.

The time to repent

That’s the good news. The bad news is this: God won’t be offering this free gift of salvation for ever. It’s an offer that will eventually be withdrawn.

Seek the Lord while you can find him. Call upon him now while he is near. Let men cast off their wicked deeds; let them banish from their minds the very thought of doing wrong! Let them turn to the Lord that he may have mercy upon them, and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon! (Isaiah 55:6, 7. TLB)

God’s time is always NOW. The best opportunity to take God up on His offer of salvation is NOW. Some Bible scholars think these two verses constitute the best advice in the entire Bible.  Smart thinks these two verses should be interpreted like this:

NOW is the moment of greatest opportunity. NOW God’s word is living and powerful and sounds into the minds of the community like a trumpet note. NOW God offers food and drink to the hungry and thirsty. He is near. He is ready to be found. Today he is waiting to forgive. But if his forgiving love is spurned, tomorrow there may be only his wrath that can be known, and this is what it so urgent that men should seek and call upon God and turn in repentance at once.

There will come a time when it won’t be so easy to find the Lord. This was something that weighed heavy on Paul’s heart –

As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, “In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.” I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation. (2 Corinthians 6:1, 2. TNIV)

God is always available, but there are times when it’s easier to “find” Him. There is never an excuse for anybody to claim they could’t find the Lord.

for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care. Today, if only you would hear his voice, “Do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah in the wilderness, where your ancestors tested me; they tried me, though they had seen what I did. (Psalm 95:7 – 9 TNIV)

That’s right. A hard heart can blind a sinner to the presence of God. But for those who find Him and call on His name, He will “abundantly pardon.” The Hebrew is graphic: “He will multiply pardon.” That’s the promise, and that’s what every human being needs: pardon from sin. And because our God is never chintzy, there is more than enough pardon for every sinner. Nobody has an accumulation of sins so vast or so horrible that God cannot pardon. The one who comes to God in an attitude of genuine repentance will find pardon and full restoration.

That’s the beauty of exceeding abundantly above in regards to sins being pardoned.

 

Exceeding Abundantly Above, Part 1

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Most Christians have heard this verse quoted many, many times. We hear it often in prayers or sometimes in sermons. It’s a favorite verse for those of us who, from time time, may have found ourselves in need – physical, spiritual, emotional, or especially financial. You probably know the words, though not where it’s found in the Bible. Here it is, Ephesians 3:20 –

Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us… (KJV)

We know the words, but do we really understand what they mean? The three words that catch my attention, and maybe yours too, are these: “exceeding abundantly above.” Those are powerful words when you string them together, and they’re describing something phenomenal.

To help us grasp the magnitude of “exceeding abundantly above,” let’s turn to nature and observe the noble cod. The cod is one of nature’s most amazing fish due in large part to it’s astounding fecundity. Scientists who have studied the noble cod have calculated that a single cod will deposit nine million eggs. That the number nine, followed by six zeroes. That is a mind-boggling number of eggs, and it’s even more bewildering when you realize how many cod there are in the world’s oceans, all depositing their nine million eggs.

That’s a homey illustration of “exceeding abundantly above.” What is true of the mighty cod is true of our God, in the sense that He provides whatever we need in absolute abundance, all the time.

So, with the image of nine million cod fish eggs swirling around your mind, let’s consider just what it is that the Lord provides. He provides so much, but let’s go back to the beginning and think about God’s provision of grace.

Moreover the law entered, that the offence might abound. But where sin abounded, grace did much more abound… (Romans 5:20. KJV)

That verse seems to be talking about two things in abundance: sin and grace. But it occurs in a chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans dealing with peace, as indicated by the very first verse –

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ… (Romans 5:1. TNIV)

Peace, when there is no peace

You might have noticed that peace is in short supply these days. Actually, it’s been in short supply since Cain murdered his brother Abel. The world was at peace until that sad event and it’s been downhill ever since. It’s not that mankind hasn’t been looking for peace or desiring peace, it’s that we can’t seem to find it. But that’s because man has been looking in the wrong places for it.

Take that towering example of virtue and intellect, Malcolm X. He once said this:

Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the laws, respect everyone; but if someone puts his hand on you, send him to the cemetery. That’s a good religion.

That’s right. Live at peace with everybody, until they get too close to you, then let’em have it.

Think about all the peace treaties that have been hammered out and signed by various states in the Middle East. How’s that working out?

And what about that League of Nations? The world was so shocked by World War I, it became known as “the war to end all wars,” and the League of Nations was formed as a way to stop any world war from ever happening again. During the 1930’s the League did virtually nothing to halt Hitler’s aggressions and his repudiation of Versailles Treaty that ended the “war to end all wars.” And following World War II, since the League of Nations was so successful, the world’s nations kicked that can again and formed the United Nations, which, as we know, has been wildly successful at confiscating the wealth of the western world but as far as keeping the peace in the world. Right, not so much.

Gerry Adams, president of Ireland’s Sinn Fein party, famously and rightly observed –

Making peace, I have found, is much harder than making war.

He’s right about that. It’s a lot easier to fight than it is to be at peace. That’s because strife is the common lot of man, not peace. Since the Fall, man has been at odds with his fellow man, with the world around him, with himself, but most of all, sin has caused a rift between God and man; a rift that no treaty can repair. There’s not a single thing a sinner can do to make peace between himself and his God. Nothing. That’s why Paul’s opening statement in Romans 5 is so spectacular: we have peace with God. And when you have peace with God, you will be at peace with the world around you.

How is it possible that we as Christians have peace with God? Nobody else on earth does, by the way, only Christians. Here’s what Paul had to say about this –

The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppress the truth by their wickedness… (Romans 1:18. TNIV)

So all people on earth are under the wrath of God. That’s the human race’s default position, by the way. People don’t start out in God’s good graces. We’re all born sinners and born under the wrath of God. Nobody begins life untainted by sin. Only the Christian escapes this wrath because only the Christian has experienced God’s grace.

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25, 26. TNIV)

So peace with God can only be achieved when a sinner enters the Kingdom God, where peace is the norm, by faith in Jesus Christ and in the work He accomplished on the Cross. God’s wrath, as far as the Christian is concerned, has been completely and forever deflected. The justice of God which demands sins be paid for has been satisfied in the work and Person of Jesus Christ. And that’s why only the Christian can know what real peace feels like. Peace in the midst of utter chaos is possible when you are in a healthy relationship with Jesus Christ. He, not drugs or vacations or people, is our peace.

He was delivered over to death for our sins and was raised to life for our justification.  (Romans 4:25. TNIV)

All Paul means with that verse is that because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we are “justified” which is a fancy way of saying thanks to Jesus, we are viewed by God “just as though we never sinned.” That’s why we have peace with God – there’s no fear that we’ll ever by punished because we know Jesus was punished for us.

God’s definition of peace

You might wonder how it’s possible to be at peace with the world around you just because you’re at peace with God. Let’s look at how Paul dealt with this peace when he wrote to another congregation –

And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:7. TNIV)

God’s peace “transcends all understanding” is just another way of saying that it’s all but impossible to understand God’s peace. But you don’t have to understand it to experience it! You may not understand electricity, but that doesn’t stop you from turning your lights on when you walk into a dark room. You don’t understand how your skinny HD TV works, but that didn’t stop you from buying one, hanging it on your wall, and starting a Netflix account so you can watch old TV shows back to back to back. There are all kinds of things in life we don’t understand but we still enjoy them. God’s peace is like that. And the key to enjoying God’s peace that “transcends all understanding,” is this –

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. (Philippians 4:6. TNIV)

Like most things, this peace that comes from God – that is unimaginable – is ours in Christ Jesus (that is, as long as we are in a relationship with God through Jesus Christ) if we do a couple of things. In other words, while we have peace with God simply by virtue of our relationship with Christ, if we want to experience it on a day-to-day basis in the here-and-now, we have to do a couple of things. First, we have to stop being anxious about anything. Yes, anything. There is never, ever a time for the believer to be anxious. That’s hard because we live in a culture that sees anxiety as a virtue. We are trained almost from birth to worry – and be all dramatic – about everything in our lives. It’s crazy, the things we worry about. America used to be the home of the brave, but now we’ve become a home for the paranoid – for people always worried about this or that, often about things we have absolutely no control over. If you find God’s promised peace elusive, maybe you need to change your habitual way of thinking. Instead of automatically defaulting to the negative all the time, make a conscious effort to see the situation from another perspective: God’s perspective. Paul made that clear to the Romans when he encouraged them to, “…be transformed by renewing your minds…” (Romans 12:2). That means to change the direction of your thinking. If you can do that, you’ll be one step closer to experiencing that “peace that transcends all understanding.”

However, simply changing your thought-life isn’t enough. You have to replace the bad habit (worrying) with good ones: Prayers, petitions, and thanksgiving. So instead of worrying about a situation, pray and ask God to intervene and do something. Pray in faith believing this –

And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Father may be glorified in the Son. You may ask me for anything in my name, and I will do it. (John 14:13, 14. TNIV)

So ask, and then thank God for He’s going to do. Thank God for bringing His will to pass in the situation you’re tempted to worry about but won’t because you prayed about it!

When you let it go and give it over to God, you will finally experience the “peace that transcends all understanding.” It was provided for you on the Cross of Christ. Peace – abundant peace – the result of you and God being reconciled and brought together isn’t just a spiritual peace between you and God, but it’s a practical peace between you and anything or anybody around you.

That’s what makes Romans 5:20 such a deeply moving and profound verse. In case you forgot it, here it is in a modern translation –

The law was brought in so that the trespass might increase. But where sin increased, grace increased all the more… (Romans 5:20. TNIV)

That’s an admittedly confusing verse, especially the first sentence. Let’s make it really simple so we can all understand what Paul is getting at in a very general sense. There are two ways a sinful man may take to deal with the sin in his life. He can take the legalistic route. A lot of religions are legalistic. They provide you with an endless list of do’s and don’ts. If you can stick to their do’s and don’ts, you’ll be OK. The problem is, as Paul noted, the “law,” the Jewish list of do’s and don’ts, only served to make those trying to keep it sin more! That’s the downfall of every religion based on rules and regulations: they aggravate the sin problem and even make it worse. But, and this is the second sentence, the increase of sin due to man’s meddling cannot defeat God’s grace because, “Where sin increased, grace increased even more.” In other words, in the battle between sin and grace, grace will always win because grace abounds – it is endless.

In the context of Romans 5, no matter what is happening in your life, you will always experience God’s peace through His grace because that peace never ends. Your life may be in turmoil but that doesn’t limit God’s peace through His grace. The devil may try to convince you that God is mad at you because of stray bad thought. That’s a lie. God’s grace and the peace that exists between you and Him is stronger than that stray bad thought.

7 Side Benefits of Grace, Part 2

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To say that God has His eyes on you would be an understatement! Think about what this verse says –

For the eyes of the Lord range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him. (2 Chronicles 16:9a TNIV)

That’s one of the most remarkable verses in the Old Testament. And it’s a profound truth; God’s eyes travel all over the world, continually, giving strength to His people. It’s a comforting verse. It can also be terrifying verse. Let’s note the context before diving into the third side benefit of God’s grace.

Before we read about the eyes of the Lord, we read this –

At that time Hanani the seer came to Asa king of Judah and said to him: “Because you relied on the king of Aram and not on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Aram has escaped from your hand.” (2 Chronicles 16:7 TNIV)

It’s a fascinating story that you should take the time to read, but in sum, the prophet Hanani took King Asa to task for trusting Syria (man) instead of God. His rebuke went like this: God once delivered the Egyptians into your hands; why couldn’t you trust Him this time?

Were not the Cushites and Libyans a mighty army with great numbers of chariots and horsemen? Yet when you relied on the Lord, he delivered them into your hand. (2 Chronicles 16:8 TNIV)

King Asa’s big problem here was his inconsistency. He trusted the Lord one time but not the next. He experienced a great victory when he trusted the Lord, yet he turned right around and instead of doing the very thing that guaranteed victory, he chose to trust man instead of God. Asa was so mad at the prophet, he threw Hanani into prison and oppressed those who didn’t like it.

We can denounce Asa and decry his behavior, but we need to look in the mirror. How easily you and I forget the power of God brought to bear in the great crises of life, but fail to trust Him in lesser decisions. Yet through it all, God is ever faithful to those who are faithful to Him. We don’t have to be perfect, just faithful.

The seven benefits of God’s grace work like that. They work as long as we are faithful to God. The first two side benefits of God’s grace are wonderful:

• God names His people;
• God numbers the hair on your head.

However wonderful they are, they only work when you are in a relationship with Jesus Christ. As long as you are in that relationship, God’s grace manifested in those two benefits will flow to you. But you’re out of luck if you’re out of that relationship for any reason.

Let’s turn our attention to side benefit number three:

God counts our very steps, Job 31:4

Does he not see my ways and count my every step? (TNIV)

Job was a man, you’ll recall, who had suffered greatly. He had such a great life.

Oh, for the days when I was in my prime… (Job 29:4a TNIV)

I guess anybody over 40 or 50 has said that. We look back with great fondness to the “good old days,” when we had hair and didn’t need glasses; when our knees didn’t hurt or our hands ache in the cold. But poor Job had it real bad. He had such a good life, but then it all went bad.

Terrors overwhelm me; my dignity is driven away as by the wind, my safety vanishes like a cloud. And now my life ebbs away; days of suffering grip me. Night pierces my bones; my gnawing pains never rest. (Job 30:15 – 17 TNIV)

This man was in bad shape; he’d lost his family, his reputation, and his health, and he was getting no help from even his closest friends. That’s often the case, by the way. When you suffer, you often suffer alone because honestly, no matter how sincere a friend may be, in the end, humanly speaking, you’re on your own. But Job never really gave up on God. At times it sounded like he did, but he continued to pray and plead his case before God, which is always a good thing to do.

Job was positively sure that he had done nothing to deserve the suffering he was experiencing, and that’s the whole theme of chapter 31. He goes through all kinds of sins or categories of sin that might have been the cause of his problems, but he solemnly swears he’s completely innocent. Of course, nobody is completely innocent, but in the midst of his declarations of innocence, Job manages to utter a deeply profound and meaningful theological truth: God counts our every step. That’s a real poetic way of saying that God sees everything you do and everywhere you go. Within the context of what Job is saying to God, that’s more than a comforting thought. Remember, Job was pleading his innocence before God –

I made a covenant with my eyes not to look lustfully at a young woman. For what is our lot from God above, our heritage from the Almighty on high? Is it not ruin for the wicked, disaster for those who do wrong? (job 31:1 – 3 TNIV)

The certainty of his innocence is based on the fact that he knows God knows what he’s been up to; that God sees all and knows all and He punishes only the wicked.  And he’s not wrong about that. Job, in the midst of his misery, hit the nail on the head.

Does he not see my ways and count my every step? (Job 31:4 NIV)

Yes He does! There is nothing about you that you can hide from God. Good thoughts, bad attitudes, questionable relationships, and quiet compassion; God sees it and God knows it. It’s a side benefit of grace, that God takes such notice in your comings and goings.

God records our thoughts, Malachi 3:16

Then those who feared the Lord talked with each other, and the Lord listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the Lord and honored his name. (NIV)

This is a very personal, little insight into just how closely God pays attention to us. But let’s take a quick look at the context and you’ll see why it’s the fourth side benefit of God’s grace.

What everybody knows about Malachi is this –

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the Lord Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that there will not be room enough to store it. (Malachi 3:10 NIV)

That’s right; Malachi is all about tithing, right? Wrong. It’s actually a very prescient little book that ought scare the devil out of Christians. It was written to a very specific group of Jews who lived thousands of years ago, but it describes the way too many modern Christians are. What prompted God’s challenge to tithe was the people’s arrogant attitude towards Him. Just read this exchange –

Will a mere mortal rob God? Yet you rob me. But you ask, ‘How are we robbing you?’” (Malachi 3:8a TNIV)

And so it goes. God accuses His people of something and they come back with a smart aleck retort. That takes some nerve, doesn’t it? How about this exchange –

You have spoken arrogantly against me,” says the Lord.
“Yet you ask, ‘What have we said against you?’
“You have said, ‘It is futile to serve God. What do we gain by carrying out his requirements and going about like mourners before the Lord Almighty? But now we call the arrogant blessed. Certainly evildoers prosper, and even when they put God to the test, they get away with it.’” (Job 3:13 – 15 NIV)

“Arrogantly” is another way to translate the more obscure “stout,” as seen in the KJV. It refers more to an attitude than just words. Their arrogant, skeptical attitude resulted in their vocal criticism against God. Of course, they have their smarty pants response to God’s accusation ready: “What have we said against you.” That word, “said,” means “talking together.” In other words, these people seemed to be in the habit of talking together about God and the state of their lives and blaming Him for their unhappy state. They commiserated together about the apparent futility of serving God. They basically said that serving God and worshiping Him was a total waste of time. In the end, this attitude manifested the height of their selfishness: there was nothing in it for them. There was, in their worldly minds, no profit in serving God.

And if that doesn’t describe a lot of Christians, nothing does. Many believers think that God owes them a good life simply by virtue of their confession of faith. This kind of Christian may openly appear to serve God, but inwardly they have little or no relationship with Jesus Christ, yet they blame God for every bad thing going on in their lives. They have no joy in the Lord. God sees that arrogant attitude and He hears their false statements about His character.

But not everybody was like that in Malachi’s day, and not every Christian is like that today. Thankfully! And that brings us to the fourth side benefit of God’s grace. Just as He hears and takes note of those who carelessly talk about Him; who impugn His character; who play fast and loose with what He has revealed about Himself to man, our God pays attention to those of us who love Him and serve Him when we talk about Him.

In the prophet’s day, the godless in Israel complained about God and dissed Him among themselves, but then the godly did the same, except that their conversations were positive and right. What these pious people said was not recorded for us, but we can guess. Perhaps their conversations about God were like this:

I will extol the Lord at all times; his praise will always be on my lips. I will glory in the Lord; let the afflicted hear and rejoice. Glorify the Lord with me; let us exalt his name together. I sought the Lord, and he answered me; he delivered me from all my fears. Those who look to him are radiant; their faces are never covered with shame. This poor man called, and the Lord heard him; he saved him out of all his troubles. The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. (Psalm 34:1 – 7 TNIV)

Yes, in a way we don’t understand, God keeps a scroll, or a book of remembrance dedicated to our conversations about Him. We may debate the literalness of this passage all day – is this a real book or a symbolic one? To waste our time doing that is to miss the whole point of what Malachi is trying to get across, which is profound one.  God pays attention to what we say, and when we get it right, our names and His thoughts concerning us are permanently, divinely recorded. This message of permanence to a people who were constantly facing threat after threat to their very existence must have been so comforting. To any of us today, facing our own threats – threats to our health, our livelihood, to our way of life, we should be comforted as well. God is an eternal Being, and that means His thoughts, His care, His concern, and His plans for us are also eternal. This is just another side benefit of His amazing grace, available only to those who love Him and are serving Him.

7 Side Benefits of Grace, Part 1

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Our favorite definition of God’s grace goes like this: God’s unmerited favor. Grace is God’s agape love in action, treating redeemed sinners better than we deserve to be treated. We almost always think of God’s grace in relation to our salvation. We didn’t deserve to be saved, but out of the abundance of His grace, God saved us. True enough. But there are many “side benefits” of grace that are at work every day in our lives. Some of them may seem obvious, some might surprise you, but all are cause to stop and praise Him for His amazing grace.

We’ll look at seven side benefits of grace, although there are more if you scour your Bible for them. All seven of these side benefits of grace serve mainly to do one thing: They help you overcome fear. For example, the author of the letter to the Hebrews understood this, so he wrote this word of encouragement and explanation –

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14, 15 NIV)

Fear of death is a fear common to everybody anywhere in the world. Yet we are told specifically that Jesus Christ – from His Incarnation to His death – not only provided salvation from sin but also deliverance from fear of death. That’s why no Christian should fear death, ever. Christ died to remove that fear from you. Jesus Christ tasted death so that believers wouldn’t have to. If you fear death, that’s the Devil trying to gain a foothold in your soul. Don’t let him! Take control of your thoughts! That fear is gone, so you have no business entertaining it.

That sounds like something a “name-it-and-claim-it” preacher would say, but in this case the truth is the truth no matter who says it. Still, it’s easier said than done. Maybe you struggle with lingering fear. Perhaps not necessarily fear of death, but maybe you fear other things. You are fortunate that the Bible is there to help you overcome those fears! Jesus Himself once said this –

Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows. (Luke 12:7b NIV)

Jesus spoke those words to His disciples and the context clearly indicates He was refering to a time of coming persecution. At such a time, His followers might be tempted to fear their persecutors. Jesus makes the point that such fear is a waste of time; all man can do is kill them. But God always has His eyes trained on them – He never stops noticing them or taking care of them. Jesus then compared something of infinite value – a human being – to something worth very little – a bird. If God takes the time to notice a bird, how much more is He paying attention to you?

Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. (Matthew 10:29 NIV)

Our Lord chose the most common of all birds to teach what may be the most profound truth of all: God’s incredible care for us. David noticed this side of God and he wrote about it –

When I consider your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is mankind that you are mindful of them, human beings that you care for them? You have made them a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. (Psalm 8:4 – 5 NIV)

Here’s how much God cares for us:

He names His sheep, John 10:3

The gatekeeper opens the gate for him, and the sheep listen to his voice. He calls his own sheep by name and leads them out. (John 10:3 NIV)

This verse is part of a parable addressed primarily to, of all people, a group of Pharisees –

Very truly I tell you Pharisees, anyone who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief and a robber.” (John 10:1 NIV)

Why in the world was Jesus telling a parable to Pharisees? This parable is actually linked to an incident in chapter nine, where Jesus healed a blind man. For the man who was healed, Jesus offered words of comfort and strength, but for the Pharisees who had witnessed the miraculous healing, Jesus’ words were of condemnation and judgment.

The parable explains our Lord’s role as both the gate to the kingdom of God and His role as the Shepherd who regulates the coming and going of sheep between the sheep pen and the pasture. As the gate, Jesus is the only way into the pen and He is the One who decides who enters – who is actually part of His fold, or the family of God. But we are more familiar with His role as the Great Shepherd, and that figure was something very familiar to the listeners of His day. The Jews were a very pastoral people and throughout the Old Testament, the figure of God as their Shepherd was well known. In Ezekiel 34, we read about shepherds who represented the leaders of Israel. But not in a very good way –

Son of dust, prophesy against the shepherds, the leaders of Israel. Say to them, ‘The Lord God says to you: Woe to the shepherds who feed themselves instead of their flocks. Shouldn’t shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the best food and wear the finest clothes, but you let your flocks starve. You haven’t taken care of the weak, nor tended the sick, nor bound up the broken bones, nor gone looking for those who have wandered away and are lost. Instead, you have ruled them with force and cruelty.” (Ezekiel 34:2 – 4 TLB)

That’s a terrible way for God’s people to be treated, so one day, He’s going to take charge –

For the Lord God says: “I will search and find my sheep. I will be like a shepherd looking for his flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places they were scattered in that dark and cloudy day. And I will bring them back from among the people and nations where they were, back home to their own land of Israel, and I will feed them upon the mountains of Israel and by the rivers where the land is fertile and good. Yes, I will give them good pasture on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in peace and feed in luscious mountain pastures.” (Ezekiel 34:11 – 14 TLB)

That paragraph refers to the Jews specifically, but in it we see God the Father’s character painted with bold colors. And in John 10, His Son picks up the same idea. He is the Good Shepherd – He possesses the same character as that of a shepherd. He is the One who functions as our Shepherd. We belong to Him as any sheep belongs to any shepherd. He has complete authority over our coming and going. He leads us. He guides us. He protects us. He is also completely responsible for our welfare, and He, like a shepherd who cares for sheep does, names us. Think about that. Jesus Christ attaches a name to every believer. We’re not just a number to Him. He names us. That’s significant. You name something important to you. You choose a name that suits it. Jesus names each and every believer in His care.
There is a relationship between Shepherd and sheep that is based wholly on the nature of the Shepherd. He knows us. He leads. He guides us. He names us. It’s all Him for our benefit. This must have meant so much to the man who had just been healed of his lifelong blindness. Remember him? Here’s how the Pharisees treated the poor sod –

To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out. (John 9:34 NIV)

The Living Bible is a bit more graphic –

You illegitimate bastard, you!” they shouted. “Are you trying to teach us?” And they threw him out. (TLB)

He had been excommunicated from his synagogue and family, but now he was a member of another family – he was a follower of the Good Shepherd and part of His fold, His family.

And there is a wonderful exclusiveness about being a member of God’s flock – there is only one Voice we need to hear, only Way for us to go, only one Will we need to be concerned about. Life is complicated, it is said, but for the sheep of the Good Shepherd, for the members of God’s great family, there is only peace of mind, focus of purpose, and one Love that really matters. Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd, never lets us down.

He numbers the hair on our head, Matthew 10:30

And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:30 TNIV)

The old joke that goes along with that verse is, “And for some of you, that’s not hard to do.” But the truth is that’s actually a very serious statement of fact made by Jesus. It’s no wonder the French critic Joseph Ernest Renan, expert on all things having to do with the Middle East, said this about Matthew’s gospel:

It is the most important book which has ever been written.

Why is this Gospel so important? One reason could be the way it portrays our Lord. Here is Jesus, who cares so much for us that He has taken the time to number our hair! He’s already encouraged His disciples when He talked about those sparrows. One sparrow was worth at most a cent in His day. Even though they weren’t worth much from a commercial standpoint, not a single sparrow could fall to the ground without God noticing. It’s not the sparrow that’s important in Jesus’ illustration, it’s God. It’s impossible for the finite to grasp God. Only infinity can explain such a concept as the care and concern of God. Finite minds like ours cannot. It takes a “leap of faith” to not only believe in God but to believe His care and compassion is just as infinite as His Person is. That’s why Jesus taught this. He’s not teaching us about birds. He’s trying to do justice to God; He’s trying to help us understand Someone essentially un-understandable.

To make it a little more personal, Jesus turned to hair. Something almost everybody has. Hair is commonplace, and if you’ve ever swept your bathroom floor, you can see how much hair you lose every day, yet it continues to grow (for most of us).

At this point in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus told His disciples this –

I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves.” (Matthew 10:16 TNIV)

Rough times were on the horizon for them. They would face possible persecution from both religious and civil authorities. But Jesus told them to be cool headed; to fear God and not their persecutors. Even more than that, there was this –

Everyone will hate you because of me, but those who stand firm to the end will be saved. (Matthew 10:33 TNIV)

This is our Lord’s admonition to His followers then and now. True disciples of Jesus don’t give up in the face of persecution or some discouragement. No matter what the circumstances, Christians are to “stand firm.” And we can stand firm no matter what because of God’s attentiveness. He’s watching us. He cares about us and cares about what happens to us. The fact that He has numbered the hairs on our heads is an indicator of how well our Father knows us.

The Lord’s loving care is linked to your relationship with Him. You have to be in one! Stand for Him because He knows you that well. And why wouldn’t you acknowledge the Lord when you know how much He cares for you?

Grace, Promises and Faith

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Grace, promise, faith: three words you see often in Scripture. Yet they are more than just words, they are also attitudes and ways of thinking. We need to define them before we attempt to understand how they are related to each other. First, what is “grace?” Very simply put, the word “grace” refers to the many gifts and blessings that come into our lives from God. “Grace” is not something we can earn or convince God we need more of. We do not merit any “grace” from God. “Grace” is sort of an all-encompassing term that covers all we receive from God through His Son. It goes without saying that the greatest “grace” of all is salvation through faith the Lord Jesus Christ.

Second, a “promise” is not unlike grace in that every “promise” is given to believers by means of God’s grace. From God’s perspective, a “promise” may be viewed as a sort of I.O.U. – a means by which the Lord guarantees that He will provide whatever it is He said He would. From our perspective, a “promise” rests on our complete trust in God and in His ability to provide what He said He would. It is not, however, a legal contract where one party stipulates pay (promises) for labor (merit). God’s “promise” to His people is something they do not deserve nor earn. All we must do is believe that God will deliver.

Third, “faith” is closely related to “promise,” especially in the context of what Paul is teaching in Romans. Abraham’s faith kicked in when God made him a promise:

I have made you a father of many nations. (Romans 4:17 NIV)

This is an important truth that a lot of Christians miss: real, Biblical faith exists ONLY as a response to divine revelation.

So then, faith comes from hearing the message, and the message comes through preaching Christ. (Romans 10:17 GNB)

Biblical faith has nothing to do with “believing in yourself” or in practicing some kind “positive thinking.” Granted, those things are important – a Christian ought to have self confidence and he ought to have a generally positive outlook on life. But Biblical faith must always rest in what God has said – what He has promised.

Galatians 3:10 – 25

But Christ has bought us out from under the doom of that impossible system [Jewish law] by taking the curse for our wrongdoing upon himself. For it is written in the Scripture, “Anyone who is hanged on a tree is cursed” (as Jesus was hung upon a wooden cross). Now God can bless the Gentiles, too, with this same blessing he promised to Abraham; and all of us as Christians can have the promised Holy Spirit through this faith. Dear brothers, even in everyday life a promise made by one man to another, if it is written down and signed, cannot be changed. He cannot decide afterward to do something else instead. (Galatians 3:13 – 15 TLB)

It is impossible, Paul taught, to be justified by the Law – by observing the many demands of the Jewish legal and religious systems. Christians are not Jews, so what does that teaching have to do with us? If Paul were writing to us, he might write something like this: Doing good things or living a good life doesn’t earn you points with God. For the Jews, when Jesus Christ hung on the Cross, He was being punished for their inability to adhere to those impossible legal and religious systems. Jesus was punished in their stead. Because of that, the Law was rendered useless. That’s the whole point of verse 13 –

Christ has redeemed us from the curse of the law

If that Law and it’s consequent curse were rendered powerless by the work of Christ, it could never work alongside of or supplement simple faith. This is what Paul is arguing. It made no sense for the Galatians to have faith in both Jesus and the Law. The work of Jesus ended the need for the Law, so why would any thinking person want to go back to it?

This is the tension that also exists even among Gentiles. Of course, we have nothing to do with the Law, but a great many of us think (consciously or subconsciously) our pure thoughts, good intentions, and upright lives can result in our ultimate justification and salvation. The fact is, like the Jewish Law, all those things – as good and as helpful as they may be – cannot save you or make you look worthy of God’s attention.

Galatians 3:16 – 18

Now, God gave some promises to Abraham and his Child. And notice that it doesn’t say the promises were to his children, as it would if all his sons—all the Jews—were being spoken of, but to his Child—and that, of course, means Christ. Here’s what I am trying to say: God’s promise to save through faith—and God wrote this promise down and signed it—could not be canceled or changed four hundred and thirty years later when God gave the Ten Commandments. If obeying those laws could save us, then it is obvious that this would be a different way of gaining God’s favor than Abraham’s way, for he simply accepted God’s promise. (TLB)

The impotency of the Law – or of good works – is demonstrated even further when Paul notes that the great Law came many, many years after the promise He made to Abraham couldn’t annul the covenant – the promise – He made to Abraham. What was the promise? It was not a promise to save people if they performed good works or obeyed the letter of a law, even it was the Law He gave them. The promise was simply this: salvation comes through faith.

Galatians 3:19 – 25

Why did God give the Jews the Law and all people a conscience? The answer is found in verse 19 –

Well then, why were the laws given? They were added after the promise was given, to show men how guilty they are of breaking God’s laws. But this system of law was to last only until the coming of Christ, the Child to whom God’s promise was made. (And there is this further difference. God gave his laws to angels to give to Moses, who then gave them to the people… (Galatians 3:19 TLB)

Without the Law, or even without your conscience, how would you know if you were ever in the wrong? That’s why God gave man those things – to show man his shortcomings and his need for a savior. However, the Law was shown by Paul to be inferior to faith because it was given as a temporary addition to faith. Not that it added anything to faith, but came after faith in terms of history. Furthermore, the Law was vastly inferior to faith because the Law was received by man through means of a mediator – Moses – while God’s promise was received directly from God. That is, God gave His promise directly to Abraham without any intermediary.

Before you get the wrong idea, the Law was in no way ever in conflict with faith. Both the Law and the promise came equally from God. It was man who never understood that. In short order man came to value the Law far above the promise, in effect, ignoring the necessity of faith altogether, but that’s not the way it should have been. Like man does with most of God’s blessings, he perverted and misused the Law.

John Piper’s observations are interesting:

God gave the Law originally as a railroad track to guide Israel’s obedience. The engine that was supposed to pull a person along the track was God’s grace, the power of the Spirit. And the coupling between our car and the engine was faith, so that in the Old Testament, like the New Testament, salvation was by grace, through faith, along the track of obedience – sanctification.

That’s how it should have been.

Galatians 3:29

Okay, what about us, what about those of us who aren’t Jews? What does all this have to do with Gentiles? Paul explains:

And now that we are Christ’s we are the true descendants of Abraham, and all of God’s promises to him belong to us. (Galatians 3:29 TLB)

That’s an exciting verse: all of God’s promises to Jesus – remember, He was referred to as “Abraham’s Child,” meaning whatever God promised to Abraham He promised to Jesus – now belong to us. But why did Paul write this to the Galatians? A group of itinerant preachers known as Judaizers were undermining the Gospel Paul and the other apostles were preaching – salvation by faith in Jesus alone – by saying that only through the Law could a person be a child of Abraham and receive all the promises. They didn’t eliminate faith in Jesus altogether, but sought to add elements of Judaism to simple faith. This false teaching infuriated Paul, and this was how he vented his frustration to the Galatians:

You foolish Galatians! Who put a spell on you? Before your very eyes you had a clear description of the death of Jesus Christ on the cross! Tell me this one thing: did you receive God’s Spirit by doing what the Law requires or by hearing the gospel and believing it? How can you be so foolish! You began by God’s Spirit; do you now want to finish by your own power? (Galatians 3:1 – 3 GNT)

Those Galatian Christians, Gentiles, were, in reality, the true children of Abraham by faith in Jesus and they, not the false teachers, would receive the promise. Because they were Christ’s they were also Abraham’s children and heirs.

This is what Christ has done for all who believe in Him. There are no “second class citizens” of heaven. Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter to God. What does matter is whether or not a sinner puts his full faith and confidence in what Jesus Christ did for them on the cross. William Temple observed:

My worth is what I am worth to God; and that is a marvelous great deal, for Christ died for me. Thus, incidentally, what gives to each of us His highest worth gives the same worth to everyone; in all that matters most we are equal.

Galatians 4:4 – 7

But when the right time came, the time God decided on, he sent his Son, born of a woman, born as a Jew, to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law so that he could adopt us as his very own sons. And because we are his sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, so now we can rightly speak of God as our dear Father. Now we are no longer slaves but God’s own sons. And since we are his sons, everything he has belongs to us, for that is the way God planned. (TLB)

In these verses, Paul outlines God’s purpose in sending His Son. Actually, it was a two-fold purpose: (1) To redeem those under the Law, that is, the Jews. This He had to do for His people because the Law never made a single Jew a child of God. (2) That all sinners (Gentiles included) might be adopted into God’s family.

For the Jew, slavery had a special connotation. Historically they had been delivered from their bondage to the Egyptians by the power of God. But they were still in bondage – a bondage to the Law. Slaving day after day after endless day trying to live up to the demands of the Law did them no good. Jesus Christ came to set them free from that bondage by making the Jews God’s sons, and we all know a son of God can’t be a slave to God at the same time. The same thing applies to the Gentiles. We had been enslaved, not to the Law, but to sin. Christ came to set us free and through our faith in Him we also become sons of God.


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