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imageI was recently asked the old question: "But if the Christian is in Christ securely and unconditionally, why be good?"

Any number of counter-questions might be appropriate:

Is fear of punishment the only reason we can imagine for moral choices?

Isn't unconditional love most likely to elicit good living? 

Why is being good the ultimate arbiter here (rather than the question of my relationship to God)?

But as we spoke it seemed clear to me that the big misconception behind it all was a view that says: The Christian life is really, really, really hard and the only reason to live it is because there are other, basically unrelated, spiritual rewards.  Take away these carrots and sticks and of course you'll sin. Because, you know, sin is really great.  It's so great that God has to threaten us with hell to stop us having fun.  Offer free grace and there'll be pandemonium.

As though the way of Jesus is stifling.

As though sin is life-giving.

As though God's a cosmic kill-joy.

As though only eternal damnation balances the scales enough to make Christianity the clever choice.

As though the Christian life is so horrible, we need harsh sanctions to remain in it.

As though Jesus said "Toughen up people. My yoke is hard, but hell is harder."

But what if knowing Christ Himself is the centre of the Christian life rather than sin management? And what if Jesus really brings life and sin only brings death?  What if Christ's yoke really is the easy one - the only one that properly fits? What if being good is just really, you know, good? And what if you don't have to dangle people's feet over the pit to get them to behave?  What then?

Well you tell the believer "You're in Christ, securely and unconditionally, so why be bad?"






You Last
Girl praying in orphanage. New York, 1947


Earlier today Derren Brown retweeted this photo with the comment "Oh Lord." It's had 85 retweets and counting. Here are some of the comments in replies:

The list is backwards

'You last'. What a heart-breaker

So sad, make them feel guilty, bad and no self worth...sorry no religious belief from me!

On the original Classic Pic tweet were the following comments (swearing coming...)

disgusting crap message on the wall. abandoned child must focus on invisible Jesus rather than own needs

that is the saddest thing I have seen in days. *sob*

fuck that, fuck the message on the wall

This is a desperately sad photo. Not just the message, but the stark walls and the bleak, loveless room.

Interesting photo. Revolting story told in the photo.

Everything that's wrong with religion

"Dear Lord. i thanks you for giving me no parents and a shitty start in life."

Torn between sorrow and rage.

This is all sorts of horrible. Poor kid.

Horrible, horrible child abuse. Disgusting.

I grew up with "Jesus, Others, Yourself" - JOY comes by putting yourself last, right? If you grew up in a Christian home I'd be surprised if you've never come across the acronym. I mention this so that no-one thinks this is the orphanage's way of putting the children in their place. This is not a power-play, it's the opposite. This is the essence of the way of Jesus: self-giving sacrifice as the way to fullness of life.

But what's fascinating to me is that in 1947 'Self Last' would have been roundly endorsed as the moral position. Today 'Self Last' is not just strange or inadvisable, it's immoral. It's disgusting crap. It's everything that's wrong with religion, etc, etc.

But what do we have in this photo? We see a little girl in need. She's an orphan and our hearts go out to her. But who is actually caring for her? Answer: the people who believe in "Self Last", that's who.  And which body of people have had the longest and most impressive history of caring for orphans? Christians - i.e. those who believe in 'Self Last'.

What's the alternative? Shall we declare 'Self Last' as an abusive sentiment? Shall we endorse 'Me First' instead? How many orphanages could be built on that foundation?

But, some will say, this girl is at the bottom of the heap already. How crushing for her to be told to pray this hierarchy into her heart every day! Isn't that abusive?

Ah but, here's the thing. All Christians pray 'Self Last.'  I'll bet the Queen herself was taught this acronym. Everyone is called to the selfless life of Jesus. Christ's kingdom inverts all our 'Me First' values. As Mary's Christmas song (the Magnificat) reminds us:

He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52-53)

'Self Last' is a philosophy that humbles the highest and lifts up the poorest. In the kingdom of 'Self Last' it's the lowliest who are greatest. As this little girl prays, she is in touch with the Lord of the universe - the Lord who stoops, serves, suffers and dies.

Just practically speaking, her greatest hope is the 'Self Last' people. They are the ones who care for orphans. And spiritually and existentially speaking, her greatest hope is the Lord who put Himself last. In His kingdom she is the greatest:

46 An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. 47 Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and made him stand beside him. 48 Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest.’  (Luke 9:46-48)


JesusHere are three talks given recently for students in the south west. Taken from Colossians, they are shaped around three questions:

1. What do you think of when you think of God?

2. What do you think of when you think of Jesus?

3. What does God think of when He thinks of you?




Jesus is Good Samaritan

A repost from the King's English.
Get the Daily Devotional here.

It’s one of the most famous stories Jesus ever told.  A beautiful stranger helps a man left for dead when his own people disdain and forsake him.  Those who ignore his sufferings are Levites and Priests – the holiest of the holy.  The stranger is a Samaritan – from that race of hated half-breeds to the north.  Nonetheless he shows incredible compassion.  And Jesus ends with that famous imperative: “Go and do thou likewise.”

And so it is generally assumed that this is a simple morality tale.  We conclude that Jesus wants us to copy this good ethical practice.  Or He wants to break down racial divides and show that love is the heart of it all.  Or…  what is the point of this parable?

Well read it for yourself - Luke 10:25-37.

And first notice the question that prompts the story.  The lawyer asks ‘Who is my neighbour?’ (v29).  When Jesus finishes the story He asks the crowd who was neighbour to the one left for dead? (v36).  Therefore the key interpretive question is this:  With whom is Jesus asking us to identify?  The priest? The Levite? The Samaritan?

None of the above.  Not first of all.  First and foremost we are asked to see ourselves as the man left for dead.  And from his perspective we are to assess who is a good neighbour.  This is the first clue – we are meant to put ourselves in the shoes of the fallen man.

Why do I say ‘fallen’?  Well the man’s fallenness is triply-underlined in v30.  He “goes down from Jerusalem (which in biblical imagery is an earthly counterpart to the heavenly Zion).  He is heading towards the outskirts of the land (Jericho) which is due east of this mountain sanctuary (notice the echoes of Eden).  This would involve a physical descent of about a thousand metres in the space of just 23 miles.  If that wasn’t bad enough, the man “falls” among robbers.  He is stripped, plagued (literally that’s the word in v30), abandoned and half-dead.  Here is the man’s precidament.  And Jesus wants us to see it as our predicament.  So what hope do we have?

The priest?  No, no hope there.  The Levite?  No chance.  What about a ‘certain Samaritan’?  (Notice how the ‘certain’ mirrors the ‘certain man’ of v30)?  This Samaritan is the answer to the fallen man.

And this man is nothing like the religious.  In fact he would equally have been shunned by the priest and Levite!

Yet this Samaritan ‘had compassion’ (v33).  In the New Testament this verb, which could be translated ‘he was moved in his bowels with pity’, is used only of Jesus. (Matt. 9:36; 14:14; 15:32; 18:27; 20:34; Mk. 1:41; 6:34; 8:2; 9:22; Lk. 7:13; 10:33; 15:20) In every narrative passage Jesus is the subject of the verb and the three parables in which it is used are the merciful King of Matthew 18 (v27), this story and the father in the Two Sons (Luke 15:20).

Well this Good Samaritan comes across the man left for dead and, for emphasis, we are twice told about him ‘coming’ to the man (v33 and 34).  The Outsider identifies with the spurned and wretched.

Now remember whose shoes we are in as Jesus tells this story.  We are meant to imagine ourselves as this brutalized, fallen man.  Now read from v33:

As he journeyed, [he] came where he was: and when he saw him, he had compassion on him,  And went to him, and bound up his wounds, pouring in oil and wine, and set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.  And on the morrow when he departed, he took out two pence, and gave them to the host, and said unto him, Take care of him; and whatsoever thou spendest more, when I come again, I will repay thee.  (Luke 10:33-35)

So there you are in your half-dead wretchedness.  Religion has been no help to you, but this beautiful stranger does everything.  He comes near, takes pity, heals, carries, cares and pays for it all.  A penny was a day’s wage (Matthew 20:2).  The inn keeper is given two pence.  We therefore assume that when he “comes again” it will be the third day.  Then he will bring to completion the work he has begun.

Are we in the picture? Have we put ourselves in the shoes of the fallen man?  Have we appreciated the love of the good Samaritan?

Well then, now:

Go and do thou likewise. (v37)

Don’t first conjure up the character of the good samaritan.  First be the fallen man.  First experience the compassion of this loving Outsider.  Then go and do likewise.

This is not a simple morality tale.  The centre is not our resolve to be good samaritans.  The Centre is Christ Himself.  If we miss Him in any part of Scripture we turn gospel into law and blessings into curses.

But when we see Jesus… well, that’ll preach!

I was like a wounded man

Jesus came all the way down.

On a Friday evening, He died on a Roman cross

Early one Sunday morning He got up

How many of you believe – He got up?

Thank You, for being a Good Samaritan

Thank You, You didn’t have to do it

Thank You, for taking my feet out of the miry clay,

Thank You, for setting them on the rock

Thank you, for saving me,

Thank You, for binding up my wounds

Thank You, for healing my wounds

Thank You, for fighting my battles

Did He pick you up?



A repost from 2011

'Isn't it wonderful that we're now under grace?' they enthuse.

'Sure is,' you say.

And then they explain what they mean by 'grace' and you wonder what it is they've really found themselves 'under'.

Here are 10 common misconceptions.

1. Hallelujah, God has lowered the bar!  He used to care about loads of stuff.  Now it's just a few things.  You know, important stuff.  We don't sweat the small stuff anymore.  Just the big stuff.

2.  Hurrah!  Now we obey God out of gratitude for what He's done, which is an entirely new concept.  Thank God we're free from the law, which obviously was only ever about stoic duty and nothing to do with gratitude for past salvation (Exodus 20:2).  Now that we've got gratitude it means all legalism is a thing of the past.  So long as we're grateful.  Properly grateful mind you.  Grateful enough to empower a whole heap of obedience.

3.  Phew - now we don't have to get hung up about the laws of the land.  So don't ask me to pay my parking ticket - Pharisee!

4. Isn't it great - it's not about duty-bound works, it's all about love.  Of course the law had nothing to do with love.  Nasty law.  Now, as long as we stress love we're avoiding all forms of legalism.  Speaking of which - what is your love-meter reading today?

5. Grace is about treading that tight-rope between legalism and licence.  It's getting the balance just right between celebrating our freedom and not indulging it too much.  Cos, you know, we're forgiven, but let's not go crazy.  Let's live in "grace" which is the safe middle-ground between moralism and immorality.

6. God used to be fierce and judgemental now He's chilled and sweet.

7. God used to be about pragmatics, now He's just into dogmatics.  He used to be interested in deeds, now He's interested in creeds.

8.  Legalism is all about obeying the law in my own strength.  Grace is about obeying the law in God's strength.  Grace is the fuel for my car.  It keeps me going towards the destination.  It's a heck of a long drive but, Praise Jesus, there's fuel in the tank.

9.  Discipleship used to be important but now it's about grace.  Which means... you know.  Not really discipleship.  More... you know... grace.

10. It used to be about my works.  But now it's about my faith.

No, non, niet, nein!

In the flesh it was about your work.  In the Spirit it's about Christ's work.  That's the difference.  Not so much "works versus faith" as "you versus Christ".  It's His work outside of you.  His redemption.  His Person in Whom all the promises of God are yes and all the laws of God are fulfilled.   He defines the realm of grace.  Not abstract qualities like gratitude or lovingness or certain mental states - all of which might be worked up apart from Jesus.  Neither is it about God's own disposition softening in His old age.  And neither is it about the absence of certain obligations, from the state or Scripture or conscience or Christ or wherever.

It's about the kingdom of the Beloved Son in Whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins, and over to which we have been delivered apart from any merit of our own (Colossians 1:13-14).   It's the position we find ourselves in - sealed by the Spirit into Christ, hidden in Him at the Father's right hand - lavished with mercy and honour and kindness, our old man crucified and put away, His Spirit put within us.  A new realm, a new Master, a new Power, a new freedom, a new destiny and we've done nothing to deserve it.  And it's all real and it all holds true not by my own workings or feelings but by the Almighty Father, who raised Jesus from the dead and raised me up with Him.

Grace is not like a new and improved religious programme that's nicer, less draconian - less duty, more love and groovy vibes.  Grace is the blood, sweat and tears of Jesus expended on your behalf while you do nothing but cause His death.  It's the mighty resurrection of Christ in which you are swept up to glory entirely apart from your own efforts and merits.  Grace is where you find yourself - in Christ - and you're in Him not because but in spite of yourself.  Now compare with the 10 misconceptions above.

How do we get it so wrong?

Perhaps my favourite verse:

I was crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me.  The life I live in the body I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself for me.  (Galatians 2:20)

I don't know any better way of explaining biblical grace than the David and Goliath story - here's an older post on it. Or just click the grace tag for more.

Which of those 10 misconceptions do you hear most commonly?  Any more to add?



Two weeks ago I watched this outstanding talk by Nate Wilson called Myth Wars:

 Download Audio

The central point is that, today, our grand myth speaks of man as "an ascendant ape" who has emerged by a process of "climb and scratch and grab." It's an ugly story but it has the great attraction of putting us top of the heap (even if the heap is the smoldering ruin of countless losers in the struggle for survival).

Against this, the true myth is the gospel in which man is not an ascendant ape but a fallen son. There is climbing, scratching and grabbing but that's not progress! Such beastliness is precisely the problem. Instead Christ comes down from a place above us to "serve and give and love." That's the very different story we have to tell.

With Wilson's thoughts still buzzing in my head, I went to the cinema today to see Gravity, Alfonso Cuarón's spectacular thriller set in space.

It is visually spell-binding and brutally tense. It opens you up to wonder then puts a knot in your stomach that only tightens over the course of an hour and a half. Go and see it in 3D but be prepared to be disoriented in more ways than one. You see there's something even more disturbing than the sense of threat sustained over 90 minutes. There's the myth into which the storyline fits.

We begin in the heavens which are glorious, spectacular, overwhelming in their glory. But also aimless, uncaring and deadly in every sense. Very soon shrapnel - what could be more random? - smashes through people and spaceships and such debris only produces more debris. This is the environment for Sandra Bullock and George Clooney - cut adrift from their space station, with minimal oxygen and a vanishing probability of survival.

The film has undoubted "spiritual" overtones - references to prayer, Christian icons, a statue of the Buddha - and one review in the Washington Post has seen the whole thing as pointing us to Christian truth. After all, says Paul Asay, it's a "hell-and-back" kind of story. There's re-birth and home-coming even after the death and darkness. But the trouble is, lots of stories have a kind of rebirth. Story-tellers have to use the same raw-materials that went into the ultimate story, the gospel. But the way they arrange those raw materials is vital.

Think about it, the modern myth also has birth coming out of death. Through the struggle for survival emerges a winner. But that path-way is through "climb and scratch and grab" and a heck of a lot of dumb luck. So which story is Gravity?

Well there is life through death - rebirth through darkness. And, it has to be said, there is self-giving sacrifice in the story - death so that others may live. At that point you might conclude that Gravity's on the side of the angels. But I'm not so sure. All stories will echo the gospel in some way (like I say, every cook's got the same ingredients), but when we see the overall direction of the film I think it's telling the modern myth.

This is a survival story against the odds. Yes there is sacrifice which helps along the way. But the sacrifice is from below - the heavens themselves are the problem and we must outwit them. In the end, survival is just one of those very improbable things. Many others perish, but the lucky few make it, and they make it standing on the shoulders of the dead.

[Warning: this paragraph will give you a sense of the ending but only vaguely] By the final scene, the story is put in context. The Darwinian motifs are very striking. This is a survival tale. And what emerges from the striving is a brave new... well, pretty much a new species, erect and bettered by the struggle.

The lesson is, let go of the past, let go of losses, stand on the shoulders of those who have gone before, embrace the struggle and if you're lucky you'll live to fight another day.

A spiritual story? Yes, absolutely. But, if you ask me, it points to a markedly different spirituality. Maybe Wilson's lenses have skewed my viewing of the film, but I came away feeling mightily disturbed. Yet even in that disturbance, we are sent back to the gospel. I say, see the film and be wowed. But let it drive you to a true answer to the death and darkness. The true myth says: the heavens are not malign, the Lamb is at the centre of the throne.


I've heard a lot of sermons on Ecclesiastes. And a lot of them preach the book as displaying the futility of atheism.  Of course when you preach it like that, what's the solution?  Good old theism.  Yay theism.

And one or two preachers then suggest that Christian theism gives the most amount of meaning.  So yay Jesus too.

But let me state something that's pretty darned obvious but it seems like it needs saying.  The Teacher is no atheist.  He's a hard-core theist.  Check it:

Ecclesiastes 1:13; 2:24-26; 3:10-22; 5:1-7, 18-20; 6:1-2; 7:13-14; 18,20; 8:2, 11-17; 9:1,9; 11:5,9; 12:1-14;

Here's just a sample of what he says:

God has set eternity in the hearts of men.... He's done it so that men will revere him... Stand in awe of God... God made mankind upright but men have gone in search of many schemes... I know that it will go better with God-fearing men who are reverent before God... God will bring you to judgement... Remember your Creator... Fear God and keep his commandments.

He's a theist right?  A pretty ardent one.

Well what do you expect from a son of David, a king of Jerusalem? (Ecclesiastes 1:1)  Here is a christ - an anointed king.  But, here's the thing, he's not the King of Heaven.  He's a king under heaven (notice how 'under heaven' and 'under the sun' are parallel 1:3; 3:1).  He's not the One full of the Spirit without measure, instead he seeks to shepherd the Spirit (or chase the wind, e.g. 1:14) while he must receive his teachings from the true Shepherd (12:11).

The teacher is self-consciously not the Messiah (he's a very naughty boy!).  He's not the Christ with a capital C certainly. But he is a christ with a small c.  And so he embarks on a sustained meditation on life in which the king is subject to all the forces that we are.  This christ is also under the sun and therefore under the powers that enslave mankind and even nature itself.  This king, for all his wealth and power and wisdom cannot pierce through the shroud of sin, law, judgement and death. (see this sermon for more)

So what hope is there?  None!  Not with this king.  Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die.  And then we are judged - by the God is who is ever-present in Ecclesiastes.  But ever-present as Judge.  Who knows how we will fare under His judgement?

That's life under the sun.  Here's what we can expect if the Teacher is our christ.

But if that's the problem, what's the solution?  The glories of theism?  The truth that God knows us and has a wonderful plan for our lives?  The thought that my actions have eternal significance?  The Teacher knows all these things and declares them utterly meaningless.  Our only hope is Christ.  The true Christ.  The Christ from Heaven.  The Christ who conquers sin and law and judgement and death and bursts through into resurrection hope.  That's the answer to Ecclesiastes' meaninglessness.

Any other solution is vanity of vanities.

 A sermon on Ecclesiates 1


ladder-to-heavenThere's a famous short piece by JC Ryle called "Suppose an Unholy Man Went to Heaven." It's only about a thousand words but it's had a wide influence. I've heard it quoted approvingly a number of times.

Ryle begins:

Suppose for a moment that you were allowed to enter heaven without holiness. What would you do? What possible enjoyment could you feel there? To which of all the saints would you join yourself and by whose side would you sit? Their pleasures are not your pleasures, their tastes are not your tastes, their character not your character. How could you possibly be happy, if you had not been holy on earth?

The bishop then spells out the heavenly life in stark contrast to earthly pleasures. Therefore...

heaven would be a miserable place to an unholy man. It cannot be otherwise. People may say, in a vague way, they "hope to go to heaven", but they do not consider what they say... We must be heavenly-minded, and have heavenly tastes, in the life that now is, or else we shall never find ourselves in heaven, in the life to come.

If all this sounds like salvation by works, Ryle has a verse: "Without holiness no man shall see the Lord" (Heb. 12:14).

He repeats the verse again and again - it seems pretty much the foundation of his case. But he ignores the way holiness (or "sanctification" - same word) is used throughout Hebrews - 2:11; 9:13; 10:10; 10:14; 10:29; 13:12.  In virtually every case it's a declared status, won through the sanctifying sacrifice of Christ (e.g. "we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all." (Heb 10:10)).

In only one of the verses cited above is sanctification mentioned as an ongoing process - but even then the process is anchored to a definitive salvation:

By one sacrifice Christ has made perfect forever those who are being made holy. (Hebrews 10:14)

It's true we must be holy to see the Lord. It's also true - and the whole book of Hebrews proclaims it - that Christ's sacrifice alone gives us that holiness. Yet Ryle seems to want to locate this saving quality within us.

He understands that folks might protest at this. So he addresses the objection we all feel...

You may say, it is impossible to be so holy and to do our duty in this life at the same time: the thing cannot be done. I answer, "You are mistaken." It can be done. With Christ on your side nothing is impossible.

Did somebody say infused grace? And make no mistake, the thing to be achieved here is heaven itself. If anyone complains at this achievement of glory, Ryle reminds us...

It is in religion as it is in other things, there are no gains without pains. That which costs nothing is worth nothing.

There it is - no pain, no gain. And finally the whole thing is unmasked - it's actually a very worldly way of considering holiness! Religion is like all other things, a costly, painful achievement which we make on our way to heaven. Surely Ryle is not being heavenly-minded enough! Surely he's not considering spiritual things spiritually. In the end, doesn't he prop up the whole enterprise on a carnal foundation? Holiness is like everything else, the achievement of hard work.

It seems to me that Ryle isn't being spiritual enough. Now it's true that Ryle says more in his book "Holiness." And there he stresses that holiness comes in Christ alone and he counsels us to seek it in Christ. But there's also all this stuff as well which, if you ask me, seriously undermines the 'Christ alone' teaching he wants to uphold.

Where does it go wrong?

Well fundamentally, in these teachings, everything important about holiness gets located in us and not in Jesus. And from that foundational error flows a characteristic problem with Ryle's presentation. For Ryle the "holy" trajectory for everything seems to be in and up and later.  'Come in out of the world, lift yourself up into heaven so that later you'll enjoy salvation.' All godly travel is coming in from the nasty world and up into glory, white-knuckling it now because later it'll be worth it.

But if Jesus Christ - the Holy One of Israel - defines holiness for us, we get a very different picture.  Because we are so carnal and unable to work up a holiness of our own, therefore Christ descends with His sanctifying love that reaches outwards and downwards, to be felt now. Holiness is Jesus-shaped. It means being met in our filth now, cleansed, and then swept along with Jesus to extend ourselves out into an unclean world, stooping down to the gutters of this world and in this way experiencing now the life of heaven.

It's really not about preparing ourselves for heaven later - it's about living the heavenly life now: the life of self-forgetful, neighbour-loving, cheek-turning, enemy-forgiving love.  That's holiness. It's Christ's own life which He has given us in the gospel. It's ours to live now - not as some qualification for heaven later.

So then, be holy! But define holiness Christianly - i.e. according to Christ.

Be holy! But let Christ's holiness thrust you outside the camp (Heb 13:12-13)

Be holy! But realise it's Christ's gift, once for all, not your continual achievement.

Be holy! But know that the point is to live Christ's life now, not to earn His blessing later.

Be holy! But don't be so carnal as to think it's the ladder to heaven.

Be holy! But make sure it's Spiritual holiness - the gift of Christ's Spirit to you - the very life of heaven to be enjoyed here and now on earth.

Be holy because Jesus your Lord is holy. And right now you're in Him.


Luther PreachingI've written previously about The Trendy Trifecta - Trinity, Grace and Idolatry. We love to preach them but it's so easy to speak of these topics anthropologically. We preach Trinity because it connects with our need for love. We preach grace because it gives us our motivation for the Christian life. We preach idolatry because it explains our psychological struggles with sin.  On reformation day, let me say a couple more things about that middle topic: grace. Here are four things it's important to affirm as we speak of grace:

Grace is not a substance.

Quite often among those who want to spotlight God's grace, it's spoken of in impersonal terms, as a concept, even as a liquid that Christians should be drunk on. Grace, Grace, Grace, they say. And I think "She sounds great but I think I'll stick with Father, Son and Spirit."

Remember the medieval church was all about "grace" too. But, again, it was more like a liquid, dispensed through the sacraments with the priests controlling the taps. Certainly we Protestants have done away with such intermediaries, but the chief error is the thought of grace as a substance.  Properly, grace is the Father's free gift of Jesus given by the Spirit. He's the One we proclaim, not "grace" in the abstract.

Grace is not, primarily, a motivation 

Again the medieval church was full of "grace" as a motivator. Infused grace filled you up and helped you live the Christian life. Ironically, there are many who say we need a reformation today (Amen, may it come) but they seem to champion "grace" chiefly in terms of its motivational qualities. Apparently Jesus, freely given to me, is mostly important because of the gratitude fuelled ethics that flow from His gift. And then it becomes very important to discern the motivations of my heart - whether they've originated by command or promise.

Well... motivation is important but that's not where the law/gospel distinction should be pressed. In the bible, God graciously saves me in Jesus and gives me the new life to live. So off I go - and yes, I work it out with blood, sweat and tears. And no, I don't for a minute think that such "effort" is opposed to grace. Because grace is not distinguished from law in terms of what goes on in my heart! That distinction happens far above my pay grade. Or at least, it ought to. Which leads us to...

Command does need to be distinguished from promise

The grace preachers are correct when they say that law and gospel must be distinguished. There is far too much co-mingling, leading to what Mike Horton calls GoLawspel preaching. The good news of Jesus gets mashed up with principles for holy living and the Christian is left without a promise to rest their hope on - only a string of conditionals they must fulfil. Many people who complain about the grace-preachers counter it with calls for balance.  This, to my mind, is a great mistake (for more, read The Monstrous Evil of Balance: Or Why Nuance is Always, Always Wrong). Gospel and law are not to be balanced. Faith and works aren't opposite ends of the spectrum that require a happy medium. We don't need the pendulum to swing back from 'too much grace' so that we add in some holiness to compensate. We are grace alone people and works come - MUST come - on the far side of a radical insistence on the blood of Christ alone.

Passive and active righteousness need to be sharply distinguished

Having distinguished law and gospel, here's the other vital distinction: Before God you can only receive righteousness in the gift of Christ Our Righteousness. Before the world, you are to pour yourself out for the family of God, for your neighbours, for the nations (this is the distinction between passive and active righteousness). We live by faith as regards God, by love as regards the world. Therefore calling the Christian to an active righteousness in their Christian walk is not anti-grace at all. Grace flows downhill into exactly that kind of life.

Therefore I don't need to be forever agonising over the motivation of the saints if I want them to stop sinning in this way or that. Absolutely I should set everything in the context of the gospel and when we rebuke each other it should be because "they are not walking in line with the truth of the gospel" (Gal 2:14). Yet Galatians 2 - itself a stunning proclamation of the gospel - speaks of opposing folks to their face because they are wrong. Paul commands Peter to stop and he's not particularly bothered about unearthing the depths of Peter's emotional commitments in the moment. Similarly, if I discover that my brother in Christ is cheating on his wife I will feel no qualms about taking drastic and forceful steps to try to end it. None of that is a betrayal of the true grace of God because telling folks to behave like Christians is totally what the grace of God produces. Of course you should be faithful to your wife - God has claimed you in Christ, you belong to Jesus, you are acting out of line with your true self, cut it out!

Commands are totally, totally awesome. It's just, they don't make you right with God. And you and I are quite prone to linking our active righteousness (with the world) to our passive righteousness (with God). So preachers should take care to distinguish the two. But having done that, commanding Christians to obey is not only permitted. It's necessitated by the fact that - by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone - we belong to God. Therefore, be generous, give sacrificially, love your spouse, practise hospitality, forgive your enemies. You're free now - free to live this life. So go do it.

But - someone might ask - won't the gospel itself produce these characteristics in us by the Spirit? Yes and no. Yes, in that those behaviours are the fruit of the gospel and our teaching about them must be organically tied to the gospel. But no in that you and I are flesh as well as Spirit. Therefore, let's allow the good law to shape (even to pummel) our fallen flesh, not because our identity with God depends on it (it doesn't), but because our graciously secured identity entails it.

To summarize

Let's love and proclaim the grace of God in Jesus. But let's make sure it's Jesus we're spotlighting, not a substance or motivational spur. Let's distinguish clearly between law and gospel, making sure to offer Jesus as the Gift He most clearly is. But let's not shy away from commands in the Christian life. In Jesus, God graciously gives us a new life, entirely apart from our works or worthiness. This life is secure with God, but wonderfully it is to be lived before the world. Thus commands regarding our active righteousness do not negate the gospel but flow naturally from it.

hurricane 2Part of the covenant curses...

I will make their hearts so fearful in the lands of their enemies that the sound of a wind-blown leaf will put them to flight. They will run as though fleeing from the sword, and they will fall, even though no one is pursuing them. (Leviticus 26:36)

Astraphobia (fear of thunderstorms) is the third most prevalent phobia in the US.

Emporer Caligula would hide under his bed during thunderstorms.

Horace, the poet, was reclaimed from atheism by the terror of thunder and lightning.

Mohammed was famously afraid of strong winds, fearing Allah's judgement.

Pre-conversion, Martin Luther, in fear for his life, vowed to enter a monastry during a storm.

22 Immediately Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go on ahead of him to the other side, while he dismissed the crowd. 23 After he had dismissed them, he went up on a mountainside by himself to pray. Later that night, he was there alone, 24 and the boat was already a considerable distance from land, buffeted by the waves because the wind was against it.

25 Shortly before dawn Jesus went out to them, walking on the lake. 26 When the disciples saw him walking on the lake, they were terrified. ‘It’s a ghost,’ they said, and cried out in fear.

27 But Jesus immediately said to them: ‘Take courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.’

28 ‘Lord, if it’s you,’ Peter replied, ‘tell me to come to you on the water.’

29 ‘Come,’ he said.

Then Peter got down out of the boat, walked on the water and came towards Jesus. 30 But when he saw the wind, he was afraid and, beginning to sink, cried out, ‘Lord, save me!’

31 Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshipped him, saying, ‘Truly you are the Son of God.’  (Matthew 14:22-33)




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