Tag Archives: grace

Jacob and the Beauty of Election

The life of Jacob is one of many stories in the Old testament which shows God being more interested in forming the character of His elect than handing out a series of blessings and punishments. To fully understand Gods grace to Jacob, one would need to observe how God deals with him over the course of his life: any one chapter of the story would be insufficient.

Jacob was called and chosen by God before his birth. God planned to reveal Himself to Jacob in a way Esau, by all accounts, wouldn’t be privileged to experience. Why Jacob? Certainly not because he comes out of the womb with superior moral fibre compared to his brother: Esau is violent and impulsive; Jacob is clever and deceitful; both are flawed and sinful.

The actualization of Jacob’s election over his brother is at best a morally ambiguous tale; at worst, a reproach on God’s character. The blessing of Isaac is obtained by deceit and God honours it regardless. Genesis records no statement condemning Jacob and Rebecca’s scheming. God actually uses Jacob’s sin to bring about the status prophesied during Rebecca’s pregnancy. This goes against much of our theology of morality. Could it be that God is actually okay with our sin so long as we use it to bring about His will?

What if we look at this as one story in the larger narrative of Jacob’s life. In the next chapter, Jacob meets God. If any insight can be gained by Jacob’s reaction, I would guess this was Jacobs first encounter with the God of Abraham and Isaac. Or maybe it wasn’t the first, but it was certainly a turning point for the young deceiver. He expresses dependence on God and builds an altar of worship.

This brings to light two perspectives on blessing-gate. First, it becomes evident that God was working in Jacob’s life, even through his sin, before he came to worship God. Instead of a reproach on God’s character, it becomes a witness to God’s sovereignty. C.S Lewis speaks of two ways in which we serve God’s purposes, in which “the first man serves God as a son, and the second as a tool.” (1). Nothing is outside of the realm of His providence. Even before we voluntarily submitted to His Lordship, He skilfully worked the fruits of our rebellious free will in alignment with His glorious plan.

A second thing that comes to light is that after Jacob comes to know and worship God, God still allows him to bear the consequences of his past sin for a time. He is still exiled from his family and in fear of his brother. Even more, there’s an interesting exchange between Jacob and Laban when the two men meet.

“As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he ran to meet him and embraced him and kissed him and bought him to his house. Jacob told Laban all these things, and Laban said to him, “Surely you are my bone and my flesh!” And he stayed with him a month.”

Not sure what Jacob told Laban, but it made Laban identify with him. Laban then proceeds to cheat Jacob into seven extra years of labour for the woman he loves. Would Laban have conned his nephew if he had seen him as an honest victim? It’s difficult to say. Yet, it’s very clear that God doesn’t spare him from being duped.

God was working in Jacob’s life even before Jacob knew Him and He allows Jacob to feel the consequence of his actions even after Jacob begins to walk with Him. Why?

Because it was good for Jacob.

Because He loved Jacob

Jacob prospers in the house of Laban and grows fruitful. Twenty years later, he leaves with two wives (not really a good thing from what I hear), 11 children, and a wealth of property. More than that, however, he leaves a changed man. He remains clever, yet maintains integrity in his contract with Laban. On the road, he wrestles with God, receives a new name, and the promise of his forefathers is given to him. Jacob’s story is full of mistakes, bad parenting and unfortunate circumstances, yet honesty and walking with God mark his life through the end of Genesis.

The biblical narrative would have been much neater is God had simply punished Jacob gaining a blessing through deceit: if God had cancelled the blessing or at least made him re-earn it in a more honest manner. What we see instead, is God remaining faithful to his promise and taking Jacob through a sanctification process, even giving him a new name. He does this because of love.

I often wonder why God often seems to let my mistakes go, even when it takes me a while to repent. I’m so aware of some of the areas in which I fall short of His standard. I occasionally question why He wants to use me in some of the roles He’s placed me in. I can think of friends who would have a much better time in Uganda and probably be more effective in connecting with the culture. Why me? Why here?

I think He chose me because He loves me. I think He’s working, even through my sin and weakness to make me a more worthy object of His love.

His pace is often slow. Only after twenty years did Jacob shed his old name. God’s track record of success is pretty good though.  He chooses, He calls, He molds and refines His elect. All we ever do is respond, imperfectly but inevitably. His love is that powerful.

 

(1) C.S Lewis, The Problem of Pain p. 73

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Problem Passages in James: Part 2

For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it… So speak and so act as those who are to be judged under the law of liberty. For judgement is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy. Mercy triumphs over judgment. – James 2:10-13

The problem with this passage begins in verse eight of the text. James discusses an accountability to the law which we violate in its totality when we violate it at any point. The context of this is a discussion of the sin of partiality, which was a problem in the church James was writing to. Apparently, rich guests got sits of honour while shabbily dressed visitors were dishonoured. Here, as in the last passage we looked at, James is not primarily concerned with the existed of economic disparity, but the believer’s response.

Still, James seems to be going against our theology of the law and grace in this passage. Paul spends a significant portion of his longest letter addressing our freedom from the law. In the early churches, there was an idea that people needed to follow the law in addition to faith in order to be saved. Paul challenges this at every opportunity, showing that we are not under obligation to the law, but are made free by Christ and are under the law of the Spirit of life. Yes, we continue to sin, but we count on the righteousness of Christ for our justification before God. “I do not nullify the grace of God, for if righteousness were through the law, then Christ died for no purpose” (Galatians 2:21).

Is there a way to be true to this text without introducing a element of accountability to the law which Paul works hard to refute? Spoiler alert: The answer is yes. The key, as it often is, is in the context.

This passage is part of a rebuke James gives in verse four: “Have you not become then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” The message here is that in treating people differently according to their outfits, the church is attempting to give to each person exactly what it feels they deserve. They are making themselves a judge of man and not doing a good job of it.

James goes on to explain his point by giving two reasons why partiality is wrong. The first is fairly straightforward (2:5-7). If a person is a believer, it is no accident. It is by God’s invitation that even the poor receive salvation. And so, by what right does any human dishonour someone God has chosen to honour? It’s not as though the rich as a group have proven to be more virtuous than the poor. Most of the persecution that congregation had faced was at the hands of rich oppressors. Wealth is not correlated with righteousness, and there is no reason to dishonour God’s financially challenged elect.

This is where our problem passage begins. It is the second point in explanation of why attempting to treat people according to what they deserve is wrong. James, being (likely) the brother of Jesus would have been very familiar with His teachings, including the Great Commandment from Matthew 22:37-39. It’s likely that the early church used this simple formulation as a recognized code of conduct among its members. So James challenges them in showing that partiality violates this law and makes them disobedient to what Jesus described as the greatest commandment of the law. And because the law is singular, violation at any point is violation of the whole.

In essence, James reminds people that they are sinners deserving of judgment. They are transgressors. Yet the church doesn’t expect to stand guilty before God for this violation because they are not being judged by the Old Testament law, the law of sin and death.

It’s important to understand that the “Law of Liberty” is used by James much the same way Paul talks about the” Law of Spirit of Life” in Romans. “For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh could not do. By sending His own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, He condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:2-4). Both Paul and Peter both speak to the Christian being free in Christ (Galatians 2:4, 5:1, 1 Peter 2:16).

James’ use of the term “Law of Liberty” is not to hold them accountable before some standard of morality for salvation, but to remind them of the freedom they have by God’s mercy. God doesn’t give us what we deserve, so why do we attempt to treat others how we feel they deserve? Mercy is to be the defining characteristic of church life, not justice. Mercy triumphs over justice.

So why then does James say, “For judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy”? Well consider the similarity between this statement and Jesus’ in Matthew 6:15: “but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Jesus illustrates this with the parable of the unforgiving servant in Matthew 18:21-35.

I believe these verses speak to an inevitable natural response when we comprehend the gospel.  If we, who have been forgiven much, cannot forgive one another, then have we really understood and accepted the grace that’s been given us? How can we, who have been given reconciliation not offer it to others in response? A heart that refuses to display mercy is one that not received it from God. The caution from James to the church is that their actions reflect the heart of people who have not truly received Christ. Only those who do not truly believe they will be judged under the law of liberty would continue to behave as they have been.

What we are meant to understand from this passage is God’s mercy to us who believe. James’ instruction for us is to reflect God’s mercy in our dealings with others, especially in the church context. We are not called to simply try to give others what they deserve, but to act as people who have been reconciled with God despite what we deserve.

May God be glorified in our reflection of His mercy

The Joy of Being Forgiven

When was the last time you rejoiced in forgiveness? The message of the gospel is beautiful in that God fully understood our sinfulness and chose to reconciled us to Himself at the cross. Does that make you happy? I suspect if you’re anything like me, you get more caught up with taking stock of all the ways you fall short. I know I’m forgiven, but I rarely meditate on what that means.

Forgiveness is difficult to understand. It’s one of the ways that God operates differently from our natural paradigm. People don’t forgive like God does. When we hurt others, we often have to earn their forgiveness. Even when it’s freely offered, we’re still somewhat indebted to the forgiver until we can find a way to even the slate.

Our innate paradigm of forgiveness makes God infinitely scary. We don’t have the means to even our slate with Him: He doesn’t sin against us and we cannot offer Him anything He doesn’t already have. The more we come to terms with God’s attributes, we are rightly afflicted with a sense of insufficiency. I’ve heard it said that to grow in spiritual maturity is to be increasingly aware of our sin. As much as I talk about the joy and peace I receive through the gospel, sometimes being a Christian is overwhelming. There’s only so much I can handle falling short of the standard. This is especially true for me as I’m about to embark on a career as a minister of the gospel. The pressure to be good enough is overwhelming.

That’s why I need to reflect on the totality of God’s forgiveness…

“Blessed is the one whose transgression is forgiven,
whose sin is covered.
Blessed is the man against whom the Lord counts no iniquity,
and in whose spirit there is no deceit”  – Psalm 32:1,2

My pastor preached on this psalm on Sunday and it was wonderful. I’d like to share some of his thoughts and my reflections. I’m not fully sure where my ideas begin and his end, and I would encourage you to listen to the sermon if you have some time.

He started with some definitions, and that’s where I’ll start as well. The word blessed is one that pops up in scripture a lot, and it simply means “happy”. There is a happiness that should result from being forgiven. If it doesn’t bring us a deep sense of joy, then perhaps were not fully understanding what it means when God call us forgiven.

Let’s look at some more definitions:

  • Transgression: a legal term referring to an offence against God’s law
  • Sin: a broader term indicating to an offence against God Himself.
  • Iniquity: likely referring to defilement of the soul, an internal guilt
  • Deceit: a lack of honesty with self and God, likely arising from insufficiently dealing with sin

Putting it all together, we see God dealing with the legal and broader, including relational, consequences of our sin. He forgives- or carries- our trespasses so we stand before Him righteous and able to enter His presence freely without being destroyed (Ephesians 3:12, Hebrews 4:16, 10:19). He covers our sin, restoring relationship with Himself so we can know Him and experience His love (John 1:12, Ephesians 3:14-19). He removes the weight of our iniquity so our consciences are free to worship and enjoy Him (Matthew 11:28-30, Hebrews 9:14). He guarantees the completeness of our purification so that we stand before Him completely clean, with nothing to hide before Him and the world (Romans 8:33-34, Hebrews 7:25).

Does this bring joy yet? It gets better when contrasted with the alternate ways of dealing with our sins.

For when I kept silent, my bones wasted away
through my groaning all day long.
For day and night Your hand was heavy upon me;
my strength was dried up as by the heat of summer
I acknowledged my sin to you,
and I did not cover my iniquity;
I said, “I will confess my transgressions to the Lord,”
and you forgave the iniquity of my sin    – Psalm 32:3-5

We as humans know that we need to deal with our sin somehow; imperfection is common to us all and we all want to remove it far from ourselves. A large part of the human experience is bound up in wrestling with our penchant for missing the mark. At various points in my life, I’ve tried to hide some or all of my sin. This continues even till today sometimes. If I can keep my weakness from the eyes of people or even God, then maybe I can make it go away. Maybe if I confess most of my sin, just enough not to look too bad, then I can deal with the rest myself and earn a measure of righteousness. And sometimes after I do something wrong, I draw back from God long enough to do some good deeds to show Him how sorry I am.

King David knew all too well the folly of this. Covering up his sin drained him. It left him feeling weak and overwhelmed. He wasn’t strong enough to bear his sin and it gnawed at his insides. They say confession is good for the soul, and this psalm bears witness to that.

The recipient of confession matters as well as the act of confession. God forgives more graciously and more completely than any person can. In fact, He is the only one who can really forgive us of our sin because sin is primarily an offence against His holiness. I cannot forgive you for offences against my sister, not matter how close we are; It’s simply not mine to give. This is why people were so amazed by Jesus’ statement, “Man, your sins are forgiven you” (Luke 5:20-25). They recognized that no man had the right to make such a statement.

Hebrews teaches that without the shedding of blood, there is no forgiveness of sin (Hebrews 9:22). He doesn’t simply offer us words of solace, or tell us to do better next time; He removes the stain of our sin. We may still bear the natural consequences of our actions for disciplinary purposes to build our character, but the guilt of our sin is removed. We are not longer known as liars, schemers, fornicators, murderers, blasphemers, haters of God, etc; we are saints in Christ. He changes our identity.

It’s not fair, and it’s not easy to understand. I still want to take stock of all I’ve done wrong. I still want to grieve for those I’ve hurt, or whose trust I’ve broken or the circumstances I’ve set in motion. But godly sorrow leads to repentance (2 Corinthians 7:10). And in repentance, we are made pure again.

Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous!
and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!

Two Simple Truths

There are two simple truths I want to express every week in my blog posts: the weakness of man and the power of God. I believe that the heart of the gospel is fully understood in light of these two truths. My life is a testimony of this. Every day I’m seeing my weakness being transformed by the power of God and I share my experiences to help others understand these truths. As the Christian comes face to face with the corruption of the flesh that keeps them from meeting their moral expectations, they are invited to trust God to carry them on a journey to holiness. This is what we call sanctification.

It’s surprisingly easy to observe the weakness of man when we look at the world. I heard the testimonies of two men yesterday who experienced the rock bottom of human sexuality. A friend shared with me a news story of a man who recently got arrested for having sexual relations with children in Cuba. Sickening, disgusting, appalling… words somehow don’t express appropriate repulsion. And we as people try to distance ourselves from the evil of others whenever possible.

But can we really? Is there anyone who can say for certain that if they were in Germany in 1945, they would have stood against the systemic murder of millions? I can’t. For many of us, the only thing separating us from that depth of evil is circumstance. Evil isn’t caused by the world around us; the world simply defines how our innate darkness gets expressed.

I see it in myself often. I’m a good person, indoctrinated in Christian culture since birth and I look out for my own interests first. On cold days, I push to get on the bus before it gets full. I’m willing to listen to you talk as long as I don’t have anything I want to say. I invest primarily in relationships that have the most potential to benefit me. I hate being exposed to the needs of others, because I want to focus on my own needs. And those are just the things I’m willing to confess over the internet.

Many of you would be very surprised if you could enter my mind for a day. You would be exposed to imaginations of actions that would make the front page of every newspaper in the world if I ever acted on them. I’ve planned robberies, murder, rape and terrorism. I would never act on them, and yet… It feels good to think. Evil lurks within; I’m not by nature a good person.

None of this surprises God (thanks, Captain Obvious). The bible is full of people who are much worse than you and I. Unlike us, they actually acted on their impulses. King David, a man after God’s heart, got a woman pregnant and had her husband killed. Jeremiah the prophet prayed for his opponents to die horrible deaths- them and their families. Jonah refused to call Nineveh to repentance because he wanted God to destroy them- all 120,000 of them. Peter, the leader of the early church, was racist and didn’t want to share the message of Jesus with non-Jews. Jesus teaches, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.” (Matthew 15:19) He predicts that as it was in the days of Noah (and God wasn’t particularly impressed with people back then), so it would be before He returns again (Matthew 24:37).

Simply because I’m a Christian doesn’t mean all this is in the past for me. Paul who teaches the Roman church that they are dead to sin and alive to God, also shares that he regularly does the things he doesn’t want to and struggles with doing what he know he should do (Romans 6:11-14, 7:14-24). I know exactly what he means.

The story doesn’t end there though…

Christianity is not a religion of people fighting a losing war against their nature. I’ve heard psychologists talk of how damaging it can be to tell people they are sinners when they can do nothing about it: it leads to self hatred, depression, bitterness and brokenness. Speaking from experience, I would have to agree.

Jesus, however, promises us His Spirit so He can take us on a journey towards holiness. He tells His disciples that those who love Him will keep His commandments and He will send them a Helper (John 14:15-17). He even says that it’s better for us to have His Spirit than His incarnated presence (John 16:7). Paul often encourages churches that God’s Spirit is making them holy, sometimes despite what their experiences tell them (Romans 8:9-11, Galatians 5:22-23, Ephesians 3:14-19, Philippians 1:6, 2 Thessalonians 1:11, 2:13, 2 Timothy 1:7).

Ever heard of the word ‘grace’? Christians like it a lot and for good reason. Grace is the foundation of our faith: Grace is how we receive (Ephesians 2:8-9) and maintain (2 Corinthians 12:9) our transforming relationship with God. Grace means that though we don’t deserve it, because we’re not good people, God acts in love towards us. He forgives all our evil and makes us good… over time.

Grace is what enables me to be open on this blog about my sin, my failures, my weakness and my evil. I’m not depending on my goodness to earn either His love or the love of the family of Christians. I can share honestly because we all recognize that we are desperately broken and are journeying together towards holiness. When I invite people to know God personally, I’m not inviting them to be better, but to wrestle honestly with the depth of evil that’s within all of us, and offer a cure.

God’s power, by His grace, cures our weakness.

I struggle every day to understand this.

I write every week to express this.

Be blessed.