Category Archives: Grace

The hopes and fears of all the years

I’ve just returned from a delightful week with the Crossroads Discipleship Training School in Kona, Hawaii.  It was a diverse group of international students ranging from their late twenties to well past retirement age:  attorneys, pastors, educators, farmers, engineers, sculptors, painters, an internationally acclaimed sports photographer, and a young musician who recently fronted a popular heavy metal band.

The “Plaza” at the University of the Nations in Kona, Hawaii.

The week convinced me all over again that the yearning for grace and the dream of a Kingdom are universal human longings.  Grace assuages our fears of abandonment and assures us that flawed as we are, we’re loved, received and valued by our Creator.

And the Kingdom?  It affirms our hope for a better world and whispers to our heart that we matter;  Though we are small, we are part of an epic story that is unfolding towards the grand redemption of all things.

Not an hour ago I was at the local nursing home singing Christmas carols:  “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in Thee tonight”.  Both the hope for a new world and the fear of abandonment were met in the manger when the King of grace took on the flesh of a child.

A King and a Kingdom…

Like a bottle rocket in the night sky it illuminated my heart with a burst of fire.  Forty years of familiarity, of reading, quoting, and singing the text of Matthew 6:33, suddenly collapsed into an insight as fresh as a mountain stream. “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness”;  not the righteousness of works, not my own failed righteousness, not the skinny-hearted righteousness of religion, but HIS righteousness, the righteousness “which comes from God by FAITH”.  (Romans 1:17)   For years I’ve assumed this thing I was to seek with the kingdom was about doing things.   I was wrong.  “Doing things” can never earn the righteousness of God.

The righteousness of God is the King himself!   And the only hope for the human race is to receive both the kingdom and the righteousness of the King.  They go together like peas and carrots!

No man, I’m convinced, can truly embrace the Kingdom while at the same time worrying about his own righteousness.  Sin management will undermine the kingdom as surely as insecurity will poison a marriage.  That’s why Jesus settled the sin issue once “for all time”.   (Hebrews 10:12)  His righteousness – the righteousness we are to seek – is one hundred percent from faith to faith, forever from start to finish the righteousness of Christ.   There’s simply nothing to add to it but the giddy gratefulness of a complete and continuous rescue from sin.

While evangelicalism embraces a king without a kingdom, (righteousness holding on for heaven), liberalism promotes a kingdom without a king, (a better world apart from the cross).  But the glad news, the freeing news of the gospel is a Kingdom built on the righteousness of God himself.  It’s a king and a kingdom.

Sin hammer

I’m convinced the “sin hammer” is a major distraction from the Kingdom of God.  Never heard of the sin hammer? Then let me explain: It’s the handy tool that’s often placed in the hands of fresh, young believers when they turn their faces towards Jesus; the alien idea that the essence of Christianity is the eradication of sin.

“Look here, son. Now that you’re a believer, there’s something you need to know:  Your focus now is to eradicate sin everywhere you find it.”

“See it around you in your community?  Then hammer away!!”

“In your neighbor?  Then whump it hard!  Your mission is to expose it, judge it, and stomp it out anywhere you find it because – make no mistake – it is EVERYWHERE!”

“See it in your own life?  Shame on you!  Grab that sin hammer, roll up your sleeves and go to work until it’s pulverized and dead.”

Now obviously we ought to hate sin. None of us who share in the life of Jesus should feel any tenderness towards the cosmic poison that cost the life of God’s Son on the cross.  But the problem with all this focus on sin is exactly that – that sin, (and finding freedom from it), has become the focus!  And soon we have a whole army of Evangelicals hammering away at everything around them, including themselves!  The glorious, liberating truth is that Jesus has already brought a death blow to sin so that we can focus on Him and his amazing Kingdom!  I believe He would tenderly ask us, “Son… what is that thing you’re swinging around like a flyswatter? Don’t you know that I have solved the sin problem so that you can get on with life!?  It’s no longer about sin.  It’s about me!  And if you’ll focus on me and my kingdom, I’ll do all the hammering that needs to be done.”

All things are lawful…. oh really?

“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient: All things are lawful for me, but I will not be mastered by anything”. (1 Corinthians 6:12).  This passage has astonished me for decades.  How could it be that ALL things, (that’s clearly what it says in the Greek), are lawful to me, a follower of Christ?  The whole idea feels so dangerously close to license that I’ve avoided it for more than thirty years.

I’m certain such a verse would never be found in the “New Pharisee Study Bible.”  It constitutes seizure material to the religious mind, (which may well explain why I’ve avoided it).  “Warning!” My mind would flash!  “A fatal error is occurring in the religious sector.”

But now that I’m finding deeper roots in the grace of God, it’s making more sense.  Grace understands that the sin issue has been so thoroughly solved at the cross, that the law no longer has jurisdiction over us.  (Romans 6:14)  We have been changed into something new, into sons and daughters defined not by what we do, but in who’s we are.

A son might say, “I’m a prince.  It doesn’t matter how I live because my Father is the king.” And in one sense that might be true, especially if the good King, by some unthinkably selfless act has preemptively taken all of his son’s punishment upon himself, and canceled all requirements of the law over him.  (Colossians 2:13-14)  But the son’s words betray the fact that he knows precious little about being a prince.

When you and I finally realize the extent of the work of Christ on the cross – that ALL of our sin is gone, and that we are no longer under the law, we might say with Paul, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are expedient, because I am a child of God.” When a man finally realizes he’s a beloved prince, his behavior won’t be far behind.

The inevitable consequence of legalism

Among the abandoned jewels of the Church, none is so winsome and glorious as grace.   When her sweet presence is ushered out, court convenes, law takes the stand, and the inquisition begins.  I know all about it, you see, because I’ve lived on both sides of that street.

Someone should do a scientific study of legalism and grace.  They could compare blood pressure, anxiety and dopamine levels, heart rate, and life expectancy.  I’ll bet the contrast would be shocking.   Of one thing I’m certain: a life of legalism will invariably push a person towards either self-righteousness or shame.

The self-righteous legalist appears relatively successful in keeping the law: she’s not divorced, not addicted, not sexually confused, and has never struggled with outward vices.  She looks good, and when judged by the law she presents the paradigm of an upstanding believer.  “What’s wrong with those people?” she thinks. “Why can’t they just pull their lives together like I have?” Judging herself by the law has turned our sister into a self-righteous, judgmental, pain-in-the-backside who teaches Sunday School and sings in the choir.

The other kind of legalist hasn’t been nearly so successful.   Though he feels profoundly convicted, he’s never been able to break free from cigarettes, sneaks behind the sanctuary for a quick drag between services, wrestles with overeating, and has a little pornography issue that he can’t bring himself to mention.  He carries a shame so deep that he can barely look at himself in the mirror.  Self-righteousness, when it appears successful, puffs us up with pride.  And self-righteousness, when we fail, suffocates us in shame and condemnation.

When a church falls into self-righteousness it becomes a grand masquerade with the squeaky-clean legalists parading their plumage on one side, while the loser legalists hide behind masks of pretense and fear on the other.  “Masquerade!  Paper faces on parade.  Masquerade!   Hide your face, so the world will never find you!”

The answer, of course, is to utterly renounce law-based righteousness.  The law was never intended to justify us in the first place, but only to show us our need.  And the happy truth is that though none of us deserve it, all of us are invited into the sweet presence of grace who says, “You can take your mask off now.  I know who you are, and I choose to love you anyway.”

(Note: I don’t know how to properly credit the first photo, but the second photo, “Guilt” is from Mark Nickels. It is an oil on linen.…../176148-8-14585/Painting/Oil.html)


Do outsiders understand Him better than His own church?

A little thought provocation from my current reading: The Misunderstood God, by Darin Hufford.  This seems especially appropriate in light of some comments I’ve read in the news lately.

“I am quickly coming to believe that this is the first time in history that people outside the church have shown more signs of knowing God’s heart than do the people within the church.  People in the world shake their heads in disgust at the things we teach about God.  They know we’re wrong, but for some reason the majority of Christians don’t see it.  I have found that the common bar-dweller knows more about the true heart of God than the dedicated churchgoer.

Christians think they know God because they read about Him in a book.  We’ve been taught that the more we read the Bible, the more we will know Him.  The Pharisees knew Scripture like the back of their hand, but when God stood in front of them, they didn’t know Him from Adam.”

Last Sunday in Amarillo, Texas, a group of church-goers gathered at the courthouse steps to burn a Quran.  As the preacher held the book in front of him and stoked the crowd, a young skateboarder whizzed by, snatched the Quran, and shouted back over his shoulder, “Dude, you HAVE no Quran!” What’s wrong with that picture, and how much more damage can we possibly do to our witness of the “friend of sinners”, (Luke 7:34), and the “Prince of Peace”?

The Real Test

“Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper.” (And for the sake of making a point, suppose it regards a politician you dislike!)  “Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out.  Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies as bad as possible?  If it is the second then it is, I’m afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into little devils.  You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker.  If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black.  Finally, we shall insist on seeing everything – God and our friends and ourselves included – as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed forever in a universe of pure hatred.”

C.S Lewis, from Mere Christianity

Lewis’ brilliant point seems especially fitting in today’s polarized America.  I certainly had to stop and repent when I read it yesterday.

Only six more days before I return to Maryland and unpack my bags.  Since my last update I’ve had a splendid journey that’s reunited me with friends in Bosnia and Croatia, teaching at YWAM, Lausanne, (Switzerland), and then high in the Rockies above Denver in a School of Worship.  This week I’ll teach in a Discipleship Training School in Arvada, Colorada.  The trip has been full of grace and sweet surprises at every step along the way.  (And I never lost any luggage!)

Some of you will remember a year or so ago when I wrote about Nick Vujicic, the young Aussie who was born with no arms and legs.  He remains one of my heroes, and I hope to meet him one day.  But in the meantime, a friend just forwarded this extraordinary 20 minute film, The Butterfly Circus, that features Nick as the lead.  Grab some tissues before you watch, and be prepared to feel a WHOLE lot better about life at the end of the film.