Category: Faith (page 1 of 19)

The Only Thing That Counts

“In Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.” ~Galatians 5:6

There’s only one thing that matters; don’t mess it up. There’s only one thing that’s important; don’t miss it. Our forgiveness, formation, and eternal life, our righteous relationships with God and with all people hang on just one thing; pay attention to it. The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.

Circumcision? Doesn’t count! Uncircumcision? Who cares? In Christ, none of that stuff has any force. It doesn’t exercise any power. It’s got nothing. Christ Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord, has all power and all authority. He alone saves. So our faith, focus, and attention is only and always on him.

“There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, in order that the righteous requirement of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” ~Romans 8:1-4

God in Christ has fulfilled the entirety of the law’s purpose on our behalf. Not individual commands — not circumcision, not the Ten Commandments, not purity rituals, not feast schedules — the singular requirement, the whole point of the law is fulfilled for us by Jesus. That’s the whole point of Jesus.

Do we trust that or not?

The perfect Son of God, the only one who’s never broken the law, became sin for us. He became your sin. He took on your sin. He took your transgressions with him to the cross. And when your sin is condemned in him, you become in God’s eyes as if you’ve never sinned. Jesus intervened to do what you can’t do. Christ became what you are so you can become what he is. Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice and he has taken care of absolutely everything to set you totally free from sin and death. Now, is your faith in that, or is it in something else? The only thing that counts if faith. That’s the only thing we need to be concerned with. That’s the freedom for which Christ sets us free.

But for some reason, we feel more comfortable in the chains. We have a very difficult time with the only thing that counts. We’ve got a whole list of things that count! We’ve got dozens and dozens of things that count!

It’s not circumcision; it’s acappella. It’s not food laws; it’s weekly Lord’s Supper. It’s not feast days; it’s Wednesday nights. It’s not you must become a Jew; it’s “Is he a member of ‘The Church?'” And it’s baptism by immersion and women’s roles and bishops and kitchens and KJV and crosses in the sanctuary, um, I mean, “auditorium.”

We judge people and we draw lines and label others and decide who we’re calling brothers and sisters and who we’re not when there’s only one thing that counts! We’re paying too much attention and spending too much energy on the things that don’t count!

We are freed from all that. We don’t have to worry about those things. Having the same worship styles and the same church structures and the same name on the building is not how we’re united. Or saved. That’s not what makes us brothers and sisters. We are united in Christ alone! We are made one in Christ alone!

The Bible says there is one body, not just one expression of that body. There is one faith, but not just one expression of that faith. There is one baptism, yes, but not just one expression of that baptism. These are the very things they’re discussing in Jerusalem in Acts 15 and the decision is “We should not make it difficult for the people who are turning to God.”

We spend valuable energy debating worship styles and doctrinal positions and denominational differences, but there’s only one thing that matters. We fuss and divide over methods and traditions and structures and rules, but there’s only one thing that’s important. We get worked up over interpretations and translations and obligations, but only one thing counts: faith expressing itself through love.

That’s true freedom. When we give ourselves completely to the fact that our salvation has already been secured, that there’s nothing left to do, it’s all been done, when we embrace that in faith, then we’re living in freedom. We’re free from our sins and anything that’s ever happened in our pasts. We’re free to stop worrying about ourselves and our rights and our honor to serve other people so that walls are torn down and wounds are healed. You’re not anxiously fretting about your standing with God. You’re not looking for physical signs or proof of who’s in and who’s out. You are free to become what God created you to be, what you always wanted to be — you just didn’t know what it was!

And whatever rules there are, whatever obligations remain, we’re free to live above them and through them. We don’t worry about any of that because our faith in Christ has us loving others.

The Gospel truth that you are righteous because Jesus Christ has become for you your righteousness, holiness, and peace compels you to love God and others. It moves you to defend the weak and stand with the accused and speak up for the oppressed. It motivates you to give and forgive. It empowers you to let go and live the way God lives, erring on the side of grace and giving everybody the benefit of the doubt.

Whatever you do, don’t mess it up. It’s the only thing that counts.

Peace,

Allan

The Only Way That Works

I love Whataburger. I could eat at Whataburger twice a day every day for weeks. I think I’ve done that a couple of times. They know me when I walk in. They know my order: Number One with cheese and everything on it and extra onions. Hot french fries and spicy ketchup. A big booth with my Texas Monthly or Sports Illustrated. That’s my happy place. It makes me feel good.

But it’s not good for me. In fact, it’s probably killing me. I know it. My doctor knows it. My whole family knows it. Whataburger is bad for me.

So Carrie-Anne lays down this law: No more Whataburger. Eat at Subway. Get a six-inch Black Forest Ham, no cheese and no chips. Get the apple slices. Now, that’s a good rule. That’s a good law. That commandment is holy, righteous, and good. If I eat at Subway, it’ll benefit me greatly. I’ll enjoy greater peace with my body and the freedom to tuck in more of my shirts.

But I’m here in the office and I’m doing meetings and I’m on the phone and answering emails and reading and planning and studying and it’s 12:30 and I’m starving. And I get in my truck and I drive south. When I get to the red light at Washington and I-40, I can go straight and Subway is right there on my left — I can see it from the light. Or I can turn right and Whataburger’s on Georgia Street.

If the light is green, I’ve got a better chance.

If the light is red…

“I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do; but what I hate, I do! I know that nothing good lives in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For what I do is not the good I want to do; no, the evil I do not want to do — this I keep on doing! So I find this law at work: When I want to do good, evil is right there with me.” ~Romans 7:15-21

I can’t keep the law because I’m human and because I’m hungry. That doesn’t mean the law is bad. It’s a good law! It means I’m bad and weak and faulty. And Carrie-Anne’s going to look it up online and see my Whataburger receipt before I can even get back to church. I know all this, but I do it anyway. The law is not bad — it’s just that the law cannot save me. No matter how good and righteous and holy the rules are, the rules can never save me.

“What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God — through Jesus Christ our Lord!” ~Romans 7:24-25

Christ Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. This is the only way that works. And this is a big deal.

In Galatians 5, Paul says, “In Christ Jesus, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision has any value.” Well, if it doesn’t matter, why’s he making such a big deal about it? It’s the reason for the circumcision. If the Galatians go ahead with circumcision because of the pressure from the Judaizers, then they’ll be confessing by submitting to this ritual that Christ alone isn’t enough. They’ll be saying, yes, you have to become a Jew if you want to be a child of God. Circumcised Christians are better than uncircumcised Christians. They’re more right, they’re more saved. They’re a “cut” above the rest (sorry-bad Scot McKnight joke).

So Paul lays it out: This is the only way that works. If you allow yourself to be circumcised, “Christ will be of no value to you at all.” You’re severed from Christ, you’re alienated, separated from Christ, you have fallen from grace!

This isn’t just a minor ritual requirement that you do right alongside your trust in Jesus. This isn’t a both/and. This is a definite either/or. If you get circumcised as a way to salvation or even as part of the way of salvation, you’re committing yourself to that whole way. You’re putting your trust in that whole temple/synagogue system with the sacrifices and food laws and cleanliness codes — the whole way. Paul illustrates by reminding us that a little yeast, a little leaven, goes all the way through.

You give in on this one extra requirement, you add this one extra ritual as necessary, and you’ve added the whole way of works-based religion, the whole way of law-based salvation. And that way does not save. Christ alone is the only way that works.

I am a recovering legalist. A lot of us are recovering legalists. I was raised a certain way in Churches of Christ and I behaved a certain way for more than half my life.

Less than 20 years ago I was arguing with my friends against small groups. You can’t meet in homes on Sunday nights, that’s dividing the body. Seriously.

We were at a church years ago that was looking to hire its first-ever children’s minister and they put me on the search committee. At our very first meeting, the chairman said, “We need to talk about whether we’re going to consider female candidates.” I said, “Why do we need to talk about that?” He said to me, “Do you think we should consider a woman?” I answered, “Absolutely not — not for a paid ministry position!” He asked the guy next to me, “Do you think we should consider a woman for the children’s minister position?” He answered, “I think it has to be a woman!” And the chairman turned back to me and said, “That’s why we need to talk about it.”

Fifteen years ago we were at the Tulsa Workshop and they were doing some unity stuff with the Christian Churches and the Disciples of Christ. The speakers were dynamic, the worship was inspiring, people were being baptized, and we were standing together and singing on the floor of that huge coliseum. A guy behind me tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Man, isn’t this great?” And I replied, “Yeah, but I’m not sure about letting these denominations in here with us.”

That was me. I said those things. I believed those things. I behaved that way. Because I thought that’s what saved me! To paraphrase Paul in Galatians 1: I was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. I thought my salvation and my righteous standing with God was connected to all that. But it’s not! Praise God! And we know that! We understand that! We’ve been freed from all that! Christ alone is the only way that works!

“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” ~Galatians 5:1

Peace,

Allan

Understood By God

“Now that you know God — or rather are known by God…” ~Galatians 4:9

Paul corrects himself here in the middle part of his letter to the churches in Galatia. Knowing God is good and it’s important, but it’s not the main thing, it’s not the main point. Rather, Paul says, or more importantly, you are known by God. That’s the primary thing. Yesterday we suggested that, in the language and context of Scripture, being known by God means to be chosen by God. Today, I’d like to explore today the idea that being known by God is to be understood by God.

“O Lord, you have searched me and you know me.” ~Psalm 139:1

Psalm 139 and others like it insist that God knew me before I was born: “Your eyes saw my unformed body.” God knows everything that’s going to happen to me before it happens: “All the days ordained for me were written in your book before one of them came to be.”  You know what I’m thinking before even I fully know what I’m thinking. You know what I’m going to say before I can even organize my words. “You have laid your hand upon me.” You know me. “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, it’s too lofty for me to attain.”

You know me, Lord, better than I know myself. You understand me.

The psalmist doesn’t see that as scary. He sees it as a tremendous blessing. A great comfort. God perfectly understands me.

God understands you. He knows the true you, inside and out. He gets you.

Yes, God sees your sin. He sees it clearly. And he understands what makes you sin. He knows how you were raised, he knows the things that have happened to you, he knows the pressures you feel, he knows about your frustration and your guilt. God knows how hard you try, he knows how remorseful you feel when you fail, he knows all about your inner confusion, and why you have good days and bad days. God knows all the stuff swirling around in your head and your heart that you don’t know how to articulate. He knows you. He understands you.

Richard Baxter said, “To be known by God is to be approved and loved by him and to be assured that all your concerns are perfectly known to him and regarded by him. This is the full and final comfort of a believer.”

I know the way I was raised and where I grew up and what’s in my DNA and the things I’ve done good and bad and the things that have happened to me good and bad have all shaped who I am. I know all those things influence how I think and act and respond. For good and bad, it’s who I am. But I don’t understand how all of that actually works. And I don’t know much at all about how to accentuate the good things in me and change the bad things in me. But God does. God has searched me and he knows me, inside and out. He understands me.

And he understands you. That means he knows exactly what kind of forgiveness you need. He knows precisely what kind of love you need. He knows what kind of assurance you need. He knows exactly where to place you and how to bring you along. He knows how to take care of you.

“Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” ~1 Corinthians 13:12

Peace,

Allan

Who Am I?

Who Am I?
by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, 1944

Who am I? They often tell me
I step from my cell’s confinement
calmly, cheerfully, firmly,
like a Lord from his manor.

Who am I? They often tell me
I speak to my jailers
freely, friendly, firmly,
as though they were mine to command.

Who am I? They also tell me
I bear the days of hardship
unconcerned, amused, proud,
like one accustomed to winning.

Am I then really that which other men tell me?
Or am I only what I myself know of me?
Restless and longing and sick, like a bird in a cage
struggling for breath as though hands were compressing my throat,
yearning for colors, for flowers, for songs of birds,
thirsting for words of kindness, for human company,
quivering with anger at despotism and insults,
anxiously waiting for the next event,
helplessly worrying for friends at an infinite distance,
weary and empty at praying, at thinking, at working,
exhausted, and ready to say farewell to it all.

Who am I? This or the Other?
Am I one person today and tomorrow another?
Am I both at once? A hypocrite before others
and by myself a contemptible, whining weakling?
Or is something within me like a beaten army
fleeing in disorder from a victory already achieved?

Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, you know me, O God. I am yours!

People of Promise

What we believe about how we are saved matters. What we think saves us matters a great deal. The apostle Paul spends all of Galatians 3 reminding us that we are saved by God’s promise, not by God’s law. And he thinks it matters a lot.

“The promises were spoken to Abraham and to his seed…” 3:16

“If the inheritance depends on the law, then it no longer depends on a promise; but God in his grace gave it to Abraham through a promise…” 3:18

“The Scripture declares that the whole world is a prisoner of sin, so that what was promised, being given through the faith of Jesus Christ, might be given to those who believe…” 3:22

“If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.” 3:29

God in Christ has fulfilled the entirety of the law’s purposes for us. We are no longer condemned by the law, we’re not threatened by the law; the era of the law is over! The promise is fulfilled and the new age of righteousness and grace and freedom in Christ has begun! We are the people of promise.

God’s promises are not like the promises you and I make and receive every day. This is God. It’s his promise. No fine print, no out clauses, no surprises. God doesn’t make promises with his fingers crossed. He promises to save us, knowing he would have to die to make it happen. And — praise the Lord! — he did!

We are not people of the law. We are a people of promise. And that matters. It matters big time. If we think we’re saved by law or by rules or works or behaving correctly, then we’re going to treat people harshly. We’ll be arrogant and judgmental. We’ll be unbending and unforgiving. We’ll be nervous and unsure and we’ll fight and divide over the weirdest little things. And we’ll turn off a lot of people.

When we know we’re saved by the gracious promises of God, we’ll be a people of mercy and love. We’ll give others the benefit of the doubt. We’ll be flexible and forgiving. We’ll seek to bless other people. We’ll be kind and hospitable. Our words will be encouraging, our actions will be inviting. We’ll be unified by a focus on the really big important things and we’ll inspire a lot of people.

We are not people of the law. We are not people of the rules or people of the regulations or people of the guilt trip or people of the coercion. We are not people of correct interpretations or proper practices. None of those things save us! Those are the things we use in order to gain control. Or to be more prominent. Or better. Or right. Those are the things that divide us and separate us. Those are the things that lead to jealousy and anger and strife and condemnation.

We are free. Free from guilt. Free from condemnation. Free from punishment. We are rescued from the present evil age according to the will of God our Father to whom be glory for ever and ever! Amen!

The Good News today is that your forgiveness, your salvation, your eternal life does not depend on rules or regulations or interpretations or practices. Your righteousness rests solely in the unchanging promise of our loving God.

The Bible says no matter how many promises God has made, they are all “yes” in Christ. Every one of God’s promises — all of his blessings, all of his hope and peace and joy, everything God wants for you, everything he created you to be and to have — are available to you if you’ll put your faith in Christ.

Peace,

Allan

Baptism and Faith

Peter and the apostles are announcing, they’re proclaiming in Acts 2, that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus has inaugurated the eternal Kingdom of God. Jesus of Nazareth is the promised Messiah! This holy one you killed but God has now raised to eternal life, this Jesus, is the bringer of God’s salvation for all people and he is now both Lord and Christ!

“When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, ‘Brothers, what shall we do?’ Peter replied, ‘Repent and be baptized, every one of you, into the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit!” ~Acts 2:37-38

Forgiveness happens at baptism. So does God’s Holy Spirit taking up residence in your soul. Peter says “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins” just like John the Baptist said “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of your sins.” In both cases, people are being cleansed on the inside and being made holy. People are being prepared for the coming presence of God.

That’s how people are saved: baptism. It’s a critical part of the Christian conversion process. The conversion stories in the New Testament are soaked with baptism. Men and women, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor — they hear the Good News, they believe it, and they’re baptized.

That’s what we believe and practice regarding baptism. We believe that is the biblical view: baptism is the time and place one is united with the crucified and risen Lord and receives eternal forgiveness of all sin and the gift of God’s indwelling Spirit.

But there’s something else we believe about baptism that we don’t talk about as much or as well. We believe it, we just don’t make it clear. So, let me be very, very clear: Baptism only works by faith in what God through Jesus has done and is doing for the sake of the world.

“You have been given fullness in Christ, who is the head over every power and authority… having been buried with him in baptism and raised with him through your faith in the power of God, who raised him from the dead. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins.” ~Colossians 2:10-13

God made us alive with Christ and forgave our sins when we were buried with him in baptism and raised with him through faith in the power of God. Baptism is faith — faith is baptism. Baptism is not effectual for salvation because we believe in baptism or because of what we believe about baptism or because of how we believe baptism ought to be practiced. It’s got nothing to do with that. Baptism works through our faith in the work of God in Christ. It’s effectual only by faith. Otherwise, it’s just a quick bath; you’re just getting wet.

Baptism is God’s work, not ours, not yours. God is the One doing everything. It’s got nothing to do with my goodness or correctness or the right words being said or the right amount of water being used or how much or how little I know about what’s going on. Baptism is a divine act of pure grace. And anything that undermines that or adds to it is legalism and denies the Gospel of Christ.

Wait. But isn’t baptism itself legalistic? If we’re saved by grace alone through faith in Christ alone, why is baptism necessary? That’s a human work, right? Surely we’re not saved by human works.

Boy, those are all great questions. Thank you for asking them in that way.

Martin Luther, during the Reformation in the 1500s, gave us the language of saved by grace only through faith in Christ only. He taught and preached that human works have nothing to do with our salvation — it’s 100% faith and 0% works. He was so hard-core about that, he wanted to have the book of James struck from the New Testament. But Luther put baptism in the category of faith, not works. He called faith “the beggar’s hand.” It’s how we receive God’s gifts. And baptism is where we do the receiving. Luther put it in his church catechism in 1529:

“As our would-be wise new spirits assert that faith alone saves, and that works and external things avail nothing, we answer: It is true, indeed, that nothing in any of us is of any avail but faith. But faith must have something it believes, that is, of which it takes hold and upon which it stands and rests. Thus, faith clings to the water and believes that it is baptism in where there is pure salvation and life.”

Baptism is an expression of faith. It’s only effective through faith. In baptism we die and are raised with Christ, through faith. In baptism, we can’t do anything, we don’t accomplish anything or effect anything. In baptism, we receive everything.

Peace,

Allan

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