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grace

Are we seeking the glory that comes from God?

By | "Training for Godliness" podcast, Audio, Christianity | No Comments

This month I’m doing some reading in the book of John, which is a great book to read because it has so many levels, from clear, basic teachings of the gospel to deep, complex ideas about who Jesus is and what that should mean to us as his disciples. And in the fifth chapter, Jesus is making his first lengthy statement to the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem. He just healed a man on the Sabbath, and he’s laying out the reasons why he has every right to do so, even thought the Jewish traditions dictated that healing on the Sabbath was forbidden.

There’s something he says at the end of the chapter that stuck out to me. He says:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me, yet you refuse to come to me that you may have life. I do not receive glory from people. But I know that you do not have the love of God within you. I have come in my Father’s name, and you do not receive me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive him. How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?

We live in a confrontational world where we’re more and more lining up on one side or the other of every issue, and we see the other side as the opposition to be defeated. But even though Jesus is harsh in his statements, he doesn’t see his opposition as the enemy. Jesus’ invitation of blessings was for anyone who was willing to take it – even the people who thought they were doing just fine without him.

He says “you refuse to come to me that you may have life.” The implication is that if you’d just get rid of your pride and accept what Jesus is telling you, he’ll give you that life that you’ve been looking for! But you’re not going to find it as long as you’re insisting that your traditions and personal priorities come first.”

Jesus here indicates the core problem with the religious leaders of his day, and it’s the core problem for so many in today’s religious world who are not interested in the pure, complete message of the gospel: How can you believe, when you receive glory from one another and do not seek the glory that comes from the only God?

Finding life in the scriptures

How many today are so concerned about being approved and congratulated by the right people – the “accredited” people, or the people that they respect in their lives like parents or friends or family members – that they aren’t that concerned with actually reading the word of God and understanding it on its own? Jesus tells them “you search the scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life.”

I’ve heard people interpret this to mean that Jesus is saying “You think you’ll find it there, but you’re wrong.” But actually, he’s telling them “you’re right! Eternal life is right there in the scriptures. The problem is, you’re not listening to it. You’re ignoring it because you’re focused on what’s being taught by prominent teachers and scholars, and you’re not letting the scriptures point you to the true source of life.”

Jesus makes a pretty strong point, but it’s also a fair one: if I’m more concerned with the ideas of scholars, my family, my favorite Bible teacher or prominent religious blogger than I am with reading, studying, and meditating on God’s word, can I truly say I love God? Who am I really following? Is it more important to me to live, to teach, to believe in a way that makes me socially acceptable or in step with what the people around me are doing? Or do I love God’s word enough that I want to understand it for myself, and then conform myself through faith and obedience to the teachings that Jesus says will lead me to eternal life.

We glorify God by listening to Him, not ourselves

Let’s never have an attitude of shutting our ears to what the Bible says, just because it isn’t always what we want to hear, or what we’ve always been taught, or what we know most other people think. The gospel – not my opinion or yours – is the power of God to salvation according to Romans 1:16, and it will continue to work through us if we’ll let it.

Read the Bible. Find someone to help you study it if you need to, but always make them go back and show you that what they believe is the same as what God teaches through His word. Read and study to learn what God wants from me, not to figure out how I can do what I want and still follow God. And if you find something that requires you to change your life or your viewpoint on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, make the change. Don’t worry about what anyone else believes or teaches, just follow what the word says. Because after all, the only glory we should be seeking is the glory that comes from God, and the source to achieve that is the gospel of Jesus Christ.

And never allow yourself to be satisfied with where you are; as Paul writes in Philippians 3:14, keep pressing on for the mark, and keep training for godliness.

“Failing upward:” How to succeed in service to God

By | "Training for Godliness" podcast, Audio, Christianity | No Comments

Have you ever heard the phrase “failing upward?” If you follow sports, you’ve probably seen a lot of it – or at least it feels that way. The coaching ranks are rife with people who failed miserably at their last job, got fired, and were immediately hired by someone. If our team does the hiring, the response we usually give is “What were we thinking? Why would we want that guy??”

Generally speaking, we’re not a culture that appreciates failing up. We look at failure as a dead end – it’s defeat, and it is a reflection on someone’s competence and a good reason not to trust them in similar situations again. They’re going to have to show us something pretty impressive to wash away the taste from that previous disaster. And in our own lives, we tend to live in fear of failure – failing up is what happens to other people, not us! And so we don’t go out on too many limbs, we take on tasks we’re confident we can accomplish, and we set goals that we know we can attain.

Are we afraid of failing?

But the reality is that Bible makes it clear that playing it safe is not an option for a disciple of Christ. The old cliché is that you miss 100 percent of the shots you don’t take, but the more Biblical example is probably in Jesus’ parable of the Talents, where a man is given a large sum of money and entrusted with its use for a time. He’s afraid of what his master will do if he fails, and so he hides the money so that he can give it back without losing any. But God didn’t call us out of the world to break even. We are called to be a people for God’s own possession, one created in Christ Jesus for good works.

So how do we view our failures? And how does God view them? Is He really the “harsh taskmaster who reaps where he hasn’t sown?” Does he really see me as just another instrument to do his work, and we’re only a success if we do as much as some other person in the kingdom? I don’t think any of us believe that – so why do we hold ourselves to that standard?

The Bible’s stories of “failing upward”

The reality is that we all fail, whether it’s falling short in our pursuit of godliness, or maybe its the unsuccessful attempts to bring someone to Christ. And the harder we try, the more we fail, it seems! As our goals get bigger, we come up short more often. All of a sudden, “failing upward” is starting to look pretty good!

Fortunately, that’s actually pretty common in the Bible. We see time after time when godly men and women make mistakes – some of them huge in terms of the severity and consequences. If David were running for re-election as King of Israel, with a record of adultery, murder, and cover-up – along with a disastrous policy decision that led to the deaths of 70,000 of his countrymen – how many votes would he get?

God’s view of success is a lot different than ours, because the question in God’s eyes seems not to be whether we’ll fail, but how we respond when we do. When Jesus was in his final hours on earth, he addressed Simon Peter in Luke 22:31-32, this exchange takes place:

“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.”

Jesus doesn’t even debate whether Peter will succeed, and when Peter tries to correct him, it almost seems as if Jesus expresses frustration and says “not only are you going to fail but you’re going to deny me three times in one night.”

Jesus wasn’t interested in dwelling on Peter’s denial – he was focused on what he needed Peter to do afterward. He needed Peter to understand that the response to failure isn’t to wallow in it, or to feel sorry for yourself, but to get back to the work God has given you. And God had given Peter a vital role in the coming kingdom – a role in which he would succeed not because he was perfect, sinless, skilled or talented, but because God gave him everything he needed in order to succeed, and Peter went out and did the work.

All the tools for success are ready for us

Every time we fail in Christ, we have a chance to grow closer to God. God forgives us of our sins because we have an advocate with the father in Jesus Christ according to 1 John 2:1. God has set the expectation already that he knows we’re not always going to be successful in teaching the gospel — in fact we’ll fail more than we succeed — but as Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 3:6, it is God who gives the increase

We’re given the Holy Spirit, which works in us to help us produce fruits of strong character and godliness, if we’re willing to accept it. We’re given the gift of the word of God, powerful as any two-edged sword, and as Paul describes it, the power of God to salvation. The power isn’t in my skill as a teacher or my depth of knowledge and wisdom. It’s in the word of God.

The key to a successful life in Christ is not in the wins, the conversions, the pure and perfect life. The key is in not giving up, picking ourselves up through God’s grace when we fall, and continuing forward with a trust in God and an unwillingness to be stopped in our goal to achieve a crown of life in the kingdom of Heaven. As Paul writes in Romans 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”

So keep failing upward. You’ll be surprised how much success it brings in your service to God.

How can Christians lead worthy lives?

By | Christianity, Three-minute Takeaway | No Comments

 

In Colossians 1:9-10, we read that Paul’s prayer for the Colossians – and for all Christians – is to live a life that is worthy of the Lord.

That seems odd to us in some ways, because we understand that we can’t earn our salvation, that we are saved by the grace of God and not through our own goodness or works.

We can never be good enough to deserve anything that God has done for us. So how can we be worthy?

“Worthiness” and “deserving” are not the same

I think the problem is that we associate worthiness with deserving, and that’s not really how we normally use those ideas. As with a lot of terminology, we understand the concepts in real life, but we don’t always apply those ideas when we read the Bible.

For example…

… we might observe a teenager who’s been given a Ferrari by his parents for his birthday, and he proceeds to drive it recklessly, bang into mailboxes, trash the interior with wrappers and dirt, ignore all the maintenance, and get into accident after accident — all the while boasting to anyone who will listen how great his car is and by extension, how great HE is, and how horrible his parents are for not getting him the special rims and accessories that he wanted. We would think, “Why is that car wasted on someone like that, who doesn’t appreciate what he’s been given?”

We would probably never say that any teenager has EARNED a Ferrari, but we might say that he shows gratitude in the way that he treats the vehicle, and in the way he responds to the parents who gave it to him. How I treat the gift itself, or how the gift changes my attitude or actions, reflects my attitude about the giver!

How does God’s gift change us?

That’s what Paul is saying to Christians. You’ve been given an immeasurable gift of grace in your salvation.

Paul describes in chapter 1 of Colossians who Jesus is, how exalted he is above all things — he is the image of God. He is the creator of all things. And he is the head of the body, which is the church. And yet that same Jesus has reconciled us to his body by his death, to present us holy and blameless and above reproach before him!

How do we live in view of that gift? Do we see it as sacred? Does it change the way we make decisions in our lives? The priorities we set? The way we spend our time and energy? Do we follow Jesus begrudgingly, always looking for shortcuts, excuses not to do things we know are pleasing to God, or looking for the absolute minimal level of commitment so that we can continue with the things we’d rather be doing with our lives?

A worthy life gives everything to God

Paul wrote in Galatians 2:20: “The life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” That describes a life where we are totally committed to serving God above ourselves. Anything less is unworthy of the grace God has shown to us.

May God bless us all and give us the faith and resolve to live with that kind of gratitude in our lives and our hearts, so that we can serve God the way God deserves to be served.

Listen to the full lesson on YouTube here.

What do we do when Satan sifts us like wheat?

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“Simon, Simon, behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail. And when you have turned again, strengthen your brothers.” Peter said to him, “Lord, I am ready to go with you both to prison and to death.” Jesus said, “I tell you, Peter, the rooster will not crow this day, until you deny three times that you know me.” (Luke 22:31-34 ESV)

 

None of us like to think about our lives as flawed or imperfect, that we fail to achieve our potential. But the reality is that each of us fails in our attempt to serve God as He deserves to be served, and as He demands to be served. Some of us may fail more often than others, and we may fail more often some weeks than others. But one of the great sureties in life is that we will sin.

I believe that Jesus’ statement to Peter before Peter’s “denial-denial” not only shows us how God expects us to respond to those failures, but gives us a great reason to rebound and come back stronger and more determined to serve God than ever.

In this chapter, Jesus has just instituted the Lord’s Supper, and the disciples have descended into bickering about who would be “the greatest” in the kingdom. Jesus rebukes them and at the same time reassures them that they all play crucial roles, sitting “on thrones judging the 12 tribes of Israel.”

It’s at this point that Jesus turns and addresses Peter specifically. Because he was the group’s dominant personality, its leader, its “rock” (John 1:42)? Or was it because Jesus knew that Peter’s failure would in some ways be greater and more discouraging than that of his companions? Regardless of the reason, Jesus tells him that all the apostles are about to face a great trial. (The “you” in v. 31 is plural; Jesus would seem to be saying that Satan has demanded to sift all the disciples, not just Peter. It’s not until v. 32 when the “you” changes to singular, referring specifically to Peter.)

Jesus presupposes that Peter is going to fail his test: “and when you have turned again…” Peter’s faith might fail him in the moment, but it did not desert him, and Jesus tells him to hold onto it, and to not allow an evening of weakness keep him from fulfilling the very crucial role of strengthening his brothers, all of whom would be going through the same guilt, fear and doubt as he would have to overcome.

Jesus essentially tells Peter: “They’re going to need your strength. So don’t let your coming failure consume you.”

Think about the power of that statement and the implications for us today when we face sin and difficulty in our lives. How many of us have been faced with that trial from Satan and failed? Jesus doesn’t excuse those failings, but he doesn’t dwell on them, either. He simply asks: “What are you going to do after that? How are you going to respond?” Will our faith fail us? Or will we get back on track and resume the work of serving God?

People have a tendency sometimes to react to failures like Judas did: with self-pity, guilt and a feeling of such shame that we don’t believe we can ever come back (Mtt. 27:3-5.) Jesus calls Peter – and each one of us – to remember that it’s not just about us. We have brothers and sisters in Christ who still need our help, our strength, our faith.

Elijah sat under a tree alone in the wilderness and wished for death right after God had used him to score a massive victory over Ahab and the prophets of Baal. It seemed that he was still alone in his fight, and in a time when he should have felt triumphant and ready to take on the kingdom itself, he felt dejected and alone. God’s response, in effect, was “Isaiah, there’s work to do. Get back to it! And you won’t be alone.” (I Kings 19)

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. (Heb 4:14-16)

The old saying is “when the horse bucks you off, you get back on.” Jesus calls us to do the same thing. When you fail, turn from it, and get back to the work God has given you to do. Is there a greater joy than knowing that no matter my failing, God hasn’t abandoned me. I don’t have to do “penance”, I don’t have to sit in the spiritual doghouse. I just need to keep striving for the kingdom of God, and ask God for forgiveness. He is “faithful and just” to do so (I John 2:9).

 

I know I don’t earn my salvation, but am I entitled to it?

By | Christianity, Salvation | No Comments

I’m convinced that one of the reasons we sometimes have such a hard time reconciling the concept of “faith” and “works” in our relationship to God is that we really don’t understand the concept of grace, and how it applies to that relationship. We find Christians playing “battle of the verses”, one going to Ephesians 2:8 and saying “we don’t do anything in order to be saved”, the other going to James 2:24 and saying “we are justified by our works!”

Why can’t it be both? I believe the answer is that it can, and it is.

There is a difference between earning something and being entitled to it – and I think that distinction can help us understand the relationship between the grace of God and the obedience of man. And please understand: when I say “entitled”, I don’t mean a sense of self-entitlement that we often see in life where someone says “I am entitled to certain benefits by virtue of my existence.” We’ve all met that guy. And a person who comes to God and says “God has to accept me for who I am and how I choose to live” is not going to be justified in the end. (James 4:6-7)

Earning salvation or fulfilling terms?

To understand what I mean, let’s take an example: if I buy a lottery ticket tomorrow (and no, I’m not sanctioning buying lottery tickets any more than Jesus was sanctioning the idea of a debtor’s prison – I’m just drawing an analogy), and it turns out to be the winning ticket, and I realize that I have won $20 million, at what point am I considered a millionaire? I’m going to run into a lot of trouble if I start trying to make million-dollar purchases at that very moment – because I have been given nothing at that time!

But what do I have? I have a promise, an agreement into which I and the lottery commission entered when I bought that ticket. If the numbers come up for me, the commission will then pay me the money.

Have I earned $20 million? No. Am I entitled to it? Yes.

So why am I not a millionaire yet? Because I haven’t fulfilled my part of the agreement. I need to present my ticket and fill out whatever paperwork is required. If I’m not willing to do that, I’m not getting the money. That’s because even though it was promised to me, it was promised under certain terms and conditions – which I probably never read, but which will nonetheless be enforced!

What does the Lord require?

Jesus spells out the terms of his offer in no uncertain terms to his disciples: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” God’s grace (Acts 15:11), my faith and willingness to confess it before men (Rom. 10:9) and my obedience (Romans 6:16-17) are required elements in this covenant.

So back to the question of “entitlement.” Does that mean I have earned anything? Or does it mean that God has promised something and I can be assured that I will receive it? Think about the concept of entitlement without the negative connotations we often associate with the word. The definition of “entitle” is as follows:

“to give (a person or thing) a title, right, or claim to something; furnish with grounds for laying claim”

Notice that an entitlement is not something that I earn; it is given to me. But once I have it, I can expect that it will be fulfilled. So when Paul says: “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that Day” (2Ti 4:7-8), he’s not talking about something he’s earned. He’s referring to an assurance he has from God that because he lived his life by faith in submission to God’s will, God will reward him for that life of sacrifice.

How do we “walk worthy” of the kingdom?

We are told that we must live in a way that is worthy of the grace of God (II Thes. 1:5,Col. 1:9-10). That doesn’t mean we’ll be perfect, or that we can live in such a way that has earned salvation for ourselves. But it does mean that God has promised that if I’m willing to place my faith in Him and submit to the terms and conditions He has set forth, then I can expect that He will be faithful until the end (Heb. 10:23, II Tim. 2:10-11).

The great thing about the gospel message is that I don’t have to understand all the deep nuances of doctrinal issues. I don’t have to be able to explain why God calls us to be baptized into Christ (Acts 2:41, Rom. 6:3, I Cor. 12:13, Gal. 4:27) in order to have my sins washed away (Acts 22:16), or be able to completely define and distinguish concepts like faith, works and grace. I just need to believe the word of God and obey it. And trust that God means what He says. That’s not salvation by works – it’s salvation “by grace through faith.”

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