Thursday, April 29, 2010

Penance vs. Grace

Repentance is a word that has picked up baggage over the centuries and today many Christians use the word without ever asking whether they even know what it means. The common idea of repentance today actually has its root in Roman Catholic penance rather than in the New Testament. Penance is the idea that one must show God they are sufficiently sorry for their sins by confessing, feeling remorse, making restitution and doing good deeds in order to enable God to forgive them. People have always naturally felt the need for penance because we have such a difficult time believing that God can forgive and accept us freely as ungodly people through Christ alone. We think we must, to some measure, make ourselves acceptable to God. This idea of penance is simply another branch of works-based righteousness that opposes the only true righteousness - the righteousness of God that comes to us by faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 3:21-24).

The Bible teaches us that God justifies the ungodly through faith in Christ. "Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes on Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted unto righteousness." (Rom. 4:4-5) It is the man who does not work, but rather believes that God will justify him through Christ in his presently unacceptable state, who is justified. This is because it is not on account of our own worthiness but on account of the death of Jesus Christ that God is enabled to justify sinners. We place our trust in Christ alone and not in ourselves for our justification. As long as someone is trying to work (which means anything, including remorse, restitution, etc.) to enable God to forgive them, they are not trusting that what Jesus Christ did for them on the cross is enough to enable God to forgive them.

The Bible also show us how thousands were saved simply by believing the message of this gospel of the grace of Christ (ex. Acts 4:4, 13:43). There isn't always great sorrow for sin that accompanies their faith. For some people, believing in Christ can be a deeply emotional experience, but for others it is not, nor is it ever said that it has to be. Remorse and restitution for sin are not bad things, but they are no grounds for justification, and they become bad things when men seek to be justified by them. It is simple faith in what Jesus has done that justifies, and God is completely enabled to legally justify any ungodly person who trusts in Christ because Jesus died on the cross for that person's sins. This is the point of Romans 3:26: "That God might be just, and the justifier of him who believes in Jesus." According to this verse and many others like it, if you believe in Jesus then God is just in justifying you. If you think you have to first contribute a measure of righteousness or offer some token of sincerity or emotion before God can be enabled to forgive, then you are placing the enabling of God to be just in forgiving on yourself rather than on Christ. Christ's death has done it all! He alone has accomplished that which was necessary in order for God to forgive all who believe! Do you believe this? Do you believe that what Jesus did is enough? If so, simply trust in what He did for you and the Bible declares you are justified. God cannot lie. It would be absurd to think that a person who is trusting in the sacrifice of Christ would hear from God when he dies: "I'm sorry, I know my Word said that whoever believes would be justified, but you weren't sufficiently worthy. You should not have thought that the sacrifice of my Son was enough. You should not have trusted so fully, so exclusively in Him." That is not only absurd, but God would be a liar, and that can never be since His glory would be lost forever!

The gospel message is the good news of the grace of God. It is the message that God has accomplished something on the behalf of a hopelessly unworthy humanity that enables reconciliation. It is not a message that man must accomplish something for God but that God has accomplished something for man, and now all man must do is believe in what God has done. Believing is not a work nor a worthy deed. It is trusting in the finished work of Jesus Christ on our behalf. It is trusting that what He alone did on the cross reconciles us to God. All the righteousness that we as sinners need is provided for fully by Jesus Christ. "For He made Him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him." (2 Cor. 5:21) Everything God requires is fully provided for in Him. This is the Biblical gospel.

And why did God do this for us? Because He loves us! "For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life." (John 3:16) God's love for us is not dependent upon our penance nor our tears nor our emotional responses, nor any ounce of worthiness that we might try and offer to Him. "For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Rom. 5:6-8) God has already demonstrated how much He loves us by sending His Son to die for us in our totally sinful state. God, who knew our past, present and future, chose to do this for us because He loves us. He does not demonstrate His love for us by forgiving us of our sins after we are sufficiently penitent. He has already demonstrated His love for us even before we knew Him at all. God's love is not something that we are trying to obtain, but something we discover has been there for us all along. Forgiveness is not something we must earn, but something we receive from the God who is already willing to forgive. Christianity is not about trying to convince God of our worthiness so that He will forgive us, but about believing the good news that God is forgiving toward us because of Christ Jesus, though we are unworthy. By faith we simply receive the forgiveness of sins that is being offered to us through Christ. That's what the gospel is all about! "In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins." (1 John 4:10)

And that is all that repentance is. It is changing your mind. It is changing your mind from thinking that you must try to establish your own righteousness in whatever degree or form before God, to believing the good news that God is gracious towards sinners through His Son, Jesus Christ.

If the Holy Spirit causes what I have shared with you to resonate in your heart, then just believe the good news with simple faith. You don't need to work up an emotional experience. If that comes, great. If it doesn't, that is great too, because the power of salvation is in the finished work of Jesus Christ and not in our fluctuating, ongoing experiences. May you see that Jesus Christ alone is all that you need.

Grace and peace to you, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Romans 8:12-13 - Living By the Spirit

"Therefore, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh. For if ye live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live." (Romans 8:12-13)

Hello P---! It's great to hear from you. Great question.

Those two verses, Romans 8:12-13, have troubled many Christians due to the fact that the terms "flesh" and "Spirit" have commonly been interpreted to mean the 'sinful nature' (and thus to live by the flesh is to sin) vs. the 'new nature' (and thus to live by the Spirit is to not sin); ie. the flesh wants to lust but the Spirit wants you to be chaste. Because of this Romans 8 becomes confused, especially verses 12-13, which would seem to imply that Paul finally goes back on his prior teaching of justification by grace through faith without works (chapters 1-5) and now says we must not live according to the flesh (that is, we must not sin) in order to be saved.

The first thing we come to realize is that the Scriptures do not define those terms in that way. For a brief survey of the usage of the word "flesh" see: 2 Chronicles 32:8, Jeremiah 17:5, John 1:13, 6:63, Romans 7:5, 1 Corinthians 1:26-3, 2 Corinthians 1:17, 11:17-18 (on to 12:10), Galatians 3:2-3, 4:29, Philippians 3:3-9... You'll notice that the definition 'sinful nature' does not fit, but rather the true meaning is (loosely) 'human competency, sufficiency, accomplishment, power, effort, muscle, ability, etc.'; ie. it's not about what I can do (flesh) but what God can do (Spirit). The Spirit is the opposite of the flesh, being the power, muscle, sufficiency, ability, competency of God (see Zechariah 4:6, 2 Corinthians 4:7, and an abundance of other similar passages). The ISBE (International Standard Bible Encyclopedia) calls the flesh "the capabilities of our earthly constitution" and that "the expression does not convey, as some have supposed, the idea of inherent sinfulness of the flesh." Of course, the word has other usages also, such as simply the human body, but I have never seen it refer to sinfulness.

I know that's a lot to chew on, but it is necessary to understand our terms before approaching Romans 8:12-13.

Paul's whole point in Romans chapters 6-8 is that if we live by the law it will produce the fruit of death in us, yet if we live by grace it will produce the fruit of life in us (6:14). We have been delivered from the law so that we might be enabled to bear good fruit unto God (7:4) by walking according to the new way of the Spirit (7:6) and not by the old way of the law. Having been justified by faith, we are brought into a glorious new position in Christ to walk in newness of life (6:4)! If we live by the law, failure and sin will be our experience (7:7-25). This is not because the law is bad but because we are "fleshly"; our human power is not strong enough to overcome the sin that seeks to rule in us (7:14). Therefore if we live according to our flesh, seeking to keep the law, we will experience the fruit of death.

In chapter 8 we turn to the Spirit and see what it is to walk by grace. It starts with: "There is no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus"! Because of Jesus' death the righteous requirements of the law are fulfilled in (not "by") us (8:3-4)! Starting from this point we now can live "under grace" (6:14) and watch the dominion of sin become powerless, because we cease trying to accomplish righteousness by our own works/flesh under the law. Resting in the truth of righteousness by grace, we find the opposite effect: the fruit of life is aroused in us (compare with the opposite effect in Romans 7:5). It is because we are living by faith out of the reality that God in Christ has done it all for us (the accomplishment of the Spirit) we are filled with the fruit of "life and peace" (8:6)!

Paul practically sums up Romans 6, 7 and 8, which chapters answers the objection, "If we are saved by grace, shall we not continue in sin?", by stating, "Therefore, brethren (speaking to Christians about how to live now that they are saved, not to unsaved people needing to be saved), we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live after the flesh." The emphasis is on the word "NOT". Brothers, we do NOT have any obligation to live after the flesh/the law! This is a declaration of freedom! We do not have to live according to our own power anymore, but we can now finally rest completely in the power of God - the finished work of Jesus Christ at the cross for us! However, that freedom is coupled with a warning and a promise. We are not under bondage to keep the law (to walk after the flesh) - but if we do seek to live after the flesh we will experience the fruit of death. But, if you walk in the new way of the Spirit you will experience the fruit of life. Paul is speaking about the experience of sanctification and the practical results of walking according to the flesh or the Spirit - not heaven and hell.

P---, I can personally attest to the truth of Romans 6:14. Since I have believed the good news that I am righteous before God by faith in Christ and not by my works, and that I am not under obligation to keep the commandments, I've experienced freedom from the dominion of sin in my life and know what it means to have life and peace. Of course, some days I wake up and my mind isn't set on that glorious truth, and those are the days that aren't so good. But it is not by feeling an obligation to the law or by striving to keep the commandments that I experience victory in the realm of sanctification; it is only when I rest in the overwhelming love of God demonstrated in finished work of Jesus Christ at the cross for me that I experience the God-intended victory of the new life in the Spirit. One way produces sin and failure, and the other way produces life and peace. I am still learning to fix my mind unwaveringly on Jesus and His grace and the wonder of justification by faith.

So this is how we live, instead of living by law:

"For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God. I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me." (Galatians 2:19-20)

Living by the Spirit is resting in the finished work of Jesus Christ on cross. We live by that faith in Jesus, who loved us and gave Himself for us. Flowing out of that faith is a love back to God and a love for others for whom Christ died. It is grace, not law, that teaches us how to live, showing us what free, non-obligatory love is, and constraining us to live a life filled with the same love that we have received from God.

Therefore may God fill us all with the knowledge of His grace and love, which glory far surpasses the fading glory of the law.
Sincerely yours,