Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Physical Fitness vs. Spiritual Fitness

We all know the old saying "no pain, no gain." In the fitness world it means we all have to work harder, longer and more intensely than our bodies want us to work if we want to see progress. We have to earn our results. If we shed pounds, gain inches, run farther, or lift more weight, it is because we have put the time in to make it happen ourselves. There are no shortcuts and there is not an "easy" way to do it. It is hard work repeated consistently. We progress in fitness because we follow the "law" of physical fitness: exercise + diet + consistency = progress.

It is a mistake, however, to apply this same thinking to spiritual training. Romans 3:20 says "For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin." If we are relying on our efforts to draw us closer to God, or to make us righteous we are in for a huge disappointment. The truth is that we cannot, on our own power, be righteous at all. The "law" of spiritual growth is this: our effort (even if we are trying to be righteous) + our sin nature = greater sin. It is a continuing loop of defeat and sin that will never end.

The Apostle Paul wrote about this struggle in his own life in Romans 3:15-18 "For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out."

By the end of this description Paul cries out "Wretched man am I! Who will deliver me from this body of death?"

Paul answers his own question in Romans 8:1-4 "There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 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,c 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."

The key to spiritual training is to look to the one who started, finished, and perfected the training for you: Jesus Christ. His life, death, and resurrection provide a righteousness from God that we cannot ever produce through our efforts. It is the finished work of Christ on the Cross that provides everything we need for life and Godliness. To grow Spiritually is not a matter of trying harder, doing more, and performing better, but a matter of moving more and more deeply into the Gospel of Jesus Christ. His Grace has already made you perfect. What we have to do is to come to know the truth about ourselves (we are utterly sinful and every effort to produce righteousness is doomed to failure) and the truth about God (He has provided righteousness through the Gospel of His Son Jesus Christ.)

We are to keep our eyes focused on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith. To grow spiritually is to learn to rely on His Perfect life, His sacrificial death and His powerful resurrection in all things. The pain, then, is not the pain of effort and performance (which wear you out but provide nothing), but he pain of dying to self. It is the pain of realizing the truth, as Paul did, that "no good thing lives in my flesh" but that the finished work of Christ has already made you Holy in God's sight. So, no pain, no gain stands, but not in the area of effort, but rather, in the area of denying self.

How are you denying self today and relying on the Grace of God through Jesus Christ? Do you beat yourself up for not "doing more" or do you feel you have to "try harder" all the time? All these behaviors are based in the assumption that we can be righteous. Listen to the truth of the Gospel, because the Truth will set you free.

Monday, September 8, 2014

Intellectual Legalism

I remember when God led me to begin studying the scriptures I would read for hours, devouring everything I could. I loved reading commentaries and listening to teachers who seemed to have an endless wealth of knowledge. I loved every bit of it. Questions were being answered and life seemed to make more and more sense.

Then, it happened.

First, I began encountering differing opinions on what appeared to be straight-forward scriptures. Some were good food for thought while others seemed to be so far out in left field they might have been from a different Bible. Not only that, some of these teachers began to accuse those who dared to disagree with them of being God-hating heretics.

Then, I went to Bible college and seminary. Wow…that was eye opening. What seemed like a straight-forward call to make disciples was often turned into an argument regarding God’s sovereignty and man’s will. What looked like a call to God-focused spiritually responsive worship was turned into an argument regarding traditional forms versus new…well, you know the drill.

How does this happen? How can those who “know” the scriptures so well sometimes become the most divisive, unloving, and judgmental people in the room?

I’ve come up with a name for this phenomenon: intellectual legalism.

Our world is dominated by humanistic philosophies. Humanism is the belief that the human mind is the final arbiter of truth and is able to recognize and apply truth without outside help. In humanistic systems education reigns supreme due to the belief that the more knowledge a person gains, the better choices he or she will make, and the better person he or she will become.

There are those who seek to combine faith in God with humanism; they admit that truth is found in God, but that it is up to the individual to find it, define it and apply it. “Christian humanism” tells us that we can study our way into righteousness—by knowing more about God—as we seek and find the truth. The answer for a weak spiritual condition is simply more study. Learn the scriptures better and you will become a better person.

This, however, is not true Christian spirituality. Jesus ran into this exact same problem with the Pharisees. Look at John 5:37-39:

“And the Father who sent me has himself borne witness about me. His voice you have never heard, his form you have never seen, and you do not have his word abiding in you, for you do not believe the one whom he has sent. You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me…”

The Pharisees had a broader knowledge of the scripture than anyone and yet they did not recognize Jesus as the Son of God. They depended on their own intellectual abilities, which failed them. They were intellectual legalists. They believed that the more they knew, the more spiritual they were. We have the same problem today.

One of the counterintuitive things about Christianity is that Jesus didn’t call us to find the truth; he called himself the truth. Our spirituality begins and ends with him. He is the “author and perfecter of our faith” (Hebrews 12:2). It is not our study or intellectual ability that gains us anything, but rather the perfect, finished work of Jesus Christ that gains us everything.

Just listen to how the apostle Paul describes the humanist mind in Ephesians 4:17-20:

“Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!”

The first thing Paul tells us to do as Christians is to stop trusting our own intellect! The mind, apart from Christ, is futile, darkened, calloused, and given to sensuality. Worse, we deceive ourselves and equate theological information with knowing Jesus himself. We quickly forget that we did not marshal all of our intellectual power and so discover Christ. We forget that we know Christ because God graciously revealed Him to us.

The answer then, is to live under grace, even in our Bible study and discipleship. We must admit to ourselves that we cannot “figure God out” no matter how hard we study or how much we know. We are dependent on Him for all things.

Our dependence is answered by his grace. He promises that his grace will be sufficient, filling our every void. Where we are weak, he is strong. Where we are faithless, he is faithful. Where we are ignorant, he is wise. His power, the Lord told a suffering Paul, is made perfect in weakness. 

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Active Grace

 One vivid memory from my childhood is my mother’s love for exercise equipment. We always had some piece of exercise equipment in the house. I can remember a stationary bike, a rowing machine, a stationary bike with moving arms, a resistance workout bench, and a stair climbing machine were all, at one time or another, positioned neatly in our house in different places…holding laundry. Though the equipment was purchased with full “intent to use,” and the knowledge that regular use would lead to better health, the truth is simple: they were rarely ever used for exercise.

It became a running joke: I used to give my mother a hard time when she would look at a new piece of exercise equipment. “This doesn’t have enough room to hold more than four hangers,” I’d say. “This one can hold some folded blankets, but nothing more.” Yes, it really was that bad. And many of you know exactly what I am talking about.

The value in exercise equipment exists only through consistent use. Simply owning a rowing machine doesn’t make you healthier, it just means you own a piece of equipment whose purpose is to help you along your journey toward fitness. It is the doing that matters. You actually have to row.

But imagine you could buy a piece of equipment that did the hard work for you. What if you were guaranteed to see results simply by making it a part of your life (as most owner of exercise equipment vainly hope)? If there was a guarantee of this kind of return, everyone would have a rowing machine.

This is what God’s grace is like. It is guaranteed to bring results and change your life. It can do nothing else. When God sent his son to live a perfect life on our behalf, (to do the work for us) and die a sacrificial death on the cross in our place (to pay the price for us) it was so that we could be made into a new creation. 2 Corinthians 5:17 says “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.”

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if that exercise bike could make the same promise? “If anyone purchase me from the store and take me home, he will be fit. Behold, the fat is gone, all things have been made trim.” God’s grace is the only force in the universe that can make this bold and wonderful claim. Through the grace offered by Jesus Christ you are made new. You are not merely given the tools to be made new, or taught how to improve yourself until you are new. No, you are a new creation simply through God’s amazing, life-transforming grace.

Nowhere in Scripture does God command us to make ourselves new. Why? Because God knows we cannot do that. Look at what the Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:2-4:

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. (ESV)

See that? God, through grace, has done what the Law could not do. Law cannot create, it can only condemn. Grace does not condemn, but transforms death into life through the finished work of Jesus Christ. We are made fit without having to exercise!

Now comes the even more mind-blowing truth: it is grace alone that keeps us fit, as well! Martin Luther once said that grace “gives our works a work-out.” Our lives now change from demanded exercise to grateful responses—exercises—of faith. Many people, though, think that once we are saved, we must maintain our righteousness through obedience. We get back on the exercise bike, determined to maintain by our own effort the sculpted spiritual physique that came as a pure gift from God. We submit ourselves “again to a yoke of slavery” (Galatians 5:1).

Paul ran into this type of regression in Galatia. In Galatians 3:2-3 Paul asks a question that we must all consider carefully. He said,

Let me ask you only this: Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?

If grace was enough to save us from sin, renew us, and put us in a right relationship with God at the beginning, is it not enough to grow us in faith also? If we are trying to grow ourselves—or at least maintain our spiritual standing—then we are assuming that grace is actually not enough and that God needs our help in the matter. Is this harsh? Yes, it is. But the point must be made. If we can make ourselves holy by any effort, before or after salvation, then the cross is insufficient and a travesty.

Our growth, then, must be about God’s active and awesome grace changing us and not about how hard we try to change. Change is what grace does. Grace is always active and never passive, giving us the good works that God has prepared for us in advance (Ephesians 2:10). Grace is God’s working on our behalf from a place of love, forgiveness, and redemption. Don’t look at God’s grace as a piece of workout equipment only made effective through your own sweat and effort. Grace like that—not grace at all—ends up as a laundry rack. Look at grace as God’s wonderful, active working in us through the Holy Spirit, doing what we could never dream of accomplishing for ourselves.