Category Archives: grace

It is Finished

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Cross-posted at Gospel Centered Discipleship

After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.” A jar full of sour wine stood there, so they put a sponge full of the sour wine on a hyssop branch and held it to his mouth. When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. – John 19:28-30

In 1862, French poet, playwright, and novelist Victor Hugo released his magnum opus Les Miserables, considered one of the greatest novels of the nineteenth century. In 1998, Hugo’s masterpiece found its cinematic zenith in the Bille August-directed film by the same name. In both works, one scene stands out above the rest.

At the beginning of the narrative, we meet ex-convict Jean Valjean who has just been released from a nineteen year prison sentence for stealing a loaf of bread. Trying to get on his feet, Valjean attempts to find a place to live but no one would take him in except for one—Bishop Myriel.

It doesn’t take long for Valjean’s old temptation to rear its ugly head. When everyone is asleep one night, Valjean goes to the cupboard and pilfers some of the bishop’s silver. He makes a run for it but is eventually caught red-handed. The police bring him before the bishop.

Valjean stands before the bishop, being held by the police. Bishop Myriel looks at the police and proclaims something extraordinary. He says that he gave the silver to Valjean as a gift. If that wasn’t enough, the bishop goes over to the mantelpiece, takes two silver candlesticks, and says that actually more silver had been forgotten by Valjean. He places the candlesticks in Valjean’s hands. The police have no choice but to let Valjean go free. But the story doesn’t end there.

After the authorities leave, the bishop looks at Valjean and says this to him, “Now, go in peace. By the way, my friend, when you come again, you needn’t come through the garden. You can always come and go by the front door. It is only closed with a latch, day or night.”

The bishop not only gives him mercy by forgetting the original crime and letting him keep the silver he stole, he gives him more mercy by giving him more silver. And then, he gives him even more mercy by giving him the best gift of all: his trust. The bishop does something so radically counter-intuitive to us. Something that feels so unnatural to us. He gives him unconditional grace.

Quid Pro Quo

We live in a society based on conditions. When you look at the world around us, everything in our culture demands a trade of some kind. “You do this for me; I’ll do this for you.” “You scratch my back; I’ll scratch yours.” But unconditional grace? We just can’t seem to wrap our feeble minds around that. It doesn’t’ make any sense to us. We are so acclimated to a culture of quid pro quo that we believe everything must have a catch.

We impose this idea upon God as well. We think that in order for God to truly extend his mercy to us, we must give him back something in return. We feel like we owe him something. So we resort to a spiritual checklists because they feel much safer. We like conditions because they keep us in “control.” If we can complete our spiritual “to do” list, it gives us the illusion that things are good between God and us because we have played a part in it. Theologian Gerhard Forde can help here:

The gospel … is such a shocker … because it is an absolutely unconditional promise. It is not an “if-then” kind of statement, but a “because-therefore” pronouncement: because Jesus died and rose, your sins are forgiven and you are righteous in the sight of god! It bursts in upon our little world all shut up and barricaded behind our accustomed conditional thinking as some strange comet from goodness-knows-where.

God’s grace isn’t conditional. It’s unreserved. It’s not a back-and-forth, two-way love. God’s grace always moves in one direction. And that is why it disturbs us. Forde continues:

How can it be entirely unconditional? Isn’t it terribly dangerous? How can anyone say flat out, “you are righteous for Jesus’ sake?” Is there not some price to be paid, something (however minuscule) to be done? After all, there can’t be such thing as a free lunch, can there?

That’s exactly what we do with God’s grace. We put conditions on it. We take a “yes grace but …” position. We think there is something that must be done on our end. There can’t just be free grace for the taking, can there?

The Beauty of Grace

The last words that Jesus spoke before he gave up his spirit on the cross were three words we need to massage into our hearts. “It is finished.” Grace announces that Jesus met all of God’s conditions on our behalf so that God’s mercy towards us could be unreserved. That’s the beauty of grace. It requires no work on our part. The work of redemption is complete in Jesus. In Christ, we are completely accepted. We are completely loved. In full. The work is done. It is finished.

This rightly rages against our insatiable need to work for our salvation. When we look to the cross and see the Savior of the world proclaim that the work is finished, it disorients us because we are a “conditional” people. Work, not rest, is our modus operandi. But that is exactly why Jesus breathed out those three words. God knew we would need to hear over and over, “Your effort is not needed. It is finished,” because to rest feels like a waste of time.

But deep gospel rest is exactly what we can find in the finished work of Jesus. Our hearts can truly engage with the words from Hebrews, “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his” (Heb. 4:9-10). Entering spiritual rest means that we are resting in Christ’s finished work on our behalf—not our work or our reputation or our accomplishments. It means we are swapping effort for rest. It’s at the heart of what Jesus achieved on Calvary’s cross.

As we hear again the crucified Jesus’ final words this Holy Week, hope is uncovered. We are saved solely by grace through Christ’s work. In Jesus, we can be forgiven. We can be made clean. We don’t earn it. We simply receive grace because that’s the only way grace is received. Grace isn’t grace unless it’s unconditional. It looks as if there is such a thing as a free lunch after all.

Limitless Grace for Limited Leaders: How Accepting Our Boundaries Frees us to Flourish as Pastors

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Cross-posted at For The Church

Since the day our church was planted, our pastors have fielded many questions on the topic of mission from the younger generations in our midst. “Do we have a plan to serve the poor?” “How are we going to plant missional communities in the most underserved parts of our city?” “How soon are we going to be able to bring the gospel to the unengaged peoples in the world?” Our standard (and honest) answer has been that we have a heart for any place where Jesus is not truly known. But we look at the work and our five fish and two loaves and know that the Great Commission is a God-sized task.

One the one hand, we love their ambition. It challenges and sharpens us. It’s easy, even as pastors of a church plant, to suffer from missional drift. On the other hand, the pastoral wisdom that comes with experience and age makes us cautious. We know that we can’t achieve everything that needs to be done missionally. We find ourselves speaking the truth in love that there are confines to what only one church can accomplish.

I recently was reflecting our church’s missional ambitions and I began to feel a deep sense of conviction about something. I began to see inconsistency in the way I shepherd others with their dreams of mission versus the way I shepherd my own heart in ministry. I warn others of the dangers of trying to do too many things missionally but struggle with warning my own heart of the hazards of not understanding the “perimeters” of my pastoral abilities. I remind others that God will clarify those few things we must do missionally but struggle with reminding my own heart that God has set boundaries of gifting for me in ministry to “move” within. I even preach to others that we should have faith that God will help us do a few things well but struggle to preach to myself that I’m only a small part of God’s eternal plan.

So why am I nervous to admit that I can’t do everything that needs to be done? I think it’s simple. I am afraid to to confess that I have limits. I’m afraid to admit that I have God-allotted periods and boundaries of my dwelling place (Acts 17:26). And I’m afraid that will render me unimportant.

In a 2012 New York Times article entitled “The ‘Busy’ Trap,” Tim Kreider says:

“Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.”

Kreider is touching on something we would do well as pastors to hear. And there’s so much more. The clamor to be the smartest person in the room, the pressure to make everyone like us, the temptation to be the biggest church in our city – these are attempts to make our lives exceptional. But admitting that we have boundaries means that we have to accept that much of our ministry “busyness” is a veiled attempt to make much of ourselves and not Jesus.

Jesus didn’t seem to struggle with limits or boundaries like us. In Zack Eswine’s book, Sensing Jesus, he says:

“Limits repulse the driven. The driven therefore struggle with the sense of place that Jesus had…[But] the holy One of God became a man – and this incarnation included limiting himself and inhabiting a locality on the earth.”

This is the heart of Philippians 2. Jesus emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. This was a “limiting” act on the part of Jesus.

Why was Jesus willing to do this? Jesus was inclined to live within earthly boundaries because he had a white-hot focus on one thing: joyful obedience to his Father that would lead him to a cross for our sake. This should reorient us all. Eswine again, “The divine condescension to locality challenges my ambition that is restless to embrace various things at once.”

See, if the God-man Jesus was willing to live within human flesh and in a local place that would ultimately lead to him sacrificing his life for ours, we can joyfully accept our lesser limits too.

This is where limitless grace meets limited leaders. We can only rest in our limitedness when we see that Jesus limited himself by leaving the culture of the Trinity and entering the culture of man for our sake. His act of incarnation and redemption settles our need for significance on this side of eternity. Healthy leaders accept their limits because when we look to Jesus, we see the ultimate limitation – God becoming flesh and blood to bring us spiritual rescue. And as we rest in this truth, we can let the unlimited One and his limitless grace give us courage to be the limited leader that we are and in the end, flourish for the good of our churches and the gospel.

Book Review: Gospel Conversations  by Robert Kellemen

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Two years ago, as I was preparing for a new year with the incoming interns at our church, I was searching for a resource that would assist them in better connecting relationally with those they would one day minister to. With well over a decade in ministry under my belt, I know that effectiveness in ministry is not just what we say but how and when we say it. In fact, if you neglect your emotional intelligence as you minister to others, you will most definitely come up against frustration.

After culling the available resources at my disposal, I came across a resource called 5 GRACE Biblical Counseling Skills by Bob Kellemen. This great little resource – a 25-page PDF developed from a larger work by Kellemen called Spiritual Friends: A Methodology of Soul Care and Spiritual Direction – was perfect for our interns. Though written primarily for biblical counseling contexts, I was struck by its potential broader application in giving anyone language and skills for relating effectively to others. And after using this resource for the last two years, it has done just that, exceeding my expectations.

I recently had the privilege of poring over Kellemen’s newest book, Gospel Conversations: How to Care Like Christ and Kellemen – the executive director of the Biblical Counseling Coalition, the founder and CEO of RPM Ministries, and Vice President of Institutional Development and Chair of the Biblical Counseling at Crossroads Bible College – has provided us with another outstanding resource. In Gospel Conversations, Kellemen accomplishes exactly what he set out to do with this resource, “…to give careful thought and attention to how to use the gospel to encourage one another to resist temptation and to respond with suffering with love for God and one another.” (15)

In Gospel Conversations, Kellemen provides a comprehensive and highly practical manual to equip pastors and lay persons alike around what he calls four “compass points”: 1) sustaining (offering biblical care for hurting people), 2) healing (offering biblical comfort and encouragement for suffering people, 3) reconciling (offering biblical help for people struggling against besetting sins), and 4) guiding (offering wisdom for people growing in Christ).

A Deep Appreciation

I sincerely appreciate Kellemen’s emphasis on the centrality of the gospel. He says that a gospel conversation is to “promote personal change centered on the person of Christ through the personal ministry of the Word.” (16) Too often in our ministry towards others, we default to first giving “common sense” advice (this seems to make the most sense) or “street smarts” advice (this is what I’ve experienced, so it must be true).

While experience and logic can be helpful tools in conversation, they should not be the starting point nor the grid we continue to press help and change through. The gospel, as understood in the Scriptures, should be the focal point and end game for our conversations in ministry. Kellemen says as much, “The essence of gospel conversations is helping one another to understand and apply the gospel to the details of our lives as saints who struggle with suffering and sin.” (16)

Here’s a great example. In chapter nine of Gospel Conversations, “Reconciling through Grace-Maximizing,” Kellemen does a masterful job of explaining the tension between helping expose heart sin and its affects relationally, rationally, volitionally, and emotionally and the importance of applying the comforting grace of Christ.  He says, “Since little counsel can be received when the conscience is in intense turmoil, biblical counselors refuse to let sin overwhelm the conscience. The worst sin of all is denying grace…Sin can be forgiven, but believing sin can’t be forgiven leaves [one] hopelessly despairing.” (285)

So what to do? Be quick to extend the Spirit of sonship. Kellemen says that that this “liberates the spiritual conscience, causing it to understand that it’s now under freedom of grace and forgiveness of God.” (285) To this end, Kellemen says that to calm the conscience, we may need to remind our friend that “Christ always loves you accepts you” and ask the very practical question, “What scriptural meditation can you use to keep this truth in the forefront of your mind?” This is just one of many illustrations of how Kellemen weaves the tapestry of grace throughout this book. The “axis” that Gospel Conversations revolves around is rightly the liberating grace of God in the person and work of Jesus.

A Minor Caution

For the lay person wanting to grow in their ministry effectiveness in relating to others, Gospel Conversations may be somewhat challenging to navigate. Though it is not, as Kellemen says, “your father’s textbook,” it truly is a highly robust “how to” handbook (read, a 393-page opus). Kellemen successfully leaves no stone unturned in his attempt to provide, as he says, “an experiential training manual.” (17) For someone not accustomed to this kind of writing, it may take some time to digest. There are many hypothetical situations, acronyms, diagrams, and questionnaires to meditate on and absorb throughout the book. But for those willing to dig in, it will be worth the effort.

I wholeheartedly recommend Gospel Conversations for anyone desiring to grow in their ability to connect the gospel in conversation to those that they minister to.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

 

Jesus is the Better Atoner

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In Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis argues that “we feel the rule of Law pressing on us so ­ that we cannot bear to face the fact that we are breaking it, and consequently we try to shift the responsibility…human beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave in a certain way, and cannot really get rid of it.”[1] He says that even though humanity knows what is right and wrong, “they do not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law of Nature; they break it.”[2]

Truth and untruth are hardwired in us but it’s in the dabbling with untruth that we know there is a culpability. It is in the “breaking” that we taste the bitter loss of innocence. The result? We just can’t seem to get out from under the anvil of guilt.

It finds it origins in Genesis 3. “Then the eyes of both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together and made themselves loincloths. And they heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden” (Gen. 3:7­-8). After disobeying God, the first actions of our first parents were to cover up and hide. These are the activities of ones who find themselves mired in disgrace.

We know this to be true because its antithesis is found a few verses prior in Genesis 2:25, “And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.” In a moment, an identity once hidden in perfect and safe communion God was now subsumed in an overwhelming sense of shame. Now present was a gaping sense of insecurity where there was once peace. A cavernous space where there was once intimacy. And instead of running in their newfound vulnerability to God, they disguised themselves and holed up away from him. Commentator Alec Motyer describes it this way:

They [sense that] they cannot meet and keep company with the Lord God as before, but neither do they see that the consequence of sin is loss of paradise. Hearing the approach of the Lord, they hide, but within the Garden… The blindness of sin is beginning to take effect…From the moment of the Fall, humankind has suffered from moral schizophrenia: neither able to deny sinfulness nor to acknowledge it for what it is. [3]

This is what shame does. It disorients. It muddles. It flusters. But those are only its horizontal affects. There was something else that happened in this moment of moral failure. Something more sobering. Something more destructive. After cursing the serpent, God approached Adam and Eve and said these words, “…for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19). The “hide and seek” that Adam and Eve played was short­-lived. God found them and relayed to them a harsh but necessary truth. Death would now be the repercussion of their blatant disobedience to the parameters that he had set. In God’s economy, the reach of the spiritual consequences had to be relative to the sinful activity of his human creations. Rebellion cost something.

In a way, God was following through with his earlier promise that if they ate of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, they would surely die. “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (Gen. 3:16­-17). But did they? Not immediately. What did happen in the fall were two “kinds” of deaths. The first, the promise of physical death. Dust returning to dust. The second, the actuality of a spiritual death.

Yes, sin brings horizontal a sense of internal shame and insecurity but graver was that the chomp of an apple was a defiant spiritual action of the heart. It was an exploit that produced a cosmic condemnation of the soul. “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Rom. 5:12). No one escapes this kind of guilt. It is corporate. And it has a debt.

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Maybe that is what we all really feel. We may call it “guilt” but at the bottom of it all, what we sense is a deep, pervasive debt. We detect that there is a settlement that we can never repay. When Adam and Eve tried to conceal themselves and cover their nakedness from God, they were beginning to feel that there was a deficit that could not be reimbursed. They were keenly aware of a bankruptcy of the soul that resided in the red. It’s what they did with their guilt that was the problem.

When feelings of spiritual indebtedness start to overtake us, we mimic our first parents. We hide. We self-protect. We self­-justify. And maybe most threatening ­ we try to make up the difference. We attempt to pay back the debt in one form or another. We functionally do “penance.” Pastor C. John Miller says:

Penance is a religious attitude deeply rooted in the human heart which prompts people to attempt to pay for their own sins by good works and sufferings. Self­-justification is the goal of this effort. In practice this means that humanity always has one more scheme for getting things right with God and their conscience. Sinners doing penance always say in their hearts, ‘Give me one more day, a new religious duty, another program, another set of human relationships or a better education, and then things will come right­side up’…They are preparationists—that is, sinners who are forever getting ready for grace. They want to make themselves worthy of grace so that God will reach out to them once this work of preparation is completed. [4]

Notice Miller’s statement that those who do penance are “forever getting ready for grace.” It’s interesting that we know that our guilt requires something radical to handle the chasm between our deeds and what is required for forgiveness of the debt. But we go on. We think one more bible study, one more soup kitchen visit, one more degree, one more zero at the end of our salary will balance the shortage, one more intimate relationship. It never does. We will never be able to get “prepared” for grace.

Herein lies the rub. We don’t want anyone to give us mercy because that means we have to, one, admit we can’t make up the difference, and two, admit that what have to look outside ourselves to someone who can. This is offensive to our Western ideals of independence and strength. But this confession is the very beginning point for absolution. Acknowledging our spiritual inability is actually where we begin to see the light. Powerlessness is the prerequisite.

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Head over to Grace For Sinners to read the third section of this article to see where atonement can be found – outside of ourselves.

A Buoyant Hope

Behind the veneer of much of our discipleship (and honestly, my own weathered and jaded heart), there is something in the depths of my heart that regularly flusters and flummoxes. It is something we all crave but even on our best days, we feel very little of. In our pursuit of it, we have replaced it with falsified versions that aren’t up to spiritual snuff. And thought it’s right under our noses, it’s possible that the reason we may not have much of it is because we are looking in the wrong nooks and crannies for it.

Oh hope, where art thou?

More Like the Mona Lisa

One of the reasons that we overlook hope is because we are wrongheaded in our definition of it. Hope is typically expressed as doubt rather than a deep certitude that what seems impossible is assured. I’ve said it before. “I hope everybody shows up tonight for missional community” or “I hope they remember to show up for this counseling meeting” or “I sure do hope they like this sermon.” But that is not biblical hope. Hope is not just an aspiration for something good but an expectation that it will happen—an assurance that it will happen. An inevitability that the good we anticipate and long for will transpire. In other words, biblical hope is not finger­-crossing. It is a thumbs up kind of hope—a hope that it is embedded, not in skepticism, but in the stalwart faithfulness of God.

My children loves to color our carport sidewalk with chalk. It’s one of their favorite activities. Pinks and greens and blues and yellows all scribbled on gray concrete. I love to watch them as they make the grandest creations with no thought about their lack of permanence. Inevitably, a rain shower eventually rolls in and washes away their artwork. Gone. In a moment. Hope in a faithful God is never like this. It doesn’t wash away with a little rain. There is firmness in it that can’t ever be dissolved because God’s purposes are more like the Mona Lisa—enduring and unfading. Hoping in God and hoping in anything else is the difference between chalk and paint. One fades, the other abides.

Seeing the Unseen

The writer of Hebrews adds a vital component to the idea of hope: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Heb 11:1). Wherever there is full guarantee of hope, there is faith. Or said another way, faith is the jam-­packed, self­-confidence of hope. I admit that I regularly lack that kind of confidence but that is what real hope brings. It brings spiritual assuredness. I need that kind of inspiration for my flimsy faith. But the writer of Hebrews also says that yes, faith includes hope but it is more than hope.

Charles Spurgeon says it this way, “Though the ‘things’ are only ’hoped for’ and ‘not seen’ at present, the eye of faith can see them, and the hand of faith can grasp them.” See, faith­-shaped hope does the unthinkable and the counterintuitive. It sees what is unseen and clasps on what is intangible. It has vision for what is undetectable. It clutches onto what is indiscernible. That’s good news to me because frankly, my faith tends to be miniature sized. What was Jesus’ proposal to his disciples for their little faith? He told them to grow it to the size of a tiny mustard seed (Mk 4:31). I love that. Jesus, as only he can, gives me hope that I can have a faith that believes and sees what can’t be seen if it’s as big as something that is very small because my faith is small most of the time.

The Bible describes the patriarch Abraham as a man of deep faith who had this kind of hope. He was filled with hope that God was able to do everything that he had promised ­ even though reality raged against God’s promise. “In hope he believed against hope” (Rom. 4:18). Interesting verbiage. Webster’s Dictionary has a separate entry for the phrase “hope against hope.” It is defined as “to hope without any basis for expecting fulfillment.” Does this sound like Abraham’s faith? Not even close. Abraham’s hope had a different tone and focus.

Abraham’s “against hope” meant that from a conventional human perspective, there was not an ounce of likelihood that a miracle could happen. Remember, Abraham was old and his wife was barren. Abraham knew that hope is never anchored to what is achievable by man’s effort. Biblical hope gazes to the promise of a miraculous God. Abraham had a Hebrews-like hope. We must point our hearts and the hearts of others to this kind of hope in our discipleship.

Head over to Gospel Centered Discipleship to the last part of this article and read how hope is like a cork for the soul.