Self Justifying Grace: I love to sin, God loves to forgive, what a wonderful arrangement

Hebrews 11 is a passage in the Bible that is often headlined “Heroes of Faith.” We know they were not perfect heroes as we read their lives in the Bible. Yet the power of God’s grace enabled them to overcome their imperfections and take steps of faith that advanced God’s Kingdom. 

Have you noticed however that in our culture in the past decade we have seen the rise of the antihero or antiheroine in popular shows like The Sopranoes, Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Dexter, and Game of Thrones just to name a few.  In these types of stories the central character is not a traditionally good or brave hero. They often possess dark personality traits because they are flawed and broken.  They make unpleasant compromises of what would traditionally be seen as heroic.  Apparently our culture today loves these types of characters because they are getting much of the airtime.  Why do we love them and keep tuning in?  Do we want to see them rise above their flaws and affirm a distinction between right and wrong or does watching flawed antiheroes make us feel better about our own brokenness and imperfection?   

Grace Justifying Antiheroes

license to sin There are growing pockets of the Christian community embracing a false grace. It isn’t the grace that Paul says “instructs us to give up ungodly living” Titus 2:11-12  For God has revealed his grace for the salvation of all people.  (12)  That grace instructs us to give up ungodly living and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this world.  This false grace seems to attempt to make us feel better and content with our imperfections with little motivation to rise above them.  

I read an account of someone recently that at first I wondered which way he was heading with the idea of grace, hero or antihero.  “We’re getting to a point in culture where we don’t hide that (imperfections) as much anymore. I mean, in our own realities, we are the main characters of our own stories — and yet, we’re pretty screwed up. Now, to be fair, I can’t speak for you, because I don’t know you like you know you. But I can speak for me. And I’m pretty screwed up.

I make stupid choices, sometimes. There are days where I can be a real a-hole to some people. Some nights, I can go a little too far with the bottle. There are days that I don’t always want to pray, or talk to God. There are times when I accidentally hurt the people that I love the most.  It’s just life. And I’m not all put together. To paraphrase Paul, “I have not yet arrived.” (Phil. 3:12)

But, I no longer hide the fact that I’m not all put together, because I don’t have to. There is such immense freedom in exclaiming the fact that, while I am still yet a sinner, Christ loves me…However, it’s still going to happen on a daily basis. There are still going to be those days and nights where I just throw caution to the wind and give in. There are still going to be times where I consciously or subconsciously don’t do the right thing.

Sin is always going to be a part of us while we live here on this earth. I’m sorry, but that’s just how it is. The beautiful thing about the Gospel of Grace is that we no longer have to hide our faces in shame. Some people think that not being ashamed of being a sinner is a bad thing. It’s not!…We know how screwed up we are, and we only assume that you’re just as screwed up as us. But that’s okay! There is freedom in taking that mask off and exposing the flaws of your own character. You don’t have to hide anymore! You’re given the freedom through the grace of Jesus Christ to be who you are, expose those flaws for what they are, and simply just try to do better next time. It’s not going to make God love you any more or any less….Stop trying to be a hero, and be yourself. Be the antihero. Because, the antihero is a story of grace.

Obviously he makes some good points.  We could read this and think he is accurately expressing a liberated unashamed life of grace. Others may see this guy, like them, almost fearlessly parading their imperfections as a badge of honor named grace. Before we see this antihero as a grace displaying hero it may be good to note that he is an openly practicing homosexual male who justifies his lifestyle by the grace of God.  

Common but not Desirable

Some use grace to make sin not only normal but almost desirable.   While sin is a common reality we can never see it as normal or desirable.  Type 2 diabetes due to obesity is an epidemic in our country. It is common and somewhat normal but that doesn’t make it desirable.  Nor do we go eat a bunch of junk food thinking it’s a good way to help us identify with other type 2 diabetics. 

Paul consistently challenged the legalistic Judaizers who were influencing Christians to seek righteousness by keeping the law instead of through Jesus alone.  This was the opposite of living by grace.  Jude and John however, wrote after Jerusalem was destroyed and the Judaizers lost significant influence.  Jude and John were dealing with the other side of the issue, people using grace to justify their sin.   Jude 1:4-12  For certain persons have crept in unnoticed…ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness (unbridled sin) and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ…These are the men who are hidden reefs in your love feasts when they feast with you without fear, caring for themselves…

You see John addressing this trend in the stories He recorded about Jesus like His Graceresponse to the man healed after a 38 year sickness by the pool of Bethesda, “do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you” (Jn 5:2-14).  How about what He said to the woman caught in adultery, “I do not condemn you, go, from now on sin nor more” (Jn 8:12)?  Jesus told forgiven sinners not to sin any more.  Too bad He didn’t understand grace.    

This is the same John who later wrote, “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.  And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate”  (I Jn 2:1). Sounds like John was writing so we won’t sin.  Notice he said “if anyone sins” not “when” anyone sins.  But what about the advocate part, doesn’t that make it okay to keep sinning?  John goes on to address that one1 John 2:3- By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.  (4)  The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him;  (5)  but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him. 

John doesn’t stop there, he continues.   1 John 3:3-9 …(4)  Everyone who practices sin also practices lawlessness; and sin is lawlessness.  (5)  You know that He appeared in order to take away sins; and in Him there is no sin.  (6)  No one who abides in Him sins; no one who sins has seen Him or knows Him (7)  Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous;  (8)  the one who practices sin is of the devil…(9)  No one who is born of God practices sin.  

Does this mean we never sin?  No, but it does mean that if you consistently justify it under the license of grace, and think it is normal or okay, there may be a much bigger problem!!! 

 

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Changing Definitions of Personal Relationship with Jesus

Personal Relationship not Religion

Personal Relationship not Religion

I was saved and started following Jesus at the tail end of what was known as the Charismatic Renewal of the 60s and 70s.  People in denominations were waking up to a real life in God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit.  God had also been radically saving young hippies through the Jesus movement of that same era.  

In those days the terms  “personal relationship” and “personal savior” became mantras that described a real walk with Jesus that was vibrant, and full of Holy Spirit’s power. 

Even George Harrison wrote a song around that time that topped the charts called “My Sweet Lord.”  He claimed the melody was inspired by the Christian Hymn “Oh happy day” while at the same time praising Hare Krishna, ugh!  Dead religion was out and real/fresh spirituality was in. 

This was in contrast to much of the established religion of that time.  The rise of mainline denominations in the 50s and 60s tended to connect religious assurance with both being an American and a member of a church/denomination .  Eternal assurance was more connected to religion than a vibrant personal relationship with Jesus.

During that time I grew up in a secular home and didn’t have a religious background to take comfort in.  God began to deal with me and I knew I needed Jesus. When I found out I was a sinner, He was real, He would forgive me, and wanted a personal relationship with me in spite of my mess, I gladly gave my life to Jesus and began to follow Him.  It was easy to speak of Him in terms  of “personal Savior” and having a “personal relationship” because I knew there  was no assurance outside of Him.  He radically changed my life!

We are beginning to see signs today that fresh spirituality is making a comeback while established religion is dying out, but with a different twist.  We saw it four years ago when Jefferson Bethke’s video “why I hate religion, but love Jesus” went viral with over 30, 558, 435 views (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IAhDGYlpqY).  We see Christian concerts regularly draw thousands of people in big venues.  People are hungry to experience something real that can’t be found in religion. 

While we rejoice that people are hungering for more than dead religion there are also troubling signs. In many cases the idea of “personal relationship” is being hijacked by something much less than authentic Christianity.  Personal relationship is beginning to be more about personal preference than Jesus.  When phrases are used like  “my personal relationship with Jesus” the thing that is often emphasized is more the “my” and “personal” rather than “Him.”  Personal Jesus doesn’t mean adjustable Jesus who exists to accommodate personal desires and preferences.    

Religion is behavior modification God is about relationship

What about using the idea of “personal Savior” in a way to justify and excuse behavior, sexual habits, or other things that goes against His word.  It often comes with phrases like “religion is behavior modification but God is about relationship.”  Be careful of that one!  While authentic faith isn’t simply behavior modification, a genuine relationship with Jesus will result in our behaviors being modified.  After all “He is working in us what is pleasing in His sight” (Heb 13:21). Paul did say change would happen when we really connect with Jesus through Holy Spirit (2 Cor 3:7-18). 

God’s wonderful grace isn’t behavior modification, nor does our good works earn or personal saviormaintain our righteousness before God.  Yet the Bible is clear, God’s grace leads us to “deny ungodly living and worldly passions and live self-controlled and upright lives.” Our behavior is changed/modified by living in God’s grace.  Titus 2:11-12 GNB  For God has revealed his grace for the salvation of all people.  (12)  That grace instructs us to give up ungodly living and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright, and godly lives in this world.  The fruit of grace will be seen in turning away from “ungodly living” and turning towards “godly living.”  That entails behavior as well as attitudes!

Consider what Jesus said about our behavior in terms of a personal relationship with Him in John 15 (“abide in Me”).  After warning that “anyone who does not abide in Me is thrown away as a dried up branch and burned” He described the kind of “personal relationship” He is referring to.  He clearly connects it to “obeying His commands.”   John 15:6-19… (14)  “You are My friends if you do what I command you.. Why would one embrace the idea of friendship with Jesus while at the same time rejecting His stated parameters? 

We are saved by God’s grace through faith.  Good works cannot purchase it, Jesus did. But as Christians, our actions DO matter.  Faith isn’t just a feeling or intellectual acknowledgement of Jesus.  James hits that one by saying that Satan himself acknowledges Jesus but he certainly doesn’t have a “personal relationship” nor is he saved (Jas 2:17-19). 

Jesus does mention behavior.  He did preach the sermon on the mount, read it, He mentions quite a bit of behavior in it.  What about all the instruction and commands in the last supper dialogue (Jn 13-17).  Wasn’t he targeting both our attitudes and actions? What about Him telling the adulteress (Jn 8:12) and the man healed after a 38 year sickness at the pool of Bethesdia (Jn 5:2-14)  to “go and sin no more”?  Why does He instruct us to be loyal to our spouses or help the poor?  What about the Ten Commandments which Jesus affirmed?  Was Jesus wasting His breath on “religion” that was behavior modification?

I remember one lady who was going to divorce her husband for no Biblical grounds.  She simply didn’t like him anymore (I dare not say “love” because the Bible defines love as “laying down your life for someone else”).  When bringing up what Jesus said about marriage in the Bible she stopped me and said she knew what the Bible says about marriage but “My Jesus wants me to be happy.”  She was right on one hand “My Jesus” but it wasn’t the Jesus of the Bible. 

Some people use the “I’m avoiding religion” and “personal relationship” card when they find church involvement too challenging or they are just not interested in the inconvenience of it.   After all they may be asked to serve, how inconvenient is that!   “I’m okay with Jesus, just not into church.”  I am glad Jesus doesn’t think that way!  Is our personal Savior okay with our personal preference?  

While our faith is personal it was never designed by God to be private.  God calls us together with people (like He did the first disciples) to help one another grow, follow, obey Him, become a living testimony, and engage in His mission together (Jn 2, Mt 28:18-19).   If we use “personal relationship with Jesus” invidualistically while rejecting God’s design of joining us together in a way of life, there is a major problem (1 Cor 12:1-27,  1 Cor 14, Romans 12:1-15, Ephesians 2:19-22, 4:1-25, Col 1:18-19, 2:18-19, Heb 3:12-14, 10:24-25 etc.).   It is hard to relate with One who is building His church if we refuse to engage with Him as He is doing (Mt 16:18-19, Eph 5:25-32, Rev 1-3 etc). 

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Climbing the Fence of Offense

“People who wish to be offended will always find some occasion for taking offense.” – John Wesley

Matthew 6:12, 14-15 “And forgive us our debts, as we forgive our debtors…For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you don’t forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 

Forgiveness takes a real offense (debt), or even a perceived one and renders it cancelled or inactive.  This is what God did for us through Jesus (Ps 103:12).   When we become offended and don’t get over it through God it puts a blockage or fence up that restricts our ability to move forward in God.  If we continue to hang onto offenses we will live behind a fence of demonically strengthened disobedience to God that will destroy everything valuable.  Like cancer or high blood pressure it will not only keep us from forward movement but will become a silent killer.

Current Cultural Offenses

Or culture is running amok with how offenses are handled.  In our politically correct environment people have lost jobs, been forever “blackballed,” and had their public stature ruined based on an offense they had no intention of giving.  It’s sad in this climate because most of the offenses that cause the problems were “perceived offenses” in the mind of “victims” more than real ones directly cased by people.  We saw this with the president of MU being forced to resign for things he had no knowledge of, or direct control over.    

The strange twist is that the victims may hurl terrible, insulting, and degrading things back at the perceived offender but that doesn’t seem to matter. The perceived offense is there and it empowers and justifies victims to act terribly in response.  In the end little progress is made.  The “offender” loses based on something they didn’t deliberately do and the offended remains a victim with little progress in their life.

What is going on culturally has parallels to what goes on among Christians. We all have the propensity to be offended and Jesus warned that it would happen frequently in the last days (Mt 24:3-13).  I have seen overly sensitive Christians get offended by the unintended actions (or inaction) of others.  They see themselves as victims and feel justified/empowered.  The unrestrained Facebook post start flowing.  People respond and accuse online in front of everyone, polarization happens, and fences are erected. 

Benefits of climbing the fence of offense

Climb the fence or be imprisoned behind it

Climb the fence or be imprisoned behind it

I once read a great quote containing an important truth, “Those who do not overcome the spirit of offense will have it standing between them and every breakthrough of life.”  If we don’t climb the fence of offense we will miss something valuable in God.  

We have to ask something important, is the problem only with the offender or could there perhaps be a problem with the offended? Usually the root of offense (especially the perceived kind) is “self”… After all, “I deserve better, and they should know that!”

I use a phrase that gets at the heart of something God is after that is beneficial to us, “dead people don’t get offended.” I once saw a natural example of this when I attended the funeral of an older man. A small (somewhat out of control) child drifted away from the adults.  He began to carelessly play with a toy car driving it all over the casket. Many of the people were shocked and greatly offended with the parents, but the guy in the coffin didn’t think anything of it!

For people who have been “crucified with Christ” (Gal 2:20), and are following Jesus’ call to “deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow Him” (Mt 10:38, 16:24, Mk 8:34-35, Lk 9:23), how hard should it be to offend them? 

God Offends

Don’t forget God offends.  God is love but out of that love there are numerous passages in which Jesus offended people. As a matter of fact He was rejected and killed for that reason. His cross and His words were designed to be offensive (Isa 8:14-15, Mt 11:16, 1 Cor 1:18-23, 1 Per 2:7-8, Ps 2:8, Isa 53:3, Gal 5:11). Jesus’ offensive actions were based on His perfect blend of love and truth. He loved people enough to bring truth to them that would offend, but He was getting at something with love.  What offends the heart reveals the heart. He was trying to bring heart change to people who were behind a religious delusion while they claimed closeness with God.   

Not everyone who offends has truth or love in their hearts but our loving Father does and will use it redemptively.  How does God work redemptiively in the midst of the fence of offense? 

We all feel pain in offenses. It really hurts.  God will heal us in our hurts while at the same time reveal “what hurts isn’t dead yet.”  God uses perceived offenses, if we handle them His way to work a deeper death to self which actually produces more of His life in us. Even Jesus embraced this when dying His physical death.  He made sure of His own heart before God with His last words, “Father forgive them for they know not what they do” (Lk 23:34).  This is amazing because what people were doing to Him was not “perceived offenses” they were real.

If we embrace God in the midst of offenses and climb over the fence God will work forward progress in us.  Here are some things to remember that help us climb the fence.

  • We have to avoid unforgiveness, hatred, and bitterness.  This is how the enemy wants us to respond. That not only destroys the relationships but it destroys us. I heard it said that bitterness and unforgiveness is like drinking poison thinking that it will help us get back at the person who offended us. Bitterness “defiles  many” (Jas 3:6, Heb 12:15). 
  • Love God, His ways, and his truth more than we love ourselves.
  • Death to self enables us to live and follow Him.  
  • Forgiveness is an absolute commandment of God so we must forgive. As we embrace His truth it sets us free in Him (Jn 8:31-32).
  • Ask God what He may be getting out in our heart when we feel offended. 
  • Do not hang on to the “victim” syndrome, don’t wallow in self pity.  That is the opposite of  being “crucified with Christ (Gal 2:20).” 
  • Don’t dump your stuff on others.  Take the biblical action steps of confession of sin, not gossiping, and enrolling the right people who will help resolve relational issues (Mt 16:15-17).  If you don’t, in your dealing with your offense it will become an offense to someone else!  Here’s the rule of thumb.  If it is an offense where both parties are aware of it go to them and get it right.  If you are offended and the other person has no idea of it, deal with it between you and God first (John 20:23) . If you can’t get victory go to them.  Don’t be a spiritual “dumper!”  

By God’s grace we can climb over the fence of offenses and God will enable us to make progress in Him.

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Sound Bite Truth

We are not going to go there and look at the Bible…I know what the Bible says but my god wants me to be happy!”  I wouldn’t have believed what I just heard!  Thankfully my wife and others were with me.  We were trying to encourage someone not to divorce her husband and scatter her children (she had already divorced at least two other men which took it’s greatest toll on her kids).  There was no Biblical grounds for divorce she just didn’t like him anymore.  To this day she maintains “her Christianity” and encourages others to do things that go against the Bible in the name of happiness.

Very inspiring until you realize who said it

Very inspiring until you realize who said it

The approach that either ignores the Bible or pulls portions of scripture out of context is dangerous.  Take for example this picture.  It is an inspirational calendar that contains a quote from the Bible.  Luke 4:7: If thou therefore wilt worship me, all shall be thine.  Sounds inspiring when you look at that fragment.   You feel like you setting under the teaching of a  smooth self-help mega pastor.  When you read the verse in it’s context however you realize that it wasn’t even Jesus who said it.  It was actually said by the devil, ut oh! 

Sound Bite Christianity

Today more than ever we live in world of sound bites that people use to spin ideas in certain ways in accordance with their own views and desires.   Conservative and Liberal news sites use quotes from the same speeches and interviews and spin them in completely different directions.  In doing so they completely miss the context of the view the people speaking intended. 

We live in a postmodern and pragmatic culture which believes truth is either determined by the individual, or what works is true.  Unfortunately Christians often spin a sound bite from the Bible, or even worse don’t think about the Bible at all when presenting or believing ideas about Jesus. 

I run into people all the time who say things like “I will do it if Jesus tells me to” which sounds good on the surface until you realize they are responding to something Jesus already said to do in His word.  When I hear those kinds of things I want to ask “which Jesus are you referring to” because the Jesus in the Bible already said it.     

There is a reason the Bible was written.  The Jesus we have access to is the One revealed in the Bible.  It is the same Jesus who affirmed the moral commands of the OT and even took them to a deeper meaning which included our attitudes not just the behavior (Mt 5).  It is the same Jesus who reaffirmed the exclusivity of marriage between a man and woman and His hatred of divorce.  It is the same Jesus who said not one jot or tittle of the OT will pass away until the end of the age (Mt 5:18).  Authentic Christians do seek to obey what He says which never violates what He has already said.   

If we don’t understand this we will do what Mark Twain said,  “God created man in His making God in our imageown image, and man, being a gentlemen, returned the compliment.” 

Our approach to the Bible is very important.  It is God’s inspired word.  When we open the Bible we are stepping into God’s revelation and encountering Him on His terms.  We are not there looking for inspiration or therapeutic sound bites to form our own truth.  Jesus main way Jesus is washing us and making us into His image is with His word. Ephesians 5:25-27…just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her,  (26)  so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word,  (27)  that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.

Healthy Approach to His Word

It is helpful to keep in mind a systematic approach to Scripture which helps us avoid sound bite or personal preference truth.  It helps us see the fuller context of God’s hear revealed in what He said about things.  A systematic approach looks at all the references on a particular subject and from that perspective we get a fuller picture of what God thinks about it.  If not we will tend to look at some scriptures to the exclusion of others and end up with a personal preference Jesus rather than the Jesus of the Bible.

I had an encounter with someone that desperately needed a systematic approach.  He was pointing out all the things he didn’t like about how we administrated corporate meetings.   There are only 10 verses in the NT that have instruction about our meeting together and when I suggested that we look at them as a reference point to our discussion his cup runneth over.  My suggestion was met with a red faced angry response. “I don’t want to look at the Bible I want to talk about the things I have problems with.”  Big problem!!!!

Having the Bible as our objective basis of the revelation of Jesus, a good systematic approach to scriptures, and putting verses into their context are important ways to avoid sound bite truth that attempts to make God into the image we desire.  We want to follow “Jesus” no “my jesus.”   

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